Given his ample physique, Jeremy, 52, admits pitching light beer to Sunday afternoon football fans is a bit of stretch. The same goes for Viagra, a drug Jeremy rails against lest anybody consider his chief professional asset a slave to pharmaceutical forces. That said, when it comes to his second-best asset, the most famous male face in American pornography, Jeremy remains convinced that somewhere out there is a blue-chip brand willing to exploit its "Do you know me?" shock value.
"Believe me, if you put me and Jenna Jameson in a room with a bunch of these sports heroes or some of these TV actors, we'd get recognized way before they would," Jeremy says proudly. "But they'll get way more endorsements because they can appeal to Middle America and we can't. There are no family groups looking to boycott Tony Hawk. Never mind the fact that more kids get hurt skateboarding than watching porn. That's what the marketers want."
The Q-Score for Adult Industry
Jeremy calls it the curse of Q — as in Q-score, the celebrity marketability metric used to quantify both familiarity and appeal when it comes to famous actors, sports stars and politicians. And while Marketing Evaluations Inc., the company that created the Q-score 40 years ago, has never conducted an official porn star rating, but Jeremy is pretty sure what his would look like. With more than 2,000 adult film titles to his credit, "familiarity" is a given. It's on the "appeal" side, however, where things get a little scary.
How scary? Jeremy cites the 1998 film John Frankenheimer film "Ronin" as a case in point. Although Jeremy performed ably in a bit scene that made it all the way through the post-production editing process, it wasn't until the test screening that the film's primary backer, United Artists, noticed something troubling.
"Audiences recognized me too much, and they carried on," Jeremy says.
Despite appearing in the credits as Ron Hyatt, an approximation of his real last name, Hiatt, Jeremy says the scene ultimately fell victim to studio skittishness.
"We're a very strange market," says Jeremy, noting the limited nature of stardom when you earn it by showing off your private parts. "To put it in a market value, if Michael Jordan gets a million, me and Jenna, we'll get maybe $10,000. There's only a limited number of businesses that will use us, so our earning power is a hundredth of what it could be."
That's not to say that porn stardom doesn't offer the occasional benefit, Jeremy says. Michael Jordan had only 15 years on the court to polish his brand image, whereas Jeremy, an actor who made his first adult film appearance in 1978, is, if anything, more notorious now than ever. Thanks to a 2003 appearance on The WB's "The Surreal Life" as well as a new contract with Metro, Jeremy is working steadily both on the set and off. This holiday season he'll be holding down the title role in "Very, Very Bad Santa," one of the first high-definition releases under Metro's new Loaded Digital banner.
A smattering of nonporn roles also have followed. Aside from starring in the Philip Cruz-directed horror flick "Dead Meat" this year, Jeremy hopes to recover a few lost scenes in the enhanced DVD version of Tony Scott's major release, "Domino." Sacrificed in the name of running time, as opposed to producer squeamishness, the scenes represent the newest avenue in Jeremy's film career: director's cut reissues.
"I'd like to flatter myself and say they added me back in to help sell the DVD, but the truth is, they probably just wanted the scene itself," Jeremy says.
Finally, there's the off-screen world of adult toys and pop culture product endorsements. With Pipedream Products selling the Ron Jeremy mold and similar deals putting the Ron Jeremy visage on T-shirts (PornStarClothing.com) and skateboard decks (Canadian skateboard manufacturer Woodchuck Productions), "familiarity" minus "appeal" still equals bankability.
"I figure, look, I'm a whore," Jeremy says with a laugh. "You want my name, you can have it. How much are you going to pay?"
Million-Dollar Earnings but a Skinflint
Add it all up and you get a respectable pile of money that, short of a few A-listers in Hollywood, few would turn down. Jeremy says he crossed the million-dollar earnings mark right about the same time the Monica Lewinsky scandal put pornographic content into the evening news. Since then, he's managed to add to his net worth by avoiding the frivolous spending and lifestyle habits of his pop culture peers. Even his investments reflect his legendary reputation as a skinflint. Apart from a trio of condos, which he owns outright, Jeremy says he's perfectly content to let his wealth languish in the local bank vault.
