When the Clients Are Porn Stars

6:00 AM PST 11/13/2012 by Daniel Miller
Joe Pugliese

Meet the Ari Emanuel of the adult industry, fighting for talent (and commissions) in a tough $1 billion industry that -- except for the sex part -- isn't so different from Hollywood.

On a late-summer afternoon in a dingy San Fernando Valley apartment, talent agent Mark Spiegler is having it out with a producer. Pacing the length of the living room that for the past nine years has doubled as his office, Spiegler, portly with thinning brown hair and a graying five-o'clock shadow, sets out his demands: If his client, a top actress, is going to agree to a project, certain accommodations must be made. "You want her ready at 8, you should do the makeup," Spiegler barks as he stomps past a bookcase filled with framed photos of himself with various women. "If you want her later, she'll do her own makeup."

Spiegler's spat over the call time might seem familiar to agents at the CAAs and WMEs of Hollywood who often find themselves protecting their star clients from producer demands. But Spiegler has a particular reason for being concerned about the 8 a.m. shoot: It would require his client to get up around 4:30 a.m. to receive an enema. Because the scene calls for the woman to perform anal sex.

Yes, Spiegler, 54, represents porn stars -- and he's one of the biggest agents in Los Angeles' $1 billion adult entertainment industry. As the Ari Emanuel or Kevin Huvane of hardcore, he handles such top performers as Skin Diamond, Chanel Preston and Asa Akira, the client for whom Spiegler is arguing.

Ultimately, the production company, New Sensations, will agree to delay the shoot for Akira, 27, who will do her own makeup and be paid about $2,000 for the scene. "That's the whole reason for us being here," says Spiegler, whose boutique firm, Spiegler Girls, represents a small group of elite women and is known as one of the adult industry's top agencies. "We are the buffer -- so the girl doesn't look bad. We take the heat."

Just like the Tom Ford-clad armies that handle the affairs of the Brad Pitts and Charlize Therons on the other side of the hill, the San Fernando Valley-epicentered adult industry is led by a cadre of talent agencies that cut deals and jockey to represent the stars of tomorrow. The skill sets are, in many ways, the same -- tenacious negotiating and maintaining strong industry relationships -- but there are, of course, different responsibilities, such as advising on whether a client should get a boob job (well, maybe there is some crossover there) or agree to perform a double-penetration scene (if you have to ask, don't).

But here, in the shadows of Hollywood, the world's pornographers are at a crossroads, much like their mainstream entertainment colleagues. Facing declining revenue resulting from piracy, amateur digital competitors and a shrinking home entertainment market, the kings of porn (and yes, the industry is run mostly by men) face another threat to their business: the just-passed Los Angeles County measure requiring condom use in adult movies. Although the enforceability of Measure B is unclear, Steven Hirsch, founder and co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment Group, one of the biggest porn studios in the country, argues that the effects would be wide-ranging and dramatic. He's part of a loose coalition of porn players that plans to mount a legal challenge to the measure and is asking the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to not begin enforcing the law. "If the board chooses to implement it, we will absolutely explore options and move production out of the county," he says.

At the same time, shrinking porn profits and a talent supply-and-demand imbalance have caused performers' salaries to decline. Whatever the moral qualms Americans have (40 million to 50 million people in the U.S. regularly watch pornography on the Internet, according to studies) about the proliferation of movies with such titles as Orgasmic Oralists, Damn, She's a Lesbian and Dong of the Dead, the tough U.S. economy has led to an explosion in the number of people hoping to find work in porn -- some perhaps emboldened by the dream they too could become crossover stars like Sasha Grey (Entourage) and James Deen (the forthcoming Lindsay Lohan starrer The Canyons). While a decade ago the average female performer would make about $100,000 a year, Spiegler says she now might make as little as $50,000 -- all while juggling responsibilities such as social-media outreach and personal appearances.

And where there were only two or three reputable adult agencies 10 years ago, now 14 agencies are licensed and bonded, though top shops L.A. Direct Models, 101 Modeling and Spiegler Girls dominate the upper echelon of performers. None would discuss how much money they make, but observers say that top agents can pull down $250,000 a year from their 10 to 15 percent takes. "It's very competitive, and the well-known agencies do control most of the talent," says Dan Miller, executive managing editor of industry trade magazine XBIZ. "It's just like Hollywood in that regard."

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One might be inclined to think of porn agents as elevated pimps. Indeed, the many unlicensed, fringe representatives in the adult industry are dubbed "suitcase pimps" by their legitimate brethren because of their penchant for depositing a client and a suitcase filled with her personal effects at a shoot and returning once the work is finished to collect her and the money. They also take commissions of more than 20 percent, which is the maximum allowed by California's Labor Commissioner.

But there is an actual skill and finesse to the real porn agents, even if negotiating deals is relatively straightforward. Unlike in Hollywood, most adult performers charge set rates, so the conversation often centers on the availability of an actor. Still, agents also help clients set up personal websites, arrange for transportation and even make sure performers are staying on top of their mandatory drug-testing regimens. As if to illustrate this point, during an interview, Spiegler interrupts the conversation to answer his phone and discuss the scheduling of a blood test at Cutting Edge Testing in Sherman Oaks, a facility popular with adult entertainers.

According to Spiegler, there is a relatively straightforward scale for performances: An in-demand actress is paid about $800 for a girl-girl scene, $1,000 for a guy-girl scene, $1,200 or more for anal sex and $4,000 or more for double penetration (guy-on-guy pornography has a separate pay scale; most agents in the mainstream straight porn world, including Spiegler, do not represent gay men). Spiegler takes 10 to 15 percent, receiving the larger percentage if he handles transportation for the client. In an effort to ferret out rogue agents and discourage actors from working with them, several agencies, led by L.A. Direct, banded together to form Licensed Adult Talent Agency Trade Association (LATATA) in 2009. All member agencies -- there are seven, including Spiegler Girls -- meet once a month, are licensed by the state and adhere to standard practices.

In addition to the usual day-to-day travails of running a business, a top porn agent has to contend with venereal disease (a syphilis scare shut down Los Angeles production for 10 days this summer), underage applicants (standard procedure is to check driver's licenses or passports) and a pool of producers who -- as one can imagine -- might not include the most savory characters. Says Spiegler Girls client Kristina Rose, a 28-year-old San Diego native: "I went with Mark, I told him what I wanted to do, and he helped me make that shit happen. I've never not gotten paid for a shoot, I've never had a problem on set, and I've never had to walk off set." Adds client Andy San Dimas, 26, whose recent work includes The Dark Knight XXX: A Porn Parody, "He treats us like we are his daughters, and he has a lot of respect for us, unlike other agents that try to scam you, pimp you out."

Still, Spiegler, who is not married and does not have children, is learning to do more traditional deals. In an era in which Jenna Jameson penned a New York Times best-seller and Ron Jeremy hawks a rum called Ron de Jeremy, it's clear that the notion of what a porn star can do is expanding. According to XBIZ's Miller, about 70 to 80 percent of an actress' annual revenue is derived from movies, and the remaining 20 to 30 percent could be generated by everything from exotic dancing to sex-toy sales and personal website subscriptions. And the odd paycheck from a mainstream Hollywood gig certainly doesn't hurt.

In September, Grey, who is retired from the porn business, inked a deal with Grand Central Publishing and Little, Brown to write an erotic novel, The Juliette Society. And Sunny Leone, a Canada-born porn star of Punjabi descent, has in the past year become a Bollywood sensation, starring in the controversial film Jism 2 and on Bigg Boss, a popular Indian reality show. The taboo-busting porn star -- the first notable Indian sex actress -- was paid the SAG scale rate for her work on the 2010 Will Ferrell-produced American comedy The Virginity Hit but made about $250,000 for Jism 2, says her agent and husband, Daniel Weber. "She has about 150 film offers, and she has signed four films already," he says, adding that he expects Leone will command $1 million per mainstream Indian film by 2013.

Meanwhile, San Dimas appeared in the 2011 Ryan Gosling crime drama Drive after Spiegler secured her an audition. And there always will be bit parts in shows like Entourage, roles as strippers and prostitutes in R-rated movies or other offers, like the one Akira recently got to appear in a G-Unit music video.

But a career in pornography alone -- whether in front of the camera or managing the careers of others -- can be lucrative for the few who make it to the top. A handful of female superstars can make upward of $350,000 a year, while top male performers can make more than $100,000 annually, though they shoot far more often. According to Miller, from the thousands of hopefuls, there are between 200 and 300 "in-demand" women (termed "models") who work regularly, shooting between 100 and 150 scenes a year. "A popular girl is going to work a minimum of 10 times per month," he says.

