For artist Rachel Deboer, art is all about skin. She’s been a body painter on Maui for a while, but now she’s hit the big time. This Wednesday, June 10, at 9pm Eastern time, she’ll appear on the season premiere of Game Show Network’s second season of Skin Wars. Deboer will be vying for the $100,000 prize with a dozen other body paint artists. Deboer has a successful body painting and face painting business on Maui, and is also commissioning her performance art in San Francisco.
“I had heard about Skin Wars and watched it before, of course, because I am a body painter,” says Deboer. “One of the producers contacted me and told me about it. It just seemed like every day someone would ask me, ‘Have you seen Skin Wars?’ Whether it was a body painter or a friend or boyfriend, people seemed to be mentioning it a lot. It seemed like the universe was picking me out for this. Obviously, I had to audition, show what I could do. It kept being pushed toward me like something I was meant to do.”
Because the season hasn’t aired yet, Deboer couldn’t say much about what happens this season. But she did say that the show pushed her to paint fast. She also says that she learned from the judging experience.
“The judges give you feedback about what they want to see, their protocol, sort of what they are looking for,” she says. “It really is up to us to think out of the box as fast as you can and still give them what they want. Then they see what you do and they will say, ‘Hey, you could work on this, you could try this or I didn’t quite get this.’”
Judging was tricky, Deboer says. “People can take it personally–it’s a hard thing to go through,” she says. “When artists are putting themselves out there, they are putting out their heart and soul. When people judge you for that, you can take it the right way or the wrong way. So you have to do your best to separate yourself from it. You have to be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, ok, I do see that.’ I mean, you don’t always have to agree with what they say, but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it.”
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Skin Wars was GSN’s biggest network hit in 2014, which was also the network’s 20th anniversary. At first, GSN was known for rerunning popular game shows like Family Feud. But in 2011, the network hired former Bravo and Oxygen exec Amy Introcaso-Davis as its programming head, marking a new era when the network would produce more of its own shows.
Shows like the dating game Baggage with host Jerry Springer. Lie Detectors, Idiotest, American Bible Challenge and It Takes a Church were others, and they grew the network’s primarily female audience. Then came Skin Wars, which is now GSN’s most popular show. Like the myriad competitive cooking shows you find on the Food Network, Skin Wars whittles down a group of contestants in hopes of finding what the show’s producers describe as the “most skillful, accomplished and versatile body painter in America.” The winner also receives $100,000.
“We are thrilled that young audiences tuned in to witness the astonishing work of these contestants,” Introcaso-Davis says in a September 2014 announcement on Deadline.com. “Skin Wars represents GSN’s commitment to celebrate artistry through skill-based competition, and we cannot wait for viewers to see what we have in store for them with Season 2.”
Rebecca Romijn, the show’s host, is also an executive producer, along with Michael Levitt of Michael Levitt Productions and Jill Goularte. Judges Craig Tracy and Robin Slonina also serve as producers (the third judge is Rupaul). In the second season, they added two more artists to make a total of 12 contestants–six males and six females.
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For Deboer, her path to body painting also started with face painting, but she never had any formal art training (her degree is in drama).
“My mom is a makeup artist,” says Deboer. “She would put makeup on me and make me look ten years older and I loved this. I didn’t think I was very pretty as a young girl, and I know beauty comes from within. However, I used makeup to transform myself, and I liked what I saw–all the color. And then I started doing that to other people with face painting. I would do kid birthday parties, then I moved to Hawaii. I loved the joy I saw on peoples faces. Then I started going into body paint.”
Deboer came in third at the World Body Painting Festival in Austria in 2008, which was especially gratifying. In fact, she almost didn’t compete at all.
“I heard about the competition in Austria, and I thought, sure,” says Deboer. “I was going to go as a model but a friend of mine in Hawaii convinced me to go to compete. I thought, all right, I will go to compete as well. And I won third place. It was the first competition I ever entered and I placed in Europe. It was crazy. For me, that was a big message from the universe. This is something you can do well without having any formal art training. I poured my heart into my piece.”
