Toast of the Town
Interview: The Manhattan Topless Paparazzo Speaks Out
The punk-rock drag artist who goes shirtless in Manhattan tells The Daily Beast what she’s gunning for.
Manhattan’s Topless Paparazzo has hung out with tourists on top of the Empire State building, stood in line outside David Letterman’s studio, and taken a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. But it wasn’t until she hit Jennifer Aniston’s red carpet this week that the woman who has been braving the elements, the New York Police Department, and the occasional rude passerby truly arrived.
Even though Harvey Van Toast, as the topless drag paparazzo calls herself, prefers to photograph stars of lesser fame, she hit the premiere event for the Five documentary Monday night hoping to get noticed. Quietly, she stood with the rest of her paparazzi brethren, camera at the ready, wearing pink jeans, her drawn-on mustache, and nothing else. Those on the other side of her lens didn’t address her, but members of other news organizations told her she was distracting the celebrities.
“I think it’s actually pretty great … You know, I’m kind of sad I put on a dress,” Patricia Clarkson, one of the stars of the anthology of short films about breast cancer, told the New York Post. Harvey’s appearance was also noted in the New York Daily News, USA Today, and Women’s Wear Daily.
The following night, it was Wendy Williams’s turn to get a look at Harvey’s breasts outside the Paper magazine Nightlife Awards. Apparently, Williams liked what she saw, because she began her hosting duties on the show asking the audience if they’d seen “the lady outside with no shirt on,” and then showed a photograph of Harvey on her TV talk show on Wednesday. That same day, the Los Angeles Times accidentally posted a photograph of Harvey—and her bare chest—in a blog item about Aniston at the event. Harvey was in the background with the rest of the paparazzi.
“I’m still in shock over the last couple of days,” the 45-year-old unemployed graphic artist, whose real name is Holly Van Voast, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “I’ve been really rockin’ it. I’m just casual. I just walk by. A lot of people don’t even notice me when I’m walking down the street in Manhattan. It’s enlightening seeing who notices and who doesn’t and what everyone says. The Daily News and the Post together was insane. But the most insane thing, so far, is not being seen behind Jennifer Aniston by the L.A. Times. That was really the best yet.”
The attention is precisely what Harvey is seeking, as she pursues her dream of landing a reality show about her life with her group of friends in the underground drag-performance scene in New York. Van Voast moved to the city in 1984 with the goal of becoming a famous painter but eventually took a job as a graphic artist to pay the bills. She never shook her dream of becoming famous, so she’s been filming her friends at a nightclub in the hopes that the footage will persuade a TV producer to turn their lives into a reality TV show.
“I hang out with ambitious characters who are very colorful, and when I’m around them I always get the feeling that we’d make a good TV cast,” she said. “They’re singular characters like the Jersey Shore people, and they have unusual names like Mary Jo Camel Toe and Krystal Something Something. They are these insane punk-rock drag queens. I’ve stumbled into a little world that I think people would love to see. The show would have an Andy Warhol-ian, Pee Wee’s Playhouse take.”
But what does all of that have to do with partial nudity? Well, Van Voast views her toplessness as a form of guerrilla marketing or, as she put it, “a human logo for marketing.” Many people mistake her exhibitionism for a form of activism, including some of the actresses at the Five event who understandably thought her lack of a shirt was connected to the movie’s breast-cancer theme.
“It’s very psychological what I’m doing,” she said. “Some people are put off or they think it’s a joke. I’m just relying on the shock value of the very mention of the character to get the TV-show ball rolling.”
It took her three months to develop the character of Harvey fully. First she had to overcome her own psychological blocks about public nudity. Then she got the idea to add the mustache and give him a profession. Although people usually assume she’s wearing a wig, that’s her real white-blond afro.
“I’m kind of masculine,” she said. “I’m not gay. I’m straight, but there is a very masculine quality to me, how I hold myself. Quite often people can’t tell what sex I am, even when I don’t have the mustache. I’ve heard often that I have nice tits. They wonder if they’re implants or if I’m transsexual because I have a very unusual look.”
Van Voast introduced Harvey to the world in underground nightclubs, but then she realized that if she really wanted to get noticed, Harvey had to go out in daytime. The most common reaction to encountering Harvey on the street, on a subway, or inside a store, she says, is “What the fuck?” She also hears “What is that?” a lot, as well as “Can I take your picture?” and “Only in New York.” On the night he celebrated his 30th anniversary in the business, fashion designer Michael Kors was “thrown off” a bit by the sight of Harvey, but then told USA Today that it might make a good book: Topless at Bergdorf’s. Police officers have tried to force her to put her shirt on and threatened her with arrest, but she calmly reminds them that it’s legal to be topless in public in the state of New York.
“The look I’ve devised is like nothing anyone’s seen before,” she said. “There’s nothing anyone can relate to. It just sticks in people’s minds. There’s no way to forget it. It’s a real character. It’s not a joke. There are elements of humor, but I just think Harvey’s a bad-ass because I’ve never heard of anyone walking around topless. I know the public at large thinks I’m a riot. I’m just trying to translate that into a movement of my own.
“I’m lucky that I fell into the tits,” she added. “That’s all I can say. It’s like wearing fucking Angelina Jolie on your chest. People can spot it from so far away. I created a logo that people can’t keep their eyes off of, and it’s me.”