At Home with the New Superstars of Porn

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With help from new technology and social media, a new wave of homegrown entrepreneurs is taking the skin trade by storm.

Photographs by Jeff Riedel

 

Tyler Knight, the porn star, has a dildo modeled on his dick. Billed as “Tyler Knight’s Futurotic Cock,” it is black, has a length of seven inches and a girth of a little over two inches, and features what’s billed as his “famous curve.” The device, which comes with a multispeed vibrator and promises “an authentic self-pleasure experience,” retails for around $30, but for Knight, it holds the promise of immortality.

“Latex has a half-life of 70,000 years,” he says. In other words, this rubber facsimile of his penis will outlast him and his porn career. “A future civilization might excavate it,” he speculates, “and think this is what life was like in the twenty-first century.”

Photograph by Jeff Riedel

Tyler Knight: The thinking man’s woodsman, he had his member molded for an adult toy and his likeness turned into a sex doll. “I get pictures from people with it from all over the world, like Where’s Waldo?” His memoir, Burn My Shadow: A Selective Memory of an X-Rated Life, chronicles Knight’s life as a dick-for-hire.

Welcome to the XXX frontier. Not so long ago, the future of porn looked bleak. After the rise of the Internet took porn mainstream in the late- ’90s, Porn Valley, which manufactures its product on sound stages and in rented homes across the San Fernando Valley, became overrun with adult production companies flooding the market with their wares. Seizing the opportunity, digital pirates began uploading stolen content to now ubiquitous “tube sites,” and federal agents started handing out obscenity indictments to pornographers who dared to push the outer limits of sexual congress. The fatal blow arrived in 2008 when the stock market crashed and the porn economy crashed right along with it.

In the years that followed, though, something curious happened: a kind of Darwinian purge made its way through the porn business. With the competition decimated, only the strong—or at least the most ambitiously perverted—survived, and the adult-movie industry began to come back.

After decades of porn leading technology, the hope now is that technology will lead porn back to profitability. Online, the gig economy’s cam boys and girls turned porn stars are delivering custom content to consumers who are willing to pay for bespoke virtual intimacy. In the Valley, a new generation of tech-savvy pornographers is busily turning your freakiest Google searches into high-production projects for which even the most jaded porn watchers are shelling out money. For the first time, women are elbowing their way into the industry’s old boys’ club and creating a new brand of porn that’s sex-positive, feminist, and ethically made. And the once clear division between straight and gay porn is slowly, inexorably disappearing.

“The things we’ve been taught about our sexuality and gender just aren’t accurate in any way whatsoever, which was a massive eye-opener for me,” says Brendan Patrick, a handsomely bearded, 33-year-old porn star who’s the creative director of Icon Male, an adult website that produces what it calls “classy and erotic gay porn.”

Photograph by Jeff Riedel

Brendan Patrick: Growing up gay in Ireland, Patrick found the role models for his sexual identity in pornography. In his new role as creative director at Icon Male, he’s learned that consumers of porn are not who you think they are. “It’s not the dirty old man in a trench coat anymore. We realize the consumer is everybody.”

Better porn, Patrick believes, is “the saving grace of this industry.” For Icon Male, that means higher production values, narrative-driven content, and a data-driven approach. In the digital age, consumers are the new pornographers. With a single click of your mouse, you’re revealing your secret desires and dictating what porn will get made next. As it turns out, our unspoken sexual proclivities and true porn interests are a bit different than what we might think.

“Since I got into this industry, my eyes have been opened to an awful lot, especially regarding gender and sexuality,” Patrick says. “This myth that men are visual and woman are not is not true. This site in particular has a huge female following, as do a lot of other gay porn sites. We also have a very large male market, and what they pay for is the narrative. Generally, men want context as much as women. So this is one of those myths we’re fed where you can actually look at the reality and it doesn’t ring true at all.”

Kayden Kross, a 31-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed performer, director, and producer is looking to revolutionize the business of making porn by doing it ethically. At the helm of Trenchcoatx, which sells a range of “curated smut,” Kross is producing porn that’s as green as your organic kale.

