Gonzo porn, red carpet lies and LA margaritas

Nichi Hodgson

Nichi Hodgson recalls an emotionally turbulent time in Los Angeles

10 November 2018 08:25

The autumn I moved to LA, I did not have my wits about me. I agreed to rent an apartment overlooking the Scientology centre on Hollywood Boulevard, just down the road from where Charles Manson had committed one of his murders – something the Airbnb description had mysteriously neglected to highlight.

So, at the time, I didn’t know about this nasty footnote in local history. The truth is I didn’t know anything about LA, and I was rushing to make a booking. Still, it was a beautiful little cavern. A prim, insulated shed, washed white inside and trimmed with the kind of neo-Aztec tat you more commonly see adorning the parlours of Berkeley pot-dealers – albeit so sparsely it couldn’t quite offend.

While it made a pleasing subterranean garret (so to speak), it was not appealing enough to entice Edward, the Angeleno entertainment maven I was dating, to stay the night. In fact, for the duration of the time I rented it, right up until the day the door-frame mirror splintered as I fled for my life, Edward never slept there.

What can I tell you about Edward? The season I lived in Loz Feliz, he had escorted Prince down four flights of top-flight venue in a concealed elevator – whereupon the music legend had uttered the immortal words, ‘Nice shoes, man’. This had kept Edward going pretty much all year.

He lived in a stubbornly bland condo on the right side of Insterstate 405 (and by that I mean well away from LAX airport and the traffic that strangled it), made undisclosed, undulating sums of money from a host of ill-defined media deals – most of which were related to the adult industry. Never deigning to read a book  – he’d dropped out of college to his benefit, he surmised –  Edward could still slink through a chain of doorkeepers, assistants, publicists and lawyers with a diffident cunning that delivered astonishing results.

Emotions he wore like kids do spare Panini stickers on their skins for fun; and they were usually reserved for when the Lakers lost; or an American sporting hero died, inspiring him to post their obituary on Facebook, with a glib performance of sorrow attached. I was obsessed with him. And not without reason, or least explanation.

On the one hand, neither the apartment nor Edward were suitable; on the other, they were exactly what I needed. Particularly because I was reeling at the time from grief over the unexpected death of my father from a heart attack, aged 67. And from knowing that – because he’d lived alone – he’d been dead in his bed for three days, gently rotting in the late summer sun before a neighbour found him.

He’d been dead in his bed for three days, gently rotting in the late summer sun before a neighbour found him.

‘Have you chosen him an outfit yet?’ the funeral director had demanded over the phone from Yorkshire as I frantically hunted for my London door keys down the lining of my split handbag. I was rushing so that I could pack the case I needed to make the Leeds train – so I could get into my old family flat and prepare to shroud Dad.

‘It’s becoming more imperative, I’m afraid,’ said the director briskly. ‘And you won’t be able to view the body,’ she continued, ‘on account of the decay.’ She paused. ‘I’m sure you understand.’

Somebody who knew my address but felt too embarrassed to declare the kindness had quite anonymously sent me a complimentary train ticket to get to Wakefield. But it was for the wrong line, and when I got to Kings Cross, I became exasperated very quickly. ‘My father has just died!’ I blurted out to the first guard who met my frantic gaze at the information desk. ‘Actually, he’s been dead for four days now. And he needs an outfit.’

‘No problem,’ the guard chirped back kindly. ‘You can take the Great Eastern, just ask for Dave when you get on.’

Dave, it turned out, had already been forewarned when I arrived, flustered and steeling myself to say it all again. He ushered me to First Class. ‘There’s tea and biscuits, and salmon or pork sandwiches, or anything you like, love.’ That familiar Yorkshire brogue. I began to exhale. ‘I’ve been told to look after you.’

Weeks later in Loz Feliz, I would wake up much too early one morning, before the sun had brushed Griffith Observatory and panic. Did I choose him underwear? Oh my god. The obscenity. I’d let them cremate my dad without briefs. Or had I?
I remembered every other detail about his outfit. The navy jacket. The best jeans. The shoes – and socks. But I couldn’t remember the underwear. I told my mum about it. ‘Love…’ she started. ‘It’s ok,’ I reasoned. ‘Even if I did forget, there wouldn’t have been time for them to tell me or for me to drop some in before the funeral. On account of, you know, the decay.’

So you’ll understand why in the end I had to forgive myself for picking such an unsuitable abode and such an unsuitable beau that autumn in L.A.

Still, there was work to be done. While I did not believe for one second I would find genuine inspiration in a town that thrived on façade, I did think that perhaps a new love affair would make the daily grind of an empty page tolerable.

