On a cold, bright day, Veruca James poses in a stark spotlight on a stage in a downtown L.A. warehouse. Her black bob is perfectly straight, her almond-shaped eyes perfectly made up. Her breasts challenge the strength of the zipper on her shiny black half-shirt.
She tucks her thumb into the waistband of her skintight leggings and pulls the top of them down, then gazes up at the camera as if she's going to fuck its very lens.
But between clicks of the shutter, the seductive look falls off her face.
"Should I take my bra off here?" she says, in the way a mid-level manager might ask if a memo is needed by the next morning.
"Nah, leave it on," says photographer Kelly Lind. "But let's start displaying the vagina."
James' professional attitude comes naturally. A relative newcomer to the adult film industry, her pre-porn career was decidedly corporate: Before starring in triple-X films, she used to be a certified public accountant.
But since shooting her first scene – anal sex, in 2011 – she's blazed into the world of adult movies. Represented by porn talent agent Mark Spiegler, she works regularly for such reputable companies as Burning Angel and Brazzers. (She's shot more than 70 scenes.) And, along with her new fiancé, who does porn part-time, she's a featured performer on WoodRocket.com, a website that produces X-rated parodies as well as full-length hardcore features.
Sipping tea on a Saturday afternoon at Café 101 in Hollywood, James wears light make-up and jeans, and explains that her former life was completely tame.
An only child, James grew up and attended high school in a Chicago suburb, then graduated from DePaul University – which bills itself as the largest Catholic college in the nation – with a double major in accounting and finance. The petite brunette then got her CPA and took a job in the public sector.
"I was this young, ambitious girl that really wanted to please her family, and do really well, and be successful," she says.
But James was miserable.
"I would go in to work on Sunday at 4 p.m. because my manager decided that some paper required more meticulous authorization," she says, "and I would come home bawling my eyes out. I hated putting in that much work for something that did nothing for me, for anyone else, that was all just paperwork."
Hoping for a reprieve, James took a job at a mutual fund. But she still couldn't avoid staring down the likely repercussions of an unhappy career: Soon after she started, her 35-year-old boss had a nervous breakdown.
"The whole team was freaked out," she says.
Meanwhile, things at home were deteriorating. After one year of marriage, James and her husband split up. "We were great friends," she says of her ex, "just not meant to married."
With that, everything she had been holding back began pouring out. James moved back to Chicago – a place, she says, she had never really wanted to leave. She started hanging out at new bars and meeting people who were living different lifestyles.
"I come from such a conservative background that it was like, 'Oh my God, I met a porn star! And a stripper!' Which in the Midwest is a really crazy thing," says James. Initially shocked to encounter adult performers in person, she quickly realized, "'Oh, you're around everywhere. You're ... people.'"
James became friends with a few women who shot for Burning Angel and found herself curious about trying it. She applied online and, one simple form and a few nude photographs later, she got a call from the company saying they wanted to use her.
When the offer came in, it reminded her of a part of herself she had lost. "I'd always been an exhibitionist, and I'd always been wild," she says.
She accepted. "I did it, and I loved it," she says. "I absolutely fell in love with it."
James shot about ten more scenes in Chicago before she knew that she had a decision to make. "It was time to start thinking about where this was going," she says. "Every shoot you do brings you closer to another person finding out who you might not want to know."
Well aware that she either had to go all in or give it up, James made the choice that would change her life – porn, she concluded, was more than a way to let loose after her divorce or to escape the stress of her day job.
It was a new way of life, and she felt it was where she belonged.
"I wake up every day just excited to work and to be around the people I'm around," she says.
James shoots down the notion that all porn stars – particularly the women – must be victims of abuse or have deep-seated daddy issues.
"People think that girls in porn were all molested and are drug addicts and it's like a last resort," she says, "but there's lots of girls with college degrees and lots of girls with other options. I think it's more about girls owning their right to have a choice to do what they want with their life. There are plenty of guys out there that would have sex for money if somebody would be willing to pay them."
James is now a full-time performer, although not everyone in her family knows what she does for a living. She still has dreams, she says, in which her friends who turned their backs on her after the divorce rally around her. "I had a dream where ... they all came to me and were like, 'We support you,' and they wanted back in my life."
But upon waking, James accepts the reality of her situation: "If you didn't support me getting divorced, you're not gonna support me doing porn," she says.
James wants to perform for as long as she can, but she harbors no delusions. She knows that the time will come when people "don't want to see you naked," she says, adding, "I'd like to start building a more diversified portfolio. Eventually I'd like to have my own company, and do my own shooting. Something where I could keep my own books."
Her former life, though, is over. "You have to be OK with the fact that when you do this, you can't go back," she says.
Back in the warehouse, James peels off her top, puts one hand on her ass and grins back over her shoulder like a pro. Hiding nothing anymore, it's as if she's won some unspoken game, the rules of which she wrote herself.
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