Natalie Fletcher races down the aisles of a Los Angeles-area grocery store with the eight other contestants who made it to this second episode of the Game Show Network reality show “Skin Wars.” She’s looking for the perfect backdrop to paint for a challenge that will ultimately send one of the contestants home.
But instead of finding a canvas or some other traditional medium for their artwork, Fletcher and fellow artists are greeted by semi-nude models who stand perfectly still in front of their assigned shelf so the soda bottles, fruits, flower arrangements and other items they cover up can be painted across their skin so they blend in with the background.
During this challenge, Fletcher, a 28-year-old who has painted artwork on people’s bodies since she moved to Bend in 2012, originally chose to paint her model over a backdrop of soda bottles. But she switched to some wine bottles at the last minute when one of her fellow contestants was worried she may not be able to handle all of the details this backdrop entailed.
“Camouflage is hard,” Fletcher said in an outtake on the show’s second episode. “I didn’t do this to be a freakin’ hero. … I did this because it’s going to be the hardest thing that I ever have to do.”
Bound by the terms of her contract, Fletcher can’t share any details about an episode of “Skin Wars” that hasn’t already aired, who wins the competition and how far she gets (unless she wants to risk paying a $500,000 fine).
But the three-time fan favorite — an honor bestowed upon her each week by the show’s 700,000-plus viewers — was more than happy to talk about what it was like to film the show this past spring and the form of art she got into essentially by lying through her teeth.
Body painting was a relatively obscure form of artwork until it was thrust into the realm of pop culture about 20 years ago, when New Zealand artist Joanne Gair painted a suit on Demi Moore’s semi-nude body for a Vanity Fair Magazine cover story in August 1992.
Gair followed this work six years later when she painted bathing suits on Heidi Klum, Rebecca Romijn (the current host of “Skin Wars”) and five other models so they could pose nearly naked — body-paint models wear only pasties and panties — for Sports Illustrated Magazine’s 1999 Swimsuit Issue without violating the magazine’s no-nudity policy.
Body-painting festivals and competitions have sprung up across Canada, Europe and the United States as a growing number of artists are putting their own spin on Gair’s original style of painting and a growing number of people are expressing an interest in getting their bodies painted and, more importantly, paying someone to do it.
The art form has also found a huge commercial niche over the past four or five years as companies such as AT&T, Fiat, and Nike have hired artists for advertisements where they either paint their products directly on to people’s skin or they paint a model’s body to resemble their products.
Best known for painting the mural at Silver Moon Brewing and a few other commercial displays around town, Fletcher spent about two years working as an artist in Ashland, and also studied classical realism painting and fine art at the Ashland Academy of Art. She got her start in the field of body art when she moved to Bend about two years ago and saw a job posting from a sportsman’s group who wanted someone to paint outdoor clothing on models.
“I just kind of lied and said I had totally done it before,” said Fletcher, who landed the job after she showed the group’s project manager a portfolio of body-painting photos she and a few of her modeling friends put together in a week.
Since that calendar shoot, Fletcher has carved a niche for herself by painting people’s bodies so they blend into images of the Cascade Mountains, Smith Rock and the earth-tone patterns that decorate Pendleton blankets. Her images can be seen on Facebook and Tumblr.
About a year ago, Fletcher received a call from someone who had seen her Facebook page and wanted to talk to her about her art. She said their conversation seemed a little weird at first because the person kept asking questions about who she was and never once mentioned the project they wanted her to paint.
She said the person called a second time and just like in their first conversation, seemed to be more interested in who she was than what they wanted her to paint. Eventually, she found out what was happening and it kind of made sense.
“They told me they wanted to make a reality show about body painting,” Fletcher said, explaining the show’s producers were still developing their idea and wanted to make sure they had a good crop of artists they could call in case somebody bought the show. “And I was like, ‘Oh, no sh--!’”
Fletcher said she was really excited someone was interviewing her for the show because at the time she was still a relative newcomer in the body-painting community. She was even more excited when the show’s producers flew her down to do a mock episode of the show this past spring and invited her to be one of the 10 contestants featured on its first season.
Fletcher can’t say much about her experience on the television show until the season ends. But she’s won two of the three main challenges that have aired so far — the grocery store challenge that aired Aug. 13 and a challenge where she had to paint 1970s clothing on a model that aired Aug. 20 — and she is one of the show’s most popular contestants, according to a poll its viewers fill out after every episode.
Fletcher said the popularity has apparently extended to Central Oregon as well. She said a viewing party she planned at the Riverside Bar and Grill drew more people to the downtown Bend establishment than the Super Bowl. She has since had to move viewing events to a larger venue, Silver Moon.
“It’s weird seeing yourself on TV,” Fletcher said as she talked about what it’s like to watch Skin Wars with the people who show up at the viewing parties and 700,000-plus other people watching at home.
Fletcher said that when she watches the show, she’s a little surprised, and sometimes embarrassed, by the facial expressions and voice intonations that she made while doing her art or talking about it during the competition.
Luckily, she’s got a group of nine other “Skin Wars” contestants — many of whom became Fletcher’s friends over the course of the show’s vigorous production schedule — who are going through the same thing when they watch each episode at home.
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org