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Beautiful Things That Happen in the Dark: A Conversation with Eon McKai

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A smart stripper friend passed along Eon McKai’s number, and we met one Saturday night in Pasadena at Urth Café, where he was much shyer than I had expected. Eon McKai is an SA, a sensitive artist who made a lot of smut for hipsters starting in 2006, a time when change was afoot at the adult film production company Vivid Entertainment. Hustler had bought VCA Pictures, and Vivid was being squeezed out and destroyed. Under these difficult circumstances McKai was recruited to launch Vivid Alt. In a last gasp, Eon McKai was handed the keys to the kingdom, a chance to challenge stale industry standards by showing porn as a celebration of women. From the ashes of frankenboobs and dying cheesy ’80s porn, a hipster pornographer was born.

Eon McKai, named after godfather of hardcore punk Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), brought his cerebral, grunge-glam ’90s aesthetic to the adult film scene and blew it up so fast that he quit his mainstream gig to film twenty-five movies in four years, with handsome budgets. McKai’s films have an underground art house feel because they’re geared towards young punks ages eighteen to thirty, a demographic historically ignored by the porn industry. While the sex is hot and mostly hetero, his scenes are anti-establishment at their creamy center and Warhol-esque in nature. For instance, in Girls Lie (2006), sets are dimly bright, and the cameras pause on curious expressions and pierced lips, conveying a fashionably feminist tone. Gone are images of implants and in their place are organic, pierced goth brunettes in jeans and knee socks, who take massive amounts of dick. Generic male porn actors play the perv to their pale, pouty Lolitas while McKai’s erotic vision seeps in through the cracks.

He challenges the viewer to stare into the dark where beautiful things happen. Grainy images of fire and fully clothed girls run wild with dynamite in their fists (Doll Underground, 2006). Old men in buildings pound on desks and mumble orders while a haunting female voice like a propaganda machine commands all apocalyptic super pixies to take over the world with their juicy pussies and white lace fingerless gloves. And in that dark, beautiful place of chipped nail polish and bare feet walking a crooked line, Eon McKai brought hardcore back into the dim tunnels and warehouses where all things hardcore belong—and the tired, linear porn narrative was fucked.

I met him. We talked. Then, he showed me his dick.

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The Rumpus: There’s a lot I admire about your aesthetic. The throwback ’90s piercings and hairdos challenged old porn beauty standards. How else did you strive to resuscitate the porn industry?

Eon McKai: It was mostly inspired by what was happening with SuicideGirls.

Rumpus: What was happening with SuicideGirls?

McKai: Punk, goth, and raver girls were being celebrated as beautiful. Before that, porn stars had a uniform and they did not deviate from it. The SuicideGirls had personal style and they expressed themselves, and those were the types of girls I admired and I thought were sexy. Girls in the porn industry, if they wanted to work, they had to look like that, and I wanted to help them break out of that mold.

Rumpus: Like the fake breasts and blonde hair, no piercings, and no tattoos look? I noticed you also always have natural breasts in your films.

McKai: Always.

Rumpus: Is that a personal preference or professional one?

McKai: Well, I spent a lot of time working for VCA and it was an era of really bad boob jobs and so many of those boob jobs were brutal and cruel. It was not necessary.

Rumpus: Yeah, I’ve worked with women that have those watermelon boob jobs and wondered how they sleep. It does seem cruel. So, what drew you into the alt porn industry initially?

McKai: I used to have a bullshit story, but the real story is I got a job working in porn right out of grad school. I was a guy, and I watched porn. So yeah, I was attracted to it. What really happened was my girlfriend and I sent pictures of her, and she became one of the first SuicideGirls, and it was a scene and a really cool community at that time. Hustler was buying VCA, and people’s lives were being destroyed by the buyout. I watched people my parents’ age scrambling for money, and it was tough to see. They should have had stability in their career. So that was the environment I walked into. Vivid said literally, “Fuck it—let’s see what happens,” and so I used that “fuck it” attitude to get my shit through. My movies got through pretty unfiltered. No one told us what to do. I am kind of the only one who got to make something like that.

