By Rick Kogan

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Consider the naked man, standing on a small platform in Bottle & Bottega, a cozy and handsome BYOB painting studio in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. It is 7 p.m. on a Friday and there are 42 sets of eyes fixed on the naked man, the eyes of women who have gathered and will over the next couple of hours, with the aid of three attentive artists-instructors, make a painting of the naked man using canvases on easels in front of them, and paints and brushes lying nearby.

The quality of these paintings when finished will vary widely, but the naked man says, “I have been really surprised by how well some of them do.”

His name is Jonathan Miller, and, a few minutes before he took off his clothes and began to pose, he was saying: “The first time I did this, I will admit, was nerve-wracking. But now, after doing it 15, 20 times, it’s a lot easier. I am just being part of a fun evening in a creative and light-hearted place.”

These “Ladies Night Out” events take place once a month at this B&B location, one of the 16 B&B locations around the country (bottleandbottega.com.)

The operation was started in Chicago in 2009 by Stephanie King-Myers, a public relations/marketing executive, who had the idea of creating something that was “one part artistic adventure and one part cocktail party.” The first opened in this Lake­view space, and another came later in the South Loop. In 2011, King-Myers was joined by Nancy Bigley, a franchise industry executive, as CEO and co-owner. Today, she and King-Myers (president and COO), are in the midst of franchising the concept across the country, with new B&Bs opening in such places as Portland; Minneapolis; San Jose, California; Miami; New Jersey; and Tampa, Florida. The studios host all manner of public, private and corporate events, with the monthly ladies nights being particularly popular.

“We have been doing this almost from the beginning,” Bigley says. “It started as a private bachelorette party request and has grown into a wonderful series of public events. It offers something fun, different and safe. The human form is unique to paint, and we draw a lovely crowd.”

Naked bodies

The women attending the recent Friday night at B&B in Lakeview were a lively mix, most under 40 and of all ethnic shades. Six women were part of a 30th birthday party; a dozen part of a bachelorette party; a few groups of women not part of any celebratory event but simply looking for, as one said, “Something out of the let’s-all-do-shots ordinary bar stuff.”

None of these ladies was interested in sharing their names with a reporter, their excuses varying along the lines of “My boyfriend doesn’t know I’m here.”

That all goes to the peculiarly puritanical attitude most Americans have toward sex and sexuality and public nudity. Naked bodies have been the stuff of art since cave drawings, and most every museum in the world features various representations of the unclothed human form. Artists understand: “Man’s naked form belongs to no particular moment in history; it is eternal, and can be looked upon with joy by the people of all ages,” said the French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

But most others aren’t as worldly. As Miller says, “Sometimes women will paint underpants on the painting of my body. I don’t wear underpants when posing.”

The Sugar Shack

There are few people alive who have seen more naked men than Dana Montana. It was in 1976 that she came upon the idea of featuring nude male dancers in the struggling nightclub that she owned outside Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. It was, and still is, called the Sugar Shack, and at the height of its popularity, which started in the late 1970s and lasted for more than a decade, the club was operating seven nights a week, bulging with more than 1,000 women a night on the weekends.

Naturally the Sugar Shack spawned imitators, most notably Chippendales, a traveling troupe of not totally nude dancers, with clubs in New York and Los Angeles.

“Maybe if I had been smarter about marketing and all that, maybe there would be no Chippendales,” Montana said. “I got offers to franchise, but when things are going good, you never think about things like that. And since I trained all of my dancers by myself, I didn’t think we could keep that feeling at clubs far away.”

The Sugar Shack is still in operation (sugarshack.com) but features nude male dancers only on Fridays and Saturdays (women dance nude those nights as well, and during the rest of the week). Montana still runs the place but also devotes a great deal of her time to her wonderful family entertainment complex, The Dancing Horses (thedancinghorses.com.)

I asked her about nude men and she said: “The novelty of seeing naked men wears off. The audience is limited. It’s a once-in-a-while kind of thing.”

Becoming a model

Indeed, and on the Friday night at B&B in Lakeview, the novelty of seeing Miller disrobe caused a couple of gasps, a few giggles, a lot of whispering and one, very loud, “He’s cute.” But within a few minutes the women settled into their paintings, asking questions of their instructors and comparing notes with one another about color and composition. Miller might as well have been a potted plant.

He is a pleasant and articulate young man — he turns 27 in a couple of weeks — who grew up in a Cleveland suburb, graduated with a degree in political science from Ohio University, moved here a few years ago (and lives in the Lincoln Park neighborhood), is a second lieutenant serving an eight-year hitch in the Army National Guard and is close to completing a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He makes $30 for every hour of posing, and this is how his modeling career started: “I was here on a date a couple of years ago and was painting and talking to one of the instructors who was telling me about the ladies nights. I had had a couple of glasses of wine and said I might like to try that. I was just back from basic training and was in ridiculously good shape, so I came in later for an interview and that was that.”

When he tells his fellow guardsmen, classmates or friends about his part-time profession, it understandably causes curiosity, as in, “No way, what’s it like?”

He tells them that some of the women, as the wine flows, ask him questions.

“Can I touch you?”

The answer to that is always “No.”

“Does it get cold up there?”

The answer is “Sometimes.”

“Can we go out on a date?”

That question gets a “no” too. Miller is in a long-term committed relationship.

“I guess I’ll keep doing this for as long as they’ll have me,” Miller says. “There’s no reason to stop unless they tell me I’m too old or too out of shape. Doing this puts me outside my comfort zone, and that’s not a bad place to be sometimes. It’s also a chance to meet and talk with people I wouldn’t otherwise know. And almost everyone there is celebrating something.

“I do suppose that my image is hanging on walls in houses and apartments, and maybe seeing me in those paintings will evoke some good memories for the painters, about the night they spent with some strange naked man who they will never see again.”

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