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It was December 2007, and 15 of Goldsboro, North Carolina's most respected businesswomen sat around a conference table, each of them naked from the waist up. "What?" photographer Vanessa Woodlock remembers saying when she was asked to take their seminude pictures.
Goldsboro may not exactly be Mayberry, but it is a small Bible Belt city, and Andy Griffith himself did teach choir at the local high school after he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So despite their purpose -- a calendar to benefit the local animal shelter that featured community leaders hiding their naughty bits behind their beloved pets -- these risque photos caused a bit of a stir.
It was local pet-supply store manager Suzi Wharton (aka Miss June 2009), a member of the Wayne County Humane Society (WCHS) fund-raising committee, who talked the women out of their tops. The animal shelter was in dire shape: Each year around 7,000 dogs and cats arrived at the dank, 50-year-old building to be housed in overcrowded pens and stacked cat cages. Most never left. The place was so depressing that local residents didn't want to set foot in it, so even the most adoptable pets couldn't find homes and had to be euthanized.
For years the WCHS had pressed for better shelter conditions. Finally, the county agreed to build a new $2 million, 11,000-square-foot facility with a combination of state and private funds four years ago. But the WCHS itself had to pledge $150,000 toward the project -- cash that was definitely not in the small group's coffers.
"We were shooting ideas back and forth about how to raise that much money," remembers Wharton, and someone brought up the 2003 movie Calendar Girls, in which respectable British villagers bared all for charity. The board pounced on the idea, and Wharton roped in Woodlock and her partner Vance Allen -- who usually shoot weddings and formal portraiture -- as the photographers.
Wharton was daunted by the idea of approaching some of Goldsboro's most respected -- and respectable -- businesswomen, but it took only 25 calls to potential models before she landed the number she needed for the July 2008-December 2009 calendar. The list of women who signed on was impressive, and included executives with the Arts Council of Wayne County and the American Red Cross, local business owners, an x-ray technologist, and a community-college teacher.
"I was on board immediately," says Terry Yeh (Miss December '09), an assistant district attorney. "I did need a couple of martinis to see me through the shoot, though!"
Many of the models are rescue-animal owners, so they had a very personal stake in the project. Still, a seminude calendar was quite a stretch. Frame shop owner Karen Sergent-Rakers (Miss September '08), who has five rescue animals at home, says she couldn't quite believe she was posing and won't soon forget the moment the photographer said, "It's time to drop your robe." Flip through the calendar and you'll find her in a classic cheesecake pose behind a strategically placed gilt-framed portrait of Moses, her yellow Labrador retriever/Newfoundland mix.
For photographer Allen, perhaps the biggest challenge was keeping order in the boardroom during the topless group shot. "You'd get one side of the table settled and the others would start laughing," he remembers. "We had to try not to look at each other," says construction company president Monika Barkley (Miss February '09).
When the Petals & Paws calendar debuted last May, 1,000 of the 3,000 copies were snapped up immediately. At press time the WCHS had grossed $25,500, with sales ongoing both locally and online at www.goldsboro-wchs.org. Along with other fund-raising efforts, the calendar has helped the humane society get three-quarters of the way to its $150,000 goal. The all-volunteer staff is still working to raise the rest of the money, but that didn't stop the new shelter from opening on August 16. Landscaped with crape myrtle trees and outfitted with spacious pens and brightly lit visiting rooms where potential owners can bond with pets, the new Wayne County Animal Adoption and Education Center is a far cry from the depressing pound it once was.
Though it's unlikely they'd ever have to pose half-nude again, you get the sense that the women of Goldsboro would do whatever is necessary to protect their four-legged friends. Said Barkley, who agreed to the project despite worries that her recent heart-surgery scar would show, "I'd have run naked in the streets to give a shelter animal one more day of life so someone could adopt him."
As a plus, most of the models were happy with their photos, and their husbands found the whole thing a hoot. "We probably sold 30 or 40 calendars to friends and relatives," says Bob Crenshaw, co-owner of the local health-food store, whose wife, Susan, is Miss October '09. "When people see the opening shot, where the girls are topless, they all say, 'I wish I'd been there!'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, January 2009.