UNDRESSED

From Porn Star to Fashion Star: Colby Keller on Vivienne Westwood, Sex for Money, and Fighting Gay Conservatism

As Colby Keller becomes Vivienne Westwood’s muse, he talks candidly about a tough coming out, attempted suicide, and how sex and porn liberated him.

01.26.16 5:01 AM ET

In one shot for Vivienne Westwood’s new womenswear campaign, the gay porn star Colby Keller is in red thigh-high boots, a tiny pair of bikini briefs, and a tatty-looking—though probably very expensive—housecoat.

via Vivienne Westwood

In another picture he is in a green mesh dress, and in another an off-the-shoulder, skin-tight frock, with a cutout over an impressive pectoral. In a third, he is wearing a blue T-shirt, blue briefs, and yellow ankle boots.

He poses full frontal, with modesty cleverly protected, in another Westwood shot, in a black evening coat and black boots; and another picture has him in a kind of white jumpsuit meets Regency dandy that recalls New Romanticism at its most gender-blurry.

The 35-year-old Keller—a 6-foot, 200-pound, handsome drink of water, with beard, big arms, hairy chest, and friendly smile—might not appear to be the first choice for a male model for womenswear: He is far from waif-like and androgynous.

He is—as his fans know him through his videos for distributors including Sean Cody, Randy Blue, CockyBoys, and others—rugged, bearded, and muscular.

The shoot was a break from Keller’s Colby Does America project, in which he aims to have sex on camera with someone in every state (he is up to 49).

The Westwood shoot was his first high-profile non-porn gig. When we met at The Daily Beast offices—he with his husband and publicist, the fabulously named Karl Marks—Keller said the fashion shoot may have derived from a picture of him in vintage Westwood trousers that his friend, the designer Bernhard Willhelm, sent to Andreas Kronthaler, Westwood’s husband. Keller said Westwood also could have heard of him through an auction both had participated in.

He ended up in Venice for the fashion shoot just hours after finishing filming another non-porn project, this time a comedy for HBO.

“It was an amazing, crazy experience,” he said of flying to Italy, although one pair of black perforated leather high-heeled boots didn’t fit his size 14 feet until a bright assistant had the idea to stretch them by dipping them into the water of a Venetian canal.

When Keller arrived, he found Westwood taking a catnap under a table.

A huge fan of hers—both for the historical references she uses in her designs and for the punk sensibility that is her most notorious foundation—he was “very nervous” to speak to her.

However, the two had supper, where Westwood spoke passionately about climate change and whales—climate change is a key theme of the Venetian-shot campaign, called “Mirror the World.”

Westwood gave Keller the latest button she had designed, with the slogan “Politicians Are Criminals” emblazoned across it. “I wear it all the time. This is my treasure,” he laughed.

The burly Keller loved wearing the clothes Westwood put him in: “It’s womenswear, but anyone can wear it. You don’t have to restrict yourself to the clothes that are just aimed at your gender.”

***

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The eloquent and engaging Keller was born in Michigan and raised in Houston, Texas. His father, an engineer who designed parking lots, came from a Ukrainian working-class family.

Keller’s mother was raised in a very strict Dutch Reform household and became an evangelical Christian in the 1970s. Every Sunday, Keller, the youngest of four children, joined her at the local “Pentecostal, speaking-in-tongues church.” (Dandy-ish and not religious at all, Keller’s father would sit out in the backyard every Sunday.)

Growing up gay was “difficult in certain respects,” but it was also a “nurturing household,” Keller said. As the youngest, he was spoiled. He was very curious, quiet, and easily engaged by his parents. “I was very introverted. Looking back on it, I may have been on the autism spectrum. Some of that may have been growing up in Texas, which wasn’t nurturing. School put the emphasis on the sports team. It was oppressive.”

via Vivienne Westwood

Coming out at 15 was very difficult, Keller said. His father was supportive, his mother not. “She found a box of porn under my sink. They confronted me about it. I was hiding in my room, and through the door she was throwing Bible verses at me. I was crying. It was very emotional. At one point she said, ‘I wish I had a gun so I could blow your brains out all over the sofa and then kill myself.’

“I remember thinking, ‘Who’s the Christian now? Fuck you. Your true faith is coming through. What’s more important to you?’ It was a true revelation. My father told her, ‘If you ever touch him, or if he ever hurts himself, I’m getting a divorce and taking you to court.’”

Keller paused. “It was not a pleasant moment for anybody, and it was tense for a while. I actually did try to commit suicide, not very effectively. I tried to drink a bottle of shampoo.”

Keller laughed softly at this memory. His father was away that weekend—the weekend after he had come out—and his mother had said something unkind to Keller as they got into the car to go to church. He ran upstairs to his bathroom, crying. He took a sip of the shampoo and realized “this isn’t for me. It was a very serious thing, but it wasn’t that smart.” More laughter.

“I don’t know how seriously I wanted to die. I think it was really that I was desperate. I didn’t see a way forward at that point in time, and it was a really uncomfortable situation to be in. There was nobody to support me. My mother came up and found me, and said, ‘You’re so disgusting,’ and then other family and friends took care of me.”

