Until recently, the New York Post's Page Six, the paper of record for this world, treated Francis as an inconsequential hanger-on. Then, in March, Francis hosted a bachelor party in Mexico for Richard Johnson, the page's editor, and within weeks Page Six was wondering if he could be the next Hugh Hefner and even a likely candidate to buy Playboy.
Francis, who grew up in Laguna Beach and went to USC, got his start in the gritty world of reality television, working as a production assistant on "Real TV," a syndicated show of home-video bloopers. He says he came up with the idea for his first commercial video venture after noticing that much of the material submitted for the show was too violent or explicit for network television. In 1997, using $50,000 in credit card debt, he released "Banned From Television," a compilation of footage of gruesome accidents—shark attacks, train wrecks and general gore. Then Francis moved on, releasing the first "Girls Gone Wild" in 1998.
In 2000, Les Haber, a producer who had worked with Francis on "Real TV," sued for breach of implied contract, breach of confidence and unjust enrichment. He accused Francis of stealing the idea for "Banned From Television" after Haber had pitched it to Francis as a potential partner. A jury agreed and found Francis and his company liable for $3.5 million; later the two sides settled for an undisclosed sum.
It seems like Francis spends a lot of money on lawyers. I guess that comes with the territory of filming strangers who take off their clothes. More than a dozen women have sued him, alleging that his company used images of them exposing their bodies on "Girls Gone Wild" videos, box covers and infomercials without their permission. Only a few have convinced the courts that they were unwitting victims. For the most part, judges and juries have sided with Francis' 1st Amendment argument that the plaintiffs' images were captured in public places and that the company was free to use them as it pleased, particularly in light of the fact that the women had signed waivers.
In Panama City Beach, his lawyers successfully fought another battle. Authorities had filed a 77-count complaint in state circuit court that accused Francis and his crew of gathering a group of minors—a 16-year-old and four 17-year-olds—and taking them to the Chateau Motel. There Francis paid two of the girls $100 each to make out in the shower while his crew videotaped them and told two of the girls he would pay them $50 each to touch his penis, according to the complaint. Francis pleaded not guilty to all charges.
After sheriff's deputies arrested him, he spent a night in jail. The deputies impounded his Gulfstream jet, his silver Ferrari and a stockpile of footage that authorities say shows him encouraging underage girls to engage in sexual activity. (Francis tried to use the scandal to a profitable end, coming out with "Girls Gone Wild: The Seized Video," featuring scenes filmed in Panama City Beach.) His lawyers asked a judge to suppress all the evidence, claiming it was illegally confiscated, and she agreed.
The parents of four of the girls in the Chateau Motel case filed a civil lawsuit in federal court accusing Francis and his company of a raft of offenses, including child abuse and sexual exploitation. Eleven months ago, FBI agents conducted a search of Mantra's offices, acting on a warrant issued in Washington. People close to the investigation say the FBI is looking at Mantra in connection with the alleged filming of underage girls. Francis' lawyer, Michael Kerry Burke, says Mantra is aware of the investigation and that similar warrants have been served on other companies.
The more time I spend with Francis, the more I suspect that for all his talk of living the dream, he's pretending at enthusiasm. His franchise is by its nature a constant party, and it can be exhausting. Two tour buses, splashed with the "Girls Gone Wild" logo, crisscross the country every day in search of the latest and hottest footage for the millions of videos the company sells each year. Club promoters pay Mantra up to $10,000 a night for the privilege of hosting Francis' film crews, sure to draw big crowds. And the money keeps pouring in.
But the women are changing, Francis tells me, and that makes him sad. In the beginning, when "Girls Gone Wild" cameramen first popped up in clubs, the women who revealed themselves seemed innocent—surprised, even, by their own spontaneity. Now that the brand is so pervasive, the women who participate increasingly appear to be calculating exhibitionists, hoping that an appearance on a video might catapult them to Paris Hilton-like fame.
And Francis is getting a bit old for spring break. He says he's tiring of the eternal vacation. "It's really the worst thing, in my mind," he says, comparing it to a trade show or a convention. "It's fun for everybody else but me. I just get hounded by kids. It was more fun not being famous on spring break." What's more, the press has been omnipresent and, he says, too critical. "I've been anally raped over and over by the media."
It's an odd sort of thing for him to say. In January 2004, as news reports recounted, he was forced at gunpoint to simulate sodomizing himself with a vibrator as an intruder videotaped him in his Bel-Air mansion. A 28-year-old named Darnell Riley was arrested 14 months later, after police received a tip from Paris Hilton. Riley pleaded guilty to robbery and attempted extortion and was sentenced to 10 years and eight months. He is serving his time in Corcoran State Prison.
On his jet, Joe Francis flies above America, fast asleep, curled up on a foldout leather bench and swaddled in crisp white sheets. His tan face is still, his large mouth slack. The Gulfstream is stocked to cater to his needs—a Sony PlayStation, stacks of newspapers and magazines, a cabinet crammed with liquor and soft drinks and drawers full of snacks such as gummy bears, mesquite barbecue potato chips, M&M's and sugarless gum. Nearby, his crew of young men sit quietly, careful not to disturb him.
When he wakes from his nap, Francis pads in white socks to the bathroom. There the fixtures shimmer and the hand towels are plush, white and stitched with his initials in gold thread. His crew is deferential to him, and when he tells them that I am the new "Girls Gone Wild" topless model, they laugh obediently, even though the joke is flat from overuse.
Francis has the confidence, charm and sly intelligence of a back-slapping fraternity leader. He can be persuasive, to a degree, when he argues that "Girls Gone Wild" is just something that gives a good time to all. On the plane, his feet kicked up onto the seat in front of him, he turns to me and ponders what kind of footage his crew will gather that night. He hopes the girls will be pretty, he says. Pretty and wild. He says he loves women, is crazy about them. But sometimes it doesn't sound as though he is. The words he chooses, the stories he tells—they make a different point.
"My favorite is explaining to dumb chicks why the qwerty keyboard is called a qwerty keyboard, and why the letters aren't in order," he tells me. "They're, like, 18 years old, and they're, like, 'Wait a minute, there were typewriters?' And you got to start there."
I give him a look that says I have no idea what he's talking about. I haven't spent much time with 18-year-old girls lately, but the ones I know have usually heard of typewriters. But a qwerty keyboard? Never heard of it.
His eyes register my blank stare and he pounces, full of glee. "Hold on," he says excitedly. "You are a writer for the L.A. Times and you don't know this answer to this question?" He is shouting, turning to the back of the plane, making sure that everyone hears. "Unbelievable, she's 29 years old and she doesn't know about the qwerty keyboard!" It's a game, it seems. He's being playful. Sort of.
"She's going to slaughter me now," he shouts to the group as I keep smiling, writing in my notebook, tape recorder running. Apparently, he wants more of a reaction. He's pantomiming me typing furiously, writing an article.