Tag Archives: Veronica Hart

An Air of the Extraordinary

Annie Sprinkle, Gloria Leonard, Veronica Vera, Veronica Hart, Candida Royalle. Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

by Rich Moreland, June 2012

In mid-June Amtrak took me north to New York City for day trip. I haven’t visited the Big Apple since its transition to the “gentrified” New York. My last remembrance of the city was walking to Times Square with a couple of my buddies, looking for smut shops while avoiding the winos, druggies, and other assorted street people. That was a few decades ago.

This excursion to Manhattan was not a whim; it was book related and by invitation. I was accompanied by a friend and colleague in academia who doubles as my photographer. If nothing else, I’m assured of good pics  if my writing fails to capture the scene.

In 2008, I discovered the apparent contradiction that feminism and adult film are bedfellows (or bed sisters) in an industry that is patriarchal to the core. Deciding to chronicle this odd combination, I first wanted to know what other historians, journalists, and commentators had to say on the subject. At every turn in my research, the name “Club 90” came up. Scholarly paths pointed back to this circle of five women, actresses in adult film when acting was valued and expected.

On a cool and rainy June evening in mid-town Manhattan, the Museum of Sex on 27th Street paid homage to this venerated “club.” The museum is a storefront with a basement bar and an upper floor gallery. On this night the upstairs contained a long table and folding chairs neatly arranged into a relatively cramped space. Everything was ready for a panel discussion featuring these “Golden Girls of Porn,” as the event was labeled.

Josh and I made an effort to arrive early. I had communicated with all of the ladies individually, but up to this moment I had met only two in person, Annie Sprinkle and Veronica Hart. Gloria Leonard and Candida Royalle were telephone voices to me and Veronica Vera was an email correspondence and a postal address.

The women were “stars” in the “porno chic” days of the 1970’s when 35 mm film reigned and the big screen was where sex came alive. Adult movies demanded dialogue and plot to compliment the cinematography. Making a good picture required location and days of shooting. Nowadays porn films are cranked out quickly and, with some exceptions, very little style. Needless to say, there is rarely an aspiring actress in sight. But the seasoned Club 90 performers were blessed, if that can be said in pornography. They worked for some of adult film’s noted early directors like Radley Metzger, Gerard Damiano, and Joe Sarno, true artists who considered movie-making to be a craft. A sense of panache and acting ability was requisite.

As the “porno chic” days wound down, the five were transitioning away from being on camera. There were reasons: the HIV menace was one, while marriage and family became another. In short, they were getting on with their lives.  They organized a mutual support group to ease through the changes and named it after the address of Annie’s Manhattan apartment where their initial get together took place. Over the years, their collective friendship has endured.

By sheer happenstance I broke into their group. I attended one of Annie’s university speaking engagements and later sent an inquiry to Feminists for Free Expression which resulted in a surprise email from Candida. That began three years of correspondence with the group that formed the linchpin of my research.

Stealing Moments Before the Show

I got a big hug from Gloria Leonard before the gala began. She is classy (an overused word, I know) and a butt-kicker through her devotion to the political principles she holds dear. She also is the group’s grand dame. Gloria entered the adult business in her late thirties, much like the Club’s dear friend and another of porn’s venerable ladies, Georgina Spelvin. Working in adult paid better than nine to five, Gloria later told the audience, a bonus because she had a daughter to support.

A Hug From Gloria
Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

Gloria has her views and the personality to back them. She and I have a mutual acquaintance in the adult biz, Bill Margold, who has his own set of notions about the history of adult film. Bill has told me much about Gloria. He adores her and I can see why. She has a political conscience in an industry that often lacks ethical behavior, and she cares about performer health and welfare. Her position on safer sex in the infamous 1998 HIV scare is a testimony to her concern for the industry. As President of the Free Speech Coalition, the political wing of the business, Gloria got funding for the start-up of Adult Industry Medical (AIM) so that talent could be more secure health wise on the job.

Reminding the audience that defending free speech is important to everyone, Gloria believes in the principle that “no one should tell you what to watch or hear.” Her words raised a bright round of applause.

I also stole a moment to impose on Candida Royalle to say “hello” face-to-face. Phone conversations and emails are not foreign to us and her support for my work is appreciated more than she will know. Like Gloria, Candida brought an air of the extraordinary to the room. Both women were elegantly and conservatively dressed as if they planned to attend a charity bizarre . . . at the country club, of course . . . sponsored by the ladies auxiliary. But the country club set could never imagine the elegance that comes from Candida. She is an industry luminary of the first order and has no parallel. She runs her own production company, FEMME, out of New York and specializes in woman-friendly erotica and couples porn. To suggest that Candida is a ground breaker in adult film erotica is a mammoth understatement. She not only turned the soil, she constructed the edifice that is feminist pornography, though I know she shudders with my use of that word; erotica is her preference. In the initial Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto years ago, Candida was the first honored. That’s what it means to be a living legend.