Since then, his mother has “come around quite a bit,” Keller said. He stopped calling her “Mom” and called her by her first name, “which really got the point across.” He said he told her, “This is who I am, you have your beliefs, and some of your beliefs are wrong, and you have a choice: You love me the way I am or not—and if not, there are repercussions to that.”

***

Sexually, Keller thinks he takes after his father, “who was very sexual.” He once stumbled on his dad’s “pretty extensive” porn collection. His father, while devoted to his mother, twice separated from her. (The time they reunited after split No. 1 they conceived Keller, he said.)

“Sex is the way I can communicate with people and engage with people,” Keller said. “It’s very difficult for me to talk to people, especially large groups. I kind of shut down. Sex is a way for me to engage other bodies.”

Keller had his first sex at 19, when he himself was still “very conservative,” with his first proper boyfriend. They were in a monogamous relationship for two years. His mother would live with the two of them, with a “certain degree of acceptance.”

The same boyfriend had mental health problems and schizophrenic episodes, and while others in Keller’s family wanted him to end the relationship, his mother showed “real compassion” toward his partner, which in turn helped improve the relationship between Keller and her.

“It was porn which helped me open up,” Keller said, no lewd pun intended. He wanted to be an artist and studied at an art school and the University of Houston. (As Westwood dressed him for the shoot, he said, “She was putting things on me like a sculptor or painter. I thought, ‘She’s really doing this right now, and I identify with what she’s doing.’”)

After his frustrated art studies sortie came a B.A. in anthropology. But still, “I could not find a job to save my life. Desperation and poverty, and a little bit of curiosity thrown into the mix” led Keller to begin making porn in 2004.

“I watched lot of it. I liked the Sean Cody site in particular, and sent them an application. I thought they’d reject me and was so depressed I wanted that negative affirmation. I was hungry for rejection.”

But Sean Cody said yes, and Keller earns around $2,000 to film videos as a “top” (active partner), and more to “bottom.”

Initially, Keller said he did not want to work with straight men who do gay-themed porn, but now it isn’t a problem. Indeed, often he has better working relationships with them. “Some can get erections, not all of them,” he said.

They fake it?

“Oh, yeah, you can. A lot of faking goes on.”

With an anguished look, Marks bid Keller to shush.

The majority of men in gay porn are straight, Keller said. “Some might be attracted to men, a lot like the ego boost.”

One model Keller filmed with was married to a woman and would probably call himself bisexual. Keller laughed, “He really liked to kiss and suck dick. He really liked me ’cos I’m a good kisser.”

Confirming his image of Texas as extremely conservative, Keller said the state was the worst by far for finding participants for Colby Does America.

“It feels like it’s gotten much more conservative and worse,” he said. “I couldn’t find anyone to have sex there. On the last day we found someone from Oklahoma to come to have sex there. I had been worried about Oklahoma, but we filmed three videos there and could have filmed three more.”

Austin isn’t a liberal oasis, Keller insisted. “It wants to think of itself like that. But it’s very bougie. There’s a strong libertarian community there, I guess.”

While he has “a lot of lovely, empathetic friends” in Texas, the typical response to a shirtless picture Keller would send to men over Grindr there was: “Oh, I guess you never put your clothes on,” he said. “It was very anti-sex and strait-laced.”

via Vivienne Westwood

Kentucky was a sex bonanza—”I got lucky in Kentucky, a lot”—as were Mississippi and Alabama, but not Tennessee.

What made some states more sexually open than others, did he think?

Keller said he wasn’t sure but surmised that people were less buttoned up in more largely working-class states.

In states where the population saw itself as aspirational and upwardly mobile, he said, there were more hang-ups about being filmed—and being seen, possibly, by others and judged.

“I got laid easily in Nashville, but no one would get laid on camera,” he said.

California was good. Oregon was not. Washington state was tough, but Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas were happy hunting. In New York—a city full of people wanting to be on camera and who behave as if they are, and where one would have expected all manner of good times to roll—Keller ultimately had to have sex with another porn star.

If Keller could afford to, he’d like to take this sex project international.

***

“It was really difficult,” Keller said of first making porn. “It took a lot of learning, to really find a way to be comfortable doing it. It’s an ongoing learning process. I’m probably the most comfortable that I ever have been. When I first started, I would go sit in the corner and read a book. It’s definitely been a challenge.

“What’s funny is that there are guys you’d think you’d have a lot of chemistry with—you find them attractive, or you’ve seen their porn and you’re really excited to be with them. Then you meet them and there’s nothing there or it’s difficult. Other people you don’t expect to have a good chemistry with and you do.”

The one time he had a relationship with another porn performer it was a “disaster,” he said. The relationship died because of many issues, one of which was competitiveness—Keller was more famous than his partner.

“I don’t seem to have a problem finding intimacy with people. I am very, very sexual. I do like to have a lot of sex. For a boyfriend, that’s kind of a given from the get-go—that that’s what you’re getting.

