Remembering the men and women who livened up tedious public events with unexpected displays of nudity.
There was a time when streaking was big news. Taking your clothes off and invading the pitch at some public event could propel you to a passing fame, a level certainly as valid as most of the ‘stars’ of current celebrity reality shows. If you were a young attractive female, it certainly helped, and some of the streakers who hit the headlines certainly made the most of their fifteen minutes in the spotlight. But changes of attitude and laws, new rules from broadcasters and a certain opportunism from glamour models looking to boost their profile have made streaking something of a diminished spectator sport these days.
Streaking – that is stripping all your clothes off (or, if you are less daring/more in search of cheap publicity, most of your clothes) and running around in public as a dare or a protest – has been around for centuries – think Lady Godiva – but first reached a peak of pop culture popularity in the early 1970s, when it left the college campuses (where it had been a regular initiation rite) and hit the mainstream. 1974 was the year when it became something of a phenomenon, with Robert Opel running naked across the stage during the 46th Academy Awards, much to the bemusement of host David Niven, and two unidentified streakers at the Australia – New Zealand cricket match in New Zealand. The Opel incident was later exposed as a pre-planned stunt, but the floodgates had by this point been opened. Streaking became a regular occurrence, at least in countries where nudity was still seen as outrageous – but not so outrageous that you might face imprisonment for being naked in public. The punishments were light – usually a fine – and the thrills well worth it. No one looked at streakers as offensive, even if they were naked – at worst, they were an irritant that interrupted a sporting event, at best an amusing distraction, and there was nothing sexual about their exhibitionism.
The most famous streakers of this time were men – Michael Angelow became the most iconic cricket streaker of the age as he vaulted over the stumps at Lords in 1975, a gloriously comedic moment; a year earlier, Michael O’Brien became part of the most iconic streaker image of them all at the England-France rugby match at Twickenham. The photo of the long-haired O’Brien with his genitals covered by a policeman’s helmet became legendary, for both the ludicrousness of the situation and the accidental religious symbolism of the image. People magazine would later declare it to be the Picture of the Decade, and it certainly seems to encapsulate the 1970s in all its revolutionary glory.
Streaking was so ingrained into the public consciousness in 1974 that Ray Stevens could record the hit novelty record The Streak, which hit the number one spot in the USA and sold a staggering five million copies internationally. But as quickly as it arrived, streaking seemed to fizzle out. The amusement level diminished, and sports players seemed less entertained by these invasions, even in plodding events like cricket where a streaker could hardly be said to be interrupting play. Famously, in 1977 Australian cricketer downed a streaker with his bat, an unpleasantly aggressive over-reaction by any standards. Being whacked by cricket bats probably made the idea of running naked seem a lot less appealing, and the streaking craze seemed to be over by the end of the decade.
But you can’t keep a good idea down, and if men were now keeping their trousers on, the women were about to step up. In 1982, Erika Roe caused a sensation when she ran topless onto the pitch at Twickenham (and how impressive that the ground has been home to two iconic streaks – they should have a display in the visitor’s centre). Her 40-inch breasts certainly helped capture the public attention, and unlike previous streakers, Roe managed to ride the publicity into a certain level of fame – as recently as 2016, she could still claim a degree of celebrity status. She was actually joined in the streak by a friend, Sarah Bennett, who did not have a 40-inch chest and therefore never received the same media attention.
In 1989, Sheila Nicholls ran naked onto the field at Lords cricket ground, managing a very athletic run that included a cartwheel before being captured. Nicholls was a slim, good looking young woman and her entire streak was broadcast live on TV, and so she naturally became a media sensation, even making the whole of the front page of the Daily Mirror. She also did the media circuit, but ultimately was less inclined to milk the fame. Later, she would become a singer-songwriter in America without trading on her previous infamy.
Nicholls opened up the floodgates, and streaking once again became a standard hazard at sporting events, often with page three girls and other models wanting to get a bit of free publicity. It all began to feel rather contrived and annoying after a while, especially when serial streaker Mark Roberts would start showing up everywhere, and increasingly began to feel like a contrived attention seeker – or strange exhibitionist – rather than a spontaneous streaker. By this point, TV broadcasters had decided to point their cameras away from streakers, denying them publicity (and denying the viewers a bit of fun) – this po-faced decision by people who take sport very, very seriously has certainly affected how many people now streak at events. The fines have increased, and in America, streakers now risk being charged with indecent exposure and placed on the sex offenders register, which definitely ups the ante for anyone considering it.
The only interesting streaker of this century has been Andrea Hall, who ran naked down Manchester’s Tib Street every Friday lunchtime for a month in 2005, as an attempt to promote peace in the wake of London’s 7/7 bombings. This was streaking as both political statement and as a daring bit of fun – as word spread, crowds would gather and the mystery woman (as she then was) became the stuff of legend. Perhaps this is the sort of streaking we should be encouraging – joyful, empowering and entertaining without annoying anyone. And in a world where nudity is increasingly seen as beyond the pale – just look at the moralising attitudes of Facebook and Instagram – maybe streaking is due a comeback, as a form of pubic protest against creeping moralism and body shaming. Certainly, the Free the Nipple protests are getting there, but it would be good to see a wider sense of fun and rebellion to return to inoffensive nudity.
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