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Talking with Kelly Shibari, the First Plus Size Model on the Cover of Penthouse Forum

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The adult star on landing the cover, big girls, and being a secret frat boy.

Kelly Shibari is no stranger to breaking molds — the big, beautiful adult film actress had her own Fleshlight design, is collaborating with jessica drake on a modern sex ed seriesand this month, she will become the first plus-size model to grace the cover of Penthouse Forum in over 40 years. Front and center on Forum's June issue, Shibari spoke with Nerve about being a part of this iconic moment in entertainment magazine history, the first time she watched porn, and why deep down inside she's really just a frat boy.

First of all, congratulations on the Penthouse Forum cover. I’m sensing a sexy ring master vibe from you. Was that your choice or theirs?
With Penthouse Forum, they don’t do the cover shoot. So, they ask you to submit photos and then they select out of the photos. The photos on the inside of the article are pretty much your standard pretty girl porny photos, but I also included these photos from House of Seven, which is a shoot I did last year. Eric Danville who is the managing editor of Penthouse Forum liked them. They don’t show any nudity on the covers, so news stands can display them better. Eric’s kind of rock 'n' roll and has that kind of personality. He saw the photos and said, “That is awesome and that’s exactly what I want for the cover and I was like, “Are you sure?” because it’s not the standard Penthouse cover. And he said, “Absolutely, you don’t usually get these kinds of photos from adult industry models.”

Courtesy Penthouse Forum

It’s definitely sexy, edgy, classy. What was your first thought when you saw the cover. Were you happy with it?
I was surprised they selected a black and white cover. I was also really surprised that the text on the cover was just about me. Most magazines in general have little blurbs on the cover that talk about four or five articles. I’m really happy. If people saw me on the street, that’s not what I look like. I obviously had on a lot of make up. It’s very kind of A Clockwork Orange. But they wanted to go in the rock 'n' roll and steampunk direction.

Did you grow up on Penthouse and lad mags?
I grew up on all of the men’s magazines — Penthouse, Playboy, Hustler. Not so much the ones that are out today like Maxim and FHM. I’ve always kind of had a frat boy mentality about all stuff. I really grew up on men’s magazines. In retrospect, it kind of helped me understand men more. Moreso than women’s magazines.

They're all about men, and yet, women were the ones writing the articles!
Yeah. They're the easiest way to try to figure out — I mean, I don’t have the market cornered on how men think. It gave me a different perspective on what men like, how they think, and what their interests are. 

Courtesy Eddie Powell/New Sensations

And you grew up in Japan. What was your relationship to your early sexuality there? Were things much more liberal out there — it's the land of hentai, vibrator bars, and tentacle porn.
Japan’s a really interesting country because, on the surface, it’s really conservative. They’re very regimented, everyone’s well dressed, everyone’s a workaholic. It’s a service-oriented industry, so everyone there is super polite. But under the surface, it’s also a country that’s thousands of years old. I think that it’s kind of like, as people get older, they become more understanding because they have more life experience — I think countries that are older have a more accepting view of different kinds of people.

So, growing up in Japan in the ‘70s and ‘80s, seeing a cross dresser or gay person on TV was never an issue, it was always there. As far as sexuality is concerned, there used to be a TV show called 11 p.m., because the assumption was that all of the children were already in bed by then. And it was on regular TV, it was on our equivalent of ABC or NBC. They would have topless women coming on and doing contests and weighing their boobs on a scale. Or adult entertainment reviews and things like that. When you’re a kid, you still try to sneak off and watch that stuff. My understanding of sexuality was always very open. It was never really considered taboo and I think that helped a lot. 

That openness touches everything you do. I kind of love the Penthouse introduction for that reason. "Suck It, Vogue!” is the title. Penthouse is saying we’re not trying to be politically correct, we’re not trying to make a statement. That’s all bullshit — this is just a beautiful woman. Were you trying to make a political statement at all with the cover or did you just think “Wow, I was offered this amazing opportunity, of course I’m gonna snap this up?”
A lot of girls are like, “Oh, I want to be a fashion model, I want to walk the runway, or I want to be on the cover of Vogue.” For me, I always wanted to be a model in one of the magazines whether it was a Playhouse pet or a Playboy bunny. In 1999, Playboy was doing this national college girls model search and they went from city to city in this giant tour bus. I was like, “I really want to go and see if I can be one,” but I didn’t because I knew I was too big. I didn’t even bother. So I’m not very all that political — I’m a bucket list girl. I’m one of those people who has a list of things to do and the list is always growing. Being in a men’s magazine is on that list. It was one of those things that I’ve always wanted but thought would never happen. Then the magazine told me after many months of pitching and waiting and interviewing, “Okay you’re going to be the June issue and we want you to be the cover.”

Courtesy Sidney Fault

June is kind of a prime slot, right? Getting into the summer months seems like the hugest win for men's magazines.
I think it’s really funny — not haha funny, but interesting — that they decided to use a plus size girl for their beginning of summer. You just kind of assume, maybe it’s just me, but that voluptuous women are usually draped in fabric. They’re more for the winter months. But for them to say they wanted to put me in the June issue, it’s very cool.

