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Lifers, Defectors and Dealmakers: Adult Film Stars Weigh the Challenges of Leaving Porn

Lifers, Defectors and Dealmakers: Adult Film Stars Weigh the Challenges of Leaving Porn: Jameson: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images; Danger: Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Hartley: Jonathan Leibson/WireImage; Drake: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic; Calvert: Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic; House: Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

Jameson: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images; Danger: Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Hartley: Jonathan Leibson/WireImage; Drake: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic; Calvert: Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic; House: Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

A lot has changed since David Foster Wallace penned a silicone-pumped POV of the adult industry for the September 1998 issue of Premiere. “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment” depicted a world of doe-eyed starlets tethered to flinty-eyed briefcase pimps with orange-glazed skin, “all jowls and no hairlines,” a group crowded with “comic book caricatures of sexual allure.”

Two decades later, DFW’s six feet under and so is Premiere, another magazine slain by a fickle reading public and a wildly shifting media landscape. Et tu, porn?

The beast the San Fernando Valley bore remains, but it’s almost unrecognizable from its backroom beginnings. Born on celluloid, weaned to video fame, and Icarus-like in its DVD-fueled surge, the porn industry has shrunk in the last decade thanks to the unchecked growth of its web incarnation. And with so many actors, niche focuses and free clips, it’s hard for “traditional” stars and newcomers alike to make a living. Some can do well, but it takes a mix of marketability, skill and luck—something not everyone can tap into. The real winners, in terms of balance sheets, are those who own the websites most of us are afraid to visit at work. And the winning performers are the ones flexible enough to parlay their reps into ancillary ventures.

After speaking with a dozen current and former actors and industry executives, it became apparent that you can survive the business—but whether you leave or stay on as a “lifer,” you’re forever branded, a fact that the Internet has ensured.

It’s never been more acceptable to be a porn star, but when everyone’s digital image is a click away, what constitutes success? If you’ve acted on camera, can you transition to a normal life if and when you decide to walk away? Can anyone ever really retire? And if you do—then what?


Casey Calvert. Credit: Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic

Casey Calvert. Credit: Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic

Casey Calvert graduated with honors from the University of Florida on a full academic scholarship, majoring in film during the day, and focusing on more extracurricular pursuits after dark. On the day we meet, over tea and a scone at a Los Feliz coffee shop, she’s wearing Gucci glasses, her raven-colored hair pulled back smartly. Her voice barely fluctuates beyond a hum. “Great tea here,” she says quietly.

Calvert bucks the stereotype in many respects—at least the beginning of her story. “I was so painfully shy,” she says. Boosting her shaky confidence was the M.O., and Calver got into performing while still a virgin.

At first it was just modeling, tame stuff, she says. Solo photo shoots, then kink and fetish fantasies, sometimes with other girls—an opportunity for a very timid girl to come out of her shell, she adds matter-of-factly. But Calvert seems very aware of the irony in oozing sexuality on camera while being so inexperienced.

“I drew the line at fluid exchange. No kissing, no sort of body parts touching. I was still a virgin, I hadn’t even kissed anybody by the time I made it to college. I had my first kiss when I was 18—and I got mono.”

A competent student, Calvert carved out time for work, collecting $150 to $250 an hour fetish modeling. And she continued to live with her conservative family—doctor father, a stay-at-home mom. Comfortable.

By the time she turned 21 and graduated, Calvert had lost her virginity—not on camera, even though she says she flirted with the idea—and was eager to head to L.A. to really start performing. As hard as it is to believe, it was a move in part prompted by her parents. “They read my journal when I was fetish modeling—my mom flipped out.” But with the help of a friend and mentor, Calvert managed to win over both parents, convincing them of her health and safety. So much so that they even “helped me pay my first three months rent in L.A.”

She landed in Los Angeles in late 2012, linked with Spiegler Girls, one of the industry’s biggest agencies, and consistently booked shoots. A lot of them.

When we spoke in February, it was her first day off in weeks. At $1,000 a scene, and working almost every day, that translates to well over six figures annually. But the work has been challenging to her off-screen relationships, and it has complicated her next step. Nearly 26, she says she aims to quit “either when nobody hires me anymore, or when my body won’t let me perform anymore.”

