Bad News Comes in Bunches
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the trend started to cause panic. One death alone is one too many, cause for concern and examination. But since January of 2012, the mounting number of deaths that have claimed the lives of gay porn models both past and present has been alarming.
Roman Ragazzi had retired from the industry by the time he died at age 38 in February of 2012. But his huge success and popularity—combined with the resultant (and headline-making) loss of his career outside the industry—made his passing more public. Weeks before, the industry lost veteran performer Sergio Real; and weeks after, popular Corbin Fisher model “Sean” (Matthew Edison Bremer) died at the age of 22.
Since then, the list has mounted to staggering proportions: retired model Tanner Hayes at the age of 40 in April of 2012; Erik Rhodes at age 30 in June; Adam Faust at the age of 38 in August; Josh Weston at the age of 39 in December; Karim, best known for his work with COLT Studio Group, at the age of 52 in January of 2013; Arpad Miklos at the age of 45 in February; and Wilfried Knight at 35 in March, just weeks after the suicide of his husband. And that’s just a partial list.
Some of the men died at their own hands, others from illness complications. Some had been troubled with substance abuse issues in their lives.
And while the industry is no stranger to men dying far too young, the recent frequency has opened up a dialogue among industry experts and fans aching for answers. Does severe depression and destructive behavior come with the territory, or is that an unfair assumption to make?
“It was a horrible year,” says Tony Dimarco, senior director for Falcon and Raging Stallion Studios. “When anyone you know dies, it’s bad. It’s especially hard when it’s by suicide. But that being said, if you look at the overall suicide rates in the country (also in the military), death rates by suicide are way up. So I think that across the board it was a bad year. I don’t think it has just affected the industry independently.”
“I was affected by it deeply. When you know of anyone who passes, it’s hard. But it’s even more troubling when it’s their choice. I knew some of the performers very well and for many years, and it’s a hard punch in the gut when you hear the news. It’s terribly sad and troubling. What it does tell you is that depression can affect anyone. We can’t know for certain why someone would kill themselves, but I personally believe that the reasons some of these people took their lives was not because they were in porn. I think it’s shortsighted to think that. I think the issues were much bigger than that.”
Nonetheless, Dimarco thinks it’s vital that the industry be vigilant in spotting signs and offering help to those in its family: “Anyone who is struggling with depression should seek help from a trained professional. Try to get that friend to see someone—at least talk to someone. It can be very hard to see any signs. I think you have to carefully listen to what is being said. If someone is talking about it, then they are thinking about it. I think getting people to talk and to seek help is the best thing.”
He isn’t alone—Michael Lucas issued an open letter to the industry following Knight’s death: “Porn actors are among the highest-profile casualties of gay suicide, and are especially vulnerable in some ways. We do not have good support systems in place for people in our industry. We need to talk more about this as a community. We need to be there for each other.”
Is this troubling rash of deaths a sign of a bigger problem the industry needs to address — or just a sad mirror of society at large, one magnified because the men had such high-profile careers? And is there anything that can be done?
“The gay porn industry has lost many amazing guys in the last year,” says NakedSword director Mr. Pam. “I don’t think things are better or worse, but it’s the individual’s perception of how bad things are. We all have days when problems in life appear unbearable, but we choose to power on and seek help to make it through these hard times. I guess life got so bad that the choice to live wasn’t an option for some of the friends who we lost. Each case was different—heartbreak, depression, health issues, drugs. I’m so sorry that they didn’t feel life could get better. That breaks my heart.
“Hearing the news was rough. I have lost a lot of very important people in my life and it brings up those painful memories. Losing my dad, sister and in the past year my grandma was and still is very hard. I know what the guys’ friends and family are going through right now, and my love and hugs go out to them.”
The director notes that, as with any walk of life, while some gay porn performers may be more susceptible to depression, many of them aren’t. It’s dangerous to lump everyone together, although she has spotted some similarities in many of the men she has worked with over her long career.
“Often, the guys who are attracted to the gay porn star lifestyle are already ‘bad boys.’ They’ve already tested the ‘rules’ of society and seen what they can stir up. Live fast, die hard...that kind of lifestyle. They are living life at extremes—life is either really great, a rush, over-the-top fabulous; or really shitty. But their thought is, at least they’re living,” she says.
“Guys do gay porn for so many different reasons. Some might be surprising or misconstrued: paying for college, paying for a Prada bag, just got out of the military, celebrating their perfect ‘gym body,’ revenge on an ex-boyfriend, child support, political reasons, saving money for their father’s heart surgery (true story). They’re old…why not? They’re young…why not? Performers’ motivations fall somewhere within three categories: fun, fame and/or money. I don’t think I have ever met a ‘gay porn performer’ who was a strung-out junkie where he was humping on camera just to get his next fix…yes, that’s a huge misconception! He would never make it past the interview process.”
Dimarco notes that depression exists in every occupation. “Are gay performers more susceptible to depression? I don’t think they are. If you look at the number of suicides by occupation, ‘porn star’ is very far down the list ... depression can affect anyone,” he says. “I think the biggest misconception is that ‘what they do’ defined them as ‘who they are.’ People will always have misconceived perceptions of people they don’t know, especially in this industry where we are creating images of fantasy and sexual prowess. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I’ve worked with so many normal, down-to-earth guys. You can’t judge a book by its well-toned cover.”
Mr. Pam concurs: “Gay men, regardless of whether they’re a porn star or an investment banker — or both — have a lot of pressure to keep up their looks. The gay male community honors beauty and could be quick to judge ‘imperfections’ of other guys.
Gay boys can be brutal. I try to tell them to lighten up ... there is something sexy about everyone.”