In terms of what else is on your bucket list, did you always want to get into porn?
I’ve always been in entertainment. I was a roadie and then I was a production designer. Also, I started watching porn when I was really young, like around the time I came across men’s magazines.

How old were you then?
Probably around 12. I had already started masturbating by the time I was 9.

Oh wow. You’re an early riser.
Yeah! Not a late bloomer here. Definitely by 12 I was watching porn here and there. I never wanted to just see it because it was taboo. It was more, “Oh, that makes me feel funny. Oh, masturbation. Hooray!” I guess in the back of my head there might have been a small inkling of “Oh, how cool would that be?” because it was also during the ‘80s, and porn in the ‘80s was this very glamorous thing, where it really isn’t anymore. There’s so many girls doing it that it’s kind of become a pseudo-mainstream activity. And the internet has a lot to do with that.

Were there many BBW  (big beautiful women) performers back in the ‘80s that you know of or is this a genre that’s come to light much more recently?
If there were, I wasn’t aware of them. 

So, you never tried to seek it out.
Yeah, it was actually funny because when it was first suggested to me that I try porn, my first reaction was, “There are no fat girls in porn.” I kind of laughed it off. The guy who was suggesting it to me was someone I’d known for years. We had just hit a big writers' strike in L.A. with the major film industry and I was looking for something to do, kind of as a sabbatical while I was waiting for the strike to be over. Because I’ve always been really open sexually, when it was suggested to me, I wasn’t really like, “Ew, porn! It was more, “But there’s no fat girls in porn, so you must be saying it because you want to get in my pants!” And he said, “No, there’s actually a niche and people are doing it and it’s on the internet.

So I was like “Yeah, sure I’ll send my pictures in and if people like me, I guess I’ll try it out.” I wasn’t dating anybody at the time. He was like, “Yeah everyone’s tested and it’s safe. You’re older so nobody’s going to take advantage of you.”

Is that true?
It wasn’t necessarily true. It took a couple of years. You know, there’s no school for porn and so you have to try to figure out which agents are good and what companies are good. You just kind of learn as you go. Especially for plus size, because no agents will handle plus size performers. That’s one of the reasons I do my own PR and marketing.

Is that because there’s no huge market for plus size performers still?
Yeah, I think so. The reality of plus size porn is there aren’t a lot of companies that shoot it. There are a few companies in Florida that shoot and they have a website. Over here in L.A. there really isn’t. There’s a few underground, you know like, “Oh yeah, I’m trying to start  a website,” kind of stuff. I did a few of those. A couple of the smaller DVD companies have niche markets, so they have will do plus size, but they’ll also do transsexual stuff and other fringey niche markets like clown porn and midget porn. You work for those companies and you make a few mistakes along the way. Like, you go to a casting call because you don’t realize casting couches don’t really exist. You just kind of learn as you go. It’s now been seven years so I’m definitely older and wiser. But I was older to begin with. I didn’t start until I was 34.

Courtesy Lou Roole

Oh wow. Damn, I didn’t realize you were that age. That’s a credit to how incredibly fantastic you look because I had absolutely no idea how old you were.
I’m a pretty decent looking 41-year-old. That has a lot to do with my genetics. I am half Asian. So thanks, Mom!

Do you ever feel tokenized being put in the same category as clowns and midgets? Do you feel any extra pressure to perform because you are in a niche market?
I have a background in production, so I have an —I don’t know — very educated or experienced understanding of how film companies work. So, I’ve never been upset about titles. Titles on DVD boxes. A lot of people do get upset about it, because it sounds like you’re poking fun or being misogynistic. But for me, I was like, I come from a pre-internet era, so if you have “Whale Riders” or something — which, as far as I know, doesn’t exist — at your local adult DVD store or VHS store, I don't mind. Most guys who go into those stores aren’t hanging out in there for hours and hours like at a library trying to find what they’re looking for. They want to go in, they want to look at the shelf, like “Oh, that title looks good, I’m going to grab it and go home.” or “I’m going to go in the peep show booth in the back.”

I understand that Asian profiling DVD titles and plus-size titles are not meant to be derogatory, it’s meant to just be marketing. The AVN awards for the longest time put BBW porn in with the specialty category and again the specialty category definition was fetishes and clowns and little people and all of the other kind of small market product. And it’s really only this past year where they’re like “Wow, it’s becoming this big market.” I wouldn’t consider it to be a huge market compared to mainstream porn, just because they’re more people who are more public about liking mainstream porn. But they recognize it enough so they actually made it its own category this year.

That’s awesome. As you said, sometimes people don’t want to speak about it publicly, but do you know if the search numbers on some of these websites reflect this growing trend toward accepting and desiring BBW films?
Somebody told me —unfortunately, as much as I hate piracy — one of those tube sites had said that BBW is the eighth most searched term.