In 2012, Deboer returned to Austria and placed fifth in Black Light Bodypainting and eighth in Face Painting.
“My advantage is I didn’t go to school for art,” she says. “Some people might say that is a disadvantage, but I say it’s my advantage. I have a real free-flowing feeling toward body painting and a very natural authentic love of it. I’m not trying to put any art rules on the body. Instead, I naturally paint what I feel about that person. Especially if I’m given an improv thing to do. I Just feel that natural passion is an advantage overall, and as a human being in general.”
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There are many reasons why Skin Wars is so popular. But Rupaul is the first to admit that nudity is one of the biggest components in drawing in so many viewers. In an MSNBC interview with Romijn and Rupaul on News Nation, Romijn says that they still have to follow television rules about nudity, so models wear pasties and thongs. But before the masterpieces are finished, you do catch glimpses of bare skin. Rupaul also gave some insight to his judging process.
“We are looking at skill, technique, imagination but really I go for the emotional passion that each person has,” he says. “I love anyone who can become the realization of their own imagination. That is so fascinating to watch. These are starving artists who are vying for $100,000 so the stakes are very high. I am an emotional person. I like to be moved. I like color, beauty, freedom, music, art and it’s all about that.”
Natalie Fletcher, the Season 1 winner from Bend, Oregon, says she worked a lot of jobs–muralist, cake decorator, screen printer, festival coordinator–while she was body painting but really didn’t make a living from it. She says if her job didn’t have a creative element, she wasn’t happy. She has taken her $100,000 prize money on the road.
“Skin Wars affected me in so many positive ways, and aside from winning, my life has completely changed,” she says. “I’m currently working on my dream project, traveling the states in a van painting two places in each state. I’ve done 53 out of 101 so far, and I’m heading your way at the end of the summer.”
Fletcher has travelled the warm states first. Her specialty is body painted landscapes. She paints camouflage body paint jobs on local people in the areas she visits. Places like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, historical landmarks, old cathedrals, ruins, mountains, waterfalls, train tracks and lighthouses. She also returned to Skin Wars to paint Romijn’s body for a promo that’s airing on GSN. Later this summer, she’ll fly to the islands of Hawaii and Maui to work on pieces. You can see her work at Artbynataliefletcher.com.
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Body painting as an art is growing far beyond even the television show that celebrates it. Los Angeles just held its first competition–Body Fine Art–in the downtown arts district. You can now find painted bodies in photo spreads, music videos and movies. For many of the artists, the practice of painting bodies extends beyond the brush to the metaphysical.
“Body painting is never precious, so you’re more willing to experiment,” Nicolette Spear, one of the artists featured in Los Angeles’ Body Fine Art competition, told the LA Weekly last month. “I personally believe you’re illustrating the energetic pathways on the skin. In that way, the model’s spirit or personality is being expressed on the skin, which is in some ways more real than the skin itself.”
For Rachel Deboer, there’s also a link forged between her and her models. She channels this by combining her love of body painting and theater by producing her own shows, burlesque theater and children’s Hawaiian Legend productions.
“I have done a lot of study on body painting by different cultures around the world and different people,” says Deboer. “It’s an ancient thing–human beings and the rise and fall of different cultures and how people view their bodies. Should people of all body types be painted? And what does that mean? I say yes, because it’s not about the runway or fashion. It is about the basic human need of transformation and doing that at the hands of someone else. You build a bond with the artist and you become their vision. You create friendships that last forever. It goes beyond the body painting competition. I’m looking at it in large terminology. Art is a spiritual path. Skin Wars for me is part of my spiritual journey. That is the big message.”
Watch Rachel Deboer and eleven other artists compete this Wednesday, June 10 on Game Show Network (Channels 233, 71 on DirectTV, Channels 116, 9448 on Dish and Channel 435 on Oceanic/Time Warner). For more information, go to Gsntv.com.