Vanna Bardot, a tall, lithe, beehived, nearly naked porn performer who served as a trophy girl at the 2020 AVN Awards, stumbles into an upstairs suite at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas*. It’s the second day of the AVNShow, she’s been signing autographs all day in high heels, and her dogs are barking. She collapses on the lap of Gia Derza, who is dressed more conservatively in almost next to nothing.
If you’ve ever been to the AVN Expo/Show/Fete/Bacchanal/Saturnalia, you know that there’s a lot of ground to cover, and the only people who wear comfortable shoes are the male fans and only some of the female ones. So this suite, organized by Kink.com (purveyors of fine BDSM content like Divine Birtches, Electrosluts, Device Bondage, and Everything Butt) and stocked with snacks and not-insubstantial gifts for the performers and directors that populate its sites, is a refuge from fans and a way to reconnect with friends.
Down on the show floor, I saw a man with at least 30 porn star signatures on his t-shirt. I saw lines of fans stretch wall-to-wall to get a long hug, a picture, or an autograph with either their favorite porn star or any porn star. I watched some performers, done with their shifts, have difficulty getting out of the convention hall due to fan attention and miracle-of-birth-level squeeziness.
Up in the Kink Suite, Bardot says, “I just need something to eat right now.”
Courtesy suites aren’t a new phenomenon at AVN. In recent years, organizations like The Cupcake Girls have provided hair and makeup services (as well as cupcakes) to recognized porn performers. On the day of the AVN Awards I go to the Cupcake Girls suite and am denied entry by a stern but otherwise amicable dude.
“Are you a performer?” he asks.
“No, but I inspire pornography,” I say.
“Uhhh, you can’t come in,” he says.
Instead, I talk with the Cupcake Girls’ spokesperson, Ella, who tells me of the organization’s outreach efforts to sex workers in Portland and Las Vegas, about their planned rehab of a building a few miles away to house support services and provide emergency shelter, and how 600 performers had passed through the suite that week.
“And we bake about 80 dozen cupcakes a month,” Ella says.
Even though Ella stresses that Cupcake Girls is “non-religious and non-political,” it is hard to mistake the anti-trafficking language on its website. I ask Ella if there is an anti-sex work agenda at Cupcake Girls.
“We do not take a stance as an organization on sex work,” she says. “We may have individual opinions. but not as an institution. We do take a stance on trafficking.”
I Gramsplain that, as an industry, the porn world is barely a generation away from the de facto decriminalization established by the Freeman Case in 1988, and so can’t help but occasionally look a gift horse like Free Makeup And Cupcakes in the mouth.
“We let people make their own decisions,” Ella says, “and offer support where we can.”
I’m reminded of other groups, like JC’s Girls and, more recently, SolaceSF (which partnered with the Cupcake Girls on a similar Hard Rock suite several years ago), that approached sex work and sex workers with a “horns holding up the halo” philosophy. God’s Girls co-founder Heather Veitch was the first person I knew to tell me about hating the sin but loving the sinner, and I couldn’t help but think that, as much as these organizations say they are not trying to get people out of sex work, and as much as they provide an unassailably real and valuable service (“It’s crazy out there,” Ella tells me, “and we just offer a place for perdormers to take a breath”), I’m suspicious, like every person who’s worked within the porn industry for a certain amount of time, of outsiders.
But I also have to admit that cupcakes beat the New Testaments handed out for several years at the AVN Show by the God Loves Porn Stars people.
Several performers in the Kink suite talk about having visited the Cupcake Girls’ room, and they say they appreciated the service.
“And it wasn’t like a timeshare pitch to get out of porn?” I ask.
“No, not at all,” one says.
Kink.com CEO Alison Boden observes that aid organizations within the adult industry reflect its maturity.
“It’s a sign of confidence that a service like Pineapple Support (a non-profit founded by sex workers in 2018 that offers free and subsidized counseling to performers and producers) exists,” she says. “Like any other business that recognizes its employees occasionally need counseling.”
It’s true. Ten years ago, any public airing of porn’s dirty laundry carried with it the fear that it would bring comfort to the industry’s enemies. But there have been several high-profile suicides in porn in the past few years, and if we don’t threaten to close down the Army or Post Office despite their high rate of suicides, perhaps the adult industry can afford to let its guard down.
At one end of the Kink suite there is an impressive shelf of massive and imposing dildos provided by Bad Dragon, with whom Kink.com has partnered. Performers and directors swap shop talk as they try on tasteful Kink hoodies and 70s key party-looking Kink robes, check out gift bags, and drink mimosas. Natalie Mars, who will later win Transgender Performer of the Year, stops by to chat, as does Tommy Pistol, Cody Steele, Aiden Starr, Casey Calvert, and dozens of other performers who just need to get away from the crowds for a minute. There’s Nate Glass and Reba Rpcket of DMCA Notice mill TakedownPiracy, and other wheelers and dealers getting business done without needing to scream at each other on the show floor four stories below.
I pick at a small plate of Consentenmann’s cookies and briefly fall asleep on a chair. I wake up unmolested. If it had been 1982, John Holmes would have rifled through my bag, but it’s places like this that remind porn professionals of the more wholesome meaning of getting a load off.
Previously on Porn Valley Observed: The Upper Floor And Underground of Kink.com
*I like to think that the Hard Rock, which closed February 4 to be gutted and renovated into Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotel—a process that is expected to take eight months—is now entirely filled with water, like one of those flooded Tennessee Valley Authority towns, or blood, like the Overlook.One thing is for certain: It is definitely filled with ghosts, like Hill House.