But that’s not quite the whole story. Calvert wants to be behind the camera more than in front of it—and in Hollywood.

“I’m working on a feature film right now, a mainstream film,” she reveals, a sci-fi vehicle with an attached cast, a script she wrote and full financial backing she wrangled. Calvert’s already negotiating with production companies, looking for a sales agent before principal photography begins. “In the perfect world, this movie is the stepping stone to transitioning out of porn.”

That could be tough. Calvert admits she’s worried her past will be revealed—and it has before. When she first came to L.A., Calvert frequented casting calls for commercial roles. But when directors uncovered her past, they humiliated her. “Once they actually called me back to tell me to my face I was a whore and unhireable.”

So it’s no surprise she’s tense when sitting with execs, brooding over whether they’ll learn her alias. That’s led her to question everything. She had toyed with the idea of attending USC in her college days and can’t help but wonder: If she’d come west back then, would she have entered the adult world? And if not, would her film career be off and running?

“My life would have been completely different,” she says. “Everything.”


Jessica Drake. Credit: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Jessica Drake. Credit: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Among the sources interviewed for this story, the consensus was a small group of porn performers, perhaps 10–20 percent, make over six figures solely from performing. And with producers free to choose from such a glut, even name performers can find themselves in limbo. Porn isn’t a gold rush anymore, and many performers have told me that its economics are a trap. If and when they stop performing, they’re often stuck with few transferable job skills, resume gaps, spotty educations, a scarlet letter when peers uncover their past and a judgmental labor market.

Still, there’s money to be made by those who can adapt and, more important, diversify.

A decade ago, performers “were making money in spite of themselves,” remembers Jessica Drake, a Texas dancer who entered the industry in 2000. As the rules changed, people like Drake were forced to think quickly. Now her CV includes pleasure product endorsements and sex ed seminars in addition to on-screen engagements. At the height of DVD in the 2000s, about 400-500 titles launched a week—today it’s about half that many, she says, which Drake and others claim has forced actors to work more, for less. It’s also what’s made entrepreneurship so vital, she adds.

Scenes can run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $2,000 for top talent, averaging about $1,000 a pop. That may sound like good money, but “people are having to work harder to get it,” adds Chanel Preston. “Once they could make all their income off of performing, and now they can’t.”

Chanel Preston. Credit: Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic

Chanel Preston. Credit: Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic

Preston began filming in 2010, appearing as often as five times a week. Now the Alaska native says she’s on-camera about half that amount. But ever-fearful of alienating producers with strapped budgets, she says “it would be stupid of me to risk raising my rate, and risk losing work.” So, like many others, Preson supplements her income by dancing at strip clubs. But whereas “girls used to be able to go out on weekends and feature dance and come home with $20,000, now that never happens. Clubs aren’t giving as much money, and people aren’t spending.”

When Drake began working in porn in 2000, at the age of 25, she says she entered with an eye toward longevity. At one point, she endorsed 30 products, but now her likeness remains on only a few, including a Real Doll effigy that retails for $7,000 and a Fleshlight toy that goes for about $100. She gets a cut from each sale, but wouldn’t share just how much—although she does drive a new German sports car and owns two homes, a lifestyle that affords her the ability to give back and volunteer in her free time: she travels with 501©3s to regions hit by natural disasters to help rebuild homes.

A Wicked Pictures contractor, with an eponymous gold necklace dangling around her neck, Drake receives a monthly salary no matter how much she shoots, only filming six or seven times a year, she says, in addition to writing, producing, directing and touring as a sex educator.

However, many younger performers aren’t savvy to the business of the business, another reason why the majority don’t have much left, or a viable strategy, if they decide to step away from the camera.

Abella Danger, left, and Jennifer Lay. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Abella Danger, left, and Jennifer Lay. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“The industry just keeps getting smaller and smaller with porn being free,” says Abella Danger, a 20-year-old from Miami who’s been on-screen for a year and a half and doubles as a brand ambassador for a production company, another way to insure consistent pay. Danger claims to want to do porn “forever,” but in the same breath explains she’ll leave to have kids by age 25. She’s visibly uncomfortable when asked what’s next, fidgeting while taking puffs from a vaporizer at a West Hollywood restaurant. “I know I should be worried, but I can’t bother myself with all these questions about the future.”

