"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Miriam Weeks, also known as Belle Knox, also known as “the Duke porn star,” is legally an adult. In fact, she just turned 19, an occasion she marked by performing at a strip club. But she is still a teenager, and talking to her on the phone makes that painfully clear. Her sentences, punctuated with “likes,” often finish with “you know what I mean,” “does that make sense” or simply a question mark. She is thoughtful and intelligent, no doubt, but she can sound unsure of herself in conversation. That is, unless she’s talking about sex.
Much to my horror, I found myself echoing a sentiment Sherri Shepherd expressed when Weeks went on “The View.” After Weeks revealed that she first started watching porn at age 12, Shepherd said, “My heart aches.” My heart ached after talking to her, too. Not because she watched porn at age 12 (hey, welcome to the club!), and not because she decided to do porn, but because this is what we do to young women. We catapult them into fame, or more often infamy, based on the ease of ridiculing, shaming or objectifying them. We reward them for their bodies, not their brains — and the reward is so often meted out like punishment. The attention, the fame, is almost always fundamentally undermining.
The media spotlight has forced Weeks to take a defensive stance. That’s what happens when your choices are relentlessly questioned and ridiculed, your past probed and psychoanalyzed in the tabloids. It turns a person into a reactive caricature, because nuance and subtlety is completely denied. That is why, I suspect, Weeks refuses to talk about her first porn shoot. She talked to reporters about it in the past and revealed that during the shoot, which features choking, slapping and ridiculing (for having scars on her legs from her time as a cutter), she said, “Stop, stop, stop. No, no,” and they stopped filming but told her, “We have to keep going.” Now, though, she insists it wasn’t a “negative” experience and doesn’t want to talk about it. Weeks is young, but she’s learning fast what it means to be a young woman in the public eye.
I spoke with the 19-year-old about losing her privacy, her novel-writing aspirations, and the questions she wishes reporters would ask.
In such a short time, you have gone from a relatively unknown college student to a media sensation. How does it feel losing that sense of privacy?
It was really hard to deal with at first, but I think I’ve used it as a platform to talk about other issues, if that makes sense?
I noticed your recent piece in Time talking about the exorbitant cost of college. I know you’re hoping to become a lawyer, but for the time being are you hoping to use this attention to segue into something else — a writing career, for example?
Yeah, absolutely. I do plan to write novels and I would like to continue with journalism and writing on hard-hitting topics and talking about feminism and talking about issues that are really close to me and that I’m passionate about.
What are some of those issues?
Definitely feminism. Women, the treatment of women in American society, sexual assault policy at colleges, cyberbullying and college tuition are definitely issues that are close to me.
How has the media treated you so far? What do you think of the coverage?
I think that there’s been an enormous invasion of privacy. The media really tried to dig into my past, which is really disappointing.
In terms of trying to find your family and friends?
There’s no reason they needed to follow my family around or take photos of my home. There’s no reason they needed to know about that part of my life.
Do you think you’re a story? What do you make of the media’s fascination with you?
I think that the media tries to portray me as this broken, damaged girl who came from a Catholic background and just went crazy when she went to college.
I noticed in the Rolling Stone profile of you, the writer seemed to suggest that you were hesitant to reveal that you were sexually assaulted in high school because it fits the stereotype of a female porn performer. You must feel this pressure to present a spotless past to protect yourself from claims that you’re being exploited?
Yeah, I think everyone wants to find a reason other than that I needed to pay for tuition.
Is there anything there to dig for?
Um … no. I just think I needed to pay for tuition and I’m a sexual person and that’s that.
You wrote in xoJane about having masochistic tendencies since you were little. Is that something you struggled to make sense of for yourself?
I wasn’t ever sure of why I liked it. There are reasons, probably. There’s probably a control aspect of it. I am a very bossy person in real life so it is nice to go into the bedroom and let that control side of me go.
I know you’ve had to deal with stalking and threats since your identity was revealed. Has that calmed down at all?
It has. Although I still definitely get mean messages.
What are those people upset about? What motivates them?
I think that they just hate the idea of a woman being empowered by sex.
Tell me about your very first porn shoot.
