Interview: Charmaine Sinclair - All glammed out and nowhere to go
Hardcore porn star, glamour model, and de Niro's ex: Charmaine Sinclair is famous for all the wrong reasons. Now she wants to be taken seriously, reports Hettie Judah
Sunday 29 November 1998
At least today she is allowed to keep her clothes on. As one of this country's top glamour models, she must be used to facing such Arctic conditions with nothing but her pout to keep her company. While this girl can smoulder for Britain, there are some things even the smoulder of Charmaine Sinclair can't warm up. Nevertheless, she is the kind of girl that Loaded boys dream of: a 39-23-37-dimensioned tomboy with the face of an angel and a passion for racing cars. In the world of glamour she has done it all, and now, at the age of 27 she has decided to retire. The big problem is what to do next.
Tomorrow night Channel 4 follows Sinclair from the home counties to LA to meet Midori, the queen of the black hardcore market, who guides her through the lucrative world of American Adult Entertainment. Next to Surrey, Midori's world looks like a 24-hour orgy of rude rap, filthy lucre and dark-skinned, peach-bottomed girls grinding their all for the camera. The step from lingerie catalogues into serious sex films does not, on the face of it, sound like a particularly intelligent one, but there is more separating the British and American adult industries than pots of cash and a permissive attitude to graphic depictions. Over here a history in hardcore is likely to keep you out of mainstream television; in LA it winds you up in Baywatch.
Sinclair spends much of the documentary looking scandalised by all the goings on; American hardcore, one feels, is not likely to be her next career move. "I was a bit frightened, a bit shocked actually," she sniffs, "and I didn't think there were many things that could shock me after working as a glamour model for 11 years."
Although she wanted to break into TV, she discovered in LA that there are just some things she is not prepared to do to get there. "I'm actually turning into a bit of a prude as I get older," she giggles. "It's very hypocritical, but I don't even go topless on the beach any more. It sounds a bit stupid coming from someone like me, but your views change, and now I am a bit older I want my privacy, and don't want to be showing everything off - I've been there and done that."
Indeed she has. Although currently gracing the slightly more respectable pages of Loaded, the last decade has taken Sinclair on a journey from auto-erotic video sequences and spread-legged centrefolds to Page 3 and a mature career in swimwear and lingerie modelling. A natural show off, she got into glamour at the age of 16 when she was working for pounds 35 a week as a trainee hairdresser. In fact, there is still much of the hairdresser about her; a natural chatterbox, savvy and streetwise. She may be no rocket scientist, but then nor is she a bimbo.
It is easy to understand the temptation of pounds 200 modelling jobs for teenage girls but, for Sinclair, whose family was comfortably off, glamour had more profound attractions. "We lived in a totally white area and we were the only black family living in that area at the time. At school I had a lot of hassle because of my colour and got called names and stuff; the other girls were all blonde and blue-eyed and the boys used to chase them, so my way of fitting in was to become one of the boys and play football. I think that was why I was always so insecure about the way I looked - because I was always so different from everybody else, and I didn't think that anybody would actually like me."
When Sinclair was approached to do glamour work it was the first time she felt she had been treated as a woman, not simply the odd one out. "They were making me feel a way I hadn't felt before; that I did fit in, that I wasn't so different. It appealed to me. When you are young you like to hear those things. I fell for it hook, line and sinker, really."
Although she says she will never regret getting into the industry, there was much that Sinclair admits she wishes she hadn't done in that early period, not least the hardcore work which she now feels is stopping her move into a more respectable career. "I was 18, and I had left home and moved in with my fiance," she says. "We got evicted from our flat and we were living in a caravan. It was the middle of winter, it was snowing and the pipes froze. We couldn't flush the toilet, we couldn't shower, we couldn't wash - it was a pit! We might has well have lived on the street.
"Bills were mounting up and it was just too much for me to deal with at that age. Then somebody came along and said I could be paid this certain amount to do a hardcore film. They made it look and seem and feel to me that everybody was doing it, there was nothing wrong with it and that that was the way to get the money. They said I could do it with my fiance at the time and we both discussed it. We were both young and stupid, so we did it."
The experience was not a pleasant one. "I felt like my last piece of privacy was taken away from me," Sinclair admits. "I felt like I went too far; the only place I felt safe had been invaded and I didn't want to repeat that experience. As the years went on I started to realise that it was the wrong thing to do, and that it was going to come back and haunt me one day. Which it has."