Rumpus: Were you teaching somewhere before that? How did your life change as a result of Eon McKai’s viral fame?

McKai: Yeah, I had to let go of a teaching job because I was teaching young people, and I don’t think they would have been cool because my profile was getting too big. They were high school-aged students and some of them found Eon McKai and knew who that was. I didn’t want the parents to have to think of their kids being taught by an adult film director. That was too much, so I let that job go. I was building brands, and the Eon McKai brand became really big and the Vivid Alt brand—I had this huge machine behind me.

Rumpus: It seemed like Art School Sluts (2004) was totally unfiltered and pretty cerebral. Did you guys have a big budget at that time? Could you do whatever you wanted?

McKai: Yeah, one thing that was really cool was I had total freedom over what I was doing. It was like a ’90s grunge record deal.

Rumpus: What was difficult about it? Did it ruin you for certain things personally or professionally?

McKai: Well, it’s really one man in an office. So I took all the flack and gossip and any kind of criticism. We only made a certain amount of movies. There’s a limited amount of opportunity, and I wanted to spread it around. Alt porn was such a scene, and some people got upset. There was only a certain amount of work, and everyone wanted to work for Vivid Alt. I had to make hard decisions. It’s a hard position to be in, and some people got mad.

Rumpus: I can imagine the tension because you were dealing with people and creating art in a place where that was not happening prior. What was that like for your peers? What was it like to say, “Hey. This is the art I am doing now?”

McKai: Well, there was gossip. I’m a sensitive person, and the gossip hurt, and just because I achieved a sense of power and status does not mean that I am not a sensitive artist. I think what you are talking about was trying to stand up and be proud of what I am doing. Even though my peers loved me, they didn’t necessarily approve of what I was doing. Like if someone there is not feeling great about themselves, they would say, “You could use your powers for good and not evil.” So everything’s great until you’re fingered the whore. You’re not totally allowed to be out and proud about your sex related topics. It’s considered dirty.

Rumpus: I think it’s different for porn stars like Nina Hartley and Sharon Mitchell, who segued into sex education and gained respect in those communities.

McKai: Well, we don’t know what goes on after the lecture. Maybe Sharon Mitchell goes out to dinner and some of the professors say some fucked up shit to her. It’s not great. It affects our self-esteem. It’s across the board.

Rumpus: How did it affect your self-esteem, your personal life?

McKai: It isolated me from the world in a way. I got really addicted to meth. It was a performance enhancing drug, so it allowed me to do it and say, “Fuck it, I am going to edit this movie, and it’s going to blow your mind.” The shame isolated me a lot. Now that I’ve had time to step away from it, I don’t think people mean to do it or slut-shame me; it’s a tone in society. I think they just want good things for me. Maybe it was not malicious.

Rumpus: I think porn and drugs are different things. People may have sensed that you were on a self-destructive path, and then there is the societal shame imposed on sex workers in general, so that’s a heavy burden to carry for anyone. What was the best advice you got when you began making porn?

McKai: My mentor, Veronica Hart, said, “You’re going to be fantastic and make a ton of money. Don’t call talent to chitchat.” So I tell my students that now. People who want to be actors and actresses are really attractive and trying to get somewhere, and you’re a roadblock, so don’t toy with them or call them to chitchat.

Rumpus: [Earlier] we were talking about Terry Richardson and how he is being shamed publicly for being a so-called predator, and you asked me if he had done anything you hadn’t done, and I didn’t know. So, have you ever told an actor you would cast her if she fucked you?

McKai: No, I never told an actor I would fuck them and put them in my movie. But in that setting, someone is going to have sex with you. That is a powerful position to be in, you know. You have a young, super hot person trying to do something, and you are standing in the way of giving them that opportunity, and you have to respect that position of power.