One such It girl is Akira, one of the biggest Asian porn stars of all time. She lives in the Valley, drives a Toyota Prius, has a puggle named Homie and dates porn actor Toni Ribas. A Spiegler Girls client, she was born in New York to Japanese immigrant parents and, as their only child, attended a private high school. In 2005, when Akira was 19, newly married and deciding whether to attend college, she was approached on the street in New York and asked whether she wanted to be a dominatrix. "We went up to see his dungeon, and we started training the next day," she says. After a stint performing at a now-defunct sadomasochism club called the Nutcracker Suite, Akira segued into stripping at Manhattan's Hustler Club. Eventually she moved to Tampa, Fla., to become a regular on a Sirius XM show called Bubba the Love Sponge. Once there, Akira began performing "light masturbation" scenes on camera for a website set up by the radio program.

When the radio job ended in 2007, Akira moved back to New York and pondered whether to make the leap into pornography. It was a big decision -- one she knew she couldn't take back. "Once you do it, your life is never going to be the same," she says. But Akira always has been sexually curious and in 2008 moved to Los Angeles to pursue porn. (She didn't tell her parents at first but says she maintains a "very, very close" relationship with them.) Akira's career quickly took off; she has appeared in more than 250 films and won 12 AVN Awards (the industry's equivalent of the Academy Awards), including one this year for best anal sex scene. She has a legion of fans, many of whom stop her on the street and ask for a photograph. "There are definitely times I don't want to be recognized, like when I am shopping at Ross Dress for Less," she says. "But I like it, of course."

The business is lucrative for Akira, though she declines to say how much money she makes. Spiegler helped Akira land a deal with Interactive Life Forms, the makers of the Fleshlight sex toy. The company has sold tens of thousands of $67.96 interactive rubber devices that simulate Akira's vagina, mouth and anus. "I definitely love getting my Fleshlight check," she says. "These are the deals you work toward."

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For porn agents, deciding which clients to take on is a task akin to a traditional film agent scouring Sundance or Cannes in search of a breakout star. Spiegler, for example, receives at least 500 solicitations a year, often several a day. And because most agents refuse to work with women who use drugs or are believed to be unstable, there are prying questions. The queries don't just center on the aspiring stars' mental states -- agents want to know about performers' sexual boundaries. "I have to ask these girls, 'Do you do anal?' " says Spiegler. On an ordinary weeknight in November 2011, a young woman's mother called Spiegler from West Virginia to ask whether he would represent her daughter once she turned 18. "The mom wanted to get off to a head start," he recalls. Spiegler asked his standard questions about sex, prompting the mother to shout: "Tiffany, do you do anal? Do you have sex with girls?" Spiegler told the mother to ring him again when Tiffany turned 18. He never heard back from her.

Spiegler's frank, homespun style has made him a popular figure in L.A.'s adult entertainment community. But not every agent is like him. At the other end of the spectrum is Derek Hay, founder and owner of L.A. Direct Models, one of the industry's top agencies.

Until the early 2000s, Jim South, head of World Modeling Agency, was the biggest and most powerful adult entertainment agent in Los Angeles. He set up shop in the Valley in 1976 and represented such top talent as Ron Jeremy and Traci Lords, wielding a Michael Ovitz-in-the-'80s level of influence as the industry was revolutionized by home video. "Jim was the king for many, many years. He had it locked in; no one was even close," says Jeremy, 59, who continues to perform but also has carved out a career in mainstream film and television and as a product pitchman hocking cigars, hot sauce and rolling papers.

The World Modeling hegemony was broken by a spate of new agencies that formed in the early 2000s in an effort to capitalize on the rise of the Internet. (South did not respond to a request for comment.) Both Hay and Spiegler launched their firms in this era. However, the two agents, considered by many in the business to be tops in terms of clout, client rosters and success, couldn't be more different.

