My boyfriend’s father, the renowned artist Michel Tcherevkoff, is an older version of his son — in handsomeness, infectious charisma, and the tendency to refurbish broken-in shoes rather than purchase a new pair. But getting naked in front of him was never on the agenda. In the fall of 2013, however, an idea struck that required baring it all before the man responsible for fifty percent of my boyfriend’s genetic makeup.
My intention was heartfelt. In brainstorming ideas for the cover art to accompany my e-book, Surviving In Spirit: A Memoir about Sisterhood and Addiction, I came across the issue of New York Magazine featuring a nude Lake Bell. Since the actress’ pink parts were carefully concealed by a sprawling fake tattoo designed by her husband, Scott Campbell, the image managed to captivate without seeming obnoxiously sensational. Suddenly, I understood that there was no better way for me to express the vulnerability I feel in the absence of my older sister, who died at age 30 from cirrhosis in 2009, than by posing stark naked. Although I lack a celebrity tattoo artist for a boyfriend, I knew I could call on the talented Michel to photograph me.
When I first broached the subject of being photographed by Michel in the buff, I tried to play it off as though it were normal. “We’re all French, after all,” I told my boyfriend, who, not so surprisingly, remained skeptical.
“I guess it’s worth the discount dad will give us,” my boyfriend allowed. “But I want to be there too.”
Hoping to schedule a shoot for the following week, we called Michel on speakerphone immediately.
“You want me to do what?!” he asked.
Nevermind! I wanted to shout.
But then, “I can’t hear you guys. Take me off speaker, please.”
Michel had zero reservations.
No matter how well-meaning you may be, though, as the day on which you’re scheduled to undress in front of your boyfriend’s dad approaches, a few doubts are likely to creep in. Will he notice that my left boob’s smaller than the right one? What will he think about my ass-to-breast ratio? What if he’s totally unimpressed by my figure — and whispers as much to his son on set?
To distract myself, I worked (and worked out) a lot, ate lightly, and got my first Brazilian bikini wax in a year before realizing I’d probably feel safer if my lady parts were protected by a thin curtain of well-groomed pubic hair.
Come shoot day, Michel greeted me at his studio with a standard warm hug and a European double-kiss.
“I apologize for putting us in such a bizarre situation,” I said.
But before I could continue, Michel dismissed my reservations with a wave of his right hand. “Whatever you feel, use it,” he said, then went about adjusting the lighting.
He had a point. Nudity wasn’t just a way to illustrate the helplessness that overtakes me when I think about my sister; it was an avenue for channeling that paralyzing feeling. Standing in nothing but a pair of black patent high heels before my boyfriend’s father, with each snap I thought about her. There were a few awkward moments (experimenting with a stool caused some accidental vagina viewings, and a nervous joke I cracked about resembling a raw chicken “down there” thanks to the recent wax was received by crickets), but for the most part I focused on evoking the gut wrenching feeling of losing my beautiful sibling.
A few hours later, flanked by my boyfriend and me, Michel uploaded the images to his computer so the three of us could review them together. Of course I hated the way my thighs, nose, and hair looked in some of the frames, but as we scanned the options, I noticed many shots that seemed to conjure exactly what I wanted them to.
Today, I’m certain that it was all worth it — if not because of the finished product, because I got to be present when my boyfriend taught his father the word “punani.”
In the end, my publisher, decided to submit an alternate cover designed around a Berliet family portrait from the early 1980s to appease online retailers, which are surprisingly conservative about what constitutes ‘appropriate.’ The book cover based on Michel Tcherevkoff’s photograph does appear in the book, however, within a special bonus section.
Watch the behind-the-scenes video of Mélanie’s nude photo shoot with her boyfriend’s father: