Kenny Rogers tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I love your style." Belle Knox agreed.
I should confess from the start that I’m probably not the right guy to travel to Atlantic City and attend and write about the Exxxotica Expo, America’s largest adult trade show, and Exxxotica Fan Choice Awards, better known as the Fannys. This is the domain of someone with advanced knowledge of porn culture, and I’m more of a porn user than a porn fan. I have only a cursory knowledge of stars and a slight appreciation of the artistry. For me, porn is like shampoo: an item with a specific purpose that I don’t think too much about. I could probably wash my hair without it, but I still use it every day. I use shampoo to wash my hair, and I use porn for masturbating, although I probably could use shampoo for masturbating, too. I also pay for shampoo, because shampoo is not available for free all over the internet. The two times I’ve paid for porn I’ve had my identity stolen. So by attending the expo, I would be mingling with people whose work I’ve enjoyed illegally.
I also do not belong at the Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the Exxxotica Expo was taking place. I don’t gamble, I don’t smoke, and I’ve been sober for almost three years. My big vice these days is candy. I was expecting a sleazy orgy of high-stakes gambling, leering perverts, and lines of coke washed down with shots of Jack Daniels. And sex, of course. Lots and lots of dirty sex. But it was not that. Instead, I found a lot of very friendly, goofy people at a very surreal work event. I walked into the Trump Taj Mahal expecting to be tempted and tested, and I left bemused.
The Exxxotica Expo bills itself as “the largest event in the United States dedicated to love and sex.” It was celebrating its 21st anniversary in 2014, and this was its second year in Atlantic City. There are also Exxxotica events in Ft. Lauderdale, Chicago, and Edison, New Jersey. This expo featured over 100 vendors, appearances from top porn stars old and new, including Ron Jeremy, Alexis Texas, Joanna Angel, and Belle Knox (better known as the Duke Porn Star), as well as performances and seminars. The main event was the Fannys, an awards show where the nominees and winners are chosen by the fans. If the AVN Awards are the Oscars of porn, the Fannys are the People’s Choice Awards. Categories include “Most Valuable Vagina” (female performer of the year), “Most Heroic Ass” (best anal), and “Non-White Chick of the Year” (guess). The show was hosted by comedian Bonnie McFarlane and porn stars Allie Haze and Tori Black, and promised a performance by Treach and Kay-Gee of the ‘90s hip-hop group Naughty By Nature, which was fitting, because everyone in attendance is down with O.P.P.
After I arrived, I wandered around the hotel and casino floor looking for the event, which was not clearly marked. There were signs directing attendees toward “Xanadu,” where the Fannys were to take place, but not to the expo. Walking around the hotel is similar to walking around New York, where intense smells, mostly of cigarettes and fried food, will appear suddenly and dissipate just as quickly. The place is simultaneously gaudy and rundown. The trim is gold, but the paint is peeling. I saw a good chunk of it as I wandered around lost. Eventually I saw a group of four (an MMA-type guy, a guy with a goatee and a blazer over a t-shirt, a fat guy with a ponytail, and a woman in a tiny dress) and followed them. They led me to the promised land, which was tucked away in a corner behind the poker room.
I went to the media booth to retrieve my press credentials, which I had been approved for earlier in the week, and was told by Stephanie, the woman running the booth, that I was not on the list because the organizers are “really old, and they’re not letting blogs in.” But Stephanie hooked me up with a wristband on the condition that I mention her in my story. So shout out to Stephanie, you’re the best.
The showroom was a football-field sized convention hall painted and carpeted all in black, except right in front of the entrance, where a pink carpet had been laid down underneath two four-poster beds where girls beckoned attendees to join them for a photo. Behind the beds in the center of the room were vendors selling novelty items like a vibrating mesh loofah, pun-based gag gifts ("Dickorice") and smoking implements (“Lollipipe”), and sex toys and fetish gear. XXX Vaporizers was one the event’s sponsors, and vapes were the event’s second-most ubiquitous accessory, behind giant dong-shaped lollipops. At the center of the room, against the far wall, was a stage where I would watch male and female strippers, an all-girl Motley Crüe tribute band, and be introduced to the super-corny humor of porn legend Evan Stone. To the left of the stage was the seminar tent, and to the right was the dungeon, where girls go-go danced in cages and a guy who looked like a high school math teacher whipped and spanked a middle-aged woman. The room was ringed by performer booths, where the actors and actresses greeted fans and signed autographs.
It was at one of these booths where I approached Belle Knox, the hottest rising star in the adult industry right now. When I spotted her, she was talking to Nina Hartley, the porn lifer and eloquent advocate for sex positivity, feminism, and the industry itself. They exchanged numbers, and I asked Belle what they talked about. Belle, who is teeny-tiny and strikingly beautiful, told me that Nina advised her not to do anything on-camera that she wouldn’t do in life, to set boundaries, and stay true to herself.
I asked Belle if she was taking a leave of absence from school, and she said no, that for all the money she spends on her education, she has to make her porn schedule work around her school schedule. “It’s hard,” Belle said. “Sometimes I get off the plane and go right to class.”
I asked her if she’d like to have a career like Nina Hartley’s, and she said that she still plans to be a civil rights lawyer.
“[Nina] told me no one gets exploited in this business more than any other job,” Belle said, and the two of them are probably in a better position than most to understand the truth of that. Pornography does not have a lock on exploitation, it’s just honest about using people for their bodies. It’s hard to get more frank and unpretentious than “Non-White Chick of the Year.” A case could be made that college exploits people for their money while promising undeliverable benefits more than porn exploits people for their bodies. In porn, at least people know what they're there for, and they're getting paid.
As my interview with Belle was ending, a man who looked like Kenny Rogers tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I love your style,” which Belle agreed with, and added that she loved my jacket. Her compliment earned her at least one fan for life.
