Interview & Shoot: Porn Star 'Stoya' Shot by Tim Barber
From Oyster #104.
Stoya is a porn star unlike others, and not just because her six-pack and ghostly pallor give her the look of a vampiric triathlete. She writes for Vice, Esquire and The Guardian, once dated Marilyn Manson, and counts fantasy author Neil Gaiman as a friend. In Oyster 104: The Exposed Issue, Stoya and Neil discuss her rise to fame, navigating the porn industry and the annoyances that come with new love.
Neil Gaiman: I'm quite possibly the worst person to interview you.
Because I've never actually seen any of your films and because I met you as a friend. If it had been the other way—if I had seen a story or film and gone, "Woah! This is cool. She's hot," and then met you — it would have been completely fine. But it's the other way around because I met you as 'that nice girl'. I accidentally met Paris Hilton once. We didn't even talk. We were doing our make-up next to each other at an awards event, and I could have made conversation but I'm trying to think of something to say and the only thing in my head is, "I've seen you sucking cock on the internet."
[Laughs] Well, probably half of the people who follow me on Twitter are quite vocal about having never seen any of my movies...
How does it feel that half of the people who follow you are not actually seeing the thing you do?
Well, I always think of it like... Hmmm. For instance, James Deen and I have been dating for quite some time and while I don't find it weird at all to watch him in a sex scene, seeing him playing a sociopath in Canyons was straight-up traumatic for me. I feel like no matter how good an actor someone is, a part of what makes them good is making the role their own and so there are still parts of who they really are in their performance — like these weird little twitches or the inflection on a certain word. He did a really good job of acting like a super-creep, so were I not in a position where it was, like, we went to the premiere and it was heavily covered and there were all these writers sitting right next to us and there was nowhere to hide, I would have run from the theatre. I would have opted out of watching it because it was so uncomfortable. So, maybe it's kind of like that.
Watching your lover play a dangerous psychopath would be…
[Laughs] It was just really bizarre. My mom asked, "Should I watch the movie?" And I was like, "Nooo — not before you meet him! Dear God no!"
[Laughs] There is that sort of wonderful strangeness in the idea of actors who become known as specific things — you know, they become famous for playing evil, nasty psychopaths; or there's Jack Benny who created a persona around being stingy and cheap and he famously used to disappoint people when in fact he was a very heavy tipper, because he was terrified that people would think he was cheap in real life!
That's really interesting. You know, my friend Kayden is an adult performer, although she's taking a break because she had a baby, and she wrote a big long thing about the process of giving birth and it was incredibly graphic. I adore her and love hanging out with her and we've worked together, but I had absolutely no desire to hear about the specifics of having a child in the bathtub and I wonder if that's maybe a little more similar. You know, I don't want to go into a bar with my grandma.
So, let me ask some Curious Neil questions. How long have you been doing adult movies?
Since 2007. I think it was in 2006 I was already doing nude photographs, and then one of the websites that I posed nude for decided they wanted to make a hardcore film and they wanted me to do a girl-on-girl scene. I’m sitting there and I'm like, "I don’t really... Like, I knooow what porn is but not really, so perhaps I should research this." I went to a DVD rental place and rented Pirates by [director] Joone at Digital Playground and Fashionistas by John Stagliano, who was going to be directing the thing they wanted me for. I realise now that it was just about the widest array of content I could have gotten at the time. My roommates and I were watching them and Fashionistas was extremely rough — they were just so athletic! Belladonna, who was the lead, just has the most incredible control over her anus. I was like, "I can’t do anything like that!" and so the deal was I would come out and do as much of the scene as I felt comfortable with. It was fine, It just wasn't very... I don't know — it just didn't really appeal to me. So I guess technically I've been doing films since 2006, but I didn't really get into hardcore films until 2007.
I haven't known many adult film performers. Are they all as sensible as you?
No. There are some that are far more sensible and there are some that are far less sensible. I think I'm in the middle. I signed a contract with Digital Playground when I first started that was incredibly one-sided and bad.
Are there agents and lawyers in the way that—
There are agents and lawyers, but because your average female performer is going to stick around for three months to a couple of years and the agencies have worked with certain companies for a decade, their loyalties lie in different places. I had no agent. I didn't even realise that there were agents in adult films. I didn't even know that Digital Playground had made Pirates. I just thought, "You guys seem professional and you've agreed to let me choose the performers I work with," and worst-case scenario I just figured there was no way they could force me to have sex on camera if I decided I didn't like it... I had no idea. I just signed the paper like, "Whatever!" [Laughs] I was meeting music people who were saying I'd got screwed by that contract!
At what point did you decide that you needed to improve your deal?
We had this production manager and there was one specific time that I was scheduled to work with a performer who had cancelled without warning. The only guy they could supposedly get was this one performer who I just refused to work with. The production manager said something like, "Well, you could be working at Walmart," and I was like, "Oh, how tragic my life won't completely revolve around making sure my eyelashes match my pubic hair," so I got lawyers and worked as a waitress. At that point I saw it as a challenge — I was just so insulted that the production manager thought I wasn't capable of going and working for minimum wage and figuring it out. It took a year, but I proved my point.
What happened? I mean, I'm sure you were a terrific waitress... Actually, I'm not sure! Were you a terrific waitress or were you awful?
