Two for the Road

When Houston's 1st Amendment rights were threatened, a bus full of female porn stars came bouncing to the rescue

We've been hurtling down the highway toward Houston for two hours now, and it's time for a potty break.MMOur driver turns her plush, 50-seat bus into the Conoco Travel Plaza somewhere south of Dallas, and a bevy of nationally known celebrities pours out. Most of them are young women, dressed casually in sweats and T-shirts.

They've been recruited this month from across the country for an urgent mission: to rescue Houston from a small, vocal minority who would attempt to infringe on the First Amendment rights of tax-paying adults. The ramifications of this adventure are immense, the legal and moral issues complex and intertwined.

A fellow passenger, sitting in the seat in front of me, cuts to the heart of the matter.

"OK," she says. "Let's talk about my tits."
Sofia Staks, star of Boobwatch and Attack of the Killer Dildo, pops the last bite of a pecan pie slice into her high-cheekboned, cheerful face and grips the headrest of the cushy seat as we wait for the other passengers to return. It's a Thursday in December, and night has fallen on the first day of our Dallas-to-Houston journey.

"For a long time as a teenager, I felt insecure and shy," she confesses, chalking it up to being a mere 32-A in a padded bra. "Then, when I was 21, I had my first surgery. The implants contained 185 cc's of silicone. I went to a large B or C. Now, three surgeries later, I'm a 44-H."

I hadn't known that bra sizes went that far into the alphabet. But Sofia Staks clearly is not exaggerating--her massive breasts, each about the size of a medicine ball, are covered in a dark green hooded jacket. Her arms, her waist, her bottom, and her legs are all very twiglike. I ask the most obvious question:

"Haven't you had back problems?"
"Oh, I would have, if I didn't work out so much," she says in a chirpy voice. She raises her tiny arms above her head, fists clenched like a preening bodybuilder, and reveals small but well-defined biceps.

"I work out to strengthen my back," she says, then after a brief pause inquires, "Wanna see a trick?"

With a sly grin, and with arms still upraised, she proceeds to move her gigantic breasts up and down inside her cotton jacket. The rest of her body never moves a millimeter. She can move them one at a time, too, each breast bouncing like some animatronic creation in a Spielberg film.

Sofia Staks is just one of the adult film stars traveling on this bus. There are also photographers from national adult magazines, high-paid club dancers, and various staff members from Metroplex Sundown, the Dallas-based weekly that has expanded circulation into Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Abilene, and several other Texas cities. The paper consists mostly of ads for gentlemen's clubs, escort services, private models, adult book and video stores, and nude modeling studios.

Founded in April 1994, the Sundown advertises itself as "the fastest-growing adult newspaper in America," and for this, its first overtly political event, the Sundown has called in heavy artillery from the national porn biz. The stars, mostly from Los Angeles, have come out in force.

Sofia and friends are bouncing to the aid of Houston, a city whose sexually oriented businesses face the threat of new restrictions from a city council committee determined to clean up the peddlers of prurience. One man, local free-speech activist Ray Hill, has stood up in opposition to the Carrie Nations of the Houston city council and pledges--should he become a councilman as a result of a special election to be held January 18, 1997--to fight what he sees as bald infringements of First Amendment rights.

Chances are, you will never see so many strippers and porn actresses gathered in one place to talk about constitutional law.

Self-described "publishing goddess" Amy Jo Crowell is dressed flirtatiously in a red leather jacket, plunging-neckline black blouse, black tights, and knee-length black boots on the trek to Houston, but she is far from stripper material.

Crowell, 33, has an explosive laugh and a red-cheeked smile that suggests Tracey Ullman hosting her own holiday special. Crowell, who holds an MBA from Southwest Texas State University, owned two clothing businesses in Deep Ellum before she hooked up with her partner and co-publisher Jerry--he won't give his last name--to create Metroplex Sundown. It took a surprisingly small investment, she admits; business owners and individuals were lined up, ready and waiting to advertise. The paper turned a profit in its first fiscal year. Then it hired sales reps in other major Texas cities and began to publish regional editions.

"I'm not out to get in anyone's face with this newspaper," Crowell says. "As long as I'm here, the Sundown will only be distributed at adult-oriented businesses, because I don't want some 13-year-old flipping through it. The closest we come to a wider audience is tattoo parlors, and those places are supposed to be checking IDs."