I also kept my personal life pretty separate. I had a girlfriend during most of that time, and became friends with the actors. These are the people you see all the time, so you become homies. I would just let sex happen organically.

Rumpus: In the article I read, it sounded like the models showed up and felt uncomfortable, but did it anyway and then got paid and complained. I like to think that women are more powerful than that and can leave if they want to. What do you think?

McKai: The other thing is that a lot of young women don’t have enough experience in order to process that type of situation in the moment where they show up to a shoot. You know, they want to be photographed by that famous person, and it’s a tense situation when he says, “Hey, touch my dick.” The stress of showing up to the place where you have a chance can be huge. Touching the dick could be a small roadblock, and so she does it and feels shitty afterward. I don’t know the specifics of the models Terry Richardson worked with.

Rumpus: Why do you think people react so strongly against the sex industry?

McKai: I think people react out of insecurity. I think there is so much pressure to choke on a dick or be into rape sex that there is a lot of jealousy and insecurity when you’re a young girl. There is societal pressure to have a great sex life, to have a great body, to have a shaved pussy. It’s compounded by the selfie-taking culture of “look at my fabulous life.”

Rumpus: Yeah, it’s so not what it seems. It’s so interesting how people think sex work is so glamorous when it’s so not. It’s a hard job and can be so lonely.

McKai: I think people want to feel close to people and get sex, and they are not really getting that all the time.

Rumpus: I think women feel threatened and pressured to perform sexually and be perfect, hot sex toys, and that creates tension and pressure in our society.

McKai: The pressure to perform was intense. It wasn’t always the case, but when I first became single and was doing that job, it seemed like girls thought they had to be so hardcore. When I was single I used to [think], Hipster girls love the rape. I don’t know if they thought they were auditioning or what. I’m a little sensitive to putting someone I like in a film. Some people are wired like that, but I’m not. I was like, “Hey, you don’t need to puke on my dick.”

Rumpus: Why did you stay [in the industry], and how did you leave? 

McKai: I was at the AVN Awards in Vegas, which I fucking hated. I am like the anti-porn person. There are a lot of cool porn people, but a lot of that aesthetic was about being sexual and cerebral and being a part of our scene, and that’s what I was fostering and nurturing. So the convention was like, take all the drama of the Internet and act it out live. Tons of gossip made me really unhappy, and I thought, I can’t do this anymore, so I left the day before the awards. This was 2010. I was wildly unhappy. I put out some movies I had to stick around and finish, and then I quit. I’m not a businessperson, I am an artist. I realized I had hit the ceiling. There’s never been a deal like the deal I had with Vivid. They never failed me. It was ideal. Steven Hersch never dicked me around.

Rumpus: Why were you so wildly unhappy then? How did you rebuild your life?

McKai: I was super addicted to meth and needed to get out of that business. It was insidious because I could sit around and do drugs and make a movie, so I fucking quit, and then I hid out for a long time. I ran a [post-production studio] in Pasadena and got clean and gave a bunch of sex workers and porn people jobs. I employed porn stars and directors. I went from bringing people up in porn to bringing people up in the regular world. 

Rumpus: Is there anything remotely exciting going on in porn now?

McKai: The personalization of porn is interesting. Clips for Sale is interesting. People in the middle of nowhere can make some money, and I hope it’s sustainable for the people doing it. The barriers for entry were once high. Now they are low, but the problem with that is that there’s a ton of competition.

Rumpus: What advice do you have for sex workers?

McKai: Just keep quitting and don’t feel bad about going back.


Antonia Crane is a writer, teacher and performer in Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir SPENT by Barnacle Books/Rare Bird Lit. Her other work can be found in Playboy, Dame Magazine, Salon, PANK magazine, Black Clock, The Believer, Frequencies, Slake, The Los Angeles Review The New Black, and lots of other places. She can be found running up Griffith Park mountain and here: http://antoniacrane.com. More from this author →