I was a horrible waitress. One of the owners of the restaurant was probably, like, 26 and his girlfriend was a friend of my stepsister, so he was probably more tolerant of me. I would do things like walk past a table and look at them and say, "You look hungry, because I forgot to put your order in. I'm so sorry." I was really bad at my job but then my tips were, like, 20% on average, so there's a whole point in there about symmetrical person privilege. [Laughs]
Is it symmetry or the smile? I mean, I don't know that beauty necessarily gets tips, but smiles do and happy does.
Yeah, it's very difficult to judge or evaluate oneself, and whenever I'm interacting with press every other interviewer will ask something like, "What do your fans like about you?" or "Why do you have so many followers on Twitter?" I don’t know! We could ask them? [Laughs]
You are the only person who cannot know! I remember reading a line by George Harrison once; he was saying that they were the only four people in the world who never got to hear The Beatles, you know? The Beatles happened in another world. You don't know how people experience it when they're not in that world.
Do you worry about getting to the point where you either don't want to do adult films or you're getting too old for adult films or you're bored and want to do other things? Do you think that the adult film stuff may be a liability or do you think it's going to be an asset?
Well... The only reason that I've been published by The Guardian is that I am an adult performer. And the only reason Vice jumped at me doing a column was because I am an adult performer that gets clicks. So, I guess if for the next couple of years I can use that to get in touch with really good editors and learn from the editing process and really focus and put work into it and become a genuinely strong writer, then I'll probably stand a good chance of capitalising on the perspective I have from being an adult performer and then turn that into a career. But, you know, if I wanted to work with children or become a Republican politician I'd be completely screwed...
Where are you living now?
I'm living in Los Angeles but I'm still refusing to admit it. I have my apartment in Brooklyn and it's very cold there right now, but all of my shoes are in my boyfriend's closet in Los Angeles and we have four cats and this is my mailing address and still I just refuse to admit that I'm not a New Yorker!
You're a New Yorker. That's what they do. Sometimes they never go to New York, but in their heads they're still New Yorkers.
Yes. My mom was a New Yorker. It's my birthright.
Do you think you're going to stay in LA permanently?
Um... This is one of those things where because you're you I'm saying things that I would normally be cagey about, but... I'm totally fine having this printed: I've always been independent to a fault — where, to go back to the first contract I had with Digital, it didn't even occur to me to ask for advice before I signed it. I was like, "I can figure this out for myself." I'm the kind of person who, rather than asking for help moving furniture, will get down on the floor and brace myself with my hands and push something along with my legs. So, being in a romantic relationship with someone that I care about enough to make a priority is a little weird for me. I declined to take this, you know, photo shoot or something because I would have had to have stayed in New York for another six days and we've already been apart for a week. It's just not worth it to me. And with his job, unless something horrible happens to his penis, he'll be in Los Angeles for the next 30 years, so I'll always have to come back here for extended periods of time, and sometimes it becomes like a resentment thing for me. [Laughs] Like, there are times where it's like, "I moved out to Los Angeles and you can’t just walk down to the meat store to get me some dinner on your way home? Everything is stupid here and you have to drive to the grocery store and they took our plastic bags away and this is your fault because I moved here for you!" Which is obviously absurd and not mature at all but that's how our fights go...
Now that you're a director as well, what have you learnt? What were the biggest surprises to you?
I'm not even sure what I've learnt just yet. Ah, I learned that communicating the pictures you have in your head to other people is extremely difficult! I also learned that I am unreasonably specific when it comes to casting.
Define "unreasonably specific".
Well, it was very important to me to use grown-ass women performers who were unimpeachably in control of their sexuality and knew what they liked and didn't like — women who were capable of saying 'no' to things and enthusiastically saying 'yes' to things. It was important for me to show a variety of different types of sex in terms of the mood and the acts that were happening, and different energy dynamics. I didn't want it to always be like, "The woman is the top and this time men are the top." I just wanted to get a little deeper than that. With one of the female performers it turned out a week before that she was unavailable, and the other performer I wanted was unavailable. I went into this complete freak-out mode and thought, "We're just going to have to postpone the entire thing." My producer looked at me and said, "You're being an artiste with an 'e', and it's going to be OK." Sure enough, it was OK. It went incredibly well. I learned that there is a practicality where things just have to happen some- times and it'll work out alright!
Let me ask you a question to wrap this up... What do you think about nudity?
Um... gosh! I think so many things about nudity! My first impulse was to make a joke about how nudity is my natural state, but that's actually very true. On the flip side we've made such a thing culturally out of nudity that you’re just constantly aware that it's a thing and it's sometimes very shocking to people. I don't even know... I'm usually quite comfortable with being nude and being around nude people, but...
[Laughs] I love that. I think I've never been around people who are comfortable with nudity — apart from being a young man writing stuff for magazines like Knave where I would have friends who were models, but even then I was never sure whether they were... They were comfortable with being paid and being photographed, but... It really wasn’t until meeting Amanda [Palmer, Gaiman's wife], who has the sense of nudity taboo of a two-year-old — when you walk into the house you can follow her around by the dropped clothes on the floor! You know, after being with Amanda for a number of years I'm not quite as bad as I was. I'm English, so I've been terrified the world will end if I'm naked in the wrong place at the wrong time.
[Laughs] I don't think the world will actually end, but I'm painfully aware of the amount of people who would come very close to a heart attack!