The XXX factor

In America, pornography is bigger than baseball. David Usborne joins the crowds at the industry's annual awards ceremony
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The Independent US

Inside the standing-room-only ballroom of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas four words echo from the stage over and over: "And the winner is ..." This is an awards night with all the requisite ingredients - a paparazzi-lined red carpet welcome for the nominees and accompanying stars, music from bands like Smashmouth and a host firing one-liners to sustain us through the three-hour marathon.

Inside the standing-room-only ballroom of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas four words echo from the stage over and over: "And the winner is ..." This is an awards night with all the requisite ingredients - a paparazzi-lined red carpet welcome for the nominees and accompanying stars, music from bands like Smashmouth and a host firing one-liners to sustain us through the three-hour marathon.

There are easy clues that this is not exactly the Oscars or Golden Globes, however. Heidi Fleiss, the infamous Hollywood madam, is a celebrity guest. So is Mary Carey, a former candidate for Governor of California, and, more importantly, a porn performer whose response to a reporter about her imminent professional plans was nothing if not pithy: "Cock, Cock, Cock!" Among the pre-recorded snippets that show up periodically on the jumbo screens overhead, one dispenses cheeky tips on care and maintenance of the male sexual organ while another offers a comedy sketch featuring one of the night's nominees, Cytheria, enjoying a special sort of orgasm the likes of which we could not describe on these pages.

Our emcee with the quick repartee, meanwhile, is neither Billy nor Whoopi but rather Thea Vidale, a moderately well-known figure on the stand-up comedy circuit, who quickly shows a brazen affinity with her audience. Spotting Gene Simmons of the rock group Kiss seated at a table near the stage, she blurts, "Let me see your tongue, daddy. I'm gonna ride you until your nose bleeds."

This, if you haven't already guessed, is the 2005 awards bash for the American adult video industry, with categories that range from the familiar - Best Foreign Feature - to the blush-inducing, like Best Oral-Themed Feature. The nominees are mostly female (though there are prizes for the lucky guys too) and while many turn up in gowns that could be confectioned by Prada or de la Renta, there are more flimsily clad, surgically enhanced breasts resting on the tables tonight than empty martini glasses. "I can tell you something y'all women in here; your titties are meant to match your bodies," Ms Vidale, who is super-sized all over, admonishes the room. Naturally, no one will listen.

But if you are surprised that such an event could even happen, let alone in a five-star tourist palace like the Venetian - which is concurrently hosting an art exhibition called the "Pursuit of Pleasure" with masterpieces by Picasso and Rodin - then you don't know the American porn industry. Battered though it may have been last year by a dismaying outbreak of Aids among its performers, and facing the prospect of protracted warfare with the conservative Bush administration, it still remains anything but coy.

Here is an industry, which, if you include films viewed via the internet, generates between $10 and $12bn a year in the United States alone, never mind exports to Britain and beyond. That is more than is spent by Americans annually on tickets for Hollywood movies at the cinema and almost three times the annual revenue of the Major Baseball League. In other words, sex - especially solitary, vicarious and, by its nature, safe sex - might more accurately be described as this country's national pastime than baseball.

Hence, the celebration of flesh in Las Vegas earlier this month that included not just the awards, sponsored by the industry's glossy trade sheet, Adult Video News (AVN), but also a five-day trade show at the Sands Expo Center, adjacent to the hotel, with 350 booths boasting not just the latest titles from companies like Wicked Pictures, Vivid Video and Hustler, but also myriad sex products ranging from battery-animated dolls to stimulators in colour-threaded glass. The chieftains of porn, wearing natty suits, huddle in corners discussing contracts worth millions. The message was clear: porn in America is big, brash and sophisticated, and it's planning to stick around.

And with 13,000 new adult titles already appearing each year on DVD and video, it is an f industry with an evidently reliable consumer base. The expo was primarily for people in the trade but also offered access to fans willing to pay $45 to get in. By the afternoon of day three, the queue of excited young men, and some not so young, hoping to get inside extended perhaps half a mile from the doors of the expo hall all the way back through the bowels of the Venetian almost to its casino floor. Once inside, the eager pornophiles swarmed every inch of the hall, jostling for autographs from the attending porn stars and, with quivering hands, capturing their seductive dips and curves on a thousand digital cameras.

There is John Steele, for example, posing next to Jesse Jane, the star of a glossy hit called Island Fever, while buddy Kevin takes a picture. It is the third year in a row the two young men - John is 22 - have flown from Chicago to visit the expo. Theirs will be holiday snaps of decidedly curvaceous landscapes to be shown off to buddies when they get home. "I mean look at her, she is perfect eye candy," John says of Ms Jane, a hyper-busted blonde with a siren's eye. He is not shy about his X-rated interests. "If I'm going to the corner store to buy cigarettes, I might as well buy some porn."