I had second-novel syndrome, and not even a draft to be working on. And I had only just evacuated San Francisco after falling under the spell of a messianic accordion player, drunk on NLP and the kind of sexually compulsive behaviour that no afterwork detour to a local prostitute could satisfy (how tedious it had been to have my suspicions confirmed by merely skirting my finger over the keyboard of his battered MacBook). The last thing I needed was another Californian diversion. But I was going to get one. At least I loved the way my skin prickled in the sun.

That said, there was something I could be getting on with. I had a BBC radio commission to make a documentary about the ethics of porn. Given the nature of Edward’s connections, I might as well make some of it in LA.

The next day, the girls told me their stories over gin and cassis, before we swam naked together in the hotel pool.

It was through the porn circuit that Edward and I had first met, at a performer conference in Florida, where some of the most infamous, notionally-unknown women on the internet gathered to meet their fans, twerk out of the windows of limousines, and reminisce about past shoots on which they’d jiggled and licked one another’s orifices.

The night before the performers arrived, I remember Edward taking my hand as we dashed across the sodden street to a Cuban dinner, the lightning and the tropical rain drops, heavy as hail, coating our skins. The next day, the girls told me their stories over gin and cassis, before we swam naked together in the hotel pool. A gaggle of thrift-store mermaids, I got a sense of what else they might reveal if they trusted me. All of them lived in LA.

So for the next few months, I rose early, dressed hurriedly and paused at a local juice bar where I took care to avoid one of LA’s many other English emigres, hamming up his accent in attempted seduction every time we bumped shoulders at the counter. Then I would walk a mile or three to any coffee shop that might encourage me to write for as many hours as I could stomach, before venturing to one of the glossy chains of yoga studios which Edward had introduced me to. There, I would perform a vigorous sequence of asanas before trying for another hour’s work.

I spent most of my evenings alone, watching episodes of Keeping up with the Kardashians on my laptop – which sometimes felt like a busman’s holiday. But I was buoyed by the weather, the touchingly authentic conversations I would have with immigrant Uber drivers about the city, and my morning text conversations with Edward, which often started with ‘Hey Beautiful’ and ended with gossip, sometimes modest, sometimes snide, about one of the porn stars I was trying to interview.

I was particularly interested in the detailed story of one male performer who had risen to prominence quickly – but now had a venomous whisper of unpleasant stories trailing him. Nobody would say explicitly that he was an abuser, but the allegations bled between the snatched threads of conversation I had had with various women that had encountered him on and off set.

As part of my research, I watched footage of him strutting on red carpets, attending gallery openings, and relishing his immaculately-dressed public persona. He was lithe, twitchy, and looked more like a tennis scholarship student than a man with a career-forging penis. I had him down as a gifted, petulant narcissist and was determined to interview him for the documentary.

A week or two later I met him at a Valley girl café frequented by the Kardashians. He was early, which surprised me. As I introduced myself he smiled in an anodyne sort of way and shook my hand, never rippling the fake cream he stirred into opaque coffee with the other.

We exchanged a few pleasantries, addressed the essential details of the project. He asked some appropriate questions. He was so softly spoken that I told him he would need to speak up so that the portable mic recorder would capture his voice. He apologised and smiled anew.

I opened up about my past as a dominatrix to try and forge some sort of rapport (it had worked in Florida, after all) and soon he spoke about his childhood, his awareness pre-pubescence that he was just a ‘horny li’l devil’, and the moment of epiphany when, as a 15-year-old high on acid, he realised that his destiny was a career in sensation-seeking. He was, he said, committed to the ethical production of porn, and dropped the names of two other female performers, darlings of the fast-fading adult movie studio system, with whom he had been working on a special gold standard project.

I knew I had to ask questions that would interrupt this obviously-confected narrative. But as he ordered seconds of tater tots, I sensed it was akin to breaking down a Disney studio starlet. Instead, I asked him if we could go outside to finish the recording, saying that I was still concerned the mic wasn’t picking up his every word.

Two to ten performers, one cameraman who often doubled up as an editor. Or in some cases, no cameraman at all, just an iPhone X balanced on a dressing table.

On the terrace, it was raining, one of those rare L.A. downpours which befuddle the lap dogs and terrify the drivers who dread the drainless roads. I dropped the mic aggressively to crotch level as he chirped on. I knew I had but minutes to skewer him. I thought about the performer whom he’d seriously emotionally abused (or so one of the Florida girls I’d sunbathed with had heavily hinted). Edward had stared blankly at me when I mentioned this allegation to him. But she had been quite adamant in her warning. ‘Be careful,’ she murmured, as I’d forced my eyes to trace around the inflated outline of her lips.

‘So, I’m sorry if it sounds a bit trite, but for the sake of the doc…’ I framed my question as an apology, while simultaneously weaponising the mic, as I raised it up to meet his mouth. ‘All these myths the media just loves to perpetuate about rape and abuse endemic in the industry – are they really just feminist scare stories?’

