I adore the vast, alien landscape that is public-access television. Flashing from channel to channel on the upper end of the dial presents one with a barrage of unfamiliar images. Click: A smiling Somali woman singing East African pop music. Click: Two doctors in surgical scrubs taking chisels to a bent knee, from which they have cut away the skin and muscle, in order to shave away chunks of the exposed bone, sending fragments flying across the operating theater like ice chips. Click: Grainy, murky images from the Phoenix Playhouse production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show--specifically, an all but inaudible rendition of "The Time Warp." So little of what fills the public-access airwaves seems intended for an audience. Instead, with its garish lighting, flattened perspective, muddy sounds, and incomprehensible story lines, public-access programming often provides its viewers with the peculiar sense that they are peering into the dreams of a stranger.
In this landscape, we probably shouldn't be surprised to stumble across a naked abdomen gyrating to the striptease bassline from Davenport and Cooley's "Fever." After all, public access in Manhattan includes a weekly show from Screw magazine editor Al Goldstein in which he regularly disrobes his corpulent body and does perfectly horrible things to far-more-shapely coquettes. But cable in the Twin Cities is not like cable in Manhattan, where such things hardly raise an eyebrow. Instead, our public-access television is usually bone-dry, consisting of well-intentioned (although often impenetrable) political jeremiads, little comic skits from unfunny sketch-comedy troupes, and an amazing quantity of polka music. The oddly named Thomasina.com (Thursdays at 11:00 p.m. on MTN's channel 33) is the exception to Minnesota's usual decency; flesh is bared here. One notable episode, titled "Beyond Burlesque," consisted entirely of stripteases.
In a segment from that episode, three scantily clad women perform a complex bump-and-grind routine on a darkened set, surrounded by velvet curtains. They eventually congregate around a balding man dealing blackjack at a card table. Two of the women--now dressed in two-piece suits, suspenders, and wide-brimmed hats--battle each other for the affections of the third, their dapper outfits flying from them. The balding man looks on, a hint of a smirk playing around the corners of his mouth.
As the song ends, applause erupts from off-camera--apparently this performance had an audience, and from the enthusiastic, vocal response (including a sustained "whoooo!"), that audience must have been sizable. An animated spaceship flashes across the screen, taking the striptease away with it and revealing a plush sofa containing one of the dancers. This is the host of the show, as well as its namesake: Thomasina Kundalini. She smiles--a broad, Cheshire-cat grin that seems to take up much of her face--and addresses the camera. "Hi," she says in an enthusiastic, girlish voice. "Welcome back to Thomasina.com. We're in the studio interviewing Mr. Quigley and Maya."
She then turns and asks, "Is it all right if I call you Mr. Quigley?" On two soft-looking chairs to her right sit another of the dancers and the balding man. The dancer sports a massive purple hairdo and a fluffy blue boa, while the balding man wears a leopard-spotted smoking jacket and holds a martini in his left hand. "Please do," he says, still smirking. The scene is rather incredible: For some reason, somebody has let strippers take over the television, and they happily use their time to show videos of themselves peeling off their clothes, then interview each other about the experience. "You have some shows coming up, don't you?" Thomasina asks her purple-haired guest, who looks at the ground and responds haltingly. "Well," she answers, "there's Erotic City Resurrection."
"There are two Thomasinas"--this according to Thomasina, who by crowning herself with this stage name hints at the presence of still other personas inhabiting the body of the woman across the room from me. "My friends can't figure it out," she continues. "Because there is the part of me that is very outgoing and dresses up in costumes to go out dancing. But then there is another side to me that is completely different." And she is right, to an extent: In person, Thomasina scarcely resembles her televised image. She has the same high, enthusiastic voice and the same broad, surprising smile. Those aspects remain the same.
But two-dimensional images necessarily flatten out her features, and garish lights and low-resolution videotape further blur her face. On her television show, with her shock of short red hair, smallish nose, wide eyes, and a wider smile, Thomasina looks to be an image from hentai, the erotic cartoons of Japan. Every time she turns to the camera and flashes her teeth, it seems likely that she'll girlishly declare, "Tokyo de himo no seikatsu o shite'ru," and then cover her mouth with her hand and giggle delicately. Meanwhile, bright-yellow subtitles would translate: "He's working as a pimp in Tokyo."