Spiegler, in many ways, is evocative of Hollywood's cliched notion of a porn mogul. He is rotund and scruffy, gregarious and quick to stop a reporter mid-question whenever his mobile phone rings. ("I'm in the middle of an interview, but go ahead real quick," becomes a familiar refrain.) Spiegler's musky apartment in Woodland Hills serves as the de facto headquarters for his company, which has no formal employees and instead relies on a sole independent contractor who maintains the books and shuttles clients to and from shoots. Hay, meanwhile, is fit, clean-shaven and seemingly all business. His Studio City-based company is housed in a sleek, corporate building adjacent to Vivid's headquarters, and his offices overlook NBCUniversal's Black Tower executive suites across the 101 freeway.

That both Spiegler and Hay are succeeding as porn agents says a lot about the business' roots and where it is headed.

Spiegler grew up in Los Angeles and attended Hollywood High before going to Cal State Northridge. After graduating with a degree in economics, he had a lucrative run trading stocks. He first got a whiff of adult entertainment in the 1980s, when he worked as a production assistant on a few films. In the 1990s, he was approached by an acquaintance who asked to borrow money to finance porn movies. The films were poorly made, but Spiegler, intrigued by the possibilities, pursued more production work and ultimately wound up producing 96 films in the mid-'90s. He stopped in 1999 -- around the time digital production saturated the market with amateur pornographers -- and transitioned to the representation business. That year, Spiegler teamed up with a porn actor associate to start Topp Models but grew dissatisfied with his partner when he learned that this person also was performing in films. "I don't think agents should be doing scenes, working with the talent, on or off camera," he says. "It's just not good business." In 2003, Spiegler broke away to form his current firm. Spiegler Girls is known for representing just 25 women; performers such as Akira (Girls Kissing Girls 9), San Dimas (Katwoman XXX) and Rose (Caught From Behind) are part of the current roster. In 2006, he signed Grey, the brunette star known for her ultra-hardcore performances and later for appearing on Entourage and in Steven Soderbergh's 2009 experimental drama The Girlfriend Experience.

"It's more boutique, but Spiegler's roster is extremely high-profile," says XBIZ's Miller. "He is not representing the volume of the other agencies, but the quality that he has, it is pretty substantial."

Hay, 48, had a roughly 20-year career in stage production and management, working with such acts as Metallica, the Bee Gees and the Rolling Stones before transitioning into adult entertainment. In the early 1990s, Hay, who is English, got to know a few women who performed in adult movies and eventually "took the plunge" in 1997, appearing in porn productions shot in London and stateside. He performed under the stage name Ben English until retiring this year; his credits include Superman XXX: A Porn Parody and Busty Athletics, among many other films.

There are other agents besides Hay who have performed in adult films. Shy Love, a retired porn star, is the owner of agency Adult Talent Managers. In the porn business, this experience can be an asset, says Sandra McCarthy, a co-owner of adult agency OC Modeling, who represents roughly 80 actors. "Maybe it was good they were performers and they could get on the level of the talent in a different way," she says.

In 2000, Hay partnered with a friend to found London-based Direct Models, and his agency career began. About a year later, Hay started L.A. Direct Models, and the London outpost of the company quickly faded out of the picture. But it was tough sledding at first. "Such was the near monopoly-hold that Jim South held on the business, many people regarded my effort to compete in the marketplace with derision," says Hay. But a turning point would come when Hay began representing English porn star Hannah Harper, whose career took off in 2002 after she appeared on the covers of Hustler and Penthouse. She was, says Hay, the It girl of the moment, and helped L.A. Direct establish a toehold. The business, which represents men and women, grew steadily from there; these days, the company has two agents in addition to Hay and represents 100 women and 25 men.

"There are rules [with Hay]," says Danny Mountain, a male performer and one of the agent's clients. "He doesn't want girls turning up on set still drunk, out of their head or on prescription drugs. He's professional. As a male performer, I don't want to be having sex with a miss Xanax queen or something like that."

