“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks as she contemplates life with a Montague. But if the name is “Naked Girls Reading,” which is five women who are exactly that, alarms go off, for three reasons.
The first, of course, is “naked”, which, unless it refers to the eye or a juice product, taps into a dark stream of psychodrama. This goes back a while, to Genesis 3:7 — “At that moment their eyes were opened, and suddenly they felt shame at their nakedness.” (New Living Translation).
We are pretty much in the same place today, at least in this country. Nakedness terrifies us because of two contradictory impulses. One is to believe that a woman naked, or even provocatively dressed, is an irresistible invitation to a man to have sex — a nonsensical idea, as any man who has brought shampoo to his wife in the shower can tell you. The difference between this view and the views of, say, the Taliban are of degree, not kind.
The other is that the exposed human body is in itself so repulsive and disgusting that to see it is to be forever depressed. It is a sentiment which finds full expression on the Internet. Thus, responding to a video about the San Francisco annual naked bike ride, zxer 91 sniffs “If you’re going to do a video for an event like this, for gods sake edit out the old flabby farts!!!”
The second reason is “Girls,” which, if referring to a female over the age of, say, twelve can be grossly insulting and offensive, in the same way that referring to a gentleman of color as a “boy” can be. (But what about “girls’ night out”? Or, for that matter, “naked boys singing”?) The combination of the two words — naked and girls — will unleash a volcano of rage and disgust, for those who are inclined to let it do so.
But it is the third word — “Reading” — which really puts people on edge. We are at least familiar with the concept of Naked Girls Dancing, or Prancing, or Preening, or doing something else for the delectation of a male audience. But reading? The concept is something like “Naked Girls Playing the Zither” or “Naked Girls Teaching a Math Class” (neither of which gets any Google hits). It suggests that the women doing it are naked not to please men but because they enjoy it. It feels good.
A common suggestion for the nervous speaker is to imagine the audience naked. This, of course, is the exact opposite: naked speakers in front of a clothed audience. It makes them immensely vulnerable, and by the same measure, immensely brave. They are naked and unafraid.
“If I think back about it I felt very vulnerable.” This is Cherokee Rose (not her real name). She once took a belly dancing class because her best friend was taking it, and she found that she liked it. It complimented, oddly enough, her background in martial arts. Then her teacher suggested that she join her burlesque troupe.
“I think I’ve told Michelle, (L’Amour, also not her real name) I’ll never wear a G-string on stage. I’m certain I told her I’ll never be naked on stage.” But things turned out differently than she thought they would. Rose was worried about what her friends would say, but they surprised her.
“Strangers. You’re never going to talk to them again, so who cares?…But your friends — you’ll see them all the time. And my friends gave me a message. You know that we love you when we come to see you take your clothes off. Which I think actually made me feel better.”
In fact, she felt a lot better — particularly because of the feedback she got from other women. “All of them would stream out the positivity: you were amazing, I can’t believe you danced that well, how long did it take you to put that act together, you’re so brave, like I never would have been able to do that — that was the biggest thing from all the women: I would never have been able to do that, you were so brave.”
Did she feel brave? “I don’t know if I felt braver, but I did feel happier,” Rose says.
But burlesque leaves its dancers with a thin screen of opacity — pasties and a g-string, and, in some instances, fans, feathers, and other teases. In Naked Girls Reading, there is nothing between the performers and the audience.
Rose admits it was intimidating. “Before I did Naked Girls Reading I absolutely told (Michelle L’Amour) I’d never be part of Naked Girls Reading. Ever ever ever.” Her mentor persuaded her, oddly enough, by appealing to her faith. “I don’t know what came over me, but Michelle was like, hey, we’re going to do…this October show, and it’s Hallowe’en, and you’re a witch, I’m Wiccan, and we really think you’d be good in it, and we were kind of thinking you could do some Tarot readings as part of it…And I was, like, well, OK. I’ll do it. That sounds fun, and so I could do these readings, and I thought it would be fun, I’m going to read something Pagan, I’m going to read something about vampires — everything’s going to be great.”
But when push came to shove, it didn’t seem so great. On the night of the show she came to one of the other Naked Girls, and “I’m freaking out. I think, this is a horrible idea. Why did I plan to do this? I don’t know what I’m going to do. And she said, trust me, five minutes, two minutes into your reading, and you won’t even remember that you’re naked. It’s not a big deal. Trust me. You’ll totally forget…And so we came in, we came into the show, we disrobe, and I say fine, I’m disrobing, and I sit down, and I’m listening to the reading, and I start reading, And it’s sort of two minutes in, I totally forgot that I was naked…
“And then I mention that I’m reading tarot, and everybody’s interested in having their tarot read. Everyone loves getting their tarot read. And they’re like, oh my God, this is great…And then I went back and I realized at that point that I was never going to be clothed again. Everyone else put their robes back on after the break. I was naked the entire night. Everyone was into the tarot gig, and I ended up doing this, I was freaked out about being naked, this was the first time I was naked, and now I’m naked all night, and after that I was like naked is the way I’m going to be. It was like everyone has this fear about being naked. I’d be naked all the time.”
