TROPHY MEN

03.24.14

And The Escort of The Year Is… Backstage at The Sex Oscars

The finalists wore tight mesh tops, yet their fans, so dedicated in their support of their idols in private, shrunk back from direct contact. Welcome to the International Escort Awards—and an uncomfortable evening celebrating the sex economy.

Three blocks from Aladdin on Broadway, two blocks from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and one block from Papaya Dog, home of Midtown West’s best 99-cent hot dog, stands the Out NYC Urban Resort. It styles itself as New York’s first gay hotel, “the Big Apple’s local sanctuary” for a clientele of jet-setting homosexual tourists from Pittsburgh and Fresno. Opened in the summer of 2012, the hotel’s steel-and-glass-and-marble-and-more-glass aesthetic aims for posh futurism and manages neither.

The Out NYC boasts a middling faux-Mediterranean restaurant, a vast and chilly discotheque, chairs that look like human faces, and this year, the 8th Annual International Escort Awards. The Hookies, for short.

Hosted by Rentboy.com, the world’s largest listing service for male escorts, the awards purport to honor the work of Rentboy’s more than 170,000 listed escorts in sixteen categories, ranging from Best Daddy and Best Massage to the night’s titular honor: Mr. International Escort. The votes are tallied online—there’s no form to fill out after you’ve had a satisfactory appointment. One needn’t even be a registered client on Rentboy.com to vote. So how does one judge an escort’s prowess if one has not engaged the escort in sexual congress? One porn star who insists that he remain nameless ventures a guess. “A lot of this is just a front for the porn industry. Ever check out the banner ads on Rentboy.com? All porn studios.” He nods knowingly.

140318-bixby-hookies-tease
Rentboy.com

GALLERY: The 2014 Hookie Awards in NYC (PHOTOS)

Inside BPM, a work of nightclub necromancy that began life 26 blocks downtown under the name XL, tank-topped volunteers are flitting between narrow cocktail tables, depositing plastic gift bags on each seat. Inside each bag: one “Working Boys” 2014 calendar; one catalogue from Chez Priape, Montréal’s premiere fetish and leather store; one ad for DJ Tony Moran’s appearance at this June’s Pride celebrations; one ad for the hotel’s $25 bottomless brunch; one Lube Shooter Lubricant Delivery Device, which I initially mistake for a water pistol.

At the club’s entrance, a young man in a V-neck shirt pleads with the bouncer that he’s a nominee. “Wait in line,” says the bouncer, already bored. Behind the putative nominee, the escort aficionados who have paid anywhere from $10 to $65 to attend are mostly men, mostly middle-aged, and mostly embarrassed to be seen here. Once inside, they move to the darker recesses of the club, eyes trained on the stretch of red carpet where the evening’s honorees will be interviewed, kissed, and stripped by Mr. Pam, gay porn’s only female videographer.

“I love my hookers!” Mr. Pam shouts. The tangle of enormous fake diamonds resting on top of her cleavage sparkles at every flashbulb. “They give the world so much pleasure! And really, isn’t that the reason we’re all here?” Most of the nominees I speak to don’t know who she is—a few even think she’s just a highly convincing drag queen—but Mr. Pam is a force in the gay porn industry, having directed or shot with nearly every major studio. According to her, about two-thirds of the porn stars at her “high-end indie” production company, Naked Sword, are escorts. “A lot of escorts actually start doing porn as a way to raise their rates.”

According to Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, participation in the different “career paths” in sex work often overlaps—and it’s not just for financial gain. “It’s about more than maximizing the earning potential; it’s also a way to negotiate the varying degrees of exposure and surveillance that come with each venue.” For every rentboy who does porn to increase his street value, there’s another who would never give up his relative anonymity by having video of his work posted online. Hookies nominees are a breed apart, however—no blurred-out profile photos attempt to hide their faces or identities. Many have even taken on their “escort name” as their everyday appellation, in the name of maintaining their “brand.” As Mr. Pam notes, “Everyone wants to be with a porn star!”