So that's the first Thomasina--but what of the second? There is, as you might imagine, a Web page to go with Thomasina.com. But viewers who turn to their computers--perhaps hoping for more explicit evidence of her pulchritude--will be surprised. While Thomasina has filled her Web page with photographs of herself in feather boas and spacegirl outfits, the images are pure cheesecake, and surprisingly tame for someone who televises self-choreographed burlesque revues--there's not a nipple among them. Instead of frank sexual talk (in Japanese or otherwise), the site hosts dozens of samples of earnest poetry. "My ancestors dealt with fine fabrics in Ireland," she writes. "I weave threads of binary strings into glorious tapestries of me."
There is a strange plasticity to the Thomasina of the Web page. Of the dozens of photographs of herself that she has posted, few seem to be of the same woman. She wears a variety of wigs and costumes, like a glam version of Cindy Sherman. But there is something disconcerting about the photographs. It is not simply that Thomasina has a certain facial anonymity, as does Sherman, that allows her to disappear into invented characters. Instead, two photographs of Thomasina wearing exactly the same outfit seem to be photographs of two different women altogether. It is as if, through some miracle of genetics, Thomasina can physically transform herself with just a shift of her head.
When she claims that she is, in fact, two women, Thomasina is not doing herself justice. She may be hundreds. It is possible to suspect that, like Ellery Queen, the name "Thomasina Kundalini" is simply an elaborate fabrication used by dozens of people. How else to explain her seemingly endless variety of cottage industries, all meticulously documented on her Web page. Here is the short list: self-published poet, Web designer, photographer, singer/songwriter (with a forthcoming, and eminently danceable, CD), fashion designer, editor, painter, dancer, video artist. And, as might be expected from a woman whose name comes from a type of meditation, elsewhere on the Web page Thomasina writes that she "work[s] with energies, chakra balancing, reiki, and healing, hypnosis, channeling, tarot cards, rune stones, and aura readings."
Thomasina is reluctant to give away the details that might connect her personalities. She's protective of her privacy. Her Web page gives precious few details of her life, and she refuses to reveal such basic details as her age and her real name, even in conversation. There is an element of exhibitionism on the page, as we might expect from having seen her show--but not in a typically lascivious way.
For a few months this fall, the first image on Thomasina.com has been a startling one: Thomasina's eyes, one strangely dilated, surrounded by a wicked-looking bruise, the result of an auto accident. On a rainy night this past summer, her car slid into a meridian, inflating the driver's-side airbag, which promptly knocked her unconscious. Her car then strayed into the next lane and oncoming traffic. She woke with several teeth missing, her automobile destroyed, and her left pupil twice as large as her right. Thomasina went in to work the next day, nonetheless. "Currently, I earn a living as the Editor in Chief of the Metropolitan Forum, a weekly adult publication with a circulation of about 6000," she declares proudly on her Web site. The newspaper is owned by Sexworld impresario Dennis Buchanan and is edited out of his house.
"Dennis wanted to just put out an old issue while I recovered," Thomasina explains in conversation, but she insisted on editing the paper in a 17-hour marathon session, despite losing consciousness twice during the process.
"I would wake up on the sofa," she says. "Then I'd get up and go back to work. There was one point I was kneeling next to the couch with my head in a huge metal pot, puking walnuts out my nose and crying, 'Someone take me to vote! I have to get to the polls! The election is turning out all wrong, and it's all my fault!' But my concussion was so bad I could hardly walk."
Metropolitan Forum is an odd little paper. Independently published for nearly a quarter-century, it is one of the oldest free weekly newspapers in Minnesota. Asked to label it, Thomasina frowns. "How do the girls at work describe it? They have a polite word for it," she says, thinking for a minute. Then shrugs, and gives up--the best she can come up with is an ugly pairing of words: whore rag. In other words, Metropolitan Forum is a shopper for the local adult-entertainment industry--the Minnesota equivalent of a newspaper like California's L.A. Xpress, which features hundreds of postage-stamp-sized photographs of unrobed models accompanied by suggestive phrases and telephone numbers.
