Cars were whizzing past one of Ojai’s busiest corners when Jennifer Moss decided to do a headstand, clad in only a G-string and flower-shaped pasties.
“Headstands are good for you!” she said, beaming, as she pulled a yellow smiley-face pillow out of her bicycle’s small trailer. With athletic grace, Ojai’s “Pastie Lady,” a self-described social artist and environmental activist, quickly pulled her legs up to salute her adopted hometown.
Not that this artsy, liberal-leaning city of 8,000 is all that impressed.
In the year since Moss began pedaling her bicycle down Ojai’s main street in barely-there attire, she’s been arrested twice and ticketed repeatedly for obstructing traffic. Irate parents have asked the City Council to force Moss to put on more clothes.
Now she may face prosecution for public indecency.
“The issue we’re looking at is exposure,” said Jim Ellison, Ventura County’s chief assistant district attorney. “We’ve assigned an attorney to do some research.”
Ojai’s citizens, meanwhile, have divided into pro- and con-Pastie Lady camps, venting their opinions in the local newspaper nearly every week.
“Ojai tolerance is not eternal,” local filmmaker Leland Hammerschmitt wrote in a guest editorial in the Ojai Valley News, in which he scolded Moss for her “naked narcissism.” “You’ve had more than your day. Go away. Just stop.”
But Moss, whose social activism appears to revolve around natural-fiber clothing and the healing powers of water, also has ardent defenders. They say “Earth Friend Jen” is not hurting anyone and that naysayers should leave her alone.
“In the South, they actually embrace you if you are eccentric or even a little crazy. . . .,” Dusty Fernandez, an Oak View resident, wrote in the paper. “So lighten up people! Enjoy the view or turn the other way.”
The petite, raven-haired woman at the center of the tempest takes it all in stride. Moss, 32, said she has grown used to people’s strong reactions to her activism.
“Nudity is natural, but a lot of people are uncomfortable with it,” she said rapidly. “It’s OK for children to play video games where they are killing each other, and it’s patriotic to murder people in a war. But women’s breasts in public? You better watch out!”
Moss is quick to say that her scant covering remains within the law. She says she always wears pasties and a G-string (made of hemp). She contends that the tickets and arrests are a violation of her constitutional rights.
“They are charging me with putting on an illegal performance or show,” she said of her latest legal entanglement. “I stripped my clothes to speak the truth, but I was legally covered.”
Moss may face a misdemeanor charge for taking off her clothes, down to pasties and G-string, outside the city’s Catholic church on Easter Sunday, as parishioners were leaving morning Mass.
“She took that opportunity to make her statement, and she appeared nude to most people,” said Ojai Police Chief Bruce Norris. “We got several calls.”
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Moss on suspicion of violating a county ordinance that prohibits exposure of the nipples or genital area in a public place, Norris said. Officers also confiscated a small video camera that her companions were using to record the event.
Moss now says that going to the church was “poor judgment on my behalf.”
She chose Easter Mass, she said, because “there are so many bad people who are hurting and destroying the Earth, and many of them are religious people.”
Police arrested Moss on a similar charge once before, Norris said, but the district attorney’s office decided not to prosecute. Even if prosecutors again fail to move, Norris thinks they will do so at some point. “People make complaints because they find her behavior extremely offensive,” he said. “There is a potential to prosecute her eventually for a public nuisance.”
The police chief insists that his main concern is safety. Moss is an athletic woman who moves very fast on her bike or on in-line skates down Ojai Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. Norris said he’s worried that Moss might be injured in an accident.
“She’s in great shape. I admire her for that,” he said. “But I’m afraid something is going to happen to her.”
Originally from a small town near Corvallis, Ore., Moss gravitated toward Southern California in her 20s. Her upbringing was too restrictive for her taste, she said, and she wanted to explore her spirituality in a place that would be less judgmental.
She landed first in Venice Beach before making her way to Santa Barbara, holding small jobs along the way. The first time she donned her skimpy bike-wear was in Santa Barbara, where the cops promptly stopped her.
“They were very mean to me,” she said. “They treated me like I’m insane.”
Moss moved on to Ojai, working for a time as a waitress at a vegan restaurant in Ventura. For most city residents, last year’s Fourth of July parade was her public debut. Jaws dropped as she whizzed past startled paradegoers on in-line skates, wearing not all that much more than suntan oil.
Now, several times a week, she pedals down Ojai Avenue on her bike, hauling her trailer full of signs advocating her various causes.
On a recent day, she was greeted by many honks of support and a few whistles.
“We love you, Pastie Lady!” screamed a gaggle of teenage girls in a passing Suburban. But as Moss passed a bus stop, a woman sitting with several children yelled, “You’re a nut!”
Earth Friend Jen gave her usual response: “I love you! You don’t have to be like that!”
Two middle-aged guys watched her speed past downtown and shook their heads.
“She’s got a great body,” said one of the men. “But she’s crazy as a loon.”
“She’s a character,” said his buddy, “but she’s part of Ojai.”