It's Friday night, and you're at the movies, watching the black comedy "Very Bad Things." During the bachelor party scene, a stripper is brought out, and as she begins to do her thing, a light bulb goes on in your head.
"Hey, I know her," you think. "That's adult film star Kobe Tai." Then a doubt creeps in. Is recognizing a porn star really something you want to admit?
Maybe not, but it's a question more and more moviegoers are facing these days. Pornography is not a mainstream business, but even so, more and more adult film actors are turning up in mainstream Hollywood movies. In addition to Tai's turn in "Very Bad Things," audiences in recent months have seen Ron Jeremy in the disco movie "54," Asia Carrera playing a porn star in "The Big Lebowski," and Heather Hunter and Chasey Lain as call girls in the Spike Lee film "He Got Game."
The question is: What are they doing there?
Adding spice, frankly. Having an actual porn star play a porn star doesn't just add verisimilitude. It's also a nudge-wink acknowledgment by the film's makers that the audience knows what porn stars are supposed to look like - and might even recognize a few.
Watching pornography, after all, is the American entertainment industry's biggest dirty secret.
According to the trade magazine Adult Video News, an estimated 8,948 hardcore titles were released on video in 1998, up from 7,970 the year before. Those tapes would account for $819 million in wholesale sales.
You won't find any of those titles at the local Blockbuster. But for video shops that do rent adult tapes, porn usually accounts for a healthy chunk of the inventory - an average of 19.7 percent, according to AVN. All told, some 686 million X-rated titles were rented in the last year, a figure that makes it easier to understand why so many people recognize Jeremy and his colleagues. But even though a lot of people are renting those tapes, it still isn't politic to say so.
As adult actress Carrera puts it, "The general public does not want to admit that they know who any porn stars are."
That is beginning to change, however, as a generation bred on shock jocks, music video and VCRs constitutes an increasingly large part of the moviegoing public.
"I think my generation is a lot more loose-lipped about watching porn," says David Schlesinger, 26, the director of public relations at Vivid Video, an adult-film company based in Van Nuys, Calif. "It's not unusual to go to a party with a lot of people there, and there's music on the stereo, and a porno in the VCR. It's really no big deal."
"When it comes to the youth, the guys always know me," says Jeremy, a porn industry legend who has acted in or directed over 1,200 adult films, and had roles in 28 mainstream pictures.
"I did comedy ... at some clubs around the country, and it really was brought home then that the guys know me, but the girls don't," he says. "But then when the girls get older, into their 20s and 30s, they tend to know me also, because they've seen the films with their boyfriends."
Nor do young people have to go to parties to see porn stars. Shock jock Howard Stern has been inviting adult film stars on his radio show for years, turning the likes of Lexus and Janine into drive-time celebrities.
The music video industry has been friendly to porn stars and directors. The latest Metallica video, "Turn the Page," features mock-documentary footage of former porn star Ginger Lynn as a down-on-her-luck exotic dancer.
Still, it's unlikely that the adult film industry will ever be accepted as mainstream entertainment.
"To me, porno films are the last outlaw cinema left," says director John Waters, who hired former porn star Traci Lords for the 1990 Johnny Depp film, "Cry-Baby."
Before Waters cast her, Lords had been at the center of the worst scandal to ever hit the porno business. Lying about her age, she posed for nude photographs at age 15, graduating to porn movies a year later. By the time authorities found out she had been using a faked birth certificate, the then-
17-year-old had made dozens of videos - all of which were seized and subsequently destroyed as child pornography.
"I got Traci Lords to be in a Universal picture," boasts Waters. "No other director could have done that."
Waters says he didn't sign Lords for her notoriety - he did it because he thought she was right for the role of a juvenile delinquent. "She read for me, and I wouldn't have given her the part if I didn't think she did it better than anybody else," he says.
"But at the same time, people were amazed that a studio would allow that. Brian Grazer at Imagine Films, who was the studio executive who had power over the whole thing, gave me no trouble with it. He said, 'As long as she can act.'
Acting ability - or a lack thereof - is one of the biggest issues for adult film actors trying to cross over into the mainstream. "Porn stars aren't taken very seriously as actresses," admits Carrera.