“Porn is a multilayered thing. It’s not all bad. You can create porn where performers arrive and leave happy,” Kross says, pushing back against the stereotype that porn is inherently misogynist and exploitative, particularly when it comes to women.

“I see how people are treated when it’s not ethical,” she says. “That’s what keeps our industry in the gutter. In our own community, we should at least be together.”

Photograph by Jeff Riedel

Manuel Ferrara & Kayden Kross
The Brangelina of XXX, Ferrara and Kross are partners onscreen and off. Kross is determined to make porn more ethical. “I’ve seen the way people are treated when it’s not,” she says. “That’s what keeps our industry in the gutter. In our own community, we should at least be together.”

As a producer, Kross aims for sex scenes focusing on female pleasure, diverse body types, and a range of sexual orientations.

Her longtime romantic partner, Manuel Ferrara, a 41-year-old, French-born performer who directs films for another, more traditional company, sees Kross as creating the future of porn. Of his own movies, he says, “They pretty much are what porn is today. But what Kayden does is what porn’s going to be.”

But do people care if their porn is ethically produced? Kross is betting they do, and that if she’s successful, the rest of the porn industry will copy what she’s doing. “As more of these sites succeed, more will follow,” she says.

 

Photograph by Jeff Riedel

Jay Austin
For millennials like Austin, porn is just part of the freelance economy. “I’m a sometimes-introverted exhibitionist,” he says of why he was drawn to working in the adult- film industry. “There was something taboo about the whole thing that really thrilled me.”

The latest crop of porn stars are multi-hyphenate millennials who get paid to have sex on camera, but that’s only part of their social-media-driven brands. Take, for example, Jay Austin, a 29-year-old, formally trained chef. You might have seen him competing on the Food Network’s Chopped, or you might have spotted him in the X-rated The Gay Office: Executive Suite. He’s using the money he makes in porn to save for his dream of someday going back to Iowa, where he was born and raised, to homestead on eight acres of land he owns there. It will be a life starring, he says, “me, shirtless, playing with pigs and chopping down trees.” For others his age, he says, doing porn isn’t that big of a deal—it’s just part of the hustle.

“The younger generation doesn’t take it as seriously. We have these apps where you’re supposed to show everything. Our society rewards that beautiful self we’re all trying to sell.”

A long time ago, Carter Cruise, 26, was a typical sorority girl. She left that behind for porn, which is merely a steppingstone for her. “I knew I wanted to use porn to do other things,” she says. She’d seen Sasha Grey, who parlayed a turn in porn into a mainstream acting career with appearances in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience and HBO’s Entourage, and she thought she could do something similar.

Carter’s nearly 200,000 Twitter followers and almost 300,000 Instagram followers know her as the star of The Empire Strikes Back XXX, and as a DJ who plays music festivals across the country. She has been featured on a few songs, including a track called “Dunnit” in which she tells the story of a girl who acts like a slut but denies it. Still, because she’s straddling porn and the mainstream, she tries to keep her social media PG-13. “It’s definitely hard to get bookings as a DJ,” she says, “if I was posting, like, gaping-asshole pictures.”

Carter Cruise
“I knew I wanted to use porn to do other things,” says Cruise, a sorority girl turned porn star and DJ. “Women always feel like we have to choose between one or the other; because the minute you’re sexual, you’re stereotyped. I was able to not get stuck in one stereotype.”

Amidst porn’s caricatures of masculinity and femininity, Buck Angel is a unicorn. Angel, who was born a girl in the San Fernando Valley, says, “My dad had Playboy centerfolds plastered all over the inside of our garage door.” From early on, there was an awareness of “a sexualization of women’s bodies.” It wasn’t until, at 28, Angel confessed to a lesbian therapist that he thought he was a man (and the therapist said, “I believe you”) that Angel’s transformation began. Eventually, Angel had top surgery, started taking hormones, and began a relationship with Ilsa Strix, who was then a dominatrix and is now married to The Matrix co-director Lana Wachowski.

Angel, having transitioned, didn’t see anyone like himself in porn: “There was nobody. My intention was to become the man with the pussy.” In 2007, he won Transsexual Performer of the Year at the AVN Awards, the Academy Awards of porn.

