Joe Francis, the founder of the “Girls Gone Wild” empire, is humiliating me. He has my face pressed against the hood of a car, my arms twisted hard behind my back. He’s pushing himself against me, shouting: “This is what they did to me in Panama City!”
It’s after 3 a.m. and we’re in a parking lot on the outskirts of Chicago. Electronic music is buzzing from the nightclub across the street, mixing easily with the laughter of the guys who are watching this, this me-pinned-and-helpless thing.
Francis isn’t laughing.
He has turned on me, and I don’t know why. He’s going on and on about Panama City Beach, the spring break spot in northern Florida where Bay County sheriff’s deputies arrested him three years ago on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and promoting the sexual performance of a child. As he yells, I wonder if this is a flashback, or if he’s punishing me for being the only blond in sight who’s not wearing a thong. This much is certain: He’s got at least 80 pounds on me and I’m thinking he’s about to break my left arm. My eyes start to stream tears.
This is not what I anticipated when I signed up for a tour of Joe Francis’ world. I’ve been with him nonstop since early afternoon, listening as he teases employees, flying on his private jet, eating fast food and watching young women hurl themselves against his 6-foot-2-inch frame, declaring, “We want to go wild!”
Tonight we had spent almost five hours in a sweaty nightclub, crowded with 2,500 very young and very drunk people. Clubs like this are fertile fields for Francis. He’s made a fortune selling videos of women who agree to flash their breasts and French-kiss their friends for the cameras. In exchange, a girl who goes wild will receive a T-shirt, a pair of panties, maybe a trucker hat. It had been a typical night for him. He’d scoured the club, recruiting young and, for the most part, intoxicated women. Because filming wasn’t allowed inside, he and his newly discovered entourage had stepped outside, heading for the confines of a “Girls Gone Wild” tour bus parked across the street.
Before climbing aboard, he walks in my direction, and the next thing I know, he’s acting out his 2003 arrest on me.
I wriggle free and punch him in the face, closed-fist but not too hard.
“Damn,” bystanders say. Francis barely blinks. He snatches at my notebook. He is amped, his broad face sneering as he does a sort of boxer’s skip around me, jabbering, grabbing at my arms and my stomach as I try to move away, clutching my notebook to my chest. He stabs a finger in my face, shouting, “You don’t care about the 1st Amendment. I care about the 1st Amendment, but you are the kind of reporter who doesn’t care.”
Maybe you’ve seen the “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials that run on late-night cable, advertising mail-order videos of women exposing themselves (“and more!” as the jackets promise). Francis didn’t invent the notion of spring break—and all the binge drinking, flurried hookups, wet T-shirt contests and general you-only-live-once exhibitionism that it entails—but he and his company, Mantra Entertainment, have affixed themselves to this youthful domain and transmitted its middle-American hedonism to the world. By packaging and dispersing it, people close to Francis tell me, Mantra does as much as $40 million a year in sales.
At 33, and after almost a decade as the king of soft porn, Francis says he wants to leave this twilight existence and wade into the mainstream. He is quick to list the projects he says he has in the works: a feature-length film, a series of “Girls Gone Wild” ocean cruises, a “Girls Gone Wild” apparel line and a chain of “Girls Gone Wild” restaurants. He says he’s producing a new line of videos called “Flirt” that will be racy, but not explicit, and could be sold in mass-market retail outlets such as Wal-Mart and Target.
In short, Francis wants to insinuate himself and his view of the world into the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the vacations you take and the entertainment—filmed and glossy—that you consume. He sees “Girls Gone Wild” as the ultimate lifestyle brand. “Sex sells everything,” he says. “It drives every buying decision . . . I hate to get too deep and philosophical here, but only the guys with the greatest sexual appetites are the ones who are the most driven and most successful.”
