King of Sin City


Brad Armstrong has gone from art school student and part-time male stripper to becoming the Spielberg of the adult film industry

February 3, 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — There are a million stories in this naked city. But only Brad Armstrong guarantees a happy ending.

More than a decade ago, Rod Hopkins — a Canadian honour-roll graduate — sold his Mississauga townhouse, and headed to California’s lurid and lucrative adult film studios. Stripping in clubs since he was a teen, at first to work his way through art college, he was soon trying to carve out a more colourful career and make a name for himself in the sex show trade.

Hopkins transformed himself into porn performer Brad Armstrong. He married, and later divorced second wife Jenna Jameson, arguably the blue industry’s greatest cross-over star. And the one-time asthmatic newspaper delivery boy has become — among those who judge such things — both the Spielberg of skin directors and one of the multi-billion-dollar sex industry’s most popular leading men.

While Canada loudly prides itself on mainstream cultural exports such as Celine Dion and Mike Myers, few in his home country know that in the world porn marketplace, the persona of this one naked Canadian is likely better known than our much heralded Barenaked Ladies.

“He’s probably the most important filmmaker in the adult industry,” says Charles Lonberger, an editor at the Beverly Hills Outlook, a L.A. publication that reviews both mainstream and adult films. “I’ve never seen a director exact such … total control.

“The productions he makes set the tone for the industry.”

He also gets rave reviews from his 82-year-old mom, Elsie Reid, who, from her Toronto condo, offers up homemade cookies and homespun pride for her son.

“In regular movies they have sex,” the kindly widow points out. “And my son’s have good stories.”

He can sew costumes, and is a marvellous furniture maker, his mom says. Besides, she continues, you have to love a son who sets a sex movie around a car salesman as a nod to his now late father’s occupation.

Her boy is up for a best picture award, she beams. Looking over clothed shots, she adds: “I don’t care what he does, as long as he’s happy.”

And he does seem really happy. During just one weekend in Vegas — shadowed by Sun Media — Armstrong will watch fans line up to see him in the flesh during an Adult Entertainment Expo; with his girlfriend and fellow porn star, Jessica Drake, he will walk an Oscar-like red carpet for the annual adult movie awards; will then pick up two awards, including best actor, and will later party with Mike Tyson.

“How did I get here?” he considers, during the recent weekend where America’s “Sin City” celebrated porn in all its carnal incarnations. “Well, I guess I was never so typically Canadian.”

Carving out a career that’s attacked by protectors of morality, yet celebrated by countless adults who quietly consume the movies he stars in and directs, Armstrong is comfortable putting himself, fully, out there. Though, on a cool Nevada Saturday morning, posing beside dusty tracks behind the Las Vegas strip — a passing train engineer blasting his horn — he does feel a bit exposed.

“I’m just waiting for the police to arrive … though we’ll just have the girls chat them up,” he offers, amid a photographic session which is breaking federal rules by filming on a railway.

The scene of the crime is a tongue-in-cheek play on a CSI: Las Vegas murder investigation, complete with bloodied corpse — played by a veteran porn director — and adult film actors as investigators and the victim’s distraught girlfriend. The shoot — for a Paris-based porn news magazine — involves a thinly dressed starlet, who’s complaining of goose-bumps. Then there’s a fake patrolman, whose long hair and thick Parisian accent betray that he’s not from around here. And finally, another adult actress bending seductively over the bloodied body, as Armstrong dons rubber gloves to keep things clean.

“At least I didn’t have to show my boobs this time,” reasons porn-starlet-turned-CSI detective Stella Delcroix, who’s just touched down from France, in hopes of, well, making it big in America.

Within 10 minutes of shooting, before any real police can arrive, cast and crew are whisked away in a Hummer. Riding in back, Armstrong says: “Welcome to my life.”

“And here I thought your life was all just orgies,” he’s told.

“Oh, I’ve been in a few of those,” concedes the actor, who started his film career with Bimbo Bowlers from Boston in 1990, and went on to titles such as Sheepless in Montana, Plan 69 From Outer Space and a more recent title which was simply the mother of all four-letter words.

