In Las Vegas, I was 21. We’d been there three days, and I was learning my new name. A stranger was teaching it to me in the ballroom. The women changed their clothes again and again; they passed in parades of Technicolor latex, in white dresses and nurse hats, in fishnet and lace. On a table nearby, a woman climaxed. I was at the booth with Seven. We posed beside a table of free sample DVDs and a television that played 10-minute loops of us being tied and untied. She wore a black silk overbust corset and sucked on a cherry Blow Pop. Pink rope impressions were pressed into her wrists and shoulders. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d seen. I was wearing her boots. They were a size too small, knee high, stiletto, black patent. My toes had been numb for hours. You couldn’t have paid me to take them off.
A man said, “You’re Lorelei.”
I paused a moment before saying, “Yes.”
He said, “I’ve seen you.”
That was the first time.
If you talk to a performer — say her name is Lily Black — remember I am making this up — at some point, Lily might say, “Sometimes I have to take Maria out for a night. Sometimes Maria needs a night out.” When she says that, she’ll be talking about herself. She isn’t crazy or confused. She knows exactly who she is.
I know exactly who I am.
We calculate and divide to keep ourselves safe — in the tangible ways, sure, but also safe from unguarded inquiry.
Every time I meet a stranger, I do this math: How much do you know about me already? What, if anything, do you deserve to know? At a holiday party surrounded by women my age, by mothers in Saturday lipstick, I won’t lie exactly, but I will evade. If you tell me a dirty joke, I’ll pretend I haven’t heard it before. I never cash my checks with the teller anymore. My name is the last thing I will tell you.
It isn’t that I don’t trust you — but I don’t. It isn’t that my birth name doesn’t fit me anymore — but it doesn’t. Everything I’ll tell you is both true and not true. There are a few things I was born with, but most of what I own, I made up. Most of what I own, I earned. Day by day and scene by scene. This isn’t about confusion, it’s about context.
I’m 33, and for 14 years, I have sold my naked image. I have made my body public. At this point, I have been a whore for nearly as long as I wasn’t one. I’ve spent my entire adult life hustling. Pornography has made me who I am. I am Lorelei Lee — and also, I am not. I’m big sister to four siblings, 33-year-old child of a single welfare mother. I’m a queer woman, a porn star, a dominatrix, a stripper. I’m a wife in Saturday lipstick. I’ve done nearly everything a person can do without clothes on. I am paid to lie to you, but I often tell the truth.
For a while, there were places where I would use my birth name, and there were places where I would be Lorelei. I divided it up — public and private — until the division became more rigid, the private more precious. There was a day when I decided not to be promiscuous with my origin. There was a day when I decided that I had earned my new name. It belongs to me now.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Our names are constructs, just as our bodies are. It was by stealing a name, by hiring out my body in performance, that I truly began to own both.
I took on the name Lorelei at 21. It was three years after my first naked performance, when I’d used a name the producer had given me. When I was 19 and naked in a stranger’s house in Chula Vista, spreading my legs on a washer-dryer, they called me Carolyn, but that name was never mine.
I sold cigarettes in bars as Lulu. I’d grin out from my pink dress, click my high-heeled shoes, and proffer my heavy box of chewing gum and tobacco, king-sized candy bars and light-up silk flowers, pressing my breasts into the goods to make them cost more. I’d say “I’m Lulu,” and the tourists and the boys stumbling into bachelor parties at the North Beach strip clubs would say, “Did your mother give you that name?” And I would lie and lie. The dancers on break, smoking in the doorways, bought packs of Parliaments with $10 bills they peeled off hairband-secured rolls of cash.
“I’m Lulu,” I’d say.
“Me too,” they’d reply.
I became Lorelei tied up in someone’s living room in Sacramento, wearing $3 thongs from the sidewalk bins on Mission Street. I became Lorelei in a red leather jacket and nothing else, squatting on a staircase of perforated metal in the dark, holding for the flash. I became Lorelei in Chinatown, high on Vicodin just to alleviate the boredom of posing. I became Lorelei in a basement in Livermore, faking orgasms badly in knee socks, fucking myself in an old elementary-school desk chair with a cheap plastic vibrating dildo. I became Lorelei on my knees in front of four naked men in a shoot house kitchen, clinging to pink satin beside a swimming pool at a Los Angeles mansion, tied in rope and hung upside down from a tree in upstate New York, on a green felt pool table with spit sprayed across my face and loving the strangeness of strangers’ bodies in close-up, loving the seamed scars and discoloration and dimples and forgotten hairs, scent of salt and flowers and smoke, infinite variation. I became Lorelei in cars, in trains, and taxis and buses, hungry and tired at 2:00 a.m., at 6:00 a.m., at 3:00 in the afternoon, fingering a new white envelope of hundreds, pulling a twenty for cab fare from a just-counted stack, pressing my forehead to the cool windshield in slow traffic on the 405 with five days worth of thousand-dollar checks in my shoot bag. I became Lorelei in the restaurant at the top of the Hard Rock Hotel in January, fist-sized goblets, plate-glass wall glossing the neon, white linen in my lap, when I leaned over to Seven and whispered, “I will never wait tables again.”