Crowell's discretion extends to the content of the Metroplex Sundown, where she allows no crotch shots in the model ads and insists, "If you ever see a nipple without a star covering it, I was asleep on the job."

The adult entertainment industry lights evidently need A.J. as much as she needs them, because the Sundown has managed to corral several heavy-hitters to appear at a campaign benefit for Ray Hill. The Houston civil libertarian, gay rights advocate, and First Amendment obsessive has pledged to do battle with Helen Huey, a city councilwoman who heads a committee to impose stricter regulations on Houston's adult clubs, bookstores, and salons.

Hill is vying for a recently vacated council seat and has aggressively sold himself as the fearless protector of Houston's sexually oriented establishments.

As in most municipal special elections, voter turnout is expected to be low. The Sundown's adult entertainers hope they can provide the swing vote.

Rivalry among strip clubs, adult bookstores, nude modeling salons, and other adult businesses ranks among the most cutthroat in American capitalism. (As the Sundown's Jerry delicately puts it, "If I ran a club across the street from another club owner, sure--I'd be running around whispering, 'That guy's dancers have AIDS.'")

At the same time, the different facets of the adult entertainment industry benefit from symbiotic relationships. While a titty bar might be uncomfortable cooperating with another titty bar, they're thrilled to piggyback on the film and magazine industry, whose national scope is responsible for the rag-tag "star system" that exists in mainstream pornography. Here's how it works: a woman who performs a boy-girl scene in an adult film will receive about $500 for her efforts, and quite a bit more if she's featured on the box cover of a video at your local porn shop. When she starts to appear in gentlemen's clubs, she can be advertised in newspapers to much greater effect because of her film credits. A featured actress can earn up to $15,000 per gig (not including tips) at a strip bar. Video, live performance, and the burgeoning practice of bookstore signings all fuel each other's profits.

All of these enterprises are targets of zealous district attorneys and campaigning council members, who tend to prosecute sexually oriented businesses in election years. During the last decade, as conservatives have gained power in many municipalities, adult-oriented business owners have been forced to pay larger legal expenses (and, in a few cases, serve longer prison sentences) just to keep their doors open.

These threats explain why Metroplex Sundown can pick up the phone and enlist the aid of Ron Jeremy, a 27-year porn veteran who has recently concentrated on producing and directing (he helmed that hard-core publicity coup known as John Wayne Bobbitt Uncut), and on making non-sexual cameos in mainstream movies; Christi Lake, a veteran of dozens of films who was arrested in Corpus Christi just a few days before her Houston appearance; Sunset Thomas, the platinum-blonde dynamo who autographs my program "Fuck Me All Night Long! Sincerely, Sunset"; and Kayla Kleevage, the charming, freckled star of Sperm Target and Gazongas #6, among a host of other relative newcomers to the industry.

Their $7,500 in food, lodging, and transportation expenses have been covered by the Sundown because all have agreed to appear at an all-nude Houston club to help register voters and raise money for Ray Hill's campaign.

Hill has earned the endorsement of Adults for Legal Freedom--an organization of adult entertainment business owners who, in the grand tradition of the American electorate, have rallied around their collective pocketbook.

No doubt about it, Tera Hart is lovely.MShe hides her nearly makeup-free face behind tiny round sunglasses and a Veronica Lake fall of long, dark blonde hair, but the light that streams through the bus windows flatters her. She reclines on her bus seat in sweats, tennis shoes, and a T-shirt.

Tera is the 28-year-old--"Oops, I mean 23"--star of more than 150 adult films released from 1990 to 1995. She describes herself as "a very honest girl," which she offers as one reason for her decade-long estrangement from her Chicago family.

"I've only been dancing since December of last year," Hart says. "I dropped out of the film industry because of an AIDS scare. I'm writing a book about it."

For a woman who wants money for her story, Tera Hart is remarkably forthcoming with details. Last year, she says she performed a girl-girl scene with a certain porn actress. Shortly afterward, that actress got the results of her latest HIV test.

The woman had tested positive. Those who'd recently worked with her, including Hart, were alerted. Hart was reassured by her colleagues that woman-to-woman transmission of the AIDS virus is extremely rare.