Chatting with Candida before showtime!
Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

Candida told the audience that during her acting days she felt “ambivalence about being in adult movies” and was “conflicted” about what the impact might be in her life. Seeking therapy, she learned the value of self-analysis and decided that there was nothing wrong with performing in adult film. A woman’s voice was what the adult product lacked. Candida vowed to correct that perception and make pictures for women. It was fortuitous timing. The arrival of home video provided a safe place for women to view porn, she said, and a market was birthed.

Annie Sprinkle was her usual loving self when I renewed acquaintances with her. Annie’s career as a sex worker and lover of men, women, and transpersons is too vast and complex to even attempt to summarize here. I was honored to interview Annie in her home (we sat in the kitchen and enjoyed some iced tea) on a visit to San Francisco a couple of years ago.

No Tragic Endings Here

Annie was the lead-off hitter in the panel line-up. When everyone was finally seated, she mentioned that many people have the widely accepted belief that porn stars have “tragic endings.” “They don’t know us!” she said with her typical high spirits. During her brief remarks, people continued to trickle in; the shortage of chairs turned the event into SRO. I don’t know how many the museum planned for but attendance must have exceeded expectations. And, not every face in the crowd was an old friend or admirer. There were a number of young people who perhaps were looking to understand the past through a vision of the present.

Annie after the show.
Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

In the opening moments of the discussion, Annie put the almost thirty years of Club 90 in perspective when she declared her time in porn has been an “amazing journey” and her goal is to keep it rolling. “I want to get to fifty years in sex!” she said with the innocence and playfulness of a flower child whose years have been spent pleasing and being pleased.

Annie carries the mien of San Francisco’s hippie past. Her leopard print floor length gown reminded me that Annie’s performance art, and that of her club sister Veronica Vera, is studied in academia.

Veronica Vera had expedited my research by sending valuable documents my way. She, like Gloria, was intensely political in her younger days. When we briefly spoke, I imagined what it must have been like for her to testify before the 1984 Senate Committee investigating adult film. The Reagan administration was going after porn as harm to women and the industry was under siege. Veronica recalled the now famous bondage photo she showed Senator Arlen Specter on that October day. The picture is a historical precursor of modern day BDSM performance art that has captured the imagination of a sexually marginalized community.

Veronica got into the adult business through famed photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. She told the audience she had worked on Wall Street then “decided to take an honest job” and went into adult entertainment.

Her wedding was the catalyst for this reunion, the group’s first in seventeen years.

As the event was breaking up, I finally got a chance to embrace Veronica Hart. Her 1983 baby shower brought the ladies together for the first time. I visited with Veronica in Las Vegas a few months ago and know her on a more personal level than the others. She is the youngster of the group and is considered one of the great beauties ever to grace adult film.

Veronica showing her big HeART!
Photo courtesy of 3hattergrindhouse

Except for a retired Gloria Leonard who now lives in Hawai`i, the women remain active in the adult world. Veronica Hart works in her hometown at Vegas’ Erotic Heritage Museum. She still directs in L.A. and keeps close tabs on the adult business. Candida Royalle continues with FEMME and has branched out into an adult product line, distributing through Adam and Eve, a Phil Harvey enterprise in North Carolina.

Annie Sprinkle and her partner, Beth Stephens, are expanding their venture into ecosex,  “a subject matter or identity,” Annie explains, that moves beyond a performance art. “We are . . . excosexual aritsts,” she says, exploring “a new area of research” that delves into “places where sexology and ecology intersect in art, theory, practice, and activism.”

If that sounds intellectual, it is. Beth, who moderated the event, is finishing her Ph.D. which will make two in the family as Annie already has hers.  Incidentally,  she is the first porn star gain such status. Sharon Mitchell, an old friend of Club 90 and long time director of AIM, is the second.

The fifth member, Veronica Vera, runs her own school for cross dressers, “Miss Vera’s Finishing School for Boys Who Want to be Girls” located in New York. The studio where many of her events take place is on 54th Street. Veronica’s program is for males and transpeople who want to challenge gender barriers and get in touch with their feminine side. Working with transpersons is a value shared with Annie. (I recommend Shannon Bell’s Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body [1994] for an account of Club 90’s Franklin Furnace stage show in 1984 and Annie and Veronica’s performance art.)

With the evening winding down and attendees milling about, I allowed my imagination to have some fun. Among the audience were acquaintances of Club 90 who had been involved in adult film industry. Observing some of them reunite with the five in conversation, I mentally turned the clock back 30 years, erasing the nasty joke that time plays on all of us: age, something the young firmly believe will never happen to them. I fancied everyone in just such a room, setting up for a porn shoot: director, P.A.s, grips, and cameramen, hustling around with perhaps a make-up artist adding some final touches to faces destined to be hardened in a tough business.

