In 2011 and 2012, Holly Van Voast and her bare breasts saw a lot of the city together. Van Voast, an artist and photographer, took on the persona of “Harvey Van Toast,” a “topless paparazzo” who wore a pencil-thin mustache, sometimes a newsy sort of fedora, and not much in the way of shirt. She appeared in character on the D train up to the Bronx, in Grand Central, outside a tony Upper East Side elementary school (where, she says, an enraged helicopter mom grabbed her camera and smashed it), and once in criminal court, answering a citation she got during her walk through Grand Central. In the courtroom, she promptly took her shirt off, to the shock, displeasure, and probably near-heart-failure of her almost 90-year-old court-appointed attorney.
And of course, Harvey showed up frequently to snap paparazzi-style photos of movie stars, catching a nonplussed-looking Johnny Depp peering at her over the top of a car, a baffled Bill Cosby, and a delighted-seeming Robert Downey Jr. Van Voast meant it as pure art, she says, a sort of gonzo performance that would draw attention to both her and an underground group of “punk drag” performers she frequently photographed. Instead, over and over, she got arrested.
Although women in New York are allowed — for the hundredth, thousandth, millionth time — to be topless in public, many of the officers Van Voast encountered didn’t quite see it that way. In July 2012, Van Voast was in character and out of shirt outside a midtown Hooters, observing the 20th anniversary of People v. Santorelli, the landmark 1992 ruling that memorialized the right for women, when about five police officers approached her. They told her to put a shirt on. She told them, per the law, she didn’t have to. They didn’t care. After an hour of back and forth, she found herself in an ambulance on the way to New York Presbyterian, because one of the officers decided she was probably “not of sound mind and body.”
It was far from an isolated incident, Van Voast says. “That was so common, having six to eight cops just, like, ‘What do we do with this, what do we do?'” Several times, she says, the conclusion was to send her for psychological observation; at New York Presbyterian, she was held for six days.
In May, Van Voast sued the city, the NYPD, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and several dozen individual officers, accusing them of unlawful imprisonment, negligent hiring, and violating her constitutional rights. She was represented by civil rights attorney Ron Kuby and Katherine Rosenfeld of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.
“The lawsuit covers 10 incidents,” Van Voast says. “But that doesn’t count the many, many times I talked myself out of handcuffs. That happened so much.” It also appears Van Voast might be the reason why NYPD officers were issued a memo last winter telling them not to arrest topless women for public lewdness, a memo that was unsealed during the lawsuit.
Van Voast says she and her attorneys ultimately decided it would be a bad idea to take the case to trial. “All of us agreed I would really not do very well with a judge or a jury,” she explains. “That’s just based on — you can look up any story about me online in the past two years, and the comments are just hideous. I was just a scapegoat for people’s anger.” Earlier this week, Van Voast got word from her lawyers that the settlement has been finalized. She’s been awarded $40,000, while her lawyers got $37,250.
Although most of the money will likely be eaten up by taxes, Van Voast says, “It’s vindication. It happened. I got a settlement in my favor.”
Van Voast got news of the settlement in Berea, Kentucky, a tiny town where she moved about a month and a half ago. “New York is an amazing place, but it’s not the place I moved to,” Van Voast says. She’s hoping to use the settlement to continue work on a book she’s writing about her experiences; it’s tentatively titled Topless Zodiac.
Neither of Van Voast’s lawyers immediately responded to a request for comment; an email to the NYPD’s public relations department also has not yet been returned.
Van Voast’s original full complaint is on the next page. It might be getting chilly outside, but in the name of freedom, feel free to read it outdoors and en déshabillé.
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Van Voast Complaint: