Celebrity Sex Tapes
For Madison Magazine, 2010
The Money Shot: Why Porn Is The New Gateway To Hollywood
The celebrity sex tape industry is booming. And so are the careers of many of its stars. Coincidence, or cunning self-promotion plan?
By the way...
Check out Kevin Blatt, the sex-tape broker slash comedian slash publicist who was interviewed for this piece
It's 9am in San Diego, California, and Kevin Blatt is already at his desk and smoking a joint - raring to go in other words. These are busy times for Hollywood's leading broker of celebrity smut. In the last few days alone, he has juggled two of Tiger Woods' mistresses, the footage of the former Miss California masturbating and several other D-list morsels whose details he can't yet share for legal reasons. Some have sex tapes, others have stories and pictures to sell, but they all come to Blatt he's been the go-to guy for this kind of thing ever since he brokered the wildly successful Paris Hilton tape in 2003, One Night In Paris.
"I think the recession's helping," he says, beaming. "This influx of tapes I'm getting is a direct result of people being broke and it's Christmas time. So you start seeing every piece of shit crawl out from every rock trying to sell out their friends."
Here's a typical scenario: a celebrity's ex-boyfriend or girlfriend contacts him through Facebook, promising a sex tape and asking for millions of dollars. And Blatt patiently douses them with cold water. First of all, he says, male celebrities don't sell. "There's only so many women or gay men out there who'll get their credit card out to look at some celebrity's wee." In those cases, he'll often recommend trying for a settlement of which more later. But even if the star's female, and the sex is hot, she still needs to give her permission before any tape can be released, such are the laws of privacy and copyright in America. You can hear the bubbles burst.
"That's why most sex tapes never come out," he says. "If you're Cameron Diaz and you make $25 million a movie, you're not going to sign off on some sex tape for $1 million." But if you're Tonya Harding, or Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian all Blatt's clients by the way and you're just in it for the cash and the limelight, then you sign the releases, and Blatt cuts you a deal with a porn distributor like Vivid or Red Light District for a cheque and a piece of the back end.
"It's a myth that the celebrity is a victim," says Blatt. "When a tape is legally released, the celebrity has always signed off - those lawsuits they file in protest all get redacted in the end. That's why I can't stand Kim Kardashian. Her whole career started with this sex tape, and she still claims she had a gun put to her head. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her boyfriend Ray J told me that she actually sat with Paris Hilton, wondering whether to put it online herself. Both Kim and Ray J made several million dollars on that tape, easily."
Blatt knows whereof he speaks. Celebrity sex tapes are basically his turf at this point. There was once a competing broker called David Hans Schmidt, based out of Phoenix, who had arranged for Clinton's mistress, Gennifer Flowers, to do Playboy, among other accomplishments but Schmidt committed suicide in September of 2007, shortly after pleading guilty to attempted extortion against Tom Cruise over the TomKat wedding pictures. He was looking at a potential two years in prison. (Blatt thinks Schmidt was bipolar).
Where Schmidt would frame his work in lofty terms, as a kind of quintessential American opportunism, Blatt prefers to poke fun at the sleazy world he inhabits. He even performs stand-up routines at the Improv Theater in Los Angeles about his work. "Sometimes I hate being the guy that people bring their dirty stuff to, but other times I embrace it," he says. "This week, I'm embracing it." In some ways, he fits the profile perfectly - gab-gifted, a natural pitchman, he's spent many years in porn, and at 40, is dating a web cam girl half his age. But in other respects, he's an odd fit an upper-middle class Jewish boy from Cleveland, Ohio, who went to etiquette classes and ballroom dancing before taking a left turn into the adult world in the early 90s. He DJ-ed in a strip club and then sold penis enhancement pills online. In those days, online porn was in its infancy and Blatt's bosses were often too young for their own sites. But it was also the early days of the celebrity sex tape, what would become porn's most lucrative niche and a potent symbol of the celebrity obsessed, gossip crazed world we live in.
The genre is believed to have begun with Rob Lowe's menage a trois in 1988, back when such tapes were shocking. Then came Pamela Anderson in 1994 who, at the height of her fame, took a boat ride with Tommy Lee and catapulted their fame to new heights. For sheer celebrity wattage and global reach, no sex tape has ever come close - had it not been leaked early on, the happy couple would have made bank. A few minor scandals followed, including a man who wasn't R-Kelly urinating on a young girl. But then in 2003, the young genre reached a climax of sorts. Judged as porn, One Night In Paris is dreary Paris famously answers her phone during sex but from a business perspective, it was pure gold.