In those early days of the modern adult film era, the business was east coast oriented. New York was home for Club 90. This Manhattan evening wrapped itself around them and their friendships with memories treasured. In the midst of skyscrapers and traffic punctuated with the ubiquitous New York cabbies, the affair had a small town feel and I was honored to have been invited.

When Josh and I headed back to the train station, the rain pelted ever hectic New Yorkers scurrying under umbrellas to get from here to there. The scene itself was a stage, a piece of living history, illuminated by lights embedded in mist and shrouded in the past.

———————

If you visit the Museum of Sex on the corner of 27th and 5th Avenue, consider in a quick snack across the street at Naturally Tasty. Ask for Magdalena. She’s service with a smile.

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Only After They Get Power

by Rich Moreland, June 2012

The following excerpt is from my unpublished manuscript on feminism in adult film. Citations have been removed.

Taking control her body and determining how it will be displayed on screen is the premier feminist trait in adult film. Feminist empowerment shows up each time a performer negotiates her pay, calls her own shots for the camera, and exercises choice. For the handful of feminist directors, giving performers input concerning co-stars, yes and no lists, hard and soft limits, and safer sex precautions are upfront and part of the package. This is not to say that male directors ignore these offerings, some are as assiduous in satisfying them as are women cinematographers. Yet, this scenario is not universal in the industry and women who are persuasive of their own needs are not the norm. The patriarchal hand of porn is firmly in place; respect for the female performer and director remains a matter of opinion.

An overarching view comes from feminist writer Wendy McElroy who years ago observed that industry males insist they value the women who are penetrated for the camera’s delight, though it is “a form of acknowledgement,” she asserts, “not a form of respect.” McElroy concludes, “women in porn will probably get respect only after they get power.” The genesis of McElroy’s statement came from a dinner conversation she had with John Stagliano and the late John Leslie at the AVN convention in the early 1990’s. I brought up her comments in an interview with Stagliano during the AVN gala in 2012. He assured me McElroy was referring to remarks Leslie made concerning a particular performer and should not be misread as an indictment of the industry.

“John Leslie was talking ‘off the cuff’ about his interaction with some women and the fact that he was sexually aroused by some women under certain circumstances,” Stagliano said, clearing up any misconceptions about his late friend. “In the case of that dinner, John was talking about some girl with a big ass that he was really interested in.” Stagliano believes McElroy misinterpreted Leslie’s words. They were not intended to objectify the girl and McElroy’s conclusion that Leslie had no interest in the performer’s personality was a misinterpretation of the conversation. Staglino backs off a little, however, to clarify the scene. McElroy believed Leslie did not demonstrate “enough of a feminist outlook,” he explains, and her criticism of Leslie’s words in that instance had some validity. But Stagliano adds that McElroy generalized Leslie’s remarks to account for the portrayal of women in all his films. “John had a huge amount of respect for women,” Stagliano insists, “just look at his movies.”

Among industry people John Stagliano is highly regarded. He is feminist-oriented in his outlook and actions, though he may not understand it that way. Stagliano’s support for women he believes are creative in their work, such as directors Belladonna, Tristan Taormino, and Bobbi Starr, bear witness to his respect for women. Stagliano endeavors to produce a top notch product and people are the vital cogs in his machinery. He understands the importance of creativity and teamwork in an industry that is easy to malign. “I think that human beings sometimes don’t appreciate the people that they work with,” Stagliano says, and he personally wants to find value in people. “I try to see what’s good, what it is they have to offer and treat them with a certain respect as human beings. . . . that’s the way I prefer to do business.” Stagliano knows that his way of interacting with people is not the industry norm. Undeterred, he holds to the belief that “in the long run I prove that it works to do it my way because you build bridges” in an environment that is stoked with “competitive pressure.”

The moguls of porn believe they respect the women they hire and I have no reason to doubt them. But female performers do not universally share that view. There is a disconnect between the traditional industry patriarchy and the women who toil to create the profits. Yet this separation may be more a reflection of society in general and not so much porn in particular.

Nina Hartley has a feminist perspective that is not far from McElroy’s point of view. She believes women are “valued for their ‘hotness’” but this does not necessarily translate into respect. Nina talks of female directors who must cope with male egos in the boardroom, men “who don’t want to deal with women” and who have “issues with women.” Nina indicates that for some men in the business it is challenging to connect emotionally with women, but such a claim can be made about broader society as well.

