The Porn Problem

5.9.2013

By Tim Murphy

Why are so many adult film actors dying?

Illustration by David Pohl

By all outward measures, Arpad Miklos was a highly successful gay porn star and escort. Born Péter Kozma in Budapest in 1967, the darkly handsome Hungarian with the soulful eyes and Adonis build worked as a chemist there until the mid-’90s when he was discovered by a model scout for the British porn producer Kristen Bjorn. In the ensuing years, he moved to Miami, then New York City, and made nearly 60 films for major directors and studios, including Bjorn, Chi Chi LaRue, Michael Lucas, Hot House, and Falcon. Robustly endowed, he almost always played the dominant top. In the mid-2000s, he won awards both from the porn and the escort industry. In 2010, his brawny, hairy, grinning likeness appeared on a big beach towel that Butt magazine and American Apparel marketed together, with proceeds going to the Ali Forney Center, a New York City shelter for homeless LGBT youth.

Even as late as January, Miklos was flirting with artsy projects, appearing in a video for “Hood,” a song by gay musician Perfume Genius. In it, a shirtless Miklos tenderly cradles the skinny singer in his massive arms. At 45, he looked great and, according to a friend’s estimate, was making around $120,000 year—the uppermost bracket for actor-escorts. “He could easily still be doing porn today,” says J.C. Adams, the longtime editor of GayPornTimes.com. “He had a 20-year career going, and that’s rare.”

Yet in February, Miklos took his own life in his apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, leaving behind notes making it clear it was a suicide. “There will be judgment and the haters can speculate,” he wrote, but he refused to explain his motive, instead leaving detailed funeral instructions. “He said he wanted a balloon in his memory released into the air,” recalls his close friend Nick, 35, also an escort but not a porn actor, who lived in the same neighborhood as Miklos and spent off-hours with him. (Nick asked that I withhold his real name.)

Miklos, a stoic Slavic type who didn’t open up easily, had grown increasingly glum in recent months, according to friends. “There had definitely been a decline in his mood,” says Nick as we sit in a neighborhood café a month after Miklos’s death. “From Christmas on, the twinkle in his eyes was gone. He complained that his back hurt a lot.”

Another friend, Richard Greene, a Manhattan doctor who worked behind the scenes in porn in the ’90s, pins Miklos’s suicide on “a toxic combination of his inability to really connect with people and his feeling that he’d been led into porn and it was losing its appeal. That world is sort of like a drug that sustains you for a while, then loses its luster.”

Miklos’s death is tragic but not, sadly, an isolated case. In the last year, the number of suicides or deaths of those in the gay porn industry under the age of 55 -- including the performers Roman Ragazzi, Erik Rhodes, Josh Weston, and, in March, Wilfried Knight -- has exceeded a dozen. That’s more than twice the annual average, according to Adams.

Whatever the reasons for this spike -- and it’s possible that the proportion of people in gay porn who die young or kill themselves is no higher than that among gay men in general -- could some of the fatal brew that brought these sex gods to their deaths be rooted in the industry itself? One key factor is economics: Porn alone does not pay the bills. These days, an actor lucky enough to have an exclusive contract with a studio won’t make more than about $24,000 yearly. Many do videos mainly to advertise their escorting, where they can charge $250 an hour or $1,200 for overnight sessions.

It all makes for a secretive, isolating career, without recourse to human resources, unions, or health insurance. “There isn’t a strong or organized community of sex workers,” particularly among men, says Dr. Christian Grov, an associate professor at Brooklyn College who is working with HookOnline.org, a support site founded by former escort Hawk Kinkaid, to better understand sex workers’ needs. “You can enter the industry through Rentboy.com or Craigslist, so you’re not connected to others. And you can be emotionally exhausted from the work but can’t talk to family and friends about it to decompress.Then you resort to coping tools like drugs and alcohol.”

With porn, there’s another factor: Your work lives on forever and can torpedo future career moves. In 2007, Ragazzi, an Israeli whose real name was Dror Barak, quit his job at the Israeli consulate after the New York Post outed him as an escort and porn star. In 2011, teachers in Miami and Boston were fired after their porn pasts were revealed. That stigma can make porn stars feel there’s nowhere else for them to go, even as they age in an industry where everyone has a shelf life. “I told Miklos that we should get out of the industry together and market a lube using his chemist skills,” says Nick. “He told me I dreamed too big.”

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