Hart took it in stride, but went ballistic when she discovered that her fellow actress had worked on other movies during the interval between her first and second HIV test, even though the second test proved to be negative.

"The fact that the first test was wrong is beside the point," she says. "I thought about trying to charge her with manslaughter, or just suing her. Everybody in the industry tried to talk me out of it. Nobody was bothered that this woman continued to work when she doubted her HIV status."

Tera shrugs. "I've got a five-year-old son who depends on me, you know? I can't put up with that kind of bullshit."

Hart continues to make a handsome living through featured appearances at adult clubs around the country--always billed as "Adult Film Star Tera Hart." "I make enough so I don't have to work all the time," she says. "And so I can keep my son in toys."

After a four-hour journey, speeded along by our pilot's hell-on-wheels driving, we pull up at the Sumner Suites hotel in Houston. It is here that I meet the legendary Christi Lake. I'm strolling down the hallway toward the hotel elevator when I come across a tall, angular woman in an electric blue one-piece micro-mini with knee-length boots and crystals sewn around the border of everything. Lake is hanging halfway out of her room, smoking a cigarette and tapping the ashes hither and yon. She is pretty in the way I remember every popular girl in high school being, with a minimum of individuality and a maximum of mascara and hairspray.

"Hi there," she says, with a perfunctory wink.
Lake would later explain that she has a compelling personal reason for appearing in support of Ray Hill. She'd recently been released from a Corpus Christi jail after being arrested and charged with promoting obscene material at an adult video store called--appropriately enough--The Adult Video Store. The raid followed a predictable law-enforcement formula when it comes to vice cases.

"I was signing my tapes and photos," Lake says, "when an undercover cop comes in and buys a copy of my latest movie. Less than hour later, seven or eight uniformed cops barge in, telling everyone to stay put and pull out their IDs."

Only Christi Lake and the clerk ended up in jail. Lake claims police seized more than $1,362 in cash, some of which was hers. Since she's a national celebrity and constant traveler, her attorney asked if he could appear in her stead on the designated court date. Lake hopes her case will be dismissed, since so many obscenity cases are designed to scare the business owners, not incarcerate the accused. At worst--she figures--she'll have to pay a fine.

She is clearly bitter about the incident, mostly because the plain-clothes cop who purchased the offending videocassette evidently was interested in more than just upholding the law.

"I was selling two different kinds of photos--all-nude photos I made before the store opened and topless Polaroids with me," Lake remembers. "The cop who purchased the 'obscene' tape also bought three naked pictures of me. Somehow, I don't think that was part of the investigation."

It's Friday morning at six in the hotel's dim hallway, and Jerry, A.J. Crowell's partner, is running from door to door, knocking on each one to awaken his female celebrities so they can appear on Stevens & Pruitt, Houston's hottest weekday morning radio show on "Rock 101," KLOL-FM.

Jerry is a short, red-haired, bespectacled man in his thirties who prefaces even the most innocent comments he makes in my presence with "Of course, that's off the record."

Just like Crowell, Jerry is working his butt off to make this ALF-Ray Hill benefit work. Unlike her, he won't provide specific details about his personal life, except to say he is married with children, lives in the suburbs, is a devout Christian, and previously operated a small newspaper in Dallas.

When Jerry fails to get anyone to answer her door, he returns to his hotel room, grabs the telephone receiver, and begins to call everyone's room.

"The problem is, none of these people are being paid to get up early," Jerry says sheepishly. "It's the same with minimum-wage workers--they've got no incentive to make the extra effort. You cure that easy--by making yourself identify with the worker."

Jerry retrieves from his memory bank an anecdote about a laundry business he once owned and his attitude toward a few workers he encountered sitting on the floor eating lunch. "You have to meet them on their own terms. You walk up to them and say, 'Que paso, man?' Then you tell 'em you don't have any lunch, and let them offer you a tamale. You say, 'Hey, man, I'm still paying on this $500 suit.' They're surprised. They'll pay attention to you then."

While Jerry is probably not as ethnically fluid as he imagines, he channels his nervous energy into an impressive mixture of grim determination and cheerleader enthusiasm. He is also a confirmed workaholic--a Sundown staffer informs me it's not uncommon for Jerry to start, or end, his workday at 4:30 a.m.

