In Brushes with Greatness, Naomi Fry writes about relatively marginal encounters with celebrities.
It’s a funny thing about celebrity nudity. You would think, in this day and age, that American adults are inured to the essential facts of the unclothed body, thanks not just to their own workaday experiences but to their broader sense of the world. All anyone ever talks about, after all, is how skin-centric popular culture has become—with its Victoria’s Secret campaigns, its premium-cable fuckfests, its red carpet nip slips. And so, it stands to reason, we should have only a limited interest in celebrities baring all, whether of their own initiative or not.
A fascination, however, persists. And how! A big celebrity gossip story last week hinged on the public excitement generated by the actor Orlando Bloom’s uncircumcised penis, revealed in paparazzi shots taken during a Sardinian beach vacation he went on with his girlfriend, the singer Katy Perry. In one set of pictures, Bloom and Perry were seen paddleboarding, Bloom on his knees at the back of the board, fully naked save for a baseball cap and sunglasses, Perry cross-legged in a bikini and sunglasses at the front. In another set of pictures, Bloom was captured alone on dry land, still naked, still wearing only a baseball cap and sunglasses—not unlike one of those 1980s Playmates with nothing on but a man’s tie or fingerless lace gloves, drawing yet greater attention to their otherwise exposed body.
Seeing Bloom’s penis was exciting. (And I should say, too, so as not to seem fully shady, that while I have no proof Bloom knew of the photographers, it seems to me that if you’re a celebrity getting naked in a public place, you probably know that having your picture taken is a strong possibility; and these were no telephoto lens pictures.) First, there was the obvious thing of full-frontal male nudity, which is still relatively rare to see—the cock, in our culture, too often playing the role of that mysterious, precious prize behind a curtain. (And as Adorno and Horkheimer once wrote, “only one girl can draw the lucky ticket”!) Then, also, there was the fact that the grinning Bloom seemed to be having a great time. More than this, his penis itself seemed … happy? Both man and member appeared to reside in a relaxed nether region, somewhere between “casual” and “ready for action,” not hard but also not entirely soft, as if saying, “I know you’re looking at me so I’ll be presentable, but I’m still, for all intents and purposes, on a break, so I’m going to feign unawareness of your gaze.” The whole thing felt offhandedly generous.
But this doubleness—the awareness of a potential spectator alongside the supposed obliviousness toward one—is a subtle job. Mere days after the Bloom pictures surfaced, Justin Bieber was also photographed naked in a waterfall in Hawaii. In what became a sudden dong-off between Bloom and Bieber (one that, gossip hounds speculated, had its origins in a feud between the two entertainers, perhaps going back to Bieber briefly romancing Bloom’s ex-wife, the Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr), Bloom was to my mind the clear victor. The rapid release of Bieber’s pictures after Bloom’s smacked not of an easy spontaneity but, if anything, of an almost hysterical awareness, a need to prove something, a thirst. The fact that an Australian swimsuit designer by the name of “Sahara Ray” joined Bieber, stripping down to her bikini bottoms and posing, pinup-like, next to him, didn’t make the event feel any more artless. Bloom, meanwhile, unlike Bieber, apparently didn’t need to have all eyes on him—they were there anyway.
As anyone who’s attended a humanities program in the later years of the twentieth century knows, it would be a mistake to think that sex necessarily reveals a bedrock truth about a person. Still, the nakedness of a celebrity, suddenly happened upon, feels somehow very special. For those of us who want to go deep with the famous—would we flay them if we could?—the sudden revelation of their so-called private parts seems, whether this is truly the case or not, a sign of an increased intimacy, a reaching of a (if not the) core. So while I’ve never seen a celebrity in the nude in real life, when I look at pictures of a naked Orlando Bloom, it feels unrepeatable, so close to real. The flesh brings us closer. We can near touch it. And sometimes, it almost feels better that we can’t; better to let Orlando take the lead and give us this gift on his own terms.
Naomi Fry is a writer and the copy chief at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.