Things overheard just today:
“I need Botox because I’m sick of having bangs.”
“I eat a catering-sized salad because that’s all I eat all day.”
“We don’t usually carry over a size 4.”
The very act of eating a sandwich in Los Angeles—albeit a vegan one on whole wheat bread—sometimes feels like a subversive one. To move in this sun-drenched, beautiful world as an athletic size 8 is to be a gorilla among gazelles, doing all I can each day to remind myself that size does not equal worth, to know that my mind is my biggest asset, to repeat the mantras that repel nasty feelings of “less-than” far away from my soul. I can only imagine what life is like for my bigger sisters—and by sisters, I mean other people everywhere. Self-love is hard.
We keep up with Kim Kardashian’s ass, tabloids cover the star-studded race to get one’s “pre-baby body” back, moviegoers guffaw at Melissa McCarthy’s self-effacing slapstick, and pundits discuss Rachel Jeantel’s state of being “dark-skinned and plus-sized.” Meanwhile, manorexia’s on the rise and everyone I know is on some kind of gluten-free-macrobiotic-organic-vegan-air-water-diet-juice fast.
Somewhere in the rubble of the never-ending Battle of Body Image, Carlos Batts and April Flores are making big, sexy art together. They met thirteen years ago outside a Hollywood art gallery, when Batts was an up-and-coming rock photographer, fresh off the plane from Baltimore, and Flores was working as a barista at a local coffee shop. Three years later, they were married and collaborating on numerous projects. Batts is now an award-winning fetish, entertainment, and music photographer/director, while Flores is a model/actress and the first plus-sized adult film star to have a sex toy molded from her body. Documenting their own surreality has culminated in Fat Girl, a full-color feast of a book featuring Flores, as seen through Batts’s lens over a period of twelve years.
“I wanted to redefine and change the meaning of the term ‘Fat Girl,’” Flores writes in an essay accompanying the photos. “To me, fat would no longer be the negative word it had been [for me and] so many others.” Whether peeing in an L.A. alley, channeling Tura Satana on a desert movie set, posturing in a cheerleading costume (handmade by her husband), or frolicking in a Vegas motel room, Flores projects glamour, confidence, and sensuality—all the things media denies fat girls in real life and all the things even skinny girls sometimes don’t get. The collection offers a stunning vista of one creative couple’s life together, inviting the viewer to play voyeuristic guerilla in some kind of hopeful revolution.
This interview was conducted in their home on a Sunday afternoon—Carlos in jeans and a Johnny Cash-style button-down, with a makeup-less April, both fussing over their new “shoe toy” (handmade and sculpted in the likeness of April’s feet) and moving around gigantic framed prints while prepping for their book signing at the MOCA.
The Rumpus: How did this photographer-muse relationship begin?
April Flores: When I met Carlos at the gallery, he looked at me and I thought he was giving me a flirtatious look—I thought we gave each other “the sex look,” but I found out later it was an “I want to shoot you” look. I didn’t know the difference yet.
Carlos Batts: I gave her a business card, but I was sincere in my cheesiness. She just had this awesome face and she looked pretty curvy and I thought, Holy shit, this is amazing! My first instinct was to shoot her. Then when I shot her the first time, I glitched a little bit because I thought she was so hot. She was covered in baby oil and smelled nice and she looked very comfortable and it blew my mind. She was super-relaxed and super hot—the best model I ever shot. Usually you get one of the five things you need in a model, but she had that moment where she had it all. After the first time, there was definitely a crush. The second shoot became the cover of my book Wild Skin.
Flores: I was nervous—I had never shot with a stranger before. I’d only taken pictures with friends. He said, “I wanna shoot you in a bikini,” and I was like, “I don’t know about that.” He had one. I wanted to do a good job, and decided I didn’t want to let my insecurities get in the way of his vision.
Rumpus: Had you had a body type preference before, as a photographer or in dating life?
Batts: It doesn’t really matter. I like curvy, voluptuous women. It’s normal for me. As a photographer, I shoot everybody. Mostly I want people to be comfortable and happy, because I’ve seen “perfect” bodies without confidence and I feel like I’m wasting my time, but sometimes someone is not “model-esque,” but they do their best and it’s fun and more interesting.
Rumpus: April, in the book you mention in your essay how you’d been called “chunky” and “fat” growing up. How do you feel about the word “fat” now?
Flores: Once we got five years into this project, we started pitching to publishers and I thought Fat Girl would be an interesting title. Once I decided on that title, I decided the meaning of that word could change for me. Now it’s completely opposite. It’s just a descriptive word, like “red hair” or “yellow table”—it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I’m trying to change the negative connotations that word has. Maybe for some girls it can be empowering. People in my creative and performing circles embrace it in their own work, so maybe things are shifting a bit?
Like with any word, the power in it comes from the intentions given when the word is said, and how you interpret it. I don’t know how to change a whole culture, but the word “fat” only has as much power as you give it.
