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Why Gay Porn Stars Keep Dying

Apr 19 2016 2:55 PM
Why Gay Porn Stars Keep Dying

Image via Twitter

Last year, several gay porn performers died young, usually from suicide or drug overdoses. Many close to them are saying the industry is to blame.

"I have to tell you, I don't know much about Michael's modeling career," Shari Cohen says to me. We've been talking about her son, Michael Cohen, and if you ever want to feel like an intrusive, horrible person, try asking a grieving mother about her deceased child's career in gay porn.

For most of the interview, we've been talking about what Cohen was like as a kid. Shari tells me he was a sweet and inventive toddler. In their San Diego neighborhood, he'd hung a little sign that read "go" next to a stop sign so that cars would understand it was also, you know, OK to go. One time, Shari came home from her own birthday party and found Cohen had wrapped all the lamps, books, chairs and tables in the living room with kite string and was sitting in the center of the room, like the king of an elaborate spiderweb. "Now what kid thinks of that?" she asks me, laughing.

But while Shari considered Cohen's ingenuity "a gift," his hyper energy rankled some. Diagnosed with ADHD when he was six years old, Cohen had trouble making friends and felt isolated and misunderstood in grade school. As a teenager, he began experimenting with drugs just to feel numb and good again. Beer bummed him out; Vicodin didn't do the trick either. By the time he got into porn, under the name Xander Scott, he was mixing the two and getting behind the wheel. He totaled two cars and ended up in jail, where he broke his hand and jaw. When he got out, he was homeless.

A friend eventually offered Cohen a room out in Phoenix, Arizona, which was "the beginning of the end," according to Shari. In Phoenix, Cohen began speedballing. He died of an overdose in January.

Cohen worked for a furniture company before his death, but I ask Shari if his modeling career with the gay porn company Randy Blue had contributed to his troubles. She tells me that he kept his career in adult entertainment away from her, so it's difficult for her to ascertain how he felt about it. "I'm never going to really know the truth about how he felt towards his modeling," she says.

Michael Cohen/Xander Scott

A friend, James Keating, believes that the porn world damaged Cohen psychologically. "The truth is, Michael never went looking for porn," Keating tells me. "He laughed and joked about it when he could, but he was ashamed, frustrated, and angry, and it did a lot of damage to him emotionally. He was sensitive, and he couldn't deal with it."

It's hard not to see Michael Cohen's death as part of a larger tragedy in the gay porn world. In the past year, a number of gay porn performers have died young. Zac Stevens, 25, committed suicide; Mehran "King B" Chestnut, also 25, died from a seizure brought on by poppers; Dimitri Kane, 20, died of an accidental drug overdose; and Jasper Robinson, 21, died from an underlying heart condition. Other years have been worse: More than a dozen porn performers under the age of 55 died over the course of 2013.

Zac Stevens committed suicide in 2015.

Norm Kent, the editor of South Florida Gay News, estimates he's written four or five articles about porn stars who have committed suicide or died in the last year. But trying to figure out exactly why is no easy task. Families are either unaware or ashamed of their progeny's careers; porn studios don't reply to requests for comment; former coworkers aren't well-acquainted with the deceased. "Porn studios aren't sitcoms," Kent says. "They aren't places where actors are developing ongoing, deep relationships."

"Maybe the lifestyle is faster than people can run," Kent muses. "It's not easy to put your body and soul on stage and screen and live up to the image. Some people can't handle it."

Dimitri Kane died from an accidental overdose. Photo via Twitter

When performer Dimitri Kane's death was ruled a suicide in November of last year, commenters on the blog Queerty were quick to blame the industry. "Well... sex work is a dead-end job figuratively and literally," wrote one commenter. "I've often wondered how people could have sex with complete strangers with no attraction for money. I can't imagine what that does to the soul," wrote another.

Conner Habib, a porn star and activist, believes people rush headlong into the assumption that porn makes people suicidal because it confirms their existing prejudices. "Theories arrive before grief," Habib wrote in a blog post. "The porn industry remains obscured by unexamined attitudes towards sex. So compassion isn't always available."

When I spoke to Habib, he stressed to me how empowering porn can be. "You learn how to have sex with people you're not attracted to and you learn to perform all sorts of acts that would normally be exhausting. It's a really intense skill set, and the people who succeed are the people who do it well, who can perform."

Others are less positive. Alex,* a former high-profile porn star who asked to stay anonymous, grew up poor in a modest religious family that had rejected him. At first, he was drawn to the cash and admiration of the porn world.

"I was paid a very high daily rate to party and do drugs and hang out with gay people and my clients," he says. "So just having money and control over my life made me feel like it was worth it. I won awards; I always had somewhere to be and people that wanted me, my time, and my attention."

Mehran "King B" Chestnut died from huffing

But, eventually, the objectification grated on him. "Everyone wants a piece of you," Alex said. "That's part of the appeal, but people either want you for your physicality or because they want to be adjacent to someone they think has some weird sort of gay celebrity. So you basically get rewired to think that is what you're worth."

Alex booked as many shoots as he could to stay sane and distract himself from everything he'd bottled up when he first started modeling. "But it doesn't go away," he told me. "And that festering is what leaves people high and dry."

Alex told me he knew a couple of guys who had committed suicide, as well as one who had a heart attack from steroids. Another was killed fleeing from the police in a drug bust. He considers himself lucky to have gotten out when he did.

Porn consumers can also be vicious. Michael Brennan studies how gay porn stars are consumed and discarded by those who watch their work. When porn star Jake Lyons was succeeded in popularity by Johnny Rapid, one former fan wrote in a direct reply to a commentby Lyons on the website TheSword: "Please evaporate. Your career is over and we've moved on to Johnny Rapid." Lyons, only 22 at the time, had already been replaced because he had performed bareback, ruining his image as an innocent bottom. "Performers have little recourse for reinvention within the industry once they cease to conform to the category to which they were assigned," Brennan told me.

Then there's the issue of money. While almost no one in the porn industry will go on the record about their earnings, Queerty estimates that the vast majority of gay porn stars make about $500 to $1,000 per scene. Popular performers could book five scenes a month, but then they'd still only be making around $30,000 a year—well below the median household income of $53,657. That can make it hard to survive in the industry without taking another job—and then you have to make sure your porn hustle is kosher in the eyes of your other employer.

James Keating said that in his last days, Cohen had attempted to compartmentalize his porn past. When Keating tried to send Cohen a cookie, he rejected it. He didn't want to have anything to do with Xander Scott, the persona he'd created. Keating, who says he'd been friends with him for years, was heartbroken.

"I was devastated, and it nearly killed me," says Keating. Cohen sent him one final email, with a single word: "goodbye."

"He liked to keep his fans at arm's length," Cohen's mother said. "He only wanted to communicate with them on Facebook; he didn't want to face the reality that he was an admired model."

She told me that she wished he'd been able to talk about his career with her. "Had he told me and been upfront, you know, go ahead: Let me be shocked, but then let me get over it. I think healthy relationships are like that. You don't just shut the door."

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