Oh wow. That’s pretty up there.
Yeah, it's definitely up there. I think a lot of it has to do again with the amateur porn crowd. A lot of people are becoming exhibitionists and they’re putting their own stuff up there and they happen to be plus-size. So if you go on those sites, there’s actually a lot of plus-size porn out there that’s not of porn stars, it’s from people down the street. And a lot of stuff from Europe.

Is there a bigger BBW following in Europe?
I think again, like Japan, they’re just more accepting of people having good old fashioned sexy fun. So, especially in places like Germany and the U.K., plus size is definitely something that’s been around for a while.

Courtesy Isabel Dresler

You do PR right on top of porn, right? How many porn shoots do you do a year? Is the PR a supplement for that?
No, it’s the other way around, because there aren’t that many companies. I get three to four messages on Facebook or Twitter a week that are women who want to get into the business and they want me to suggest where they can go to look for work. And I don’t help them. It’s not that I’m egotistical or don’t want the competition or anything, it’s not that. Especially here in this country, there are all these articles about women who lost their jobs because they found out that they used to be in porn and I’ve been very lucky because I’ve always been freelance and have never done corporate work — and will probably never do corporate work — and most of my work is in entertainment especially now. So being fired because I used to be a performer isn’t really something I have to worry about.

But I’m a rare exception to that. So when women contact me like “Hey, how can I find work?” I’m like “You’re not going to find enough work in this to have a career. You’re not going to be able to pay your bills month-to-month.” Even when you’re not BBW, I think the career span for the majority of the girls who get in the business is like a year and a half. 

What accounts for that short shelf life?
A lot of it has to do with the fact that they’re so many girls coming in. The contract system is pretty much gone. I think Wicked pictures is probably the only company, maybe Digital Playground, that has a contract system. So you know, you have all these girls coming in and piracy has killed a lot of the companies so there’s not as many companies. The nature of porn itself is to create fantasy and to have variety so a lot of companies aren’t interested in shooting the same girl over and over and over. So once they’ve shot you three or four time, they’re kind of done with you. 

That’s so interesting because that’s not the mythology out there. It’s like, “People take the risk to do porn because it pays so well.”
And it does. It pays really well. A standard boy-girl scene for a mainstream performer, not a niche performer, is between $800-$1,200. So in an afternoon you could make $800 to $1,200, which is what most people might make working at WalMart for a month. So the money’s very good but it doesn’t last, like, it’s not something you can do from month-to-month. So a lot of girls end up branching out and doing other things whether it’s stripping or working at a brothel. They just do other things to keep that money coming in, like webcamming. As far as BBWs are concerned, the standard pay rate is half that, so they’re making even less money. On top of that, there are maybe four to five companies that shoot you as a plus size performer so there’s not really enough to keep things going. So for me, because I’ve been in the industry for seven years and I’m a marketing whore, I’ve kind of come out and done the arc when things were really good and busy and then things got really slow and now things have picked back up. Now my rate is better and closer to a mainstream performer. But even when it picks back up, I’m probably only doing a few a year, like last year I think I did less than 10 scenes the whole year. This year will probably be the same. 

Wow. That’s crazy.
So what I usually tell girls who want to get in is to start webcamming. Webcamming is a great way to make money, you don’t have to leave, you don’t have to move to L.A. or Miami or New York. You can stay where you are, where rent is cheaper and do that and build your brand. If a company wants to shoot you, you can save up your money, buy your own plane ticket because companies don’t fly you out anymore. Come out to L.A., get a place to stay, and you’ll probably break even. If you get paid $400-$500 for a boy-girl scene and you do a solo or two or three shoots while you’re there, it will probably cover the cost of your plane ticket. But you could use that to then market your webcam thing. 

Courtesy Isabel Dresler

Have you ever tried camming?
I am not a cam model. I’ve tried. I just don’t have the patience for it. Those girls have a lot more patience than I do. And I’m not really an improv person, which the webcam is because it’s in real-time. I’m much better, again because I have a production background, coming to set having hair and makeup, knowing exactly what we’re doing, doing the scene the best I can and then going “Okay, talk to you later!” and then going home. As opposed to turning on the webcam every single day and trying to come up with a show that might be interesting. My brain isn’t very good at that.

If you’re more of a scripted person, what are your favorite types of scenes to shoot?
There are a lot of BBW performers that do girl-girl scenes. There’s a lot of queer porn out there, feminist porn, that kind of stuff. I like good old fashioned boy-girl scenes, again I have a frat boy mentality [laughs] and I grew up on the kind of stuff that guys like to watch or what I think old guys like to watch, so I like those scenes because I think that I do better in them. Like, I’ve done my share of girl-girl scenes over the years and I probably will still do some over this next year or so. But I’m also pretty hetero. I’ve dated girls when I was younger. I like playing with girls and I love strip clubs, but at the end of the day my preference is to be with a male partner. So it’s more authentic looking for me to do a boy-girl scene. I’m also a big fan of blowjobs, so I’ve done scenes that involve a lot of that. Because again, it’s something that I like doing.

Nothing wrong with a blowjob.
Haha, exactly. And guys everywhere are like “Yes!” 

Feature Image via Isabel Dresler