“They’re saying, ’Aw shit, not another Traci Lords title,’” said my sales manager Allyssa. Dirty Pictures was proving a flop. All those movies that had elevated Traci’s net worth were now clogging the market. Traci herself was disgusted with the results.
“I’m seeing myself in all these crappy little videos,” she was saying to another starlet as the two of them teetered on stiletto heels through the crowded aisles of the June, ’85 CES Show. Returning to my booth, I found myself behind them, listening in. As we reached my Superior Video display, the Love Call sounded from my big speakers. Traci glanced at her image on my Trinitrons, groaned and covered her eyes. “See what I mean?” I was tempted to rush up behind the pair and cackle, “Now I’ve got you forever, my pretty.”
That summer, Traci tried to break into legitimate films but couldn’t get past the “blue curtain” that keeps porn stars out of Hollywood.
She next tried to follow the example pioneered by Ginger Lynn: the “exclusive.” Ginger had joined Vivid Video as a partner in producing her own movies. Instead of dashing from one production to another, working for a day rate of $1000 to $1500, Ginger would make one movie a month and take a percentage of the profits. Each monthly release would have no other new Ginger Lynn pictures to compete with. The deal worked. At a time when manufacturers were struggling to sell 2000 pieces of a new movie, Ginger on the Rocks, Poonies, and The Ginger Effect averaged over 6000 each. Ginger was doing so well that she turned down Ferrari Mike’s offer of $5000 a day to break her exclusive contract and appear in his movie.
Early in 1986, Traci announced the formation of TLC (Traci Lords Company) Productions. She said she’d finally have control over her career. “When someone hears the name Traci Lords,” she said in AVN, “I want them to think that this is going to be a good film. It has to be a good film.”
Then her first release, Traci Takes Tokyo, appeared. It was so shoddy that voices directing the cast were left on the soundtrack. Reviewers were disappointed…and puzzled. What happened?
A month before the picture was released, I got an inkling that Traci was in trouble, when one of her new business partners gave me a call.
Next: Lords, Lies and Videotape Part 8: Partners from Hell
Traci started at the top. Her first job: Penthouse centerfold (September, 1984). But, unlike women who use these “high class” spreads to launch legitimate modeling and acting careers, Traci went in another direction. Blame Tom Byron. His meeting with her became a legend.
It happened on the set of Richard Mailer’s, What Gets Me Hot. Traci was “testing” porn work as a “nude extra,” a woman who provides window dressing but doesn’t perform sex.
Mailer hadn’t needed her, but “Traci was so beautiful I just had to have her in the picture.”
Byron first saw her in the kitchen, away from the cameras. “I felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of beauties, but when I saw Traci…it was like a wet dream come true.”
Mailer came upon the two of them writhing on a butcher block. The veteran pornographer wasted no time; Traci lost her “screen cherry” but gained a boyfriend and a new career–one she plunged into.
As one of the first stars to capitalize on the enormous volume of videos shot in the mid-’80s, Traci Lords worked in 105 movies in less than 20 months. Her presence made hits of Those Young Girls, Battle of the Stars, Sex Fifth Avenue, Aroused, Talk Dirty to Me, Part III, Educating Mandy, Bad Girls III, and my own Physical II.
The Dark Brothers’ punk rock epic New Wave Hookers, with its flash-trash cover photo of Traci, became the number one renting adult video of all time. It stayed in the top ten for 52 weeks–until the scandal hit.
There were good reasons for her popularity: creamy skin, a perfect 36-23-36 figure, large hazel eyes, and waves of hair that were light chestnut or dark blonde, depending on the light or hairdresser’s tint. The nipples on her “balloon breasts”–as Jerry Butler called them in his autobiography Raw Talent–puffed up when she was aroused.
“It’s like her tits have tits,” panted my attorney, who traded $300 in legal fees for copies of my two Lords titles Physical II and Dirty Pictures.
Traci’s trademark feature was The Pout, a full, lower-lipped challenge to all red-blooded American men (and to plastic surgeons whose clients wanted the look, too).
Along with her beauty, Traci brought to the screen a genuine enthusiasm. This child of the Sexual Revolution took pride in her work, free of the martyred shame that haunted so many porn women in the past.
“They represent a new breed of performer in our industry,” said Harry Reems, in an AVN interview, after working with both Traci and her leading rival, Ginger Lynn. “They walk in without all these inhibitions that we all grew up with and to them it’s a celebration of life that sex is supposed to be. I found that when I got into films, most performers wouldn’t even tell their parents what they were doing. Today, the parents are their agents and managers.”