Photograph by Jeff Riedel

Buck Angel
Meet the adult industry’s unicorn—a trans performer and accidental activist. When he was in his twenties, he rejected what everyone was telling him: that he was a lesbian. He knew he was a man born in a woman’s body. Not long after, he began to transition. “I’m very lucky,” Angel says today. “I get to use porn as activism.”

“They saw that what I was doing changed adult entertainment,” Angel says. “But ten years later, queer porn is still a very small part of that industry. How do I think we’ll be accepted in porn when we’re not even accepted in regular life? I’m very lucky. I get to use porn as activism.”

Angel is currently working on a memoir that he’s tentatively titled Bucking Gender, and he’s dating American Psycho and The L Word screenwriter Guinevere Turner.

Brent Corrigan started in porn at 17, appearing in scenes shot by Cobra Video. In 2007, Cobra Video owner Bryan Kocis was killed by two porn producers who wanted to use Corrigan, under contract with Kocis, in their movie. The story was dramatized in the 2016 movie King Cobra, starring James Franco.

“It’s a little ridiculous,” Corrigan says when told he’s considered porn royalty. “I didn’t set out to become famous. When I was 17 or 18, I don’t think I thought, ‘What is this going to look like in five years?’ But there are times when it’s a bit of a burden.”

Photograph by Jeff Riedel

Brent Corrigan
”I really didn’t set out to become famous,” says Corrigan, who’s considered porn royalty. He finds refuge in horses. He says, “Horses have taught me to quiet myself. They’ve put life into perspective. They’ve allowed me to just be me.”

After leaving the industry for several years, Corrigan has since returned and, at 30, is performing, directing, and producing. He’s engaged to another performer, JJ Knight, and studying equine sciences.

“I’ve made a career out of what most people revile, but my heart is somewhere else,” he says. “I want to go back to New Mexico and raise horses.”

Adam Russo got into porn nine years ago, at 41. “The daddy thing became very big,” he explains. Originally from Pennsylvania, he used to do interior design, fashion design, and product design. Working in San Francisco, he found himself opening up sexually.

“I had been asked to do porn many years ago, and I thought, ‘Why the hell not?’” He attributes his longevity in the business to his passionate performances. “I actually enjoy the sex,” he says.

Photograph by Jeff Riedel

Adam Russo
“I actually enjoy the sex,” Russo, a former designer, says. Male performers in the gay adult-film industry can make anywhere from $400 to $1,500 a scene. The average is around $600.

Russo is unusual, in that he’s done both straight and gay porn. “As soon as they see you doing something with a woman,” he says, referring to the gay-porn industry, “they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re gay for pay.’”

But minds are opening up to all kinds of new things. “The whole industry has changed like that,” he says, noting women rimming guys and a proliferation of fetishes. “Because of the Internet, people wanted more, and people are just devouring it.”

Is that a good thing?

“Oh, absolutely. Whatever makes them happy.”

It seems to be working for Lana Rhoades. At 20, the dark-haired, ice-blue-eyed Midwesterner has been in porn for 16 months, and she’s already shot, by her estimation, around 200 scenes. “It’s something I always wanted to do,” she says. She makes a point of connecting with her fans online because she knows her future is in their hands. “It’s really important to think about what they want because they’re the consumers, so I try and incorporate their requests into the movies.”

Photograph by Jeff Riedel

Lana Rhoades
At 20, Lana is porn’s most famous ingenue. In less than two years, she’s appeared in nearly 200 scenes and is followed by millions of fans. “This is something I always wanted to do,” she says.

It’s keeping up with the demand that’s the problem. “To be honest, what I’ve noticed is the consumer always wants, like, more, more, more—they want to be pushing limits. They just want to see what they can get you to do— the craziest stuff. It’s like you kind of have to do anal. Back in the day, no one would do double anal. Now it’s going in a direction where everyone’s trying to do more extreme stuff—like double anal and gaping. That’s really what the fans are requesting these days.”

There are only so many dicks one can put in an ass at a time, I point out to her.

“Yeah, exactly,” she says, then adds, “I really don’t know how I feel about it.”

Hair and makeup for Lana Rhoades and Kayden Kross by Stephen Beebe; Producer Villani Productions

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