He manages to summon three guests to appear in the 7 a.m. Stevens & Pruitt show--Kayla Kleevage, Sophia Staks, and Vanity, a 24-year-old dancer who won Sundown's 1995 Adult Entertainer of the Year award.

The intelligence and toughness of most of the actresses and dancers I meet don't surprise me. Sofia Staks comes closest to fulfilling the stereotype most people hold of female adult entertainers as wanton airheads. After she decides during our first interview that I have a "cute laugh," she pinches my bottom once as I walk down the aisle, slaps it while we're standing in a truck stop, and blocks my entrance to an occupied restroom by jumping between me and the locked door, thrusting her breasts out like a pair of big, mean thugs (dare I say "bouncers"?), and winking at me lasciviously.

There's not a mean bone in her surgically enhanced body, but she repeatedly makes it clear--sometimes in the presence of her husband, who is deaf and mute--that she is mine for the taking. I don't have the nerve to tell Ms. Staks that if I hadn't begun this bus trip as a gay man, I certainly would have converted to one after these unwanted invitations.

The woman I will come to admire most is Vanity, the Dallas resident who graduated from Carter High School and exhibits some truly awesome, athletic dance skills during her club act. She is beautiful in that muscular, force-of-nature, Angela Bassett way. She also possesses guts and good humor in abundance.

I first see Vanity in a state most club patrons never will--makeup-free, battling a stubborn flu bug with temporary over-the-counter remedies, and clutching Booboo, her beloved yellow-and-white stuffed giraffe, to her chest.

The Angela Bassett resemblance is cemented because, during the trip from Dallas to Houston, What's Love Got to Do With It? plays on six small video screens inside the bus. It took me a minute to realize the nature of Vanity's sniffing and snuffling during the film's brutal abuse scenes, when Bassett as Tina Turner is thrown around like a rag doll by Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner.

A.J. Crowell quickly realized, too, that Vanity was crying. She offered the dancer a few words on what an intense film this is and how she admires Tina Turner.

Vanity laughed at herself for getting weepy during a movie. "I'd love to have Tina's success," she says. "But I'm never gonna have her man troubles."

She feels better the next morning as part of the small group that shows up for the Stevens & Pruitt show. The mission: Promote Ray Hill's candidacy for Houston city council, the goals of Adults for Legal Freedom, and that night's awareness party/fundraiser at XTC, an all-nude men's club.

A Sundown staffer makes some notes about basic facts to cover and briefs Sofia, Kayla, and Vanity. But as it turns out, shock jocks Stevens & Pruitt actually plan on getting the political dirt from Ray Hill, who will appear on the show after the women.

Once in the studio with the performers and on air, Stevens announces: "OK, our producers tell us you have to lift your shirts and show us what you've got."

There's a pause, and a bit of nervous laughter. Sofia leans forward into the microphone and says, "If you want to see me naked, check out the January '97 issue of Bust Out Magazine."

"No, no, we want to see them now," Pruitt insists. "Tubby, take these women out into the hall and counsel them."

Tubby is a tall, overweight lackey who plays Robin Quivers to Stevens & Pruitt's lightweight Howard Stern, except he's uglier (Sofia describes him as looking like a "giant pimple"), stupider, and doesn't talk as much as Quivers.

Kayla Kleevage relents, dropping her top without a fight, and so is spared Tubby's "counsel." Sofia and Vanity, however, are escorted one at a time into the hallway outside the studio door and very sternly given the facts.

Tubby to Sophia: "We don't take no for an answer on this show."
Tubby to Vanity, with a tad less severity: "There's no such thing as no on this show."

Sofia returns, giggling, to display her talents. Before she flashes a quick glimpse of one breast, Vanity lays down the law to Stevens and Pruitt:

"Vanity will show you her breasts when you drop your pants and show me your dick."

A toilet flush sound effect barely covers the word "dick," and suddenly, the frazzlers are frazzled. Stevens gives Vanity a nervous, irritated warning about foul language on the show, and after Vanity agrees to weigh the respective bosoms of Kayla and Sofia and decide which is heavier, the segment ends.

