"Shelley Rene: Stark Friggin' Lodestar"
(This profile of the pioneering USENET nude model was written for Creative Loafing, Atlanta, and published in April, 1998. This is the complete, unedited text with its original title. The piece was re-titled by a CL's editor for publication. An alternate, rejected version of the intro paragraph will follow the main article.)
Fuckin' Christ in a handbag!
Christ's ass in a rubber palanquin! Christ's niece Sue with Hermes hapsatch 'n Corey Haim tee! You're plain-old dumbfounded by it, by the subtextual lubricity of it all, by the simple image of a big ole beautiful Texas gal, not plain, not drop-dead perfect, but a cute, curvy, Jack-swillin', boomin' Lone Star sweetie, absolutely stark friggin' naked, stretched out with astonishing, alacritous poise in front of an overwrought equine sculpture, in front of a section of transplanted Berlin Wall (with Sting lyric spraypainted, for fug's sake!), in front of the fucking George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University!
Whatever she's doing it for (could be that it's nuthin' but the piquant, damn-near patriotic stank of traditional Southern exhibitionism - she's from Port Arthur, Joplin country - and the Bush Library photo, the fucking DEALEY PLAZA photo, hit you like Big Brother at Monterey, "Ball and Chain," baby, except you've done five times as many microdots as Mama Cass, and when you open your fudge-encrusted yap to mouth "Wow..." Bella Abzug, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Shirley Chisolm, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gloria Steinem, Harriet Tubman, and, hellfire, Mae West too, all slither out instead and take turns blowin' ya), she's done it on the Internet, for free, at www.shelleyrene.com, for over one million, nine hundred thousand people-oids, reload clickers, repeat touristas – squinty little zybervolk just like you.
Her name is and is not Shelley Rene, and she is a prophetess.
"What I love about Shelley is her comfort with her own body and willingness to share it with everyone... That kind of confidence is rare and very sexy, matching her physical beauty which I feel exceeds that of most 'models'..."
"I've always admired... her boldness to drop covering in broad daylight on a busy street and share it with all of us... Just sort of flips the switches for me..."
"She is fat, healthy, and uninhibited... She's exactly what everyone in America strives toward but is hindered by social customs... seeing her NAKED at a stop light in Dallas, Texas is a freeing experience for us all..."
--Chris, Christopher, and Gennica, members of the Shelley Rene mailing list, via e-mail.
Being the post-sensitive, randy, healthy-ass Joe G-Spot/Jill Jockstrap, heck, omniscient flesh-aesthete that you are, you paraglide nude into Digitrix, the Shelley Rene web site administered by Ms. Rene and her partner and pal, husband Trey. And it smells pretty damn good in there, so naturally you're inclined to sniff around. You soon find that she's not exactly a newcomer, nowhere near the cutting edge of amateur net flesh... no, she IS the edge, the pioneering shockwave rider, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, and Amelia Earhart combined. She began as a mad Aggie, an Texas A&M English major with a wilder hair than most and a taste for Bunuel's Belle du Jour. She does it for the kick, a jolt she finds deeply, ineradicably satisfying. (Her husband's obviously one of the happiest, luckiest ducks in the whole of Texas.) She's been profiled in Details, feted by Playboy, and is unusually popular in Iceland. She's not a transgressive performance artist, a Susie Bright, a Pat Califia, a Lydia Lunch (though of course those women are exemplars). No, she's a regular gal with a real job, with friends, co-workers and family who all know (and approve) of her Shelley Rene personna. And her fans are exceedingly, adamantly loyal.
One of Shelley's fans is Andy Pierce. Pierce is an inspiring oddball, an Atlantan of abundant intelligence and nappy predilections. As a musician, Devo crank, vanilla improv apologist, mordant scribe and filmmaker, he is admirably ecumenical, possessed, unfailingly provocative. He has created a documentary of Ms. Rene, and Shelley, Trey, Mr. Pierce, his video, several other videos, and many of the musical performers he admires will soon be descending on the Star Bar.
