Rev. Billy Tells Victoria's Dirty Secrets
It's not easy being a bunch of holier-than-thou lefties battling the evils of abject consumerism. Especially when the "corptocracy" itself offers you a stage. Such was the dilemma faced by Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping, when they were invited to do a series of summer shows inside the newly erected Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport.
Certainly the Spiegeltent--a traveling pavilion built in Belgium in the 1920s and lined with velvet, teak, and beveled mirrors--is a tempting venue. Marlene Dietrich is rumored to have crooned inside the ornate structure, which is now pitched next to a beer garden overlooking the East River.
But it's also parked in the shadow of the Seaport shopping center, that once grungy piece of waterfront turned tourist mall, packed with generic chain-store fare--Gap, J Crew, Bath and Body Works--as well as one of Reverend Billy's favorite targets: Victoria's Secret.
So the good Rev did what any self-respecting, anti-sweatshop crusading lefty would do: Bite the hand that feeds him. He sent out a flurry of e-mails and a press release announcing plans to parade through the Seaport preaching the sins of Victoria's Secret's ubiquitous catalogs—which are churned out at a rate of a million a day using primarily virgin timber clear-cut from Canada's Boreal forest.
The NYPD got wind of the scheme and contacted mall security, who banned Billy and the choir from speechifying inside the mall itself.
At the Church's debut show on August 6, mall reps became alarmed that Billy and company were encouraging audience members to sneak postcards about the clearcutting campaign into the panty stacks of the Seaport Victoria's Secret store, located barely 50 feet from the back of the Spiegeltent. Theater director Savitri Durkee was called outside by an irate producer, and the choir missed its cue and began singing in the midst of Billy's sermon.
Durkee says they were warned to nix their plan to have lingerie-clad drag queens bearing cardboard chainsaws flounce around the beer garden. "So we stopped the show and started a town hall meeting about freedom of expression, supermalls, and how they imitate the communities they take over and ground the life out of them," says Reverend Billy, a.k.a. performance artist Bill Talen.
Spiegeltent producer Vallejo Gantner, who's also the new artistic director of P.S. 122, concedes he and his co-producers may have "panicked" a bit, but insists neither they nor the mall folks threatened to curtail the Church's performances.
"Everyone thinks it's a great show, we just wish they'd be good neighbors and not attack one of the tenants in the mall," says Gantner. He confessed to being unaware that Reverend Billy has an ample history of stalking the "bra pushers," notably at shareholder meetings and at the brand's 10th anniversary runway show at the Lexington Armory last November.
The Rev, however, says he won't be censored.
"These people were actually telling us we can't talk about Victoria's Secret," he relates, sounding sincerely shocked. "We've been working on this campaign for over a year. It's so crucial to global warming. The Boreal forest in Canada is full of lakes and very moist, so it literally scrubs the C02 out of the air. This is an emergency. It's not about trying to be polite to the people who run a supermall. We want them to know you've got a tenant who is causing global warming. They're just ripping into these forests and turning them into landfill."
Billy says he considered canceling the run. But the choir felt it was worth staying to reach a wider audience. "We weren't just preaching to the choir. We had some pretty straight people there," Billy says.
So last Sunday they revived their "Victoria's Dirty Secrets Tent Revival" with fervor, while agreeing to confine their preaching to the tent itself. "We're facing the shopocalypse, folks," Billy told the crowd gathered inside the Spiegeltent, which, with its velvet-tufted booths and leaded glass windows, feels like a cross between an old circus carousel and a Bennigan's.
As a choir member held aloft one of the offending glossy catalogs, Billy passed out strips of paper with the names of species native to the Boreal--wolves, warblers, mountain goats--and then asked the audience to imagine themselves being mowed down by " a giant Heidi Klum marching back and forth with chain saws strapped to her thighs."
Male and female choir members stripped down to bra and panty sets and were vamping around when the Rev invited everyone to head uptown for an impromptu cash register "exorcism" at Victoria's Secret's Soho shop, at Broadway and Prince.
Armed with an oversized bullhorn and a satin pink banner, with requisite videographers in tow, the Rev and his scantily clad flock invaded the salon, then jam-packed with Sunday shoppers. "Victoria's Secret is the devil," Billy shouted, pursued by frantic security guards. "Victoria's Secret causes global warming. They're taking down virgin forest.
"Use protection, people, stay out of Victoria's Secret. Do the right thing," he urged. "Boycott this store!"
Most shoppers seemed puzzled or annoyed and continued plundering the piles of "cheeky" hip huggers and "uplifting" demi-cups. Some stopped briefly and snapped photos with their cell phones.
Then a barefoot and toothless homeless woman who'd followed them in got carried away and started menacing the staff.
"Bitches, ho's, chemicals, and pornography! It all sells sex! Hell, no!" she shouted. Billy and the choir retreated and took over a lane of traffic to preach to passersby. "Stop the catalogs, save the trees!" they chanted. "Fuck you! I'm doing business here," countered a street vendor hawking headband scarves. He took a roundhouse swing at Durkee, then snatched the pink banner out of her hands and shoved it in the garbage. He also swiped the felt-leaf headdress from another woman posing as a tree.
It didn't seem to bother the Broadway shoppers, who lined up to purchase his $5 head bands even as he ranted--until a pair of cops finally pushed everyone out of the street.
Billy and Durkee escaped flustered, but pleased. "Even if they kept shopping, any time we go into retail space, it's a good thing," Durkee insisted. "People are so hypnotized."
Rivulets of sweat pouring down his cheeks, the Rev was also undaunted. "We're finally getting some traction. We might do Victoria's Secret every week," he suggested.
If so, they'll be getting the word out at a time when others seem bent on ignoring the problem. On Monday, the advocacy group Forest Ethics released a report saying that 26 major publications--including Rolling Stone, Spin, Lucky, Marie Claire, Nylon, and USA Today--have declined to run the group's ad denouncing Victoria's Secrets for its role in clearcutting forests.
Anthony Hebron, a spokesperson for Victoria's Secret's parent corporation, Limited Brands, said the firm had made "great strides" toward reducing its use of virgin timber. He noted that all Victoria's Secret clearance catalogs are now printed on recycled paper, and said the company was looking to do the same with its other publications. But the clearance catalogs only constitute about 12 percent of Victoria's Secret's total output. Currently, the company sends out a new catalog nearly every two weeks, or a whopping 365 million a year.
"We feel we're setting a standard for other companies to follow," Hebron claimed. And then some.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.