Contest says it with bras

Project meant to raise breast cancer awareness

October 30, 2008|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,rona.marech@baltsun.com

The art bra contestants - on a mission to spread breast cancer awareness - did not mince words.

A lady bug bra bears the message "Love your Ladies." A 9-year-old titled his bra, "Why I Need You, Mom," and another one, with eyes peeking out behind fingers, is called "Don't be Shy - Get Your Mammogram." "Kiss for a Cure" is covered in pink Hershey's kisses and a miniature Sherlock Holmes, pipe and magnifying glass grace "Early Detection: It's Elementary!" The artist behind "Boob Bunnies" wrote in a blurb, "I have lived 2041 days since my diagnosis of breast cancer and I am still very thankful to be alive."

Two sisters from Pennsylvania titled their red-white-and-blue, donkey-and-elephant, star- and feather-spangled bra "Political BRAwl." "Dedicated to our Republican grandmother, who has survived breast cancer two times," they wrote. "With love from her two Democratic granddaughters. We still love you no matter what!"

Sixty-three people or groups responded to the Bra Art Challenge, a contest the Anne Arundel County Department of Health has sponsored for four years running in the hopes of encouraging women to get screened regularly for breast cancer. The colorful bras - some whimsical, some sober, some honoring loved ones, some by survivors - have been on display all month at various sites where people can ogle, admire and - until voting closed last week - pick their favorites.

"I think it's awesome. I love it," said Jessica Jolly, 24, whose mother submitted an infant-themed bra called "Take Care of These Babies." "I'm a very big supporter of everything for breast cancer because my mom went through it."

Mildred Pelkey, who is 84 and decorated bras for strippers 40 years ago, has entered the contest every year.

"Some old-fashioned people say, 'Bras? Who wants to put bras in public?' " she said. "But I think it does help people become aware."

Bra art may seem like an obscure genre, but in fact, around the country - from Pennsylvania to Seattle - health organizations and other advocates have seized on the concept as a way to raise money and get out their public health message.

In Austin, Texas, a breast cancer resource center has held an art bra silent auction and runway show in which survivors model the decked out undergarments. The models also posed for a calendar.

In Baltimore, health care provider LifeBridge Health caught wind of the bra-as-canvas idea and created Bravo in 2006. Artists, celebrities and regular people made art bras, which were displayed for one night then auctioned. The submissions were also featured in calendars, notecards, T-shirts and coffee table books, and between the sales and two events, LifeBridge has raised $160,000 for breast care services.

The phenomenon has noticeably taken off in the last few years, said Jill Bloom, the LifeBridge marketing director who frequently fields calls from organizations hoping to put together their own show.

The Bravo name and event is trademarked - in the hopes of cashing in on far-flung interest. But in Anne Arundel, the contest is more low-key. Mostly, community members - including 22 children this year - make entries on kitchen tables, and the focus is on the importance of check-ups and mammograms, which income-eligible women can get for free from the county Health Department.

A number of contestants showed up at the Centre at Glen Burnie on Friday to hear the winners announced.

Tracey Despeaux, who had breast cancer 25 years ago when she was 22, took first place with an elaborate owl installation she titled "Give A Hoot About Your Hooters." Billie Meadows' pensive contribution, a bright, foliage-festooned bra with a short story about how breast cancer has affected her family, came in second. And Chase Webber, the 9-year-old who apparently had judges tearing up with his entry about his mother, won third prize. "I have a friend in Cub Scouts," he wrote. "His mom got breast cancer. I need my mom for lots of stuff."

"Don't Be Shy" and the insect-covered "Cancer Bugs Me" - a kid entry - won the people's choice awards.

Jill Ross, 45, came to the awards ceremony with members of her church's youth group, who told her they had a surprise. She dutifully looked at every entry until she finally got to the one the girls had made - in her honor.

Covered with images of Superwoman, Elastigirl and other superheroes, the placard next to the bra read, "In May, 2008, our pastor's wife, Jill, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After several surgeries and months of chemotherapy, Jill continues to fight cancer and heroically smile in the face of danger. She has shown us that real-life superheroes don't have superpowers ... Jill is our Hero of Hope."

As the small crowd broke up, Ross - who was wearing a hat to cover her hair loss - packed up the bra. "I'm going to hang it in the hallway of our house, right where you walk in," she said. "I'm very proud."

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