My first one in L.A., it was really nerve-wracking and it was weird because the photographer was an older man. I just remember feeling really awkward.
Wasn’t there an earlier one in New York?
Yeah, there was. I don’t really like talking about that.
It was a negative experience?
No, it wasn’t a negative experience, I just regret doing it. I don’t like talking about it.
You told the ladies of “The View” that you’d been watching porn since your were 12. Do you remember the first time you came across it?
I think that sex is everywhere in our culture, so everybody was talking about porn in the classroom and at recess, so it really wasn’t that big of a deal.
So there’s no memory of the first time?
Well, the first time I remember it was like girls getting fingered and it was like super-hot.
When you were a teenager and watching porn, what did you think of the porn performers? Did you want to be like them?
There was definitely something alluring about the idea of being kind of like a sex symbol. Like, that totally seemed badass.
I grew up watching porn too, and I definitely looked to it as as way to learn to be good at sex. Did you have that experience?
I definitely feel like I think I learned how to give good blow jobs from watching porn. I wanted to emulate what the girls were doing, because I could tell the people they were with really liked it.
You’ve written that your favorite adult genre is “rough blow job porn.” How come?
I think there’s something really sexy about blow jobs. For a woman, for like me, it’s a way … I control his orgasm. I feel really sexy giving a blow job, I can’t explain it.
You like the power play of it?
Yeah, it’s definitely a power play. But at the same time, he has power over me too, you know what I mean?
Right. So, what makes you unique as a performer? How would you describe your on-screen persona?
I think I’m very much the girl next door, very young. There was an article on one of my scenes where they wrote you could see my innocence, you could still see genuine looks on my face, that I’m still kind of inexperienced and I’m still, like, new to sex. I think that I have kind of an innocence that people really dig.
How does that on-screen persona compare with your real-life persona?
I think that off-screen I’m a normal college girl, but on-screen I think that’s where I really bring out my closet freak and I’m the dirty, kinky, naughty Belle. There’s definitely that dichotomy.
How has being a porn star affected your personal sex life?
It’s helped my sex life. A lot of people want to have sex with me. It’s definitely, like, hurt my love life. I think people associate me as somebody who only wants sex and doesn’t want commitment.
Do you want commitment?
I’m not sure. I do want that connection with somebody. I really am waiting for the right person, if that makes sense? Sex is great but I would like to meet that right person.
How long do you expect this wave of fame will last?
Hopefully it lasts a while. I think if I keep writing and speaking out it will keep going.
Is there a point at which you decide to leave porn? What would bring that about?
I think that when I graduate I’ll have to reevaluate, because I would like to have a professional career.
What is one thing that people don’t understand about you?
Everybody sees me as this purely sexual symbol and they don’t understand that I do actually have emotions. I don’t just want to suck everything that moves.
What’s a question you wish an interviewer would ask you?
I wish more people just, like, asked me, like, funny stories from my childhood. I dunno, that sounds … I just like funny anecdotes and stuff like that.
I would love to hear a funny anecdote.
When I was younger my brother once made me eat a caterpillar. My brother had those — you know those Sea Monkeys? — I once, like, ate an entire bowl of Sea Monkeys. I used to be insanely good at handstands. I could do a handstand for three minutes straight.
Where you in gymnastics or something?
Yeah, I was. I used to do gymnastics for a long time.
I dunno, just ridiculous stuff always happens to me.
What kind of ridiculous?
I get myself in really weird situations. This one time I like went to this club and I met this lady who talked to me about how she had just broken up with her girlfriend because her girlfriend got pregnant and how she was going around the country donating a kidney or just random shit like that. I meet really weird people.
Why do you think that is?
I dunno, I think crazy attracts crazy.
What’s your brand of crazy, though?
I guess I think I’m like kind of wild; I definitely think I’m a risk-taker.
Then what’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you?
I have no idea. [Pauses] Oh, I have the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me: This one time, I was a super-nerdy girl and then I went away to college and caused a national scandal.
Yeah, I think that probably qualifies.
This is definitely the craziest, most insane thing that’s ever happened to me.
Are you going to top it in your lifetime? Will there be a next phase of crazy?
I’m sure there will be. Life is never boring with me.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)