Indeed, the back page of the Forum is filled with little ads reading "Young Hot Busty Babes" and "Sexy Sensuous Sara." At the entrance to Sexworld it is possible to set up such an ad at an automated computer station: Just walk in the door, type in the necessary information, and leave--no human contact necessary. But that's just the advertising end of the Forum. The editorial end, which Thomasina is responsible for, is wholly unexpected.
Tom Bartel, the former publisher of City Pages, once told me that a newspaper necessarily takes on the personality of its editor. So it follows logically that if Thomasina is actually two Thomasinas, then Metropolitan Forum must necessarily be two Metropolitan Forums. Alongside ads for strip clubs and escort services, and comical adult material culled from Internet resources (short articles with titles like "Why Cucumbers Are Better Than Men" and "How Is Sex Like Riding a Bicycle?") is an ambitious mission statement: "I hereby beseech all writers and artists to submit their materials to the Forum for publication," Thomasina wrote in a recent issue. "If you have an article you'd like to submit, an event you would like to review, a poem you'd like to release, art you would like to show, or something to say about whatever...this is the place to do it."
Indeed, hidden among the more banal adult-themed articles ("What Those Men Advertising in Personals Really Mean When They Say...") are small personal essays and short poems, such as an impassioned autobiographical article on transgenderism. "I know there are not many women today that would date or even marry a man that crossdresses, but my wife did," the author, Billie Ashton, writes. "We even took that one extra step further and were both brides. Yes, and we even have pictures to prove it!" Hardly the sort of fare you would expect a businessman to thumb through on a lonely weekend in Minneapolis. L.A. Xpress, by comparison, publishes interviews with porn stars and short pornographic stories.
(Full disclosure: Metropolitan Forum has intermittently published my own light verse. While I've received no payment, I find the venue irresistible. After all, precious few respectable poetry magazines would print an original selection like the following, which ran in the Forum last spring: "Our founding father, Benjamin Franklin/Was celebrated for his love of spanklin'.")
Thomasina's connection to publisher Dennis Buchanan predates her position as editor of the Forum. She worked at various odd jobs at Sexworld, such as designing strippers' costumes for retail at the store, before Buchanan asked her to manage the short-lived Sex Art Gallery in 1997. Thomasina discusses Buchanan in glowing terms: "He's a genius," she will occasionally exclaim, or "He's like a father to me." While his multi-story, neon-lit, self-declared "adult superstore" is a fixture of Minneapolis's Warehouse District, Buchanan's aspirations for the venture have occasionally seemed ill-considered. A few years back, a newspaper reported that he wanted to build a coffee shop inside the structure. While there are undoubtedly fetishists who would not mind sipping foamy beverages while glancing through the pages of Kinky Nun magazine, they must be small in number. I imagine had Buchanan actually opened a café, it would have been the emptiest spot in Minneapolis.
But the Sex Art Gallery seems like a more noble failure, lasting just over a year. Thomasina designed the space, which ended up cluttered with little penis-shaped, Groucho Marx-mustachioed figures and framed pictures fashioned by painting women's breasts and then pressing them against a canvas. "There's something remarkably healing in this place," John Townsend wrote in Lavender on the opening of the Sex Art Gallery, vocally impressed by the unapologetic homoeroticism of some of the work. In an interview, Thomasina explained that "lots of respected artists have erotic art that goes unseen and unbought. Our gallery is a venue for work that other galleries are afraid to touch."
Thomasina found artists and she programmed weekly performances, which often consisted of a self-declared erotic artist named Brad Calhoon splashing paint onto women in various stages of undress, usually assisted by Thomasina in a lab coat. Having studied video production in college, Thomasina was not able to resist taping each of these performances, even though she appeared in most of them. "I would give the video camera to whoever was around," she explains, "and just tell them to start taping."
These video shorts wound up forming the basis for the Thomasina.com television show. One afternoon a man named Jim O'Connell wandered into the erotic-art gallery and saw Thomasina modeling clothes for a photo shoot. O'Connell hosted a public-access cable television show called Search Party, which featured local bands, and O'Connell had a video camera with him. He handed a microphone to Thomasina and asked her to record an intro for his show, requesting that she say, "Hi. I'm Thomasina down at Sexworld--c'mon down and see me some time. You're watching Search Party."
