Transcending porn: The performers who become mainstream models and actors

A number of actors are making the transition between adult and the mainstream. Is the divide becoming easier to cross, or are transitioning actors still fighting barriers created by shame and stigma?

 

Some industries are notoriously difficult to branch out of. The adult industry has long been thought to be one of them.

In an age where one video can be watched millions of times and those on screen are more accessible than ever, performers can quickly become famous - regardless of whether they actually want to be recognised. 

Those actively trying to build a profile are at once fighting against the stream of content constantly disseminated online and at the same time benefiting from social media and the option of building and engaging with followers. But once this following has been established, it can be hard to leave that identity behind, particularly for those hoping to enter other high-profile industries. 

Yet a number of popular adult actors are breaking into mainstream acting, modelling and other public careers, transcending the divide between 'adult' celebrity and mainstream celebrity.

Lisa Ann, Sunny Leone, Jessie Andrews, Colby Keller and Jessica Drake are the most prominent examples of actors who have made this transition, forging successful hybrid careers in spite of a prevailing stigma that often makes it acceptable to consume porn, but not to appear in it. 

Some who have succeeded outside of the porn industry have decided to leave it all together, such as Leone, and others, like Andrews, continue to work within it. But they are not the first or the last to do so, posing questions about the viability of crossing between porn and mainstream. What is it like to become a mainstream actor or model after first becoming famous for porn? Are actors now being allowed to transition more easily and with less shame? Or are conservative attitudes towards porn still ensuring the bridge between the two will be difficult one to cross for a long time to come?

Ann's career is remarkable in that unlike most performers who spend just months or a few years in the industry, she was a part of it for two decades until her retirement in 2014.

She hosts her own Fantasy Football show on Sirius XM Satellite Radio, the largest satellite radio network in the US.

The 43-year-old's transition is also more unusual than her counterparts. Her career on radio began with her interviewing strippers before she launched her fantasy football show. “People would tell you, 'Once you've done porn, you're never going to get another job,’” she told ABC in November. “I get [that people still look at me online] and I put it out there and I really still want people to enjoy it because it's such a big part of my life.”

Likewise, Leone, 34, announced her retirement from porn in 2013 three years after moving to Mumbai to launch a career in Bollywood, where she has worked for five years. In a recent interview, viewers jumped to Leone’s defence when she was harangued about her past during a conversation that was supposed to focus on her forthcoming film. In a country as conservative as India, this is further evidence of how attitudes towards adult actors have improved. However, Leone has had to fight for this acceptance and was even accused of “promoting obscenity and destroying Indian culture and society” last year. 

Regardless, her acting career has gone from strength to strength. Leone has appeared in a number of major Bollywood films and she was the most searched for person in India last year. 

 

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment is cautious about what their success in the mainstream actually signifies. She presents Ann and Leone as exceptions, not the rule, and highlights the backlash they have all faced for working in porn on numerous occasions. 

Dr Tibbals told The Independent: “Both Ann and Leone continue to experience major institutional and cultural backlash tied directly to their prior careers. Sociologically speaking, this suggests an exception, rather than a deep structural shift in attitude or opportunity. It may be that these women are the groundbreakers, forging a new path for future crossover, but it’s also worth noting that both Ann and Leone were extremely high-profile and successful within adult entertainment. Certainly, this impacts future moves into other industries. For your ‘average performer’ looking to move into another more conventional career, or even into more entry-level mainstream entertainment, sex worker discrimination and slut shaming are rampant.”

As a veteran adult film actress with a number of roles in mainstream productions under her belt, Drake is more optimistic about transitioning from porn to other prominent roles. Drake did not enter the industry with any mainstream ambitions and believes the work she has done as a porn actress was ultimately responsible for the offers of work in acting, TV and video she later received. 

Drake, 40, was cast in Lady Gaga and Beyonce's “Telephone” video, has appeared in major TV shows such as Sons of Anarchy, was followed around for Tyra Bank’s A Day in The Life Of Series, and is now a sex educator who is as well known for her work in this area as she is for her ongoing, 15-year career in adult films.

Speaking to The Independent, she said it is important for actors not to put themselves in a box. “We are doing ourselves a tremendous disservice when we are shaming ourselves and when we think that we don’t have a place in other areas because of the stigma. I got to a point where I stopped being apologetic for my job. I don’t apologise for what I do for a living. I’m not going to let the fact that I have sex on camera inhibit my drive to do other things in other places. I just won’t do it.“

Drake can't define herself within one role, but she says porn has been an empowering experience that made her grow as an actress and director and helped her develop her own personal brand. Equally, she doesn't undervalue the shaming and prejudice that adult stars can experience, something that is reflected in the nature of the early roles she was offered. In her first mainstream movie, Drake was cast as a prostitute lying on a bed in the background. She believes the stigma in performing in porn is still prevalent, but she expects to see many other performers like herself emerging in mainstream work, whether they are still working in porn or have chosen to leave it.

“I would just be ‘naked girl in the back’, but over my time in the industry the number of mainstream opportunities that I was given began to grow because of the fame that I had attained in the industry,“ she explained. ”We got the phone call [asking her to appear in “Lady Gaga and Beyonce's video for Telephone”] because of who I am.

“When you are talking about mainstream cross-over within the adult industry. I think you are dealing with two very different things: people who were or are aspiring to make that crossover and this underrepresented group or not really understood group who have gotten where they are because of who they are.

“I think the stigma has lessened - but slightly. I think that the change that brought about our acceptability in the mainstream area is more so people’s willingness to talk about it and be more open about porn. I definitely feel that there is still a stigma attached to it, but I think that due to all of the advances in technology porn is everywhere, so people have a slightly better understanding of porn. It can be created by feminists, feminists can perform in it. […] Women are so much more in control.

“I think [it is easier for adult actors to cross over] in some ways. Saying that though, we also have to acknowledge the roles that many actors within the industry are still being cast in."

Andrews, 23, has built a following largely for her work outside of porn. While occasionally working on adult films, she also models for brands such as American Apparel, DJs, has her own jewellery line, Bagatiba, and has written a column about sex for Galore. Andrews is influential on social media, amassing over 200,000 followers, and has graced the pages of high-end fashion magazines. 

“I’ll do a porn project once or twice a year if the project’s right,” she told Dazed in January. “Other than that, I have jewellery and DJing to occupy my time. I always tell people you’ve got to have the right calendar to keep organised.

“We [women] have been presented with all these opportunities and everyone’s such a go-getter. You don't have to stick with one job. Modelling is not a job for me. The real work I do is DJing and my jewellery label. But I love them. So does that make it a hobby or a job?”

In January, US adult actor Keller became Vivienne Westwood’s latest muse after the fashion designer eschewed more androgynous male models and chose him for her latest campaign. 

Like Andrews, Keller, 35, is still appearing in adult content and is proud to work within the industry, where he is a popular actor. However, he still believes his work in porn could limit the career options open to him in the future, telling The Daily Beast: “I’ve spent the majority of my adult life working in a certain business. It’s not like I can turn around and be a lawyer.”

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