Naming a thing makes it real.
In Las Vegas, I was 25, in a rhinestone dress on the red carpet, holding Annette’s hand. The line of photographers held out their microphones and flashed their camera lights.
The reporter from CBS This Morning said, “Are you a porn actor?”
I said, “Sometimes I act, and sometimes I don’t.”
We were scared and young. We wore cheap silk and paste jewels. I thought Annette was the most beautiful woman I’d seen. I was still so easily shamed. If you called me a whore then, I’d flinch.
My entire family saw that red carpet footage. They called my mother and asked her, “Does she hate herself?”
I resent even having to tell you that the answer is no.
Here’s the thing about coming out: It doesn’t happen just once. It isn’t a thing you do and get done. It happens again and again. It happens over and over and over, and it is never over.
I earned my name in Washington, D.C., where the summer steamed the bushes and sent waves of green heat into my face, evoking my childhood. I had traveled there to be a witness in John Stagliano’s obscenity trial, and my attorney argued that I should be allowed to use my name in court, that my safety relied on it. The prosecutor objected, said that to use my name would “legitimize” me. As though illegitimate were my appropriate status. I’m still angry. Every day, around the world, the legitimate humanity of sex workers is dismissed. We are told we should be punished and then policies are enacted to punish us. Or we’re punished by those who know that committing violence against a whore is too frequently state sanctioned. I know, she was just doing her job. The judge never ruled on my name. The case was dismissed before I could be called to testify.
I earned my name in 2008, traveling ill dressed through six weeks of winter with the Sex Workers’ Art Show, ice under my flats in Ann Arbor, in Williamsburg, in Asbury Park. Twelve of us traveled in two vans. All of us artists, all of us sex workers. All across the country we danced and sang and took our clothes off, we covered ourselves in glitter and lit ourselves on fire and read our stories out loud. ABC News called us a “traveling sex show.” Protesters sang hymns in a circle outside one auditorium. At the College of William and Mary, police officers positioned themselves in the front rows of the audience, in case we might need arresting. All of it — every snow-calmed college campus, every Holiday Inn with its basket of apples, every epithet and dirty joke reversed, every roadside toilet, dusk rush of dark trees past the passenger window, Midwestern strip club cup of ginger ale, backstage sequin and chalk dust and sweat, and the terror and thrill of standing up on that stage night after night to tell one true story to hundreds of hushed faces — all of it was hard and beautiful. At Harvard, the walls were old brick and polished wood, a gleaming gold-pale I will forever associate with academic wonder. If you licked those beams, they’d taste like money. A flavor recognizable only after you’ve starved for it.
Before we left, I had considered using another name, a third name, a writer's name. But Annie Oakley, the visionary woman who ran the show, told me she had already sent out materials that said “Lorelei.” That I ended up using the name I’d already made, the name I’d been earning for years — the name under which I’d done a thousand things the world still wants to shame me for — this experience changed my life. This six weeks of coming to know myself as an artist, of learning my name one more time, this time as an artist’s name, this, finally, is what allowed me to understand that I was never splintered, that whatever I am — slut, whore, sister, freak, artist, wife — all of it is truly, wholly me.
If you call me whore now, I’ll tell you: You have no idea.
And still, I may be making a mistake, telling you anything.
At a bachelor party in 2010, I’m giving a lap dance. I kneel between a man’s denim legs, look up at him. He says quietly, searching my face, “Do you really like this?” He says, “What’s your real name?” I smile, bat my false eyelashes and cover his face with my breasts.
Whatever name I choose, that is my real name.
Lorelei Lee has been an adult film performer since 2000 and a director since 2009. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, Wired, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is a contributor to The Feminist Porn Book and the co-writer of About Cherry, distributed by IFC Films. You can find her tweeting about politics and books @MissLoreleiLee, and about naked people @XOXOLoreleiLee.
Excerpted from Coming Out Like A Porn Star. To learn more, click here.