RIP

Why the average woman should care about Candida Royalle, “the Grace Kelly of porn”

She unapologetically put authentic female pleasure on the map

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Like many young women who valued free expression and felt a tremendous debt of gratitude to the feminist pioneers who came before her, I knew about Candida Royalle for years before I met her. I was still a kid when I first became aware of her, actually.

My friends and I were knocking around the local gravel pit on our bikes one day after school, and we found a bunch of porn magazines someone had hidden in the barrel of a tiny mixer. Dork that I was, I started reading the articles. Amid the garish, over-tanned nudie spreads, one skin mag had a feature on Club 90, a group of adult actresses — Annie Sprinkle, Gloria Leonard, Veronica Hart, Veronica Vera, and Candida Royalle — who were all supportive of each other and dear friends.

Friends? Porn people — those people — had friends?

How little I knew.

Fast forward several years, and I’d find myself living in New York, in my own flailing transition from working stripper to working writer. Right then we were at a critical turning point in women’s liberation, the mid-1990s, when the rigid, pleasure-denying second wave of feminism was edged aside by a new breed of liberated libertines — the so-called sex positive feminists. AIDS had politicized pleasure; porn — and the female appetite for it — was becoming less and less taboo, and the mainstreaming of alternative sexuality — from fetishes to sadomasochism to polyamory — was well underway. Club 90 was right at the fore. These women whom I’d read about as a wee sprout became friends and acquaintances whom I’d see out and about around town. They were all still close to each other, often hanging out as a group, looking chic and touting one or the others’ latest post-porn endeavor, a roving fabulous five.

Though their public raison d’etre was activism and advocacy — of feminist expression, of humanizing performers in the sex industry, of affirming the female right to pleasure — their core purpose was classic feminist consciousness raising. The five of them know that as “scarlet women” they were often short of allies and meaningful emotional support, so they sought it in each other. As Annie Sprinkle was fond of saying, “Before there was Sex and the City, there was Club 90.”

While the five formed their own unique sisterhood, they saw me as a fellow traveler and welcomed me to the broader tribe of women who had seen the seamier side of sexual commodification, but didn’t see sex as the negative agent. We thought pleasure was worth fighting for, even a feminist issue. I felt honored to belong.

I was always at the outermost periphery of the glamorous Club 90 galaxy, but over the years, Annie kept me in the loop on big news. My heart sank as I opened the latest email that came to me on September 7th: “This is to inform you, with heavy heart, that our beloved [Candida] left her ailing body this morning at 5:30 a.m.

“She passed on peacefully from her beautiful country home in Mattituck, Long Island, NY, with the birds she loved singing outside her window, with her three cats on her bed, and while breathing the sweet and salty ocean air …”

After a five-year struggle with ovarian cancer, Candida Royalle succumbed, with friends and family surrounding her.

Though all the Club 90 women drew attention for doing groundbreaking, wonderful things, Candida (born Candice Vadala on October 15, 1950 in Brooklyn, New York) pulled ahead in mainstream visibility due to the success of Femme Productions, the video company she established in 1984 to produce adult films from a woman’s perspective. Born to a jazz musician father, and raised by him and her stepmother after her biological mother left the family when Candida was 18 months old, Candida was an artistic child who entered porn acting as a means of combining her sexual curiosity with her interest in film.

After making 25 formula-type adult movies, she wanted something more. More autonomy. More realistic depictions of female desire. Through Femme, she became an instrumental figure in establishing the feminist and couples’ market for adult entertainment, in a time when anti-porn feminism dominated the rhetoric, and even declaring an interest in graphic sexual material would get you branded as a traitor to the cause. Bulling in where angels — and PC feminists — feared to tread, Candida built her own template for filmic depiction of sex and her own distribution network to disseminate it. Before Candida and independent porn producers like her, the video business was completely male-dominated, and its distribution channels mob-controlled.

In addition to helming Femme Productions, Royalle was a founding member of Feminists for Free Expression (FFE). She lectured extensively at venues including the Smithsonian Institute, the World Congress on Sexology, and several universities and professional conferences, with added signal boosts from countless TV talk show appearances and write-ups in mainstream publications like The New York Times and The Times of London.

