A few weeks ago I received a surprise invitation to an unusual event. Naked Girls Reading. Was it a strip show with books? Was it a clever literary irony for a book launch? Was it a tongue in cheek feminist attempt to bare all that is wrong with the male dominated meritocracy in Australian publishing? Kinda, yes - on all accounts.
A promotional flyer for Naked Girls Reading had made it into my hands via someone I worked with a couple of weeks before. Being a bit of a burlesque fan, and a lover of all things bookish, I was fascinated. You can imagine my unfettered joy when I recieved an email from Frankie Valentine cordially inviting myself and a friend (who turned out to be my partner - you can imagine his GLEE!) to come along and experience Naked Girls Reading for ourselves. Aside from feeling flattered by the invitation, we were both chuffed about an impromtu night out. We felt like real grown ups, getting dressed up in 'nice' clothers and driving out into the dark without a small person in the back seat.
The venue was a sultry downstairs bar on Smith Street in Fitzroy (one of my favourite places in the world). We were unsure what to expect. Would there be a bunch of trench coat wearing single men with boxes of tissues on the tables? Happily no. The crowd ranged in age from early twenties through to their fifties, with a healthy mix of genders and sexual orientations.
When the four gals, clad in nothing but make up and silky dressing gowns, took to the stage, the place was brimming with anticipation. Frankie Valentine, Vesper White, Strawberry Siren and Willow J Conway stood before a large crowd and, in one swift movement and with a burst of enthusiastic applause, their gowns slid to the floor. The lovely ladies settled into their chairs, picked up their books and began reading. Extracts were as eclectic as the crowd and included Harry Potter having his wand measured, a dark children's poem about a highwayman and an innkeepers daughter and a challenging bit of 'discharging' (that's coming in sixteenth century language) by Marquis De Sade.
Afterwards I invited Frankie to talk about Naked Girls Reading - what it's about, why they do it and who comes along to see them - here at The Ecstasy Files.
So, Frankie, what exactly is Naked Girls Reading about? Why girls reading nude?
Why not? We are a group of women who love literature, are comfortable with our bodies, and it's fun! Nudity is still very taboo in many parts of our society and whilst we are not trying to force it on people, simply by just doing the show we play a part in demystifying nudity. We' re also allowing you to gaze at our bodies, appreciate them, AND consider our minds in that same moment. Very rarely do we see these two qualities in women bought together, women are often represented as beautiful and brainless or clever and prudish. We' invite you to consider our brains AND our bodies.
I like that concept – it’s a fresh take on debunking stereotypes. And for me I found I concentrated much more on the readings than your boobs – but then, I am a heterosexual female. If it was naked men reading my eyes may have been elsewhere.
I notice from the Naked Girls Reading website it’s an international event. How did the four of you come to be involved?
I have been following Naked Girls Reading for quite some time. It was started in Chicago by a couple by the name of Michelle L'amour and Franky Vivid in 2009. The concept always appealed to me and I soon found out Vesper felt the same way, so we decided to approach them and obtain the rights to bring it to Melbourne.
Happy Days for Melbourne I say! What is it about the event that most appeals to each of you?
I love the simplicity of the concept. I love reading, I love being naked. I love seeing these intelligent beautiful brave women sitting beside me on the stage with everything on display laughing and having fun. Everything about it appeals to me.
It’s true, it was a lot of fun and there were a lot of laughs. The four of you really worked well together and made it all seem very impromptu. On the night I went I was surprised by the diversity of the audience. Is that usual? What are your audiences like?
Yes, we have attracted a wide demographic of audiences from the beginning which is one of the things I love about the show. It's very interesting for me to see what kind of audience we get and not only what their reasons for coming where but how they felt about it after the show.
So what’s the attraction for those who do come? Do you think it’s the novelty of nudity? Why do you think that is?
I think people have their own reasons for coming. I'm sure that the words 'Naked Girls" attract a large part of the audience and I welcome that demographic. The title is the draw card, once people are there, we hope that they leave with their minds aroused as well as any other stirrings they may have had during the show!
It’s good you acknowledge ‘other stirrings’. My partner was ‘stirred’ to encourage me to join in! It seems to me there is a growing acceptance of sexual expression at this time. Do you think the boom in erotically themed books, which is drawing in a broader, more unisex audience, has any relation to the success of Naked Girls Reading?
I don't know if those two things are linked as Naked Girls Reading does not primarily focus on Erotica. But I would like to think people are becoming more open to broadening their own comfort zones and perhaps that ties these two things together.
I was surprised by the breadth of extracts you all read on the night, from a poem in a Nursery Rhyme book to Harry Potter to Marquis de Sade. What do each of you look for when you are choosing your pieces to read?
As the shows are theme specific I will look through my book collection to find things that fit in with that theme and then find pieces that read well. It's very different reading a passage out loud as opposed to being immersed in a book. The passage has to be something that in some ways stands alone, that is engaging without needing to much a back story and enticing enough to capture the audience’s attention.
Do you read different extracts each time you perform?
We have a different theme each time we do the show. We ran the show for 5 weeks at Adelaide fringe this year and had 6 different themes throughout out the season. In Melbourne we are running it bi-monthly and the theme will change each show.
Which keeps it very fresh. Is it the same line up of performers each time?
Vesper White and I produce the show together and invite 2 special guests each time.
Guests? Shhhh, my partner might hear! I don't have the courage to stand naked in front of stangers - but I'm glad you gals do.
On that, do your families know you do this? What is their response? Have they come to see you perform?
I grew up in a very liberal household, half my family photos contain my bare breasted mother at home which is the state she was most often found in. I have been taking my clothes of for audiences for a long time and most of my family including my brothers, mother and grandmother have all seen me perform at one time or another. This show comes as no surprise to them.
How refreshing to speak to someone with no shame about nakedness. (I should take a leaf out of your book perhaps?) I thoroughly enjoyed the show but can't help wondering about naked boys reading? Why isn’t there a male or unisex version of the event? Do you think there should be?
I did approach Naked Girls Reading Head Quarters about having men on the panel and it is not something that they are currently open to. I think it would be great to have some men read.
Well, I hope they change their minds. Me and four hundred of my closest personal friends would be there, that’s for sure. Be sure to let me know when someone breaks that barrier!
And I'm sorry, but I have to ask this - Don't you get cold?
Haha!! So far no, we have good heating. If anything the lighting makes you quite hot!
So where will you be performing next? How can people find out more about Naked Girls Reading?
We will be doing a Halloween edition of Naked Girls Reading at The Noble Experiment on the 30th October.
The website www.nakedgirlsreading.com contains all the information on the different chapters of Naked Girls Reading that are popping up worldwide.
Follow https://www.facebook.com/nakdgirlsreadingmelbourne for updates on Melbourne shows.
Thanks for dropping by Frankie, it’s been great to chat and I really enjoyed the night with you lovely gals. If you're in Melbourne, don’t miss your chance to get your literary equivalent of Unplugged – well worth it for an enjoyable and unique night out.