As an empowered, educated feminist, I thought I was making decisions with my body. I was, to use the concept I had been taught, “claiming agency to resist domination and subvert control.” Except, as the Google research had universally recommended, I needed an actual agency to get started.
I looked into the experiences of other adult models and settled on what seemed to be a reputable agency led by two experienced men who referred to their business as “boutique.” I emailed some cell phone photos to the address on the website, and soon we arranged to meet in person. They suggested meeting for breakfast in a local mom-and-pop diner in Woodland Hills.
The two men—let’s call them “Jekyll” and “Hyde” laid on the agent charm. (I’ve decided to change some names of people and places because, spoiler alert, I’m still an active performer in the industry. The stories, however, are all true to my experiences.) Jekyll was tall and bearded, and would have been imposing like a bouncer if it wasn’t for his cuddly teddy-bear jollity. Hyde, on the other hand, was thin and tall, with a booming voice he clearly was enamored of. Together, they told me, had over 40 years of experience in the adult entertainment industry. Aside from working as agents, they were also “award-winning” directors and performers.
That first meeting was going very well, so they invited me back to their office—which was actually Hyde’s apartment at the time—for the next step. “Eventually,” they said, “you are going to have to take off all your clothes”—so why not speed up the process? It was time to put up or shut up. Was I ready to cross the line from writer to sex worker?
Turns out I was. I mustered the courage to drive to Hyde’s apartment in Woodland Hills (they worked from their apartments “to avoid overhead costs,” they explained). They closed the curtains and asked me to undress.
As I stood naked before them, they immediately started assessing my body: “great stomach, toned, etc.” But, apparently, I “needed to do more squats.” The not-particularly fit Hyde said: “I want your ass as toned as a 15-year-old gymnast.” Men who watched porn,” they explained, “preferred “feminine attributes like long hair and a tight ass. I want your ass so tight you could flip a coin off it.”
Still, teenage-tight butt or none, they wanted to work with me. I was (and still am) a thin, petite, young woman with a dark bob cut like one of my idols, Louise Brooks. This was also a liability for Jekyll, who let the less-pleasant Hyde do most of the talking. “Porn stars with short hair are unlikely to succeed in the industry,” they said, though I could name a number of porn stars who defy their notions. The gorgeous Riley Nixon, for example, has a shaved head, and the extremely popular Janice Griffith came into her own as a star when she traded in her long locks for a super stylish bob.
Their advice was often contradictory. After they told me I had to look like a pubescent Olympic athlete, they nevertheless recommended that I “put on a few more pounds because men like women that are curvy.” Also, they told me not to wax my pubic hair. “Bushes are in right now,” they informed me.
“Oh, and buy a lot of cheap underwear,” Hyde added. “You will go through it fast—cum will get on everything.”
I was learning something every woman in porn knows that would shock any woman outside the industry: we have to supply our own wardrobe (including lingerie and heels) to the specifications of a call sheet we typically get the night before, and take care of our own beauty-related expenses like buying our own hair extensions, and paying for highlights, Brazilian blowouts, laser hair removal, and gel manicures (a large number of male directors seem obsessed with the appearance of our fingernails and toenails).
Once Jekyll and Hyde were done critiquing my appearance, I was allowed to put my clothes back on.
“How old are you?” they asked.?“ Twenty-nine” I replied.? Hyde told me that there are “only two categories in porn: teen and MILF.” Because there are a number of intrusive websites that post the models’ birth dates where fans can easily find them, the Jekyll & Hyde agency would have to sell me as a MILF, although I have no kids and can look like I’m in my early-to-mid-twenties (depending on makeup).
Typical MILF performers—like Brandi Love and London River, with whom I was paired in a “cougar” production—are voluptuous, often blond, bombshells. Though age-wise, I would qualify for what the porn world considers a MILF, I’m more on the cute, petite end of the spectrum. Thus, in terms of my looks I fall under what they think of as “teen.”
However, my agents assured me, I could overcome this confusing teen/MILF conundrum if I was willing to do whatever it took to book jobs.
