"Topless Papparazzo" Holly Van Voast Wins $40,000 Settlement Against New York City and the NYPD

Holly_Van_Voast.jpg
Image via LensJockey, Van Voast's Flickr portfolio
Holly Van Voast, in character.
In 2011 and 2012, Holly Van Voast and her bare breasts saw a lot of the city together. Van Voast, an artist and photographer, took on the persona of "Harvey Van Toast," a "topless paparazzo" who wore a pencil-thin mustache, sometimes a newsy sort of fedora, and not much in the way of shirt. She appeared in character on the D train up to the Bronx, in Grand Central, outside a tony Upper East Side elementary school (where, she says, an enraged helicopter mom grabbed her camera and smashed it), and once in criminal court, answering a citation she got during her walk through Grand Central. In the courtroom, she promptly took her shirt off, to the shock, displeasure, and probably near-heart-failure of her almost 90-year-old court-appointed attorney.

And of course, Harvey showed up frequently to snap paparazzi-style photos of movie stars, catching a nonplussed-looking Johnny Depp peering at her over the top of a car, a baffled Bill Cosby, and a delighted-seeming Robert Downey Jr. Van Voast meant it as pure art, she says, a sort of gonzo performance that would draw attention to both her and an underground group of "punk drag" performers she frequently photographed. Instead, over and over, she got arrested.

Although women in New York are allowed -- for the hundredth, thousandth, millionth time -- to be topless in public, many of the officers Van Voast encountered didn't quite see it that way. In July 2012, Van Voast was in character and out of shirt outside a midtown Hooters, observing the 20th anniversary of People v. Santorelli, the landmark 1992 ruling that memorialized the right for women, when about five police officers approached her. They told her to put a shirt on. She told them, per the law, she didn't have to. They didn't care. After an hour of back and forth, she found herself in an ambulance on the way to New York Presbyterian, because one of the officers decided she was probably "not of sound mind and body."

It was far from an isolated incident, Van Voast says. "That was so common, having six to eight cops just, like, 'What do we do with this, what do we do?'" Several times, she says, the conclusion was to send her for psychological observation; at New York Presbyterian, she was held for six days.

In May, Van Voast sued the city, the NYPD, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and several dozen individual officers, accusing them of unlawful imprisonment, negligent hiring, and violating her constitutional rights. She was represented by civil rights attorney Ron Kuby and Katherine Rosenfeld of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.

"The lawsuit covers 10 incidents," Van Voast says. "But that doesn't count the many, many times I talked myself out of handcuffs. That happened so much." It also appears Van Voast might be the reason why NYPD officers were issued a memo last winter telling them not to arrest topless women for public lewdness, a memo that was unsealed during the lawsuit.

Van Voast says she and her attorneys ultimately decided it would be a bad idea to take the case to trial. "All of us agreed I would really not do very well with a judge or a jury," she explains. "That's just based on -- you can look up any story about me online in the past two years, and the comments are just hideous. I was just a scapegoat for people's anger." Earlier this week, Van Voast got word from her lawyers that the settlement has been finalized. She's been awarded $40,000, while her lawyers got $37,250.

Although most of the money will likely be eaten up by taxes, Van Voast says, "It's vindication. It happened. I got a settlement in my favor."

Van Voast got news of the settlement in Berea, Kentucky, a tiny town where she moved about a month and a half ago. "New York is an amazing place, but it's not the place I moved to," Van Voast says. She's hoping to use the settlement to continue work on a book she's writing about her experiences; it's tentatively titled Topless Zodiac.

Neither of Van Voast's lawyers immediately responded to a request for comment; an email to the NYPD's public relations department also has not yet been returned.

Van Voast's original full complaint is on the next page. It might be getting chilly outside, but in the name of freedom, feel free to read it outdoors and en déshabillé.

Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.


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10 comments
Will
Will

If it is Feminists legal assertion that there is fundamentally NO difference between men and women's chests, then why is it considered sexual assault to grab a woman's chest without her consent, but not sexual assault if you do it to a man?

Amber07183445
Amber07183445

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All-Nudist.com
All-Nudist.com

We out here in the Midwest have been hearing for some time now that NYC is no longer the dangerous, crime-ridden city it used to be. Please excuse us provincials for thinking that might just be a bit of promotion by the Mayor's office to boost tourism.

However, this story confirms how safe NYC must actually be now!  If that many police officers can devote that much time to chasing around after topless women, then there truly must be no crime for them to be concerned with!

We'll definitely schedule a visit there in the near future, but it looks like we had better plan to keep our shirts on!

Jennifer Convery
Jennifer Convery

totally ridiculous. the law needs to be changed or the city will be paying more out to these opportunistic chicks who are looking for an easy payday is.

lensjockeymagazine
lensjockeymagazine

The full story behind this can be seen at "toplessshocksyndrome.com" — The Talon Films documentary TOPLESS SHOCK SYNDROME shows activists like Ramona Santorelli (see above) and Moira Johnston. it is a really well made documentary. This is a New York story! Pretty much everything that has happened to me (Holly Van Voast) shows what I call "topless shock syndrome" — people freak out so much, sometimes violently. This documentary shows a small sample of the only self-shot footage of what happens when you go topless... no topless activist has shot footage, and it shows what really happens from the woman's perspective. The dynamic is very damaging and shame oriented. Please watch and share this documentary! Thanks!

Laney Bizzle
Laney Bizzle

Only $40,000? She got harassed/arrested way too many times for that.

dagosta
dagosta

@Jen Convery You're an idiot. It is legal for a woman to be topless in NY. If the City's employees were not arresting people for doing something that isn't illegal, the would pay nothing.

Will
Will

@lensjockeymagazine Ok now imagine how SHOCKED people would be if men tried to walk around with their dicks out. Not only would those men be arrested, theyd be accused of threatening rape, and forced to spend the rest of their lives on a sex offender registry. In fact, thousands of men every year are put on sex offender registries for the SHOCKING crime of urinating in public, even if they are completely secluded and hidden from public view.

lensjockeymagazine
lensjockeymagazine

@Laney Bizzle I agree Laney, however, the two best lawyers in the country (maybe the world) just could not make a better settlement happen. The going perception about me continues to be that I get what I deserve, not that I have suffered extreme judgements and ignorant perceptions. it is not fair, but you can't make people see the truth. Hopefully my story will get out some day. Thanks for seeing what you do.

Maria
Maria

@Will @lensjockeymagazine  Breasts aren't sexual, their used to feed babies. That's the only reason why they exist, and their not genitalia as a penis of vagina are sexual organs. Women's and men's breasts really aren't that different from each other, besides for women having a bit extra fat around them. Though that hardly makes a difference because I see plenty of big men with breasts bigger then women walking around. Until a women has a baby, her breasts are just as useless as yours. :\

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