As well as the stigma of hardcore, Sinclair was also having to fight the issue of race within the industry. Porn has lagged behind mainstream magazines in its introduction of black and Asian models - many start off, but few have the energy to push themselves beyond inclusion as token "exotic" colour when editorial tastes are so doggedly European.
She is proud to have proved that you don't have to be blonde to make a big name for yourself - not as any kind of race representative (there was no politics involved in her career decisions, she says, she doesn't think that way), but proud in her dogged determination and ambition, the feeling that nothing should hold her back, that she could make it by herself.
Unfortunately, Sinclair's independence was shattered when the news of her relationship with Robert de Niro hit the tabloids. She was rewritten as a high class hooker, and a ruthless opportunist. What Sinclair resents most about the whole affair is that, five years later, it seems to be the one thing people remember her for.
"Even if I meet fans, the first thing they ask is `What was de Niro like?' Well, he's only a human being, he's only a man; it's like someone going out with the bloke from the greengrocers, there is no difference just because he is in the public eye. What people forget is that I already had a good name for myself then, but it's all they seem to be interested in."
The damaging coverage she received at the time was symptomatic of the negative attitudes she has continued to face throughout her career. Compared to the happy-go-lucky world of sex that she encountered in the States, British attitudes to adult entertainment are entrenched in doubt, guilt and hypocrisy. Public perceptions of porn are still overwhelmingly censorious, but the fact that she is constantly being recognised in the street is enough to convince Sinclair that more people indulge in pornography than will ever admit to it.
Yet, ironically, it's this sexual repression which leads to a natural scepticism about those who work within the industry. Outside the world of glamour, the public seem unable to draw a line between modelling work and prostitution; it does not occur to people that she is playing a part. "If a fashion model walks down the catwalk with a see-through blouse on, that's acceptable; that's art, she's fashion," complains Sinclair, "but then somebody will look at a girl on Page 3 and think she's a tart. They've got to realise that that's what they do for a living, that's what they get paid for, just like a girl who goes to an office, types all day and then goes home - when she goes home she doesn't type all night too."
I ask her at one point if she is scared of getting old, and she shakes her head vehemently. "I am looking forward to it, because then I might be treated as a person and not a threat. I want to be seen as a normal person. If I'm going to be famous, I want to be so in a way that would prove that I've done something and I am somebody, a decent person.
"If I was in the public eye for something that was acceptable to society, people would be more likely to believe what I was saying, because then I would be a respectable person. Now I feel like whatever I say, half the time people won't even bother to listen, and if they do they won't believe a word of it."
But is Sinclair asking too much of people? She may not want to change the world, but she does want to be respected for making it to the top of the glamour industry and for - finally - being paid more to keep her underwear on than off. What she really wants is to get on with her life. After all, she's about to become a married woman - she fell in love with her greatest fan, and he proposed within a week.
Given this, it seems strange that she was so happy to make a documentary that dredged all her difficult history back into the public eye - five years since she gave up nude modelling, she will be naked on national television; five years after her relationship with de Niro ended she is forced to talk it through for the umpteenth time; just as she is finally starting to find work in mainstream TV, her hardcore past will be exposed.
Sinclair just says that she wants to tell her side of the story and put all the lies and suspicions to rest. It is a brave move, and perhaps it will work in her favour. Even if it doesn't, you suspect that she'll just keep on trying. As she says, "I like a challenge."
`Glamour Girlz' is shown on Channel 4 as part of `The Return of the Ba Ba Zee' season
IN HER OWN WORDS
On going out with Robert de Niro
`Well, he's only a human being, he's only a man; it's like going out with the bloke from the greengrocers'
On how she felt acting in porn
`I felt like my last piece of privacy was taken away from me. I felt like I went too far; the only place I felt safe had been invaded and I didn't want to repeat that experience'
On the American hardcore scene
`I was a bit frightened, a bit shocked actually, and I didn't think there were many things that could shock me after working as a glamour model for 11 years'
`I'm actually turning into a bit of a prude as I get older. It's very hypocritical, but I don't even go topless on the beach any more. Now I am a bit older I want my privacy, and don't want to be showing everything off - I've been there and done that'
On taking the decision to do porn
`They made it look and seem and feel to me that everybody was doing it, there was nothing wrong with it. They said I could do it with my fiance at the time and we both discussed it. We were both young and stupid, so we did it'
On getting old
`I am looking forward to it, because then I might be treated as a person and not a threat. I want to be seen as a normal person'
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