“For the type of person who wants a monogamous partnership, I’m not the person for you. It’s not going to happen. If that’s what you want and you’re angry you’re not getting it from me, the problem is yours. I’ve been pretty upfront about who I am.”

Marks, an artist, writer, and performer, said the couple had met in 2006, when he was living in Washington, D.C., and Keller in Baltimore. They were married in January.

Keller had stood him up on their first date, and then, one beautiful day, Keller had called him to ask what he was up to. Marks was heading to see a Dada exhibition at the National Gallery, and Keller asked if he could come.

There was a “pretty immediate” attraction. Marks was particularly struck that Keller was not dressed as a typical male Washington drone, wedded to white or blue shirts and khakis: “Everyone’s the fucking same.”

via Vivienne Westwood

Instead, Keller was attired in vintage plaid slacks and a multi-patterned shirt, with a bright orange backpack and size 15 purple Converse high-tops. “I thought, ‘You’re kind of awesome,’” said Marks.

Keller himself worked for a political consultant in D.C., a “great learning experience to see the city for what it is, and how government works. It’s a factory where meat gets made. If you want something done, you pay for it and you bribe politicians, basically. It’s a really destructive place. You really have to accept the idea that you’re selling your soul to the devil, and everyone in the city has made that agreement.”

It was back to porn full-time after that.

Keller smiled. “I’ve spent the majority of my adult life working in a certain business. It’s not like I can turn around and be a lawyer.”

Keller has “a lot of people” who help him manage his celebrity and who keep him away from negative comments and worse online. Mostly, his fans are sweet and appreciative, he said.

He doesn’t see himself as a sex object either, but rather as “someone that people can identify with, or can see themselves being, or being like a part of me. I am certainly an object for people, but also like a vessel for people to see themselves, or see their reflection in me.”

Marks said Keller’s porn work has never been an issue in their relationship. At the outset, friends would recognize Keller and ask the same thing about what it was like dating a porn star—leading both men to make a deliberately gross video called “Fuck My Dirty Shithole.”

People had been expecting a very different, steamy video, and utter silence greeted the premiere of the film, apart from close friends who laughed uproariously.

“I’m not a jealous person,” said Marks. “I’m not very traditional in a lot of ways in how I perceive the world. I’m very leftist, Marxist for the most part. I don’t care about the sexual mores of a specific culture at a specific time. I see him as an artist first and foremost. Porn is something he has done to sustain himself financially. And it’s a very honest appraisal of what capitalism does. We’re all ultimately whoring ourselves out, and whoring our talents out.”

There is no jealousy, Marks said. The couple get their biggest pleasure by shopping for their shared passion, vintage clothing, including a coat of many colors Marks is wearing—a real patchwork and pattern volcano—that many friends have decried, said Marks, and which this correspondent loved and had to try on.

***

Keller’s father died three years ago. His mother still doesn’t know what Keller does for a living, and he is worried—with her poor heart health—knowing it could quite literally kill her.

As for his own aging, he professes to be “shocked and amazed” to be in the porn business. But the gay population itself is getting older, and there is always a market for hot older guys for guys of all ages. Sure, Keller said, he goes to the gym, and while there is “a certain amount of vanity that comes with being in a business where people see your balls every day, there’s a certain point in myself I know that I can’t change things. You either accept aging or fight it in vain.”

Less and less of a line exists between porn and his life, Keller said.

Because he likes sex so much?

“It’s been a long process to, like, allow myself to like sex,” he said. “Honestly, that hasn’t really happened till I did this project [Colby Does America].”

The sour breakup of one relationship led him to “I would almost call it an asexual, or anti-sexual period. I had very little libido. I was abstinent for about eight months.

“Doing this project means I have to be sexual all the time, and have a lot of sex, and be OK having a lot of sex in a lot of ways with lots of different kinds of people. What’s been great about it, what’s been positive, is to show what is enriching and fulfilling about sex, and why it can be a good thing for people—and not letting reactionary, conservative notions about sex influence my own opinion of myself.”

That conservatism around sex Keller sees as becoming part of the gay body politic too.

“I think, if anything, gay culture has gotten more conservative,” he said. “The gay rights movement—I’d hesitate to call it gay liberation—is the HRC [Human Rights Campaign]. They want gays in the military and heteronormative marriage. That’s not liberation, or emancipation, or liberation. That’s ‘We want you to be heterosexuals.’

“We hide the sex. It’s ‘We’re just like you,’ which isn’t true at all. I think it does a great disservice to gay culture for those to be our priorities politically. We can’t really hide who we are, and that will become a point of conflict or tension. You can make as many advances as possible, but they can be taken away from you in a minute, and we have to be vigilant about that.

“Part of that vigilance comes with accepting sexuality as a positive and good thing for people, or to recognize its potential to be that and emphasize that potential and not to demonize people for expressing their sexuality, whatever that sexuality might be.

“That’s a long process, and it involves a great deal of work, but that’s my business and I feel a responsibility to take on that role.”

Keller paused, then emitted a hearty, tension-releasing laugh. “’Cos,” he said smiling, “I mean, sex is fun.”