"My money makes awful, awful interest," he admits. "It's dumb, I know. I could have probably doubled it by now. Then again, I didn't lose any money when the stock market tanked, and I'm not like my friends who have to check the newspaper or the TV shows with the ticker every morning just to see what they're worth. I call it the 'less gray hair' policy."
Contrary to the image strengthened by Scott Gill's 2000 documentary "Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy," he doesn't hang around porn sets for the money. He hangs out to keep his hustling skills sharp. "I'm set for life," he says. "I don't have to work anymore if I don't choose to. A job I don't like, I don't have to do."
That sense of independence has given Jeremy something of an elder statesman's status in an industry known for chewing up and spitting out male talent. Looking back over the past 27 years, Jeremy is a rare individual with the breadth of experience to see the changes, whether cultural, legal or technological, that have transformed the industry over the last quarter-century. Apart from Viagra's ability to broaden the talent pool and the digital camera's ability to lower production cost barriers — two trends Jeremy openly laments — he sees aesthetic beauty of the female actresses as the most profound change over the last two decades.
"As gorgeous as the girls were in the old days, I think the younger girls of today are better looking," he says. "There's not as much enthusiasm or spunk as back in the 1970s or 1980s, but [the actresses] are absolutely breathtaking."
However, such positive shifts are balanced by an erosion of on-set standards, Jeremy says. Given the number of works and media channels crowding today's adult entertainment marketplace, few directors can afford the luxury of waiting for a strong script or even the simple cost of shooting a retake.
"Back in the old days, it was feature films; you had good scripts, decent budgets" he says wearily. "Now, it's more like: here's a cup of coffee. Eat me."
Jeremy singles out "Very, Very Bad Santa" and Digital Playground's "Pirates" as the possible start of an interesting counter-trend of relatively big-budget features attempting to inject not only a coherent storyline but also a long-lost sense of budget-worthy stardom back into the business.
"Porn is now almost like A and B movies, like mainstream," he says.
Still, it's the "three-ring circus" side of the porn industry that most concerns Jeremy. As a person who frequently serves as a porn industry defender on the college lecture circuit, he finds it hard to justify certain extreme genres that test the limits of majority market taste — e.g. "pink eye" ejaculation shots, a practice he considers medically unsafe, or anything involving cruelty to animals. Not only do such tactics fly in the face of the general porn industry's attempts to pass itself off as a reflector of mainstream sexual appetites, they also undermine the tenuous legal shelter that many industry pioneers risked their own individual freedoms to expand during the 1970s and early 1980s.
All it takes is one bad health scare or one precedent-setting legal decision to put a chill on the industry, Jeremy insists, creating an unease when it comes to works that put shock value over story value.
"I'll defend Max Hardcore and extreme stuff because some people have those fantasies," Jeremy says. "I cannot defend pink eyes. I think it's unhealthy, medically unsafe and dangerous. I also don't think it's sexy."
While Jeremy doesn't regret the time invested in his porn career, he does see the curse of the Q-score as something of a glass ceiling. Even mainstream personalities such as Howard Stern, a man whose career earnings dwarf Jeremy's, pay a porn penalty when it comes to endorsements.
"When I do Howard Stern, it burns up the airwaves," Jeremy says. "Yet, when this man tries to get major endorsements for his show, do you see any Coca-Cola ads or Sony? No, you see 'Girls Gone Wild.' Advertisers don't want their stockholders to think their customers watch porn."
Porn's Double-Standard Hypocrisy
In other words, says Jeremy, you've got a double standard that puts even the porn-shunning hypocrisy of Hollywood to shame. After all, a lost movie scene can often be a selling point for the home DVD market. Lost endorsements on behalf of Budweiser, Nokia or American Express, on the other hand, deny not only the human instinct but the immutable laws of supply and demand as well.
"We're like the bastard stepchild," Jeremy says. "That's just a fact of life."