February 3, 2008
Meet the King of PornMississauga native has become the Spielberg of skin directors
By THANE BURNETT -- Sun Media
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- There are a million stories in this naked city. And Brad Armstrong can tell you where many of them dropped their pants.
More than a decade ago, Rod Hopkins -- a Canadian honour-roll graduate, raised in a middle-class family -- sold his Mississauga, Ont., townhouse, and headed south to the lurid and lucrative adult film studios of California.
Stripping in clubs since he was a teen, at first to work his way through art college, he was soon trying to carve out a more colourful career and make a name for himself in the sex trade.
Hopkins transformed himself into porn performer Brad Armstrong. He married, and later divorced, second wife Jenna Jameson, arguably the blue industry's greatest cross-over star. And the one-time asthmatic newspaper delivery boy has become -- among those who judge such things -- both the Spielberg of skin directors and one of the multi-billion-dollar sex industry's most popular leading men.
While Canada loudly prides itself on mainstream cultural exports like Celine Dion and Mike Myers, few in his home-country know that in a porn marketplace that The New York Times Magazine suggests could rival Hollywood itself, the persona of this one naked Canadian is -- beyond our modest borders -- likely better known than our much heralded Barenaked Ladies.
"He's probably the most important filmmaker in the adult industry," explains Charles Lonberger, an editor at the Beverly Hills Outlook, an L.A. publication which reviews both mainstream and adult films. "I've never seen a director exact such ... total control.
"The productions he makes set the tone for the industry."
He also gets rave reviews from his 82-year-old mom, Elsie Reid, who, during an interview in her Toronto condo, offers up homemade cookies and endless homespun pride for her son.
"In regular movies they have sex," the diminutive and kindly widow points out. "And my son's (movies) have good stories."
He can sew costumes, and is a marvellous furniture maker, his mom wants you to know. But a free spirit, he was never cut out for a modest-paying, nine-to-five vocation in our northern climate. Besides, she says, offering up more cookies, you have to love a son who sets a sex movie around a car salesman as a nod to his now late father's occupation.
Her boy is up for a best picture award, she beams.
Looking over photos, which include clothed publicity shots from the hundreds of movies he's been part of, she adds: "I don't care what he does, as long as he's happy."
And he does seem really happy.
During just one weekend in Vegas -- shadowed by Sun Media -- Armstrong will watch his fans line up just to see him in the flesh during an Adult Entertainment Expo; with his girlfriend and fellow porn-star, Jessica Drake, he will walk an Oscar-like red carpet for the annual adult movie awards; he will then pick up two awards, including best actor, and will later party with Mike Tyson in the hottest venue in town.
"How did I get here?" he considers, during the recent weekend where America's "Sin City" celebrated porn in all its carnal incarnations. "Well, I guess I was never so typically Canadian."
Carving out a career that's constantly under attack by champions of morality, yet celebrated by countless adults who quietly download, buy and rent the movies he stars in and directs, Armstrong is not uncomfortable with putting himself, fully, out there. Though, on a slightly cool Nevada Saturday morning, posing beside dusty railway tracks behind the Las Vegas strip -- a passing train engineer blasting his horn and tourist helicopters buzzing past just overhead -- he does feel a bit exposed.
"I'm just waiting for the police to arrive ... though we'll just have the girls chat them up, and they'll leave," he offers, amid a photographic session which is breaking more than a few federal regulations by filming on a railway.
The scene of the crime is a tongue-in-cheek play on a CSI Las Vegas murder investigation, complete with bloodied corpse -- played by a veteran porn director sprawled over greasy railway ties -- and adult film actors as investigators and the victim's distraught girlfriend.
The unauthorized "gonzo" shoot -- for a Paris-based porn news magazine -- involves a thinly dressed, though not naked, starlet, who's complaining of goosebumps and the fact her high heels are getting stuck in the loose gravel. Then there's the nearby fake patrolman, whose long hair and thick Parisian accent betray the fact that he's not really from around here. And finally, another adult actress bending seductively over the bloodied body, as Armstrong dons rubber gloves to keep things clean.
"At least I didn't have to show my boobs this time," reasons porn starlet turned CSI detective, Stella Delcroix, who's just touched down from France, in hopes of, well, making it big in America.
Within 10 minutes of shooting, cast and crew will be whisked away in a Hummer, heading back to the strip before the real police can arrive.
"Welcome to my life," Armstrong says, as he rides in the back of the muscular 4X4.
"And here I thought your life was all just orgies," he's told.
"Oh, I've been in a few of those," concedes the actor who started his film career with Bimbo Bowlers from Boston in 1990, and went on to titles like Sheepless in Montana, Plan 69 From Outer Space and a more recent title which was simply the mother of all four letter words.
His job may only seem to revolve around sex. It's really about the big business of sex.
Every frame and every moan is a commodity to be bought and sold. Since everything in the porn world is inflated, or at least a fantasy, it's difficult to know how big the bottom line is. But even the most conservative estimates start at $2.6 billion a year, and increase beyond $10 billion for the industry's take.
Armstrong stars in, and directs, movies for Wicked Pictures -- a major California studio that is to porn what Paramount or MGM would be to Hollywood. But those mainstream companies can only dream of making a profit from virtually every title they release. When Armstrong makes a movie -- at an average cost of less than $100,000 and shot in a few days -- he's assured of a financial hit.
One of the company's big blockbusters of last year was Coming Home, a film by, and staring, Armstrong. Think Mel Gibson's 2002 We Were Soldiers, but in this one the hero makes explicit love as well as bloody war.