Andy Pierce: "Important, important, important- to start, you might as well just go ahead and make this your opening statement from me: if folks are expecting to gape at a nude Shelley Rene, they'll be sorely disappointed. Until our culture gets over its obsession with equating nudity and sex, they should be disappointed. Shelley's nudity, as defined by her personal choice and contextual presentation, is what has endeared her to a worldwide audience of admirers."
And why not? Sure, Madonna's sweet nips felt the torpid South Beach heat in Sex before any of this Internet hoohah (Pierce: "a flaccid coffeetable love letter to herself"), but it ain't as if she invented public nudity. She just had the clout to control, shape, and project the imagery out to Proxima Centauri and back. But Shelley Rene is seminal, iconic, the Godmama of web exhibitionism, linked, cross-referenced, and indexed. Some of the photos aren't terribly flattering, and others are flat-out wrong. Certain of them, especially the "Out and About in Dallas" series, are astonishing, tropes and totems dashed like cattle cars in the wake of a violent twister. And some of them ("Photo 1" of the Carribean gallery in particular) envelop you, seduce you with their soulful, resonant beauty. She's living, she's breathing, she's a genuine cultural phenomenon. You should know her story.
CL: How did this begin? How long have you been modelling, posing? Were you attracted to it, or did Trey or someone else suggest it? Why did you want to do it?
Shelley: The first time we went out on campus to take pictures, we did them for ourselves just to have fun, but still there was something sexual, erotic about it. Trey and I are both really sexual people, very open about things- I would consider myself to have a very healthy libido! I had never posed nude for someone before... Anyway, Trey and I went out around campus, around 3 a.m., to spots that other people would recognize. It was so much fun. Once we started I just wanted to do more. I was a little nervous at first, but the feeling is just so addictive! I've been posing nude now for about five years. And Trey did suggest it that first time.
CL: Trey, Shelley's bio is on-line for everyone to see - what about you? What's your background? Where did you and Shelley meet?
Trey: We met at Texas A&M. I came home one evening with some friends and found her on the doorstep of my apartment. Actually she was with another person and they were waiting for the people I went out with that night... I guess it might have been a love at first sight thing. We went out the following Wednesday and the rest is history... I was nearing my BS graduation point (he has both MS and BS Electrical Engineering degrees from TAMU; Shelley received her BA in English Literature) when all of this got started... I was the instigator... It was a balmy evening in College Station between semesters when I came up with the idea of us taking nude pictures around TAMU. Of course, at first she thought I was nuts, (but) it did not take too much convincing for her to give it a try. And then once she had been nude at the first location, that TAMU sign, it got really easy for her and taking all the rest of the pictures was a breeze.
CL: You first posted photos in the early days of the Internet. When and how did the site begin, and when did it metamorphose into Digitrix?
Shelley: Yeah, Trey posted them before the Internet was anything like it is now. I don't even think the World Wide Web was around. He posted them to USENET newsgroups, I think.
Trey: The pictures were originally posted to the USENET news groups,
alt.binaries.pictures.erotica, etc. We used a cheap handheld black and white scanner that belonged to a friend. I posted them to the newsgroups, two or three at first to see the reaction... The reaction was overwhelming. At the time, the only nekkid pictures on the Internet were loads of copyright infringements involving scanners and people with too much time on their hands. So, I think the reaction was so strong because these were actually photos of a brave, real person. As the responses started to pour in, I think she really started to enjoy it.
Shelley: I met Trey in January of '92 and we took the first set of pictures the next year, Spring of '93. I believe it was May. Trey in the summer of '94 scanned them and posted them to newsgroups and bulletin boards in August. Like I said, the Internet wasn't like it is now with the World Wide Web. Since the pictures were becoming really popular, another A&M student put them in a web page with a student account using an A&M server. This was in the fall semester of '94, called "Sights from Texas A&M." You can still see that page with those pics. We keep them separate to this day! Then in December '94 the school newspaper (The Batallion) printed one of my pictures on the front page. That's when the shit hit the fan!
