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from www.huffingtonpost.co.uk – I arrive late afternoon in Los Angeles and am greeted by award winning adult film director, Nica Noelle. I throw my luggage in the back of her car before she drives me to her home in the affluent Palos Verdes, southwest of central LA.
Noelle has long, auburn hair; she wears thick black glasses and is softly spoken. With 254 adult film titles to her name and the founder of 7 film studios, Noelle is a well-established veteran and auteur of the adult entertainment world, in which she directs, writes and produces her unique brand of lesbian, gay and transgender feminist porn.
Noelle’s house is large and overlooks the Pacific Ocean; almost every room is full of books, generally classics, including literary behemoths such as Dostoevsky, Chekov and Shakespeare. They scatter the floors of her rooms and the spines are well and truly cracked. Throughout her home are antiques, including typewriters, gramophones and, curiously, dozens of old stopped clocks; it was somewhat chaotic, but a collected and calm chaos that made it a pleasing place to be.
I have four days in the States wherein I will be shadowing Noelle as she attends the Adult Video News (AVN) Awards, which for three decades has been the largest and most prestigious awards show in the adult industry. With a red carpet pre-event and a prior two day expo packed with the world’s top porn stars, AVN is one of the more lavish celebrations of outstanding achievement in what their website describes as “the business of pleasure”.
With literally hundreds of nominees in categories as diverse as Best Cinematography, Best Anal Series and Best Comedy, the venue, located at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, promised to be teeming with a curious mix of stars, amateurs and fans.
The following day we begin our four hour drive into Nevada, allowing me the perfect opportunity to talk to Noelle about her early years in the business. She grew up in New York City, starting her career in a psychodrama house at the age of 19, before becoming a stripper and working in journalism and law. Noelle “fell into” the adult industry, performing in a handful of films before a director she worked with offered her the opportunity to write and direct her own feature, “I never intended to be a performer per se, I really only did it on a lark and then it suddenly swept me up as if it were my destiny, and maybe it was.”
The lark of writing, directing and producing her own movies began roughly 7 years ago and in that time Noelle’s films frequently topped DVD sales charts, “I very rarely perform these days because it’s just too hard to wear both hats [director and performer] on set and I’m most needed as a director. I don’t miss performing, because I never really was an actor.
“It was something that I just fell into accidentally and I never had any aspirations to be one, so it’s not like I felt it was my calling. It was definitely educational and expansive to learn how it feels, but to stay in that place, mentally and spiritually, now that I understand it and have learned what I need to know about it… I feel that would be ‘staring long into the abyss.’ I’m actually not much of a hedonist. I’m always in search of trying to find beauty and meaning in unlikely places. Porn is one such unlikely place, at least according to most of society, but there is quite a lot of beauty and meaning here if you know how to look at things.”
Night has already set in as we move inexorably towards Vegas; the dim spec of light on the horizon grows brighter before turning into the kaleidoscope of colours that is the infamous strip. Noelle tells me to brace myself for “the worst of human nature on display.” I laugh but she doesn’t, she is quite serious. Whilst it was beyond clear that for her fans, Noelle would do anything, it was equally clear that the glitz and glamour of awards shows is difficult for her. “I’m taking you here because I think it will be good for your article, but if it wasn’t for you, it’s very unlikely I would have come.”
Noelle is a complicated and often enigmatic character. She works and is highly regarded in an industry that thrives on attention, yet already it’s clear she shuns such attention the moment it’s directed towards her rather than her work. I thought back to her home and how telling it was of her character – the antiques, the didactic novels of times gone by, the Miss Havisham-esque stopped clocks – and yet Noelle is at once this and paradoxically not this.
She’s certainly no Miss Havisham; at over 6ft in heels, large eyes and natural, youthful looks, Noelle turns heads even as we walk through the parking lot of our hotel. Yet, she shares the same desire for solitude as the Dickensian spinster and despite her professional life, there is definitely something of the Victorian about Noelle “I believe in romance and rules and acting a certain way – my tastes are so classical in so many ways that it’s a big contradiction – and one I can’t seem to resolve.”
The hotel lives up to its name with Guns N Roses blasting out of every room and corridor as we head for reception. I notice Noelle is looking disturbed, I ask if she is alright “It’s so loud” she says. The hotel is buzzing with porn stars, directors and fans, alongside the regular Vegas crowd of gamblers, drinkers and curious out-of-place tourists, lost and confused amongst the sound and fury of one of America’s more meretricious cities. We rush past the throngs and into to our rooms, but again I can’t help noticing how anxious Noelle looks. Before we go to bed she says “Did you know that there are more suicides in Vegas than any other city in the US?” I didn’t know that.
The next morning I tour the ‘booths’ which house the women who work for their respective companies, but more importantly allow the fans of their work to approach them for autographs and photos. To my surprise, at least half of the fans are female, furthermore their interactions with the performers produce the same kind of reaction any fan might have for a film star or musician – many of these ‘booth’ women are celebrities of the porn world and are revered as such.
Noelle is guiding me through the byzantine layout of the expo when she feels a tap on her shoulder. Behind her is a long-time fan named Kat, who has flown in from Rhode Island specifically to meet Noelle – accompanying Kat are three other women; Brittaney, Beth and Donna. They are a disparate bunch – Kat is in her 40s, Beth her 30s and Brittaney and Donna in their 20s, but their love of Noelle has brought them together, with the exception of Donna who it seems merely came along for the ride and is in a perpetual state of excited bewilderment.
After much praise for Noelle, the girls turn their attention to me and are eager to explain how they had all just been flogged in a place called ‘The Lair’, located on the second floor of the venue. Beth is beside herself, “It hurt, but it was a good pain” she explains, “It didn’t make me orgasm, but I think if she did it to me [points to Donna] it definitely would.”
