Naked celebrities: Why we’d all rather go nude

After a decade of celebrity exposure, what makes so many stars want to bare all?

Let me set a scene for you. You walk into a room – a bright, well-lit room with tall windows and high ceilings – and you see that there are seven or eight people you’ve never met before hanging around, nursing coffee cups and prodding soft furnishings. A stylist. A photographer. Hairdresser, make-up artist, runner who looks a bit like Robert Pattinson, random woman with clipboard, perhaps an electrician there to fix the strip light that’s blinking a bit. It’s at this point that you have to take off all your clothes.

Arrrgh! I know! It’s like one of those dreams where your teeth drop out or you’re falling on to jagged rocks. A naked shoot is most people’s idea of hell on a plate. I know this because I’ve been there, done that – and, sadly, wasn’t allowed to wear the T-shirt. Instead, I wore a pair of Louboutin heels, a paralysed smile and the merest seam of a blanket, which I’d found by sheer good fortune in the dressing room (thank you, God) and insisted should be judiciously placed to camouflage the bit of my bottom that splayed (sorry, no other word for it) as I sat down.

I’d agreed to the shoot – to illustrate a newspaper article about not having a stitch to wear – in a fit of exuberance, possibly brought on by a rendezvous with a bottle of merlot, and certainly carried forth by the enthusiasm of the editor, a woman renowned for getting celebrities and other chumps like me to go naked in the pursuit of a novelty picture. We spent an awful lot of time on my eye make-up, I recall – chiefly to allow me to feel at least partially clothed. Even my legs wore make-up: a kind of oily spritz that I hoped would draw the eye away from my intimidated chest. After much wheedling, and still in a dressing gown, I allowed myself to be coaxed and cajoled into position like a Victorian lady bather entering the sea at Bournemouth. Eventually, there I was, suspended from the ceiling in a Sixties pod chair, ready to undergo what has become a rite of passage for many: the kit-off shot.

Really, everyone’s done it. I’m surprised you haven’t. Take a stroll through the past few decades of cultural imagery and you’ll see that a remarkable number of photographs, posters and campaigns feature naked people. Naked famous people, for the most part. Or just plain naked people, doing it for a diverse host of reasons. We’ve seen Gail Porter projected on to Parliament, those “It girls wearing only It bags”, Prince and his AC/DC body on the cover of Love Sexy, we’ve seen Becks and Baron Cohen and Britney and on and on… Hundreds of bodies, thousands of shots, acres of coverage for the body unveiled.

Of course, there have been naked images around since cave people started doodling on the walls, and throughout history the nude has fascinated and beguiled, from the nymphs and goddesses of the ancients to the neo-classical subjects identified only as “Venus” in a bid to defuse the sexual thrill. From Alma-Tadema to Avedon, Rodin to Ritts, Watteau to Weston, artists have long lain their models bare, exalting the human form in its elemental glory. The difference today is that the bodies belong, on the whole, to celebrities. To people such as the fat bloke from Gavin & Stacey.

This rash of “real-me” celebrity nudity really got going with the seminal Tatler issue of 1999, which featured Amanda Foreman, her modesty preserved behind a tottering stack of her latest biography. Denise Van Outen may have already done it in a sauna for Vogue; Anthea Turner may have done it with a python for breast cancer; Helen Mirren, in an extraordinarily canny piece of self-promotion, marked her 50th birthday in 1996 by appearing naked on the cover of Radio Times. But this was different. Foreman was a historical biographer, not some model-cum-actress accustomed to slipping out of her kit in the interests of career furtherance. According to Tatler, the nakedness of its subjects (including scriptwriter Irena Brignull) was a ruse to demonstrate “the importance of inner strength”. What tosh. It was voyeurism plain and simple, and the commentators at the time got in a bit of a froth about it.

It was in that same year, perhaps inspired by Foreman, that the Rylstone Women’s Institute cottoned on to the profile-raising appeal of a shrewdly placed fruit scone. Their now-legendary “alternative” calendar has since raised more than £1.3 million for Leukaemia Research. Like most of the celebrity exposure that followed, there was nothing ribald or rude about it – it was a gentle joke to tickle the fancy, and the public reaction was more “heavens to Betsy” than horror unbound. As one journalist wrote at the time: “You have to admire their nerve, obvious sense of humour and refusal to be ashamed of their bodies.” This, then, was liberation, not objectification. This was empowerment, cunningly concealed behind a nice, moist cherry bakewell.

