Jun 11, 2014

River Viiperi and the Winds of Fashion

 And now for a little bit of divine beauty from a gracious loving Universe

(Photo taken from River Viiperi Tumblr)

I've recently become friends with a Spanish model named River Viiperi, which has prompted these reflections about my own past and the painful process of coming out. But before getting to that, here is a plug for River's fashion sale:)

Spanish hottie River Viiperi,  one of the most sought after male models in the world today, is offering a 40% off summer sale on all hoodies and sweaters at his official website, River Viiperi Official Store. Check it out here.  Some very hot stuff for younger guys.

As a dignified grandfather, I'm much too old to be wearing such studly stuff, but I'm going to buy a few of his Toy Boy T Shirts to wear at summer camp this year, since the kids will love the joke. More about the significance of this design later. 

I'm posting this with a twinkle and a smile, since it's not the usual kind of post readers of Gay Mystic expect. Product placement, all of a sudden, and for a sexy twink? All part of divine beauty, I suppose. But the hidden subtext is that I used to be a male model myself many (many) years ago. It's how I got myself through graduate school. Sadly, I've lost all of the magazines from that pre-digital age (though my mother stored them away somewhere) and I've only three photos left, which were taken on the day of a shoot for winter wear on San Francisco Bay. The photographer was Marti Kheel who went on to become a significant lesbian eco-feminist theologian, earning her doctorate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. How strange the ways of fate. Marti was also working her way through graduate school - as a photographer. Sadly, Marti passed away four years ago of leukemia. While we didn't have photoshop in those days, I do remember that the laugh lines around my eyes were definitely removed or smoothed over. 

But now back to young River, who is undergoing his own unique journey from boyhood into manhood, with a fair number of surprising turns on the road. A few days ago I had a brief (very brief) internet exchange with River at his Twitter Site, check it out here. River is known for his personal warmth and friendliness, so a response from him is not uncommon, as he makes an effort to reply to as many tweets as he can. But the 'connection' brought back memories of my modeling days long, long ago - not all of them pleasant, as I had to endure quite a few 'advances' from gay predators. This was especially so in the early years before the above photographs were taken, when I was a boy of 18 and a first year freshman at the Jesuit University of San Francisco. In those days, I looked like a 14 year old, and that is not an exaggeration. 

Photos taken by openly gay photographer, Declan Neil (if I remember his name correctly), when I was 19 years old! He was quite 'besotted' with me at the time, but treated me with decency and respect. My mother, however, smelling his sexual interest, disliked him intensely. 

I was terribly shy in those days, uncertain about my own sexuality, far from "out of the closet," and dealing with girls on campus trying to seduce me as well, much to the consternation of my roommate, Steve, who writhed in agony at all the missed opportunities. So it was traumatic in the extreme to be preyed upon by gay men in the fashion industry, who were quite open and aggressive in expressing their interest. All of them assumed I was gay, assumed I knew it, and assumed I would thereby be interested in them. On one occasion, I went into a toilet stall during a shoot, only to have a member of the tech staff come into the stall next to me and reach his arm and hand far into my own stall, then his leering face. I was so terrified I ran out and downstairs. Friends saw me and said I was as white as a sheet. When I told them what had happened, they ran up into the toilets determined to confront the man, but he was long gone. In my shock, however, I couldn't recognize his upside down face. I never went into a toilet stall again during a shoot. 

Even more disgusting to me was having men come up to me next to the urinals and proceed to pull out their dicks and bring them to erection, all the while gazing over at me expecting me to respond. I found this so grotesque and revolting. On one occasion, a stylist engaged me in a conversation at the urinals, then proceeded to back away with his member fully erect and exposed, and proceeded to casually and very slowly put it away, all the while expecting me to do what? Express an interest?? I had such a look of shock and horror on my face that he realized his mistake, and stumbled out of the room in confused embarrassment. I did feel a twinge of sympathy for him, because later in the day he was so embarrassed in front of me, and clearly regretted his indiscretion. To repeat, what was most shocking to me at the time was the fact that all of these men assumed I was gay and assumed I knew it, which was anything but the case. I was a pious little Catholic boy on my way to the seminary and could not, for the life of me, understand why these men thought I would be turned on by their advances. The experiences simply confused me for years afterwards, because I was so disgusted by them. I would not fully come out of the closet until my mid thirties, a very long time indeed. Having said that, however, it is important to mention that the vast majority of gay men I encountered during my relatively short career as a boy model were uniformly decent and respectful. I would not wish to contribute to the stereotype of all gay men being 'pedophiles,' (though the proper term would be 'ebophiles'). 

