Porn Actors’ Struggles Began Long Before HIV
He’s a middle-aged black porn actor who had wanted to be a policeman. Known for his conscientiousness, he’d ask costars to refrain from smoking even as they were having unprotected group sex.
She’s a white French Canadian stripper with waif-like eyes and a history of depression. Her dream was to open her own escort service. Or become a fashion designer. Or cut a rap CD with Missy Elliott.
For three weeks, “Darren James” and “Lara Roxx” have been the unlikely stars of an international pornography industry AIDS scare. Near-strangers who didn’t even like each other much at their first meeting, they are now forever linked as the first two to be diagnosed in a recent HIV outbreak in a highly sensationalized workplace.
More than 50 performers who had contact with them have been sidelined pending new blood tests. Last week, a third actor -- “Jessica Dee,” a 26-year-old Czech woman -- was diagnosed with HIV.
On Tuesday, a fourth actor, a transsexual named “Jennifer,” was diagnosed with the virus in what appeared to be an unrelated instance, and health authorities said test results for two more actors would be announced today.
Brazilian authorities are reportedly testing yet another actress whose work with transsexuals might have been the source of James’ infection.
More than 30 companies -- many of them in the San Fernando Valley, a center of the international porn industry -- have voluntarily halted production.
Controversy has erupted over the publication of private medical records. The uproar has resurrected the specters of government oversight and unionization.
It has also focused worldwide attention on Roxx and James.
Last week, on condition that only the actors’ stage names be published, the 21-year-old Roxx agreed to speak to The Times, as did several relatives and friends of the 40-year-old James. The picture that emerges is of hard lives now made immeasurably harder by illness and infamy.
Their stories are representative of the porn sector, which has been booming because of the Internet and globalization. As in other segments of the modern economy, borders have all but disappeared in the disease-prone business of sexual titillation. Health authorities said that at least two women on the quarantine list had left the country and four more had left California.
Roxx and James shot their first sex scene in Montreal and their second in the San Fernando Valley a week after he had returned from a Brazilian porn shoot. In keeping with what pornographers say are the demands of the market, all three scenes were shot without condoms, and two involved high-risk anal sex with multiple partners.
Friends say James -- who exercised religiously and never missed an AIDS test -- has no private health insurance. Roxx, a Canadian citizen, has access to public healthcare but has such a long history of emotional instability that she worries she’ll erupt and be thrown out by her mother, with whom she now lives outside Montreal.
James himself declined to comment. Answering the door at his Canoga Park apartment Sunday, he looked at the ground, his shoulders slumping, his face drawn and defeated-looking.
“I don’t want to talk to the press,” he murmured. “They’ve done enough damage already.”
“It’s just so sad, so sad,” said James’ brother-in-law, George Miles of Detroit. “Not to be cliched, but he’s a great guy, just really an excellent person.”
Roxx’s Montreal lawyer, Daniel Lighter, called her “a kid in over her head.”
A Troubled Past
Lara Roxx had the lithe figure of a runway model with the face of a French ingenue last summer. Her hair was Audrey Hepburn short, a cut she gave herself the night she set her boyfriend’s bed on fire.
As she recalls it now, both haircut and arson were rites of purification. She’d been dancing in the “no contact” strip clubs of downtown Montreal -- Cabaret Teazers, Super Sexe. One night, when she looked down at the “perv row,” the man staring back up at her was sizing her up like “a piece of meat without a brain in my head.”
“I started to cry,” she says. “And I ran off the stage.”
When she got back to the loft apartment she shared with Denis Lefebvre, she took an electric razor to her waist-length hair and then, while considering the other women who had shared his bed, grabbed a match.
By the time Lefebvre noticed the smoke, the flames were 4 feet high. Roxx lay right next to them, staring.
But when Lefebvre pulled her to safety, “I didn’t have a scratch on me,” she says. “And that’s when I started to believe in God again.”
Roxx and Lefebvre told this story recently during lunch at her favorite restaurant, Basha, a Middle Eastern spot that overlooks the bustling shopping district along Sainte-Catherine in downtown Montreal. She loves the place because her father, who comes from a Moroccan Jewish family, used to bring her here as a child.
