“The internet is for porn!,” the puppets from the hit off-Broadway musical “Avenue Q” gleefully proclaimed in 2003.
And, sure, it was. But back then — in an age of slower computers, lower bandwidth and expensive storage drives (and no Facebook) — what the puppets meant by “internet porn” was photos and very short clips. Real porn, on the other hand, still meant DVDs (adorned with “boxcover” girls) and feature films or themed compilations of scenes made by studios such as Vivid, home of supermega crossover star Jenna Jameson.
Around that time, an 18-year-old from Sacramento started dancing at a local strip club. She was unusually pretty — to this day, random dudes tell her “You’re too pretty for this,” referring to one or more of her career and/or life choices — and eventually she was noticed by an agent. One thing led to another and by 2006, armed with the hastily thought up nom de porn “Kayden Kross,” the 21-year-old all-American college student and bookworm, who’d never watched a single porn scene, moved to the Los Angeles area and entered the adult industry at the very top of the starlet-making machine.
“My very first contract was with Vivid,” Kross says. No shoddy gonzo-style, one-dude-with-a-camera jittery scenes for this beauty: Kayden went straight from the proverbial Tinseltown-bound bus to the swanky Vivid Entertainment headquarters, still visible from the 101, across from Universal Studios.
“I was starstruck,” says Kross, who was handed over by the agent who discovered her to the care of Vivid’s Steven Hirsch, a Svengali known both for turning inexperienced starlets into glamorous “VividGirls™” and for getting adult talent into mainstream outlets such as Maxim magazine or Howard Stern’s radio show.
“Vivid had an amazing marketing machine,” Kross reflects now. “Back then, they didn’t show the two features I had made for six months. They were busy creating demand.” When Kayden’s First Time was finally released in early 2007, fans of the Vivid brand had been methodically made aware of her and were clamoring for her first video — though a minority sighed that she was too pretty for porn.
But Kross had an uneasy feeling. “I was conscious of changes in the industry,” she says. “Shortly after signing with Vivid I thought, ‘Oh, wait — very soon there’s not really gonna be Vivid Girls anymore!’”
Kross’ instincts were correct. The year her first video was released was the end of the “Vivid Girls” era of mainstream porn, a time when DVDs were a viable commodity and the high-overhead company could nurture contract players and churn out professional-quality feature films.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the current website for Vivid Video promotes the company as “Home of the Kim Kardashian Sex Tape [and] Porn Parodies.”
What changed the entire adult industry right at the time when Kross came into it was the appearance of what are known as the “tube sites.” In 2006, PornoTube and YouPorn were launched, and, within a year, two of what would become the biggest players in the industry had emerged: xHamster and Pornhub.
Pornhub is currently celebrating its first decade with a PR blitz focused on what its data collection says about sexual habits — a Kinsey Report for the 21st century based not on science but on search terms. Based in Montreal (a lot of the porn tube industry is headquartered north of the border), Pornhub quickly outpaced its competitors and became the go-to site for billions of porn consumers worldwide. As of this writing, Pornhub has a global Alexa rank of 39, only a few slots below Netflix and eBay and drawing more traffic than the Tumblr and Microsoft home pages. No porn portal gets more traffic and only three dozen sites (including Internet 2.0 behemoths such as Google and Facebook) are accessed more frequently.
“At first the adult industry seriously freaked out about the tube sites,” Kross says. Much like YouTube, the porn tube sites grew rapidly from 2006 onward by disregarding pre-21st-century notions of intellectual property. If most consumers didn’t care that musicians and TV producers didn’t see a penny from the “free” clips that were being uploaded daily onto YouTube, they cared even less about how the producers and performers featured on the “free” clips on Pornhub were being paid for their trouble.
Eventually, a shadowy software company from Luxembourg with the improvable name of Manwin (yes, really) started cornering the market on the tube sites, and eventually moved into production. In 2013 the company renamed itself MindGeek (again, yes, really) and it currently owns Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn, Brazzers, Digital Playground, Reality Kings and several other production and distribution outlets. If you or anyone around you watches online porn, there’s an overwhelming chance they’re going through one or more MindGeek-owned sites.