Asked how long it took Coming Home to start making money after its release, Wicked president Steve Orenstein quickly estimates: "Twenty minutes later.
"You really have to try hard not to make money in this business."
It's the night before the AVN Adult Movie Awards, and Armstrong is up for a wheelbarrow of trophies -- which are shaped like glass blocks and not what you may have supposed.
As Orenstein and Armstrong stand around a casino bar at the plush Las Vegas Venetian, they sip drinks and talk about Christmas vacations, taxes, family, the impact of high definition, home renovations, Armstrong's place in Hawaii -- which features a sand-floor bedroom -- and whether the Canadian has picked a name for the rock, roll and sex film he finished shooting the weekend before.
Nearby, a few old men puff on cigars and lounge in suits that were fitted when Sinatra played the main rooms of this town. They're the old porn guard from New York -- back long before the current merger between dirty films and popular culture.
Outside on the strip, immigrant workers hand out -- flicking the cardboard to attract attention -- the business cards of $35 hookers. But in here, it's largely the A-list of sex magnates.
Armstrong and the studio owner are circled by a who's who of the porn world, all gathered for the AVN Adult Movie Awards.
While the women may be busting out a little more than usual -- though perhaps no more than nearby Vegas cocktail waitresses -- the casual mingling seems no more graphic than a gathering of IT convention delegates. It's all about networking. You have to press the flesh before you can press the flesh.
Through the crowd, a young man pushes close to Armstrong and Orenstein to ask: "I dropped off a movie I made ... did you get it? What do you think?"
His low budget dirty film involved girls from the Dominican Republic.
Earlier in the day, someone else handed Armstrong another blue movie, shot in Europe. American's may like to think, culturally, they export baseball and Fords, but U.S. pornography is considered world class, or crass, depending on your moral compass.
Finally, it's the AVN Adult Movie Awards night, at the lavish Mandalay Bay Events Center.
It's stretched SUVs, paparazzi, tuxes, gowns and waves to the crowd which has been lured away from the gambling tables.
The industry sees this as their Academy Awards night -- though the comparison stretches see-through thin at times.
Throngs of gawkers, for as far as you can see, line the red carpet -- tourist cameras and video units running low of memory and batteries.
An odd collection of legitimate and suspect journalists fight for position along the last stop before the porn stars take their seats.
To the left, celebrity writer Robin Leach explains to a photographer that it doesn't really matter if you spell the name of a porn star wrong.
To the right, a young actress -- an image of a modern sex goddess -- takes a break from interviewing other stars, along with rocker Dave Navarro, to lay down her microphone and rub her stomach. To a friend she complains: "It's my ulcers again ... I've had them for years."
But when the lights come on again, there will be no sign of what really lingers inside. This business -- like its more respectable sister, Hollywood -- is about creating fantasy out of less than whole cloth.
In the line, performers aren't asked who they're wearing. They're asked about their favourite sex toy.
The awards show is as eclectic as the build-up -- a Nevada desert mirage of make-believe over some reality.
More than a few of the B-list female porn stars, under the glare of hot lights, will show the paint and body filler which is hidden in their films.
Some of their male co-stars will just look rather ordinary. But this is their prom, and more than a few younger winners will cry during their acceptance speech.
Unlike the Oscars, the chosen don't take that moment to thank God. Instead, they thank the physical endowments of their co-stars.
During the People's Choice Awards, spectators sit quietly, glance at their watches and politely smile when the camera pans on them. During the Adult Movie Awards, tourists -- many, older couples who've paid more than $100 each for the cheap seats up high in the events centre -- strain to see a few girls below make out with one another as they wait to take the stage.
A large transvestite will belt out the big musical closing number -- the dirtiest song you can imagine, as largely lower-ranking female porn stars dance and claw at one another. Then, when finished, the exhausted big singer will suddenly be told the cable channel covering the event missed the cue, and they'll have to do it all again. To which he will reply in a husky voice: "I'd rather die."
You won't find Brad Pitt handing out an award here. Instead, you get a chubby guy called Bubba the Love Sponge, who'll deliver a statue, during categories which include Best Anal or Best Foot Fetish Release.
But the premier awards of the night -- the reason the bigger studios are here -- include best picture and acting statues. On this night, it will be Armstrong who will win Best Video Actor for his movie, Coming Home, as well as a second award.
Like the Oscars, his speech will be cut short by the band, before he can thank his girlfriend, Jessica, who -- as a reminder of the mainstreaming of porn in recent years -- has appeared on David Letterman.
For Armstrong, the rest of the night -- until dawn -- will be a blur of a party inside Las Vegas' hottest club. He and many other porn celebrities will join Mike Tyson in a private area of the LAX bar, where Paris Hilton and sister Nicky brought in the New Year.
The dance floor below will look like an out-take from Caligula, as couples move so close to one another, a deep breath can barely come between them.
Soldiers who've just returned from Iraq will believe they've been shot and have gone to heaven. The champagne will flow. The music will not pause for one heartbeat. Beefy security guards will keep Armstrong and his exclusive clique safe from the masses.
And it won't be until the next midday when he will venture outside the Venetian, standing on the strip, and take out his phone.
The call is to north of here. Because every Canadian boy knows when something good happens, you just have to call your mother.
"Not your typical Canadian life, but I'm not your typical Canadian boy," he says as he dials Elsie's number in Toronto.
Reaching her, he says: "Hey Mom ... got some good news. I won best actor and art director."
Pausing, he shrugs, and answers her question: "No. No best picture. Sorry."
Even in the world of porn, it's sometimes hard to totally satisfy everyone.