Art Meets Activism: Sexy Beast Is Fighting for Planned Parenthood’s Rights, One Creative Collaboration at a Time

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Planned Parenthood. As someone who relies on the government for healthcare (#freelance), Planned Parenthood has emerged as a safe, supportive, and blissfully uncomplicated space amidst the bumbling bureaucracy of our medical system. I have gone for everything from annual exams to birth control, and each time I’m met with unwavering kindness and patient answers to my many long-winded questions. Considering the millions of women, men, and children that Planned Parenthood provides with basic, vital, and life-saving healthcare services each year, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels this way. Yet we live in a political climate that seems hell-bent on refusing women autonomy over their own bodies, which has led to Planned Parenthood being stigmatized and threatened by the government, their funding forever in danger of being slashed. Despite protests and petitions, it remains an uncertain situation, leaving me wondering how I can provide meaningful support to a place that means so much to me. It was this same burning question that inspired the owners of LA’s influential Night Gallery to create an art-focused fundraising initiative specifically for Planned Parenthood LA in 2014. Fueled by an energy that felt equal parts powerful and provocative, they decided to call it Sexy Beast.

Arising out of a desire to merge art and activism within Los Angeles’ legendary creative community, Sexy Beast began as an art auction and gala and has since grown and evolved into an exciting celebration of creativity and community with a much wider scope, due to skillful spearheading by recently-appointed program directors Sonny Ruscha Granade, Kristen Stegemoeller, and Tera Uhlinger. The industrious and infectiously energetic trifecta are each an accomplished force of nature in their own fields, channeling their unique skill sets, career experiences, and network of connections into a platform that provides LA’s extensive creative community with opportunities to use their talent and influence to raise money for Planned Parenthood via product collaborations, community events, and an unforgettable biennial gala featuring the brightest lights of the creative community.

Jenny Holzer x Virgil Abloh by Allen Orr

Their first product collaboration set the bar impossibly high: a tee shirt collaboration between iconic artist Jenny Holzer and in-demand designer Virgil Abloh, which perfectly encapsulated their compelling blend of raw authenticity and Instagram-worthy branding. The women behind Sexy Beast have a palpable passion and multi-faceted vision: to de-stigmatize Planned Parenthood and diversify the way we approach nonprofit fundraising, while also championing creativity as a meaningful and effective form of activism. They are a fearlessly ambitious and symbiotic team, radiating with unbridled enthusiasm and an obvious appreciation for each other’s strengths. I chatted with them about why they decided to treat Planned Parenthood the same way they would a brand, what keeps them motivated and fighting, and why it’s important to be “wildly and almost psychotically ambitious.” I came away from the conversation deeply inspired and raring to get involved, which seems to be the natural reaction to the badass babes of Sexy Beast.

Jenny Holzer x Virgil Abloh by Allen Orr

Tickets for their biennial gala benefitting Planned Parenthood on Saturday, October 20th at the Marciano Art Foundation are on sale now, and believe us when we say you won’t want to miss this evening of art and activism. To give you a taste, there will be a variety show honoring Jenny Holzer hosted by comedian Kate Berlant, a musical performance by Moses Sumney and Kelsey Lu, and a truly incredible selection of art for auction. Dinner will be provided by some of LA’s most beloved restaurants, such as Jon and Vinny’s and Kismet. Good vibes and a good cause? Sounds like our kind of night. Snag your ticket here.

Q&A

Live FAST: Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do. How would you describe Sexy Beast is to someone who maybe hasn’t heard of it?

Sonny Ruscha Granade: I’m Sonny. I’m the art world person. My career has been in development, fundraising, and sales in the commercial art world. The three of us are totally different. We’re like puzzle pieces – we would be useless without each other. That’s so important to our story. I see Sexy Beast as a platform to bring the creative community together in support of women’s healthcare.