Trey: Actually the story was about decency on the Internet and had nothing to do with Shelley, other than the fact that the front page had an 8x10 copy of one of her nude photographs. The local TV crews had to jump on this one. The next thing we knew, Shelley's pictures were being broadcast all over central Texas, with blurry spots liberally applied - The Batallion did no censorship other than the natural granularity of the black and white half-toning.
Shelly's Mother, Mrs. Edna Kirk: I first became aware of Shelley's infamous Aggie photographs when the local news aired it! Quite a surprise to see my daughter's face - and yes, that's all they showed, you know they had those funny little blurred areas - on the evening news! I had known about the photos before the "news break", but was amazed at the stir they caused around this community. I was, needless to say, more surprised that the news would make such an issue of it, than I was that Shelley had had a little fun and done something "daring and crazy". I had just sloughed it off as a "college thing", sorta like 25 people crowding into a phone booth or a Volkswagon bug! As far as being proud of her... Of course I am proud of her. There is a whole lot more to her than just being a "cultural icon". Whether or not I agree that nudity is right or wrong is not the issue for me. I am proud of Shelley because she has the strength to do what she has decided is right for her."
"For me, what I most admire about Shelley is her bravery, her generousity and her gracious nature. She is a web pioneer, but so much more..."
"(It's) the surprise. You expect to see nude women in bedroom poses -- you do not expect to see a picture of Dallas City Hall with a nude... likewise all the other places, like the State Capitol, 6th Street, Deep Ellum, the Grassy Knoll... (it's) a delight to the senses... extraordinary."
-Mit's and TopOne, from the Shelley Rene mailing list
So, the Digitrix site was born, conceived in jest, embraced, nurtured by the info superhighway's earliest suburban commuters, and sensationalized by Texas tabloid TV geeks.
Trey: "The popularity started to increase exponentially."
CL: What is your reaction to this quite remarkable growth? 1,900,000-plus "hits" is amazing, particularly for a non-hardcore site.
Shelley: "I still can't believe what kind of publicity I've gotten over this. After all, it's just me nude! Every once in a while it kind of hits me that tons of people know who I am... I've been told (that) I've been the discussion of photo, art, English classes... censorship, all kinds of issues. I think that's really cool. But I still just see myself as the same person... It's hard to grasp why my photos made such a hit, but I'm not complaining!"
Andy Pierce: "One important aspect of this for me has been to create a work that flies in the face of the long-standing tenant of documentarians that the only women worthy of documentation are imbalanced, unstable, and corrupted. I could name names (Nick Broomfield, anyone?), but what's the point? Shelley and her husband view their work as part of a healthy, positive expression of their lives."
"I'm finding that the documentary is developing a more impressionistic voice and visual presentation... Shelley and Trey... provide their own narrative and focus. I try not to push things too heavily. I just set up the visual scenario and let things unfold."
CL: How did the project come about?
Pierce: "Shelley and I developed a friendly e-mail correspondence over time, and as the idea began to formulate, I simply presented (it) to Shelley and Trey. Shelley said she'd love to do it. I'd become burnt out on ever making a film or video again, but something about Shelley and Digitrix was too compelling. What Shelley represented for me was the idea of individual freedom determined by choice and context. Shelley's nudity is that of personal choice, ultimately removed from coersion, and in the context of her own individuality. To see a nude image of Shelley is to know that in a sea of faceless cyberporn, not only are you aware of Shelley's unique character, you're sharing in the unadulterated enthusiasm of one woman's life."
CL: Shelley, do you see yourself following in the tradition of the classic '40s/'50s pin-up? Do you admire Page, Yeager? Ever see any of Betty's Irving Klaw loops or features (Teasearama, Striporama)? Has anyone approached you to work in features, music vids, porn?
Shelley: "It's interesting that you asked that! I love Bettie Page. The photographer from London who photographed me for Details said my pictures reminded her of the classic pin-up models. I think that's a great compliment. In fact, I've wanted to do a "Bettie" series for years. I've studied lots of the photos she did with Irving Klaw. I'm finally getting everything together for that, and one of my next series will portray some of her photos... when people compare me with her I take it as a wonderful complement and feel really honored."
