This article originally ran in the October 2017 issue of AVN magazine. for a link to the digital edition.
Pictured above, clockwise from top left: Angela White, Julia Ann, Christian XXX, Sydney Leathers
In today’s world, artists and performers in all media seem caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, sharing, accessibility, and authentically being open and present is integral to the creative process—as well as a big part of what today’s fans and consumers expect. On the other hand, maintaining a measure of distance is necessary to think, be and—ultimately—remain safe.
The tension between these often-oppositional needs is something every public person must deal with. One long-standing tactic to help manage this balance is the use of a pseudonym—especially for adult performers.
A pseudonym can facilitate any number of margins and boundaries, from business benefits to simply maintaining a degree of personal space between one’s work and one’s personal life. For various reasons, pseudonyms are very effective—and the proof is in the behavior patterns. Most porn performers opt to use a pseudonym. Most, the vast majority even, but not all.
Some performers opt for an amalgamation, a legal first name followed by a flashy bit of flair in the form of a last name pseudonym. Others, however, opt to go all in. For various reasons, some performers choose to let their legal names stand alone, with no pseudonym whatsoever.
I spoke to Julie Ann, Sydney Leathers, Christian XXX and Angela White—four performers who, for various reasons, use their “real” names in porn. Here’s why.
“For a split second I thought to use a pseudonym but decided not to in the end,” Julia Ann shared.
For Julia Ann, her name holds a deeper connection to her family, who named her, as well as to her own aspirational ideas about who she is as a person.
“I never wanted to take [the decision to use my legal name] back, and I’ve never regretted using my name. In fact, if my last name wasn’t so easily misspelled and said incorrectly more often than not, I would have used it as well!” she added.
Julia Ann suggested there was a sort of reflexive or expected aspect of opting for a pseudonym—“Some people do it automatically without thinking, it’s just something you do. The agents say, ‘Get a fake name and protect yourself!’ And that’s reasonable, but I think that ship has sailed. With the internet and the ability to find everyone’s information, it’s not as effective [identity protection] as it once was.”
But there’s also a fantasy element, something that porn is predicated on, even for performers.
“Maybe people [use a pseudonym] because they think a different name is sexy and they want to up their sexy. For some people, maybe it ups that fantasy—living a different existence like a superhero or a spy,” she speculated. “In many ways, everyone wants to be someone else in some way. Really, it’s this discontent. I have that too, just not with my name.”
The use of her legal name is also connected to maintaining her own autonomy and power.
“I’ve always felt and said that, for me, secrets are a weakness,” she explained. “They take energy to maintain. I’ve never wanted to live in fear of losing control over secrets and the stress that accompanies that way of living.”
She summed up, “I have this irritation with people trying to take advantage of me—people who think that by being able to say, ‘I know your real name’ they are one-upping me. I like the fact that people weren’t able to use that against me. It’s like they think, ‘I’m going to hurt you by showing you that I have control over something of yours.’ I’m not going to hand someone the bat to hit me with like that.”
For Sydney Leathers, a pseudonym was never an option.
“Because Buzzfeed outed me for sexting and another site outed me for being on a sugar daddy site, my attitude was ‘Fuck it, how much worse could it get?’” Leathers explained. “I was already being gossiped about and judged internationally, so I didn’t think porn was that much of a leap.”
Prior to taking that leap, Leathers, which is pretty dang unique as far as surnames go, was concerned about her family.
“I actually spoke to a few members of my family before I accepted [my first industry] offer. I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t feel any differently about me. Everyone handled it really well! They were supportive, I think because I had just been through so much publicly. They stood by me through all of that, and they weren’t going to let my decision to do porn change their feelings about me,” she shared. “I’m very lucky.”
Leathers is not the first woman to have been burned alive by the media for her intimate involvement with a political figure. She is, however, the only woman to double down by moving into sex work post-scandal in such a public way. I wondered how that refusal to hide or be shamed had impacted her.
“Unfortunately, there is way more of a stigma for women involved in scandals than men. I think that, because I’m a woman, I was judged more harshly. I got caught sexting—I didn’t murder anyone. It was all so blown out of proportion,” she shared.