In the kitchen area of the station, Vanity can't help but giggle at her delicious coup. She rails against Stevens and Pruitt and snorts derisively at the "fake-ass Howard Stern" half of the pair who wears square, blue half-sunglasses. Demonstrating the symbolic nature of her on-air rebellion, she puts her feet apart, throws her arms up, and delivers a kung-fu kick to the air.

You can just picture Stevens and Pruitt on the other side of that hit, doubled over, clutching their aching privates and wishing to hell they'd never let this uppity woman near a microphone.

At an angel-faced 27 years, XTC owner Eric Langan looks barely old enough to enter his own establishment.MBefore a galaxy of porn stars and dancers takes the stage for the Adults for Legal Freedom show that Friday night, the blond Langan greets me in a cluster of harshly lit offices a couple doors down from XTC. The offices are mostly empty, save for one room full of computers manned by a jovial man with greased-back salt-and-pepper hair and a generous gut.

Stan is Langan's fiftysomething hired gun for his Internet video business. Eighteen months ago, XTC opened a site on the World Wide Web called "The Girls of XTC." What you get every Friday and Saturday night, after logging in to the site, is Eric's all-nude dancers live on your home or office computer screen. A video camera positioned above the club's L-shaped stage records the performances and flings them into cyberspace, to be retrieved by anyone who wishes to spend $69.95 for a four-hour block. (One-hour blocks are also available for $19.95.)

"We're at an evening low of 71 hits," Stan tells me, his pudgy fingers dancing over the keyboards. "Earlier tonight, the high was 211 takers."

"I trained myself on the Internet while my wife was pregnant," Langan explains. "Toward the end, I was staying home a lot with her. I started off BBS-ing. From there, I learned all about the World Wide Web, and got interested in Internet publishing and video."

"Five just logged on from Japan," Stan interjects.
Langan is already a veteran owner of sexually oriented businesses, having opened some of the first adult tanning salons in Dallas. He switched to "gentlemen's clubs" in 1994, when XTC opened. Langan considers himself not just an entrepreneur but an innovator, and "The Girls of XTC" is the latest jewel in his crown. He boasts that the club is one of the first in Texas to display its dancers on-line.

Langan pulls me over to a computer screen where, in an open window that takes up about a quarter of the monitor, a young woman, totally naked, gyrates on the stage on all fours. Her pale nude body is an indistinct white tube, her movements choppy and slo-mo like she's attempting to swim through molasses.

"Video Internet technology hasn't quite caught up with audience expectations," Langan admits. "Video shows you 24 frames per second, while the images online happen at 6.3 frames per second."

When I return to the club, which is by 9 p.m. packed to the rafters, a young woman with small breasts and shoulder-length hair is still thrusting her hips toward the stage. I have no idea if she is the same woman I saw, miniature and eerily sluggish, on the computer screen two doors down.

But it's the guys who watch her, the patrons of XTC, that surprise me. I knew before I arrived here with a star-studded entourage that the club was all-nude, which, according to city code, means the club can't serve any alcohol. Patrons can bring in their own alcoholic beverages, however, and the club allows patrons 18 and up. Cover is $25.

The tunes blasting from XTC's sound system should have been my first clue to the club's target audience. Girls shake and sway to songs by Counting Crows, Oasis, Blind Melon, and The Toadies. Where I expected to encounter an audience majority of men in their thirties, forties, and fifties, I am surprised to stumble into a stormy sea of post-adolescent hormones. T-shirts, sneakers, and baseball caps worn backward are so common as to be a uniform here. A glance from above the stage, where the adult entertainment luminaries hold court in a VIP room next to the sound booth, indicates that the average age is about 20.

Owners and employees in the Houston adult entertainment industry are already firmly behind Ray Hill's candidacy for a city council seat. The main reason for the Adults for Legal Freedom event at XTC is to encourage consumers of sexually oriented entertainment to support Ray Hill. Prospective voters can register until December 19 for the special election. The multi-million dollar question is this: Can a drunk 21-year-old be incited by a naked dancer to perform his civic duty?

Unfortunately, the designers of XTC's building have placed the stage entrance down a long hallway between the emergency exit and the public restrooms. The stars gather there to be introduced en masse by the show's hostess, Kayla Kleevage, a vision in sparkly white with a bosom-straining mini-dress and white go-go boots.