Porn actor Leo Sweetwood—né Peter—isn’t so sure. “I’m just here to see what the escorting scene is—test out the waters before I, like, jump in? Porn stars get a lot more advertising. There’s a lot more publicity in the escorting scene when you also do porn. But the best escorts? Nobody knows who they are.” He’s wearing gilded sneakers with an Oriental dragon design and looks intimidated, despite his status as a “twunk”—a portmanteau of “hunk” and “twink” indicating a young, more-cute-than-handsome guy with musculature and boyish features.

“I’m from outside San Antonio, Texas. Just a nice, Texan upbringing, and now I’m here!” There’s a tinge of regret to this statement. “I’m definitely seeing the better side of the escorting scene. Escorting the proper way.” He laughs at the unintentional contradiction of that statement. “So much of what you see here doesn’t really represent the, y’know, other side of the business.”

Why the hesitation about moving from porn to escorting? Is sex with a stranger really that different from sex with a stranger in front of a camera? “Being able to control the terms of the interaction is important. When you’re on a shoot, you’re an employee, obviously, but you’re kind of an equal. If you’re an escort, you’re basically at the mercy…” He rethinks the term. “You’re gonna have to say yes. Not that these guys”—he gestures towards the huddled attendees—“are bad! A lot of ‘em just want companionship.”

The early bird attendees look terrified at the prospect. Even Robert, a fiftysomething fan who has attended the Hookies three times, prefers to survey the action from a catwalk above the red carpet than to meet his fantasy figures in the flesh. “I’m kinda bored with the studios. I actually really like Tumblr! I barely check out the studio sites anymore.” He’s on the prowl, hoping for a glimpse of porn star Darius Ferdynand. “I think that porn has gotten so much raunchier. Like, before HIV, cum was no big deal, it just happened. Now, it’s gotten so fetishized, like, it has to be everywhere.”

He’s less passionate about the perforated boundaries between Porn World and Escort World. “They get paid shit to make all those videos, so of course they have to hustle to survive. I suppose on one level, it’s sad.” But as someone who prefers his pornography ad- and subscription-free, isn’t he contributing to the problem of porn star penury? “Yeah, I feel bad about it. But, you know…” He trails off when he spots Bravo Delta, a former amateur porn actor who caught the eye of ascendant New York outfit CockyBoys.

Is it hard to get off when you can reasonably assume that the person on the other side of the screen is performing out of desperation? “I’d really rather not talk about it.” Robert excuses himself, uncomfortable with the line of questioning, or with his own fantasies being disrupted by the fact that many sex workers start their “careers” as homeless youth. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, LGBT youth are more susceptible to victimization and mental health problems once they become homeless. The group said nearly 60 percent of homeless LGBT youth have been sexually assaulted, often in the form of underage prostitution.

Robert isn’t alone—the men who have come to see their fantasies in person prefer to keep their distance. Typically, their relationships with their idols are a private affair, far from the flashbulbs—here, their fantasies are discomfortingly made flesh.

Bravo Delta himself seems even more uncomfortable with the attention than his fans are with lavishing it. Unlike the nominees, who are dressed up in leather, rubber, spikes, and mesh, he’s wearing a blue flannel button-down and no-name dungarees. During the week, he’s a software engineer—according to him, porn is for weekends, and for fun. “I’m not an escort. I’ve thought about it, but honestly? I’m not a ‘people person.’ It’d probably just be some poor guy sitting there awkwardly with me for an hour. I’m… pretty weird.” Slight pause. “At least with porn, we both want to do this. There’s no guarantee I’m going to be into anybody.”

Still, he clearly enjoys the spectacle. “Last year, this all took place during [drug-fueled dance extravaganza] the Black Party, which was a huge mistake. [Porn star and Best Newcomer 2013] J.D. Phoenix won something, and nobody could find him because he was backstage blowing somebody.” He betrays a small smile at the ridiculousness of it all, one of the more overt acknowledgements of the irony behind this entire spectacle. Self-awareness at the ridiculousness of the Hookies hides just under Mr. Pam’s waxy makeup and the too-tight tuxedos and the self-conscious sleekness of the venue. If an appointment with an escort is about living a fantasy of hot sex or true love or good companionship, the Hookies are about the fantasy of a society that celebrates its least-loved figure: the gay prostitute.

Onstage, a trio of dancers in elaborate underwear sway lazily to generic synth beats.