Rumpus: Do you feel the adult industry is more accepting of varying body types?
Flores: I think they’re very aware that people like different things, and they have to categorize everything and compartmentalize because ultimately for them, it’s about sales. If they know “BBW” sells, they market and label that way.
Rumpus: Did you have any body image role models growing up? Did you feel anyone in the media represented you?
Flores: No. Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian are curvier than what was popular in the ’90s—the “waif look.” They are curvy but they don’t have fat rolls—they have tight stomachs, legs, arms, etc. They’re still thin, in some way. Then Melissa McCarthy has her comedy… But I’m trying to portray myself in a more sensual way. I want to make fat women feel sexy and desirable and attractive.
Rumpus: Do you think we have more examples of “curviness” in the media these days? Does any of that help or empower you?
Flores: I try to not to think about that too much, because if I do, I get more frustrated. I know there’s more size-positive and fat-shaming awareness out there, but I think it’s still really acceptable to make fun of or use fat people as a punch line. I went to buy a birthday card the other day and noticed many of them were about eating too much cake or making fat jokes. I’m not without a sense of humor—some things about it are funny—but fat seems like a “safe bet” if you need a laugh.
Rumpus: Do you consider yourself a fat activist or part of the fat acceptance movement?
Flores: I think, in my own way, I am being an activist with my body being the tool, but an activist for everything I stand for—self-expression, body positivity, sex positivity, female-positive stuff. It’s not just fat.
Batts: Art is the strongest form of activism. Art encompasses everything. It encompasses the queer movement, fat activism, racism, all the “isms”—that’s our job. We’re not supposed to be total consumers…even though I want to be rich and have a million dollar boat, but my motivation is to cross boundaries and create a dialogue, and that’s what I’ve done it for since I was a kid.
Rumpus: What’s it like working together as a couple, as opposed to with other people?
Batts: It’s more fun. But my wife has been an exceptional model. It’s like if your dad was Michael Jordan—what’s it like playing with Michael Jordan versus playing with your coach? My wife’s April Flores. When it comes to shooting, it’s the most ebb and flow thing we have. It’s the most peaceful thing we do. No matter what’s happening in our lives, when we’re shooting it’s a different bubble. It’s the most sacred bubble. With other models, they’re hired and you can collaborate, but with my wife, we can do anything at any moment.
The book is truly real. We had a camera with us at dinner, concerts, parties, the beach…those first five years, it was hardwired into our love. Then it branches off into studio shoots with hair, makeup, clothing. Then, other times we’re out at a bar and it’s like “Hey, take your titties out!” That’s the awesome, spontaneous part.
Flores: Or I have to pee, and I’m like, “Carlos, take a picture. I’m gonna pee in this alley.”
Batts: It’s collaborative. There’s always a balance. The thing that makes it different with husband and wife is there’s no imposition. We can be on a picnic or on vacation and say, “Hey, let’s take a picture,” and for ten seconds we’re in our superhero outfits, and then it goes back to normal. It happens very naturally for us.
Rumpus: Is it sexy for you two to shoot together, or more like an art project?
Flores: With the pictures, it’s more the idea of getting a good image, but with the movies, when I’m having sex with people, I’m turned on.
Batts: It’s exciting. I’m motivated by her beauty and how hot she is. There’s no pretense to the art. I’m enjoying it but I know I want it to be dope and creative. Even though she’s peeing in an alley, it has to be lit right and her shoes have to be in the frame and it should be against a graffiti wall—otherwise we’re wasting our time.
We’re skydivers. We know we’re getting in the plane, we look forward to getting in the plane, and we want to have a nice jump every time. The camera to us is like your golfing or sailing or fishing trips, or whatever husbands and wives do around the world; this is an awesome combination of two people who just sonically work. She loves getting her picture taken and I love shooting her. There are times when we plan to shoot when we go out—the first five years were like that. They were raw. It wasn’t about a website or a magazine. We were just dialed in.
Flores: There was no “April Flores” yet [referring to her stage name].
Batts: It was just my hot wife in a glitter dress, three drinks in. It was just fun and reckless and awesome.
Rumpus: How did shooting photos evolve into making films?
Flores: We had been shooting stills for four or five years and then Carlos started to have a video camera set up, taping our shoots. Slowly, the focus shifted from the still camera to moving.
Batts: It was very slow because at first it was just to document. She had such good symmetry and doesn’t have a blemish on her skin, so I knew it was gonna work. I was shooting and thinking, If you talk on camera, people are gonna pass out. Our first movie was more of a musical experimenting and documentation. Then there was Voluptuous Life, which was full-blown sex culture outside of porn—exotic dancers and art shows and cool stuff that was happening outside of the goofy shit that happens in the San Fernando Valley.
Rumpus: What about the transition from shooting nudes to having sex on film?