She looks tired by comparison to her photos from last summer. She’s still gaining back the 20 pounds she lost after she went to Los Angeles -- the 5-foot-7 woman dropped to 102 pounds.
Now her dark hair has grown into a shaggy style, and she has decided to stop wearing makeup.
The sun has come out after days of rain, and Roxx is animated. She’s talking to surprised passersby, introducing herself by her stage name. They clearly don’t recognize her, so Roxx explains that she is the HIV-positive porn actress whose picture was on CNN and in the newspaper. All the media attention is “helping me accept my situation,” she says.
Everywhere she goes, she carries a blue three-ring binder. When she was working, this was her professional notebook, the one she carried to every shoot at the recommendation of Rayveness, a veteran porn actress.
Roxx slid her provocative photos into the transparent vinyl pockets on the outside and kept her resume, her shoot schedule and the results of her tests for sexually transmitted diseases inside. Now, the notebook is a diary of her ordeal, stuffed with prescriptions, doctors’ bills, and notes and poems that Roxx has written to herself.
There’s a letter from Sharon Mitchell, executive director of the Sherman Oaks-based Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), detailing Roxx’s HIV test results. There’s a prescription for AIDS medications from her new doctor in Montreal.
In the front vinyl pocket is a list handwritten in French titled, “My present and my immediate future.” No. 1 is “Take care of my health.” Other goals include launching a website, writing an autobiography and recording an album with Missy Elliott and possibly Dr. Dre.
“And the last point,” she says, reading from the list. “It’s not a rumor. I am broke.”
Roxx pulls out another piece of notebook paper that at first glance is impossible to decipher. A jumble of words and scribbles, it’s art, she says.
“This line is porn,” she says, pointing to a blue bar at the top of the page. “And this,” she says, pointing to an illustration of a naked, emaciated figure handcuffed by the ankles or the hands, hanging down the length of the page, “is me handcuffed to porn.”
For now, Roxx wants to share her mother’s modestly furnished two-bedroom duplex in Laval, a middle-class suburb 30 miles north of Montreal. She sleeps on a twin bed. Mickey Mouse decals border the bedroom walls.
He Needed the Money
On the day Sergio Ristie opened his copy of the entertainment trade publication Variety and saw Darren James’ photo, he remembers, “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
A personal trainer, Ristie recalled James clearly from the Hollywood boxing gym where Ristie often took clients for workouts -- the slight, clean-cut guy who worked nights at the counter.
“It was 1998, ‘99, something like that,” he said. “Not many people come in late at night, and we started talking. He’d just gotten a job there, and he said he also did pornos. I said, ‘Why’re you in that business?’ And he said he needed the money -- but he also said it worried him because AIDS was floating around.”
Those who know James, from acquaintances to close family members, describe an amiable, passive man whose character was far more complex than the drug-addled drifters whom mainstream America typically associates with porn.
“He’s just one of the greatest people you will ever know in the whole, wide world,” said Brian Edwards, a nephew in Ohio who regards James as his “favorite uncle.” Born in 1964 in Detroit, James, the nephew said, had been raised by his divorced mother in the Herman Gardens housing project, the youngest of six children.
“He had a hard life, one of the hardest lives you can imagine,” he said, adding that James “would work out in the gym -- karate, taekwondo -- just in the gym all the time, pushin’ it out, pushin’ it out. He’d say that holding things inside could cause you to take it out on people, could make you just want to explode.”
To escape Detroit, relatives said, he joined the Navy, traveling through Asia, eventually ending up in Ventura County at Port Hueneme.
Afterward, he lived for a while in nearby Oxnard, and in 1992 made a run at becoming a police officer, according to Steve Adams, a former Oxnard police detective. James later told his nephew that physical problems prevented him from making the cut.
It was while he was living in Oxnard, his Los Angeles friends said, that he began showing up in the offices of adult film industry casting agents.
Mickey Blank, a veteran manufacturer and distributor of porn in Orange County, remembers hiring him through an older amateur porn actress who worked the swingers circuit: “He wouldn’t do gay or she-male, but he was pretty game otherwise,” Blank said.
“Wesley B,” a director for the adult film company West Coast Productions, recalls meeting James in 1996 or 1997 in the waiting room of World Modeling, a Sherman Oaks agency that works with adult-film makers, and hiring him to do a 30-minute oral sex scene for $100.