That isn’t to say that the industry doesn’t bring inherent pressures with it — yes, ones that gay men outside the industry face, but perhaps magnified under the bright lights and cameras. Rejection from family, the pressure to “party” or have the “perfect body” ... it can be a risky proposition for those who don’t have a support system in place.
“The industry doesn’t create but rather magnify the issues,” Lucas says. “When you do gay porn, you sexualize yourself and many people will look at you, not surprisingly, as sex objects. This makes it harder to sustain a relationship and build a circle of friends. Then there is always the temptation to slide into the drug and sex party scene because you are invited all the time. Plus, the constant travel can make this even more isolating.”
Lucas turned a successful career in front of the camera into his own company, and knows full well the challenges the industry presents.
“Men in porn are in some ways more vulnerable,” he continues. “Sex work is a very hard job. I should know. There is nothing glamorous about it. As with many physical jobs, it wears on you. Porn performers travel constantly, so it’s hard for them to build a solid, stable support network of friends — people to go to when things feel wrong. Many of them do not plan well for their financial futures, and find themselves in difficult situations as they get older. And, like many Americans, few of them have access to steady healthcare. That’s a very tough combination.”
Lucas stresses that men need to remember that gay porn is usually not a career path — except for those who move behind the camera or into the corporate office. “This career just doesn’t last forever, and the point when you look back over your life and go forward into an uncertain future can be very scary, particularly for guys who are as multitalented and intelligent as Wilfried was. I think the most gratifying porn careers are those where guys do it for some time while they are building something else in their life, whether it be continuing education or concentrating on another field of work — just as long as there is a counterbalance.”
Dimarco concurs, nothing that anyone who is considering a career in this industry must consider the impact it will have on their lives — and potentially the people in their lives. “It shouldn’t be a flip decision. Because once you made that decision, there’s no ‘undo’ button. Many people have made the choice and have owned it and they have had a great time, and others have had big regrets.”
Issues like body image play into the insecurities many industry performers struggle with. “Sure it exists in gay culture, but only by what we hold ourselves to be. But as a performer, you are held to a higher standard and judged by many. Granted there are many types of performers and facets of the industry where that does not matter as much. But for the more high-profile, mainstream porn stars, it is. I think it’s hard to be a performer because you are always expected to be in perfect shape and be in that shape forever. Let’s face it ... we all are not perfect and we all get older, so I think the standard is held high for performers to always look good, and there’s huge pressure in that.”
That’s a pressure Mr. Pam knows all too well: “I do feel bad when I tell a guy I can’t cast him in a movie because his body type isn’t right for the role. Porn is a celebration of the ‘exception’— not all people have porn star bodies and huge cocks, so we choose to photograph and videotape these exceptions to the norm. So you can view it as a celebration — or as we’re making people feel bad about themselves. I hope people realize that porn is entertainment, not a rule book of what you should look like.”
The director says that all too often, performers forget that the business is grueling. “Modeling is hugely competitive — it’s the entertainment industry, and people thrive on ‘what’s new?’ Performing in movies is a one- to two-year adventure that should help you reach a bigger life goal—graduate college, start your own business, extra ‘fun’ money in addition to your regular job. The phone will stop ringing sooner than you think, and that time is going to suck. So I try to advise the models as much as I can to have fun but keep an eye on the future.”
But the lure of quick money and fun can often cloud that outlook — especially for younger performers. “It’s really awesome to get paid to be flown around the world, have sex with hot guys, dance in huge clubs, and see another side of life you didn’t even know existed,” Mr. Pam says. “Then life takes a turn and all of a sudden your passport hasn’t been stamped in months and your bank account is overdrawn. Getting a job making $85 a day when you used to make $1,000 really sucks. But it’s reality. I try to remind the boys to live in the now, cherish each trip, put some money away and don’t forget about your future.”
But does any of that conjecture and reflection matter? In the case of those the industry lost in 2012 and 2013, it might not. Knight was expectedly traumatized by the death of his husband, an event he blogged about just three days before ending his own life. He also commented on the troubling trend he would soon be part of:
“There has been a wave of suicide recently in the porn scene, and of course everyone put each of them in the same bag: drugs, HIV, depression for career ending. Well first: it is not my suicide, but my partner’s. And even within the porn scene itself, each person is an individual, so give a break, generalization is so 2012! The latest one, Arpad Miklos, really affected me because i knew him, i dated him a while back and it saddens me how people were quick to judge ‘only a porn guy’ when he was a generous, savvy business man, and also happened to be a trained chemist.”
Sadly, there are some questions that can never be answered.
“It’s important to remember that these were all very different people, with specific stories behind their individual tragedies. Many gay men outside the sex industry have done similar harm to themselves; to the extent that this is a trend, it’s one that extends well outside the porn world,” Lucas says. “It has been and continues to be very sad. I worked closely with many of the performers who passed, including Knight. He worked with my studio many times and often traveled together to places like Spain, Italy and France. We were close and he was always a joy to be around. Really, most of my thoughts have been around the good times my team and I had with everyone to block out the sadness.”
For Marc MacNamara, Lucas Entertainment’s marketing and creative director (and frequent director/writer), Knight’s death has been especially painful.
“Wilfried Knight’s passing has taken a strong hold on me. He was the first model I ever directed and we shared a wonderful bond. He was a very special person — a genuine, caring, smart and grounded individual whose personality even outshined his incredible outward beauty. In the wake of his passing, I had to step back and look at the awful losses the industry has experienced this year. I don’t believe Wilfried’s passing had anything to do with the industry,” he says.
“We all would like to consider ourselves strong people, but there will always be certain things that tear us down.”