Bonfire of the porn queens

Trapped between a silicone breast and a hard place, the Adult Video News Awards struggle to boost their legitimacy.

By Benjamin Weissman
January 15, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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| Three blond female porn stars approach slowly, arm in arm, smiling at
a wall of gawking men. Some of the men are loud and obnoxious, yelling, "Show us your ass"; others are silent and probably not breathing. I am breathing, but just barely.

The girls' hairdos are high and mighty, their skin, a hard glossy tan like shellacked wood. And their enormous chests burst from the seams of the sheerest formal wear a female can remove from a hanger and slip over her body (gowns more sheer than water). Who are these turbo-girls? Is it Serenity, Shayla and Shay? Or is it Missy, Marilyn and Malitia? These must be the maidens the king will marry. Lit from within, they morph into one another. I wish this obnoxious brotherhood of men behaved like gentlemen. I wish they were silent. They should drop to one knee, cast their eyes down and concentrate upon all those six-inch stiletto heels, for it is time to pay homage to the porn stars.


Adult Video News, also known as AVN, a slick industry mag
that focuses on all things pornographic, holds an annual awards ceremony in
Las Vegas, now in its 16th year. There are other awards such as XRCO
(X-Rated Critics Organization) and FOXE (Fans of X-rated Entertainment), both of which take place in Los Angeles, and the Hot D'Or, out of France, but the AVN Awards are considered by all porno power people to be the big
daddy of awards shows. With its editorial offices in the San Fernando Valley, where 90 percent of adult video is made, AVN has managed to carve out an influential niche as the insider voice of the flesh industry.

Word has quickly spread through the lobby of Bally's Hotel and Casino that these voluptuous stripper-creatures in evening gowns who are undulating down the hall like they're under water are at this very moment -- Jan. 9, 7:30 p.m. -- headed toward the 1999 AVN Awards Show in the Grand Ballroom. The pack of frat boys in their 30s -- drunk off their asses Las Vegas style -- have left their slots and craps and are now standing in blissful if unruly distraction. When standing on the same surface of the earth, a chunk of Vegas shag, the porn stars look even more remarkable than they do in their movies ("Lord of Asses," "Inner City Black Cheerleader Search," "Asswoman in Wonderland," etc.).

The frat pack are heckling all the porn stars and their escorts, inventing spontaneous categories for them (Best Leopard Skin Teddy, Best Feather Boa, Best Mascara). Two hotel security guards stroll past, open what appears to be a utility closet and disappear inside: "Best Tag Team in the Closet," a software dealer yells to a roar of laughter. A mom and dad with their two kids are lost, they stumble by. "Best family" (I had to say it). An absurdly busty brunet approaches in a see-through dress, tiny starfish appliqués over her nipples. "Best seafood," an electrical engineer shouts. These inebriated outbursts continue every 30 seconds for an hour.


What compelled me to drive 270 miles across the desert to stand around with a mob of slobbering creeps, watching scantily clad women with state-of-the-art bodies parade down this hall? In 1998, I reviewed approximately 300 porn tapes for AVN under the pen name Leopold Loeb. At the end of the year I voted along with 30 other AVN writers, editors and industry people on the porn professionals I'd spent so much time watching.

Since the moment a Playboy arrived in my dad's mailbox, I'd been a distant enthusiast of porn. And when I turned 18 I went straight to the Pussycat Theatre in Hollywood. Watching the occasional porn tape is one thing, but when you increase the yearly allotment by 2,000 percent, as I did by having to watch and write about as many as 11 porn tapes a day, you enter into spooky territory. When the year ended I quit this addictive, but ultimately unsettling line of work. It wasn't good for the senses, I decided. It made me drowsy, and turned me into a recluse.

When such an overdose of porn enters your brain all else seems trivial. As you walk to the grocery store you cannot understand why pedestrians are not peeling their clothes off and feeding off each other genitals. I went to the awards to "say goodbye to all that," as they say, and root for my favorite new starlet.


The strategy behind AVN's awards ceremony is a shrewd one. Unlike the Oscars or the Emmys, which only choose a handful of nominees for a relatively small assortment of categories, AVN opens the floodgates by nominating up to 15 performers or titles for any given category, and allowing a host of curiously similar categories. From best all-girl sex scene to best couples sex scene to best group and best anal, all awards are split into both film and video categories, which effectively doubles their number despite the fact that the public doesn't know or care whether their jerk-off material is shot on videotape or tin foil. Practically every porn star in existence is in attendance because nearly all of them are nominated for something. To avoid nomination you have to be an ultra rookie, i.e., only a few days of work under your proverbial belt, or fuck with your eyes closed and snore.

