This story appears in the October 2016 issue of Playboy. Subscribe

The men and women in this series will change how you think about business, music, porn, comedy, gaming and more. They’ve risked it all—even their lives—to do what they love, showing us what can be accomplished if we break the rules. Meet the Renegades of 2016.

It’s hard to capture an old friend in one anecdote, but I’ll try. The time is two a.m., and Stoya and I are smoking outside an East Village bar. A mink hangs from her shoulders. The streetlights catch her feline cheekbones like a kiss. Stoya tells me about the mid–19th century prima ballerina Emma Livry. In an era when dancers routinely caught fire from stage lights, Livry refused to destroy the ethereality of her art by soaking her tutu in flame retardant. When she died of burns, she had no regrets. Stoya notes that panic about safety often focuses on the bodies, and the choices, of young women. She wonders why no one thought to move the lights.

This moment hints at Stoya’s ferocious mix of glamour, toughness and nerdery. A classically trained ballerina until an injury in her mid-teens ruined her prospects, Stoya became a porn star—and I use the word star in the sense that applies to Garbo. She has written for The New York Times, starred in a Serbian sci-fi film (the upcoming Ederlezi Rising) and trained as an aerialist in Moscow. She has also moved into entrepreneurship, co-founding the genre-defying porn site TrenchcoatX.

When one of the biggest porn studios in the country treated her with disrespect, she chose to work as a waitress rather than kowtow. No matter what she does, Stoya exudes a fierce, hard-won sense of freedom.

What challenges do you face every day in the course of your work?
What day is it, because just about every day the challenge is different. That’s the nature of challenge. This month, my big challenge is learning how to deal with the bureaucratic and office end of running a porn production company and website. This time last year, my challenge was, “Oh fuck, our first programmer bailed on us, and the new one doesn’t have time to figure out how the first one was doing it, so how am I going to learn enough HTML to get my shit together?”

How do you balance your art, your ethical/political ideals and the grind of running a business?
Pessimism time: The question for me there is less about how I hope to balance those, and more, “Is it possible to have a financially viable business at an increasingly large scale while doing things in the way that seems most right?”

How do you deal with backlash?
Which backlash? The backlash from people from whatever extremist religion—underline italics bold, it’s not the Christians, not the Muslims, it’s whichever religion’s gone crazypants off the rails—who think some book written however the fuck long ago that said people who have sex in whatever proscribed way aren’t people? Is it the backlash from feminists who say I’m a traitor to women? Or from other feminists who want to put sex in a box where its all sunshine and daisies and and where all porn is—barf—empowering? Is it the backlash from the people who have no problems with porn but think it’s disgusting that I smoke cigarettes? I just try not to engage. The only times I can’t avoid engaging with it are when there’s a well-intentioned fan who thinks “fuck the haters” is a rallying cry, or when some journalist throws the worst shit people say about you in your face.

Beauty is the thing that makes it worth it. It’s what makes you continue to respond to the question, Why bother?

I want to talk about beauty—and I mean beauty in the larger sense, not in the sense used to sell face cream. Beauty is the thing that makes it worth it. It’s what makes you drag your ass out of bed in the morning. It’s what makes you continue to respond to the internal question, Why bother?

Your professional name, Stoya, is a tribute to your Serbian grandmother, and you recently starred in Ederlezi Rising, a Serbian sci-fi romance. What does your Serbian heritage mean to you?
There’s a very specific mix of realism and hope that I always saw in my grandmother and that I see in Serbia. Pragmatism might be a more precise word than realism. In the West, speicially the English speaking West, we have so many pompous bags of air in suits. We see them go on television or on Twitter, and I’ve sat across from some of them in their offices. They promise people the most outlandish things. Anyone looking rationally at what they have to work with knows they’re full of shit. They’re as self-aggrandizing and empty as the Wizard of Oz. My grandmother makes amazing things with no resources. You know those Styrofoam trays that meat comes in? My grandmother would build whole landscapes from those trays. Landscapes, from actual trash. That’s looking at what is actually there, which is trash, and transforming it with some paint and some effort and a shit-ton of creativity. Everyone who worked on Ederlezi Rising in Serbia is like that. I’ve been in pornos with budgets bigger than Ederlezi Rising has, and it’s beautiful.

How has training as a ballerina affected your life?
It gave me a near suicidal work ethic. It gave me a very interesting relationship to physical sensations of pain—by this I mean complex and multilayered. For people who took a lot of dance instruction in youth, and went into sex or sex-work-adjacent work, it seems pretty common to have a multifaceted masochism that relates to lived experience in a dance studio. Of course, ballet gives one a well-practiced awareness of one’s body that comes in super handy when one is in front of camera.

One of the things I’ve always seen and admired in you is this fierce, hard-won sense of freedom. I’d love to hear you riff on what freedom means to you.
First we have to acknowledge capitalism. Money exerts behavioral control in so many ways; that’s the frontline of behavioral control in the US. You spend your childhood hearing you have to do this and that to get into a good college, to get a degree to get a good job and buy shit. It’s not even presented as “buy shit” but as having things integral to adulthood, to fulfilling the promise of the American dream, like a very large house that costs a lot to keep warm in the winter. That’s broken in me. I don’t have that button. I don’t have the “how will you have that lifestyle” button. I just sort of don’t care. Which could work very much against me in the context of how to run a business, but it works in the context of being happy with the work I’m doing and the conditions I’m doing it in, and its driven me to a point where the only dudes in suits I have to answer to are VISA, MasterCard and the IRS.

Meet the rest of the Renegades here.