Lisa McMillan is an adrenaline junkie. Instead of Sallydiving or driving race cars, she collects rooms full of naked strangers. Josie Adams went along to the Naked Dinner and found it stimulated all the wrong hormones.
In a tealight-lit lounge in a rented Symonds Street flat, I milled around with 23 strangers. We were all there to take our clothes off and have a dinner party.
The Naked Dinner pointedly markets itself as “platonic” and “strictly non-sexual”, and a “supper club with a twist”. That twist had everyone nervously asking the same two questions over and over: “Are you here alone? Have you been before?” There were a few couples, but most people were dining solo. Two had been before. Many were new arrivals in the country, looking for friends in strange places.
Lisa McMillan, the organiser, is herself new to the country. She moved here from London at the beginning of the year with the express goal of running these dinners. She’s charming and remarkably normal.
“I wanted to create an event where people would get a natural adrenaline rush, which is really hard to create,” she told me after the event, when I asked what her purpose was. “I realised something people are quite worried about is their appearance, especially with social media. I started trying to mix bringing people back into reality at the same time as pushing them out of their comfort zone.”
The reality she’s referring to is the human body: all bodies are normal and natural. A wonderful sentiment, but one that’s difficult to appreciate initially. “I don’t think this is a cult,” said a fellow guest when I mentioned the possibility.
McMillan’s clear, King’s English accent cut through the room.
“I don’t usually give speeches,” she started off. This was the biggest crowd she’d ever catered for. “You’ll see aprons on the cushions,” she gestured to the cushions on the ground next to low tables with named place settings on them. My cushion is wedged tightly between a Dan and a James. “You can get changed behind the screen in the corner. Remember, if you feel uncomfortable at any point, you can come and talk to me.”
I thought this evening would be in my comfort zone. I’ve been almost-nude around strangers before, thanks to body paint and special effects modelling. Too late, I realise this is very different: you always have a g-string when modelling, and in this apron everything was covered except my backside.
We sat down and, ass crack sealed by a cushion, I relaxed a little. I poured another glass of wine and McMillan brought the starters around. “Dinner” was in the name of the event, so I’d come hungry. “The dinner is almost a secondary element,” said McMillan, disappointing me immensely right off the bat. Falafel, baked salmon, and various salads, heaped on sharing platters, were passed around from person to topless person, making the room look like a community production of Calendar Girls.
We were sharing entertainment, too. Halfway through my pile of couscous music started to blare, and a dancer dressed in blue and a massive Viking-looking guy took the platform. This was Act One of a three-part performance spread over the evening. We were treated to the story of two lovers, Sally and Vince, one of whom is trapped in a coma by a jealous witch. By Act Three, Sally would awaken her love by sacrificing her magic. But at this point, they were dancing for each other around a pole and a pile of fur rugs.
We were all handed stick-on body gems to protect our electric auras. I leant over to the guy next to me, who was nodding to the trip hop soundtrack. “Apparently Massive Attack is Banksy,” I informed him. He nodded harder, and replied: “I love Massive Attack.” A Stuff reporter with the same name as me also reviewed this event, but took a date with her. I wish I’d done the same.
Despite this rough start, we started talking. Dan met McMillan a few days before the event, and they’d formed a fast friendship. They shared a cheeky pash thinking no one was looking. He asked me if the event was in my comfort zone. I got the impression he hoped it wasn’t. “I’ve been to stuff like this before,” he explained. He’d been to a masked orgy with his girlfriend in the UK. “She wanted to indulge her bisexual side,” he smirked.
“You’re not taking it off?”
He gestured to the apron that dangled from my waist. My tits were out, a little too big to be porn star perky, but looking around the room they seem normal. I wasn’t too sure about getting my full bits out; I had a shitty pubic tattoo and razor burn. “It takes a certain kind of person to lean into this,” said another guest.
That phrase came up a lot. “I guess this event attracts a certain kind of person,” said one person. “Well, to do this you have to be a certain kind of person,” said someone else in conversation at the next table.
Bob is very much a certain kind of person. He sat, straight-backed and buck-naked, shaking everyone’s hands with unapologetic enthusiasm. He’s involved in the spiritual side of nudity; outside of his day job, he helps run a tantra circle. Some people at the dinner had been to it. He pointed out a few people in the room he’s “sexually connected with”, and invited me to the next event.
Bob wandered off and Dan sat down next to me again, nodding approvingly. “Ah, you’ve finally taken it off.” The last thing anyone wants is to have their nudity acknowledged. I’m OK with being in the buff, but for some reason balk at having it pointed out. It makes being nude a statement, and I’m not about that.
McMillan has been clear about not wanting to normalise nudity, which may be why our bodies were discussed; tattoos, levels of reveal, scars. Normalising it would take away the adrenaline rush people are chasing.
Act Two of the show began with a didgeridoo blare that made me drop my forkful of chickpeas. No one else was eating. Sally floated around in a gorgeous tulle robe, gyrating and flexing like I was hungry for something other than Middle Eastern cuisine. Vince slept on the furs.