Kristen Stegemoeller: I’m Kristen. I’m the creative director. I do lots of graphics and designing and run social media and do all the copywriting. All three of us are program directors in terms of selecting talent. We’re in the midst of LA’s creative community and Sexy Beast is our attempt to connect the dots and channel that energy, that goodwill, and that talent towards making things that benefit Planned Parenthood, because we are all passionate about affordable health care.

Tera Uhlinger: My name is Tera. I came in doing global, experiential, and brand marketing and now I also do product management and strategy with scheduling and production. From the tee shirts to the gala, I work with these two to keep us on track, on goal, and on budget.

What’s unique about Sexy Beast is that the three of us have been doing this for years in our various fields and now we’re using what we’ve learned to do something for a good cause. It resonates with a lot of people, especially given the current administration, so I think what Sexy Beast has given people is the ability to use their platforms the way we’re using ours, in order to give back and to raise funds and awareness.

LF: It’s inspiring to see a refreshing alternative to a potentially outdated model of fundraising.

KS: We’re trying to create something new while also using the old parts of the fundraising model that still work.

SRG: The opportunity to take over this event from Night Gallery was presented to us at a time when the election had just happened and we were all looking for ways to channel everything we had learned in our careers into something that would make a difference, because personally, I’m not much of a “take to the streets” kind of person.

KS: We still do the gala, but it’s different than the previous iterations in that that it has a wider scope into the creative community at large. We have musical acts, dancers, leaders in the entertainment community, a huge art component, and food from incredible LA chefs and restaurants. Our broad view is that we want to keep the conversation going all year long through events and collaborations. Our first product collaboration was a tee shirt made by Jenny Holzer and Virgil Abloh.

LF: Such an insane collaboration right out the gate! Jenny Holzer is the OG.

TU: And then she decided to just sprinkle Virgil Abloh in there, who just happens to be the hottest designer in the world.

KS:  We have plans in the works for new products and more events like the Girls Art Now event with Society6, because we want to give as many people as possible a point of entry into this movement and make it as inclusive as possible. We’re championing creative voices and everyone can be a part of that.

LF: One of the reasons that Sexy Beast feels so fresh is because of that accessibility. People are looking for ways to get involved and stay involved right now. What inspired you to merge the art world and the activism world? 

TU: When we inherited Sexy Beast from Night Gallery that was their original thing because they had a community of likeminded people who loved art and saw the value of supporting Planned Parenthood. My community is in the music and entertainment world, not the art world, so when the three of us came together, we knew the gala couldn’t just be a live art auction, it had to be something that felt authentic to all three of us.

What’s interesting about the tee shirt is that some people bought it for Jenny, some people bought it for Virgil, some people bought it for Planned Parenthood, and maybe some people bought it for all three. In the end, it doesn’t matter why someone buys the tee shirt, 100% of those proceeds still go to Planned Parenthood.

SRG: Planned Parenthood has limited access to the creative community, because they’re focused on providing expert health care, so we’re coming in and doing that for them. They hired us as consultants and we work directly with them, thanks to the trust that Night Gallery built.

TU: You’re not writing a check to us, you’re writing a check to Planned Parenthood. They do what they do very well and we do what we do very well. It works because the three of us each bring our network of connections to the table to raise funds while doing what we love in our careers.

KS: I think we all were thrown for a loop after the election. It felt like the world had gone crazy (and it still does, most of the time) and we’re not community organizers, we’re not registered nurses and we’re not lawyers, so there was no clear path into a meaningful interaction with the causes that we cared most about and that were the most threatened. We’re trying to make our own way. All of us are doing the things that we are the best at in service of this nonprofit and we’re trying to ask the same of artists and designers in our community.

TU: Sonny sells art for a lot of money and Kristen and I sell ideas to brands for a lot of money. Why can’t we take that exact same model and have it benefit a nonprofit?

LF: Somehow, that feels like a revolutionary idea. It’s breaking this unspoken mold of nonprofit fundraising. 