His job may only seem to revolve around sex. It’s really about the business of sex. Every frame and every moan is a commodity to be bought and sold.

Armstrong stars in, and directs, movies for Wicked Pictures — a California studio that is to porn what Paramount or MGM would be to Hollywood. One of the company’s blockbusters of last year was Coming Home, a film by, and starring, Armstrong. Think Mel Gibson’s 2002 We Were Soldiers, but in this one, everyone makes explicit love as well as bloody war.

Asked how long after Coming Home was released, did it start making money, Wicked president, Steve Orenstein quickly calculates: “Twenty minutes later.”

It’s the night before the AVN Adult Movie Awards, and Armstrong is up for a wheelbarrow of trophies — which are shaped like glass blocks and not what you may have supposed. As Orenstein and Armstrong stand around a casino bar at the plush Las Vegas Venetian, talk is about family, the impact of high definition, home renovations, Armstrong’s place in Hawaii — which features a sand-floor bedroom — and whether the Canadian has picked a name for the rock, roll and sex film he finished shooting the weekend before.

Nearby, a few seniors puff cigars and lounge in suits that were fitted when Sinatra played the main rooms of this town. They’re the old porn guard from New York — back before the current merger between dirty films and pop culture.

Outside on the strip, immigrant workers hand out — flicking the cardboard to attract attention — the business cards of $35 hookers. But in here, it’s the A-list of sex magnates. Armstrong and the studio owner are circled by a who’s who of the porn world, all gathered for the AVN Adult Movie Awards. But while the women may be busting out — though no more than nearby waitresses — the casual mingling is no more graphic than a gathering of IT convention delegates. It’s all about pressing the flesh before actually pressing the flesh.

Finally, it’s the AVN Adult Movie Awards night, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. It’s stretched SUVs, paparazzi, tuxes, gowns and waves to the crowd. The industry sees this as its Academy Awards night.

Throngs of gawkers, for as far as you can see, line the walkway — tourist cameras and video units running low of memory and batteries.

The awards show is as eclectic as the build-up — a Nevada desert mirage of make-believe over some reality.

More than a few of the B-list female stars, under hot lights, will show the paint and body filler which is hidden in their films. Some of their male co-stars will just look rather ordinary. But this is their prom, and more than a few winners will cry during their acceptance speeches.

Unlike the Oscars, the chosen don’t take their moment to thank God. Instead, they thank the physical endowments of their costars.

Tourists — many, older couples who’ve paid more than $100 each for cheap seats — strain to see a few girls below make out with one another in a bid for some limelight.

A large transvestite belts out a big musical number — the dirtiest song you can imagine, as publicity-hungry female porn stars dance and claw at one another on stage. Then, when finished, the exhausted big singer will suddenly be told the TV cable channel covering the event missed the cue, and they’ll have to do it all again. To which he will reply in a husky voice: “I’d rather die.”

There are explicit sex awards, but the premier titles of the night include best picture and acting statues. On this night, it will be Armstrong who will win Best Video Actor for Coming Home, as well as a second award.

For him, the rest of the night will be a blur inside Las Vegas’ hottest club. He and porn’s elite will join Mike Tyson in a private area of the LAX bar, where Paris Hilton and sister Nicky brought in the New Year. The dance floor in front of them will look like an out-take from Caligula, as couples move so close, a deep breath can barely come between them. Soldiers who’ve just returned from Iraq, will believe they’ve been shot and gone to heaven. The champagne will flow. The music will not pause. Beefy security will keep Armstrong and his exclusive clique safe from the masses.

And it won’t be until the next midday, when he will venture outside to call his mother.

“Not your typical Canadian life, but I’m not your typical Canadian boy,” he says as he dials Elsie’s number in Toronto.

Reaching her, he says: “Hey mom … got some good news. I won best actor and art director.”

Pausing, he shrugs, and answers her question: “No. No best picture. Sorry.”


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