Veronica Hart supports Nina’s interpretation of respect. With a few exceptions, Hart does not believe that women as a whole are influencing the business of pornography. “I don’t see many women affecting the business that much.” She notes a few, particularly mentioning director Nica Noelle and Club 90’s Candida Royalle. Noelle’s “new spin” on shooting sex more realistically and Royalle’s “couples porn” are notable achievements in Hart’s eye, but their real business success is measured in selling movies, not the artistic accomplishments within them. Hart generalizes porn to other aspects of the corporate world where profit dictates a product’s success. “Business is business,” Hart begins. “It doesn’t respect anyone. The only thing it has respect for is the ability to make money.” True, no argument on that fact. But Hart adds that respect has another connotation that is closely aligned with John Stagliano: it is very personal and built on relationships. Respect depends on “the people you are working with,” she says, suggesting that it is a viable commodity shared among those on both sides of the camera. Hart remembers that as a director, she held her performers in high esteem, though there were a few who challenged her efforts in that regard. “I realized, ‘Thank God they were fucking because they couldn’t do anything else!’” “This is coming from a feminist,” she amusingly adds, “but I realized that people have certain abilities and just because they are in the porn business doesn’t mean they get my respect. You earn respect.” Hart elaborates on her point. Respect comes from a “pattern of being responsible, of standing up for other people, kind of doing and saying the right thing. That’s what gets you respect in life.”

I revisited for a moment McElroy’s assessment and asked Hart for her thoughts. “I think that is more a reflection on society than it is the porn business,” she says.

The adult film industry is not a business that labors daily in Middle America’s towns and villages and people are quick to pass judgment on women who have sex for money. Yet, they don’t always think of males the same way. In the public’s eye, Hart says, it is still “commonplace” to demonize women in porn as “sluts,” though she believes the term “has lost a lot of the stigma” it once had. She contrasts the word derogatory term with opinions voiced about men. “A gentleman who does it [performs in porn] is a stud,” she adds, “a guy is a conqueror.” Hart sees these definitions as a “connotation of who we are” as sex workers, of how performers are evaluated and presently situated in the industry. On the other hand, she repeats the old standby that “it’s great if you can fuck her [a porn girl], but you wouldn’t want your mom or your daughter to be one” still holds true. But she wraps the porn business in broader cloth when she states that, like it or not, the smut industry is a “part of society” and cannot be separated from it.

I’ve heard some porn people, most notably veteran Bill Margold, talk about the adult business in familial terms, the “Family of X” as he calls it. I pressed Hart to expand on the role of women in adult film and how that may relate to the larger aspect of unity.

“We are a vital necessity,” she begins. “The love in the business comes from the people that make friendships in it.” That sticking together is what Margold means, I believe, and what Club 90 illustrates so well. But Hart’s honesty takes a sudden brutal turn. “This is a business. We always say ‘Oh, the porn family.’ Fuck that! It’s not a family, it’s a business and a business loves nobody, respects nobody except a person’s ability to make money. The bottom line is making money,” she repeats. “If you are a moneymaker, then the business loves you. Right?”

Hart concludes with a position unconsidered by antiporn feminists and unrealized by the general pubic, what pornography can professionally do for women. “Pornography is one of the few places where a woman, if she wants to, can excel,” Hart says, adding that adult film women are in the unique position of being “in control of their careers.” “They’ve made their own choices,” she says, and “have a lot more freedom when they work in pornography than in most other jobs.” Referencing her personal work in the industry, Hart singles out her own successes. “I’ve been given an opportunity in porn to be anything I want to be. I can hold a camera, I can write, I can direct, I can edit and all of these things are very difficult. I can make movies because of porn. I can make really good low budget movies, whether exploitative sex movies or horror movies or action movies, it’s all the same animal. I know how to do that because of this business. I’m very thankful for it.” 

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Feminist scholar Carol Queen offers that today’s porn industry woman little realizes she is a feminist until she learns from “older women” that there are “multiple feminisms,” sex-positive the most formidable example. When porn women narrowly define feminism as sex-negative and anti-porn, its goal of moving women beyond a sexual second-class citizenship is lost. Feminism in adult film is about control and choice, and many well-known performers exercise both. Nina Hartley illuminates the feminist sex-positive philosophy with “my body, my rules” which enables her to “take responsibility” for her own sexual satisfaction. It is, and will always be, her choice as to where to place her body and who her partners will be, on or off film. Many performers, particularly those who have committed to the industry long term, would agree.

In the end, success may come down to money and its reward, power, but those are not its limits. Success is also about that inner courage and determination that builds a respect that all women are capable of achieving. Wendy McElroy is correct in her conclusion that respect comes with power. We know that in the pornography empire, as it does in corporate America, politics, and social influence, money translates into power. For a porn actor, however, power also means doing it her own way. The women of Club 90 and Pink Ladies forged a path for themselves that challenged the accepted way of operating in adult film. Today adult film women who insist on choice and control in the face of a patriarchal industry traditionally built on monetizing male auto-eroticism have achieved a measure of success on both sides of the camera. Feminists in adult film are lending other elements to the money-power continuum with a philosophy that expands what it means to be a woman and express a sexuality that in and of itself commands respect.

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