KS: We came into it saying, “Why cant we treat Planned Parenthood like a brand and do the same things we would if we were promoting a brand?” Sometimes we can and sometimes we really can’t, for reasons that become clear to us along the way. Nonprofits are complicated and have their own set of rules. We’re basically going to try to take this as far as we can for Planned Parenthood because if we can figure out how to make it work for them – one of the most threatened, scrutinized, and unfairly attacked nonprofits in the country – maybe it’s something that could work for other nonprofits.

Jenny Holzer x Virgil Abloh by Allen Orr

LF: Can you tell us a little bit about the creative process behind the different collaborations you’ve done?

KS: I studied art history and Jenny Holzer is my queen and my everything. Sonny had a connection to her gallerist so we wrote this long fan girl letter just falling all over ourselves telling her how much she means to us. It was so over the top, but God bless her, she responded. Then she followed up and was like, “Do you mind if I ask Virgil Abloh?” and we screamed.

TU: We handled everything in house, and produced the tee shirts with Everybody World, an amazing and local sustainable apparel production company. They’re also women-owned and women-run.

KS: It was a lot of us sliding into people’s DM’s. We did a ton of work, but we were so surprised by the doors that opened when we put something like this out into the world. Sometimes it feels like we’re on a trapeze and we’re flying off the bar but there are hands there to catch us every time. It’s been really humbling.

TU: Jenny and Virgil’s names helped get us in front of people but those people were already ready and waiting to get involved with something like this. We did an exclusive necklace collaboration with LA-based jewelry line Gabriela Artigas, and next we’re doing a custom nail polish color, which we’re announcing soon. What we’re seeing is that artists are starting to respond to causes and brands need to get to those artists, so we’re trying to use some of that brand money to support the causes we care about through collaboration.

LF: It’s also important because it’s essentially rebranding Planned Parenthood to a wide variety of audiences.

KS: The visibility is important. It’s so cool to see little hype beast dudes rocking our shirt and taking pictures with a Ferrari in the back. We want to move the dial so this incredible organization is less stigmatized. We don’t think it should be stigmatized to begin with – that’s all political and has so little to do with the actual services and care that Planned Parenthood provides. We want to steer the conversation by making something affirmative and positive and getting all of these influential creatives to throw their weight behind it.

TU: If you keep talking about it, it starts to change the way that brands think about Planned Parenthood and the culture surrounding it. Their services are predominantly family planning. They keep kids healthy and moms healthy and they provide a basic human need and right. They provide vital healthcare for the people in our community and if our support is in the form of a cool nail polish or tee shirt or necklace, so be it. 100% of the proceeds from every event we have and every product that we make is donated to Planned Parenthood. It’s important for brands to understand that they can show up for nonprofits like that. It doesn’t have to be beneficial because they’re making money off it, it can be beneficial simply because they’re supporting a cause.

Jenny Holzer x Virgil Abloh by Allen Orr

LF: It’s such a huge moment for activism because our Twitter feeds feel like this feedback loop of disaster, but it’s hard to know how to get involved. How can people can get involved on an individual level?

KS: Obviously, money is important and even small donations are crucial but I think with this project we are also testing our ability to use our talents to help an entity, which can be literally anyone’s model. Start with a personal audit of your own skills and the things that are the least expensive for you to contribute. Local politics matter more than almost anything and voting and participating in local government trickles up into national issues. It’s hard for me to imagine knocking on doors and talking to people because I’m an introvert, but I can design a flyer for someone. If you’re creative, connect the dots for yourself. Find your cause and find your core talents and start googling.

TU: We care, and that comes first. You can’t replace passion with anything. Mobilize your friends and the people who care about you.

SRG: I’m an advocate of relentless networking.

Gabriela Artigas by Darren Ankenman

LF: What keeps you motivated and fighting?

TU: I tear up every time we tour Planned Parenthood’s headquarters downtown. They talk about the women, men, and children affected by Planned Parenthood, and there are these incredible patient stories. I get emotional thinking about how there are people in our community who need us to step up right now. What keeps me motivated is knowing Planned Parenthood is providing care to people who need it.