Mantra’s headquarters are in Santa Monica, just down the street from MTV, and the décor is bachelor hip: flat-screen TVs, mod lighting, bowls of candy. Francis doesn’t show up every day. That, he says, is because a big part of his job is simply to be seen, and not in the office. He doesn’t often visit the “Girls Gone Wild” call center in Inglewood, either. I tag along on a day that employees there get the rare treat of a visit from the boss. Avoiding eye contact, wearing a T-shirt and sneakers, Francis looks more like a kid visiting his father’s office than the chief executive of his own company. But when he pushes through the double doors, his employees gasp.
“Joe Francis. Wow, I love your work,” says one flabbergasted young man who passes him in the hall. Francis smiles uneasily and doesn’t stop as the man keeps muttering, “Wow. Wow.”
The call center, just past Los Angeles International Airport, is staffed by rotating shifts of 250 employees who earn $9 an hour, plus commission, to hawk “Girls Gone Wild” videos, which sell for as little as $9.99 each. A whiteboard on the wall sets the agenda: “Push That Porn!!!”
The workers are mostly young and African American, and the videos they’re pushing are almost exclusively of twentysomething white girls. “You like watching triple-X, right? You seen our doggy-style videos? Well, I’m going to send you out eight of the hottest videos of the year,” goes the pitch.
Francis serves in many of the videos as a playboy host, surrounded by members of the opposite sex who appear to be titillated by his presence. “Spring Break 2005: Anything Goes!” is like most of Mantra’s video products. Women in bikinis giggle as they stare into the camera and explain just how wild their vacations are getting: group showers, oral sex in bars with strangers, topless dancing. One girl, surrounded by her friends, explains, “I’m ready and willing, and I’m a dirty slut.”
For “Spring Break 2005,” Francis and his crew prowled the beaches of Miami, South Padre Island, Cancún and other sunny destinations. They filmed women not just taking off their tops but taking it all off, and having sex with one another. Francis is often on the other side of the camera, asking sweetly if he can hold the girls’ tops, inquiring about their class schedules, chiding them for being “so naughty,” saying he wants to see if they’ve shaved their genitals, begging them to play with their breasts and bend over to expose their thong underwear. They comply.
Francis has aimed his cameras at a generation whose notions of privacy and sexuality are different from any other. Nursed on MySpace profiles and reality television, many young people today are comfortable with being perpetually photographed and having those images posted on the Internet for anyone to see. The boundaries that once contained sexuality have also fallen away. Whether it’s 13-year-olds watching a Britney Spears video, 16-year-olds getting their pubic hair waxed to emulate porn stars or 17-year-olds viewing videos of celebrities performing the most intimate acts, youth culture is soaked in sexuality.
Francis has manufactured his own celebrity. He has become famous not just by selling soft porn but by affiliating himself with a tribe whose notoriety is perpetuated by the tabloids. He’s been romantically linked to heiress Paris Hilton and Kimberly Stewart, Rod Stewart’s daughter, and the gossip columns have reported that he’s hosted Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn at his house in Mexico.
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 happily acknowledges that he courts attention. The effort, he says, is not about his ego but about selling his product. “Everything that gets covered in my name drives the business,” he says. “The two are synonymous. You have to play the image up.”
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.
“She’s going to be looking at her keyboard going, ‘Ah, you think you’re so smart now.’ Qwerty keyboard. Who’s smart now?” He sounds happy. “She’s going to be playing that tape back. It’s going to be echoing in her head. Qwerty, qwerty, qwerty. She’s going to go all psycho.”
In the early ‘90s, when I was a high school sophomore in Iowa, two senior boys bought themselves a laminating machine and founded an association they named, simply, “The Horny Club.” To gain admittance, girls had to unbutton their shirts, unhinge their bras and bare their breasts for a minimum of 10 seconds. They were rewarded with a laminated membership card and a ride whenever they needed one in the cofounder’s 1989 red Trans Am.
The two seniors zeroed in on my friends, who were rebellious and too young to drive. I wasn’t interested. Although I had often gone skinny-dipping with large groups of kids, the idea of taking off my shirt for two dorky guys in exchange for a badge seemed silly. No one would fall for that.
