Weekly Q&A: Robin Slonina on ephemeral art, dirty charades and ‘Skin Wars’

Robin Slonina and her son, post-paint.

Most reality TV isn’t real—that’s no surprise. So when Robin Slonina, artist and owner of Vegas-based Skin City Body Painting, was approached to produce a show around the art form, it had to pass a litmus test. Basically, the show had to treat the body painting community with integrity and respect. The result was 2014’s Skin Wars, the Game Show Network’s most-watched original television show ever, hosted by Rebecca Romijn and featuring Slonina alongside legendary judges RuPaul and body painter Craig Tracy.

Season Two premiered on Wednesday, following 12 artists through the exhausting, creative fight for $100,000 and the title of America's best body painter. The Weekly caught up with Slonina to talk about the show’s most memorable moments, flying on a party plane to paint at Elton John’s Life Ball and what it takes to make RuPaul giggle.

How did Skin Wars happen? I had been approached by many different production companies to do a reality show based on my body-painting company—more like an LA Ink-style show. I had some false starts in that area, and to be honest, got a little burnt out with Hollywood and the whole reality-show game. When I was approached by Michael Levitt Productions, I think that was maybe the 11th production company I had been involved with. I was waiting for someone that I trusted, that I felt had the intelligence and the integrity and the respect for the art form to pull off a show that I would be proud of, and I found it in Michael Levitt and his partner Jill Goularte. I felt like they are the dolphins swimming with sharks in Hollywood. Together we conceived of the show—it was their idea to turn it away from a docudrama around my business and turn it into a competition show. ... The Game Show Network has treated the subject matter with so much respect and creativity and let us do our jobs judging without any interference. [They] really are producing the show that I dreamt of.

Is it more "real" than other reality TV? Well, no one’s plopping a 24-page script on the table in front of me for a supposedly unscripted show. No one’s trying to create false drama. Everything that you see on camera is really how it happened. When there are dramatic moments on your screen as you view at home, those were dramatic moments in all of the hearts of everybody that was there. I was brought to tears many times during the course of both seasons. What you see, it’s very real.

How does the show find contestants? There is a national call for body-paint artists. It’s a pretty small world. ... Craig and I send in our referrals and forward them to the production team; I’ll be out and meet people; we scout at conventions.

Did anyone you recommended make it into the second season? I pushed really hard for Gear the first season because I knew of him in Vegas. In fact, I resisted hiring him for two years because I didn’t want anyone to think there was any kind of favoritism. Even though I was just itching to hire that boy at Skin City, I resisted so I could save him for the show.

Were you into reality TV shows before Skin Wars? I love Face Off. I love Project Runway. When Michael and Jill suggested that we gear it more toward competition, I was on board with that because that’s what I find more entertaining. First of all, there’s talent. With all these docudramas, the talent is perhaps a little bit questionable. This is a case where you can’t be on the show unless you are talented and gifted at what you do. The other thing I really love about it is the drama is inherent to the situation. You don’t need to fabricate anything 'cause it’s all there. You can’t not have drama if these young artists are sleep-deprived, painting their asses off, working harder than they’ve ever done, doing challenges that they’ve never even thought of doing and they're pushed to their creative limits.

Are there any scenes that stand out from the first season? I think the most memorable thing that happened from Season One was the paint-off between Natalie and Gear. By the time that happened it was probably about 2 in the morning and we were all exhausted. Not just the artists but the judges, the production team, the crew. We were all exhausted. We all felt just pushed to our edge—incredibly emotional. RuPaul got really upset during that episode. He really verbally spanked Gear, and it was totally genuine. He was backstage pacing back and forth just furious, and I think that really told a lot about RuPaul. His ambition is what saved him and gave him focus in his life. When he saw Gear’s drive crumble, he was outraged. ... That comes from a place of caring about Gear and wanting him to succeed. That’s the thing—we call get so attached to the artists.

How has it been getting to know RuPaul? He is awesome. And I have to say, I still haven’t gotten over what a privilege it is just to sit next to him for sometimes 12 hours at a stretch and just get to know him and hear his stories and see the little freckles poking out from underneath his makeup. I know his face so well now. I feel like a real friendship has been created. Just to get to share stories and hear insights about his life—I think nothing makes me happier than making RuPaul laugh.

That can’t be easy to do. He laughs pretty easy. We have a tradition now where every time there’s any downtime on set we play dirty charades. At one point I was looking up porn titles because they’re really good at taking popular movies and twisting the titles to become dirty. So the months leading to filming Skin Wars, I’m filling the notes in my iPhone with a list of dirty charades. ... The whole crew is just so much fun.

