Times Square is one of the more bizarre places in New York City—no, on Earth. If the massive crowds of tourists don’t make it chaotic enough, there’s also a surreal milieu of costumed characters—Elmo, Cookie Monster, Hello Kitty—soliciting tips in exchange for a photo. Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, or whatever.
Still, everyone needs to make a living. This may be more difficult now that the Times Square performers are facing a serious crackdown from the city, with one group in particular receiving most of the heat: The desnudas. (Their name derives from the Spanish word for “naked.”) The young women dressed in nothing but thongs and body paint have been accused of aggressively asking for tips and offending more delicate sensibilities. Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have spoken out against the women’s solicitation, with the former saying “It’s wrong. We are going to look for every appropriate way to regulate all activity.”
No doubt prudishness and double standards come into play—according to the Times, these women have been the subject of four out of five complaints submitted to the Times Square Alliance, though being topless is legal in New York City and the Naked Cowboy is a beloved tourist attraction.
So I headed down to Times Square to find out what the desnudas had to say about it. It took separate three trips to the area—God help me—before I came across the only one working at the time. I found Lourdes, 21, at the center of a massive crowd that watched her, rapt, as her boyfriend and business partner (he objects to the term “manager”) painted her body red, white, and blue. Her buttcheeks were a particularly painstaking project, since she wasn’t satisfied with the size of the letter N painted on her left cheek—to match the Y on her right cheek—and made her boyfriend re-do it several times. Meanwhile, I overheard onlookers discussing the moves to curb work by the desnudas, and they didn't seem to be pleased—one man told his companion "you're got a tyrannical governor and mayor...they've been here for years. 97% of people who go by are smiling." Once Lourdes was done, I spoke to her about her work as a desnuda, what she thinks about the crackdown, and what she has to say to Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo.
Lourdes, how long have you been doing this?
Two years. I stay out of the spotlight because I don’t want negative publicity. Lately we’ve been in the papers, some of my colleagues that work out here, they’ve been in a negative light. What they’re saying is not true. It’s so untrue and so unfair, and I believe they should look at the positive things about us. They should say “wow, they’re trying to express themselves and fight for their rights as women.” Because we as women shouldn’t be afraid of our bodies. It shouldn’t be wrong to be topless.
[To a tourist who’s approaching with a $5 bill] “Hi. You wanna take a picture? Oh, whatever you want, baby.” I take the picture.
How much do you make each day?
I don’t speak prices, I think it’s a really rude question to ask. I will not discuss that, but if it was so much money, I would be rich by now. I don’t always come out here because of money. You see, I’m not asking for money. People are handing me the money. People just took free pictures, I didn’t shout them down for tip or anything. I just wanna do this for me, as a person. Of course, I work on tips, but if they can’t pay, why would I force them?
What did you do before you did this?
I’m a professional salsa dancer and I’m also an aspiring singer and a student. I’ve done so many charity events. I’ve done so many things my age that they don’t even know I do because they judge me based on what I’m doing now.
And what would you say to Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo about this crackdown?
I don’t want to criticize anyone because I don’t know them personally. I don’t know what’s going on with the politics right now, but I’m seeing a lot of words and criticism right now. I think that he should just be a little more understanding. I feel like they’re misunderstanding us. Give us a break. We’re not doing anything bad, we’re not harassing people. They should be more concerned about the characters.
Oh yeah, why’s that?
They jump into a picture [with a kid] and charge the parents. Fifteen characters in one picture and they harass the parents. And then people talk and people think it’s us because we’re the naked ones. And it’s not us.
Do you think you’re being targeted because you’re women and you’re naked?
I think they’re targeting us because it’s being naked as a woman in Times Square is such a taboo. So they’re gonna target us before anyone else. Because this is a taboo and “women can’t be naked and it’s not right and there’s children” but Naked Cowboy is out there in tighty whities and he’s been out here for years. So why should I have to leave if I’m not doing anything wrong? I’m just in body art, expressing my rights as a woman.
Photos by Gabrielle Paiella