FROM SEXPLOITATION STAR TO PORN STAR: AN INTERVIEW WITH COLLEEN BRENNAN
Busty. Redheaded. Alabaster-skinned. She started her Hollywood career as sexploitation star Sharon Kelly in the seventies ("Supervixens," "Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS") and became Hall of Fame porn star Colleen Brennan ("Getting Personal," "Taboo V") in the eighties. Along the way, she made brief appearances in mainstream movies like "Shampoo," "Foxy Brown," and "Hustle," but she is best remembered for shedding her clothes before the cameras. I talked to Brennan about what it was like to work with sexploitation director Russ Meyer, whether or not the Golden Age of Porn was really golden, and what she thinks of today's decidedly more hardcore porn industry.
How old are you?
I've been waiting thirty years to say what my chain-smoking, gravel-voiced neighbor Hester would tell anybody who would listen during the last year of her life: “I'm sixty-three years old, and I feel every goddamned minute of it!”
Where do you live?
In a good-sized city in the southeast.
How did you become an actress?
By relentlessly honing my craft? No, no, no. My titties got hired first. In 1972, boob jobs were still rare, even in Los Angeles. I was showing off a pair of remarkable naturals as a nude dancer on the Sunset Strip. The owner of the club introduced me to his friend who made soft-core sexploitation movies. We found that, in addition to my major assets, I could repeat several consecutive sentences on demand. I was also an exhibitionist already comfortable being the naked center of attention.
What was it like to work with Russ Meyer?
I guess a lot like working for any rude, grumpy misogynist; it kind of sucked.
You were topless in "Shampoo"?
And bottomless, if I remember correctly. Just a lot of body paint.
I read that you dated ["The Wizard of Oz" munchkin] Jerry Maren. Did you date any other celebrities?
You could say “dated” some celebrities. Sounds better than "star-fucked," yes? I've never named them publicly before, but the most fun ones were [Hollywood icon #1] and [Hollywood icon #2].
Why did you decide to start performing in porn movies?
I figured it would be easy money. I was right. I was getting restless managing a phone sex company in Marina Del Rey. A couple of smart women I worked with had been in hardcore, and their experiences didn't seem particularly sleazy or unpleasant. Plus, I was thirty-two, nobody was going to spend a lot of energy trying to misuse me, and I stayed pretty clear on what I did and didn't want to do for money.
Speaking of money, doesn't everybody want to hear the numbers? I always do about everybody else! When I quit in 1985, there were between five and ten women in the business making more than me. Some maybe a lot more; I really don't know. My day rate was $800. Very few of us always got our rate. I was probably averaging more like $650 a day for the last two years, but I was paid the same for days I had sex and days I did not. I was in about 110, 120 projects total and brought home about $160,000 (net after taxes) in just over three years. The Consumer Price Index gives this the same buying power as $350,000 today. Did I spend it all long ago? You bet.
Was the Golden Age of Porn really a golden age?
I have no idea if it was a special time for viewers, but it might have been the best of days for performers. You were asked what you wanted to do, not pressured to do painful or unhealthy scenes, or even stuff a performer simply found repulsive or degrading. And it was just naturally more fun to make movies with scripts and wardrobe and sound stages and sets. Plus, everybody looks better on film than video.
I never met John Holmes. I got along fine with Ron. Basically, if you were a guy doing a decent amount of hardcore in the early eighties, I probably knew you in the biblical sense.
Why did you quit porn?
People, mostly gay men, were dying from AIDS really fast in 1985. Being HIV positive was an inescapable death sentence -- few lasted a year and a half. We all knew somebody dead or dying; it was enormously sad. We didn't know much, but it seemed prudent to me to stop having sex with a lot of people who were having sex with a lot of people. Plus, you know, I'd done it by then. If I'd stayed another year, two at most, I would have been getting less work for less money. Nina Hartley and her young peers were quickly closing in behind me.
Do people still recognize you?
People seldom recognized me on the street even when I was working! I am a very fair-skinned redhead. My face was practically a blank canvas. I wore much less makeup in real life, and I was usually dressed somewhere between modestly casual and downright schlubby -- nothing particularly tight or low-cut. I was an exhibitionist, but it was only a kick when I was being paid. Maybe that's my kink. One of them, anyway.
I never really suffered repercussions from my wayward past; that I knew about, anyway. There will always be people who don't like you for one reason or another. I never really speculate a great deal on why some never warm to me. There are just too many possibilities!
My life today is fairly ordinary, reasonably peaceful, financially stable, not rich, not poor. I retired after about fifteen years [from] working for people with intellectual disabilities; I was good at my job and liked it a lot. I have an old dog and a young grandkid, with another one on the way. And a very patient man who is significantly younger and smarter than I am has been putting up with me for going on fourteen years.
Are you proud of your career?
I don't think I've ever used the word “proud”, but I'm certainly not ashamed. It was what it was. Sex, sexuality is neutral. It's how you feel about what you're doing that makes it positive or negative. So don't do anything that feels negative, right? Not for money, not for love. But there's nothing inherently immoral between consenting adults. If you must have a god in your life, find one who wants you to enjoy all the parts of yourself you were born with.
What do you think of today's porn industry?
Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I still think a little pubic hair adds a dash of personality to most genitals.
The awards shows don't sound as fun as the old days. Seriously, does any woman really want a trophy for “Best Anal Gangbang”?
I see the growing popularity of live web cams as a positive development. It's sexy, it's safe for everybody involved, and it empowers women to choose their own path and set their own limits.
At the other end of the spectrum, I am saddened by young women who submit to psychological and physical abuse we find in extreme porn that is sometimes severe enough to inflict long-term damage for money that will be spent before their rectums heal. I feel for the unlucky losers of porn's HIV lottery. But I don't worry much about the adults who watch them because I doubt that any pornography has much power to influence our core sexuality.
I'm starting to understand that the surge in cruel, dehumanizing porn was not so much a result of increased demand as it was a response to the marginalization of the industry. When the product you've been manufacturing and selling for quite the nifty profit for years and years becomes widely available for free, it's reasonable to try to stay in business by retooling the factory. The problem for the San Fernando Valley is that it can't thrive on a niche market, and no amount of exposure will, in the long run, make the extreme stuff become the go-to jack-off material of the masses. The industry needs some young creative minds with an interest in new technologies to take it in a fresh direction.
Today, anybody can click across the internet and see you having sex in porn movies made decades ago. In a way, that makes you immortal. What's that like?
Google "terrible tuba players" or "men with mustaches who shave their heads." Or "women in swimming pools playing pool." Being immortal ain't what it used to be. But, yeah, there will be Colleen Brennan, 20th century American porn performer, taking money shots to the lips long after Sharon Kelly has turned to dust. I guess I've left a teensy little mark. It's all good.