You know how a gambler gets on a roll and then bets his entire winnings on one toss of the dice?
That’s how I felt making Deviations.
After the success of All the King’s Ladies and Physical, I upped the budget for Superior Video’s rock-n-roll epic. But I didn’t figure on spending more than the cost of both those two previous pictures combined.
But that’s what I did. Somebody stop me!
And there was another gamble: giving a critical starring role to a brand new lady making her XXX debut. That goes against all porn wisdom.
New girls might freak out. You want to break them in gradually.
Anticipating sex before a camera can be more nerve-wracking than the experience itself. In her first six months, Ginger Lynn would only do nude modeling, turning down one lucrative “commercial”* gig after another. The exquisite brunette, Nina Alexander, was so nervous before her first on-screen sex scene that she threw up.
*(“Commercial”: Industry term for hardcore sex.)
So when agent Joe Elliot introduced me to a lovely chestnut-haired ingenue, I knew that giving her the starring role as the singer in a babe-band-gone-dirty was a big risk.
But I had a hunch that Shanna McCullough was one special lady.
Was I ever right! Deviations marked the “screen cherry” role of an adult movie legend.
I figured on doing some fancy sync editing to make it seem like Shanna was actually singing. But no trick editing was needed.
A buzz went through the audience. The singer on the stage had stopped singing, but her voice was still pumping through the big speakers.
It was the sixth take (so the two cameras could record all possible angles) of the four-girl rock band’s opening number, “We’re the Deviations.” The “singer,” Shanna McCullough, had been lip-syncing to a recorded professional’s voice so well that, until she stopped mid-song to point out that the audio operator had lined up the wrong take, the audience had thought she really was doing the singing. Realizing that this lady–a porno actress no less–was giving a remarkable performance, they burst into applause.
Superior Video had the distinction of shooting Shanna McCullough’s first-ever screen sex. Would it be immodest to claim that this was the scene that launched a legend?
Her “screen cherry” debut with Mike Horner was so sizzling hot that during a break, I swore I saw steam rising from her bottom.
Shanna was no dewy-eyed ingenue. She was a professional actress, starring every Saturday night in a Berkeley stage production of The Rocky Horror Show.
In her early 20’s, the East Bay sophisticate had a wardrobe of kinky outfits and an eight-foot boa constrictor that would later crawl all over her naked body in Deviations. She had that wholesome enthusiasm of a sex player absolutely free of guilt about her erotic adventures.
Needless to say, the seasoned actress had no problem performing before a nightclub audience whose idea of fun was to get down-and-dirty with the cast.
Next post (within a few days, I promise): Shooting Deviations, Part 2: A Sexual Circus.
Lisa DeLeeuw described one of her worst experiences. Working for Svetlana (“Sweatlana”) Marsh, spending 20-hour days shivering in an unheated sound stage, living on “stale donuts, coffee and hot dogs,” the voluptuous redhead came down with a bad cold and conjunctivitis—“pink eye.” (Passages from SKINFLICKS: The Inside Story of the X-Rated Video Industry are in italics.) By the fifth day, “I just couldn’t go on like that. All of a sudden, I passed out. For half an hour. When I came to, Svetlana says, ‘You just sit there in the corner…you’re background. Fine. “Well, I’m doing that and all of a sudden Jamie (Gillis) comes over and decides to pull me into the scene, grabbing my arms and yanking me in. So I’m playing the scene and Jamie has this stupid cattle whip that he’s holding in the middle so the handle is on one end and the cat-o’-nine-tails on the other. And he’s slinging it like a double pendulum and he catches me—WHACK—right across the bridge of my nose, which he breaks. I just freaked! I blew up and grabbed the whip and started yelling, ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ And the cameraman is up above us on a beam, and he goes, ‘Oh, this is great! Keep goin’!’”
When a woman enters porn she faces two kinds of challenges: those on the set and those away from it. On the set, a porn starlet quickly learns that what the male wants is gospel. If she interrupts a scene because her leg is cramping, she risks causing a lost erection. If it can’t be retrieved, the blame is hers. Once the stud has delivered, the director wants to hurry on to the next scene, regardless of how turned on an actress might be. (Rather than be left high and wet, stars like Annette Haven and Lilly Marlene recruited crew members to help them “finish up.”) Then there are the directors whose grandiose visions of sizzling sex push women beyond their limits.
