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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The competition is fierce at the Naked Co-Ed Shopping spree in Southeast Portland

By Peter Ames Carlin, The Oregonian

Just before the race, the four competitors stand poised in their stalls, muscles coiled, their clothes on hooks behind them.

Five! Four! Three! ...

Imagine the tension.

They've anticipated this for days, crafting strategy, visualizing movements, feeling the seconds slip past, imagining ways to maximize each moment.

More than one described having terrible anxiety dreams. The wrenching feeling of blasting into the light, only to discover they are completely naked.

Maybe Olympic athletes have variations of these dreams before their events, too. But this isn't the Olympics. We're at the Red Light Clothing Exchange on Southeast Hawthorne, where the shirts are used, the black velvet paintings ironic and occasional nudity just another part of the fun.

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Two contestants -- including Felisha Ledesma, right, get ready for the start of the rather unique shopping spree.
Two! One! ... GO!!

The stall doors burst open, the racers erupt into the open, bare feet slapping the floor, their bodies streaks of pink.

All four dash through the racks, yanking clothes onto their bodies as quickly as they can.

This is the Naked Co-Ed Shopping Spree. It lasts three minutes, after which the most thickly dressed contestant will win every piece of clothing they have on, and then some.

"A lot of people think this is a really weird thing to do," store manager Erica Easley says. "But why not? A lot of people in Portland are game for anything. Plus, it's a good deal and good cocktail conversation. Really, no one can beat it."

Or maybe they can, given that Hawthorne so often seems like the main artery for all that Portland weirdness the bumper stickers insist we keep, even though it never seems to be in danger of going anywhere.

The shopping spree, which the Red Light has held five of the last six years (it skipped last year because of the sour economy) begins with a jar containing the names of hundreds who hope to win one of the slots in the race. Four names are drawn, the contestants -- who are informed a few days before the race -- strip down, and when the starter's gun goes off they have 180 seconds to dash through the Red Light's racks, donning as many items as possible.

Whoever puts on more T-shirts, jackets, pants, shoes and whatever else than anyone else wins everything they're wearing, along with a $100 gift certificate. The three runners-up win fewer items and smaller gift certificates.

And nobody, including the live band and 100 or so spectators, goes away feeling less than electrified by the experience.

It all began with Larry Steiner, who showed up this year wearing a colorful Egyptian coat, a black top hat and a Cheshire cat grin. Steiner doesn't work at the Red Light, which has done business on Hawthorne since 1999. But he's been a friend for so long that when the shop's managers were dreaming up a promotional event in 2005 they thought: What would Larry want to do?

"He has this crazy energy and just loves to be naked," Easley says. Thus was born the nude shopping spree.

"It was an immediate smash. It's fun and silly and people end up with free clothes."

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The action is heated as Breanna Johnson, left, and Janelle Freeman, in the back, pull on the clothes.
It's 4 p.m., an hour before the race, and the first contestant to arrive is Breanna Johnson, a biology major at Oregon State. Johnson is not, she hastens to explain, an exhibitionist by nature.

"I don't flaunt myself," Johnson says. "I even thought about doing it in my underwear (which contestants can do, at the expense of losing a point in the competition). But my gut said, go big or go home."

Besides, the anxiety about nakedness in our culture is a social construct that molds behavior through shame, she says. "And I don't want to succumb to that."

Johnson will get no arguments from contestants Rich Vail Mackin and Felisha Ledesma, both of whom proclaim their enthusiasm for disrobing basically whenever they get the chance.

"If I'd had more warning I might have done more sit-ups to prepare," says Mackin, 37, a writer. "But I'm no stranger to public nudity."

Particularly since this turns out to be his second time as a contestant. Called as an alternate this time, Mackin got into the race at the last moment when another contestant backed out.

Ledesma, a 22-year-old musician specializing in what she calls "girly, but dark, pop songs," also started this year's contest as an alternate, but when she arrived to watch was told another contestant had stepped down.

"I'm so stoked to be here," she says.

The fourth contestant, 30-year-old Janelle Freeman, says she's the opposite of an exhibitionist. "I'm actually an introvert."

But she's unemployed, and free clothes are free clothes, so all anxiety aside, she was delighted to be chosen for the race. Freeman calmed her nerves by playing Chopin and Satie on her piano, then went out for a couple of beers. "Liquid courage," she explains.

redlight.JPGView full sizeContestants, from left, Breanna Johnson, Felisha Ledesma and Janelle Freeman react as winner Rich Vail Mackin peels off his clothes.

It's 5 p.m., and as a band plays a funky vamp from the stage, the contestants explode from their booths, and the race becomes a blur. All follow different strategies. Johnson avoids pants to focus on easy-to-layer skirts, T-shirts and sweaters. Macklin starts with T-shirts and piles on robes, dressing gowns and a few skirts. Ledesma heads for the men's section, where she snatches an armload of shirts and pulls them over her head, one after another.

When it's over they move to the stage, where they take turns disrobing, item by item, with Steiner leading the audience in counting the garments. Freeman ends up with 18, Johnson has 15 and Ledesma 14. Macklin goes last and as his inner-most skirt flutters to his ankles he stands triumphantly over his 20th item.

At which point Steiner, microphone in hand, leads the crowd in a chant: "He loves it! He loves it! He loves to be naked!"

Except Macklin is already getting dressed, as quickly as he can. He has plenty of clothes to choose among, but his decision seemed easy. He went with the first robe he could get his hands on.

-- Peter Ames Carlinor