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Suicide of Young Superstar Weighs on Porn Industry : Tragedy: Pampered, wild Shannon Wilsey, known as Savannah, was the third actress to take her life.

July 16, 1994|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNIVERSAL CITY — After crashing her white Corvette and injuring her much-glorified face on the way home from another night of hard partying, Shannon Wilsey sent a friend out to walk her Rottweiler, Daisy, and then shot herself in the head.

For the 23-year-old sex video superstar known as Savannah, it was the most outrageous act in a short but outrage-filled public life. It was also the third major suicide in the adult video industry, whose most valuable and pampered commodity is beautiful but often troubled young women.

A decade ago, Shauna Grant shot herself with a .22-caliber rifle. Then Megan Leigh shot herself in the mouth after buying her mother a $500,000 dream house. Now Wilsey, the "adult industry's most celebrated star," according to the monthly Adult Video News, has snuffed out her life apparently to end romantic and financial problems that only seemed to escalate as her fame and income expanded.

Is there a trend here?

Her family thinks so. They gave strict orders to limit the number of Wilsey's porn-industry colleagues attending the funeral.

Asked whether his daughter's problems were worsened by her involvement in the sex industry, Mike Wilsey replied: "Of course. People ask me if pornography is wrong. I say you can judge a tree by its fruit."

The X-rated industry has begun to respond to the implications of the violent deaths of some of its top stars. Plans are under way to establish a phone help line that performers confronting personal crises can access 24 hours a day.

"We recognize the need for this, so it's going to happen in the name of Savannah and Shauna and the others," said William Margold, a member of the board of directors of the Free Speech Coalition, an industry umbrella group.

As to whether pornography helped destroy Wilsey, the people who knew her best since she burst on the scene five years ago as a cool Elke Sommer look-alike, talk about a young woman who reveled in her outlaw lifestyle, bragged of dating rock stars and was seriously troubled before she shot her first X-rated video.

At the end of her life, she was depressed, in debt and slept with a gun under her pillow for protection.

If the sex industry contributed to Wilsey's demise, they say, it was by turning her into a pampered, highly paid star whose whims were indulged and tantrums endured. In an industry that shoots on a shoestring, she was known for pulling Hollywood-style stunts such as walking out in the middle of a production when a rock star paramour came to town.

If the Hollywood lifestyle is a fantasy, the sex-video business is even more unreal because it gives its female stars celebrity and wealth but, unlike Hollywood, it can never give them approval in the larger society.

"I don't blame the industry for mistreating her," said a 26-year-old X-rated star known as Danyel Cheeks. "If anything, they spoiled her rotten. They put us on such a high pedestal. The limos are sent out. Anything I want is pretty much done for me. Sometimes it makes the real world hard to deal with."

That's especially true because the audience for sex videos is more fickle and has a far shorter attention span than the mainstream film audience. Most careers are over in a couple of years. Then the re-entry into the ordinary world can be bumpy.

Like others in her world, Wilsey hoped to make the transition from sex star to legitimate actress. Like others in her world, she did not succeed.

Over the years, many of Wilsey's wounds were self-inflicted.

Shannon Wilsey's parents divorced in 1972 when she was just 2. She grew up in Texas with her mother and then, after a brief stay with her father in Oxnard, lived with her grandparents in Mission Viejo, where she became a high school cheerleader. Wilsey told her manager, Nancy Pera, that her childhood was unhappy and that she had been molested. That is not uncommon for women who work in the sex industry, studies show. Many were abused as children. But Mike Wilsey said his daughter never told him about any such abuse.

Mike Wilsey said she began dating rock star Gregg Allman while still in high school, eventually going on the road with him for a couple of years.

After returning to California and deciding on a career in Hollywood, Wilsey drifted into adult entertainment. She rose to fame in the world of screen sex as fast as anyone had. Her symmetrical good looks, enhanced by two breast enlargements, and her curtains of blond hair brought her to the attention of Vivid Video in Van Nuys. The company signed her to a contract and starred her in a four-part "On Trial" series that revolved around a porn star's obscenity trial.

Her growing celebrity and wealth enabled her to indulge her instinct for excess. Her fascination with rock stars endured, according to Adult Video News. "I love sex and I love sex with rockers more than anything else," she said in an interview.

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