“Whatever your natural inclinations are, they play on them,” said an anonymous actress in a 1980 Adam Film World interview. The graphic details she added are recounted in SKINFLICKS. Serena’s forced retirement came after a shoot that almost killed her. After a filmed contest to see if she could handle more men than Mai Lin, Serena not only took on more than forty studs but also their microbes. “My doctor said the germs ganged up,” Serena told me. “My belly swelled up like I was pregnant.” Delirious from septic shock, she spent months hospitalized with severe pelvic inflammatory disease…The filmmaker didn’t even send a get-well card.
After enough unpleasant surprises, actresses come to regard all directors as exploiters. Some play the game of balking at every request and negotiating every detail. And directors come to expect actresses to be lazy whores, out to get maximum dollar for minimal effort…”The nicer you treat the performers,” observed porn historian Holliday, “the more likely they are to shit on you.”
New ladies were afraid to balk at pornographer’s directions for fear of being called “difficult.” Compounding the physical rigors were the non-stop months of serial 14-hour days needed to build a six-figure nest egg. In Adult Video News, director Bruce Seven complained, “By the time they get to me, a lot of the performers are half-dead from overwork.” He followed that statement with a graphic description of what he meant.
One way for ladies to cope with the demands was through cocaine, which became epidemic in the frenzy of video shoots during the 1980s. Stressed-out actresses often find that on a porn set, things do go better with coke, at first. It dulls pain, creates euphoria, gives a feeling of boundless energy, and—many ladies claim—makes them horny. They can work longer hours, earn more money, and chase off all the bad feelings waiting in ambush after the action ends.
The poster girl for cocaine addiction was the late Shauna Grant. Her whispered nickname “Applecoke” was a play on her real surname, Applegate. Whether her death was a suicide, as porn critics claim, or murder by drug dealers, hers was a worst-case scenario of life away from the porn set, where a whole new world of challenges awaited.
Kristara Barrington said former high school friends in Illinois now called her a slut. On finding out Ginger Lynn was a porn star, her bank manager stopped treating her as a respected customer and even refused to validate her parking. Locals pasted sex magazine photos of Shauna Grant on her former high school locker. Relatives and spouses of porn stars become resigned to receiving anonymous packages with hate messages scrawled on pictures of the star. I delivered a script to Lilly Marlene and was reviewing its highlights with her when something crashed against the back door. “It’s those kids again,” she sighed. They’d bang on the door and leave obscene messages.
If porn haters weren’t bad enough, there were the porn lovers. Lisa DeLeeuw described her first unplanned public encounter with porn fans. “I was in the frozen food section. I’m trying to decide whether it will be fish sticks tonight or pizza, and suddenly some little Jewish guy comes running up and goes, ‘Oh, I saw you last night on the video. You were fucking Jamie Gillis!’ And all these little old Jewish ladies—the store is right in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood, Ralph’s Market on Sunset—they all drop their matzo balls and go ‘What?’ And they follow me all around the store and I hear, ‘Oh, I really like you!’ ‘I watch you very week!’” Those were the nice fans. There was also the kind that the late porn historian Jim Holliday called “the Toad Patrol.”
Porn fame meant gross encounters of the worst kind: Grandpa (Al Lewis) Munster posing for photos at a trade show and–to quote AVN—“goosing the smut starlets.” An inmate sent Debi Diamond a plastic baggie of semen. Someone posing as a cop called porn companies, trying to get the address of Kelly O’Dell…these fans stalk starlets from one club date to the next, steal their purses at trade shows, whisper lewd comments as they sign autographs, grab flesh and later brag to their friends that they actually bedded the star they hunger after. Who’s to disprove them?
In the SKINFLICKS account of Juliet Anderson’s premier party for Educating Nina, a drunken neighbor, braying for sex, kept returning after being turned away,. I finally told him that one of the guests was a former Green Beret interrogator who would subject him to “…involuntary unleashing of bladder and bowel functions.” That statement made him stay home; he turned out to be innocuous. More diabolical was a rock band whose album Love Letters to Joanna Storm included the romantic .38 Caliber Kiss. The band kept pestering porn people to give them Ms. Storm’s address.
Having ruminated over the nature of porn fans, I came to the following conclusion: There are contradictions in the American male’s attitude toward the porno queen: his frustrated lust for her versus his impulse to condemn her; his desire to meet her and impress her versus his fear of her scorn for his inadequacies. He hides his conflicts behind rough, macho swagger.
Porn fans can be avoided (or at least relegated to limited exposure), but there are some people whom porn princesses can’t escape: their significant others. Porn agent Jim South described a malady he called “boyfriendinitis.” Its sobbing victims would call him to cancel shoots due to black eyes and chipped teeth. A rock musician, quoted in the Bay Area magazine, Spectator, said, “Strippers and porn stars are a lot like rock n’ roll groupies…They don’t have a lot of self-esteem. Treat ‘em good and they’ll walk all over you; treat ‘em like shit and they’ll worship the ground you walk on.” His statement notwithstanding, there’s a simpler reason for “boyfriendinitis” violence.
Kristara Barrington lamented, “When I come home to my boyfriend and we make love, I think of it as work almost.” Musing over why industry love affairs were so short, Juliet Anderson said, “When you drive a bus ten hours a day, you don’t want to spend your vacation on a Greyhound.” Picture the poor boyfriend, squirming with desire while waiting for his porn queen girlfriend to return from work. He can’t understand why his exhausted lover won’t give him the attention he thinks he deserves. Not noted for their compassionate sensitivity, porn stars’ boyfriends often react with fists.
Pursuing porn’s promise of wealth, many actresses would echo Samantha Strong’s declaration upon signing a 15-picture contract with Western Visuals: “I do not have, nor do I want, a personal life right now.” Alice Springs put it simply: “I don’t have a boyfriend, thank God.”
Most ladies find X-rated stardom a lonely road, strewn with broken relationships, leering fans, hostile media, angry relatives, menacing cops, back-stabbing competitors and exploitive agents, managers and producers. They suffer the smirks, snickers, and sermons of a society quick to condemn, slow to forget. Behind their tough-girl act of demands, tantrums, vendettas and lawsuits, many of these “prima donnas,” barely into adulthood are terrified.
Not surprisingly, many porn actresses decided to give up on a lucrative career. On page 20 of the September ’84 issue of Adult Video News, Desiree Lane was hailed as a new starlet with “the potential to become the new Seka”; on page 22 of the same issue, Ron Jeremy’s column announced her retirement. Adult Video News sarcastically noted the comings and goings: “Samantha Strong…saw agents and producers, got booked solid, then decided to quit every other month.” “Erica Boyer, from all reports, has met another guy and is out of the biz once again. Gentlemen place your bets.”
Leaving the business behind becomes especially frustrating when women find that a past porn career becomes like a stink that won’t wash off. After dating Michael (“Batman”) Keaton for two years, Serena Robinson told him of her past porn career as “Rachel Ryan.” Keaton subsequently dumped her. There are ongoing debates about whether Megan Leigh and Alex Jordan actually committed suicide. Was Leigh shot to death? Was Jordan’s hanging an autoerotic experiment gone wrong? One thing both had in common was that they were soured on porn. There is no question that superstar Savannah (Shannon Wilsey) killed herself. The temperamental porn queen (Her infamous shoot-stopping declaration: “I’m on break—NOW!”) known for romps with rock stars, Slash and Axl Rose, was being hounded by the IRS. She had wanted to break into “legit” show business like Traci Lords (who used her “child victim” plea) had done, but feared her porn career prevented that. On July 11, 1995, her drunken ride in her Corvette ended in a crash. Then, in the garage of the Universal City home she had paid cash for, Savannah put a 9-millimeter slug through her head.
Despite the potholes in porn’s road to riches there are women who prospered in porn, proud of their careers. Part 3 of Starlets or Harlots? will examine what it takes for success without apologies. I will discuss my all-time favorites, such as Nina Hartley, Shanna McCullough and Lilly Marlene. I’ll include my worst directing experience ever, with a woman who became one of the biggest stars of the late 1980s.
The cocaine being snorted by the starlets gathered in the restroom at the 1986 Winter CES Show didn’t bother Alana, Superior’s receptionist/Jill-of-all-trades…What offended her was that the ladies were discussing the most efficient way to divide up the spaces in their hotel suites, so they could turn the maximum number of tricks that evening with customers they met during the show.
“Most of the girls here were in on it,” Alana exclaimed when she returned to the Superior Video booth. “I thought they were supposed to be actresses, not tawdry little whores!”
The preceding, fromSKINFLICKS, introduces chapters about the new breed of porn queens who seized the opportunity to make big money during porn’s video revolution. Theirs was a hothouse world of fierce competition, of sex coaches and “porno stage mothers”; of compulsive plastic surgery and multiple breast enlargements; a world where 19-year-olds became cottage industry corporations. Before video, none of this was possible. (Note: passages from SKINFLICKS are in italics.)