"I've had quite a few people approach me about doing TV. I was going to do HBO's Sex Bytes, but it ended up falling through because of their short deadline. But that was something I wanted to do. I've turned down Hard Copy and Extra. I just don't dig that shit and really don't want to be associated with those programs. I've also been contacted by people in the porn industry, but I really don't have any desire to do that either. Something has to be worth my while or I'm not going to do it. I don't want to take every offer that comes my way. There's no selling out here!"
CL: You are strikingly photogenic. What do you most or least like about the process? What do you most or least like about your body?
Shelley: "I guess what I like least is having to trust the photographer. I tend to be a real control freak and lots of times wish I could take my own photos! But I've started to trust the people I work with. Trey is easy... I can always tell him exactly how I feel. I'm sure he hates that sometimes! But in general, I'm usually pleasantly surprised and like the photos we've taken."
"As for my body... well, I've been constantly trying to get in better shape. But that's not solely for taking pictures. More for myself. I most like my breasts, face, and hair. I guess my ass is okay too. My thighs and lower abdomen need the most work, but hey... nobody is perfect! Even though I'm on this "health kick", I'm not trying to become the next waif... I just want to be in good shape and healthy, so I can be here for a long time!"
Andy Pierce: "Shelley is one of our beautiful, ample, full-figured women. I personally herald the emergence of the fleshy female as the perfect means to sweep concentration camp-framed chic into the dustbin of recent history."
CL: How often have you been busted? Any memorable run-ins? Do you have to bribe, cajole, or otherwise charm security guards, cops, and custodians to allow you and your photographers access to certain public sites?
Shelley: "I've been lucky not to have been caught yet by the police. But I've had some interesting run-ins. Once during the "Railroad Track" series a security truck drove up and was going to give us a citation, but I talked (the driver) out of it! He seemed more concerned for our safety because a train was scheduled to be coming down the tracks soon."
"...at the George Bush Library... there were tons of security cameras everywhere. But I still wanted to get a picture there. When we were done and walking back to the car a security guy came out and asked if we wanted the video! They of course caught me on camera! He was cool about it though, and we just drove off!"
CL: What was the reaction or fallout from the Details piece? I understand Playboy made you an offer - have there been other overtures from the mainstream press? Why did you turn Playboy down? Surely the money would have been good...
Shelley: "Actually, the money from Playboy wasn't exactly fab. They would have paid me $500. It was for the "Women of the Internet" pictorial. They pay Playmates lots more, though. I turned them down because that offer came really early with all that was happening and I wasn't sure how I wanted this thing to go. I wanted people to like my photos for their uniqueness and for me, not because I was in Playboy. Some people think I'm crazy because I turned them down. I don't regret it, but I would probably take them up on another offer! I've had to create my own image. The Details article went over really well. It really brought me some good publicity."
CL: What is the Icelandic connection? How the heck did you hook up with Thor and Bjork? What gives with your tremendous popularity there? Is EVERYONE in Iceland connected to the web?
Trey: "Pretty much everyone in Iceland is connected. It's really amazing. I'm not sure why Shelley was so popular there, although I would not have put it past Thor to have juiced the press before we got there."
Shelley: "Iceland is wonderful; I've been so lucky to have Thor as a friend. He is absolutely the best. I just fell in love with him and he made me feel so welcome in his home and with his friends. He did a lot for me there the first time. (His) first e-mail was "this is what dreams are made of!" That's all he said-- I thought that was so cool.
Trey and I e-mailed him back and became friends over the Internet. He hooked us up with Bjork at one of her shows in Dallas, and then in Houston... His friends were really excited to meet me and treated me like some sort of celebrity... Kind of weird, but fun!"
CL: Last queston: the Dealey Plaza (the site in Dallas where JFK was assassinated) photograph is marvelously perverse, richly iconographic. Do you and Trey plan your public assaults with a mind to tweak that iconography? Or is it just for kicks, the thrill of being naked in a very famous, very public place?
