It's 4 p.m. and Chanel Preston is exhausted. We're only halfway through the first day of the Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE), the nation's largest convention for adult industry professionals and their fans, and, with four days left of meeting, greeting and having literal adult novelties—vibrators? Passe. Now it's all about yoga balls with built-in dildos and a "bacon-loving" teddy whose tongue buzzes with pleasure—shoved in your face, it's already a little bit too much.
The AEE, with its multitude of sights, sounds and smells (some good, some from the pits of a painful and mold-infested hell) can be overwhelming after only a few hours. The event, however, is actually four days long. For some fans, AEE might be the thrill of a lifetime—I suspect that it is especially so for the guy who's walking around in a tux—but for most people here, particularly the performers, it's another day at work. And the most important people? They have to do everything in high heels and pounds and pounds of makeup. Like Preston, who's up for performer of the year at this year's AVN awards, the adult industry's Oscars.
"Have you ever been to one of these before?" Preston asks as we sit down to talk in the James Deen Productions booth, the eponymous porn company of the one male porn star both your mom and 16-year-old cousin are totally into. "Is it what you expected?"
Around us, the convention hall is bustling with people, stacked with videos and other adult novelties. A replica of Deen's impressive phallus is right above my head. Preston is in front of me fully dressed, but directly behind me there are stacks and stacks of DVDs showing off her naked form. To say that this isn't what I expected is an understatement. I was excited to enter the convention hall hours before, my photographer (full disclosure: my partner Allen with his brother's fancy camera) behind me, determined to enjoy every moment of my first trip to a real-live porn convention. But sometime between the moment a man wearing an "A Veteran Is..." word collage T-shirt knocked me over in his quest to touch breasts and a tense exchange with my photographer who ate a cheese sandwich even though he KNOWS he's lactose intolerant, I lost my will to live.
Perhaps that's why my interview with Chanel Preston, my last one of the day, is less a question-and-answer and more of a conversation about what it's like to be here.
Chanel Preston is delighted to see you.
Preston is personable and funny, a real delight. She tells me that people often think she's a "cunt" when they first meet her because of her self-described bitchy resting face, but her demeanor is quite the opposite. She loves meeting the fans and dressing up for the awards, she says, but wouldn't describe the experience as "fun," exactly. The stars are here for PR, not pleasure, and PR is important these days. With sites like Pornhub (at the convention), Redtube and Xvideos making it harder and harder to make a living, meeting fans in person is a crucial way for performers to get the public to buy DVDs, sign up for site memberships, and purchase individual clips rather than pirating their porn from other sites.
In a "Men of Adult" panel I attend later that afternoon, the takeaway is that the people fucking on your screen are working hard and deserve the pay that they get, which isn't as much as most people would like to believe. But this kind of fucking is work; these guys have to create impressive "pops," or ejaculations, even when they're doing "hardcore gonzo" (scenes involving blue muppets and chickens, a real thing).
"I have a nice place to live and food on my table," says the perfect jawline that makes up 95 percent of Ryan Driller. LittleRedBunny, a twinkly ginger cam girl, tells me that rumors of her making more than seven figures a year are greatly overstated. "I make a living," she says in a heavy accent she swears is American, "but I'm a simple person. I like simple things." She's also on her webcam for up to 18 hours per day. "But it's always a party," she tells me. "I'm always trying to make it fun with my music and dancing."
Many of my interviews on this first day are like the ones I have with Preston, at production company booths in the middle of the convention floor. The only attendees today are press, industry professionals and the hardcore fans who paid extra to hang out and watch the set-up, so the noise level is manageable and everyone can get by with minimal physical contact. Everyone tells me it'll be crazier and crazier as the week wears on, however, and I'm imagining the place turning into an orgy of groping hands and silicone-based sex toys: a free-for-all so grotesque in size that it can't help but be unsexy.
But today, there are only a few hundred people buying DVDs and getting hugs from their favorite performers, stopping outside the convention hall doors to grin over their salacious purchases and then clutch their paper bags close to their chest, lest they be stolen by some porn-loving Hamburglar. I appreciate their rabid fandom; were there more (or any) gay performers here, I'd likely be drooling a little, too. (I do have an interview with Lance Hart, seemingly the only guy here who's done gay porn, set up for tomorrow, so I can't make any promises.)