Royalle authored How to Tell a Naked Man What to Do (Simon & Schuster/Fireside, 2004), and was a member of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). In 2014, she received a Doctorate in Human Sexuality for her life’s work from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.

Candida Royalle film

Movie poster for “Female Fantasies,” a film produced by Candida Royalle.

I can still see Candida clearly through my feminist fangirl lens. With her short spiky haircut and beautiful heart-shaped face, she’d serve 1980s Patrick Nagel poster model from one angle, then a young Jayne Mansfield from another. Her physical presence could be described as fierce and flawless, decades before those words were appropriated by straight culture (and trust me, no drag diva would deny her these superlatives).

Her personal presence was warm and bright — a bulwark in the sometimes-murky (and often slimy) world of the sex industry. As one of my dear porno-veteran friends was fond of intoning, in his comically dark way, “Don’t forget, this is a business that traffics in human souls.” When he said it, it was a joke between us, but at the same time, it wasn’t. Candida showed me that someone who matured in porn could embody and exalt the qualities that people in the business were said to be without: Resilience, loyalty, and vitality. Rather than burned out or used up, she seemed happy, healthy, stylish, purposeful.

Her professional presence was mighty and enduring. She was a firebrand of feminist sex crusading long before “sexpert” was a career choice, and the response to a woman saying, “I’m a pornographer,” became “and … ?” There have been many female role models in my life, but Candida stood apart as one who unapologetically made her bones in the sex business without being cowed by it, or curdled. She had a vision and she executed it without compromise. Why should the average woman care about Candida Royalle? Because she unapologetically put authentic female pleasure on the map. Meanwhile, the women who work (and worked) on the sexual margins care because we see her life as not just a guide to success, but also a powerful testimony to the durability of female friendship.

She leaves behind many fans and dear friends who were influenced by and grateful for her tireless work and heartening example. In an email, Annie Sprinkle remarked that the outpouring of love for Candida has been unlike anything she has ever seen. One writer in The Telegraph remarked that she was called, “The Grace Kelly of porn.” In a commiserating Facebook message, my friend Jo Weldon, headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, remembers, “When I met Candida, I was just beginning to discover that there were women who had worked in adult entertainment who felt the way I did. I was proud of my work and it was part of my identity, and I didn’t believe it should be censored or that the people who worked in it should be discriminated against. I believed it was possible for women to be in charge of producing adult entertainment for women and couples. She proved that it was all possible, and she was smart, kind, and ethical through the entire process. She inspired me and made me feel that even though there was (and is) a long way to go to improve conditions for people in the industry, it could be done.”

Candida Royalle celebrating her birthday in 2012. (Facebook/Candida Royalle)

Candida Royalle celebrating her birthday in 2012. (Facebook/Candida Royalle)

Club 90 began 30 years ago, and now, with the loss of Candida, it seems to me like the sign of an era drawing down. Her dear friend and Club 90 sister Gloria Leonard preceded her in death last year, and with the two of them having passed, it feels as through the light of sex positive feminism has been dimmed. The overlap between the sex positive feminist, alternative porn, and LGBT communities was significant, so many of us had to watch a wrecking ball swing through our social circle during the AIDS crisis. At its peak, death became our constant companion. And yet, when faced now with the death of a friend, mentor, and role model, I find I am no better emotionally equipped to deal with her passing than anybody else. The losses of our collective past didn’t armor me as I might have hoped. There is just no boot camp for grief, no balm for loss except the love and community that remains without her. What she leaves behind is a wild and enduring wake of influence. So much of what we take for granted as feminists — the right to pleasure, to right to our own sexual voice and vision — we owe to the work of women like her.

So, Candice, aka our dear Candida Royalle, rest well. For your activism and work, you will be remembered.

For your friendship and support, you will be missed.

For your eternal stature as a gracious lady royale, you are loved.

Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently the critically acclaimed I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles. Follow her on Twitter @lilyburana

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