If this "everyone's-a-winner" spirit makes the event feel a bit like the Special Olympics, there's also another strain of optimism that has snuck into the proud glowing faces of the AVN royalty. Long gone are the days of a drugged Linda Lovelace coerced into scenes with Harry Reams in "Deep Throat," which still remains the "Citizen Kane" of porn. Adult Video has been reinventing itself steadily for the last 10 years and with movies "Boogie Nights" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt" inching pornography closer to the mainstream, many pornographers and porn stars have lost interest in pursuing Hollywood.


Pro-porn academics have also contributed to the growing liberal opinion that making porn is nothing to be ashamed about. Among the sex-chic intelligentsia, it's now a reasonable career move, or at least something to do before committing to graduate school. As a result, contemporary porn is loaded with performers who truly want to be there. People in the real world complain about their so-so sex lives. Porn stars do not have bad sex. When questioned about their motives, porn stars' stock answer has become: "I'm just exploring my sexuality." Of course, they're also paying the bills. On professional shoots, a single scene typically pays between $500 and $1,000. And each little detail pays more: a d.p., or double penetration (two guys at once), a trey-p (both orifices and mouth) or a double anal (and a side of fries).

Although porn has recently been moving toward a kind of legitimacy, where well-paid performers copulate with pride, the AVN Awards offer a vivid glimpse of the contradictions of that struggle. Although the insatiable porn queens may have tried to dispel the stigma of the dirty slut, there are limits to this liberalism. Houston, a surreal platinum blond, has gained her fame from a horrific gangbang she's trying to get off the ground, the Houston 500. She wants to break the former record of 301, held by Jasmin St. Claire. But porn stars look down their noses at the gangbang girls. Fucking five or six or a dozen guys at once is one thing, that's fun and socially acceptable, but when you get into the hundreds you lose the respect of your peers, i.e., you're not exploring your sexuality.

Equally perplexing is the current debate over natural bodies. Recently, the industry has begun extolling the virtues of real boobs and marketing lines of porn videos that advertise their all-natural actresses. When superstars like Tiffany Minx or Missy get boob jobs, suddenly everyone -- from critics to producers -- murmurs his displeasure. Yet from the lineup of surgically improved flesh on parade at the AVN awards, the message is clear: the larger and more buoyant the breasts, the more eminent the porn career.


In the Grand Ballroom all the invited guests stare at one another, scarfing on a classic Vegas buffet, while comedian Richard Schimmel, hosting the event, cracks small penis jokes with three porn starlet co-hosts. One of them, Alisha Klass, 27, an ex-cheerleader and stripper, who appeared in 12 astonishing anal videos for Seymore Butts (a name she has tattooed above her butt crack), attempts to enliven the crowd with her candor and enthusiasm. On at least six occasions Klass speaks about the joys of having a huge cock in her ass. Regardless of such bon mots, the ceremony itself seems to bore everyone into rigor mortis. The empty seats become individual props for tired feet. Acceptance speeches range from delusionally grandiose to completely lifeless.

By the time Shane, a director known for her porno viriti videos, receives an award for her safe sex promotion -- despite the fact that the performers all cum in each other's mouths -- the truth becomes clear: This is an event born out of an identity crisis. The glamour is high but weirdly empty, and the constant banter of anus, cunt-licking, butthole, pussy talk grows tired fast.

The industry wants respect but it has trouble respecting itself. Midway through the ceremony many of the guests are gone. Staggering along from one micro-category to the next, finally the time comes for the AVN Special Achievement Award. Among the four winners is the illustrious Flynt. Echoing many other winners throughout the night, he invokes the importance of the First Amendment, and his Herculean struggles to preserve it. His face grows red, his already slurring words are choked back with emotion. As everyone knows, he took a bullet for the cause and he's been at it for a quarter of a century. As people stand and applaud this hero of porn, Flynt begins to weep. Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw, another Ulysses in the battle of the flesh wars, runs onstage, wraps his arms around him and gives him a big kiss.


And in this moment, the porn world seems to come together, to have a common purpose: to uphold the Constitution. As much as I was not compelled to jump out of my seat and participate in the Standing O, I realized that for every Kenneth Starr, we need a Larry Flynt.

Benjamin Weissman

Benjamin Weissman is the author of a book of short fiction entitled "Dear Dead Person." He lives in Los Angeles.

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