Then one summer day, my best friend and I were walking to the video store when the Trans Am pulled up. The owner of the laminating machine rolled down the window and pointed to my friend, saying, “She can get in, but Claire, you can’t.” I turned to her, shocked. She was a shy, straight-A student. Why would she do it? Her answer: “Just for fun.”
I know that Francis’ assertion that women bare all for “Girls Gone Wild” because they enjoy it—while undeniably self-serving—is at least partly true. But I find myself asking the same question I had put to my friend back in Iowa: Why?
Francis doesn’t have an answer. “I’ve never focused on why they do it,” he says. He rattles off suggestions: “It’s empowering, it’s freedom.” Would he do it, I ask? “Probably not,” he responds. “I’m too shy.”
I call Vicki Mayer, a sociologist and Tulane University assistant professor, for guidance. Mayer teaches a class on the nudity rituals that take place on New Orleans’ infamous Bourbon Street. She has studied and written about “Girls Gone Wild,” and she contends that it’s simplistic to say that Mantra takes advantage of women. “For some women this is liberating, for some women this is something they do on a goof or for a lark to show friends they can, for some it’s a way of flirting with the cameramen,” Mayer says.
Francis and his staff maintain that it’s the “girl next door” they seek out for their videos. In reality, the “Girls Gone Wild” girl is almost always slender and young, with nice teeth and very carefully groomed private parts. At the same time, Mantra recruits hard-working and attractive young men who will be able to sweet-talk women into taking their clothes off for the cameras. (Mantra has released several “Guys Gone Wild” DVDs filmed by female camera crews, but they have not sold as well.)
Mayer has studied the young cameramen, who, she says, often sign up because they hope to break into Hollywood. Usually, she says, they end up disillusioned after spending night after night with women who lose their inhibitions for a T-shirt. “As much as it would be easy to see this as a simple relationship of men treating women a certain way, there are mutual relations of exploitation. I kind of feel like both sides could be seen as exploited.”
She’s concluded that the winners are “the owners of these companies who are contracting cheap labor and free talent for a media product.”
Francis arrives at the nightclub outside Chicago and is waved past a long line of people that snakes in front of the low-slung building. His crew follows him, single file, as he pushes his way through crowds of young women encased in a synthetic Victoria’s Secret sexuality and swarms of young men who, though pimple-faced, exude an Abercrombie & Fitch confidence.
His entourage heads for the bar, bypassing an expanse of empty tables, to climb up to a narrow platform surrounded by a metal fence. This is the VIP section. Women in fishnets greet the crew wearing “Girls Gone Wild” tank tops and not much else. They are writhing against one another, their faces fixed in dazed sexual stares. Everyone clusters around a small table stocked with Red Bull, vodka and pitchers of fruity punch. When I turn to the flock of pretty girls, Jillian Vangeertry, a 21-year-old student, offers me a warm smile. I feel as if I’m in a bed of kittens. Why, I ask, is she here?
“Anybody enjoys the attention. T-shirts, hats—we got all the accessories,” she says. I ask if she plans on going wild for the cameras later. She shrugs. “If you do it, you do it,” she says confidently. “You can’t complain later. It’s almost like your 15 minutes of fame.”
I sip my awful fruity cocktail, one of two that I’ll nurse that evening, and turn to Francis’ road manager, Chris Parisi. He says his boss is nothing short of brilliant. “He created a monster: the name, the image, the brand—he created something that everybody knows or wants to be a part of. Even my dad knows ‘Girls Gone Wild.’ The name itself is so powerful, and he’s powerful. They all want to feel like they are a part of Joe’s world.”
Francis returns from his dance-floor foray. He’s hyper, like a kid on sugar, talking fast. He says he’s discovered the ultimate quarry: a girl who says she will be 17 for just a few more hours and who wants to get wild for the cameras the minute she’s legal. “Girls Gone Wild” crew members can receive a bonus of $1,000 if they discover such a treasure, he shouts happily.