"It's not just the biggest celebrity sex tape, it's the best selling porn film of all time," says Steve Javors, editor-in-chief of Xbiz.com, which reports on the adult industry. "One million copies is way ahead of anything that Jenna Jameson has ever done." The second best selling celebrity sex tape, he says, is Kim Kardashian's with the rest coming a distant third. "Today, celebrity sex tapes are like a cottage industry within the adult world. The days of Pam and Tommy were like the wild west, nobody knew what they were doing. But now, people know how to get the marketing and the publicity in place it's a controlled media event. And it doesn't seem to hurt anyone's career. It's no coincidence that both the Paris and Kim tapes came out just before their reality shows launched."
This is where Blatt comes in - creating the media event, talking up the sizzle on outlets like TMZ, Perez Hilton and Howard Stern. He understands that in the age of 24/7 gossip websites, even the faintest whiff of celebrity porn can create huge buzz, and this by itself, has value. The Dustin Diamond tape, for example, sold poorly, as you would expect of a porno starring Screech from Saved By the Bell. But the news story was read by millions, of which a fraction visited the website of the distributor, Red Light District, which in turn sold more of its regular catalogue, like say, One Night In Paris.
"Sometimes a tape's value is the number of eyeballs it can attract," says Blatt. "When Vivid offered Carrie Prejean [the former Miss California] $1 million to shoot a porn video, they knew she wouldn't do it. But they knew it would make the news and drive people to their site."
Manipulating the media is great sport for Blatt. In 2007, he starred in a satirical "documentary" called American Cannibal, in which he made actual appearances on Court TV to pitch a reality show called Virgin Territory in which virgins would compete to lose their innocence to the porn star. The show was a hoax but the media didn't know that. And when the movie showed at the Tribeca Film Festival, Blatt issued a statement saying he was sueing Robert De Niro and the other festival organizers because he was concerned he may have leaked secrets on film about celebrities. His screening was packed.
It's this kind of savvy that contributed to the huge success of One Night In Paris, a film which branded him forever more as the pornbroker to the stars. He still gets misty-eyed talking about it.
"It'll never be that good again," he says, wistfully. "These days, the porn industry is tanking. Online porn is down 80% on last year and it's not just the recession, it's the piracy - all these tube sites offering free porn based out of Singapore, Malaysia and Costa Rica. No one's buying DVDs anymore, and everything online is getting ripped and put up for free. So even though I'm getting a lot of calls now, there's less money to go around. Recently I had to tell Foxy Brown, the rapper, that I got her $100,000 for her sex tape and she was offended! But she was hot 10 years ago. That deal fell through."
These days, Blatt makes most of his money from making sex tapes 'disappear'. If there's no way a celebrity will sign the releases then he or she will often pay to make the whole mess go away. The case of Colin Farrell and the Playmate Nicole Narain illustrates how this kind of thing works (and how it doesn't).
Blatt showed up one day at Mel's Diner on Sunset Boulevard to meet two men, one of them a huge bodybuilder, who claimed to be friends with Narain. They said she wanted $1.2 million. So Blatt asked to see the tape. "And they start whispering back and forth," he says. "They say, 'no problem, but you can't know where we're going, so would you agree to be blindfolded and thrown into the back of our truck?' And me being such a whore, I say sure."
So with a bandanna over his eyes, he was driven to a home in the Hollywood hills, shown the tape, and then returned to the diner, blindfolded. But the very next day, he got a call from rival broker David Hans Schmidt telling him to back off or he'd come after him with a gun. "He said, 'I'm the worlds greatest celebrity sex tape broker and you just stepped on my territory. I already have this tape sold, and if I have to, I'll show you how the west was won, pal, I'll put a bullet in you '" Blatt takes a lug on his joint. "So I'm like OK, this guy iscrazy. So I called Farrell's agents at CAA and blew the whistle on him. I told them what was happening, and they asked me, 'Kevin, how do we make this go away?'"
This time Blatt stepped away rather than further inflame Schmidt. But what he does in cases like this is call the Hollywood law firm Lavely & Singer, which represents most major stars in royalty cases, and negotiate a fee for the handover of the material. That's what Schmidt did and, as far as Farrell's lawyers knew, the tape 'disappeared'.
It's not blackmail, says Blatt, no matter what it looks like. It's a matter of phrasing. "If I say, 'give me a million dollars or I'll put this tape out', that's blackmail," he says. "But if my lawyers say, 'my client has this tape and you have an interest in keeping it off the market, so he's prepared to sell it to you what's it worth?' In that case, you're doing them a favor." The only thing to watch out for is that the footage hasn't been stolen, like the time Blatt was approached by two men who couldn't explain how they'd gotten hold of Tila Tequila's laptop it was a short meeting.
The Farrell/Narain case, however, illustrates just how risky this can be for the celebrity. Because not long after Schmidt handed the tape over, it appeared in full on a tube site (eskimotube, if you're interested). And this is why celebrities will sometimes go to all kinds of lengths to make sure the evidence disappears.
