For some women, the thought of appearing topless in the middle of Times Square is the stuff of nightmares. For others, it’s a way to make a living.
As one of the most iconic tourist attractions in New York City, Times Square has long drawn a host of vibrant characters and street performers. Among the cartoon characters and superheroes are the "desnuda" – in other words, women who interact with tourists while almost naked (g-string and high heels excepted), adorned with body paint, hopefully in exchange for a tip.
Recently, these street performers have been the hot topic of debate in both American media and politics, with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio attempting to ban them altogether, and Governor Andrew Cuomo stating they remind him of the “bad old Times Square”.
Enter Amber Jamieson, an Australian journalist working for The New York Post.
“When the desnuda – that’s a term often used – started appearing the media, I kept on thinking, ‘someone should go undercover for this,’" Jamieson told The Huffington Post Australia. “I kept on waiting for someone to do it. Weeks went by before I realised no one else was going to step up, and I thought, ‘why not?’”
So, armed with a feather headdress and some strategically placed body paint, Jamieson spent a day in the life of a topless street performer. How did she find the experience?
“There are two main things. Firstly, it is so exhausting. This is tiring work, you’re on your feet, wearing a headdress. You’re talking to people and trying to engage with people -- it’s constant customer service,” Jamieson said. “Secondly, it’s incredibly fun! I thought people would be very rude to me or turn their nose up, or that there would be only creeps wanting to take photos with me.”
“In reality, half the people I spoke to were woman and families. Middle-aged women would come up to me and tell me, ‘You’re amazing, you’re incredible.’”
“Grandmas loved it and were pushing their husbands to have a photo with me. Little kids were looking at me like I was this amazing princess.”
“It was probably the most liberating experience of my life. I have never felt like such a badass.”
In terms of the recent media furore and political attention, Jamieson said it’s “that classic thing where it’s totally fine for men to be naked or nearly naked, but for women, it’s inappropriate.”
“It’s that whole sexualisation of the female body -- there’s a slut shaming thing about it. I think we should let women take ownership of their bodies, and if they want to celebrate them, so be it.”
“They’re not causing anyone harm, they’re not doing anything illegal and they are actually making lots of people happy. Let’s allow these women do their thing and not be harassed.”
In terms of whether she ever felt out of her comfort zone while performing, Jamieson said it was actually those who she didn't interact with who sometimes posed a problem.
"I never felt threatened. I did take a photo with a group of teenage boys and one brushed my boob. That didn’t threaten me -- it more annoyed me," Jamieson said.
"What I really didn't like was the guys who would stand there and creepily stare at you, taking photos but not giving you a tip. It made me think, 'How am I the problem here? How is it OK for you to stand there staring at me and taking pictures?'"
"If I was clothed, and there was some guy filming me and not leaving me alone, it would be considered harassment. But because I’m here performing, it's perfectly OK."