I follow Francis and his bodyguard through the crowd to find Kaitlyn Bultema. She’s dancing on a podium and leaps off at the sight of Francis. She’s wearing a skirt-and-shirt ensemble that exposes her stomach, most of her breasts and much of her bottom. I ask her why she wants to appear on “Girls Gone Wild” and she looks me in the eye and says, “I want everybody to see me because I’m hot.”
It’s then that it hits me: This is so much bigger than Francis. In a culture where cheap and portable video technology lets everyone play at stardom, and where America’s voyeuristic appetite for reality television seems insatiable, teenagers, like the ones in this club, see cameras as validation. “Most guys want to have sex with me and maybe I could meet one new guy, but if I get filmed everyone could see me,” Bultema says. “If you do this, you might get noticed by somebody—to be an actress or a model.”
I ask her why she wants to get noticed. “You want people to say, ‘Hey, I saw you.’ Everybody wants to be famous in some way. Getting famous will get me anything I want. If I walk into somebody’s house and said, ‘Give me this,’ I could have it.”
Above the dance floor, the stage is full of girls who rotate, twist and shimmy their way up and down three strip poles. One of them is Jannel Szyszka, a petite 18-year-old who prances around the stage like a star. At her feet, a crowd of hundreds is gyrating to the pounding house music. Dozens of polo-shirted boys shout up to her, making requests like “shake your titties” and “get crunk” (meaning crazy-drunk).
Szyszka tells me later that as she was spinning around the strip pole that night, Francis appeared, grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him. “You are so going on the bus later,” she recalls Francis saying. “I was like, ‘Um, OK.’ I was shocked. I was like, ‘Whoa—Joe’s, like, trying to talk to me, like out of all the girls in here.’” Francis invited her back to the VIP area to do shots with him, she says, and she said yes.
Szyszka says the more shots she drank, the cloudier her judgment became. She says she agreed to join Francis and his crew on the “Girls Gone Wild” bus. “I thought ‘Girls Gone Wild’ was like flashing, and I thought I would flash them and be done. And so when I’m walking to the bus, that’s all I’m thinking is going to happen.”
At first she felt comfortable, she says. Inebriated and excited, she says she was led to the back of the bus, to a small bedroom. The double bed, with its neatly folded iridescent purple sheets, takes up most of the room. A flat-screen TV faces the bed, and cabinets are filled with remote controls, lubricants, condoms, sex toys in plastic bags, baby oil, a DVD called “How to be a Player” and a clipboard full of waivers for girls to sign. A small bathroom is off to the side, with a half-sized shower with faux marble tiling, and on the floor of the shower is a crate holding cheap and fruity-flavored rum, whiskey, tequila and Kool-Aid.
Footage from that night shows a close-up of Szyszka’s driver’s license, proving she’s not a minor. The camera then captures Szyszka lying on the bed. Her nails are chipped, her eyes coated with makeup. Following a camerman’s instructions, she shows her breasts and says, “Girls Gone Wild.” She seems shy but willing. She smiles. The unseen cameraman asks her to take off her shirt, her skirt, then her underwear. She sprawls on the bed, her legs open. At his suggestion, she masturbates with a dildo, saying repeatedly that it hurts but also feels good. Francis enters the room at certain points and you hear his voice, low and flirtatious, telling her, “You are so adorable.” When she says she’s a virgin, he responds: “Great. You won’t be after my cameraman gets done with you.”
When I talk to Szyszka seven days later, she says she “didn’t quite realize” she was being filmed. “But I didn’t care because I was drunk and who cares?” Then she adds: “It didn’t feel good to me at all, but I was totally faking it because I was on ‘Girls Gone Wild.’”
Eventually, Szyszka says, Francis told the cameraman to leave and pushed her back on the bed, undid his jeans and climbed on top of her. “I told him it hurt, and he kept doing it. And I keep telling him it hurts. I said, ‘No’ twice in the beginning, and during I started saying, ‘Oh, my god, it hurts.’ I kept telling him it hurt, but he kept going, and he said he was sorry but kissed me so I wouldn’t keep talking.”
