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Cover Story

The Actress, the Producer and Their Porn Revolution

Steven Hirsch Recognized That VCRs Could Bring Adult Movies to a New Market--Couples. But First He Needed a Different Kind of Star.

January 06, 2002|RALPH FRAMMOLINO and P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | Times staff writers Ralph Frammolino and P.J. Huffstutter are business reporters who cover entertainment and technology. Frammolino last wrote for the magazine about union activist David Koff. Huffstutter's most recent piece was about Microsoft's new X-Box video game console

"My time is past," she says. As an aging porn queen, she knows she falls into a pathetic stereotype, but she's having no part of it. The title of the autobiography she's working on: "I Did It. I Liked It. So What?"

"they'd have their fight, my father would hit my mother, and then she'd take it out on me," Allen once said in a report prepared for federal court. "My mother used to scream at me how ugly I was, and she'd tell me I was evil." Her mother, Marilyn, was the illegitimate child of a prostitute and later adopted by the son of a Baptist minister, the report says. It describes her father, Wayne, as a former alcoholic and son of a police officer. She grew up in Rockford, Ill., a blue-collar town 80 miles northwest of Chicago. Allen's parents separated when she was 6, then divorced when she was 11. The next year she tried to commit suicide by taking a dozen sleeping pills, says the report. At 13, after a particularly brutal beating from her mother, Allen was taken in by her paternal grandparents. Despite their care, she had an abortion, began using drugs and her grades slipped. She also was left with an "almost addictive need for male relationships . . . and validation," according to the report, prepared by criminologist Sheila Balkan for a federal judge presiding over a 1990 tax fraud case against Allen.

After graduating from Rockford West High in 1980, Allen followed her grandparents to San Bernardino to help care for her dying grandfather. She worked as a Musicland store manager, but money was tight. So in 1983, with a boyfriend's encouragement, she answered an ad promising $150 for figure models. It was run by porn talent agent Jim South in Van Nuys. Things began happening very fast.

In September of that year, Allen posed for nude photographs, and soon she was featured in various porn publications, including Penthouse. Next came videos--which meant sex, with strangers, on camera. As she would later explain in a magazine article: "The money keeps coming and you get pulled into it a little more. Things you thought were bad at the beginning seem a little less bad." In November, Allen agreed to appear for $800 in four 8-millimeter loops--short subjects for peep-show booths in adult bookstores.

Back in Rockford, Wayne Allen, who had reconciled with his daughter years before, overheard men in a bar talking about her new career. He found the loop playing locally and demanded that the store owner give him all copies. After Allen's third visit, the owner called police, who sent him home with a friend. Allen called his daughter. Porn was lucrative, she replied. No one got hurt. Besides, it was fun.

Her first adult feature, "Surrender in Paradise," was filmed in Maui. She turned 21 on location, got paid $5,150, fell in love with her leading man and began learning truths about being a porn star. "I was making more money in two weeks than I did in two years, and I was having great sex with someone I loved." But when she saw her fiance for the first time on the mainland, he was wearing a dirty shirt and spoke with a New York accent. He wasn't the man she knew. "He stayed in character for the entire two weeks we were there." She broke the engagement.

On screen, Allen became a sensation. In 1984, at the porn industry's first X-Rated Critics Organization awards, she wore a yellow dress with black polka dots from Sears, and won the veritable Triple Crown: "Best Female Performer," "Video Vixen" and "Starlet of the Year." One businessman who helped underwrite the awards show, giving $10,000, was adult video distributor Fred Hirsch, whose son Steven had a plan. Bill Asher, now a third partner in Vivid, says Steven Hirsch "grew up when porn was a dirty, underground business. If he was going to be in the business, it was going to be mainstream."

the early 1980s were pivotal for the porn industry. Upscale adults were buying into the VCR craze, which for porn meant adult movies no longer would be limited to "the raincoat crowd" found in adult bookstores and theaters. Steven Hirsch was working as a national sales rep for porn distributor CalVista Video. There he befriended the head of the catalog division, David "Dewi" James, a tall, self-deprecating British expatriate 20 years his senior. Hirsch and James became convinced that this emerging home market included women and couples. "That's something we really felt strongly about, and that we went after," Hirsch recalls.

They quit CalVista, formed Vivid Video and went in search of a star. In their view, she had to appear wholesome enough for couples to enjoy--not like the hardened, cold actresses traditionally found in adult movies.

"I looked like what might be your best friend's sister," Allen says. "I didn't look like I belonged on the street corner." As William Margold, a porn actor and industry activist, remembers: "She was comfortably pretty. She didn't have the kind of beauty that chilled you. It warmed you. She came along at exactly the right time."

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