I don't often get naked in public.
Now, I've occasionally shed my chemise for an arty college photo shoot, but the path of my life hasn't offered many opportunities to flash my rack. Maybe that's why a chance to cavort topless in the Governor Hotel appealed to me--it was so not me.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent an afternoon being swabbed with paint by artist Patrick Long (he went for a mod '60s look, very Laugh-In-era Goldie Hawn). It was all for a good cause called "Babes & Baubles," a benefit for the Oregon Health & Science University's new Center for Women's Health. In addition to the highbrow doodling on my naked torso, I wore high-priced jewelry--a sampling from the event's dazzling display.
Now, "jewelry" doesn't really cover it. These were rocks the size of hazelnuts. Pearls as big as malt balls. Think David Yurman, not Shane Company.
For last year's soiree they got the lanky Heidi Klum to model (clothed, I assume). This year, they mustered four local girls who told each other, "I'll do it if you will." I think the proposal that we go topless was a vague reference to breast health.
And the body painting? A touch of class courtesy of Portland's local art stars.
After getting decorated from the waist up and slipping into stilettos, my three co-models and I were ushered upstairs to pedestals in the jewelry rooms, where we stood statue-like for the duration of the event's pre-banquet cocktail hour. In the elevator on the way up, one of the event's organizers gushed: "We're putting you on pedestals, where you've always longed to be!"
I--like the three other bust-bearing models--was assigned a personal security guard. He stood by my side all night. He wasn't there to protect me from prurient eyes or paws, mind you--his presence ensured that I didn't make off with the loot (around $80K in rubies and diamonds, in my case). Still, he did find time to slip me a shot of Crown Royal and make sotto voce observations about the crowd.
Although I'd love to say I came away that night feeling like I had friends in the diamond business, the actual experience had a grim edge. The younger women were the vicious ones--they stood in small groups, pointing and sneering over their shoulders. I overheard, "Oh my god, I'd never!" half a dozen times. They seemed to assume that I lost my hearing when I lost my shirt. The older women--hardly shocked by life's oddities, I guess--cackled and asked if I was cold. One brave gal brought me a drink, and others sympathetically whispered, "You're doing great!" as encouragement.
But for the most part, those rich broads kept their distance. Maybe they were worried that my body paint might rub off on their couture gowns (I was warned--twice--not to wreck the ladies' nice clothes), but I think it was nakedness that freaked them out.
This night wasn't about stripping or modeling--both scenarios are too neat and familiar. Although I've never stripped, friends tell me the quid pro quo relationship is the simplest and most refreshing thing about it--you shake your moneymaker, they give you dollars. Everyone knows what's expected, and, in the ideal scenario, people mind their boundaries. On the other hand, there's a soothing blankness to modeling. The best models are those who appear lovely but effaced--the backdrop to exquisite clothes. There's also a cool remove between the watcher and the watched. Nobody laughs at models. People stare at them, but they rarely stare and point.
I was expecting such a festive gala to be a lot more sisterly and celebratory. I hoped to be part of it, the art of it. After an hour of being ogled, I began to realize I was a boho honey for hire, a naughty diversion with status just above coat checker. At the end of the night, a gaggle of overgrown sorority sweeties corralled the four of us together for a group photo, screeching, "Oh, this is just like when we got our picture taken with Blue Man Group!"
I did spot a few people I'd worked with in my professional life, and I was glad of my Kabuki face-paint disguise. Not because I was embarrassed, but because they were. The next time someone starts to rave about Portland's cosmopolitan verve and urban sophistication, tell them what I told you: You can dress it up in diamonds and charge five grand a table. But in Stumptown, boobs are still a cheap thrill.