Afterward, she says, Francis cleaned them both off with a paper towel and told her to get dressed. Then, she says, he opened the door and told the cameraman to come back, saying, “She’s not a virgin anymore.”
Szyszka says Francis told her that what happened had to stay between them. She says she agreed, and they walked to the front of the bus. Szyszka remembers that one of the crew returned her driver’s license. Another asked if she wanted to hang out on the bus. She declined, she says, but asked for three pairs of “booty short” underwear that Francis had promised her for appearing on camera. “They gave me a weird look like that was too much,” Szyszka recalls. “They were, like, ‘Three of them?’ and I was, like, ‘Yeah, three.’”
Within days, Szyszka says, she told her father, who was angry about what she said had happened but kept quiet at her request. A month after the incident, she says, she told her sister and mother.
She’s confused, she admits, about what happened. She feels guilty, she says, for getting herself into the situation in the first place. She says she never would have undressed for the cameras if she hadn’t been completely drunk. And she is adamant that she said “no” to Francis. She says she’s haunted by that night.
“I feel like it was planned,” she says. “Sometimes I’m driving along, and I think about it and all of a sudden feel weird.”
Six weeks after that night outside Chicago, when I call Francis on his cellphone and ask him about the incident, he says he doesn’t remember Szyszka and that he didn’t have sex with anyone that night. He seems to lose control, repeatedly referring to me by a crude word for female genitalia. “If you print that, I will [expletive] sue the [expletive] out of you. If you print that, baby, you just put the nail in your own coffin,” he tells me. “You are a [expletive expletive]. You decided to blast me . . . You are a [expletive] bitch . . . I will get my last laugh on you. I will get you.” He then refers me to Burke, his lawyer.
In an e-mail, Burke says Francis and Szyszka did have sex—consensual sex—and that neither Francis nor anyone affiliated with “Girls Gone Wild” gave her any alcohol. “Neither Mr. Francis nor any of the GGW staff in or around the bus recall Ms. Szyszka making any complaint or comment about Mr. Francis. In fact, Ms. Szyszka was in good spirits after the encounter, and numerous witnesses have stated that she danced with her friends outside the bus for nearly two hours afterward,” Burke writes. He adds: “Though Mr. Francis cannot speak to Ms. Szyszka’s discomfort during the encounter, other news stories have commented that Mr. Francis is reputedly well-endowed.”
Francis sounds scared in the message he leaves on my office voicemail: “I’ve seen some excerpts from your article that I guess you’ve sent to the photographer and, um, I want to talk to you about it.”
No photographer has been assigned to the story, and no excerpts have been sent to anyone.
I don’t call Francis back right away, so he calls my editor. He tells her that I have a crush on him, that I have an ax to grind because I am jealous and angry.
“I just felt that Claire may have had a little affinity for me,” he says as she takes notes. “It may have come out when she had a few drinks.” He describes my behavior as aggressively romantic. “Originally she hit on me. That’s how I met her. I took her to a lunch. She called me all the time and it wasn’t about work. It was about me. I know when a girl has a crush on me.”
He tells her I was drinking heavily—"we all were"—and offers to send photographs to prove it. When my editor asks if he put his hands on me that night, he doesn’t hesitate.
“I did absolutely get physical with her—but not romantically,” he says. “We were outside standing by a police car. The officer told her to quit taking notes on what he was saying. I said, ‘There’s no freedom of the press here.’ I took her arms behind her back and said, ‘Let’s take her to jail.’ I said she should go to jail and the officer agreed with me. She didn’t get the sarcasm. She listened to him. She stopped writing. Can you believe that? That’s the 1st Amendment. She’s not a journalist. I stand up for the 1st Amendment. But she didn’t.” My problem, he tells my editor, is that I “wasn’t smart enough” to “get” what he was saying.
When I start to pull police and court records, I find that I’m not the only woman who’s made Francis mad.