“Look,” Hyde said, “cream rises to the top. Not everyone is Michael Jordan. It’s difficult… many people don’t get it: part of the job is doing what you don’t want to do.”
This didn’t sit right with me. I had told them at the diner that I had my reservations about jobs that involved what the industry now calls “family play,” “faux-cest,” or “stepsister” porn. And, as a feminist, consent is always a cornerstone of how I think about sexuality.
“Girls who don’t do anal don’t work,” Hyde proclaimed as his many AVN awards glistened on display in his living room. “What are your career objectives?” he wanted to know.
I told him I wanted to buy a house, pay off my student debt, and then retire.
“Retire?” Hyde laughed. “There isn’t a ton of money in it for the average performer. One could only hope to make a few million that you could retire on.” The average female performer makes $1,000 a scene, minus agency fees.
Sure, an extremely popular adult performer, someone people outside of the industry would have heard of, can bank a six-figure income. This figure depends on her experience, what she is willing to do, her fanbase, and industry standards (body, age, race, breast size, tattoos, piercings, “all natural,” etc.), which are based on fads and, these days, on algorithms.
But porn is also one of the few industries where women make more money than men, at least on the performing side. Furthermore, adult performers can now supplement their incomes by web camming, appearing in live shows, creating custom scenes for individual fans, selling merchandise, directing, producing, and, yes, escorting.
Initially, a young woman can make fast cash, and then her net worth quickly depreciates depending on her popularity. Companies have a word for this: “shot out.” If you are a “brand new” performer, then you will get hired by every company at least once before they consider you “shot out” and move on to the next new girl. Hyde warned me that because I’m well on the wrong side of 18, my career could flop after one bad scene.
It seemed like a lot of pressure. Still, this first informational meeting didn’t deter me and, when they said they would be back in touch when they’d made a final decision about signing me, I was ready for the next round. Or so I thought.
The next day, Hyde texted me and asked me to drive to his apartment to further discuss things. When I arrived, I realized he was alone and his tone had shifted from professional to personal. Hyde spoke longingly about his own days as a performer. Then he said he was worried about me because I seemed “sweet and submissive,” while “a successful porn star should be more dominant to avoid getting taken advantage of.” However, he added, he personally enjoyed a “natural submissive” and then proceeded to kiss me.
I froze. Had I really stepped into the old “casting couch” cliché, right there in a non-descript two-bedroom apartment in the Valley? At least in the made-up casting couch porn scenes, the girls are getting the regular rate. I hadn’t even signed their contract yet.
I told him that I needed more time to think, and he walked me to the door. Later that evening, when I was walking my dog, Hyde texted me. “When we were together today did you wonder if I was going to kiss you?”
I couldn’t tell if he was attempting to be romantic or if he was gaslighting me.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” I texted back, cautiously. “I don’t want to complicate anything right now.” It was true—I didn’t know how to respond without jeopardizing potential job opportunities. I had, of course, wondered if I was going to have to suck agent dick in order to get work (duh), but once I was confronted with the reality, I was unsure how to proceed.
“Don’t create stories in your mind that have nothing to do with the reality that you live in,” he replied. OK—now it was gaslighting.
“I want to keep things professional,” I wrote back.
“No rush here. If we watched porn together, that would be fun.” I left it on “read.” ?Later that evening, he texted again: “I want to watch you look at the porn video and see you getting turned on. Place my hand on your leg and gently touch you. Whisper in your ear the things I would like to do to your body. Maybe place my hand behind your head and gently and slightly pull your hair. Would you like if I did that? Am I turning you on with the way I’m talking to you? Because it is turning me on.”
He asked if he could talk dirty to me on the phone. I said that I was watching Jessica Jones on Netflix and was going to pass out soon. That was the last thing we texted.
The following morning, I decided to discuss my foray into pornland with my sister and mother, who were extremely concerned by the story. I texted Jekyll my decision to postpone moving forward at this time. Jekyll’s role in the agency was to be “the nice one” and so he responded nicely. “The porn ‘bell’ is something you can’t unring,” he wrote. “You’re a bright young lady and after speaking with you for hours, I feel you’ve got the ability to be successful at anything you try.”
