Volume 19 • Issue 14 | August 18-24, 2006

Reverend Billy’s Seaport panty raid

Downtown Express photo by Clayton Patterson
An enraged headband vendor threatened Reverend Billy’s wife, Savitri D, right, and, in fact, did throw a punch at her outside the Victoria’s Secret in Soho Sunday. Reverend Billy is at left.

By Lincoln Anderson

Calling Victoria’s Secret’s catalogues evil incarnate, performance preacher Reverend Billy is ramping up his fire-and-brimstone campaign against the lingerie giant, demanding it stop using wood pulp from Canada’s Boreal Forest.

Reverend Billy, a.k.a. Bill Talen, has made the campaign the centerpiece of his current Sunday afternoon show at the Spiegeltent summer performance space in the South St. Seaport, which runs through September.

At his opening show on Sun. Aug. 6, Talen planned to take his choir and any willing audience members to the Victoria’s Secret shop in the South St. Seaport mall, which happens to be only 50 feet from the Spiegeltent.

Talen, who leads the anticonsumerist Church of Stop Shopping, has in recent years taken on corporations ranging from Disney to Starbucks for their practices. His latest preaching against Victoria’s Secret’s catalogues is of dire importance, he says, because it’s a matter of life and death for the planet.

Talen saw Al Gore’s new film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and was deeply affected by it.

Inviting him to be part of the Seaport show, he admits, was “like having the fox guard the henhouse.”

But South St. Seaport’s management — which leases the property from the city — got wind of the plan, and contacted the Spiegeltent’s producers. A powwow was held with Talen. Though he cried “censorship,” he agreed not to take his show into the mall and risk jeopardizing the other 90 Spiegeltent artists.

Julie Nicholasi, the South St. Seaport’s marketing director, said, “He’s in the Spiegeltent and contracted with the Spiegeltent, so he doesn’t really have access to the mall area — especially if he was disparaging one of our tenants. He was on Seaport property — we can ask him to leave.

“We are thrilled to have Spiegeltent here — Reverend Billy is Reverend Billy.”

The Spiegel producers are standing by Talen’s right to do his show, but say he must also be “neighborly” to the mall’s tenants and keep his act inside the antique velvet-and-mirrored performance tent, which is making its first North American appearance.

Not to be deterred, after his performance last Sunday, Talen and some of his choir and audience members who had agreed they would be willing to be arrested, boarded a subway to Soho where they staged a protest at the Victoria’s Secret store at Broadway and Prince St.

With his jumbo white megaphone in hand, the white-clad preacher stormed the store with his co-ed choir clad in G-strings and wielding cardboard chainsaws in tow.

“Do the research! Do the research!” Talen exhorted the shocked shoppers as he strode among the brassieres and bustiers. He then announced they would perform a “cash register exorcism.” Placing his hand on the till, he called for “the chainsaws” to be removed from the cash register. However, the negative energy may have flown into an emotionally disturbed woman who entered the store with the protest. Shouting angrily and spitting on the floor, she seemed to have a relationship with a sidewalk vendor selling headbands and neckties in front of the store, who objected to Talen’s message of stop shopping.

Feeling the protest was hurting his business, the vendor cursed out the protesters after they continued their rally outside the store, then tried to rip off Talen’s clerical collar and wrestled the protester’s banner away from them and ran off. The vendor returned and cocked his fist at an audience member dressed as a tree, then took a swing at Savitri D, Talen’s wife and production manager.

After about 20 minutes, police arrived and took away the woman in an E.M.T. van, though allowed the vendor — now acting calm again, apparently satisfied he had disrupted the protest — to remain. Meanwhile, Talen and the protesters slipped off. He later said he decided not to get arrested because he felt the message was diluted by the chaos caused by the woman and the aggressive vendor.

“We didn’t want to be part of a free-for-all,” he said. “If you’re going to be arrested, you want to be clear. We did contact hundreds of people. American consumers don’t know where their things come from.”

Talen and ForestEthics, an environmental group battling catalogue producers, say Victoria’s Secret produces an astounding 1 million catalogues per day or about 360 million per year.

Anthony Hebron, a spokesperson for Limited Brands, Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, confirmed that amount is roughly accurate. However, he said that Victoria’s Secret’s monthly catalogue is now 80 percent post-consumer-waste paper, and that the company is working to improve on that.

But Tom O’Leary, a ForestEthics spokesperson, said as far as they can tell, Victoria’s Secret’s monthly clearance catalogue accounts for just 7 percent to 12 percent of the company’s total catalogue output. While O’Leary said ForestEthics is heartened Victoria’s Secret has moved to include recycled paper in its clearance catalogue, more is needed.

“The Boreal Forest is being logged at a rate of 2 acres per minute, 24 hours a day,” said O’Leary. “They use huge machines called fell-a-bunchers…. We’re not calling for an end to all logging. But reduce, don’t clear-cut — do sustainable logging. The Boreal Forest is one of our last chances to get it right.”

O’Leary said that ForestEthics’ previous campaign against Staples and Office Depot was a success that “transformed” the office-supply industry.


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