It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when giving and goodwill take center stage, along with countless productions of The Nutcracker. Most frequently, tutus flash by on Sugar Plum Fairies. However, in the right place at the right time, passersby may catch a glimpse of a paunchy, middle-age man photographing himself in nothing but a pink tulle skirt.
Bob Carey begins these self-portraits in 2003, when Ballet Arizona asks him to illustrate what ballet means to him. A commercial and fine art photographer, he decides to shoot himself in black and white, wearing a tutu. He chooses a pink one, simply because he likes its tone in black and white. After that self-portrait, he keeps the skirt, thinking that he might use it again. He and his wife, Linda, are moving from Phoenix to New York City. Before they embark on their cross-country drive, he throws the tutu in their back seat in case they come across a place for a great shot.
Six months later, when Linda is diagnosed with breast cancer, the color pink takes on an entirely different meaning. Since then, Bob has been taking his self-portraits as part therapy for himself and part support for Linda and other women fighting the disease. While he can’t cure cancer, he has discovered that laughter is strong medicine.
Even though treatment centers try to maintain positive environments, patients understandably aren’t too cheerful to be there. When Linda shares a new tutu photo, however, she notices how the mood in the room changes. “It makes them happy,” says Bob, of the people who see his pictures.
During her treatments, Linda also notices that other patients struggle to meet expenses not covered by insurance. One mother comes to her appointments with her child, because she can’t afford daycare. Another woman waits four hours for a ride instead of paying for transportation. The Careys decide to start a foundation to help breast cancer patients cover such needs and are using the tutu photos as a way to fundraise. By selling tutu postcards, prints and T-shirts, they raise enough money to self-publish Ballerina, a collection of 61 tutu photos. In turn, they are selling the coffee table book as well as donating it to treatment centers throughout the country. On December 4, they participate in Holiday House NYC's Author's Night for a major book signing.
Once they launch a website for The Tutu Project, their story quickly goes viral and attracts a global village of supporters. Denise Nehila is browsing Yahoo! News one morning when one of Bob's photos catches her eye. She searches for more information about them and lands on the Tutu Facebook page. Few people have discovered it yet, so she is able to banter one-on-one with Bob on the page. Then she buys a T-shirt, which arrives in the wrong size. To straighten out the order, she and Bob connect on the phone. When she realizes that they live within 70 miles of each other -- in Saddle River and Flemington, New Jersey -- Denise invites Bob and Linda over for dinner. For a hostess gift, they bring a print of a tutu picture taken on the New Jersey boardwalk, a kind gesture that moves Denise to tears. Her husband and three sons immediately take a liking to Bob, while Denise and Linda fall into a natural friendship.
A month later, Denise begins volunteering for the Careys. She helps organize the first Tutu Walk in October 2012, which includes a post-walk brunch, raffle and book signing. A big fan of Brighton Collectibles, she purchases the company's annual Power of Pink bracelets -- one to wear and one to donate to the raffle.
Bob refers to The Tutu Project as "a little wacky idea," but it's the Careys' authenticity that has captured imaginations worldwide. Married for 25 years, they seem to have an extraordinarily genuine, loving relationship and wonderful joie de vivre. While most people initially laugh at the sight of a chubby man in a pink tutu, they also recognize that Bob is expressing his vulnerability and isolation in the face of Linda's illness. His willingness to wear his heart on his skirt for his wife has inspired other men to do the same. All over the world, men have begun supporting loved ones who are fighting breast cancer by wearing pink tutus.
The Careys receive supportive emails from around their global village, especially from Germany. Tribal DDB, an advertising agency for Deutsche Telekom, is looking for poignant, internet-driven stories when they learn about The Tutu Project. They're featuring the Careys in a series of commercials airing through May 2014.
Apart from a two-year remission, Linda has been on chemotherapy for the past decade and will remain on treatment for the foreseeable future. Yet she refuses to be limited by her illness, instead pursuing all her projects with great passion. "It comes down to a choice," Linda says. "I choose living life."
As for Bob, he takes his tutu with him wherever he goes, looking for the next opportunity to bring some sweet diversion into people’s lives. It seems Sugar Plum Fairies can come in all shapes and sizes.