U.S. News

05.06.14

Duke Porn Star Belle Knox Is Building Her Brand One Strip Club at a Time

With a new reality show in the works, is the Duke freshman-turned-porn star drawing attention to the plight of downtrodden sex workers or just building her own brand?

The audience Friday at Show Palace, a strip club in Long Island City, Queens, with giant rotating chandeliers and black velour roses on the wall, is far from overwhelming. There are maybe 50 to 70 patrons at most.

But if the crowd isn’t as big as Miriam Weeks—better known as Belle Knox—hoped for in her debut as a stripper, she doesn’t show it. The Duke University freshman made national headlines in February when she admitted to filming pornography on the side to pay for her private-school tuition. Tonight, she glides into Show Palace and heads straight to the strippers’ changing room in the back, greeting her fellow performers with hugs and kisses.

Weeks puts her arm around “Rain,” a curvy woman in an animal-print top and faded skirt that seem quaint beside Weeks’s matching black stilettos, minidress, and carefully coiffed curls. Rain is also a student, at an urban technical institute where she is earning her associate’s degree—a far remove from the rarefied grounds of Duke University. Rain tells me stripping at Show Palace has finally helped her gain control of her finances. Weeks nods her head in agreement, and when Rain excuses herself to take the stage, she cheers out, “Make that money!” Later Rain tells me she had never heard of Weeks, the girl who was clutching her like her favorite sorority sister.

Weeks exudes affection for the strippers we meet as we travel through Show Palace, and she talks enthusiastically about the importance of women finding ways to manage the growing cost of tuition and potentially crippling student debt. She has spoken publicly of how she turned to pornography to pay for Duke’s $60,000-a-year price tag and to avoid private loans, which have become a necessary and serious evil of higher education. In 2012, the average debt per college student was $29,400, an increase of 6 percent each year since 2008, according to The Project on Student Debt.

When the Duke scandal first broke, Weeks, 18, made it clear that she wanted to be an advocate for sex workers and eventually become a civil-rights lawyer. “We need to remove the stigma attached to their profession and treat it as a legitimate career that needs regulation and oversight,” she wrote in an essay for the Web site xoJane in February. “We need to give a voice to the women that are exploited and abused in the industry.”

Reality-show deal aside, Weeks has a penchant for talking about her poverty.

As is so often the case when fame hits, Weeks has been busy building her brand. She’s inked a deal to host a porn competition web series, The Sex Factor, launched her own Doc Johnson sex toy line, and made several appearances on talk shows. “I got her on The View,” her manager, Lanie Speiser, tells me proudly. “I don’t think Jenna Jameson has been on it, at least while she was doing porn. I don’t think they’ve ever had an active porn star before.”

Weeks tells me that the attention she’s gaining as Belle Knox will help change lives beyond her own. “My focus now is on fighting stigma and marginalizaton within and outside the industry,” she tells me. When I ask her which specific issues—lack of adequate health care, physical safety concerns—are close to her heart, she mentions legalizing prostitution and fighting J.P. Morgan Chase’s decision to close several adult film actors’ accounts.

Weeks doesn’t yet belong to any porn industry advocacy groups, like the Free Speech Coalition, which oversees HIV testing in the adult film industry, or the Sex Workers Outreach Project, which promotes safety measures for adult film performers. “Organizations I’ve worked with? Um, what you have to understand is that within porn, we really don’t have an advocacy group. That’s the issue with porn. Maybe I’ll start my own,” she says with a laugh. She adds that she’s been in “really good contact” with sex-worker advocates Nina Hartley and Annie Sprinkle.

In addition to promoting her sex toy line and making the media rounds, Weeks has found time for a summer internship, at PornHub’s marketing and PR department. “Some people just don’t have the privilege of taking unpaid internships at law offices,” she tells me. “With the way the economy is now, I wouldn’t get paid for any internship. Does that make sense?” (Duke does appear to offer a stipend, ranging from $600 to $3,000 per quarter, to fund students doing low-paying or unpaid internships.)

According to PornHub, Weeks is the company’s first-ever summer intern (and yes, the internship is paid, says a company spokesperson, though they declined to give specific figures). Porn performers and directors have spoken out against Weeks for taking the internship because they say the site promotes the piracy of adult films.

Reality-show deal aside, Weeks has a penchant for talking about her poverty. “The reality is that there is tons of stuff I would love to be doing,” she says. “I would love to be going on a study abroad program in f**king Rome. I would love to go to trips all the time in Cape Cod. I would love to be working an unpaid internship at a law office. But I just don’t have the privilege. I have to work to pay for school.”

Perhaps PR isn’t such a bad idea for Weeks—she’s stupendously good at selling her brand. At the end of our interview, she tells me, “Just don’t make me sound bad.” She refuses to speak on the record about an issue because she has already guaranteed that scoop to another magazine. She is ballsy, at one point reaching over to shut off my recording device to tell a story that she says is off the record (a story about Sasha Grey that fellow porn star James Deen had already happened to have made public last year).

For Weeks, the more television appearances and interviews she does, the closer she is to combating the negative stereotypes about sex workers and porn stars. “My overarching desire for how I want the world to move forward is for sex workers to be treated as equal members of society. My dream is that someday a sex worker could run for office,” she tells me proudly.

Back at the Show Palace, it’s time for another appearance as Weeks shimmies out onto the stage wearing a Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time” schoolgirl outfit. A crowd of six or seven guys clusters close to the stage, going nuts even though her actual dancing and stripping skills aren’t as well-honed as those of the previous strippers. For now, she’s got their attention and their dollars all to herself.