It was the crack of dawn in New York, that bewitching and brief window when revellers returning from all-night raves cross paths with those out for a morning run. As the city slowly hummed to life, Sonia Parecadan prepared to disrobe in what she described as her “most extreme photoshoot” ever – one right on the streets of NYC.
In her most extreme photoshoot so far, Devi posed right in the middle of the freezing streets of New York one January morning. Photo by Gary Breckenheimer
Though women have legally been allowed to go topless in New York City since 1992, public nudity remains a grey area. New York's state law traditionally protects nudity when it comes to artistic expression, but still, Parecadan and her photographer took certain precautions while shooting. They shot early in the morning at a location that was not near schools to avoid run-ins with kids and the law. “I could feel eyes on me since I was in a public place, and it was obviously a little scary,” the 35-year-old nude model told VICE over a video call. “At the same time, many people just continued to go about their day without batting an eyelid.”
For Devi, nude modelling moves beyond sexuality to turn the body into a canvas. Photo by Gary Breckenheimer
For Parecadan, a San Francisco-based Indian-origin model, putting up with the wandering eyes of passersby has become part of her routine. As one of the few brown women literally putting herself out there, she has to deal with far more scrutiny and judgement than most others in her chosen career.
“There are 1.2 billion people in India, but only a handful of nude models,” she said. “I used to feel self-conscious about my [distinctly Indian] features like my big nose and large breasts, but over time I’ve realised that it’s the things that make you different or weird or unique that make you most interesting.”
Devi poses at a dry lake bed near Death Valley, California. Photo by Dan Van Winkle
Today, Parecadan proudly goes by the moniker Devi or GooglyMonstor, and has been doing nude art modelling for more than a decade. She has more than 300,000 followers on her Instagram, and has also ventured into subscription-based spaces like Patreon. Her work ranges from posing nude for art students to creating stunning photographs that juxtapose her bare body against mesmerising landscapes, often contorting her form to create abstract shapes. From the crowded street corners of New York to the glacial gorges of Iceland to the clover fields of California, Parecadan boldly bares it all.
One of the model's favourite shoot location was amidst the frigid landscapes of Iceland. Photo by Dan Van Winkle
But for this seasoned professional, cultivating the confidence she has today didn’t come easy.
Growing up as a child of immigrants in San Francisco, Parecadan often faced racism and colourism. Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Kerala in southern India, and she was the only Indian girl in her school. “I was kind of a weirdo growing up,” she told VICE. “I had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), was socially awkward and [tagged] the weird Indian kid that boys didn’t like. I still remember when I was in elementary school, there was this kindergartener who was Sri Lankan, and everyone would call her my sister. There were also times I was called ‘dirty’ or ‘ugly’ because I was brown.”
As a result, Parecadan grew up internalising the shame that hit her self-esteem hard.
“I came from a culture that people assumed was ‘backward’, especially since we didn’t have any representation on-screen, unless you count Apu from The Simpsons. Obviously, when you’re a kid, that kind of traumatises you. I was only able to unlearn this shame when I got to college.”
Parecadan went to University of California, Davis, where she was exposed to a more diverse crowd of confident Asian Americans. Finally, she began to feel like she belonged. “Taking classes on Asian American culture and learning about internalised racism made my head want to explode,” she said. “It also helped me unlearn beauty standards that led me to [question] my skin colour or curvy figure.”
"Whether I'm turning myself into a pretzel or some other abstract shape, nude modelling showed me how dynamic the human body can be," said Parecadan. Photo by Dan Van Winkle
Meeting other people who looked like her and understanding the systemic racism that was so deeply embedded in society was crucial to boosting Parecadan’s confidence. So much so that, when she graduated into an economy plagued with recession and unemployment, she decided to get into modelling.
“I was 22 during the height of the 2008 recession, so I went looking for gigs on Craigslist,” she said. “I was always into the idea of modelling and decided to try it. But the first time I did, I was basically tricked into this very sketchy shoot, where the photographer made me wear revealing clothes and pushed my boundaries.”
A young adult who didn’t understand the industry enough at that point, Parecadan let the photographer talk her into taking topless photos, even when it made her feel uncomfortable. “I don’t even think he ever published the photos and was probably just a creep who wanted to keep my photos. It was a bad experience and enough for me to say I’m never doing that again.”