Cherokee Rose is fully clothed when she tells this story to me; comfortably attired in sweats and sneakers. Nor is she is a girl; she is, I would guess, in her mid-thirties, slender and tawny-skinned (she says she is part Native American), with abundant brown hair piled on top of her head. She is a college graduate who considered working for the F.B.I., and who took the LSATs and the GMATs before studying to become a therapist, which is her day job now.
“I passed the exam for licensing to be a counselor, and I love it. I love helping people who are homeless and indigent, and I have a private practice where I work with people who are kinky…people who are ethically non-monogamous, monogamous couples, people who are in the drag community, and then general depression, anxiety, people who are stressed…for me it’s all about empowerment. Helping people find the path where they feel empowered to move forward and be happier.”
Does the vulnerability she feels on stage make her more empathetic with her vulnerable clients? Not exactly; she’s not a big fan of vulnerability. “There definitely have been instances in my life where being vulnerable has not worked out for me,” she explains. “In the beginning it was a vulnerability (to be naked on stage), and now I think I’ve kind of taken complete control of it. When I’m on stage now I think of that as being my place, that I’m in control of my audience, and I am kind of dominating in every way. I control how you feel, I get to control what you see of me, I get to control everything that’s going on and the give-and-take.”
We are in the empty, intimate DC Arts Center black box, in Adams-Morgan, and it is about half an hour before showtime. We will be seeing a comedy show; the Naked Girls will be reading passages by David Sedaris, Amy Poehler, Joss Whedon and Issa Rae, among others. What will the audience be like?
“We have a mixture of men and women…and I would tend to notice more women than men…We have a lot of couples, people come together on dates quite often…I would say most people are…more thirties, twenties-thirties…”
She excuses herself to go backstage, and the audience troops in. She is right about the age range — at 64, I am by far the oldest person there — but, at least tonight, not about the gender mix. There are eight couples, and eight unaccompanied men, not including myself. Rose, dressed in a robe, summons the naked girls: Cherie Sweetbottom, GiGi Holiday, Alice Darling and Natasha Nacre. These are all stage names, of course.
They are also wearing robes, which they immediately remove to reveal their naked bodies. Alice says “ta-da”, but that’s it for ceremony. There is no coyness, no discrete placements of hands or books, no tease. . They are attractive women (Rose insists that she has never rejected an applicant on the basis of looks) but not body-by-Mattel. There is some grey in the hair, an occasional extra roll of adipose, a pimple here or there. They are as comfortable with their bodies as they are with the reading material — perhaps more comfortable, as there are occasionally dropped lines or transposed words.
And a funny thing happens: after a few minutes, you stop focusing on the performers’ bodies and start listening to their performances. It’s not like listening to Holly Twyford or Kate Eastwood Norris, but the quintet is lively and animated. The readings are adult, but not particularly salacious — the best piece being a gruesome internet news story about a rape victim in India who set the criminal on fire. “I understand that men have a special ability,” one of the comments ran, “to put that fire out if they really want to.”
Natasha, who is in the show by virtue of winning a “So You Wanna Be a Naked Girl” contest, is a little more subdued than the rest, but Cherie Sweetbottom’s sardonic persona makes her wry material wryer, and GiGi Holiday’s bubbling combination of joy and rage makes, in particular, Rae’s “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl” hit home.
But the most impressive work is done by Darling, whose light English accent — her mother was English, and she grew up without television — and spot-on comic timing might make you think you were seeing a drawing-room comedy, with naked people, on PBS. She has a good instinct for improvisation, too; several seemingly spontaneous riffs with Holiday ended up with big laughs.
The audience periodically gets in on the fun — this is the “give-and-take” to which Rose referred — but it did not much improve the product. One gentleman who looks like a retired NFL lineman shouts loopy but harmless observations to the performers; they take them in good spirit. Later, he gives GiGi a book. The couples seem to enjoy themselves, although one woman is obviously upset. She and her date leave after the second intermission. (There are two in the 2-hour show, to take advantage of a small bar in the gallery upstairs.)
I spoke with Alice Darling after the show. Most of the Naked Girls, like Rose, have a background in burlesque, but her story is completely different. “I was invited to see the show with a friend” who stood her up, she says. “I decided to see it anyway. It was wonderful! I decided that I had to have these women as my friends.” So she decided that the best way to do this was to become a Naked Girl herself.
It was a startling decision for her to make. Throughout her life, she explained, she had been painfully shy…and she still is. Her day job, she says, “is in the back room,“ giving her limited contact with people. (Alice, like most Naked Girls, is cagey about talking of her life off-stage. “There are crazy people in the world,” Rose says pointedly.)
Being a Naked Girl has changed her life, she says. She’s still shy offstage, (“I’m not as good at being with the audience afterward, the meet-and-greet afterward because I just sort of crash; I get tired; become shy again.”) But “I have a new base of amazing friends. Not just the other naked girls but other people who are involved in the shows.”
“For thirty days a month I’m this shy creature,” she explains. “And then on one night I’m just — incandescent.”
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