In 2000, the property manager of his Santa Monica apartment, Stephanie Van de Motter, obtained a restraining order requiring that he stay at least 100 yards away from her. According to court documents, she said that Francis, upset about the noise garbage collectors made in the mornings, had harassed and threatened her, twice climbing up to her bedroom window and pounding violently on the glass and screaming obscenities at her whenever he saw her. He appeared in her office several times, she said, asking for her by using the crude word for female genitalia, and left messages with a co-worker: “Tell the bitch this is war.” Francis’ lawyer says he can’t comment on the case.
In 2003, Darian Mathias-Patterson, who scouted locations and arranged for the rental of a space for a Halloween party Francis threw, filed a police report, saying he had threatened to kill her when she told him she couldn’t return his $25,000 deposit because the 2,000 guests had trashed the place. He hurled profanities at her, she told police, saying, “I’m going to [expletive] get you, you [expletive] whore” and repeatedly used the same crude word. Two weeks later, Mathias-Patterson, who was pregnant, miscarried. She later sued Francis and his company in Los Angeles County Superior Court for emotional distress, and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount. Francis’ lawyer says he can’t comment on the case.
In 2004, a woman filed a police report accusing Francis of drugging her. She told police that after she met Francis in a bar in South Beach, Fla., where they argued over the morality of “Girls Gone Wild” videos, she went to his room at the Ritz-Carlton for a drink and awoke the next morning in bed next to him. Police dropped their investigation, citing a lack of evidence, and Francis sued the woman for defamation in state court in Miami, where the case is pending. He is seeking $25,000,036—a figure that includes $36 in room-service hamburgers he said he bought the plaintiff and her girlfriend the morning after they had consensual sex.
In a news release, Francis said at the time: “I won’t sit back and be called a rapist. Rape is a very serious crime that I personally find disgusting. As a son, and as the brother to three sisters I love very much, I would NEVER have sex with a woman without her consent.”
I have two more calls to make, this time about me.
I phone Ementi Coary, a Melrose Park, Ill., police officer who witnessed Francis roughing me up. He says he didn’t intervene at the time because he had been told by “Girls Gone Wild” crew members that Francis and I had “hooked up” and that we “had a thing going” and that I was “just jealous.”
“I was under the impression that you guys knew each other, that something was going on between you and that you guys were playing around,” Coary says. “I changed my mind when he was grabbing your arm. That didn’t look like playing around anymore.” That’s when Francis’ bodyguard physically separated us, escorting me to the edge of the parking lot, and when Coary called for backup; a patrol car arrived moments later. “He’s one of those guys who has money and does whatever he wants to,” Coary continues. “I would’ve been happy to put the guy in jail.” He had advised me to press charges that night, but I declined.
Then I phone Leland Zaitz, who was working for Francis in Melrose Park as a producer and was in the parking lot during the episode. Zaitz says he interpreted the whole thing as Francis being affectionate toward me, despite the fact that the pressure he applied was so intense that hours later, my arms were covered in red hand marks.
“He starts having fun and he realizes that most people can’t keep up with him and he gets a little rough. I think it was just Joe’s version of being playful and goofy,” Zaitz says. “I think he was trying to bring you in closer.”
When I think back on that night, our very public scuffle isn’t what seems the most revealing. Instead, the moment I saw Francis most clearly—his charm, his rage, his cunning and even his regret—came later, when no one was looking. I was waiting, still shaken, outside the club for a cab to take me back to my hotel. Francis, who had disappeared inside the bus, returned.
Ignoring the two policemen who hovered a few yards away, he tiptoed past them to stand over me. He rubbed my shoulder. His gestures were oddly gentle—even fond. I felt sick.
“I’m sorry,” he said, reaching over to tousle my hair. “We love our little reporter. Don’t we guys? We love our little reporter.”
I stared down at the dirt as he whispered in my ear, “I’m sorry, baby, give me a kiss. Give me a kiss.”
Claire Hoffman covers Hollywood and the adult entertainment industry for The Times.