The guys who've been entering and leaving the restroom quickly realize that the blur of leopard-print satin, sequins, mascara, hairspray, and silicone at the far end of the hall signals the entrance of the featured performers. A bottleneck is created as eager patrons mob the excited women just minutes before they take the stage. A combination of Sundown staffers and XTC employees ushers the faithful back into the open air of the club, defusing what had begun to look like a scary situation.

Kayla Kleevage, a Houston resident, takes the stage to a tumultuous roar from the crowd. She introduces herself, thanks the club, and kicks off ALF's voter registration drive in earnest. Unfortunately, she is talking in a small, barely comprehensible voice.

"Of course, you guys know what ALF is, right?" she asks the crowd.
Scattered frat hollers suggest that most of these students haven't read the assignment before class started. Kayla mumbles a brief description of Adults for Legal Freedom and its candidate, Ray Hill.

"How many of ya'll vote?" she asks.
Small cheer.
"How many of ya'll are gonna start voting?"
Big cheer.

Slowly and uncertainly, naming some too soon and forgetting others, she introduces the film stars and dancers who will perform individually and sign autographs tonight until 3 a.m.: Sofia; Christi; Vanity; Sunset; Tera; Miss Marilyn; Kathy Willetts; Jordan Jarrell; a New York-based rap artist and porn fan named D.J. Polo; and of course, "The Clown Prince of Porn" himself, Ron Jeremy, who will rap with Polo and offer a bit of his X-rated stand-up schtick. Before Kayla finishes her opening remarks, Ron Jeremy walks up behind her, pulls her blouse open, takes her breasts out, and begins rubbing her nipples with his thumbs, to the ecstatic approval of the crowd.

Kayla looks surprised and a little shaken, but maintains a professional demeanor.

Then Ray Hill walks onstage and stands in front of the celebrities. He's wearing a paper red-white-and-blue top hat. Photographers and camera crews bob and weave at the foot of the stage. I had been warned by some in Houston that Hill was a spotlight hog, but his speech was brief and contained few references to his own colorful past as Supreme Court victor and local talk-radio gadfly.

"I'm here to protect your right to have a good fuckin' time," Hill announces with gusto. The hoots and foot-stomping soon die down.

"The do-gooders are smoking the wrong stuff," Hill continues. "They talk about protecting the children. I don't see any children in this room. No kindergartners snuck in here."

"Shake the titties!" screams a young Latino with a shaved head and goatee. Since Ray Hill looks like a padded A at best, I'm assuming the gentleman has directed his comment to the women behind Hill, who stand with frozen smiles.

"I want the world to know we're not ashamed of being adults!" Hill says. "And we don't want other people making our decision for us. We've got voter registration cards here for anyone who isn't already registered, and we encourage you to fill one out."

"I vote for titties!" the young Latino hollers at Mr. Hill.
In 15 minutes' time, Hill and his celebrity supporters are off the stage. Some of the performers sit behind a table to sign ALF programs and glossy photos; others take to the dressing room or to the V.I.P. room upstairs to wait for Kayla Kleevage and A.J. Crowell to summon them for individual performances.

As the evening rolls toward midnight, I notice that some of the dancers--XTC's house girls, not its invited superstars--will, for a handsome tip, shake their bottoms in private dances for seated audience members. They mimic the phenomenon known as lap-dancing, but close inspection reveals that they never touch their audiences of one. There's always at least an inch between her body and his lap.

The tippers have been emphatically instructed to keep their hands off. As an extra incentive, beefy, pissed-off-looking XTC employees keep watch just a few feet away.

One young man with black hair and glasses stares serenely as a young naked woman shakes her hips in his face. He appears to be in a stupor.

He sits hard and motionless in his seat like it's about to be ejected through the roof of XTC, his arms planted firmly on the rests. In one hand is a half-finished beer, in another, a dog-eared voter registration card. I try to peer over him and see if the card has been filled out, but I can't see though the cigarette smoke and flashing lights.

The dancer finishes her mini-performance with a thrust of her round bottom aimed squarely at his face. The only sign that he's even registered this flourish: The wrinkled voter registration card becomes a small, crumpled ball in his fist.

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