Who Is Sasha Grey? My Day With L.A.'s Most Misunderstood Sex Symbol
I'm at a chic West Hollywood café, where the tables are evenly spaced and the dimly lit room reverberates with chatter. A vaguely Latin waiter holds up a chalkboard with the day's specials. Right on time, the maître d' brings over a brunette and presents her to me as if she were a head of state. "Hi, I'm Sasha," she says, holding in her hand an iPhone wrapped in a blue rubber case that stands out against her gloomy outfit: a black hooded wool coat (probably vintage) over a silky black dress that's cut above the knees and falls elegantly on her 5-foot-6 frame. I'm surprised she's on time, 2:30 p.m. sharp. "Nobody has any respect for tradition," she says, describing how everyone in L.A. is fashionably late. "I've hosted dinners where people were two hours late and I kindly told them to turn their cars around." She coughs, sniffles, then takes out a tissue and wipes her nose. Sasha Grey, it would seem, has coldlike symptoms.
While she's been living in L.A. for the past decade, Sasha grew up in North Highlands, a rough town north of Sacramento. She doesn't miss the doldrums of her hometown, except for the old ARCO Arena, where she saw Prince when she was 15. "I cried nonstop when he died," she says. She also misses her father, a Greek-American mechanic who died last year. "He had a heart attack," she says. "Which was really weird because he had one when I was 13, and he had quit everything — smoking, drinking. It's the most fucked-up thing in the grand scheme of things." While Sasha doesn't like to talk about her family — or personal life — she does like to share memories of her father, whose passing threw her into a deep depression.
"He would finish his day and walk in smelling of the foulest body odor and motor oil," she later wrote in an email when I asked her to tell me more about her father. "Somehow I loved it in the same way I love my mother’s perfume. On the weekends we’d often BBQ together. These combinations of smells are so ingrained in my memory, as is the smell of hot summer nights." Her connection to her father, a mechanic who surfed and drank beer with his dog, manifests itself regularly. She barbecues often at her house in Hollywood, which is also home to her two most prized possessions, an adopted Doberman pinscher named MacReady (after Kurt Russell's character in The Thing), and her dream car, a pimped-out Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
At lunch, as she stabs a cold shrimp with her fork, she tells me she's been sick off and on for two years. She adds, "I'm just relieved I know what's wrong with me now." She's been diagnosed with chronic sinus inflammation that causes fatigue and head pains. Sasha, who jokingly says she has a heightened sense of smell and can "tell when a bitch is bleeding," is congested, so she orders a double espresso she hopes will clear her head.
A few times over lunch she tells me she's not herself. It's Twilight Zone Day and Sasha has agreed to spend it with me, without any handlers or her celebrity schedule. Even though she is famously guarded about her personal life — she says she's had to falsify some stories in the press because of stalkers — Sasha plans to allow me to peek behind the mask she often wears in public — or at least behind the tissue she's currently using to flush out her sinuses. Besides being irritating, the two-year illness has hurt her ability to work or open her already sleepy-looking eyes.
She has, however, managed to pen her second erotic novel, a sequel to 2013's The Juliette Society. She's also booked a DJ tour of North and South America this summer, which she plans to film in virtual reality once she's assembled her handpicked team. She's an auteur or a control freak, depending on who you ask.
Sasha Grey patch, designed by Peter Kalisch
Photo By Peter Kalisch
Useless Facts About Her Writing Habits: When she was researching The Juliette Society, Sasha listened to glam-rock pioneers T. Rex. While writing in L.A., she would listen to classical radio station kMozart. In Paris, finishing the first book, she would listen to Radio Classique.