One trusts and hopes that River Viiperi has not had to deal with such experiences. Judging by videos of him, he has a clear sense of his own (hetero) sexuality, a strong masculine confidence, and the capacity to knock any sexual predators into the next country with a strong uppercut to the jaw. However, he has said that his first modeling experience was his most uncomfortable. He was asked (at age 18) to remove his underwear and wrap himself in a semi-transparent shower curtain. To what purpose, we ask, and in front of how many crew members? One supposes the photographer was looking for an erotic effect with at least a shadow of the genitals displayed through the curtains. Exploitative is the word for that one.  And in fact as one surveys the world of male fashion today, it's clear that the boundaries between porn, fashion and art are being blurred, if not dissolved. The Huffington Post has just today published an article to this effect, entitled Why Is Fashion Dipping It's Chocolate in Porn's Peanut Butter. As the article makes out, because of the internet we have all become desensitized to porn's near universal presence and the effect is often decadent and unsettling, but not always. I have no objections to a bit of cheeky semi-nudity, as the following photograph of River reveals (begging his pardon): River has some outrageously cheeky semi-nude shots out there. I tried to choose one of the more modest ones:

(Taken from River Viiperi Tumblr, again, in the hopes I'm not violating copyright. )

Once one goes this far with a model, however, its far too easy to take it to the next step - and the next. Speaking as a theater director of 30 years, what one looks for in a director of film or a photographer is respect for the dignity of his or her actors or models and their bodies. A cheekiness that displays a confident joy in one's own sexuality and attractiveness is one thing, an undue emphasis upon the "sex" of the model is another, particularly if it robs the model of personal power over his or her own body. The sexuality of a boy model should not be 'owned' by a photographer, as a right. And the message of a sexualized image should also be respect for the mystery of sexuality embodied in the model, as a gift to be given with discretion, not as a toy to be thrown away at public auction. My own past in the fashion industry has made me especially sensitive to this issue. Women have been enduring this for years, being turned into sex objects for the viewing pleasure of men. It is quite a  modern twist to see the same objectification occurring with young men. Up until the 60's, it was considered unmanly and effeminate for a man to display his body with the intent to invite sexual interest and viewing. Only women were to do such things and to do them as a duty to men. Hence all of those famous movie stars from Cary Grant to Paul Newman who took little care of their physiques, and appeared shirtless in films with torsos wildly out of shape. But that was considered manly at the time, simply not to care. After the 60's all of this changed, and it quickly became acceptable for men to groom their bodies as visible objects of sexual desire. Need I say how much the gay cultural revolution had to do with this? 

And thank god for that, say I at Gay Mystic. Good for women, good for sexual tolerance, good for gay friendly relations between the sexual orientations, and good for gay men in general who have the pleasure of worshipping at the altar of male beauty. Good, healthy, celebratory, joyous and wonderful - up to a point. The danger of exploitation of young men in the fashion industry remains very real, and the whiff of decadence is ever present. Some of the photos give a lift to the heart and the spirit, the kind of male beauty that reveals divinity and lifts us into the clouds. Others, however, have the ugliness of human arrogance, proclaiming absolute ownership over sex without care and without responsibility. And these bring a darkness to the spirit and a heaviness to the soul. However, one very healthy result of this remarkable change is that it's made the fashion industry and its models so gay friendly in the best sense of the word, friendly to gays who do not prey on the boys and who respect the straight boys' own heterosexuality. The fashion industry, for all of its flaws and decadence at times, is making its own contribution to tolerance and understanding. 

(I've decided to refrain from ranting about body stereotypes and the obsession of many young gay men with physical perfection, which the current blurring between porn and fashion is only whipping into a frenzy. That's been done to death by more eloquent voices than my own.)

Finally, as a postscript, it should be said that River Viiperi is the current boyfriend of Paris Hilton. I know, I know, I jumped to the same conclusions and indulged in the same negative judgmentalism when I first heard the news. But then I thought, wait a minute, I'm not going to pass judgement here. So I went online and looked at a few videos of Miss Hilton being interviewed by David Letterman and Ellen Degeneres recently. I was struck by how poised and dignified she was, gracious, charming and deferential without a hint of spoiled arrogance, and as lovely as a spring day in May as well. Unlike some of her 'reality TV' counterparts (who shall go unnamed), I felt no negativity in her presence, quite the contrary. She seems to have come a long way in the past few years. All of my preconceptions were shattered in an instant, and I noticed that Dave L and especially Ellen really, genuinely liked Paris, and that says a lot. She was like a breath of fresh air. Her hottie was in the wings and given a few charming moments on camera of his own (pity they were not longer), where he shined with boyish enthusiasm. Both of them seem deeply in love.

So, I'm not going to say anything more because I don't think there is anything more to say on this subject. No comments about consumerism, money, wealth or privilege. In the end, I borrowed a line from the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, and I decided

Even a millionairess socialite is entitled to some happiness. 

And if River can give it to her, then blessings on them both. 

For those of you nonplussed by the Fiddler on the Roof reference, the timid tailor Chava wants to marry the milkman, Tevye's daughter. Tevye responds to this with amused contempt, until that climactic moment when Chava overcomes his timidity and shouts out to Tevye, "Even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness."