When an email with ‘naked’ or ‘girls’ in the subject line lands in my inbox, it can usually be traced back to the same august California-based company which has previously offered me one-night stands with ‘flirty married women’, penis enhancement surgery and expert advice on how to make $60,000 per month. And then it can be safely filed in the trash. But no, wait, this is an invitation to the European premiere of ‘Naked Girls Reading’ at a secret location in east London. The concept? Women from the world of burlesque read literature on the theme of ‘An Ode to London’. Naked.
Naked Girls? Reading? Two things I like. And closer inspection of the e-vite reveals that the ringleader of the event is Sophia St. Villier, the New Zealand-born burlesque dancer and retro model. This is also a very good thing. I have seen Sophia, aka ‘The Tantalising Titian-haired Teaser’ perform before, most memorably in November at The Last Days of Decadence bar in Shoreditch (which has since been imaginatively renamed ‘The Shoreditch’). A seamlessly smooth bodice-popping striptease which, um, climaxed with her shaking up a champagne bottle, uncorking and pouring the contents (glitter) over her tasselled breasts made quite an impression…
… Er, sorry, where was I? Oh yes, well, it was clear that night that here was someone with star quality. As the Erotic Review have noted: ‘Her buttocks are the stuff of the wettest of dreams and her breasts are alabaster perfection. I do not remember breathing once while she was on stage. I am getting a little lightheaded now.’
But the question is: will burlesque girls reading have quite the same allure as burlesque girls stripteasing? The omens from America are encouraging. It turns out that Naked Girls Reading (NGR) was conceived in Chicago when photographer/writer Franky Vivid walked in on his wife, burlesque superstar Michelle L’Amour, reading a book wearing nothing but a pair of heels (“I like this image” said Franky).
The couple initially thought of creating a pay-per-view website, but rejected the idea as too prurient. They wanted to evoke the feel of classic paintings and photographs that have featured naked girls reading, so instead opted to create an intimate, old-fashioned salon environment in L’Amour’s new studio, the aptly named Studio L’Amour. The first show in 2008 was a sell-out success – the organisers claim that “it was obvious to all in attendance that something big had just happened, something spiritual”. Soon they were franchising the brand across the States. Now NGR shows are regularly staged in 12 North American cities from New York to San Fransisco, Vancouver to Dallas, with five more branches (three in the US, two in Canada) due to open there. There’s also NGR posters available, an online bookstore, plus an annual NGR literary prize, inviting original writing from “gut-level” writers around the world and worth $2,000 to the winner.
As the Erotic Review have noted: ‘Her buttocks are the stuff of the wettest of dreams and her breasts are alabaster perfection. I do not remember breathing once while she was on stage. I am getting a little lightheaded now.’
NGR is coming soon to Australia and Portugal, but the first overseas event is right here in London. An epochal occasion then, and not to be missed. So I buy a couple of tickets (12 quid each), persuade a friend (he doesn’t need much persuasion) to come along too, and we womble along to the premiere.
The venue is a Victorian building of suitably faded glamour. On arrival, we are ushered up a winding staircase to a room where an eclectic mixture of chairs and sofas have been arranged facing a red velvet chaise longue. Round and about, there are stuffed animals, oil paintings, bookshelves filled with hefty volumes, and vintage postcards of disrobing ladies are clipped to a large mirror on the wall, the whole scene illuminated by the soft glow of antique lamps with red shades.
The event has certainly attracted a mixed audience, from vintage-wearing burlesque aficionados to city suits. There’s a 50:50 ratio of men and women, plenty of couples and all ages from twentysomethings to one guy who looks to be in his sixties. All look eager for some fine English lit. And, no doubt, tit.
Then our host Sophia accompanied by Rubyyy Jones, Emerald Fontaine and Tallulah Tempest make their entrance and perch daintily on the chaise longue. As advertised, they are wearing nothing, except gold high heels, vintage jewels and roses placed among painstakingly coiffured curls.
Soon they get down to some serious reading of both classic and contemporary literature on the theme of ‘An Ode to London’. Initially, the reading is rather lacklustre, with a few nervy stumbles, but as the girls’ confidence grows, so the recitals improve. And while I wouldn’t say it is quite a transcendental spiritual experience, the blend of shabby chic ambience and curvaceous naked women reading everything from William Blake's London to excerpts of Russell Brand's Booky Wook II via the likes of Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh makes for an enjoyable, if unusual, evening out. Think Jackanory, only with magnificent breasts.
A few days later, over afternoon tea, I invite the show’s producer to give her verdict on the premiere.
Then our host Sophia accompanied by Rubyyy Jones, Emerald Fontaine and Tallulah Tempest make their entrance and perch daintily on the chaise longue.
“It’s the first show I’ve ever produced and it was such a big learning curve,” admits Sophia. “I wanted a relaxed feeling, to evoke that time before radio and television, when people would sit round and read to each other – well, not naked, but that’s our way of drawing people in! – and I think we achieved that.
“It was important to me that the girls are having fun, confident, showing their personalities and engaging the audience. There are definitely some things I want to improve for future events but for the first one I was very happy with how it went and the feedback we’ve had.”
“Members of a book club came along to the show and I’ve had lots of interest from book bloggers. Then there are men and women who go to burlesque, or people who are just interested in different nights out in London. It’s definitely not just for men, I think women like to see other women’s bodies – and women enjoying their bodies – and there are not many options to do that without everything being airbrushed out.
“I’d say, beforehand, people would have expected it was going to be about 70 per cent titillation, 30 per cent intellectual stimulation, but I think maybe it switches around during the show as people become accustomed to the nudity. I found this performing it myself. When I looked out at the audience, people were often looking down, engaged in listening to the story.”
But why did she get involved in the Naked Girls Reading business in the first place?
“Well, I did English Lit. alongside Sculpture as my degree at the University of Canterbury back in New Zealand, so reading has always been a passion for me. Because my style of burlesque is American, I also like to keep an eye on the top US performers and I read that Michelle L’Amour had got into this show called Naked Girls Reading. A few months later, I saw that they were franchising it out, so I got in touch and after a bit of an interviewing process to make sure I’d present it the right way, I got the London licence. I was delighted because it combines two of my passions – literature and hot naked girls!”
Following a successful London debut, the 26-year old is planning to host monthly NGRs in the capital. The next event on April 20, tagged ‘A Very Royal Reading’, will celebrate the impending nuptials of Wills and Kate. A Bristol branch will be opening shortly, there is interest in launching NGR up north, and Sophia herself has been approached about doing an event in Cambridge (“I’ll just have to check it out with Naked Girls Reading HQ… ”).
In America, some branches of NGR have incorporated live music and literary debate into their events, and the Chicago Naked Girls are hosting a ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night & Read Naked Every Day’ event in May where they shall don full Kiss make-up, “turn the sexy up to 11” and challenge audience members to an axe-slinging battle on Guitar Hero. Does Sophia envisage similar expansion on the theme here in the UK?
“I think it would be interesting to combine it with other things such as live music. It had crossed my mind to incorporate a burlesque performance, but then maybe it goes into another thing. I’m just interested to keep doing it and see how it evolves… or mutates!”
How about mutating into Naked Boys Reading or is that too unpleasant a thought?
“Ha-ha. My friend’s part of a show in the West End called Naked Boys Singing, so when people ask me about the possibility of NBR, I direct them to that! I don’t have any plans myself. Personally, I’d much rather see naked girls reading… ”
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