‘Well, yes,’ he smiled, nodding. ‘You couldn’t push a Linda Lovelace into porn these days. That’s the beauty and brilliance of feminism. You know, the kind you and I like.’ He made an odd patting gesture with his hands, as if he were shaping pastry. ‘Women are just so much more aware of their rights.’ I looked him dead in the eyes, cloudy as milk. Then he shrugged. ‘Or somebody on set would just sell the story.’

‘What if it was an independent production?’ I was thinking of the shoe-string, gonzo operations that now made at least three quarters of the world’s porn. Two to ten performers, one cameraman who often doubled up as an editor. Or in some cases, no cameraman at all, just an iPhone X balanced on a dressing table. I knew Mr Cotton Candy had ventured into this territory himself.

‘An independent production?’ He replied half a beat too fast. ‘Well, then there’d still be an assistant. And then there’s their agents. You couldn’t get round an agent. The girls tell them everything.’

‘Would their agent ever…, um.’ I inserted the ‘um’ deliberately, and a pause, and a friendly nose scrunch, ‘y’know… come after you?’

The truth is, I knew full well that agents wouldn’t chase such an allegation, knowing that it might be bad for business to be too protective of their talent. ‘Sure, they get you a better deal, but they’re not your pimp,’ a steely blonde with seismic breasts had said to me over cajun shrimp in Florida.

He shrugged again. ‘I mean, technically.’

‘Technically?’

‘Ok, admittedly some of them don’t have agents anymore. Take the girls that only perform for the webcamming services, y’know, by livestream. They’re their own agents, they’re performing in their rooms after all. And that’s a wonderful thing. No risk of pregnancy, no STIs [sexually transmitted infections]. And no one giving you cramp!’ For the first time during our interview, he broke out into a broad, toothy smile.

‘But what about off set?’

The fingers on the hand that had been stirring the coffee twitched. ‘Well, that would be a matter for the police, like all sexual violence.’ I might as well have asked him why the roads didn’t drain properly in LA. Our interview was at an end – abruptly so.

Before we left, I asked the waitress who’d been serving us if she would mind taking a photo of us. As if I’d asked her for a clean diaper, she obliged. I guess she got sick of people asking her to capture celebrity shots.

‘Well, that was great,’ he breathed, in his original cotton candy voice. ‘Thank you so much for featuring me. Ok if I get back to my tater tots?’

About two weeks later I was idling past the Scientology centre when the news broke – the break-out star of feminist porn at the time had accused him of rape. I expected a national furore. It made CNN – but it was essentially industry news. A week later three more women emerged with similar accusations. That night, he turned out in his butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-the-mouth scholarship boy best onto a Hollywood red carpet, accompanied by a new B-movie girlfriend. The nationals printed the photos of them alongside all the other glittering attendees.

A day or two later I had dinner with Edward and a couple of his industry friends who were in town from Chicago. It was the first time I had seen him in nearly two weeks. ‘The margaritas here are terrible for you, so much sugar, but tonight I don’t care,’ he deadpanned. A supposedly exclusive Mexican restaurant, it was barely distinguishable from a Leeds gastropub. ‘Don’t turn around, but Courtney Cox and Nicole Richie are behind you. Birthday.’

I wasn’t interested in Courtney and Nicole, I wanted to find out how Edward could not have known about the accusations against Mr Cotton Candy. No chance. He had other things on his mind. I’d rarely seen him, a native Angelo, rubberneck so hard.

We watched as the waiters wheeled in one of those celebrity oversized birthday cakes, creaking with lit candles. There was a tepid collective shriek, out went the candles, and after letting it stand there expectantly for a minute, another waiter wheeled it back out to the kitchen.

‘What’s the fucking point?’ I thought. Edward’s eyes moistened with glee.

Outside the restaurant I asked Edward if he wanted to come home with me.

‘Another night,’ he said, caressing me with more affection than I’d had from him since Florida. Then, ‘I love you.’ It was the first time he had said it. But it was not the right time, and I didn’t say it back.

That night, I dreamt about my father. I was waiting for him in a gallery and he was late. He arrived, grinning the way he’d greeted me his whole life, and rushed up to me in a fug of relief. He was smartly dressed in his navy cord jacket.

I could hear his voice, his actual dulcet Halifax lilt, tone for tone. ‘Sorry, love,’ he apologised fulsomely. I glanced around anxiously at the paintings. ‘Where shall we start?’ But before we could get going he rushed up ahead of me towards the dark glass lift. ‘I’ve got to go, love.’ he waved back at me, smiling again. Then he stepped forward and dropped down the lift shaft.

The next morning, I was woken up by the thin bleat of my US burner phone which I kept under the cavern’s one fringed pillow. It was a text from Edward. ‘Interview. With Larry Flynt,’ it read. ‘Want it?’

‘I do,’ I replied. This time I would nail it.