In one instance, a Mr X brought Blatt a laptop with footage of a well known star having sex with two women, neither of them his wife. Evidently the celebrity, a practicing Christian, had been led into temptation during a party at a friend's mansion, unaware that the bedroom he'd chosen was being rented by Mr X, who happened to be away for the weekend - and that Mr X had set up a 24 hour webcam in the room.
At first the star's attorneys gave Mr X a polygraph test and asked if he'd made any copies - he said 'no' and he passed. Then they agreed to pay him $100,000 once the evidence had been destroyed. So Mr X, on his way to Beverly Hills to sign the deal, decided to take a detour into the desert, pull out his 9mm and shoot a bunch of holes into the laptop. "He's on drugs," says Blatt. "He's a crazy person. But when he shows up with this laptop, the attorneys say, 'how do we know the hard drive's not intact?' So they call a guy who shows up with a vat of acid in the back of his truck. This is all in the car park of this fancy law firm in Beverly Hills, mind you - I'm there, everyone's there watching this and they throw the laptop into the acid. All these noxious fumes start spewing into the atmosphere. Everybody scatters. The police show up and give them a ticket for pollution. And the best part is, this guy might have still made a copy before leaving the house. You can't be 100%. All you can do is buy the other guy's silence."
The risks of a Hollywood sex tape, however, go both ways it's not just the celebrity that stands to lose. Take Ranae Shrider, originally from Kentucky, a self-described "normal girl from a normal family" who arrived in Los Angeles, all of 21, with dreams of being an actress. Then at the Playboy mansion, she met Verne Troyer, best known as Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies. One thing led to another, and she moved in with him.
A few months later, Blatt met a distraught Shrider at a Starbucks, complaining about how Troyer would mistreat her. "Apparently Verne liked to drink and take pills," says Blatt. "And when he gets drunk he has this reaching stick - that he uses to get cans out of the cupboard or whatever - which he uses it to beat her, or hold the door closed and lock her in the room. Anyway, Ranae shows me the tape. And the first 20 minutes, he's going down on her, and it looks like a foetus trying to re-enter the womb. Then he mounts her and he's gripping onto her for dear life with his little sausage fingers and he keeps falling off. I was like, 'oh my God, poor thing.' And she says, 'I know, this is what I had to fuck for so long ' I said, 'not you, him!'"
In the end, a teaser clip appeared on TMZ.com, Troyer sued for $20 million and a settlement was reached. All par for the course. Except things didn't turn out so great for Miss Shrider.
"Look, I live in a studio apartment and I drive a Nissan, so it didn't change my life in that respect," she says. "No one wanted to work with me - it took me a year before I could get auditions again. And, personally, you know, I can't get a date. Guys find out that I did the tape and they call it off. I think it's prejudice because I dated a little person."
What few friends she had, she lost over the tape, not least her former manager, and Verne himself. She had to start over, this time with a monkey on her back, and eighteen months later, Ranae is still auditioning away. She got a small part on CSI recently, but progress is slow.
"It basically sucks for me. It's not like Ranae has a new reality show, Ranae has a new fragrance it's Ranae, the chick who did the sex tape with Mini-Me. It did so good for Kim and Paris. And Verne got Celebrity Big Brother because of the tape. But I'm not bitter."
The Mini-Me tape may be the weirdest that Blatt has come across, but there have been other carnival attractions, such as Tom Sizemore's hotel room debauchery with a series of hookers (which was actually released). "It was like Fellini on crack," says Blatt. "This is a guy wasting away on crystal meth and he's got apriapism, so for like four hours, he had an erection and he's non-stop - throwing dildos across the room, talking into the webcam about Heidi Fleiss. He was out of his tree. And he's wearing this kind of Lance Armstrong outfit with the spandex bicycle pants. Me and my buddy would quote lines from that tape like it was Caddyshack, it was that funny."
Neither Sizemore nor Mini-Me generated much money, nor did they help their principals career-wise - they represent the freakshow, desperate underbelly of the celebrity sex world, the flipside of the calculated glamour of Paris and Kim. But, recession or not, both extremes stand to flourish. Greater currents are at work the technology is on most cell phones today, and the prevailing culture is one of self-promotion, web-exposure. This is the reality TV generation, raised on Facebook status updates, tweets and celebrity sex tapes.
"This isn't a passing fad," says Steve Javors of Xbiz. "Reality TV has created a lot of temporary celebrities, and when people feel their 15 minutes is coming to an end they get desperate - this ride is almost over! I'm surprised there aren't more tapes along the Paris and Kim lines. It's not like they're the only party girls in Hollywood who are anxious to become stars."
Blatt agrees. He's rubbing his hands. "This is an industry that's going to grow," he says. "The future is interactive celebrity sex. Pick your D-lebrity from column A, and a D-lebrity from column B and if it gets enough votes, we'll get them to have sex! I'm going to go patent that right now!"