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Baring their soles - What's with the barefoot divas?

REBECCA ECKLER reports on the new foot fetish

Whatever happened to the N3? (No shirt, no shoes, no service.) Ubiquitous photos of pop tart Britney Spears walking barefoot into a gas station washroom still have people trash talking. Then there was Barefoot Britney stepping on a hypodermic in Hawaii, parading shoeless (with her new bump on display) in L.A. and irritating other passengers with her bare feet on a commercial flight.

Blame it on the yoga craze, the hippie revival or the theory that singing shoeless is grounding, but it seems the culture is in the throes of a new foot fetish.

On American Idol, female contestants are belting out their songs in formal dresses and bare feet. Brit singer Joss Stone performs sans footwear, as does Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman.

Surfer dude singer Jack Johnson is so well known for baring his soles, Saturday Night Live did a parody ad for shoes that look like bare feet.

According to Jake Gold, Canadian Idol judge, musicians like bare feet because "it's more comfortable, easy to move around stage, and there's a whole sexual side to it as well."

Actors like it too. Mischa Barton recently was photographed barefoot in a Malibu parking lot and outside her hotel in Maui. The best part? She shills for Keds.

And then there's poet-actor-photographer-painter Viggo Mortensen, who likes to do interviews in bare feet and wears a bracelet that reads "Peace." (His director in Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, also made headlines a few years back with his barefoot ways.)

Designers and alternative healing practitioners are also tapping into the benefits of bare. Nike's popular new Nike Free line of lightweight sneakers claims to mimic "barefoot running in grass." A hot new product in North America is the Cobblestone Walkway, a mat that mimics the effects on bare feet of walking on smooth pebbles. Based on traditional Chinese healing practices such as reflexology (there are actual cobblestone walkways all over Asia), the mat has been shown to increase balance and circulation.

Some people are long-time barefoot aficionados. In a recent cover feature about Calgary in Maclean's magazine, a top interior designer, Paul Lavoie, was featured in a full-page portrait in jeans, a turtleneck and bare feet.

"I like to be barefoot quite often," says the 39-year-old Lavoie. "It's the hippie in me. I'm always barefoot at home. I guess it's like my inner child coming out."

Lavoie says there's nothing more natural in the world than for him to wear a suit, even a tux, without socks. "Of course, I need to wear shoes to events. But I never wear socks. There's absolutely a comfort level about walking around barefoot. I would do it all the time if I could."

Katy Cook, 21, a hairstylist at the trendy Luxe spa in Calgary, is also a fan. Though she must wear shoes to work, she wears sandals, with no socks, even in winter. "The first thing I do at home is take off my socks and shoes," says Cook. "I drive barefoot all the time. And my all-time favourite thing is gardening barefoot." She doesn't only go barefoot at home though. "I'll walk to the corner store barefoot. Yes, some people look at me and think, 'Who is that strange girl?' I don't care."

There's even a society, boasting more than a thousand members worldwide, called the Society for Barefoot Living. Who belongs? Well, according to their website, members "enjoy walking barefoot as nature intended, taking delight in feeling the many textures the world has to offer, like having tough, callused soles, and even think it's cool to get them dirty. We also hate wearing shoes and, if we had our way, would never wear them again. Shoes are unnecessary ballast. Plus, bare feet are cool and look great!"

Barefoot society member Bryan Macdonald, 61, went au naturel 11 years ago. The 61-year-old from Windsor, Ont., owns two pairs of shoes and one pair of flip-flops, which he keeps in his cars for emergencies (such as snow) or when his wife refuses to be seen with him in public.

"It just plain feels good," says Macdonald, who calls himself the Barefoot Photographer. "I shot a wedding last July. I wore a short-sleeve dress shirt with nice slacks and was barefoot from start to finish, from the bride's home, to the church, to the reception."

Part of the new barefoot cachet is undoubtedly the widespread influence of yoga, traditionally practiced in bare feet, and the accompanying interest in the ancient Indian beliefs embodied in the discipline.

"I'm a foot lover," says Toronto-based yoga instructor Graydon Moffat. "I often talk to my students about how they should appreciate their feet and not take them for granted."

Even while not teaching, Moffat hates wearing shoes. "The best is in the summer when the ground surfaces feel warm. But even in the colder months, I love to feel the different textures on the soles of my feet. More and more people these days, including men, are taking care of their feet, which encourages people to show them off," she says. "Feet are sexy."

It's those hypodermic needles that aren't.

Globe & Mail 20th May 2006

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