We quickly leave the café and head over to Amoeba Records. Sasha says she wants to buy me a copy of Straight Outta Compton because I've told her that I think N.W.A is overrated. "I disagree," she says, quite seriously, right before adding that she grew up with hip-hop and wrote some raps as a teenager. I ask her if she'd ever work with Dr. Dre. "Nooo, I'm not good at it. Plus I'm a white girl, which to me is funny," she says. With the top down under the California sun, her slumberous eyes squint behind her dark-amber sunglasses; her shades are so big they nearly cover the two tiny moles that trail off from her winged eyeliner and the mascara that once ran down her face during sex scenes that redefined porn's appeal in the mid- to late aughts. Sasha made self-degradation seem like fine art, and for that, she appealed to edgy tastemakers like American Apparel and VICE, brands that helped establish her as the most relatable porn star in the world. VICE also released Sasha's first book, Neü Sex, an uncensored monograph of her time in porn.
Today her eyes are as cool as a note from Miles Davis’ trumpet. She exudes warmth, when she chooses to, with a crooked smile that broadcasts her humility and tomboyish qualities. It serves to soften her rough image as a badass bitch, no-nonsense potty mouth and guarded celebrity who obsessively tries to control how the public perceives her. She's even hyper-aware of what comes up when you Google “Sasha Grey,” which, like many porn stars, doesn't have search predictions on Google (for the uninitiated, this means autocomplete). So she's been ostensibly blacklisted from Google's smart search. "I'm having someone look into that," says Sasha, who's been working on launching a website since 2009 and carefully tracks her online presence and search results. Most celebrities do, but Sasha isn't like most celebrities — she doesn't even have a publicist.
She's Hollywood's first porn star in the Internet era who used her body as a canvas, envisioning porn as postmodern art as opposed to campy cartoons starring blondes with fake boobs. Hollywood, as expected, has tried to cast Sasha as either the femme fatale or an indie sex worker. Which is why she's cautious of the roles she's offered. "I'm pickier than ever," she says, when I ask her what types of characters she's interested in playing. "I'd like to do something against type, something very transformative."
Sasha later tells me she's always wanted to be in an action movie. A few years ago, she trained intensely to be in an action film titled Skinny Dip with Danny Trejo, which never materialized. "I'd love to be doing more acting. I also know I have to navigate my way through some things." I ask her if she's watched the TV version of The Girlfriend Experience starring Riley Keough, who doesn't deliver the gritty honesty Sasha brought to the role in the Steven Soderbergh film from 2009, before her stint on HBO's Entourage. "Soderbergh asked me to watch it," she says, confirming that she is, on some level, his muse. "I wouldn’t want to be on the show; the film was a special experience, but I don’t want to repeat myself."
Perusing the merchandise at Amoeba, Sasha and I discuss just about everything, even as the dust from all the used vinyl agitates her symptoms. "Uggggh," cries Sasha, who once again takes out a tissue as we discuss Hillary Clinton's pandering (Sasha is a Bernie supporter); the underappreciated genius of Nicolas Cage; her rock collection (rocks, as in minerals); Game of Thrones, which Sasha enjoys for the sex and violence; a Deradoorian record she's eyeing; and her thoughts on the faux-charmed life of Entourage character Vincent Chase, which made men feel inferior in the way Photoshopped images make women feel less beautiful.
"That's how I imagine DiCaprio's life," she says of Vincent Chase.
Musical Notes: Sasha does not like hair-metal or contemporary country music. She likes Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, French synth wave and salsa. She's also recently written lyrics for electro-psych project Death in Vegas' latest release, Transmission.
Meanwhile, Sasha's life of late has been a literal pain. "It hurts just to laugh," she says, "like when you get smacked in the face with a ball." With her sinuses filling up with mucus, she confesses to me: "I don't know when I'm gonna get better." But even in her foggy state, the 28-year-old has the clear-sighted confidence of a Formula 1 racer staring down a corner at 200 mph — as she navigates the turns of her career like a seasoned veteran. "I'm self-aware enough to know that people want me for me," she says, "but I love music." Sasha is discussing her career as a DJ, actress, screenwriter, philanthropist, erotica novelist and, if she can convince a sponsor to pony up the cash, the next Danica Patrick. Last year, Sasha wanted to compete in the dangerous 9,000-kilometer DAKAR off-road rally across South America. "I had a truck with my name on it, but my sponsorship fell through," she says. "But I'm going to eventually do it; for my dad, especially." I ask her if her handlers were OK with her risking her life. "I don't care," she says, defiantly.