KS: The community aspect of it inspires me. Because I run the social media, I’m on Instagram way more than is probably healthy, and that Mr. Rogers quote about looking for the helpers has always stuck with me. Looking at all the candidates running for the first time and the people that are involved in the grassroots campaigns feels really refreshing. The helpers inspire me, and the people who have found a new life path in the face of all this trauma and intensity. Just seeing that keeps things feeling impactful and purposeful.

SRG: I just really enjoy making things happen. I feel like we’re actually making an impact and that keeps me waking up in the morning. I also don’t mind asking people for things so this is the perfect opportunity for me to hunt people down and enlist them to help us.

LF: Who or what inspires you?

TU: This might sound cheesy, but working with Kristen and Sonny inspires me. This partnership has taught me that we’re stronger when we align with people who care about the same thing.

KS: Our relationship with each other and our trust in each other’s skills its has allowed us to be wildly and maybe even psychotically ambitious. We push each other to do more.

SRG: Or maybe we’ve just lost our minds. (laughs)

Gabriela Artigas by Darren Ankenman

LF: On that note, what is your preferred method of self care?

SRG: So many massages. A lot of exercise. A lot of hikes. I’m a new mom, so I’ve been doubling down on self care and trying to do something for mind, body, and soul in every spare second I have.

KS: Nature. Getting away from the computer is vital. Active gratitude. Before I go to bed I try to make a ritual of taking a step back from the stress and counting my blessings. We’re intense people, as you can probably tell, so it’s really important to stay grateful and humble and not get too wrapped up in the ego. Personally, as a freelancer, I’m trying to learn to ask for help better. You don’t have to do all of it alone.

TU: I’m a hyper-type A producer and I actually have to actively turn my brain off so I don’t use my phone after 7PM. Last week I set an alarm in my phone that says “gratitude” and when it goes off, I have to list five things I’m grateful for. I’ve also been talking to friends when I’m struggling. It’s important to be vulnerable while you’re caring for yourself.

LF: The other thing that makes Sexy Beast so interesting is that you guys are an entirely woman-run business. Do you have any words of wisdom about that?

TU: A woman-run small business is still groundbreaking, which is shocking. My advice is to find multiple mentors and DM like-minded women that you look up to. Be humble and be eager and don’t be scared to ask for help.

KS: Let your people know what you’re doing. I feel like lots of women have trouble taking ownership of their work in a promotional sense due to imposter syndrome, so even though I’d probably roll my eyes at this about my own writing, remember that people have no idea what you’re working on unless you tell them. Don’t be shy about it. Keep your personal website updated.

SRG: Amen.

TU: Sonny’s advice would be to go out and network. She makes us go to all these amazing events, and she shows up, even when she was pregnant and breastfeeding. Go out within your community. Stay relevant.

Jenny Holzer x Virgil Abloh by Allen Orr

LF: How do you envision Sexy Beast evolving in the future?

KS: We’re really excited about the gala and it’s a big splashy thing but we have a lot of investment in pursuing more inclusive paths as well. We’re just getting started. We’re awesome but we’re also just three people who are really good at their jobs and we want to let people know they can do something like this too.

TU: The gala is a huge part of our infrastructure but moving forward there’s this idea of letting Sexy Beast become whatever it becomes. We’re trying not to hold onto it too tightly and let it grow organically based on the opportunities that are coming in.

LF: How fast do you live?

KS: I think we’ll be living very fast the day after the gala, but right now we’re just living for tomorrow.

SRG: Living la vida loca.

TU: If we’re looking at the actual acronym: fashion is PJs because I have no time to dress myself…

KS: Art is poppin’. Sex is alright…

TU: All of us actually do travel quite a bit. What we do is inspired by getting out of LA and getting out of our own heads.

KS: So I’d say we’re living about 50% fast.

L’Agent Goodies…