The only interview I do outside the actual hall is with Jessica Drake, arguably the business' top star right now. Drake meets me in Wicked Studios' penthouse suite, a room at the Hard Rock that has been transformed from Vegas-fancy to all-out porn heaven. Getting access to the room requires an elaborate knocking ritual that takes me three times to master before I'm greeted by a guy in sunglasses who leads me to a white leather couch. I wait there for Drake to appear like a goddess out of the mist.
This is the Wicked Suite and it is bangin'.
Jessica Drake is stunningly beautiful, but more importantly, she is a cunning businesswoman. Right after she enters the room and shakes my hand, she immediately sweeps aside the stacks of porn on the table in front of them, and replaces it all with several boxes of her own titles, including ones she's starred in, written, and/or directed. She's currently promoting her series, jessica drake's Guide to Wicked Sex, and the latest release, which focuses on "plus-size sex" and stars Kelly Shibari, porn's most famous truly plus-sized model, is nominated for best marketing. Like "best anal," "best marketing" is a category you might not see at the Golden Globes or Independent Spirit awards.
"I know this interview's going to be a little different," she says. "I know Jezebel."
"So you won't mind if I ask you some of the hard questions," I say.
She laughs and says no. She's expecting them. So I start with the hardest question I can think of: "How are you doing?"
Jessica Drake is doing fine and she's happy to be here, talking to me and getting photographed. She even tells Allen her best angles. Angles are everything. When Drake and I take a selfie together, she holds the camera so she can get the shot just so.
jessica drake took this photo.
Of the trio of big-name female performers I meet on this day, Drake is the most moderate in her attitude. If Jesse (née Jesse Jane), big-name star of yesteryear (2010? 2011?) is giggly and vivacious and Chanel Preston is fun and disaffected, Drake is cool, collected and professional. She's had a long career in the business and is slowly moving closer to directing more than just acting. It's important to have a plan, she tells me. And that's a recurring theme I hear over and over: that female performers don't have a long "shelf life." Drake cautions anyone even remotely interested in doing adult film work to do lots of research before trying to shoot that first scene. And, she says, it's going to be impossible to survive if you don't know how to use your voice.
Jessica Drake giving some real talk.
So many women, Drake tells me, don't know that they can and need to speak up when doing this type of work. The secret to Drake's success (aside from the physical aspect of things) is that she's always taken charge of her own career, saying no when she doesn't want to do something, insisting on condoms in all her movies, working with a select group of male performers whom she asks to be tested more frequently than required, and not being afraid to walk away when she's not being heard. She tells me that once, earlier in her career, she showed up to a shoot that she'd been told would star a specific male performer and feature condoms. Instead, she was informed that the male performer had been replaced by the film's director and that condoms were no longer an option. She left. Her career clearly hasn't suffered.
Drake's also got one fan that I was surprised to learn about.
"You know Barack Obama follows you on Twitter," I say, like anyone wouldn't know that Obama follows them.
"Yeah," she laughs.
"Does he direct message you? Is it like an Anthony Weiner situation?"
"He doesn't," she says. "But even if he did, I wouldn't tell you."
"How do you think it happened?" I ask, only partly because I'm jealous that Obama doesn't follow me even though I post inarguably the best guinea pig photos on the internet.
"I think it was an intern. They were just adding people and thought, who's the most inappropriate person I can follow?"
"Does that mean that adult performers are inappropriate?" I ask her.
"No," she says. Drake makes it clear that this is a business and that this is a business convention, just like the other two happening in Vegas this week. She loves what she does, but it's also a job. I'm reminded of a question I've had for her since I planned this trip: Why don't Drake and other top stars do interracial scenes? Drake, specifically, has been in the business since 1999 and has done almost everything else that would be considered mainstream pornography. Why not this?
Aurora Snow wrote about this very question in The Daily Beast back in 2013. She discusses the myth that doing an interracial scene (boy/girl only; according to Drake, girl/girl doesn't count) will lower a star's value and ruin their career:
But what's more often behind the taboo is career anxiety. Most girls in the industry hear at some point from their agent or another performer that an actress can increase the longevity of her career by refusing interracial scenes—at least until directors have stopped using her.
