She’s No Angel: Punk Princess of Porn

042307 article foxley She’s No Angel: Punk Princess of Porn

As much as he’s done for freedom of speech or whatever, he really doesn’t like what I’m doing,” said Joanna Angel, 26, the self-proclaimed Punk Rock Princess of Porn and namesake of hard-core Web site BurningAngel.com. She was referring to her ex-boss, Larry Flynt, whose company she left prematurely earlier this year. Comfortable in her disheveled Williamsburg offices, the tiny, tattooed and buoyant Ms. Angel might have disappeared into the overstuffed maroon sofa had it not been for the weight of her massive platform boots dangling over the couch’s edge.

Ms. Angel (née Joanna Mostov) had recently returned from L.A., where she now spends much of her time. “Larry’s got a formula that really works for him, and for me to come into the company and have my own thing, where I’m shooting crazy movies in New York with me and all these tattooed girls—” she recalled, before a long pause. “My stuff is really raw and gritty …. He wasn’t feeling it anymore.” (Mr. Flynt did not respond to repeated requests for a statement.)

Of course, Ms. Angel hasn’t always been on a first-name basis with industry kingpins like Mr. Flynt. Before moving to Brooklyn in 2003, her porn career began at Rutgers University (she graduated with a B.A. in English literature), when one of her college roommates—cinematically named Mitch Fontaine—bought a digital camera and started snapping photos of Ms. Angel, sans vêtements. “There was like 10 people living there—you know, the kind of house where you’d wake up one day and somebody was living on the couch or sleeping in the bathtub,” she said. “I was working out of my laptop that was buried under a heap of clothes, but it wasn’t much of an office, it was more of a hobby …. I wasn’t really a sexual person. I was really kind of shy, and I was somewhat of a political activist in college. I wasn’t going down this road at all.”

That road apparently took a hairpin turn, because her platonic partnership with Mr. Fontaine wound up carrying the pair deep into a realm of hard-core pornography at break-neck speed. Mr. Fontaine, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has remained Ms. Angel’s confidant and business partner, though he doesn’t star in any of the films. “In the beginning, we were like, ‘This isn’t porn, it’s art’—which is really stupid,” Ms. Angel admitted. “And then I had met someone who offered me a pass to go to the big AVN [Adult Video News] convention in Vegas [in 2005]—it was a porn expo where every company had their booths and all these porn girls are signing stuff,” she said. “I was looking around, and I kind of liked it—I thought it was pretty fuckin’ cool!”

Before her flight back to New York had landed, Ms. Angel said, she knew that the porn industry was something she wanted to be involved in for the rest of her life.


IN THE LAST THREE YEARS, Ms. Angel’s Burning Angel has become the crown jewel in a rapidly expanding genre of adult entertainment known as alt-porn. In essence, alternative pornography is any erotica that strays from the traditional tenets of mainstream smut. But nowadays, alt-porn is usually used to describe explicit material that features a set of heretofore-unorthodox elements like tattoos, piercings, punk-rock music, “imperfect” body types and dyed hair. And while the seeds of today’s alt-porn movement were planted in the early 90’s by a few offbeat magazines and underground Web sites, its fan base and scope remained largely underground until 2005—the same year Ms. Angel was drafted by
Hustler.

John d’Addario, who operates Gawker Media’s popular porn/sex blog Fleshbot.com, has observed Ms. Angel’s sudden rise from a professional perch. On the phone from New Orleans, Mr. d’Addario described meeting the petite, tattooed Brooklynite at the 2005 AVN Expo, when she was still basically unknown. “What first struck me about Joanna was that she was very bright, and I got the sense that she was in control of her own career; she had a very defined vision of what she wanted Burning Angel to be,” he said.