If you’re 18, 19, 20, and you’re sucked into a cycle of filming and promoting your persona, schmoozing with fans online and working gruelling gauntlets, an exit strategy is as murky as the industry’s bio-emissions. And when the average career remains around a year—anywhere from 25-50 scenes, which by generous estimates could total maybe $50,000—are alternative job prospects possible?

“There are no prospects,” declares Alec Helmy, the publisher of Xbiz, a trade pub that’s sort of like The Hollywood Reporter for XXX. “That’s the reality of being a porn performer, right? You get to work for as long as people want to watch you, then you have to figure things out for yourself. A lot of people don’t.”

If you’re in demand, it is possible to make money, Helmy says. But he doesn’t think young performers with minimal fiscal know-how can keep it. “If I was 19 years old and I was making a quarter million dollars, I’d probably blow it at the Hard Rock Hotel in Vegas.”


Jenna Jameson. Credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Jenna Jameson. Credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Some have managed to leave porn behind, with varying degrees of success. If you’ve watched the documentaries After Porn Ends or Hot Girls Wanted, you’ve seen how painful those endings can be.

Two names stand out: Jenna Jameson, possibly the most widely recognized porn star of all time, and Sasha Grey, the biggest name of the 2000s. Both are out of the business. At least for now.

After selling her popular Club Jenna website to Playboy for an undisclosed sum in 2006 (rumored to be in the double digit millions), appearing in B-films, even launching a comic book, Jameson made a series of questionable moves. She allegedly squandered her fortune, married, divorced, had kids with a UFC fighter, held up a middle finger to her peers at the Xbiz awards, seemed to succumb to substance abuse (she’s looked plastered in recent interviews), got heavily tattooed and married a convicted felon. And last year, the girl who once told Larry King she was a devout Catholic became a born-again Orthodox Jew.

(I attempted to get in touch via email, but was told by her assistant that Jameson “can’t provide free interviews at the moment.” I tried again. Her husband Lior, a diamond jeweler whose rap sheet includes insurance fraud, asked me to “make her an offer that she can’t refuse.”)

Grey shot to fame thanks to cold good looks and what’s been called performance art for its kink level. In 2011, Grey suddenly left the game after only a few years. But it’s been tough going.

Grey’s music and photography are ambitious, but the 2009 Steven Soderbergh-helmed movie The Girlfriend Experience didn’t prove the launching pad she hoped—the woman who seemed to revel in controversy looked strangely uncomfortable on-screen. Still not yet 30, it remains to be seen if Grey returns or has a second act. But if her subsequent projects continue foundering, it wouldn’t be surprising—although like Jameson, she may not be welcomed back.


Crissy Moran. Credit: Thomas Guerrero

Crissy Moran. Credit: Thomas Guerrero

Some stories of retirement are positive, even if fraught with emotional and financial hurdles.

From 1999 to 2006, Crissy Moran appeared in more than 50 films. At her height, she made more than $15,000 a month from her website and shoots. Surviving a childhood poisoned with sexual abuse, Moran started performing as a way to fill a void—to find love and approval. “It gave a sense of meaning to my life,” she told me by phone. But it didn’t take her long to become engulfed by controlling men and dangerous decisions.

Years of an abusive boyfriend who doubled as her on-screen partner and manager made her quit a decade ago. She claimed a religious revelation, a common theme for ex-performers. While many may use the Lord as a cure-all, Moran took it a big step further. “I told my webmaster I wanted to leave the industry, and they asked me where do I want to send the checks. I said, ‘I don’t want the money. Just take the site down.’”

But it was a platform making hundreds of thousands annually Moran says, and they wouldn’t oblige. And due to her transient lifestyle, Moran no longer retained her contracts. Ten years later, the site is still up, and Moran still hasn’t taken a dime.

“I had no idea how I was going to pay my bills,” she recalls. Moran ended up losing her car and apartment, for years living hand-to-mouth. It would have been easy to collect those checks and return to the game, but if she did, “I would never be free. And what I wanted more than anything was to be gone from that.”