The mild-mannered nude soon became a fundraising staple. Over the past few years we’ve had a good look at the English rugby squad’s best bits, and Ricky Hatton’s too – to raise awareness of male cancer. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall bared his soul in a barn to promote his battery-hen campaign. Wales’s oldest boy band, the Froncysyllte Male Voice Choir (average age 66), did a lovely nude calendar for Help the Aged. Wine-makers, ad execs, firemen, you name it – no association, no issue, no story, no protest, no fundraising opportunity has shirked the massive starkers-fest. PETA has long led the field with its “pose nude for the planet” campaigns; naked pro-vegetarianism from Alicia Silverstone, naked anti-fur sentiment from Eva Mendes, the naked stand against elephant cruelty in Thailand from the idiotically perfect Imogen Bailey. Gisele Bündchen has campaigned to preserve fresh water supplies in her native Brazil by wearing only sandals and a bucket of water. One of my favourite recent headlines was: “Greta Scacchi poses nude with dead fish in a bid to save them.” Terry Gilliam was in a picture, too, holding a large cod (no chips).

It’s all very vanilla. Yet there was originally a sniff of scandal about going naked, usually as a result of context rather than indecency. Way back in 1863, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe shocked not for its nudity – that was commonplace enough – but for its modern setting, and that the naked woman was with a couple of fully clothed gents. When John and Yoko went full-frontal on the cover (and full-moon on the back) of their Two Virgins LP in 1968, it wasn’t the explicit nature of the photos that gave everyone the vapours. It was how humdrum, hairy and uninviting they both looked (Lennon later described it as a picture of “two slightly overweight ex-junkies”).

By the Nineties, it was still context, not form, that stimulated debate. Demi Moore’s pregnant front cover for Vanity Fair in 1991 was hailed as an opportunity to overturn taboo – not so much of nudity (we’d seen that before), but of pregnancy. Back then, pregnant women still loomed beneath great marquees of fabric; it was only post-Demi that they got into tubey, grippy dressing, showing off their bumps like snakes who’d swallowed goats.

When Jerry Hall, Cindy Crawford and Scary Spice followed suit, we shrugged and got back to filing our nails. But when Beth Ditto stripped off for NME in June 2007, the chattering classes got exercised again. It wasn’t the fact of her flesh that had everyone talking, but the quantity of it. A very fat woman, naked on the news stands! Interestingly, people who might have griped about objectification found the image progressive. Germaine Greer said: “NME had enough courage to put the coolest woman on the planet on the cover, and Beth Ditto has given them the kind of picture that they can use: attention-getting but certainly not obscene.”

Context and intent, the uncoupling of nude from rude; the rules of the game are, it seems, subtle but clearly set. As Wikipedia puts it – with, I think, brilliant understatement – “Even in a museum depicting nudity, nudity of a visitor is typically not accepted.” There’s a line here, and we seem to know instinctively when it has been crossed. Take Sophie Dahl’s naked ads for YSL’s Opium in 2001. Shocking. Why? Because Dahl didn’t resemble the emaciates we were used to seeing in magazines; in those days, she was voluptuous and creamy, like a bowl of Mr Whippy. More critically, her legs-akimbo pose was erotic, suggestive, orgasmic, and considered by the Advertising Standards Authority to be “degrading to women” (though this is a moot point; to my eye, she was having a whale of a time). It is one of the most complained-about ads in the ASA’s history.

The line is also firmly drawn at visible nipples and conspicuous pubic fuzz. This is why Agyness Deyn’s very naked pictures for O32C magazine, all nips and lady-bits, drew a sharp intake of breath in the blogosphere recently (exacerbated by the fact that Aggy’s nakedness was curiously androgynous and therefore “other” and so doubly engrossing). Needless to say, the ASA made Tom Ford pull his 2003 Gucci ad, which showed a woman pulling down her knickers to reveal a tasteful depiction of the company’s “Double G” logo.

You might argue, of course, that these exploits are neither clever nor funny. You might add that it debases the human form and boils down all that we are to a sort of tee-hee sniggering at the back of the class.

I would agree that there’s nothing particularly highbrow or edifying about it. But it’s harmless enough. In a generous light, you could even argue that this is merely the contemporary interpretation of the great nudes of history, capturing the sheer romance and exquisite beauty of Botticelli’s Venus, Rubens’ Bacchus, Ingres’ Odalisque in Grisaille… Granted, this is a hard sell when you’re looking at a picture of Antony Worrall Thompson clasping a savoy cabbage to his willy. But still. All of life is here.

Naked shots are the great leveller, the visual equivalent of realising that even the Queen goes to the loo, that we all of us have belly buttons, that we’re fashioned from the same clay. There’s something pleasing and liberating about this, especially in an age where the blessed have bonuses and Botox and bolt holes in St Moritz. Excise all that and you’ve got a mere mortal. This banality of the body is what drove David Bailey to shoot his Democracy project in 2005, using 100 naked volunteers. It’s why artist Spencer Tunick persists with his nude gatherings. And why nudity has long worked as an act of protest.

Going naked, in all its knobbly glory, still attracts attention. It unmasks. It equalises and surprises. It’s why Lady Godiva did it in the first place (to force her husband to retract the taxes he’d imposed). African commentator Jideofor Adibe has argued that, “An essential power of naked protest lies in vulnerability. It preys on the compassion normally reserved for the underdog, the weak and children.”