What that is, it turns out, is a compendium of hard-core videos, music features and photo books of punk-rock girls in various stages of undress and provocation. Burning Angel is a subscription site—an undisclosed number of members pay $12 dollars a month for access, and the site currently boasts 1.5 million hits a day. While the company wouldn’t disclose subscriber information, Ms. Angel did say that a relatively large percentage of Burning Angel’s members are female. The company has also put out a number of gonzo films—the Cum on My Tattoo trilogy, starring Ms. Angel, has been particularly popular—and currently has four full-time employees. The site is updated three times a week, but the frequency of production is scattered, with the number of shoots varying from month to month.

Ms. Angel’s preferences have developed in sharp relief to the plasticity of the female stars she met at the AVN Expo. In their early work, Ms. Angel and Mr. Fontaine featured the kinds of performers normally snubbed by companies like Hustler and Vivid. It didn’t take long before Ms. Angel knew that she was onto something. Right after their first film was released, things began to change. “We started to get a lot of attention, and it was really weird. I started to notice that thousands of people were reading my blog on Burning Angel, and I started to get recognized on the street—everything started to happen at once,” she said.

Soon, Hustler came knocking on Ms. Angel’s door to announce Larry Flynt’s interest in signing a contract with her. And following a short meeting with the company’s executives in California, Ms. Angel was signed up to direct movies for the adult-fare conglomerate. “We went from filming a $10,000 movie that was basically filmed wherever we could film it, to making $30,000 to $40,000 big-feature porno movies,” she said. (The feature films include Porny Monster
and Joanna’s Angels 1 and 2.) Fleshbot’s Mr. d’Addario, for one, remembers marveling at the 75-foot-tall posters of Ms. Angel at the AVN Expo, only one year after they first met.

But almost as quickly as Ms. Angel got involved with Hustler, she discovered that, no matter how hard she fought, Mr. Flynt would never really understand her creative vision. “He really is into the traditional blond California porn that’s shot in front of swimming pools and waterfalls,” she said. So back to Williamsburg she went.


BUT IN BROOKLYN, she’s still on her own. The success of Burning Angel seems anomalous.

“In L.A., porn is an industry. All the big porn companies are there; they’re all on the same road,” Ms. Angel exclaimed. She added that inquiring about the New York porn industry is “like asking what the Wisconsin fashion industry is.”

Dan Miller, the editor of Adult Video News, the industry’s leading trade magazine, agrees. He believes that New York is doomed to be a porno wasteland forever. “I think the East Coast presence is always just going to be a fraction of the West Coast,” he said. Eon McKai, who heads the alt-porn division of porn megahouse Vivid, was equally skeptical of Ms. Angel’s decision to keep her company in New York. “It was our hope that she would come over here to Vivid,” he explained. “But basically she said—and I’ve got to give it to her—‘It’s hard to be a woman in this business and get respect.’”

Ms. Angel’s purported attachment to New York is a big part of her shtick. After admitting that all aspects of filmmaking are much easier in L.A., she described how this city gives her work qualities that can’t be reproduced anywhere else. “Think of a movie or TV—like Seinfeld is filmed in New York; you can tell,” she said, rather inaccurately. “I always think that the products we shoot out here turn out a little unique—it’s really cool—and the grittiness and whatever.

“I’ve always appreciated good scripts, because I’m an English major,” Ms. Angel added. “I think there is a certain amount of intellect that you need to make good humor that a lot of people don’t realize.”

But any suggestions that Ms. Angel means to intellectualize porn are quickly put to sleep with a dose of candor. “I’m not really intellectualizing it, but I’m definitely using my brain,” she responded. And Mr. d’Addario, of Fleshbot, argued that the very contention is inherently null. “There’s only so far you can go with intellectualizing porn,” he explained. “There’s still something about it that hits you on a very basic level, and if it stops turning you on because it has all this baggage on it, then it stops being porn.”

“It’s been really cool, because even though we are a porn company, there’s still this kind of innocence to us,” Ms. Angel said. “We still have a lot of girls on the Web site who are from New York—just kind of hipster, rock ’n’ roll girls who just want to do this for fun. So I think that adds a level of freshness,” she explained. “But it’s like, this girl works in a coffee shop …. She’ll get paid, but it’s not her job; it’s not just another day at work.”