She survived thanks to her church, fan donations and a collection of odd jobs. The biggest support came from Treasures, a 501©3 organization founded by Harmony Dust, an exotic dancer turned UCLA MA who travels to 170 strip clubs a year to promote outreach and rehabilitation.

“Crissy gave up a very comfortable lifestyle,” Dust confirms. “She had a live-in makeup artist and assistant. That’s a lifestyle most people in the industry don’t have.”

Moran appeared on ABC’s Nightline to share her story, and in Glamour. She still can’t escape her past online, but she’s embraced it and is rebuilding—and for possibly the first time, she knows who she is when she looks in the mirror. And likes what she sees.

Today, Moran lives in Texas, splitting time between retail and volunteering at her ministry to help victims of sexual trafficking. And she’s working to build anew with her husband of three years—a second chance at 40.

“It’s a very simple life; it’s all I need,” she continues. “Women in the industry are people, too. Not just objects. We have hopes and dreams, and being a porn star is not our dream.”


Nina Hartley. Credit: Jonathan Leibson/WireImage

Nina Hartley. Credit: Jonathan Leibson/WireImage

There’s a term called a “lifer,” a descriptor Nina Hartley uses to characterize her journey. To hear her tell it, all performers are in it for the long haul—and the best way to make peace with that is to embrace the nonconformity of that choice, and fold it into your life just like any other experience. Own it, she says.

Hartley, nee Marie Louise Hartman, has appeared in over 2,000 scenes since 1982. She still stars in bondage films and produces instructional videos. Pushing 60, she’s established herself as a vocal activist and feminist educator. But the hall of famer is probably best known for portraying the cheating wife who repeatedly cuckolds William H. Macy’s character in Boogie Nights, compelling her on-screen husband to turn a Smith & Wesson Model 36 on her and then himself. Dark stuff. But by her own account, Hartley’s own life has been at times equally dark—which is why she’s adamant performers work on their own terms.

“What happens after [porn] is up to the individual,” Harley says. “The ones that do move on, you don’t hear from them.”

Well, some we do still hear from. Lisa Ann has had success as a radio personality. Others have made unexpected leaps, working for sports teams, or acting in Bollywood productions, and attempting fiction, like Sara Tommasi and Sunny Leone. Stormy Daniels, a performer turned director who now lives in Texas, and Belladonna, are attempting mainstream acting. Catalina Cruz runs a web empire of dozens of sites worth millions, only performing on-camera with her husband and other women.

“Life after porn is a challenge,” confirms Dan Miller, the managing editor of AVN. “But special girls can do it.”

Miller, a former print journalist who’s covered the industry since 2001, points to Tera Patrick, who started posing for Playboy before moving into hardcore work. She retired in 2008, relocating to Italy with her family where she set up a model management firm. But that doesn’t mean she’s out completely—it’s just on her terms now.

“I still have licensing deals, webcam, perform striptease shows,” she told me. “I control all of my movie titles and images that I produced and co-produced.”

In addition to raising her daughter away from the States, Patrick says she’s pursuing a lifelong dream of studying chemistry.


No matter the effect it may have on our psyche, our sex lives, our obsessions with our screens, even our brains, porn isn’t going away. Ever. In 2015, PornHub, one of the web’s biggest providers, reported streaming 75 GB of data a second—that’s more than 4 billion hours of viewing time.

Which is why it’s time for this medium to become mainstream, at least from a professional level. That means the slow, unglamorous work of overhauling everything from regulations in health and safety to residuals, licensing fees and royalties. Most performers don’t get a cent from the mega sites that pimp their digital clips.

Thousands perform for us whether we’re willing to admit it or not. And still there remains only a nascent sex workers’ union and no industry quotas, no pensions, no 401Ks. In many ways, the end game—the brief shelf life, the early retirement crisis—is the same for porn stars as it is musicians, artists and athletes. There is no guidance, no clear path, and those who don’t build a personal brand while in the public eye can easily be left with nothing when the credits roll. Changing the way players manipulate the web may be too big of a prospect; another sobering reason why diversification and entrepreneurship may be the key to true longevity.

For our part as viewers, we can at least acknowledge the muted humanity inherent in peering at them late at night through our own warped lenses of desire, judgement and shame, all the while pretending that it’s just a show.


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