At BPM’s entrance, nominees and press are piling up around the red carpet, a rectangular patch roughly the size of a four square court on which Mr. Pam is chatting up presenter Jason Dottley. He seems insulted when I ask if he’s a nominee. “I’m an actor of the non-porn persuasion,” he clarifies snottily. What’s his involvement in the escorting world or Rentboy.com? “Honestly? I haven’t even seen the website. My publicist called me up and was like, ‘Would you wanna to do this?’ and so I did. I mean, I’ve watched a lot of porn and I’ve met a lot of escorts. I’m gonna be so horny tonight, I might jerk off between every award.”

A familiar face swings into view. Duncan Black, another nominee in the Best Newcomer category—as well as Best Ass, about which he is much more excited—and the subject of an earlier profile introduces me to a diminutive young man with Old Bieber hair and a silver bow tie.

This is Eli Lewis, whose face-et-cetera has been all over Rentboy.com’s Twitter page for the past week. The self-described “Pocket Gaysian” seems to be the only Hookies organizer who manages to stay on point. “I run social media for Rentboy, and I also escort and do porn!” Every few seconds, an escort or admirer comes by to give Lewis a quick hug or butt-squeeze. “We do a lot of really hard work, and we should be recognized for it!”

He’s a little nebulous on the mechanics of the nominations—how does an escort go about getting a nod for Best Boyfriend Fantasy or Best Masseur? “A lot of the nominees I know through social networking, plus I’m friends with a lot more.” The fact that many of the nominees are porn actors affiliated with the site’s biggest advertisers is, according to Lewis, merely a function of press. “Porn stars have the biggest social media followings, so they can garner the most votes for nominations, as opposed to pure escorts”—a term he uses without consciousness of its irony—“who don’t have that kind of audience.” According to Lewis, about 80 percent of the nominees are involved in porn.

Lewis waves at Tony Orion, a nominee up for Best Bear/Cub whose biceps have stretched his black mesh jersey to a shine. A dog collar around his neck says “Boeuf.” Along with Lewis, Orion is one of the few minority escorts to be seen. Lewis admits that as an escort and porn star of Asian descent, he’s more “niche” than mainstream—of the 77 escorts nominated tonight, only one self-identifies as Asian. “We’re getting more ethnically diverse, but it could be more so.” Lewis shrugs.

Pressed five deep next to the red carpet, the men waiting to for their on-camera chat with Mr. Pam are wearing suits and mesh and white spandex and skinny jeans and lamé and nothing. One man, clearly up for Best Fetish/Kink Escort, is unidentifiable in a hooded, rubberized version of a monsignor’s cassock, holding something the size and shape of a dead lobster in a Glad bag. At the hands of Mr. Pam, asses are bared in full view of the unforgiving cameras—one gentleman in a kilt goes for the full Lindsay Lohan up-skirt shot.

As the crowd thickens, any potential for erotic tension evaporates. It’s remarkable how un-sexy it all is. In Porn World and Escort World, sex is always just a pretext away: Picking up a hitchhiker, ordering a pizza, an after-school tutoring session. You might expect the collision of porn stars and escorts with their fans and clients to bring those same triple-X fantasies to life, but the frisson between the bored nominees and their timid fans is nearly nonexistent.

Another surprising absence: There are no condoms. Not in the gift bags, or at the bar, or in the bathroom, or anywhere. Never once in the course of the evening does one nominee, attendee, host, or presenter mention safe sex. Granted, due to a lack of government interest in the welfare of sex workers, data on HIV rates in escorts aren’t abundant. There aren’t a lot of votes in allocating money to tell hookers about using protection.

The Hookies open with a performance by Boston-based rapper/songwriter/louchebag Cazwell. “This song is dedicated to anybody who just so happens to be in love… With themselves!” To the disappointment of an industry journalist standing nearby, he does not sing “All Over Your Face,” a 2006 single that ranks among the most disgusting songs you’ve never heard. “Over it,” the journalist announces. Leslie Jordan, former Will & Grace scene stealer and host of tonight’s festivities, and drag queen Shequida take the stage. Jordan can barely muster a damn to give in his monologue about giving a boy his lunch money when he was 14 in exchange for sexual favors. It’s not until an interlude between awards that Jordan shows any interest, when he risks death by crushed pelvis during a group lapdance performed by a half-dozen hulking nominees.

