Owner of the image library Falcon Foto, Harris is one of those people in the adult business who maintains a low profile but has built an empire of astonishing size and reach. In Harris' case, she controls an ever-growing archive of some 2 million images, licensing photographs to publishers and Internet sites. When you look at a layout in a men's magazine such as Hustler or Swank, there's an even chance the image belongs to Falcon.
Harris more or less invented the niche magazine, and her website, FalconFoto.com, is the gold standard for artistry and quality in niche photography. Falcon also has begun producing and licensing video clips, and the website has attracted a healthy affiliate business.
But this isn't at all what Harris envisioned as a college student from the north of England.
Harris was pre-med at Cambridge; a lifelong animal lover, she'd wanted to become a veterinarian but was channeled into an M.D. program when she saw an ad offering lucrative work.
"I was always very entrepreneurial," Harris told XBIZ. "It's something I was born with; at 7 years old I was doing garage sales on the weekend for the local animal charity."
The ad had been placed by a modeling agency, which wanted to sign the pretty, blond, buxom Harris. "I said, 'I'm too short!' and they said, 'Not for cars.'"
Harris quickly became a popular British poster girl, doing print ads for autos, houses, motor homes, liquor and airlines. A modeling contract with Marlboro cigarettes in 1985 gave her the opportunity to come to the U.S., where she looked up Clive McLean, a former high-fashion photographer in Britain who had become chief photographer for Hustler magazine.
She noticed that McLean had thrown away a bunch of photos of nude women. "I said, 'I would think somebody would want that,' and he said, 'Bunch of rubbish — take it, see if you can do something with it.'"
Harris went to a newsstand, found men's magazines that seemed to fit the photos, wrote down addresses and shipped off the artwork. "A few days later one of the editors called and said, 'I'll buy these layouts, I'll give you $2,000 a layout,' " Harris said. She countered with $2,500. "He said yes, and that was my first deal in photography."
Although Harris started getting work as an actress almost the moment she arrived in the States, doing commercials, B movies and roles in TV shows such as "Baywatch" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," she began to develop a lucrative sideline in photography, selling the work of Los Angeles photographers to British men's magazines and recruiting British high-fashion photographers for the American adult market.
"I knew all the fashion-type photographers in England, and I called them up and said, 'Hey, you want to do some nudie stuff for America?' Of course, they said, 'Yeah, that'd be great,'" Harris said. She also worked with interior design magazines such as House & Garden and Victorian Home. "But the girlie stuff was always the stuff that sold," she said. "Definitely an easier market."
By that point, the year off Harris was thinking of taking from Cambridge had now stretched to more than 20, and she was relishing the freewheeling world of American business.
"When I came to America, I was really surprised when I started in the photography business and started seeing publishers," she said. "I thought I'd have a hard time; I didn't think people would take me seriously because I was so young and because I was a girl."
Within a couple of years, the photography sideline had become Harris' principal source of income. "It grew and grew to where I was hiring staff, and that's when it really became a company," Harris said.
Ownership of the images came with her willingness to pay photographers faster than magazines did.
"The photographers always had to wait until publication for their money," Harris said. "At one point, I said, 'Well, do you want me to pay you up front, and I'll own [the layout]? And of course they were thrilled by that. At some point I just started paying all the model fees and paying the photographer his fee up front. I didn't realize that years down the line it would become so valuable."
In 1988, Harris created the first niche magazine, Barely Legal, for Larry Flynt Publications; it became one of Flynt's best-selling titles. She followed that up with the first amateur magazine, Hometown Girls, helped create the first 40-plus magazine and then watched as the niche markets took off.
"I'd been able to have an overview of the entire industry because we were shooting for almost every magazine out there," Harris said. "I was getting constant feedback from the editors and mail from the readers about what they wanted. While they could only see their one magazine, I could see the whole industry and understood that there are guys who really would like just young girls, and there are guys over here who are really just interested in busty girls or leg fetish."
Harris already had shaped her photo business, first called Exposure Images, then Falcon Foto, into many different niches, and she began shooting layouts with special attention to makeup, costuming, poses and atmosphere.
"A leg shoot is not just a girl with nice legs," Harris said. "A typical leg fetish shoot may include authentic 1950s lingerie with original Cuban heel stockings, six-inch heels made to order out of London, a two-hour makeover and very specific camera angles to accentuate the toes, feet and legs."
When webmasters began coming to her in 1994 to license images for the Internet, Harris was ready. She not only licensed photos to other sites but had started her own domain.
"When the Internet came along, our whole focus was, 'Let's go for the niches,' because we knew what worked," she said.
For many years, Harris has been in the enviable position of having other adult entrepreneurs throw money at her to launch their companies or give them advice.
"I've helped people make a lot of money, and of course make a nice little percentage for our company too," she said.
Harris recently finished a year as a consultant for Larry Flynt, putting her staff to work helping Flynt develop websites, Vegas casino projects, video lines and a mobile operation within his empire.
"It was easy to be a hero over there because there was a lot of disconnect between the different departments, things had fallen through the cracks, and there wasn't really anybody going out there finding new business," Harris said.
But, she added, she had a fantastic time. "[Flynt] opened up his world to me and said, 'Wherever you think you can make a difference, you go and do what you think,'" Harris said. "It was wonderful to have a great brand like Hustler behind you. He was decisive; there's no messing around. If he liked the idea, he'd pick up the phone and say, 'Gail's coming over, give her whatever she wants.' I think we accomplished quite a lot."
Harris has become successful beyond her wildest imagination by combining her prodigious network of connections with her dynamic personal qualities.
"I use everything I have; I'm not afraid to use my femininity," she said. "People say to me all the time, 'Is it difficult in a man's world?' I really think that women have all the advantage. It's easy for me to get a meeting with just about anybody who I'd like to meet with. The door's always open, and then it's my job once I'm in there to show them that I really have something more to offer."
Being a woman also helps her to be objective in the adult marketplace, Harris said. "Men, I think, have a different perspective when they look at [adult] because they get clouded with their view of what they like. But as a woman, I can see an overview of everything, and I find it more of an intellectual curiosity of how these men's minds work."
Then there's that ability to pick winners. "I've just been very lucky," Harris told XBIZ. "I have kind of a knack for knowing the niches and understanding what the customer wants. It has kind of surprised me that almost everything I've brought out has been a winner. I don't think I've had any real flops."
Harris, 42, lives and works in a compound in the hilly, horsey part of the northeast San Fernando Valley (yes, she rides), with her husband, Jason Tucker, a toddler and two teenage daughters from a previous marriage. She met her first husband skydiving and Tucker, whom she calls a "computer geek," at an Internet convention.
Tucker and Harris often work as a team. "Jason and I have been contacted over the last couple of years by big mainstream companies to come and advise them on, well, how to make money, how to do billing," Harris said. "When the mainstream companies first came online, they thought they knew it all. Then after a while, I think they realized, 'Hey, there are all these adult people making all this money, and we don't understand how to make it.'"
Heeding the latest revolution in technology, Falcon is readying a chunk of its library for mobile access and preparing to head whichever way the wind blows the adult industry.
"There's definitely still money to be made out there," Harris said. "I see a lot more merging between mainstream and adult, and [perhaps] more of my time spent on mainstream companies, helping them mirror some of the things that we've learned in adult. There's a lot more to do in our business and a lot of exciting opportunity."