In L.A., however, James struggled -- producers say they are rarely at a loss for young male freelancers hoping to get paid for having sex with shapely women. For a heterosexual scene, the man’s pay will often be half of the woman’s.
“Big bald black guy, little bitty white girl -- that’s where the money is for black male [porn] performers,” said Alexander DeVoe, a friend and producer-director. “Darren didn’t fit the stereotype, so he had to make his reputation on the fact that he was a consistent and reliable performer.”
James didn’t shoot drugs, mistreat women or waste time, said his directors, but his assignments were frequently scenes most other men would turn down. By 1999, friends said, he was frustrated and ready to quit the business. Then in 2000, his brother died in Detroit, and he went home.
He tried to stay, looking for work as a bouncer or personal trainer, and eventually becoming a hospital aide. But “the past was still there for him,” said the nephew, and after a few months, it drove James back to L.A.
A Contentious Family
Roxx grew up in a suburban French-speaking middle-class home, the younger of two daughters. Her father worked frequently out of town, and her parents’ marriage was contentious, she says.
“My parents were always fighting,” she says. “Emotionally, I had the worst childhood.”
By 14, Roxx was experimenting with pot, LSD and other drugs. She stayed away from home, got falling-down drunk in her classrooms, was truant from one school after another. Eventually, she was arrested on drug charges and sent to a restrictive, government-run youth protection center for troubled adolescents.
“I learned a whole bunch of stuff about stripping, stealing cars, selling drugs, you know?” says Roxx, who has yet to finish high school. “I learned that there was a lot of bad people on this Earth.”
When Roxx was 16, her parents divorced. Neither of them, she recalls, felt ready to take her home.
Eventually, her mother helped her get an apartment in Laval, and Roxx paid the rent with earnings from strip clubs in the small French-speaking towns nearby. She learned “how to get the money out of the pocket” and soon moved to clubs in downtown Montreal.
But they had limitations -- get too physical with a client and they’d fire you. A girl at a subway stop introduced her to a man who paid petite teenage girls $2,000 to have sex. After three visits Roxx was preparing to start her own escort service. She was 18.
By 2000, the lifestyle had landed her in the hospital for depression. She tried other jobs, tried living with her parents, but the money in the sex industry drew her like no other. By early 2003, Roxx had synthesized a goal: pornography.
She put an ad on a website where nude models, strippers and porn wannabes post their photos and resumes. A mutual acquaintance introduced Roxx to Lefebvre, a freelance photographer and hockey player who moonlighted as a driver and security guard to the local strippers. Lefebvre, who is 12 years older than Roxx, also had some of his own contacts in Montreal’s porn industry.
She paid $900 toward his parking tickets and, in exchange, he shot some portfolio photos. Within a few weeks, Roxx had moved in with Lefebvre. It was around this time that she suffered the emotional breakdown; the bed fire put her in the hospital for six more weeks.
When she got out that time, she says, she had a new plan: Earn enough to leave Montreal.
Lefebvre says he was trying to help when he set up an interview with Daniel Perreault, owner of the well-established Montreal talent agency Eromodel Group.
Lefebvre also booked Roxx’s first video shoot for MSN Productions, a Montreal-based company that operates several porn websites. On Jan. 10, 2004, she performed in two sex scenes for two websites, earning $950.
Today, Lefebvre has mixed feelings about connecting his “muse” to the world of adult film. On one hand he believes that “if I had been strong enough, probably she would have never done porn.” On the other, he says, he couldn’t have stopped her if he had wanted to.
“If she decides that’s good for her,” he said, “it’s good for her.”
‘Hey, You the Man’
Back in L.A., James returned to adult films. As his nephew Edwards saw it, “he hadn’t found much that was good in his life, but it was like, ‘Hey, you the man’ at this.”
The market was also finally beginning to break in James’ favor. “Companies have always had their interracial lines,” DeVoe said, “but over the last two, three years, there’s been a slow progression that all of a sudden has become an explosion of demand.”
Directors who worked with James estimated that, by this year, he was making $400 to $600 a scene and doing five scenes or more a week. He had two cars and a modest two-bedroom apartment where he lived alone in the Valley. He had a fish tank and space for the collection of model remote-controlled airplanes he flew on weekends.