Dottley, “actor of the non-porn persuasion” and potential backstage onanist, hands out the Hookie for Best Newcomer. “I’ve fucked every guy in this category!” he shouts hoarsely (This feat must have occurred in the roughly thirty minutes since he claimed not to have even browsed Rentboy.com before arriving.) The audience reaction is muted—who is this guy, anyway? Nearly every presenter tonight makes a joke about having sampled the wares; not a single one elicits more than a few chuckles. It’s almost as if the entire audience is saying: “Girl, we’ve all been there.” Duncan Black wins.

Tommy Defendi accepts his Hookie for Best Porn Star Escort, thanking his clients: “You made me the hooker I am today!” The audience gasps when it is revealed that there is a tie in the Best Top category. “Well they can’t fuck each other!” Jordan bleats. The Onion gets the biggest laugh of the night when Shequida replays a classic 2012 election spoof: “Tampa Bay Gay Prostitutes Gearing Up For Flood Of Closeted Republicans.” The show is roughly at the same level of raunchiness—or even its tamer sister, bawdiness—as a mid-rent gay club.

The curtained-off “backstage” area is unguarded and chaotic. Winners pose for photographs and send their friends “I WON!!!!!!” texts. The nominees for Mr. International Escort 2014 are hugging and playfully kissing — Mr. Chicago and Mr. New York, less playfully.

The two “Trophy Boys,” a pair of be-jockstrapped young men who hand out the physical Hookie, come backstage. I immediately recognize one of them as a college classmate, a nice Jewish boy from a well-heeled New England suburb. About fifteen worlds are colliding at once when a hand clasps my shoulder. It’s Duncan Black. 

“Hey!” The Best Ass Hookie is about to be announced, and Black is nervously biting his lip. “This is the one I really wanted to win.” He hops up and down like a little boy—though at 23, he is a boy, really—as the names of the other nominees are called out. “And the winner is… Duncan Black!”

Black squeals and runs onstage. He’s too far back from the microphone to hear his acceptance speech, but that doesn’t stop some of the other nominees from mocking the earnestness of his excitement. “Who’s he gonna thank next—his mom?” one says bitchily. “I honestly think he just did. It’s a joke, sweetie,” the other clucks. The post-ironic acknowledgment of the night’s absurdity has taken its purest form: two catty gay dudes.

Backstage, Black is giving everyone hugs. He screams a little. “I’m so excited!” The physical Hookie is an etched glass paperweight in the shape of a brilliant-cut diamond. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this. All of the work that comes with being an escort, and all of its attendant horrors, for this… paperweight? Does this hunk of glass make up for his untenable relationships? The skyrocketing statistical likelihood that he’s going to be a victim of sexual violence, if he hasn’t already? That, at age 23, he has eliminated all careers paths not directly related to sex work? Black is grinning like a Little Leaguer who’s just been awarded a trophy for participation. I can’t bring myself to ask him these questions, and I can’t bring myself to ignore them.

A friend of his insists that we take a photo together. I hesitate—there’s nothing more intimidating than being photographed next to a person who just won an award for his attractiveness—but Black dismisses my concern. “You know what? You’re your own worst critic. That’s what I’ve learned in this business. I’ll be in a shoot, hating on my skin or my hair or whatever, and everyone still loves me.”

After hometown favorite Boomer Banks is crowned Mr. International Escort 2014, BPM clears out. Most attendees are headed for a nightclub nearby—a few of the CockyBoys actors will be dancing. Lingering backstage, I manage to catch the eyes of my former classmate. He gives me an un-ironic hug, although he’s careful not to rub off any of his bronzer. “We’re going out! You should come! Just for one drink.” When I cite a deadline, they start dishing on the nominees.

“How’d he get so big?”

“Ugh, he’s so on steroids. His back is, like, one giant pimple.”

“How much does he make?”

“$400.”



“An hour? Are you effing serious?”

“And at the studio? He makes $150 per day.”

“That’s a fucking joke. He might as well do it for free.”

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”