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Grow up. Get your mind out of the gutter. You make me sick. This is but a sampling of the scoldings I have meted out to some of my friends since returning from a long weekend in the British Virgin Islands. There seems to be this expectation among my mouth-breathing buddies that because I've seen several of the planet's most gorgeous women in their birthday suits—because, for example, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos sat topless beside me while eating scrambled eggs and fruit one morning—that I'm going to satisfy their lewd curiosity; that I'm going to share my memories, my precious and minutely detailed memories, of their unclothed bodies.
I'll tell you what I told them: This is a story about body painting. My assignment was to travel to Necker Island and steep myself in an emerging art form. I would have serious discussions with Joanne Gair, the world's preeminent body painter, about her brushes and pigments. We would talk about shadowing and highlighting, about the smearing and running challenges posed by friction, perspiration and tropical humidity.
If, in the course of my research, I found myself in close proximity to nude and nearly nude supermodels, it would be up to me to maintain my professionalism. I confess, however, that at times—such as when Heidi Klum stood topless before me pool-side, briefly massaging my scalp, remarking in her vaguely Germanic accent, "Austin, we have the same kind of hair"—it was a little hard.
Necker Island is the silly and slightly suggestive name of Richard Branson's 74-acre private resort. It shall henceforth be referred to in this story as the Island of the Naked Supermodels.
Here's how you get to the Island of the Naked Supermodels: 1) Have your editor assign you to write a story on body painting; 2) fly to Miami, connect to San Juan, board a turboprop for Beef Island, then settle in for the jowl-flapping, 20-minute cigarette-boat ride to Branson's paradise; 3) once on the island, which rents for 20-plus grand a night, frequently remind yourself, This is not a dream. I avoided depression by not reflecting on the fact that the only way I would ever return would be if I were reincarnated as a gecko.
Gair is an internationally known makeup artist who also happens to be the world's most sought-after body painter. For the next few days in October, her canvasses would be the celestial bodies of the SI swimsuit models. She is a genius, a hoot and a hyperpatriotic New Zealander. Upon arriving on the island, where the staff is run by an Australian couple, she confides her fears (wholly unfounded) that, as a Kiwi, she will receive inferior service. Asked where in New Zealand she's from, she replies, "Takapuna—the Puna end of Taka, actually." She has a good laugh at this bit of Kiwi humor, then remembers with a start that she must call home to find out if her father, the longtime mayor of Takapuna, has been reelected.
No time for that now, though. It is late Friday afternoon and there is a conference to preside over, trouble to be shot. Clustered at the north end of an enormous teak table in the breeze-way are, among others, Rebecca, the model Gair will paint first, photographer Antoine Verglas and SI creative director Steven Hoffman.
The conference has been convened to make the final selection of suits that Gair will re-create on the supermodels. Gair is crazy about the pastel bikini-and-shirt combo she's going to paint on Rebecca, but Hoffman wonders, "Is it sexy enough?" To find out, he asks Rebecca to model the ensemble for us. When she emerges from the changing room, spontaneous applause erupts at the table. I find myself biting down on the first knuckle of my right forefinger and recalling the parting advice of my wife, Laura: "Try not to make too big an ass of yourself," she said. "And remember that these women have not had children."
"What do you think, Steve," I say. "Is it sexy enough?" The question is rhetorical: Right now, the sight of Rebecca would be a serious risk to the health of any man on heart medication.
"Before it was on the table," says Hoffman, a tad defensively. "Now it's on her."