Flores: It started with photos, and then I became more comfortable. While we were working on Fat Girl, in 2005, Carlos had shot Belladonna and we met with her for the book project, and though she declined to be shot, she asked me to do a scene with her on camera. She was super nice and I felt very comfortable with her and I thought it’d be a one-time thing—a story to entertain myself with when I’m old. I wore a wig because I wanted to remain anonymous.
Batts: It was the early stages of what we have now. We just had a basic blog and there wasn’t really the mass production there is now.
Flores: That was the first woman I had sex with. I try to live my life by saying “yes.” I’d rather look back and say, “I did this,” rather than, “I could have done that.” She’s so experienced, so she lead the scene and I did my own thing. I had a glass dildo in her ass and I was thinking, Oh my god, I hope it doesn’t break! I was wearing black gloves. I was trying to perform and be an interesting subject, as well.
Rumpus: Later, did having sex with others on camera require a big conversation in your relationship?
Batts: We communicate. We’re a pretty tight team. We’re into the things we want to do. I was there for the first time, though it was a different director.
Flores: Another director asked me to consider it, and I talked to Carlos about it first.
Batts: It’s not so much that it’s another guy, but I’m into just making sure everything’s cool, she’s comfortable, she gets the performer she wants to have and the guy’s not a dick. I like shooting her with guys, too. It wasn’t a relationship thing. We’ve experimented in our real life.
Flores: Sexually, we were already more open, so any discussion we had was more about the business and career aspects.
Batts: The uniqueness is we have a healthy, awesome personal life outside of film and art. Making these other things is fun to us.
Rumpus: What do you say to people who might hurl pimping accusations?
Batts: In my universe, no one says that. Our life is normal. Most of our friends are in similar situations. You evolve and decide the kind of people you want to be around. There’s no pimp shit about where I’m at. The things we do are so awesome and beautiful, you can’t even come off on us like that. We spend hours choosing the color of nail polish we use, and getting the right curls in her hair, and picking the film I use, and setting the light.
Flores: What I’m learning is that people have a hard time digesting a woman with a strong sexuality.
Batts: America has a lot of sexual hang-ups that have been perpetuated, which make people awkward and uncomfortable. We’re married for ten years. We can do what the fuck we want to do. We have a loving relationship. If you’re an adult married person, you should try to have a good sex life because sex is a part of marriage, and if you’re not talking about sex or having sex, you’re not in a good marriage.
Rumpus: April, what did you think of Carlos’s work before you knew him? There must have been girls coming over all the time to shoot.
Flores: That was really hard for me to understand, because I had not known any other erotic photographers before. When I was dating him, he would be like, “Oh, I’m shooting this girl and she looks so good,” and I’m like, What is going on? There’s a naked girl in my boyfriend’s house and they’re alone! My whole perception of a photographer-model relationship was based on our first shoot, which was intimate. I was attracted to him and he was making comments to me, so once I became more involved with the shoots, helping on sets or whatever, I realized he’s not doing that with other people. Then I started shooting with other photographers and realized that our first time was magical and unique—the exception to the rule.
Batts: To my credit, the first time I shot her, I lit the shit out of her. I’m just saying—I’m not a scumbag. I was working! At the beginning, I shot a lot of my friends and friends’ girlfriends. I saw Richard Kearns’s book and Eric Kroll’s book at the Maryland Institute College of Art bookstore in 1995, and I was motivated to out-cool their imagery. It was never about fucking the model. It was more like, He has a candle in her ass. I have to come up with the next idea. I was competitive erotically, but not into the models—until I saw dynamite: my wife.
Flores: Once you’re working in the field of nudity and sexuality, it becomes very normal. Now I know it doesn’t mean anything. To a novice, I couldn’t understand: these people are having sex in front of you, but how can you not be enjoying it? Now I see it as work. It’s different.
Batts: We’re abnormal, too. I think there are people who shoot without passion and vision, but we think a lot about the end result. We have to get our shot.
Rumpus: How do you feel about this book finally being out, after several almost-book deals and twelve years of work?
Batts: It’s been like trying to get LeBron his ring. But fuck yeah, it’s happening. One thing I will say about art is you gotta believe in it, and you’ll get it. When we went DIY with our movies, things started to happen. I had lost interest in photography and business, and the only thing I believed in was us and the book. Finally Barnacle Books/Rare Bird Books really committed to the book and made it happen.
Flores: Each time we had sent it off to a publisher we’d get really excited, and then when it didn’t happen, I’d say, “It’s going to happen with the right publisher when it’s supposed to happen.” The time leading up to the release of the book feels a lot like the lead-up to our wedding.
Batts: The book is strong stuff. Here’s a woman who is living her life fearlessly, and that’s what it’s about. We’re realizing how special it is to be able to create together on this level. I’m inspired to do more.
All images © by Carlos Batts.