Top agents consider themselves protectors in addition to negotiators. Spiegler has a policy of paying his clients out of his own pocket if a production company stiffs them. But he says this happens only "once or twice a year," and only in one instance was Spiegler unable to recoup the money from the producer. "And that guy is in prison," he says. Spiegler also does not require his clients to sign contracts with his company. "They are free to leave at any time. We deal in good faith with the girls, and we expect the girls to deal in good faith with us," he says. And the agent knows where his strengths lie. While handling an ascendant Grey, he recognized when it was time for her to seek out mainstream representation. "I remember telling her one time on the phone, 'To be honest, you may outgrow this business. I'm a licensed agent like the same in Hollywood, but I know what I know and I know what I don't know, so at some point you may have to move on.' "

Indeed, while in previous eras, Jenna Jameson's and Ron Jeremy's mainstream work almost exclusively capitalized on their notoriety as porn stars, these days, Grey and Deen are getting the chance to step outside those roles. Deen, in particular, could become a trailblazer if The Canyons, the independent film in which he stars opposite Lohan, is a success. He recognizes the stakes. "If it comes out and it's good, people in the mainstream world will be more willing to take chances on people in the adult world," he says.

Deen has gone agent-less, but for others with similar aspirations, their adult agencies are playing a key role, often acting more like traditional Hollywood representation. Spiegler, who represented Grey before she signed with Beverly Hills' APA, and Hay, whose company represents megastar Tori Black (Pretty Sloppy 4, Anal Buffet 5), also negotiate their clients' mainstream deals and arrange appearances on Howard Stern's radio show. They are quick to note that not all of their clients want to cross over. And for its part, the conventional Hollywood community seems uncomfortable with the idea of a porn star invasion. "Until Comcast buys Vivid, I don't think you are going to see that kind of stuff happen," says one prominent Hollywood manager.

Still, the adult industry is similar to Hollywood in many ways. A group of about 10 large studios, including Vivid, Evil Angel and Wicked Pictures, produce a large chunk of the content. The rest is generated by dozens of small operators, says Vivid's Hirsch -- the equivalent of the indie scene. During this period of industry flux, there has been some consolidation as the DVD market continues to shrink and Internet, pay TV and mobile mediums gain ground. "A lot of these smaller companies are finding it harder to produce movies based on what is going on in the industry," says Hirsch. Just five years ago, DVD sales accounted for about 80 percent of Vivid's revenue but now generate about 30 percent of revenue annually.

Just like in Hollywood, the porn agencies are cutthroat with one another. According to Miller, actresses often jump from agency to agency. When Chanel Preston and Brooklyn Lee recently signed with Spiegler, XBIZ breathlessly covered the news. And in a move that recalled Ari Emanuel and colleagues abruptly quitting ICM in 1995 to form Endeavor, Robert Moran and Bud Lee, two former L.A. Direct agents, left the company in June 2011 to found 101 Modeling -- ultimately signing such former L.A. Direct clients as Audrey Bitoni and Rachel Starr. "I know that agents leave William Morris or CAA and set out on their own and a new agency is born," says Hay. "We've also been victims of our own success in that we've borne the offspring of people that now compete with us. But that is the business."

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PORN'S MEASURE B BATTLE

In the aftermath of the Nov. 6 passage of Measure B, which requires the Los Angeles County Health Department to lead inspection and enforcement efforts guaranteeing that adult film actors wear condoms, the porn industry is vowing to fight the new requirement. Everyone from actors to producers and agents have said that the new rule would drive business from Los Angeles County to such places as Nevada, Arizona and Florida, and many porn players are planning to mount a legal challenge. "This is the first battle in a long war," says Steven Hirsch, founder of adult entertainment company Vivid Entertainment Group, adding that his Studio City-based company could be forced to relocate elsewhere as a result of the new rule.

The Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, penned a letter to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 7 that argued the law is unconstitutional "on the grounds of forced expression" and would file a lawsuit challenging it.

Measure B, officially known as the "Safe Sex Initiative," requires porn producers filming in Los Angeles County to secure a public health permit after satisfactorily completing a course on blood-borne pathogens and submitting an "exposure control plan" for their shoot. The fees charged for the permits theoretically would cover the salaries of new county health inspectors, who would be present on adult film sets.

But the Free Speech Coalition said that the new requirement would create "enforcement conundrums," and the letter suggests that other jurisdictions have courted the adult entertainment industry and that this measure could drive the business out of the county.

But Dan Miller, executive managing editor of industry publication XBIZ, doesn't expect a sudden exodus. "Most people are going to take a wait-and-see attitude -- they aren't packing up their offices and moving." Measure B, which was approved with 56 percent of the vote, was drafted by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which also contributed $1.6 million to secure its passage, according to the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk's office. "We were severely outspent," says Hirsch. "[But] the industry is ready to fight."

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