The moment I saw her wild, off-white hair, I knew it was Holly Van Voast. I had only heard about her a few days before, so I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that she was the woman behind the infamous “moustache and tits” of Harvey Van Toast, New York City’s “Topless Paparazzo.” And there was an all too real possibility that she’d show up to the café where we were meeting without a shirt. Needless to say, I was nervous, and thoroughly ecstatic. Little did I know, I was about to be taken on a roller coaster reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode.
As it turned out, my list of prepared questions was completely unnecessary. After shaking my hand and kissing my cheek, Holly (fully clothed) sat down and launched into a breathless retelling of her tumultuous past two years. Instantly, she made one thing exceptionally clear: she was NOT an activist. That’s right – despite 10 arrests, 3 hospitalizations in a mental institution, and an eventual lawsuit against the NYPD, Holly does not consider herself an activist. So what inspired her to create the character of Harvey? “I just thought – breasts and a moustache together would be unforgettable.”
Born in upstate New York, Holly moved to New York City in 1984 to pursue life as an artist. She dabbled in painting and photography, ultimately creating a photography magazine called LENSJOCKEY™. Holly eventually started photographing what she calls the “Punk Drag” scene, following Drag performers such as Krystal Something Something and Thorgy Thor. Soon, Holly wanted to find a way to not only publicize the Punk Drag performers but also the greater art scene in New York City. Thus, Harvey Van Toast was born.
Much to Holly’s surprise, her creation was far more daring than she could have imagined. Women have been legally allowed to go topless in New York since 1992, but the public, as well as some police officers, are unaware of this. Holly regaled me with tales of people’s horror at her naked chest. “Sociologically, it’s really interesting to see how tits just blow people’s minds.” Holly calls this reaction “Topless Shock Syndrome,” insisting that people are almost blinded by the site of a shirtless woman. Holly groaned at this idea, muttering to herself, “I would be ashamed of myself if I couldn’t take looking at a pair of tits.” But people’s shock only propelled Holly further; she rode the subway topless countless times and undressed at movie screenings and book signings. She even stood topless outside of a school in the Bronx, videotaping people’s reactions and pointing out that “breasts aren’t dangerous for children.” What started out as provocative advertising soon turned into downright controversy. Holly was no longer just promoting the Punk Drag scene; she was documenting the birth of a movement.
This evolution resulted in unexpected pressure from an unlikely source: topless activists. These protestors mistook Holly’s topless reveals as a rebellion against topless double standards. This assumption infuriated Holly, her anger still evident as she sat in front of me, haphazardly stirring her steamed milk. She finds this pressure ridiculous, insisting that artists should just be allowed to do something original. “I mean, who asked Van Gogh that, or Mark Twain that?” According to Holly, at least recently, artists have been pressured to find “a cause” to fight for with their work, but Holly would have none of that. In fact, Holly almost seemed to revel in her uniqueness; she was the one who even thought of taking off the shirt. “I was the one with the f***ing balls,” she said. But unfortunately, as Holly put it, “[p]eople weren’t prepared to see anything other than protesting.” But as Holly insisted over and over again, she wasn’t an activist; she wanted to uncover something far deeper than laws: “Topless to me is like, vulnerable. You know, it’s like a statement about human nature.”
As activist organizations such as Femen and GoTopless received more and more publicity, Holly grew resentful, especially once the truth about Femen was revealed: the organization was corrupt and led by a man with no respect for his female protestors. Holly said, “I was doing what people thought they were.” And yet, Holly held fast to her identity as an artist, never letting up to the pressure of being an activist. “I’m the embodiment of what an activist would fight for. I like to call what I do post-activism. What I do is what I feel like someone would do after activism,” she says. This stance, according to Holly, cost her countless friendships and created many enemies. But the trouble didn’t stop there. As Holly struggled to figure out what to do next with her unique experience as Harvey Van Toast, she began to suffer the repercussions of her decisions. At first, she looked into creating a reality TV show, and then entertained the idea of stand-up comedy. But she was rejected everywhere, and finally decided to compile her footage into a documentary called “Topless Shock Syndrome.” Yet, even as she sat with me, Holly continued to grapple with what she was going to do next.
Recently, the NYPD mandated department hearings where police officers were reminded of New York’s equal topless law. Ronald Kuby, Holly’s lawyer, informed her that this action was inspired by her lawsuit. However, the media did not reference Holly when reporting on the NYPD hearings. In fact, Holly said she has been left out of most of the recent topless reports. But the media hasn’t ignored her completely. The Gothamist covered Holly’s hospitalization, which occurred on the 20th anniversary of when the equal topless law was enacted. The Daily News took an interest in Holly’s lawsuit, eager to capture Holly topless in court yet again. Holly scoffed as she repeated to me what she told the reporter: “I’ve done that already.” Holly was almost offended that the reporter assumed she would always take her top off.
What I didn’t realize was that Holly did eventually take her shirt off for the reporter, just outside of the courthouse instead of in it. As I continued my own online research of Holly and the infamous Harvey Van Toast, I felt as if I was uncovering a convoluted tale of intrigue. Was Holly’s performance art groundbreaking, or purely sensationalist? She told me her work was initially intended as advertising for her Punk Drag friends, and yet she was all by herself (not including the few times she teamed up with other soloists such as Moira Johnston). As I watched the videos of her on the subway, I was surprised by how forthcoming she was with the other passengers. She didn’t wait for them to make the first move; she called out to them, asking them what they thought and telling them what she was doing was perfectly legal. While Holly never raised her voice, her words did appear abrasive. Watching these videos, I had to ask myself, was this a performance, or a sort of rebellion? What if the police were arresting her more for her lip than her “tits”?
But as Holly Van Voast sat before me, anxiously stirring her milk and stumbling over her own words, I saw someone more than an artist or an activist, or even someone who warranted a trip to a mental hospital. I saw a woman who had learned the hard way what it means to be unique. Once again reminding me of her current state of homelessness, she said, “There are consequences for acting like this.” Taking such a public risk can either be seen as revolutionary or utterly insane. And now, seemingly forgotten and discounted, Holly can recognize the toll Harvey may have caused her: “I’ve suffered from post topless stress disorder.” As I look through her videos and think back on our interview, I realize Holly was absolutely right; the shock of toplessness doesn’t just affect the viewer. I can only imagine how agonizing Holly’s experiences must have been. I, too, would have probably called out defensively to the other subway passengers. I have no idea how terrified I would be if I ever tried to go topless. As Holly pointed out, people start sweating at the thought of going topless.
Holly’s story, despite a few hiccups, has not gone completely unnoticed. One woman actually contacted Holly to tell her that Holly’s work had kept her from committing suicide. Stories such as this have helped Holly look at the big picture: “The lawsuit [against the NYPD] is about widespread ignorance.” She also recognized that change will come when the community is ready to accept it. “People get around to [issues] when they get around to them.” In the meantime, Holly will keep struggling to produce her art and overcome the public’s criticism, including negative comments about her age and appearance. She’ll continue battling homelessness, waiting for her lawsuit to finally be settled. But I wondered if Holly would ever be able to get over her “post topless stress disorder.”
After over an hour of talking, Holly and I eventually parted ways. As I walked to the subway, face in the wind, I looked up at the lights of Lincoln Center, one of Holly’s favorite locations for going topless. Looking through the illuminated windows around me, I was suddenly struck by the truth behind Holly’s words: “This is the Andy Warhol town. This is the town where you can do things like that.” This is New York City, where even nightmares can come true, especially when you want them to.