The Wall Street Journal

 

A Star Is Porn

By DAN ACKMAN
August 27, 2004; Page W13


Jenna Jameson is famous for being famous. Plus naked. Even those who are unfamiliar with her body of work know Ms. Jameson as the biggest name in adult entertainment, which is how she bills herself and which undoubtedly she is, at least for the moment.

Famous porn stars are, of course, nothing new. Linda Lovelace, who died in 2002, is still a well-known name. But while her fame, based on "Deep Throat," was scandalous and the product of an underground culture, Ms. Jameson is celebrated by the biggest media outlets going. And while pornography was once shown in backstreet theaters, it is now beamed into hotel rooms and living rooms, to say nothing of the Internet -- all phenomena that put Ms. Jameson into a league of her own.

Pornography is now big business -- though not as big as is often claimed -- and, more important, part of mainstream culture. While Ms. Lovelace wound up broke and renounced her career, Ms. Jameson is rich and presents pornography as a means to "empowerment." She is a regular guest on Howard Stern's radio show, which has helped her develop the kind of stardom that has made her a fixture on Hollywood's A-list party circuit -- and elsewhere, too. She showed up recently on a massive Times Square billboard and on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360." The culture doesn't just shrug at her celebrity; it embraces it.

Ms. Jameson is now on tour to promote "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale." It will undoubtedly move her into the mass market even further. The book tells the tale of Ms. Jameson's rise, from teenage stripper in Las Vegas to the zenith of the adult film world, where she now has her own production company. It includes stories of her sexual abuse, rape, drug addiction and numerous heartbreaks. But as the story is ultimately a "celebration of survival and victory on your own terms," it is not quite clear where the caution lies. The memoir is 579 pages (including pictures), despite the fact that the author is just 30 years old. That's about as long as the autobiography of 59-year-old Gen. Tommy Franks, which is published by the same imprint, ReganBooks, a unit of News Corp., also this month.

As an author, Ms. Jameson is enjoying the kind of exposure about which others may only dream. She is the subject of an hour-long documentary on VH1 and has appeared on NBC, CNBC and Fox News, along with CNN. Her publicist says that she has turned down Bill O'Reilly and Greta Van Susteren but is planning to visit with Jimmy Kimmel on ABC next month.

Her fame has burnished her career in adult films, which in turn has increased the rate she charges to dance in strip clubs, where the real money is. By the time she was in her mid-20s, Ms. Jameson could make $25,000 a night, according to her husband and business partner Jay Grdina, who is also a veteran adult-film producer-director.

In 2000, Mr. Grdina and Ms. Jameson started Club Jenna Inc., a company that produces videos and Web sites as well as managing the Web sites for other adult stars. Not the types to sell and tell, they won't say what the business makes. But Mr. Grdina does claim that they sign up 500 new members every day. Members pay anywhere from $8.50 to $35 a month to view videos, and more to purchase merchandise. The company also distributes films on video and DVD. Mr. Grdina says that Ms. Jameson's movies (in which he now co-stars) sell 100,000 copies on average, much more than the run-of-the-mill adult film, which does well to sell 5,000. (On the other hand, such films might be shot in a single day. Ms. Jameson's recent productions, according to Mr. Grdina, took as much as 12 days to film.)

Ms. Jameson's individual star is rising as her industry sinks into the twilight of porn's age of innocence. Icons of an earlier era like Bob Guccione and Al Goldstein have fallen on hard times. Mr. Guccione, the founder of Penthouse, has lost his Manhattan townhouse and his Hudson River mansion to creditors. Mr. Goldstein, once the publisher of Screw, is on probation and is reportedly penniless.

While the Internet was supposed to usher in a heyday for pornographers, in fact it has driven the price of still pictures of naked people to historic lows. This trend has made it harder for even Hugh Hefner to make a buck: Playboy Enterprises hasn't earned a profit since 1998, and its share price has been cut in half in the past year.

On the other hand, it is now respectable for Fidelity and Janus, the mutual-fund giants, to own Playboy shares, and they do. Media titans like Comcast, Time Warner and EchoStar are all in the porn business in the sense that they all distribute at least soft-core films via their cable and satellite systems. The major hotel chains participate in soft-core porn distribution through On Command Corp., the unit of Liberty Media that supplies the pay-as-you-go movie packages for hotel-room television screens.

It's impossible to know how much the major media companies earn from pornography. Certainly it cannot be more than a tiny sliver of their total revenues. But none appear willing to forgo porn profits, as meager as they may be in the scheme of things.

The overall size of the porn business is a subject of wild speculation. Statistics with no basis in reality tend to be repeated over and over. It is often said, for instance, that Ms. Lovelace's "Deep Throat" has grossed $600 million, which would put it ahead of "Terminator 2" and "The Empire Strikes Back," a totally preposterous idea. My best guess, based on careful estimates, is that the entire adult-entertainment industry (not counting strip clubs) grosses something like $3 billion a year. It's a substantial sum but not more than Pfizer takes in from selling the antidepressant Zoloft.

Still, a $3 billion industry with widening distribution certainly affords stars like Ms. Jameson the opportunity to earn millions. Her book, co-authored by former New York Times writer Neil Strauss, is on its way to becoming a bestseller. All alone, she is displaying the kind of synergy that eluded AOL Time Warner and Vivendi.

On the Web at least, Ms. Jameson is as famous as Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock, though not quite as celebrated as Paris Hilton. All told, she has entered the mainstream to the point of capsizing the old rules, at least most of the time. "There is an air of conservatism," Mr. Grdina says, referring to the mixed blessing of such success. "We get a push back for every step we move forward." Maybe so, but lately the leaps forward have been much longer than the steps back.

Mr. Ackman is a senior columnist for Forbes.com