“I don’t think my life should’ve been invaded the way that it was. The press went really far in trying to dig up every possible piece of dirt on me they could. And when that happens to a woman, you’re expected to hide away. If you capitalize on it the way I did, you’re painted as a shameless, crazy bimbo.”
“I felt like because my name was already associated with this mess I might as well get my side of my side of the story out, speak for myself, defend myself, and get paid for it,” she continued. “Many people would’ve found it easier to forgive me if I went away and hid for twenty years. I didn’t want to let this defeat me. I wanted to be strong—and some people don’t like that strength.”
“XXX” is not Christian’s legal surname, but he did move from a full pseudonym to an amalgamated name as his career expanded.
“I didn’t plan on being in porn as a long-term career at first, so when a director asked me what my stage name was, I told him to pick it for me,” Christian explained. “Vin Diesel was just becoming popular back then. He’s bald, I’m bald—so I became Maxx Diesel.”
“This was strictly for my first eleven films, which were all in gay porn. When I transitioned into straight porn, I knew that I couldn’t use the same stage name. I remember thinking that it would be hard to remember a fake name, so I just started using my first name and XXX.”
“I have never regretted the use of my first name, but of course what no one tells you is that the longer you are in porn, the higher the likelihood of your real name getting out there to the public,” he continued.
“I am 42 years old and am long past the point where I am bothered by anyone who thinks I am gross or diseased or damaged. ... I can respect the fact that some people aren’t receptive to my career because of their own moral code—it is what it is. I use my first name now because I am proud of the life I have carved out for myself.”
In spite of a person’s own security with career path and life choices, there is still the factor of wider society to contend with—and wider society still struggles mightily with adult entertainment.
“My girlfriend and I have discussed our real-name situation for a long time,” Christian shared. “We have decided that, when our time in porn ends, we both need to change our first and last legal names to something much different than we currently have and start our Google searches back to zero. Not sure if that will work, but it’s the best option we can see.”
In no uncertain terms, Angela White is Angela White.
“I decided I was going to use my real legal name before I had even entered the adult industry. Not choosing a stage name was political and personal,” White asserted. “I wanted to make a statement about how proud I was to be part of the adult entertainment community and I wanted to demonstrate that I felt no shame expressing my sexuality in a very public way.”
“Using my real name helps me to remain an authentic performer. When I go to set I am always myself—I am always Angela White. I never wanted a separate identity in porn. My entire motivation for entering the industry was to express my own genuine desires and to be accepted for who I am.”
White’s travels down the road of public sexual autonomy started in high school. She openly identified as bisexual in her early teens and had to navigate being a sexually adventurous young person in an environment that mandated female sexual restraint.
“This was before Slutwalks existed and before it was chic to make out with other [women],” she contextualized. “I spent much of high school being bullied for being a ‘slut’ and a ‘lesbian.’ When I was introduced to porn, I finally saw a space in which women were being celebrated for expressing and exploring their sexual desires. I immediately identified with the women on screen. I guess I saw a part of myself reflected in them.”
The politics of separating out identities between “real” and pseudonym is an issue that performers still must deal with, even in 2017—and this wider cultural artifact of slut-shaming and sex phobia doesn’t seem to be going away.
“Despite recent media claims about the mainstreaming of pornography and the wider cultural acceptance of adult entertainment, porn performers still face social and institutionalized discrimination,” White asserted.
According to White, a number of factors including gender, sex, race, class, her family’s sentiments about her choices, and her feelings about prospective motherhood made it easier to use her legal name.
“Sex workers often struggle to open bank accounts, secure loans, and maintain custody of their children,” she explained. “I don’t judge other performers who have chosen to use a stage name or pseudonym. Every performer has a different journey and a different set of circumstances that have led them into adult entertainment, and for many performers, it is the safer option.”
“I don’t think there is anything ‘wrong’ with using a stage name—I will just be a lot happier when performers are choosing stage names solely for marketing purposes or search engine optimization, rather than feeling any need to avoid stigma or to protect their families.”
Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals is a sociologist and author. Find her on Twitter: @drchauntelle.