The following day I’m invited to view a private flogging session by the same girls, I go as I’m keen to talk to the woman behind the beating, a well-known lesbian performer by the name of Sinn Sage who has worked with Noelle.
Admittedly I know little about her, but I have been reliably informed she is one of the best lesbian actresses in the business. Beth is flogged relentlessly whilst Sage’s boyfriend takes pictures, shoots video and even has a go himself, before exclaiming “I can’t hide the boner in my pants!” A bit too much information for my tastes, but he seems like a nice man.
He carries Sage’s bags, helps look after the fans and is there for Sage at the drop of a hat, it’s a sweet and touching relationship amidst the almost aggressively sexual mecca that is the Hard Rock Hotel.
With the flogging over I speak to Sage about her work, “Ever since I was in high school I wanted to be a stripper. I used to act at school so it also seemed like a natural progression for me to combine my acting with my exhibitionism.” Having worked as a dancer for 7 years, Sage began her pornography from 2002, she first worked with Noelle in 2007, “I know it sounds weird saying this about porn, but Nica really gets sex. I always love working with her.” However, Sage is disappointed she hasn’t landed more acting roles, “it’s a shame because I’d love to have the opportunity to play a part with more emotion, depth and romance.”
Had anyone told me about the potential for depth and emotion in porn several days ago I would have dismissed the idea, but having spoken to Noelle for a while now, it’s clear that many consumers of pornography are tired of being patronised, there’s a reason Noelle’s films dominate the DVD charts: she provides the depth and emotion demanded by not only her consumers, but performers of pornography too.
Indeed, this brings to the fore a new phenomenon known as ‘crossover’ stars – actors or actresses who move from porn into Hollywood, with James Deen and Sasha Grey as prime examples and something of a holy grail for many adult performers.
Aware that the red carpet event is fast approaching, I want to conclude the interview with a brief discussion on the politics of award shows in the adult industry.
Noelle has recently caused a bit of a stir after she wrote an article claiming that many of the shows were fixed, that the advertisers were the real winners and that only the large studios, which had been around for years and were exceedingly rich, were the ones who stood any real chance, leaving the innovators and risk takers either in the dark or ultimately ripped off by those with more money and clout.
Sage seems tentative about speaking out against AVN, “Even if AVN can be a bit of a boys club sometimes – which I’m not even sure it is – it’s at least good for press and getting yourself out there. With the exception of seeing my fans, one of the main reasons I come here is to be seen, to collaborate and to make connections. As long as it doesn’t become anything like XBIZ, I’m fine.”
XBIZ is a newer awards ceremony that aims to honour “individuals, companies, performers and products that play an essential part in the growth and success of adult entertainment”, about which Sage is scathingly critical and is more inclined to agree with Noelle’s contention that large advertisers who back large production companies coincidentally win more awards.
“XBIZ is incredibly stupid. Half way through the show almost all the seats were empty, most of us walked out. It was a total joke.”
This was an attitude I unearthed from the majority of the performers and directors at the event. Many believe that almost all of the award ceremonies were, if not fixed, in some way swayed by a small group of rich and influential people.
Our time is up as Sage was running late for the pre-show press; interestingly, Sage went on to win an award later that evening for a small role in one of the largest production companies in the industry.
Noelle and I avoid the red carpet event as once again the limelight inspires nothing but discomfort. “We’re not going on the red carpet,” Noelle was resolute; “I hate it. We’ll find a way around it.”
Earlier in the day I have to take Noelle back to her room; the large crowds at the expo cause her to have a mild panic attack. It shocks me that someone in such a seemingly attention-seeking industry could be so sensitive, but considering Noelle’s desire to buck the trend of fake, over-the-top sex in favour of emotional and intimate narrative driven films, it really shouldn’t be so surprising at all.
Noelle has an acute and often delicate disposition; apart from the occasional glass of wine, she doesn’t drink or do drugs and instead spends her evenings at home, quietly studying for her long distance math course at Harvard.
Once we manage to successfully enter the awards show without walking down the red carpet, the night begins on a sombre note. Slow stringed music trickles out of the PA as pictures of young men and women are broadcast onto the screen, ‘In Memoriam’.
Ten to fifteen faces peer down at us, with almost all of them looking no older than nineteen. “Most of them die from drugs” explains Noelle – a heart-breaking reminder that not everyone in the industry is as sagacious as my companion.
Next come the musical and comedic acts before the awards themselves are handed out and as Noelle predicts, the big names and industries seem to win award after award. After 40 minutes I notice Noelle looking uncomfortable again, I’ve seen all I need to see and fearing another panic attack might be imminent, I suggest we head back to our rooms, she agrees.
We pack our bags and head for the parking lot, my time at AVN is over. As the valet takes our bags Noelle checks her phone, “Oh, I won an award. It was about 10 minutes after we left.” I’m thrilled and ask if she’s going to collect it? “You have to pay for them and I don’t really care about awards unless they’re voted for by my fans. I’ll leave it.”
We drive through the strip to leave Vegas; the bright lights are almost blinding, informing me where I ought to stay, what I ought to buy and where I ought to eat. Noelle has Samuel Barber’s relentlessly depressing Agnus Dei quietly playing in the background, creating a surreal, ethereal and vacant soundtrack to my time in the suicide capital of America.
For the porn stars, directors and industry insiders I met, Vegas seems to be a place where they either feel right at home, or much like the city itself, become acutely aware that they are surrounded by vast plains of nothingness. As we break free of the city there is a strange and unexpected counterpoint to this poignancy, peering out of my window I see a large billboard proclaiming, “Say Goodbye to Bunions!”