I believe this is an outdated formula for success. My experience has taught me that the adult audience is far more progressive than porn-industry leaders, mostly old white men, may believe. There was once also a belief within the industry that a girl could extend her career by not doing certain sex acts. Circa 2000, the conventional wisdom was that if a girl wanted to maximize her career arc, she should start off doing solo work, then begin shooting with girls, move on to doing nonblack men, and then go into interracial or anal. There were hundreds of companies to work for at that time—and all kinds of movies to be made; porn was a booming, multibillion-dollar industry.
Snow cites this as a myth, but many top performers continue to avoid interracial scenes. Drake says she had one coming but it fell through due to "issues in the industry." Chanel Preston, whom I'd consider part of the new wave of porn actresses, literally scoffed at the idea that interracial scenes would hurt her career, but she also gives off an "I don't give a fuck, I do what I want" vibe more than anyone I talked to.
When I ask Drake if she thinks that porn audiences might be less willing to purchase DVDs of their favorite stars after they've engaged in on-screen sex with a black man due to deeply ingrained and possibly unconscious racism, she tells me I'd be surprised: for many it might be a fantasy. Other performers, like the former Jesse Jane, challenge this idea.
"So I'm just Jesse now," she says. "J-E-S-S-E. But what are they going to do? Are they going to get another Jesse Jane when I've been her for the past 12 years?" Jesse, who looks and sounds like she might roll deep with Adult Baby Ariana Grande , was once one of the most popular adult performers in the industry. But she's been out of the spotlight for over two years, waiting for one exclusive contract to run out so she can change the course of her career and do things her previous studio wouldn't let her, like hardcore BDSM. "I like to be on top," Jesse giggles.
I ask her whether she'd be open to doing an interracial scene and she says yes, although her last studio didn't want her to. She says she acknowledges that it's a problem but understands why they wouldn't want her to participate in one.
"I've seen it happen to other girls," she says when I ask whether doing scenes with male actors of a different race (specifically black actors) can hurt a performer's career. "I don't think it's right, but I've seen it happen." She doesn't expand on the thought, but she does remind me that all people are into different things and that everyone has sex with everyone. Speaking of which, Jesse says now that she's with Jules Jordan she won't do any gangbangs (lots of guys, one woman) but will do orgies, because everyone's having a good time, and what could be better?
Jesse at the Jules Jordan booth.
And then there's the question of feminism, which I pose to Jessica Drake towards the end of our interview. She's reluctant to use the term, she says, due to its connotations—even though she's more in control of her career than almost anyone else in the business and the creator of an entire series that relies on sexual education to enhance pleasure for all mixed-gender couples.
I'm curious about what she thinks the connotations are. "Like you're man-hating?" I ask. She doesn't disagree.
"Do you think calling yourself a feminist would be problematic in terms of fan response?" I press. "Like that men might not be as interested in supporting you if you come out as a feminist?" She doesn't agree with that, but she doesn't disagree either.
She believes in equality, Drake says, and she believes in respect. That's why she isn't afraid to turn the disrespect back on people who harass her on Twitter, by retweeting some of the mean things people say so they're not just ignored. She doesn't do it often, she says, but I think it might be a little telling that she pointed out someone's harassment of her on Twitter just a few days before the convention started.
It's hard to describe everything that goes on during even the slowest day at a convention. Between the expanses of flesh on easy display, the porn performers many of us have never heard of (including Claudia Marie, America's favorite "fake tit big ass whore") and the myriad perverse knick-knacks promising to improve the lives of the porn enthusiasts present, it's impossible to take everything in. But when you try, it can be slightly jarring. While all the performers I spoke with were open, patient and genuinely interested in meeting their generally fawning and grateful public, that wasn't the whole picture on the first day.
The AEE—like anything that involves men, women and any kind of sex—is complicated. There were lots of excited squeals and shouts of "You got me through college!" (this one directed at an eminently embraceable Nina Hartley), but there were also jeers and insults and mutterings of "whores" or, "she's much uglier in real life." And at the end of the day, it's the little drops of negativity mixed with the constant stimulation that wears you out. By the time the convention hall closes, I'm ready for bed, even though it's only eight o'clock. This is disappointing news to my photographer who, having happily gotten rid of his dairy-induced issues, wants to try some of the caramel-flavored lubricant that's been foisted on us by a very enthusiastic promoter.
"I'm not really hungry," I said as I turned off the light. "But you go ahead."
Images by Allen Corona; Jessica Drake selfie by Jessica Drake