In 1981, before the video revolution took off, Veronica Hart, “the Audrey Hepburn of porn,” lamented in a Playboy interview, “I think I’ll have worked a year before any of my movies are out—there’s such a backlog of films that you sometimes have to wait eight months for a theater date. Then I’ll work another year before anyone really knows me.”
In contrast, videos arrived in stores the same month they were shot, and new women could rocket to stardom in weeks. Or sooner: CDI’s Traci Lords clone Barbi and Vidway’s Heather Hunter, promoted at trade shows, became mini-celebrities before they appeared in a single feature!
The enormous volume of video productions meant an attractive newcomer could work non-stop for months on end. In 1981, Veronica Hart worked in only eleven features during a nine-month period; a decade later, lovely English blonde Taylor Wane starred in over 80 videos in the same length of time.
A performer’s videos built her a nationwide base of fans who’d pay to see her on the dance circuit. As a featured act, she could make five to ten thousand for a week’s engagement. Established top-draw Amber Lynn could command up to $24,000 for a week of naked prancing.
Two other factors merged with the fast-track video scene to bring women flocking to agent Jim South’s Van Nuys studio: a Reaganomics-era poverty rate 27 percent higher in 1988 than in 1970 and the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1970s that freed a generation of girls from the constraints of the past. A 1988 federal survey concluded that 51.9% of young women aged 15-19 had premarital sex—up from 28.6% in 1970. In AVN interviews, Ginger Lynn said she had sex “ten times a day” at age 13…a sweet-faced blonde from rural North Carolina told me in South’s offices that she was 13 when her mother recommended anal intercourse as “hillbilly birth control.”
Striving to increase their marketability, women became what director Greg Dark called “plastic surgery junkies.” Nips and tucks and nose jobs were only the beginning. Multiple breast enhancements gave Beverlee Hills (formerly Gina Gianetti) a 60-inch chest and Wendy Whoppers claimed her basketball-sized bumpers measured 81 inches. Lynn LeMay…grabbed my hands and shoved them into her breasts. “Don’t they feel natural?” she enthused. She bubbled on about the slits in her armpits where the silicone gels were slipped in being almost invisible. “Not bad for only $5000, huh?” Conducting my own assessment, I agreed that the added material was delectably soft.
Stardom opened the door to other hustles. Like mainstream stars, they hired publicists, went on autograph junkets, booked talk shows, and invented “exposes” for Hard Copy and A Current Affair. They formed fan clubs, set up 900-numbers and appeared on baseball-type playing cards. Via mail order, they sold autographed photos, tapes, newsletters and the ever-popular “unwashed” panties. (A lady who requested anonymity told me she kept up with the demand for her used undies by recruiting girlfriends to “break in” new pairs.)
Seeing the money their daughters were making, mothers wanted in on the action. Moms played roles in the careers of Jamie Summers, Sabrina Dawn, Tami Lee Curtis, and—tragically—in the death of Megan Leigh, which was either a suicide or a murder, depending upon who you ask. (Fathers were less enthused with the idea of their daughters being porn stars. One pissed-off papa with mob ties threatened to have agent Jim South killed, until a porn mogul, with even stronger underworld ties, dissuaded the mad dad.)
Taking advantage of these competitive starlets, pornographers pushed them to their limits—and beyond. A self-described “total emotional, mental and physical wreck,” Nina Alexander suffered a breakdown. Taylor Wane spent two weeks “in a sick-bed…covered with bruises.” Self-acknowledged “nymphomaniac” Mai Lin, whose porn career lasted from the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘80s, said it took her three years to fully recuperate from a rectal injury. In a 1989 issue of Erotic Film Guide, veteran pornographer Bill Margold said that under current working conditions “the women will be literally screwed to death. It’s the worst kind of burnout…”
My next entry (Starlets or Harlots? Part 2) will detail the casualties, including suicides, among video-era women. Topics will include drugs, obsessed fans, disease, social ostracism and the phenomenon known to pornographers as “boyfriendinitis.”
Part 3 will deal with those who enjoyed successful porn queen careers, showing what it took to survive the pitfalls. I will discuss my all-time favorites, such as Nina Hartley, Shanna McCullough and Lilly Marlene. I’ll also include my worst directing experience ever, with a woman who became one of the biggest stars of the late 1980s.
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