Sally and Vince consider themselves storytellers. Sally is the creative force behind their fledgling business: erotic dances with narrative and performed by the two of them. They anticipate more female customers for the duo than male. “Women can appreciate feminine beauty,” said Sally, implying men aren’t as open to same-sex erotica. “Feminine beauty,” “the divine feminine,” and “feminine energy” are phrases I’ve heard a lot – not just at the Naked Dinner, but in any group that uses bodies as statements, vessels, or art in general. I’m sick of it.
“Feminine energy” is a new age twist on a patriarchal theme. I’m tired of being told that being naked is empowering. I’ll find naked women revolutionary when they’re playing it for jokes instead of performing for men and the girlfriends they hope are bisexual.
Sally is a genuinely talented dancer and a pretty cool person. If you’re looking for an elevated erotic dance experience I can’t recommend her more. However, the fully-nude simulated sex show in Act Three struck me as inconsistent with the “platonic” dinner. McMillan has been at pains to point out that the event is “strictly non-sexual”. But I could see, with a brief downward glance, that other people were starting to find it sexual.
Bob turned, apropos of nothing but Sally’s bald asshole, and asked me if I enjoy group sex. “No,” I said, simply. The urge to make up an excuse was strong. I don’t like sex? I don’t like people? I reminded myself that it’s OK to not enjoy group sex. Big into going it solo, sorry. He accepted this and turned back to the show.
Sally and Vince pretended to have sex with each other, and then with McMillan. After that, it was time to wind down. The space was only rented until 11. Everyone was encouraged to have a spin on the pole before putting their clothes on. I felt like I’d been a downer by saying that I don’t like group sex, so when McMillan suggested to a small group of us that we grab a drink, I said yes. Clothes on, talking to the select group of single, solo attendees, I felt the mood change. The safe space created by everyone’s mutual vulnerability – nudity – was gone.
The group was largely respectful, but once we were all given back our personalities by our clothes, the remaining singles felt comfortable getting more flirtatious. We went to a K Road bar, had a dance, and McMillan gave me a surprise pash, even though she’s apparently straight. She turned and grinned at Dan, and asked him to do the same. He was polite enough to ask me first. “Sorry,” I said, leaning away from the group. You have to apologise in these situations. It’s just etiquette. I leaned all the way out of the dancing circle and back home.
The next week I sat down with McMillan to talk about the event. First thing’s first: the food was great, but why did I feel weird for indulging in it? “The reason it’s a dinner is to give a structure to the night, because when you are doing something that’s out of your comfort zone, you at least want to know where you’re going to be at each point of the night,” she explained. Where I was for most of the night was on my cushion, trying to eat falafel without being a boner-killer.
I wondered what the “certain kind of person” was that McMillan hopes to attract to her events.
“If you like to push yourself a little bit, to try something new,” she said. “I suppose you do have to be reasonably body confident. That is not to say that you need to be small, at all. You just need to be confident in who you are.”
True: there was no body shaming at the Naked Dinner. But what kind of people should we be on the inside? McMillan is looking for “open-minded people that like to challenge themselves, and try new experiences”.
The experience I signed up for was described as platonic multiple times, so I had to ask about the sexual overtones. First, the dances. “It’s a little bit too sexual for it,” agreed McMillan about Act Three. “Definitely bordering.” She hadn’t seen the full performance before the event I attended. “After this, I’ll probably tone that back a bit.”
She thought back on the performance, and how much some of the audience enjoyed it. “In the future we will be a bit more controlled. Which is a bit of a shame,” she sighed, and contemplated hosting a second, more overtly erotic event.
On the other non-platonic issues: the odd semi, the flirtations, Bob pashing a couple of the women, McMillan took a moment.
“I was a little uncomfortable there, too.” She restated that there are rules. “I do try to say, ‘keep your hands to yourself’. If someone wants to give their partner a kiss, that’s fine. But they went a bit far and I was a bit annoyed. Especially because he did know the rules. I did have a word with him at one point.”
I didn’t bring up the after-party because it’s not technically the Naked Dinner; just a group of young singles on the town who happen to already know everyone’s worst tattoo.
If there are two events, like some guests want, I’d foresee them dividing along the lines of tantric practitioners and plain nudists. Most of the guests at this dinner were experimenting with nudism: doing everyday things – having dinner, socialising – while being naked. A select few, all of whom seemed to know or know of each other, were there to use nudity as a gateway into something else. The body was a tool of sensuality or spirituality, and had symbolic purpose. I never thought I’d see the day where I thought nudists had it right: naked is just the way we’re born, and it has no meaning beyond that.
Yes, being naked can be empowering: at a slutwalk. Being naked can be sensual: on a date. If my body is a tool for pleasure or politics then I’ll use it in those arenas, not in a dimly-lit Symonds Street flat, where my nakedness is a prerequisite to safety instead of just a fun by-product. This event is for a certain kind of person, and – despite my obvious lack of self-preservation – that person just isn’t me.
Some names have been changed