Shelley: "We really don't plan too much. We just go out and see where we think we can get a really cool picture. For the 1997 "Sights from Texas" calendar... we just showed up and did what felt right. We really just do it for fun and for kicks."
Our kind of woman! The benefit for Andy Pierce's documentary of Internet diva Shelley Rene will be held at the Star Bar on Thursday, April 30th, and it looks to be one helluva cool evening. Videos to be screened include a rough promo cut of Peter Sillen and Jem Cohen's documentary of the band Smoke, Jim Herbert's Automan, and a final public screening of Mr. Pierce's student film Kop Kulture, featuring a soundtrack by Sue Ann Harkey and Hakim Bey. Of course, there will be lots of Shelley Rene vid to gawk at, including a "field outtake" of an exhibitionistic assault on the Texas State Capitol.
You'd think that some kinda Crypt trash-garage action would be most appropriate for this evening, but Pierce likes the idea that Shaking Ray Levis, Gold Sparkle Band, and Bill Taft, the featured performers, are "so (seemingly) diametrically at odds with a woman who poses nude in cyberspace." Seeing as how these groups are pretty easy on the cranium, it all oughta go down real smooth. Throw off your shackles, dump the Brut, spring for some Acqua di Gio, turn off your goddamn computer, and greet the once and future Web Queen in the flesh.
(Alternate version of the intro paragraph, rejected by CL.)
Fuckin' Christ in a handbag! Christ's ass on a rubber palanquin! Christ's niece Sue with Hermes hapsatch 'n Corey Haim tee! You're plain-old dumbfounded by it, by the subtextual lubricity of it all, by the simple image of a big ole beautiful Texas gal, not plain, not drop-dead perfect, but a regular, fine, Jack-swillin', boomin' Lone Star sweetie, absoluely stark friggin' naked, stretched out with astonishing, alacritous poise in front of an overwrought equine sculpture, in front of a section of transplanted Berlin Wall (with Sting lyric spraypainted, for fug's sake!), in front of the fucking George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University! The mind boggles, and suddenly all the horrors of life, not exclusive to but including Natalie Merchant, the ugly people who always manage to sit across from you and stare in Cafe Diem, and analog nostalgia, vanish. That old ratfuck Bush, downed, dowsed, sabot-shod pimp of Panamanian crack stewards, shadow producer of Lollapalooza, AIDS, and Tony-award winning helmsman of Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway wonder In Old Grenada, and this woman, this vision. The two fronts meet and it's strictly a "6" on the Fujita scale, inconceiveable carnage, an entire archive of who-gives-a-fuck memoranda blown into a 400-foot-high Anne Richards bouffant and lodged for all eternity into the dank, bionic reach of Bill Casey's lesser omentum. Yeah, it was pickled. And perhaps so was she, a mad Aggie English major with a wilder hair than most and a taste for Bunuel's Belle du Jour. Hell, maybe she's a Republican. Maybe she's just doing it for the kick, a jolt as powerful, as deeply and ineradicably satisfying, as the recoil from the rifle, the spiralling slo-mo screw of the projectile that might yet snuff Peter Gabriel, Quentin Tarantino, Melissa Ethridge, Robin Williams, Billy Corgan, all the avatars of evil in the world. Whatever she's doing it for (could be that it's nuthin' but the piquant, damn-near patriotic stank of traditional Southern exhibitionism-- she's from Port Arthur, Joplin country-- and the Bush Library photo, the fucking DEALEY PLAZA photo, hit you like Big Brother at Monterey, "Ball and Chain," baby, except you've done twice as many microdots as Mama Cass, and when you open your fudge-encrusted yap to mouth "Wow...," Bella Abzug, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Shirley Chisolm, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gloria Steinem, Harriet Tubman, and hellfire, Mae West too, all slither out instead and take turns blowin' ya), she's done it on the Internet, at www.shelleyrene.com, for over one million, eight hundred thousand people-oids, squinty little zybervolk just like you. Her name is and is not Shelley Rene, and she is a prophetess.