She dropped modelling and took up massage therapy instead. It took three years before she felt comfortable enough to get in front of a camera again.
“I was dating a guy who loved photography, and so, we decided to try a nude photoshoot,” she said. “I was a bit hesitant at first, but once we got started, it felt so natural. I was still critical about my body, but no longer felt the need to hide it. I realised that you didn’t need to be perfect to be beautiful.”
The photoshoot made Parecadan feel liberated, like she could finally let go of all her hangups. After that, there was no looking back.
Posing has become a form of performance art for Devi, who finds herself in a meditative state during her shoots. Photo by Dan Van Winkle
“[Nude] modelling helped me understand what’s interesting about my body beyond the stereotypical aesthetic,” she explained, adding that it became a way for her to overcome her innermost insecurities. “There’s so much that makes a body cool, weird or wondrous that has nothing to do with sex appeal. You start to see things which are usually considered ugly in modelling, like the way your tummy rolls to make interesting shapes, how it looks in a different light, and realise that you’re supposed to have things like stretch marks or saggy boobs because they tell a story about your body.”
Devi's art toes the line between artistic and erotic, creating intriguing and often ironic shots. Photo by Dan Van Winkle
Parecadan has learnt to see her profession as performance art, allowing her to fully immerse herself in the moment. “I have ADHD, but when I’m modelling, I find it easier to be hyper-focused. I’m completely present in the moment. For me, it’s like a moving meditation.”
But although nude modelling has been self-affirming for Parecadan, being part of the industry inevitably leads to her being objectified or fetishised.
“In India, I’m often seen as a sex-crazed nymphomaniac or exhibitionist,” she said. “I used to go by the name Dakini, but I had to change it after hundreds of Indian porn sites began stealing my photos and videos and captioning it things like ‘Indian slut bares it all’.”
Though some members of her family are aware that she works as a nude model, it’s not something they usually discuss. “At this point, they know what I’m doing but when I’m around them, I just say I’m a model or will show them photos from non-nude shoots and commercials that I also do,” she said.
Photo by Dan Van Winkle
Her work toes the fine line between art and eroticism, and although it is far more normalised in American culture, there are enough examples stemming from India as well. “They [my parents] understand that it’s a concept of art. My dad and I have discussed how there’s nudity in many Indian sculptures,” she said.
Devi posing at a waterfall in Iceland. Photo by Dan Van Winkle
But for the seasoned artist, her family’s reaction to her chosen career is nothing compared to the entitlement that some of her male followers feel over her body.
“The internet is a nihilistic hellscape and, unfortunately, the majority of people who follow me are creepy Indian dudes,” she said. She recounted an instance where a man who recognised her from her photos automatically assumed he could ask her for sexual favours or her phone number. “They project whatever they want onto me and will look at me as this bohemian or bold Indian girl. About 90 percent of my DMs are explicit, and many are fantasy-based or objectifying me in different ways, as if they don’t even see me as fully human.” She added that the most common DMs in her inbox are those intrusively asking about the size of her boobs. "I don't let them bother me too much, though, and look at it more as a social experiment."
Although her work can be powerful, it also means having to deal with the occasional professional sleazebag.
“A majority of the photographers I've worked with have been great, but I have also had a few cases, especially in my early days, of working with weird dudes.” She once met up with a photographer who did not have any erotic photos in his portfolio. “He wanted me to wear this porn-like neon and fishnet lingerie. At first I thought, ‘I guess I’ll do it,’ but then he asked me if he could have his hand in the photos. And after that, he asked me if I would hold his dick in the photos.”
But despite dealing with an industry fraught with entitlement, objectification and online trolls, Parecadan’s work continues to empower her and the many women who come across it.
Being a nude model has been an empowering journey for Devi, despite the industry having its own set of issues. Photo by Dan Van Winkle
“I’ve gotten messages from women who said they’re more comfortable with their body after seeing somebody that looks like them,” she said. “That’s a small part of why I do what I do, because when I was growing up, I would’ve also loved to see someone like me out there to make me feel more comfortable in my own skin.”