The industry is counting on John and the millions like him to counter the threat they see coming from the second Bush administration. "If everyone who watches porn in this country admitted they watched porn, Bush wouldn't stand a chance," notes Mark Kernes, a senior editor at AVN magazine, who was also on the awards jury. But the legal storm clouds are already there. Later this year, the Justice Department is due to impose stringent new regulations on all porn entrepreneurs -from the big producers down to the small fry who borrow images for internet websites - requiring them to register the names and ages of every individual portrayed in their products. The stated purpose is to curb the exploitation of children, but everyone in the business sees it as an attempt to close them down.

Joan Irvine, a motherly looking type in middle age, is minding a stand at the expo that offers nothing more salacious than piles of literature describing the work of the Free Speech Coalition, which exists purely to protect the porn industry from just such attacks. "It's going to make it almost impossible for people to operate adult websites," she says of the new regulation. The coalition is preparing to sue to stop the new rules and is also recruiting a full-time lobbyist to represent the industry in Washington DC. "Oh boy, would they love to shut us down. Bush was elected by the conservative right and he owes them."

Politics is far from the minds of most attending the expo, however. Right now, there's money to be made, and some do better than others. The Julia Roberts of the San Fernando valley, where the industry is based, is Jenna Jameson, a recently turned brunette, who repeatedly takes the stage at the awards, triumphing in the categories of Best Actress - Film, Best Couples Sex Scene - Film and Best Girl-Girl Sex Scene. She is the diva of all porn-divas, whose recent book, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, made the New York Times bestseller list. "This is someone who gets first-class fares and hotel rooms just to come here," says Shailer Schmoeler, a director at Vivid Video.

Jameson may be a cosseted veteran, but many of the girls displaying their wares in Las Vegas have only been in the business for a few months. Their lives are altogether less glamorous. Walking the red carpet for the first time is 22-year-old Maya Rose, a pretty African-American girl with tattoos crowded on her biceps and a spike in her tongue. She is in demand, she admits, for the S&M end of the market. Until a few months ago, she was studying fashion in Washington State. Her parents know nothing about her new career.

"I have always liked to watch porn, and I make a decent living," she explains, adding that she'll do pretty much anything asked of her. But there are obvious perils to her new lifestyle, not least when it comes to health. In a slightly hapless attempt to protect herself against Aids she asks that her male co-stars avoid ejaculating inside her. "As long as you are not doing cum-shots, the chances are pretty low," she suggests. She and the men on set get tested for the infection monthly, she says, but nobody bothers with the safe sex basics. "If you want to use condoms, you aren't going to be doing many movies."

At least she didn't fall into the hands of Professor Joe Elliott, who went down the red carpet shortly before her. The Professor - who has come to the Venetian in mortar-board hat, academic gown and oversized spectacles - is unabashed about his means of recruiting young women to star in his series of amateur videos featuring himself (age undetermined, but surely close to sixty) instructing them on the art of fornication. He puts model-wanted ads in the Los Angeles-area newspapers.

"The girls are so fucking flaky, they're like deer in the headlights," he reflects. "They don't know what they're doing. I usually meet them first in a coffee house and then try to shoot them that same day, if I can. I take them to my studio, which happens to be my bedroom. Sometimes they won't do much and sometimes they do more and I get lucky."

This is not the side of the industry that the sponsors of the awards mean to promote here and why, perhaps, the Professor's Amateur College Cuties, Numbers 1-14 gets overlooked by the judges this evening. The models-wanted cliché of the porn world hardly fits with the ostentatious faux glamour of the proceedings, which copies the Academy Awards even down to the long-winded acceptance speeches.

The best gossip is at the tables, particularly if you snag a spot at one ostensibly reserved for "Talent". I sit next to Genesis, who started her porn career two months ago in a scene with Bratt Rockman. Now her boyfriend, Bratt is beside her, hoping to win for Best Male Performer (though sadly he is disappointed, too). Genesis eagerly introduces another legend of the industry, Francesca Le and her husband Mark Wood, before urgently whispering that she recently did a three-way with Mr Wood and expects the scene to be recognised at next year's awards. "It was awesome," she boasts with honest pride. "You will be here, won't you?"

Er, maybe not. A whole weekend of nothing but silicone-fed mouths and legs to the ceiling is too much of a tease. But rest assured, everyone else will be back, most likely here in Las Vegas, the infamous "city of sin", to recognise the ever more sophisticated films in the works this new year. On the other hand, with the way the industry is growing, they may have to find a venue bigger even than this ballroom. A baseball stadium might work. And as we found out, American men love baseball - but they love their porn three times as much.

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