The Lookout

‘Hand Sanitizer is your friend’: A trip to the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
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A porn actress poses for a photographer on day one of the Adult Entertainment Expo (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

LAS VEGAS—The Adult Entertainment Expo, the nation's premier porn convention, at first might seem like any other business gathering, with free tote bags branded with the logo of a corporate sponsor and a thick program of seminars. But that impression doesn't last long.

On Wednesday afternoon, more than 50 people packed into a conference room at the Hard Rock Hotel just off the Strip. Some of the men wore suits that looked as though they had just been pulled off the rack at a Men’s Warehouse, while the women teetered around in tall high heels that seemed more like stilts than shoes. All were taking meticulous notes—some on their iPads—about how to generate media coverage for their business.

Live chat 12:30 p.m. ET: The Adult Entertainment Expo and the changing porn industry

“A lot of the outlets I deal with are not really interested in helping you promote your products,” Jay Kopita, a longtime publicist, explained to his audience. “So unless there’s some sort of interesting angle, it’s gotta be something really newsworthy, something really relevant.”

Kopita paused for moment. “Obviously, promoting a mother and daughter going tag team is kind of an easy sell,” Kopita added matter-of-factly, referencing two of his clients who had recently appeared on Anderson Cooper’s syndicated talk show to discuss their joint adult film venture.

A titter of laughter moved through the room.

It was day one of the Expo, an annual event sponsored by Adult Video News, the porn industry’s most important publication. Every year, an estimated 30,000 people descend on Sin City for the confab—the industry types to hobnob with each other and test out the latest sex toys, and fans hoping to meet their favorite adult film star.

The runaway success of the "50 Shades of Grey" trilogy has also made adult entertainment more mainstream.

On Wednesday, the convention kicked off with a brief seminar dubbed the “Home Room” to allow organizers to give first-time attendees tips about how to navigate the four-day affair. Some in the audience already looked rough for the wear—collapsing at conference room tables with plastic cups of Bloody Marys that looked and smelled more like a glass of vodka with a splash of tomato juice.

There had been some convention prepartying the night before, a woman who gave her name as “Mistress Lisa,” told me, as she sipped her drink and tried to look alive. “I’ll be fine in an hour,” she said in a hoarse voice.

At the front, an AVN editor, Sherri L. Shaulis, was dispensing advice on how to make it through the conference alive.

“Hand sanitizer IS YOUR FRIEND,” she declared, emphasizing her words into the microphone. “There is a CVS across the street. … Buy hand sanitizer by the gallons. Seriously.”

Shaulis also urged people to drink as much water as possible—even as she acknowledged there was a stocked bar literally every few feet at the convention. “We are trying to get you guys liquored up,” she admitted. “But control yourself. … You don’t want to be that person who got so drunk they got kicked out of a porn convention, OK?”

In the hallways, it would have been easy to mistake the event for something a local chamber of commerce might have sponsored. There were people trolling the hotel corridors with rolling briefcases full of paperwork and legal-size notepads already scribbled up with notes. People were crowded into groups, shaking hands and exchanging business cards.

But just when it would seem that this event was as boring as any other business convention, it simply took a glimpse at someone’s name badge to remind that this was different. Few people, except for reporters, appeared to be using real names.

There were many women named “Candy” and several who claimed the surname “Mistress,” including the aforementioned “Mistress Lisa” and a “Mistress Veronica.” One man had a badge that simply read “Dude.”

“Nobody uses their real name,” a man, whose attendee badge read, “One Bitchin Guy,” told me. “Everybody has a stage name, even if you aren’t talent.”

Not everybody seemed to be on scene purely for business. During the afternoon, dozens of porn stars crowded into the large expo hall to pose for photos and sign autographs for industry types and some who clutched cameras and claimed to be members of the press.

Actress Jesse Jane, an industry veteran who had her breasts redone so that they would look better on high definition television, stood for three hours gamely posing for photos and signing autographs. Standing just over 5 feet tall, Jane had packed her tiny frame into a skin tight pink minidress and greeted every person she met with the excited disposition of a high school cheerleader.

“HELLO! How are you?!” she chirped. “I’m awesome!”

Jane posed for photo after photo—clutching even the creepiest of the creepy close and tight. Even though she was tiny, the men she hugged often looked as though they might faint.

“I loooooove coming here,” Jane said, admitting she didn’t really know how many times she had attended the confab. “I do this for my fans. These are the people that keep us going. They are amazing! Without them, we are nothing.”

It seemed the women were willing to do anything to satisfy the fans—except for actually getting naked, which is legally prohibited under convention guidelines, though the rules have been skirted at past adult expos.

In the convention hall, women in tiny bikinis and six-inch heels paraded around, heeding requests from amateur photographers to contort their bodies in a litany of provocative positions. At one point, a woman wearing a tiny bikini that was decorated to look like leaves nearly toppled over in her sky high red heels as she tried to look as sexy as possible for a pack of photographers.

But it wasn’t just women. James Deen, one of the industry’s most popular male stars, was holding court nearby in his own booth—though he seemed to be attracting more reporters than actual fans.

Deen, who is famous in the industry for being well-endowed and sells a line of dildos modeled after his own penis, recently jumped the line between porn and mainstream films by starring in the film ‘The Canyons” with Lindsay Lohan—a tumultuous filming process that was recently documented in the New York Times Magazine. On Wednesday, Deen was so besieged by reporters that he had a handler whose sole job appeared to be keeping those who had not requested interviews in advance away from the star.

In seminars, industry veterans passed on their pearls of wisdom about how to best utilize the week—delivering speeches that seemed straight of out of the movie “Boogie Nights.” At one point, Brian Gross, a longtime adult entertainment publicist, asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they were new to the industry. More than half the room did.

“The biggest lesson for all of you is this is a small, family oriented industry. We all know each other. It is really important you get in with people that you trust, people who have experience, people that have the background,” Gross told the room. “It is unlike any other industry in the world, based on the fact that you are getting into something, that for better or worse, is taboo. You might be questioning, ‘What am I doing?’ … To get into this industry and be successful, you have to be confident in who you are and what your product is. It is important that you have relationships with the right people.”

Near the back of the room, a woman quickly grabbed her pen and legal pad and made a note of what Gross had said.

“CONFIDENCE!!” she wrote.

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