Thomasina, who has a degree in Speech/Communication from the University of Minnesota, could not get the words out of her mouth. She stared blankly at the camera and fumbled repeatedly. Footage of Thomasina's bungled Search Party intro appears at the end of one episode of Thomasina.com, and then fades to a title card reading, "In memory of Jim O'Connell. Rest in peace big guy." Shortly after Thomasina became friends with O'Connell, appearing on his show and enlisting his help in editing video footage into the first few episodes of Thomasina.com, he suddenly died.
Thomasina was devastated and briefly considered abandoning the cable-access show, which MTN was playing only grudgingly, worried that callers would complain about the show's mild nudity. "But one night I heard Jim's voice," Thomasina explains. "He said, 'Thomasina, what are you doing?' He kicked my ass, so I decided to continue with the show."
With O'Connell's death, some of the original footage for Thomasina.com disappeared, leaving Thomasina somewhat blurry VHS copies and one episode that could not be played on television because its tracking was ruined. That episode promised to be among the show's most sexually charged, featuring material from the bacchanal-like XXX Ball that Sexworld cosponsored at the Gay 90's in 1997. Among Thomasina's seemingly endless series of ventures has been the production of adult-themed club shows at venues such as the Lounge and First Avenue. The XXX Ball was, by all accounts, outrageous. Held in honor of National Coming Out Day and cosponsored by local businesses such as the Lava Lounge and XTC Leather, it was hosted by Chi-Chi LaRue. Formerly a shy, heavyset boy from rural Minnesota, LaRue moved to Minneapolis in the Eighties and reinvented himself as an oversize, wickedly funny drag queen. He then further reinvented himself by moving to Los Angeles and becoming a successful director of (and occasional comical character in) both gay and straight porn.
But rather than images of LaRue singing bawdy songs to the delighted XXX Ball audience, the videotape shows only brightly colored snow. Thomasina has been attempting to recover the footage using a sophisticated editing suite owned by her friend Bill Bruce, an amiable man who has filled his small studio space with hundreds of knickknacks, from Beatles memorabilia to ancient pinball machines. Together, Thomasina and Bruce have managed to salvage most of the footage from the lost episode for future broadcast. Such technical competence is typical of Thomasina: She regularly shoots, processes, and uploads digital pictures for friends in the industry through her Web business Muse Designs.) The rescued images of the XXX Ball look fabulous, in the way that an evening that included porn stars and showcases of erotic fashion is necessarily fabulous. In the video, go-go dancers strap on large rubber sex toys, which they then fellate.
"People still insist that much more was going on onstage," Thomasina says delightedly. "There wasn't. It was all just clever staging."
Alongside the XXX Ball episode, Thomasina has been editing footage for a future episode detailing a trip she took to Las Vegas for an annual convention of the adult-entertainment industry. The footage depicts her running around the city, watching the light show downtown, and getting her ass signed by porn star Ron Jeremy, who signed his name backward. "So that you can read it in the mirror," he explains in the footage, leering.
Thomasina also videotaped a dour woman who, on request, bent over and slapped her own bare rear end repeatedly. Her buttocks were already quite red, so evidently she had been spanking herself for much of the convention. Her hands beat out a staccato rhythm, and her face remained locked in a slight frown. "I don't know what she's doing," Thomasina says. "I saw her doing that, and ran over to videotape her." Thinking about this for a moment, Thomasina grins, then adds, "If I knew you could make a living doing that, I might have had a very different career."
While this comment might seem entirely appropriate for the Thomasina of the television show, it is surprisingly out of character for the real-world Thomasina, who often betrays a noticeable discomfiture with the more graphic elements of the adult-entertainment world. For example, Thomasina demonstrates the way she used to walk through Sexworld, passing banks of television sets displaying loops of hardcore pornography. She would hold her hands up to the sides of her face, shielding her eyes. "Sex is wonderful," she says. "Without sex, none of us would be here. But I don't want to look at that."
Similarly, although Thomasina dresses up as Fifties pinup fave Bettie Page in one Thomasina.com episode, she displays less nudity in a half-hour than the original Page generally would in 25 seconds, the approximate amount of time it must have taken her to snap off her bikini for her photographers. Her word of choice, burlesque, seems apt. For someone affiliated with Sexworld, which provides uninterrupted access to alarmingly graphic material, the sexuality of Thomasina's various endeavors has a wistful, oldfangled feel to it, as though she were reproducing old stag videos of fan dancers cheerfully teasing balding men in gray flannel suits at go-go clubs.
