Karen Valich, a 47-year-old wife and mother, says her middle-aged friends thought she was nuts when she suggested they shed their clothes for a pin-up calendar.
"They all laughed at me and said, 'Yeah, right, I'll be your manager, you go and take your clothes off,' " says Valich — now also known as Miss January.
Her friends in the Bellingham, Wash., area — ranging in age from 25 to 89 — eventually became emboldened for a reason: Their lives all had been touched by cancer, and their goal was to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
The Northwest Exposure calendar, covering the year 2002, catches a wave of ordinary women getting nude for a cause. In the past, there may have been occasional beefcake or cheesecake calendars to benefit charities. But Northwest Exposure, as well as another calendar by a group of South Carolina women, is part of a newer trend in which middle-aged or older people — until now, mostly women in Britain — pose au naturel, albeit obscured by props to varying degrees.
For example, Valich, as Miss January, is not wearing clothes, but she is strategically wrapped in a blanket as she poses in front of a fire, holding a cup of coffee. The picture carries the caption: "Cozy up with a warm one."
Raising Money and Hope
A common thread among the calendars seems to be to raise medical research money — and maybe some hope.
"Every woman thinks that mastectomy is disfiguring and mutilating, which it can be," says Nancy Holdsworth, 54, the driving force behind a calendar featuring nude British women of all ages who battled breast cancer. "Women are so frightened of the disfigurement, and if we can all pose for a calendar it gives them hope."
Holdsworth says fund-raising for breast cancer research is only a secondary goal for her Cancer Care Calendar. She is seeking a distributor to offer wider exposure for a possible 2002 reprint, because she feels the survivors who posed have a message to get out to women struggling with cancer — that is, "to get people to sort of realize that there is life at the end of this tunnel, that you do come out the other side provided you get treatment early."
Ladies of Rylstone
Holdsworth said she got the idea on her own several years ago. But many participants in the trend modeled their efforts on the "Ladies of Rylstone" — British women from a local chapter of the upscale Women's Institute who decided to eschew their fund-raising calendar's traditional outdoor scenes for something with a bit more money-making potential.
For their 2000 calendar, reissued for 2001, 11 Rylstone women between ages 46 and 66 posed nude — but partially obscured by pearls, teacups, flowers and the like — and reportedly raised a half-million dollars for leukemia research. The ladies have since toured bookshops and made television appearances all over Europe and America.
The Rylstone calendar has inspired a wave of other nude or semi-nude charity calendars in Great Britain, according to Catherine Harris, a press officer with BUPA, a British health care company that sponsored Holdsworth's calendar.
"It was a real [big] thing here," Harris says. "A lot of people did it, local rugby clubs, and so forth. … Loads of pubs did it too."
As far away as the Australian island of Tasmania, women inspired by the Ladies of Rylstone are shedding their clothes to raise money. There, 65- to 82-year-old women disrobed for the Bare to Be Different calendar so they could afford to remodel their local community center, according to the Reuters news service.
Crossing the Pond
The trend has caught on with at least two groups of American mothers and grandmothers. Besides Northwest Exposure, more than two dozen women over 60 years old near Aiken, S.C., modeled bare for a calendar called Still Magnolias, with the goal of raising $50,000 for the local Council on Aging. The project raised more than $30,000 even before it hit the stores in mid-October, says Dorothy Ridley, one of the models.
"A lot of the businesses have underwritten the expenses of producing the calendar," Ridley told ABCNEWS Radio. "Everyone has just gotten into it. And the people at Council on Aging are just ecstatic. They think it's fabulous."
Making the calendar was a memorable experience. Ridley, who posed in pearls and tennis shoes on a tennis court on a private estate, says there was an embarrassing moment when a golf cart of five unanticipated groundskeepers happened by.
"They came around the corner, quickly," she says. "We just had no idea that they were around. Of course, they all screamed when they saw us. I hit the deck. Someone threw a towel over me. And they shooed them away. And we recovered. And everything was fine. But that was sort of a close call."
Driven by Passion … For the Cause
Valich says she and her colleagues were inspired by the Rylstone calendar, although their strategically placed props are somewhat more conservative. She says their willingness to pose in the buff shows their passion for their cause, which they hope will translate into fund-raising success.
"It started because my friend's husband died of cancer, and so we've been doing the [American Cancer Society fund-raiser] Relay for Life for like the last three or four years, and our team has been earning about $2,500 each year through the walks," says Valich, whose father survived cancer. "So I said, 'Let's take our clothes off and make some real money.'"
It took some convincing, but a dozen of her female friends and associates decided to go for it — some even posing in public places.
"We ran down to the harbor, put people on four corners to make sure no one was around and just did it," Becky Nelson, 54, Miss June, told the ABC station KOMO-TV in Seattle.
Some of the women have survived cancer themselves, and others have supported loved ones combating the disease.
"Taking off your clothes for a few minutes and showing your skin is nothing compared to going through a bone marrow transplant, not even close," Miss May Kim Brandt, 44, whose brother and aunt are cancer survivors, told KOMO.
The calendar sells for $16 plus shipping, with the profits going to a regional chapter of the American Cancer Society. The women are in the process of negotiating a distribution deal with a national bookstore chain, Valich says. In the meantime, she adds, the calendar can be purchased locally, or through e-mail at email@example.com.
Milestone for Nudity?
Bob Morton, chairman and executive director of the political arm of the Naturist Society, an Oshkosh, Wis.-based nudist group, says the popularity of calendars such as the Ladies of Rylstone may represent changing attitudes about nudity. For contrast, he pointed to a 1997 Orlando, Fla., case in which radio DJs arranged a tongue-in-cheek car wash with topless dancers to benefit breast cancer research, only to have the money rejected by a local hospital and ACS chapter.
"It hasn't always been the case that nudity in the name of charity has been welcomed," he said. "The difference between a topless car wash and a nude calendar is simply the age of the participants. I think there has been a change in attitude by the charities."
However, the national American Cancer Society was unaware of Northwest Exposure until contacted for this report. Greg Donaldson, a national spokesman, noted the decision to accept money from the independently organized project was made by a local branch.
He added, "I think what you see here is that the passion for cancer and fighting cancer, which is the nation's number one health concern, is certainly something you see is strong at the community level."
ABCNEWS' April Zepeda of KOMO-TV in Seattle contributed to this report.