A performer like Kayden Kross, with a solid decade of success in the adult Industry, cannot afford not to be thinking a couple of moves ahead to stay afloat in the changing business of porn. “After Vivid, I went to Adam & Eve for two years and then to Digital Playground for three,” Kross says. “For a successful girl, one who doesn’t burn out after the first few months, the really good year, your year, is the third year you’re in the industry. For me that was 2010, when I hosted the AVN Awards, got my Digital Playground contract — which was the best contract you could have at the time — and I really learned how to perform and to be comfortable having sex on camera.”
For Kross, the fundamental difference between a modern-day studio like Digital Playground and the Jenna-era Vivid is that now the performer is in charge of her own brand. “With social media, performers who are successful have so much control over their own presentation now,” she says. “In the past studios packaged them, and there were very limited opportunities to interact with their fans — just big conventions like AVN and some local shows. In the era of Savannah or Ginger Lynn, they had the image that the studio gave them. They pushed images that were spread on box covers and magazines as snippets of the images one could hope to see in the movies. The performers were nearly washed of personality completely before social media. If Savannah was upset with her studio, the fans didn’t know that.”
Today, one tweet can make an army of fans aware of any grievances. A few years ago, Stoya, Kross’ former partner on the sexually and socially progressive “curated smut” site Trenchcoatx.com, claimed via Twitter that her former boyfriend, porn superstar James Deen, had raped her. “Stoya’s rape claim changed the industry,” Kross says. “She made an international story out of two tweets and, really, it changed the way the industry approaches consent.”
Fans nowadays are loyal to the performer, not to the studio. “In 2017 there are no more ‘Vivid Girls.’ You’re only a brand name if the fans make you a brand name,” Kross says. “As long as you put in the work, you can become a reputable brand.”
“The work” means constant social media engagement. Producers, much like the producers of other forms of entertainment, scrutinize a performer’s “numbers” before casting a scene.
“I spend eight hours online just putting the cast together for a movie,” says Kross, who recently finished editing new scenes for her visually adventurous “Sacrosanct” series (movies typically have four scenes). “I look at a girl’s social media engagement very carefully. You can’t lose money on a movie, you’re going with a sure bet. That’s why we use a lot of the same ‘established’ girls. With a brand-new girl you don’t know what to expect. Unless they have a no-B.S. agent like [Mark] Spiegler, who explains to them very carefully all the risks and rewards right off the bat. But Spiegler, unfortunately, is an exception.”
Typically a female performer gets $1,000 for a boy-girl scene, which can go up to $1,500 or $2,000 depending on demand, or even more if they’re under contract. The agent pockets 15 percent of that, plus a $100 “signing fee” from the producer.
“The rates haven’t changed in 20 years,” Kross laughs. “Which means that with inflation and cost of living, performers are making much less than before. But since there’s less social stigma about entering the industry, the girls keep coming to L.A. trying to make it as soon as they turn 18.
“Ten years ago, you could take some time to learn to be a performer,” Kross says. “I remember my first review: ‘She sucks, but I like how she looks.’ Now you have to be ready to give your all from your very first scene.” Several of the newer performers hone their exhibitionism on amateur cam-sites before coming into the industry proper, and it’s now not uncommon to perform kink, BDSM, multiple-partner or anal scenes immediately after getting representation.
For a few years now, the new girls turning 18 and coming into the industry are the first generation to have grown up with constant access to the tube sites online. “There’s definitely a faster learning curve,” Kross says. “The downside is that we’re not burning in the memory of the fans like the porn stars of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Individually, we’re not as formative. Fans who related to Raylene or Seka are fans for life — a VHS tape was hard to come by. Now there’s so much — the turnover is so high. If you don’t get a fan base quickly and cultivate them through social media, you’re easily forgotten or easily replaced.”