Eventually, friends said, he was offered a contract by “T.T. Boy,” a porn star turned producer, finally guaranteeing him a steady paycheck. He was quickly dispatched to far-flung locations with “Mark Anthony,” another contract performer who had moved into directing.
The work, as usual, was mostly condom-less, and competing directors questioned the AIDS testing in Brazil, where he told them he’d be filming. James, however, became “a health fanatic,” said Lee Goodwin, a friend and director: “He’d get tested every couple of weeks.”
Roxx, too, was learning the risk-reward equation. Scenes without condoms, her agent Perreault told her, could pay twice as much as scenes with them. And if she “wasn’t going to go to 100%” of her potential, it was a waste of time.
Perreault also told her that two L.A. companies -- Anthony’s crew and Devils Productions -- were headed to Montreal, and they weren’t interested in “straight” sex. Roxx didn’t hesitate. She cast off her restrictions, and Perreault booked a condom-free anal sex scene with Darren James for her. She would make $1,000 for a day’s work.
Ambition Leads to Risk
The Feb. 3 shoot didn’t go well. Roxx, nervous about doing her first anal scene in a room filled with pros, grew even more uncomfortable when the shy James rebuffed her attempts at small talk. She argued with the cameraman and then barked at James when he politely asked her to extinguish her cigarette.
In the end, she said, actor-director Anthony “de-booked” Roxx, meaning she was taken off his list of potential costars.
But that didn’t slow her ambition. A week and a half later, she shot three more no-condom scenes for Devils Productions, having sex with two men simultaneously in two of them.
“I wanted to be in Porn Valley so I could work every day if I felt like it,” she says, using the industry term for the San Fernando Valley.
Perreault urged her to wait, but when her Internet ad eventually attracted L.A. manager Thomas Hope, Roxx jumped. Hope started booking her for L.A. jobs, fronted her a round-trip plane ticket and put her up in the Summit at Warner Center apartments in Woodland Hills.
James, in the interim, had come home to L.A., gotten a clean HIV test and moved on to his two-week Brazilian assignment. When he returned March 16, he went straight to AIM’s clinic on Ventura Boulevard, where his test showed no trace of the AIDS virus. Four days later, Roxx went to the same center, where her test, too, came back HIV-negative.
Experts warn that the test administered at the clinic can fail to detect the virus for as long as 60 days. But by industry standards, they were clean. So James and Roxx punched in -- without condoms.
On March 19, according to AIM records, James shot sex scenes with two women. On March 23, he shot a sex video with Czech actor Jessica Dee. On March 24, he did a scene in which he and Anthony simultaneously had anal sex with Roxx. There were scenes with an actress named “Dynasty” the next day, and “Banesca” and “Miss Arroyo” five days later -- 14 partners in the ensuing three weeks.
Roxx, meanwhile, shot five sex scenes with four men the day she and James worked together. And she was just getting started. Her goal was to return to Montreal with $30,000.
Instead, her life crumbled. On March 25, the morning after her shoot, she woke up with a severe bacterial infection that forced the cancellation of scenes that Hope had booked. Her relationship with him blew up, and he kicked her out of the $2,000-plus-a-month apartment, leaving her sick, homeless and without a car or a driver’s license.
She ended up, she said, in a $43.95-a-night motel in Van Nuys where she stayed for the next two weeks, thanks to handouts from strangers and $500 wired by her relatives.
Her health was also deteriorating. She visited the West Oaks Urgent Care Center clinic in Winnetka on March 25 and March 27 for her infection.
James, too, was ill. He thought he had been infected by a spider bite in Brazil and went to the AIM clinic in early April, asking for another HIV test. On April 10, Roxx went to Northridge Hospital Medical Center because of a sore throat and was diagnosed with viral pharyngitis.
On April 13, AIM officials spread the word that James’ HIV test had come back positive.
Rayveness tracked down Roxx at the motel to tell her. Two days after that, Roxx tested positive as well. Her first thought, she said, was, “I want my mommy.”
By then, James had disappeared. Friends were so worried that they broke into his apartment, expecting to find his corpse. A week later, he turned up at a hospital in San Diego County.
“When he realized where he was,” said another nephew, Anthony Edwards of Michigan, “he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there.”
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