She's also the chief currency in a micro-economy that consists of items as tawdry as a "Cream Pie Pussy," a top-selling pocket pussy with her name on it. Then there are the books she's published, including The Juliette Society, which is part erotica, part philosophy. It's like Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (which inspired the "Grey" in Sasha's name), insofar as the characters are windows into the author's own thoughts. "It's like classic erotica," she says. "I based her sexual awakening on me, but it's also a commentary on society and pop culture, a meditation on female sexuality." She finished the first installment of The Juliette Society during a 2013 visit to Paris, which she describes as the first time she was able to "vanish in a city" that wasn't hers. In the book, there's an entire chapter about cum, which one editor found to be "too misogynistic." Sasha, a tomboy whose mind naturally tends toward the masculine, rewrote the chapter from the perspective of one of her girlfriends. "Everyone liked it," she says.
Which leads me to ask her about the recent movement to desexualize the female body, and how puritanical ideals are censoring both the body and free speech. "Nobody can talk about anything anymore," she says. "We're breeding this culture where people hypersexualize themselves, but they're so scared and ignorant about sex." We then bond on a mutual appreciation of Andrew Dice Clay's stand-up, strip clubs and a South Park episode about "The F Word."
"I can't even read some of this shit anymore," she says, referring to stories in the media that seem to be criminalizing the nipple or perpetuating a society of victims, which Sasha has never been. She's always been in control, which is defiantly feminist. And while Sasha has never been a stripper, nor would she ever need to be, she doesn't see it as "objectification," either. "It's an antiquated idea that strip clubs are objectifying women," she tells me. "Little do people know that most of those women are lesbian and could give a shit what anyone thinks."
Sasha's currently editing the sequel to her erotic trilogy, to be released by Cleis Press; the original was released by Grand Central Publishing, which used to be Warner Books, the imprint that released Sex by Madonna in 1992. The two women are similar: Both grew up working-class and Catholic, and managed to turn their lives (and bodies) into living works of art that immolated puritanical thinking. Like Lou Andreas-Salomé did before them, both Sasha and Madonna promoted sexual liberation in the face of resistance from both sexes.
When I ask Sasha if she ever thinks about her cultural impact, she replies, "To see some of my choices reflected in the culture around me was really mind-bending. As far as a legacy, this was something that was hard for me to judge or realize until 2013, when I was on tour most of the year. From Brazil to Russia I met young people that I inspired to take chances and understand their own worth; it was the first time I felt like I had a responsibility to my audience."
Like the pop star who once aimed to "rule the world," Sasha also likes to be in complete control of her image, which has often been mishandled by others. She manicures her own eyebrows, which aren't modeled after anyone's. "I’ve had bad luck going to salons, so I usually do them myself," she says. "I've always liked Lauren Bacall's and Sophia Loren’s eyebrows." She brews her own coffee at home, practically refusing to go to Starbucks. She does her own nails, or if she has them done, she takes her own colors and never gets fake nails. She likes to DJ because "I like to be in control," she says. She also tells me she's interested in doing a one-woman stage show over which she'd have complete creative control. In social settings, she uses her eyes to assert her control: "I have this stare that makes people feel as equally as uncomfortable as they're making me." Which is how she deflects men who might see her as a sex object. Sasha currently has a boyfriend, and even though she won't talk about their relationship (nor do I care to inquire), I can assure you she's in the driver's seat.
As we rumble down Sunset Boulevard in an oil-burning monstrosity she describes lovingly as her “beast," Sasha is at her most Zen-like, in control of her destiny, as she sings along to Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." Her size-nine feet, tucked firmly into a pair of new Converse, press down on the gas with the command of a drag racer or a dominatrix urging her slave to go harder.