What other doors has the show opened for you? I was just lucky enough to be one of the body painters at Life Ball in Vienna. That’s one of the largest fundraisers for AIDS in the world, started by Elton John. We got to fly on a private plane over there. It was like a party plane. At one point people are climbing on the seats, the stewards and stewardesses are dancing in the aisles, Kelly Osbourne’s jumping on some bongo player’s back. I was sitting next to a bunch of Rockettes from New York. So that was a really fun experience to be on this crazy party plane and then go body paint for a great cause and meet some other body painters from all over the world.

You started out as a muralist, right? Yeah, back in Chicago. I have a painting degree from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. When I came to Vegas it was too hot to paint outside and the walls were too bumpy to paint inside so I was looking for a new way to make a living, and Vegas is the perfect city for body painting. I really fell into it about a decade ago. I have to say, once a painter sees their artwork get up and walk around and breathe and move and make different facial expressions, it’s really hard to go back to a canvas because it’s just so satisfying and intriguing. Even though it does wash off after a day, watching your artwork be inhabited by a living, breathing creature, there’s just nothing like it.

Was dealing with the impermanence difficult in the beginning? No. I was an ephemeral, outdoor sculptor. I used to make earth-art sculptures and dresses out of temporary materials that only lasted a day that would go back into the earth. I’m all about ephemeral art, so for me body paint is a really natural transition.

Love your canvas: Every Body Equal, organized by Skin City Body Painting’s Robin Barcus Slonina (pictured), was about celebrating equality, diversity and body acceptance.

Love your canvas: Every Body Equal, organized by Skin City Body Painting’s Robin Barcus Slonina (pictured), was about celebrating equality, diversity and body acceptance.

You recently held an event called Every Body Equal, where a group of people stripped down to their underwear and were painted to look like one giant equals sign. That was so much fun. Not as many people showed up as we were hoping, but I feel like it was just the right people. Everyone there was just really blissed out. One thing I was really surprised by was how much I actually got out of it. The whole idea of it was to promote equality and radical body acceptance, and because there was a little bit less people than we thought, we needed more bodies so I stripped down to my underwear and jumped in.

You hadn’t planned to? No! (laughs) It really forced me to put my money where my mouth is. I am saying, “You should be comfortable in your own skin,” and I’m 44 years old and on Skin Wars I’m in Spanx and a push-up bra and you’ve got this image you’re projecting to the world, but I live in a realistic woman’s body. There was something really liberating and wonderful just being out there with everybody else and just accepting myself exactly the way I am. ... That’s one of the biggest things body painters across the world are promoting. It’s like, celebrate the skin you’re in.

People might expect to see a traditional model painted from head to toe, but it seems like everyone can be involved There’s body painters like Andy Golub. ... He fought for the right for body painters to paint nude models on the streets of New York. He’s all about painting all shapes and sizes. If you look at the tradition of body paint in more ancient cultures, it was just a ritualistic thing that every member of society would do. You didn’t have to be some perfect specimen of humanity to participate. It was for everyone.

Do you think it’s harder in Vegas to promote body acceptance when everything is so sexualized? It is very true. I run a business where for corporate events my clients do expect a certain caliber of model, and I work all the time with these beautiful examples of how perfect and beautiful the human form can be. There’s a reason they’re called models—they are a model of a man or a woman, this ideal model of it. It’s interesting raising a child in Vegas, too, wondering how he’s gonna be affected by that onslaught of sexualization you see on billboards and cabs and everything here. On the flip-side of that, the body is being so normalized for him because he’s at the studio all the time. What he’s really interested in is the character. He’ll walk in and be like, “Ooh, what are you gonna be?” The day that I got back from filming I had been gone for almost two months, and of course, my kid’s 5, he missed me, and so I told him, “Okay, buddy, what do you want to do today? The whole day’s yours.” I thought he was going to come up with something like, let’s go to the Adventuredome or Chuck E. Cheese’s, and he said, “I want you to paint me. I want to be a green monster.” ... He got a bald cap, he got horns; we went and shopped for fancy green underwear to match the paint and we made a day of it. I was so shocked that’s how he wanted to spend his first day back with me.

What’s next for you? I would really like to travel more as a body painter. I feel like in many ways, I’ve had blinders on for the past 10 years because I’ve been so busy running a business here. I would like to get back to my roots a little bit and experience myself as an artist again.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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