Internationally, a world away from the nudge-nudge of the British charity calendar, naked protest has long been utilised as a raw cry against oppression. There have been naked Madagascan prostitutes marching against road blocks; naked Kenyan women protesting the annexation of their land; Mexican peasants storming Veracruz in their underpants.

In the UK, the endeavour has always been a bit more of a lark, to get us to look up from our cornflakes. However, even that’s not guaranteed – chiefly, one suspects, because, these days, we see nudity everywhere we look. The sight of Gok Wan weighing up some poor housewife’s knackered old rack is so engrained in the national consciousness that we’d hardly bat an eye if a hairy drunk bloke took to the half-time pitch for an old-fashioned streak. Today, instead of streakers, we get the World Naked Bike Ride, a jolly uprising against oil dependency. In 2007, Greenpeace stuck naked protesters on the Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps to highlight the impact of climate change.

The problem is, though, that such shots are now too stock to shock. At Vanity Fair, “Have them take their clothes off” is pretty much the starting point for picture-desk meetings (its naked alumni include Keira Knightley, Scarlett Johansson, Tiger Woods and Kate Winslet); Rolling Stone has had Janet Jackson, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Aniston and Cindy Crawford nude on its cover. The kit-off shot now seems run-of-the-mill. When Vogue ran its naked cover of Natalia Vodianova last June, the general reaction wasn’t, “Crikey, look at that!” but, “Meh, where’s the clothes?”

Curiously, though, and perhaps quaintly after all these years, naked is still considered avant garde in the publishing industry. Love magazine’s most recent issue features eight naked supermodels, including Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Kristen McMenamy and Amber Valletta. “It was interesting to study them naked,” said Editor Katie Grand. Yes. That’s exactly what we do to naked pictures, isn’t it? We study them. We scrutinise. See if we measure up. And the most absorbing subjects are generally the unexpected bodies – not the models who have precisely what you’d expect beneath their clothes (smooth skin, taut bellies, yawn, a general sense of pertness and pulchritude). It’s the freaks that fascinate, the ones wearing woolly shorts that turn out to be their thighs, the ones with Hobbit feet or hollow chests or a mole shaped like Sardinia.

That said, there are still beautiful bodies that elicit a ripple of interest. Sadie Frost in Grazia was a water-cooler hit, mostly because she refused retouching, the dear brave soul – “I just wanted to give people some idea about [being] a bit kinder to ourselves and maybe a bit more sisterly.” It just so happens that her 44-year-old body is damn-near perfect, so the sacrifice for womanhood wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. Still, we could all perhaps learn from her body confidence. Indeed, researchers at the University of Northern Iowa found that nudists have higher body self-acceptance than the rest of us. Kate Winslet is said to have felt “released” after her first go at screen nudity.

Some public figures have, of course, lived to regret posing in the nude (hello, Ashley Cole). Carla Bruni was said to be furious when photographer Michel Comte sold 1993 nude shots to Christie’s on the eve of her 2008 state visit to Britain. No matter how demure and buttoned-up your Dior coat-suit tries to be, it’s terribly hard to look strait-laced when the entire population is sizing up your tits in the tabloids. Yet it certainly did Republican senator Scott Brown no harm to have posed for the centrefold of Cosmo back in 1982. The issue here seems to be one of control: naked shots are fine if you use them to advance a pet project, to raise a laugh or an eyebrow or a few bob for the church roof; not fine if they’re used without your say-so. And not fine, either, if they embarrass your kids at school.

Last year, Madonna’s children were said to have been left squirming by a shoot of their mother with a naked Jesus Luz, clutching an ungenerous hand-towel to his manhood while she skittered about in a tight black cocktail dress. And when Miley Cyrus posed naked for Annie Leibovitz in Vanity Fair in 2008, she remembered, all too late, that she was 15 and (worse) had a contract with Disney. Cue a kerfuffle, with Miley apologising to “my fans, who I care so deeply about” and a desperate backtrack on her previous comments (“I think it’s really artsy. Annie took, like, a beautiful shot and I thought that was really cool”).

And here’s where I’ll admit to the narcissism that is a prerequisite for doing it in the first place: I rather like my naked pictures. I was 39 when they were taken, and I don’t think I look too bad. Not Cindy Crawford.

Not Liz Hurley. Not, in a million moons, Elle Macpherson. But not bad. The pod shots now hang on the bedroom wall. I did debate sticking them in the downstairs loo, but my husband vetoed the idea on the ground that he didn’t want electricians and suchlike ogling his wife’s cleavage while they took a leak. God knows what he’ll make of the pictures being reprinted here. I suspect he’ll just be relieved that his mother takes The Daily Telegraph.

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