Then, when I show her something on my phone, she slams on the brakes and pulls over. "What the FUCK? I would not put that out," she says, looking somewhat shocked at a book on Amazon I recently ordered titled Short and Sexy Stories: A Compilation of Naughty Adult Stories of Extreme Satisfaction by Sasha Grey. Except it's not by Sasha. She never even knew the ebook existed. "This is not me, NO WAY.”
The book features porny short stories with titles like "The Military and Their Privates," so I'd questioned its authenticity from the start. But how does someone so aware of her online presence miss something like this? While using Sasha's name to sell a book is both unethical and cheap, there's an entire industry of "hipster erotica" based on Sasha, who acted in porn from 2006 to 2011 before retiring. It's part of the "Sasha Grey–ization" of modern sexuality, which began with Sasha documenting her life in porn and then commodifying it. Her brand's influence is widespread. There are entire book series inspired by "hipster porn," which Sasha inadvertently popularized, such as The Complete Hipster Gangbang by Hannah Wilde. There are too many Sasha Grey clones to name. Even if she doesn't get credit, she's also helped usher in the wave of BDSM-positive books and films, like the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.
As the sun comes down, Sasha and I are on the rooftop of an ultra-swanky hotel in Hollywood overlooking the hills. She remarks, "There are few places in L.A. that are truly classy and old-school." I order an overpriced Moscow Mule, which I hope demonstrates class. I also tell Sasha that my grandmother was Russian, which leads us to talk about Russia, a country she explored extensively in 2013 when she was invited to take part in a Drom.ru promotional drive from the city of Vladivostok to Moscow.
"I have a cult fan following in Russia," she says. "It's strange. I never expected that."
Like the Iranian gays who adore her (look at her Instagram for evidence), the Russians, perhaps because of her Eastern European first name (which is a pseudonym based on Sascha Konietzko of industrial band KMFDM), or maybe Russia's desperate need for sexual liberation, Sasha is big in Russia the way Madonna was big in Japan. "I think there's gonna be a huge revolution there in the next 20 to 30 years," says Sasha, who was given tours of the country that included access to secret private clubs, which she compared to L.A.'s exclusive Soho House. Her book The Juliette Society is about a film student who infiltrates a secret sex society. The book was released in Russia just last year (two years after it came out in the States), a month after a photo of her was used by VKontakte, a Russian social network, in a propaganda campaign to vilify pro-Ukrainian forces accused of brutally murdering a volunteer nurse. The story went viral and Sasha became the unwilling face of an apparent anti-Kiev propaganda campaign.
"I <3 my Russian fans, but this propaganda takes it too far," Sasha said in a tweet after discovering the VKontakte post.
Sasha, who isn't drinking vodka, takes a sip from her whiskey soda. "I shouldn't be drinking," she says, explaining that she's dehydrated, either because she's sick or because she's tired of talking to me about her personal life or acting career, which has taken a backseat, of late, to her music. She's now blowing off Hollywood roles that portray her as a mindless sex kitten. Still, like Bernardine Dohrn or Lydia Lunch, Sasha probably won't stop leveraging her sex appeal to manipulate doggish men or members of the media, the same way men continue to use power to manipulate young women. It is and always has been the natural order of things, but what's intriguing about Sasha is how she's already preparing to make her intellect her primary weapon as her youth inevitably fades.
"I live in L.A. and I am a woman in the public eye, so of course beauty, ageism, death, etc., are always present in my mind. However, I hope they never dictate my happiness, as it’s all an illusion anyway. "
Sasha may have a cold, but there's something burning inside her that isn't typical of a Hollywood celebrity. Wrapped up in her black wool cocoon, it's like she's quietly taking her next form, be it novelist, EDM DJ, sex-positive feminist, Formula 1 racer or action star — no matter what it is, it's more than "ex-porn star."
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