Femen activists Neda and Julie-Anne practice for the protest. All photos by the author
Most people who live in Montreal dread the annual Grand Prix. Sure, it may generate money for establishments that cater to obnoxiously rich people, or couples who love dressing head to toe in matching Ferrari outfits, but mostly it’s an unwanted yearly invasion of our beloved city by tourists who think they’re the first ones to rev the engine of a Lamborghini at a red light. It’s noisy, it costs millions, and there's something just plain weird about an event that revels in excess while the province introduces an austerity budget. Oh, and they've recently announced that it's going to be around for another 10 years.
These are the most common complaints, but they aren’t the only ones. This year, Femen Quebec is doing what they do best: taking their tops off for women’s rights, all weekend long. “Femen attacks the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada, that stimulates the very profitable sex industry in Montreal and brings sex tourism to the city,” they explained in their press release. The significant bump in the sex trade during Grand Prix is a phenomenon that has been reported on locally by both French and English media, and by international media in other Grand Prix stops as well. “The ‘girl trade’ belongs to organized crime; pimps use sexual and physical violence, manipulation and threats to force women to prostitute themselves to answer the huge demand for sexual services during the sport event,” continues the Femen press release. They also accuse the Grand Prix of using women as “merchandise,” as booth babes and eye candy on the race track. After a walk down Crescent Street and a good look at all the women being paid to smile in their skimpy outfits, it’s hard to argue with them. The whole thing has serious sexist undertones, with women being used as props and even prizes.
On Thursday night, the Femen girls crashed an inaugural VIP red carpet event that Formula 1 president Bernie Ecclestone was attending, screaming, “Stop fucking us!” at a crowd that seemed partly horrified and partly amused. “Oh my God, do you think Geri Halliwell saw my tits?” Neda Topaloski said while laughing, after learning the former Spice Girl was at the event. After a quick trip to the police station and fines for what in French translates to "emitting an audible noise"(?!), their next plan was to hit up Crescent Street to make sure hundreds of Grand Prix enthusiasts got their message. I had covered Femen protests before and attended some of their demonstrations, so when I heard that they had something cooking for the Grand Prix, I asked if I could tag along. They agreed.
Neda and Julie-Anne discuss the plan.
Femen Quebec is a small group of girls, and with some too busy to protest on Friday, it came down to an army of two: Neda Topalowski and Julie-Anne Beaulac. At Neda’s apartment, already topless, they explained what they would be doing. “There’s this F1 car on display outside of Winnie’s bar,” said Neda. “I’m going to climb on top while Julie-Anne holds a banner on the balcony. We’re going to be masturbating with dildos. It’s the ultimate display of masculinity and male pleasure, which shows what the Grand Prix is really about. The whole Grand Prix is male pleasure—just like masturbation. The competition, the wealth, the girls.”
Neda getting ready and practicing her coat removal skills.
In their press release, Femen called the Grand Prix, Le Gros Penis (the big penis), so the dildos they used as props were fitting. While Neda tried to practice the best way to remove her coat quickly in front of the mirror, Julie-Anne tried to fight off her nerves.
Julie-Anne is worried about acting alone in today's protest.
“I’m used to being part of a group,” she said. “Last night was easy because I just had to run out after Neda. It’s much more nerve-wracking to have to go up to the balcony, alone." To get it right, they decided to practice in Neda’s back yard, where their first attempt ended with Neda dissolving into laughter. Once she figured out how to get her coat off in one try, they were ready to go.
Neda on her way to Crescent Street looking not at all suspicious in a trench coat.
Neda showed up on Crescent Street looking like a female James Bond in her trench coat and big sunglasses, her telltale Femen flower crown hidden in a canvas bag. After only a few minutes, Julie-Anne emerged from the bar, shaking her head at Neda. The bouncers wouldn’t let her on the balcony, since it was already at capacity. New plan: They would both storm the car. It was almost too easy: The car had nothing but slim black chains surrounding it and no visible security. Neda’s coat practice paid off, and the jacket came off without a hitch as she jumped over the chains and scrambled up the car in high heeled boots, screaming, “Montreal is NOT a brothel!”
Neda makes it onto the F1 car.
Half the people on the street were drunk, and the other half didn’t seem to have a clue who Femen were. Some men seemed to think initially that some of the booth babes had gone wild and taken off their tops, as they cheered and slopped their half-drunk beer all over the crowd. But once Julie-Anne unfurled her banner, stating “Fuck [Phallocracy]” and started screaming slogans, the crowd cottoned on to the fact that this was political.
The secrity guard tries to reason with the topless protester wiggling a neon penis and standing on a multimillion-dollar car.
After only a few moments, the security guards were jumping on the car to pull them down. The one who grabbed Neda clearly enjoyed his job a little too much as he proceeded to drag her forcibly off the car and across the pavement so roughly that one bystander taking a video stepped up to say loudly, “This looks like assault to me.”
Neda is apprehended.
She was dragged into an alleyway, still alternating between breathless chants of “Montreal is not a brothel!” and “Grand Prix sex slavery!” The crowd followed, most filming on their phones, and started to chant, “Let her go!” Once they were around the corner, security guards tried to forcibly cover her up with her coat before handcuffing her and stuffing her into a waiting police car, head first, and pushing her feet in after her as they tried to close the door.
Neda is dragged away while people chant, "Let her go!"
It’s hard to tell what kind of effect the whole thing had on the spectators. On one hand, there were plenty of men cheering them on like they would a strip show; on the other hand, I had about five people come up to me when it was over and ask me why they had done it. Most nodded sagely after I explained that it was a protest against sexual exploitation during the Grand Prix.
Neda is arrested and faces charges.
Neda is now facing her first criminal charges for “indecent acts,” as there were children on the street. She has a court date in September. Even though some people didn’t understand why they were topless, and they only had a few moments on the car, right now Femen are some of the Grand Prix’s most vocal critics. And they’re not slowing down any time soon; court summons in hand, Neda told Julie-Anne that there was no way she would skip Saturday’s protest. Even with the F1’s future in Montreal assured, it seems like the event will be meeting topless resistance the whole way. My attempts to reach a Grand Prix media representative for comment were unsuccessful at the time of publication.
Follow Lindsay Rempel on Twitter.