Sophie Tea is a London-based artist who rose to fame after her “glitter boobs” went viral at Coachella back in 2017. Since then, she’s gone on to celebrate the female form with her “Nudes” and “Send More Nudes” exhibitions across London and Sydney. Most recently, she was the driving force behind a gallery-less exhibition in which 16 women bore all to wear nothing but her artwork and strut their stuff all over London. We caught up with her to find out all about it.
Sophie, your work is so bold and inspiring. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started and where your inspiration came from to start with?
Sophie Tea: So I did a business degree and I was due to start university in the city, and I went travelling in India. I remember I was running out of money at the time and I came across this hostel that had loads of graffiti on the wall, and I asked the hostel manager if I could just paint in return for a free stay, and he said yeah. I knew that I needed to be doing something creative with my life. It was one of those moments where I was like, “F*ck, I just hate this job.”
That was it really, I decided that I was going to become an artist about a week later and then just set up on social media and the rest is history. Typically, as an artist, you’ve got to go to a superposh art school or to have those of contacts that’ll get you represented by a gallery. It’s so hard to get represented, and then even when you do, they take 50 percent commission.
I think I recognised really early on, I don’t mind being poor. Art is in me. And I was massively (poor) for the first three years, it was shit. But, I was representing myself and building my own team, without having to rely on a really old system to do it.
That makes sense. Speaking of old systems, you’ve got a pretty incredible payment system set up to make purchasing art more accessible. How did that idea come about?
ST: I’d just heard about Klarna and I couldn’t believe how accessible it made stuff for me, at the time. But I’d never really seen it being applied to a luxury good or expensive products. We [were] working with Squarespace and they allowed us to do a newsletter. Then they sent an email saying, “We’re doing a magazine subscription.” So they allowed me to create a subscription for my work, too. I was just like, “Oh, like, imagine if instead of like 5.99, I was like £200 a month.” And then we just did that. We have over 90 percent of our customers choose the instalment option and I can’t believe there was ever a time where I didn’t do it. Our business has grown hugely since.
There’s a huge amount of trust that goes into it because with these payment instalment things, they get a piece of art straight away and they could just cancel the subscription, like they do with a magazine. But we’re very close to our customers. We have quite an intimate relationship. For people that buy stuff, we have all the names and we know them well.
When you first started out, a lot of your work was really abstract and not form based. How did you make that transition into focusing on the female form?
ST: Going on to nudes was always a dream of mine from school. I’d always look at Lucien Freud and these amazing figurative artists that would specialise in painting the female form. I always wanted to be that person but I needed my business to be at a certain point before I could take the risk because I needed a committed client base who would definitely buy it.
The first time I started to paint nudes was in Bali. I emptied the bank and took my entire team. I remember I was googling naked women online and obviously these pornographic images start coming in, so I was like, “Oh f*ck, why didn’t I just like ask my followers if they would send me their pictures.” The next day, I had over a thousand images just on Instagram, but the most amazing thing was, all of them came with stories about why it was important to them.
I had one that was like, “I never send my boyfriend nudes, but for you, Sophie, here you go.” Then other ones were so heartfelt, and so emotional and raw. One lady had a double mastectomy and she sent me pictures and said, “My mum passed away from breast cancer two months ago, and I’d love to be a part of the campaign somehow.” People with stretch marks, people with self-harm scars, people with some of the most amazing stories. I just thought, “You know what, this is what it’s about.” Touching people and having the art really mean something. Moving onto the nudes made me realise that it’s about more than just the physical art. It’s about the brand and how we’re touching people’s lives.
On the topic of self-love and accepting your body, what tips do you have for women that struggle with that? Is that journey to self-love, and how difficult it can be, something that inspired you?
ST: That question just triggered something. I hated my nose. Ever since I was a kid and I wanted to have a nose job, honestly, from the day I even realised I had a nose. I put it off and put it off because I was scared of the stigma. About three years ago, when I could afford it, I got it done. And I just realised that no one f*cking cares. No one gives a shit what you do with your life or your face. Why are you holding back?