Appropriately, Thomasina herself worked as a go-go dancer for several years after college. It's a strange-sounding word now, go-go dancer, calling to mind visions of girls in bikinis and vinyl boots dancing the watusi to instrumental R&B numbers with names like "Let Me Play Wit' Yo' Poodle." It is hard to imagine that in the age of pay-per-view television and lap dances it is still possible for go-go dancers to find work. The survival of that curious craft relies on cities that have legislated against nudity in clubs that serve alcohol. As a result, a handful of clubs feature women dancing in bikinis, like some American Pictures beach movie, but with a stage and pole replacing the beach and bonfire. And so a circuit of sorts does exist, and, after some initial uncertainty, Thomasina joined it.
"I had a lot of friends in college who were dancers," she says. "They would always ask me if I wanted to work with them, and I always said no. But then I had a financial crisis."
Facing possible eviction, Thomasina called one of her friends and "begged her to set up a job for me," Thomasina says. "It took about half an hour to convince her I was serious." Thomasina rode a Greyhound bus to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. "I froze at the door to the club," she says. "I told my friend, 'I can't do it.'"
"Sleep on it," her friend responded, and they retired to a hotel. The next day, Thomasina climbed up on the stage of the club and danced for a while but could not bring herself to take her clothes off. "My friend crossed to the bar, poured me a shot of alcohol, and watched as I drank it. 'Good,' she said. 'Now strip.'"
Thomasina placed every keepsake from the Fond du Lac experience in an envelope--check stubs, hotel receipts, and her bus ticket--intending to destroy them when she returned to Minneapolis. "Somehow, I couldn't throw the envelope away," she says.
One of the real pleasures of Thomasina.com is that the television show reveals all of these surprising, contradictory qualities: the self-seriousness, the earnestness, the vaguely outdated notions about what constitutes adult entertainment. Even Thomasina's ambivalence about the rougher edges of pornography comes through: In the Las Vegas episode, Thomasina moves to give Ron Jeremy a hug goodbye. Jeremy wraps his meaty arms around her and presses his mouth to her neck, pawing her. Thomasina wriggles out of his grip, and then flashes an astonished, flabbergasted look at the camera, which is entirely unanticipated. What was she expecting of Jeremy? The man had, after all, signed his name to her ass.
Despite the exposed, gyrating midsections of Thomasina.com, the show has a charming, near-campy feel, as though this was not intended for adults at all. Instead, one gets the sense of watching children playing dress-up, although in this instance they're dressing as strippers. There is a constant sense of fun in the show, from the smirk that plays around the corners of Mr. Quigley's mouth to the outrageousness of the costumes that Thomasina's guests choose for themselves. In one remarkable episode, Thomasina sits opposite a man dressed in a foppish leather outfit, looking exactly like a Musketeer.
The Musketeer is Brad Calhoon, the self-proclaimed erotic artist from the Sex Art Gallery, whom Thomasina has captured in several clips, then collected for an episode of her show. My favorite starts with Calhoon dressed as a topless woman in an outfit that looked very much like a fetishized version of the Borg uniform from Star Trek: The Next Generation--including a long, mechanical arm with an enormous silver dildo at its end. When Calhoon finishes strapping on and plugging in his costume, his topless woman goes into something like a grand-mal seizure and then collapses on the floor.
Interviewing Calhoon on camera, Thomasina fumbles for questions before asking about his influences and the intentions of his art. Calhoon shrugs, smiling, and refers back to the collapsed topless woman. "Unfortunately, her delicate female psyche couldn't handle it," he says, "and she short-circuited."
"People, take not that this woman is being exploited," Thomasina interjects at one point. "She's there of her own free will."
"Yes," Calhoon responds, "and the roofies I gave her beforehand have nothing to do with this."
Before Calhoon finishes his sentence, Thomasina explodes into laughter, turning to flash her enormous smile directly at the camera. Thomasina is on a fabulous joke, her smile suggests. Are you?
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