She and Kenny Rogers were sort of right, too. In New York, I’m a fairly average dresser, but I was the best-dressed person at the Exxxotica Expo by far. I was wearing a red-and-blue checked button-down, selvedge jeans, loafers, and a brown leather jacket, which is pretty much what I wear every day. I felt overdressed in the crowd of tourists in mallwear. (Is it normcore if it's happening in Atlantic City?) It was mostly bowling shirts on men and elaborate extensions on women. Lots of people, black and white, were wearing bedazzled True Religion jeans. The attendees were multiracial and widely varied by age and apparent conservatism. There were a lot of middle-aged Midwestern-types in khakis and polos, and a surprising number of couples. There were also lots of young bros and nerds, and lots of women wearing unflatteringly revealing clothes. The atmosphere was familiar, something that reminded me of childhood, and I realized the expo felt like a county fair. There was the same feeling of mild disreputability and cheesy fun. The only thing missing was fried dough. The whole event, with its corny double entendres, booths full of kitsch, and playful, gawky attendees, felt way more goofy and carnivalesque than sexual. In fact, none of the adult stars in attendance bared any private parts during the entirety of the event.
An attendee watches Evan Stone goof around
I asked Sophia Fiore, a statuesque starlet with an easygoing energy who would later serve as one of the trophy girls during the Fannys, about the dress code. “You can’t show your nipples or your vagina or your actual asshole,” she said, so g-string clad girls had to be conscious that their strings were not too revealing in the back. This was Sophia’s first big convention, and I asked how she felt about meeting so many of her fans for the first time, some of whom had flown to the convention to see her.
“It would be weird if they were creeps, but I just feel out what their vibe is like,” she said. “It’s mostly flattering that they came out to see me.” She said some her fans helped her career immensely by suggesting that she get into muscle worship, since she’s a bodybuilder. “Most girls aren’t built the way I’m built, and I had trouble getting booked,” she told me. “But people suggested I look into muscle worship,” where guys get off on very muscular girls flexing and working out.
“There are a lot of very specific fetishes out there, ones that I had no idea existed when I was starting out,” she said.
I asked Sophia for workout tips, and she said women should lift weights and not just do cardio. “That’s how you make your butt grow and get nice and grippable,” she said. Men should find a gym with a lot of hot girls, because they’re a motivator, which seems like very practical advice.
The Fannys themselves were an absolute trainwreck of a clusterfuck.
I took my seat, and the show began about 20 minutes later. The host, comedian Bonnie McFarlane, gave a very funny, very dirty monologue where at one point she shut down a heckler by telling him to “put a cock in it,” which drew cheers. Porn loves puns, and this was to be the first of roughly two hundred thousand throughout the show. She was joined by her enthusiastic co-hosts, porn stars Allie Haze and Tori Black, soon after, and they introduced Belle Knox to present the first award of the night.
“Your rape joke was funny,” she said to Bonnie McFarlane, and then her mic cut out and her teleprompter freaked out. She managed to award Tanya Tate for best MILF and Chronic Love for best camgirl. After that, Riley Steele won best oral, and then the show really started going off the rails. The videos would play too early and then repeat, the teleprompter kept jumping ahead in the script, Allie or Tori accidentally gave the envelope with results for most underrated star to Kelly Shibari, who had just won for BBW and had to rush back onstage to deliver the envelope. Down moments, which there were a lot of, were occupied by whichever girl happened to be onstage jiggling her ass. At one point, Bonnie McFarlane said “you know there was no rehearsal for this, right?”
The highlight of the craziness was when the hosts started to introduce Naughty by Nature, only to stop midway and say, “but Treach was just arrested in New Jersey and they won’t be here tonight!” as a news story about his arrest flashed on the Jumbotron. So instead, a performer named Rubberdoll closed the show with a Burning Man-esque dance routine to Die Antwoord’s “I Fink U Freeky” that featured lots of LED lights, a simulation of popping a giant cocktail umbrella out of her vagina, and a glowing strap-on that jizzed Silly String all over a man on all fours.
photo of Rubberdoll post-climax by Rubberdomme
All of this is neglecting all of the other ridiculousness, like Ron Jeremy going off-script to deliver a poem about lifetime award winner Evan Stone, Evan Stone’s wildly corny dirty dad humor, and the sponsors of the show winning awards.
The Fannys were a charming, campy disaster. Nothing went right, nobody cared who won, and everyone onstage pretty much said “What is going on?” at some point, but it was a lot of fun just the same. "Honestly, I had been pregaming and partying and I barely noticed the glitches," MVV nominee Tasha Reign told me, and that seems like the prevailing mood. It was a goofy and silly and lighthearted party, like the whole convention itself. Lexi Belle won Most Valuable Vagina, if you must know.
By the end of the show, which lasted until 2 am, I was smiling deliriously. I walked out into the casino behind Evan Stone supporting a very drunk starlet, and was filled with a deep fondness for all the people I’d seen and met. I was expecting my sobriety to be tested by the drugs and alcohol and women and sleaze, but there was very little sleaze, just silliness. The convention would have almost been wholesome if there hadn’t been so many dick jokes. I felt guilty about not paying for porn. It’s hard to keep stealing from people once you’ve seen them as friendly people with corny senses of humor and talked to them about Rick Perry, like I did with Sophia Fiore. So despite all the frivolity, the Exxxotica Expo convinced me to take porn more seriously. And I didn't blow a single rail or pop any mollys. I didn’t go to the afterparty, though. I thought that might be pushing it.
(Ed. Note – An earlier version misidentified Evan Stone as Peter North. We regret the error.)
Feature image via Facebook. Photos by Liam Mathews except where noted.