Whether it’s wearing clothes, posting a picture, or eating some chocolate, no one cares about your life. Everyone’s so consumed in their own life, just do what makes you happy. I think that was a big learning for me because I was just like, “Why did I wait all that time?”
Definitely. How has it been for you creating during lockdown? You mentioned that you hadn’t actually been to visit your London store or exhibition. What was that like for you?
ST: I’ve got massive FOMO. It is a bit upsetting, but do you know what? I don’t think I really realised how strong my team are until this lockdown, they are amazing. Everyone in business is always like, “Don’t employ family, don’t employ friends,” but Ella’s my cousin, Hannah is my best friend from school, and my sister was my first-ever employee. The biggest thing I’ve learned is how much they actually care. Hannah hasn’t had a day off in 23 days, she’s been working like 16-hour days every single day. It’s just amazing.
Creatively though, lockdown has been quite good for me because last year, we had 12 shows in different cities and different countries so I was travelling the whole time, and it was quite stop and start with me painting. I’ve just had absolutely no choice but to paint as much as I possibly can in the last six months. And it’s working. I can see it in my art, it’s just getting better. I’m really in the zone right now creatively and if lockdown hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. Preparing for shows in London is what I love, running around a week before, getting all this stuff together. But the girls have got it now and I can just stick to what I do best!
We can definitely vouch for that. What else can you tell us about the London exhibition? How was that an evolution of the project that you had in London before that?
ST: The very first one happened a year ago and the show was called Send Nudes. We had a nude catwalk and I was painting it. We had 25 women and on the day I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll paint them all. Everyone can set up and I’ll just paint the women.’ But by the end of it, I had like eight helpers because it takes so long. Then we did another one in Sydney where I got a team of helpers.
Then, when I got the Carnaby Street store – which is seriously like the biggest achievement of my entire life – the thought of not doing a Nudey event felt so stupid. I just wanted to do it again. We chatted it through and we wondered, “Does it really work if I’m not there? If not painting, is it still my work?” We had the realisation that it’s really not about me anymore. It’s the artwork, the brand, it’s the team. And then they did it and it was fine. It’s quite relaxing, actually, knowing that I can just be like, “I want to have a show in New York next week, but I won’t be there,” and it’s fine.
Let’s talk about the latest news on the Instagram content rules. How do rules on nudity for platforms like Instagram affect your work and how you’re able to promote yourself?
ST: I can’t put any money behind any ads on Instagram because Instagram doesn’t let me, so I’m completely organic, which is annoying because it is still a business. We’ve had a couple of photos reported, but, for the amount of full-frontal nudity I put on there, I haven’t been banned yet! I definitely think that there’s some algorithm thing on our account because of the lack of engagement I see. I see other artists that don’t sell anywhere near as much work and that don’t have a team, but are a bit bigger than me on Instagram.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
ST: I did this concept like two years ago where I painted a picture and posted it on Instagram every single day, for 100 days at 8pm, and said, “If you want a chance to buy it, then all you have to do is be the first one to comment.” When I first did it, I was like, “Why have I done this? Everyone’s just going to see every single day that I’m not selling my work. So for the first four days, I was asking my friends and family to fake comment like, “Me, me, me.”
Then after about day five, I noticed that there were accounts I didn’t recognise that actually wanted to buy. A hundred days went by and they all sold. At that time, I only had 30,000 followers, and my mum was like, “Sophie, you’re onto something here.” On that day, we had over 300 orders for £250. That was just the f*cking start. So with the challenge this time, I’m pushing it a bit at £2,500, which is a lot, but we’re on day 36. They sold every day, and I’m hoping we’ll just keep growing. It’s so important to put yourself out there on social media and be like, “This could not sell, and I could be embarrassing myself, but here it is anyway.”
Stay up to date with the latest from Sophie Tea on her website.