With no real harm having been done beyond that awkward kiss and some random texting, I thanked him and returned to my non-porn life of menial work and student loan payments.
A year later, perhaps against my better judgment, I contacted Jekyll and Hyde again.
I’d spent 12 months at a low-paying Starbucks gig that hadn’t even allowed me to afford my own apartment (though, unlike porn’s gig economy, it provided health insurance). I wrote up my initial audition experience for BuzzFeed and, like many writers just getting their start, received a rejection email in return.
I applied for every job a creative nonfiction major was qualified to do. Like many people my age, I kept the LinkedIn tab constantly open. Well-meaning acquaintances kept suggesting that I drive Uber or Lyft. Less well-meaning acquaintances kept telling me I was “too cute for those jobs.”
So, porn it would be. I tried other agencies, but they seemed even less professional than Jekyll and Hyde, so we set up another meeting at an Italian restaurant. They were pleasant, still interested in representing me, and also seemed willing to make me feel at ease about the previous interaction. They mentioned in passing that both lived with their girlfriends and that they now worked from Jekyll’s apartment. After some back and forth (I was still ambivalent), I signed with them.
At 30, definitely a MILF for porn purposes by now, I entered the industry as “Lexi Foxy.” Hyde rejected “Ginger St.Croix” as unsuitable for a non-redhead. Jekyll took photos of me for the agency site, so producers could be told that there was a new face in town. Lexi Foxy was now “internet official,” with social media accounts and pages on porn fan forums. The next step was parading me around AVN, the industry’s January convention in Las Vegas, where “talent” (what the performers are called) is introduced in person to producers. I used my own credit card to pay for a room and food at the Hard Rock Hotel. With only one shoot under my belt, I was already financially in the red. I had to quit my Starbucks job because Jekyll and Hyde told me I had to be available to work “at the drop of a hat.” In Vegas, Hyde made a stoned pass at me, which I rebuffed, and I wasn’t booked for weeks and weeks. The agents didn’t lose money if I didn’t work because they had other models to fill their slots.
Porn producers demand the performers show an STI test done within 14 days of the shoot, and my agents insisted I get tested every two weeks just in case they had to book me overnight. Testing fees, which every performer pays out of pocket, began adding up. There is no subsidized health care program for performers and many performers I’ve spoken to don’t have health insurance.
Because I wasn’t getting booked, Jekyll’s fiancée suggested I take a job dancing topless at a club in the Valley. I had never been topless in a room full of strangers whom I had to charm into tipping me before. I was now experiencing a second kind of sex work, swaying my hips and breasts at a grungy titty bar in Winnetka for crumpled-up dollar bills. Hyde, who continued being passive-aggressive towards me while not getting me shoots, kept theorizing that I wasn’t made for the job and that I would eventually find a man to take care of me and quit porn.
Even though I received positive feedback from fans and directors, my agents barely got me one scene a month. Sometimes, Hyde would book me for a job and then they’d mysteriously cancel. A casting director told me that when he requested to book me, Hyde had offered him his girlfriend, instead. To make ends meet, I poured at a winery on the weekends.
I tried to be proactive. Maybe it would help if I changed my name to something less generic than Lexi Foxy. Jekyll said the change would be bad for my career. “What career?” I thought. I was a woman in my 30s being treated like a 16-year-old girl by two unreliable men, one nice, one terrible. Forget retirement, at this point I was worried about piling porn-related debt atop my existing student loans.
Seeing other performers brag on Twitter about how much they were working was not helping. “I got into porn because I wanted to do something that would let me do a lot of other things: write, and create, and drink Chardonnay in my pyjamas at 4PM on Tuesday,” a bubbly blonde “teen” performer tweeted. I was drinking in my pajamas, alright, but I was too stressed about the future to write or create anything.
When in Prague
Keep Reading On Vera’s Blog