In this week’s cover story, we profile Holly Van Voast, an artist who for a time was also one of New York’s most frequently topless women.
In 2011 Van Voast created a character named “Harvey Van Toast,” who ventured out with a camera, a curly mustache painted on with liquid eyeliner — and no shirt. She photographed hundreds of people in that persona, both her friends in the underground “punk drag” scene and a series of befuddled celebrities. (Filmmaker Chris Stearns made an excellent documentary, Topless Shock Syndrome, about Van Voast, with lots of photos of the performers she captured. It’s available here.)
Although toplessness has been legal in New York state for 25 years, Van Voast was arrested or detained at least a dozen times, and involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation on four different occasions. Even when she wasn’t being hassled by the police, she told me, public toplessness could be terrifying: “It’s really nerve-wracking. It was like Jackass on speed.” Before she went out, she says, “I’d sit there sweating for an hour.”
After a few weeks of working on the story, it seemed to me that the only way to properly understand being topless in public was to do it (my editor would probably appreciate if I mentioned at this point that this wasn’t his idea). I emailed the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, asking if could come along on the club’s next outing.
The Topless Pulp Fiction crowd is a younger group; they’ve been meeting around Manhattan for three summers or so, gathering on sunny days to read books in a legally allowable state of undress. Topless Pulp do not reveal their real names, nor any personal information about themselves; when I met with them, they also weren’t particularly interested in making up pseudonyms for themselves. Since it was Halloween, we’ll go by what they were wearing during the outing we took to Lincoln Center.
The day was meant to be warm and overcast but actually turned out quite cold. Round about noon a zombie with a large, fake bloody gash on her cheek met a heavily tattooed woman wearing a homemade hood with fox ears, two women not in costume, and a man with a camera. They huddled together under the eaves of the Avery Fisher Hall, waiting for the rain to stop.
There’s usually at least one guy along for each outing, the man with the camera explained. He’s a friend of the women, but if public toplessness is still a social experiment, he also acts as the control group.
“If someone ever comes up and tries to arrest them, I want them to say to my face, ‘I’m not arresting you, I’m only arresting them,'” he said.
A common criticism of the book club is that members only do this type of activism because they’re young, attractive, and eager to show off their breasts. The book club is politely but firmly bored with that idea.
“People have said, ‘You do this because you have socially acceptable bodies,'” the fox said. “I’m not afraid of showing off my body. I wish that were the case for everybody.”
“We have plenty of girls in the group who don’t have ‘socially acceptable’ bodies,” the zombie added.
But they were interested in why Holly Van Voast had been arrested so frequently when they’ve never had a single serious negative encounter with the police. “The worst thing has been private security asking us to leave,” the man said. “But they’ve never been mean.”
The rain let up and we headed to a group of café tables and chairs just behind the Opera House. Plenty of people were walking by, and most of the tables were occupied by people on their own, sipping coffee or reading. A few looked up when the women started taking their shirts off (the man did so too, unbuttoning his collared shirt so his entire chest was visible). No one reacted discernibly, although after a moment one older man did reorient himself so he was facing away from us.
I felt a little ill. Suddenly, the prospect of partially undressing in public didn’t strike me as no big deal, as it had a few weeks earlier when I had a shirt on and a story to write. The night before, I’d had trouble sleeping. My hands felt clammy. I removed my shirt as quickly as possible, letting tattoos and birthmarks and undercooked flesh hit the air. I was cold. I was…uncomfortable. I found myself thinking, absurdly, about whether it was rude to point my nipples directly at the people I was interviewing.
The book club members didn’t seem to be experiencing any such inner turmoil. They passed around hot chocolate, brioche rolls, and fancy marshmallows, chatting about how the fox had constructed her hood. It felt like a very chilly tea party. The older gentleman nearby looked over his shoulder, seeming mildly displeased. A dubious family walked by, giving our chairs the widest possible berth. Several of the women put their jackets back on, leaving them open. I did the same and felt a little better.
“Most of the reactions we get are bemused,” the man said, offering me a marshmallow. “It’s not like anyone gets excited.”
Except security, that is.
[After about 20 minutes, the book club decided to take a group photo in front of the famous fountain. I found that I was literally unable to walk out into the plaza shirtless. It felt roughly equivalent to doing a backflip off the edge of a building. Ashamed, I put my sweater and jacket back on and trailed after them, feeling warm but defeated. Through the window, I could see the espresso bar in Avery Fisher Hall, where two or three men were sitting at a long counter, reading newspapers. The papers remained suspended in the air, unread, for several minutes while the women passed by.
As the women reached the fountain, a security guard appeared.
“I know you’re allowed,” he said without preamble. “But you have to put your shirt on.”
“Is this private property?” the man of the book club inquired pleasantly.
“You want to talk to our litigation team?” the security guard asked. No one had said anything about litigation. He seemed agitated. He was already radioing for backup. Seeing that their breasts appeared to be causing him some discomfort, the women retreated to a tasteful distance.
“I’m gonna refrain from answering questions,” he announced. He folded his hands, averting his gaze as he waited for help, which arrived in the form of the head of security and two other uniformed guards.
“Is this a commercial?” the head of security inquired. He was wearing a gray suit and looked jolly.
“We’re a book club,” the book club’s token male replied. “We read books.”
“That’s beautiful,” one of the guards muttered.
“You can’t shoot in front of the fountain unless you get permission,” the head of security explained, smiling broadly. We all paused for a moment and watched politely as several people posed for photos in front of the fountain.
“Is it private property?” the book club man asked again.
“It is,” the head of security said. “I’ll stop you every time. Feel free to come back. I’ll stop you.” But he seemed troubled. “What are you guys protesting?” he asked after a moment. The man explained, again, that the group is a book club.
“How do I become a member?” one of the guards muttered, half under his breath.
The head of security turned to me, watching for a moment as I took notes. “Are you the official writer?” he said indulgently. He seemed to find it adorable. He chuckled.
With that the guards seemed to consider the situation handled. We left. They waited until we were most of the way across the street before breaking into laughter.
The book club decided to stop at a tiny farmers’ market just across Broadway, where they lined up to buy apples. A lady on a motorized scooter gunned her engine as she rolled by, scowling. She and another woman paused a few feet away and turned to face us. The other woman, who was in her 60s and had long silvery-blond hair, looked upset.
“I’m not old-fashioned,” she appeared to be saying, over and over, arms crossed, shaking her head.
“I’m amazed!” she confided when I made my way over to her. She’s from North Carolina. It was her second or third day in town, and she was worried. “I’m not old-fashioned, but I think these girls are really subjecting themselves to rape. There are crazy people out there!”
When I related this to the book club members, they went silent.
“That’s so offensive,” one of them managed, finally. “That makes me madder than anything.”
We sat for a while longer, finishing the brioche buns. An older man at a nearby table turned to a pair of teenage girls he didn’t seem to know and delivered a quiet, heated lecture about the book club’s lack of attire. Meanwhile, another teenager stopped by our table.
“Can I ask what your costumes are supposed to be?” she ventured timidly.
“We’re just exercising our legal right to be topless,” one of the members told her. The girl looked amazed. But soon enough, the buns were finished, the book club resumed its shirts, and the streets were safe once again.
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.