A young writer reflects on her funny, enlightening, titillating, and, tragically, all-too-brief friendship with the late feminist porn pioneer, who died this week of ovarian cancer.
Feminist porn star and director Candida Royalle (Candice Marion Vadala), who paved the way for so many young women in the film industry, passed away this week from ovarian cancer. She would have been 65 next month.
I first saw Candida Royalle at a reading she did at the Happy Ending bar on the Lower East Side in 2010. Hers was part of Audacia Ray and David Henry Sterry’s Sex Worker Literati series, and the theme of the night was “Embarrassing Things I’ve Done For Money.” Candida didn’t tell a story about of one of the many sexual escapades her film career afforded her, or even one about drugs or rock and roll. Hers was about pubic hair—more specifically, showing up to a shoot years ago and being told she had too much of it!
On the day of the shoot, Candida was mortified. But she betrayed none of the horror in recounting the story that night at Happy Ending, which she delivered with a perfect blend of wit, self-mockery, charm, and honesty. She was hilarious. Being the journalist that I am, I left feeling, as I often do when I see a woman I admire, that I just had to interview her.
I reached out to Candida via Twitter. We started corresponding. We planned for a phoner one spring afternoon in May 2010. Before our call, she emailed me about some events she thought I might like to join her at. Of course I would.
And so I joined her for the book release party for her friend, the sex educator and coach Betty Dodson (author of such books as Sex for One), at a high-end lingerie and sex-toy shop in Soho. We had only just begun to chat when a photographer came by to snap Candida’s picture. I was still sweaty from the frantic subway walk—I was running late as usual—and the city’s ever-present humidity. But no matter, Candida threw her arm around me, and let me smile for the camera with her like we’d been best friends forever. And that’s what being with her felt like. She was warm and accommodating and never made me feel like I didn’t belong, though of course I didn’t, or at least I wouldn’t have had she not been the one to invite me.
But Candida made me feel special for being her guest. She introduced me to Dodson, and a whole host of other friends that were in attendance. I struck up conversations with a room full of women my mother’s age and older, all of them former film stars and sex therapists. To say I was inspired to be in such accomplished and powerful female company would be an understatement.
Leaving the party that night, I felt I had entered into a whole new world. I made my way back again soon after, this time for a screening of Orgasm Inc., a film by Liz Canner about the race for the first female Viagra. We were joined by Candida’s close friend Veronica Vera, actress and writer best known for the cross-dressing academy she founded, Miss Vera’s Finishing School For Boys Who Want To Be Girls. Candida was living in the North Fork of Long Island then (she’d given up her New York City apartment years earlier), “the country,” as she called it, so when she would come to the city—which was about once a week or so—she’d stay at friends’ houses, which she’d refer to as sleepovers! She was having one that night, in fact, at Veronica’s Greenwich Village apartment.
I was approaching 30 that year, and wondering if my friends and I would continue to have sleepovers into our adult lives, and here was Candida at 59, essentially assuring me that I would. I adored Veronica—she was as warm, funny, and open as Candida was, and together, they shared their world with me—one that included Club 90, the “adult industry support group” they formed in the early 1980s and were still a part of (and which also includes their dear friend Annie Sprinkle); and about the all-night party at the Whitney they were headed to after the screening.
When we spoke over the phone for our interview, Candida from her “country” backyard, we did something a little different. I already knew about the amazing things she’d done—that she’d acted in adult films until she started Femme Productions and began to direct them; that she’d created Natural Contours, a line of intimate massagers for women, that she’d written books, most famously How to Tell a Naked Man What to Do—and she felt she didn’t want to do the same interview she’d done a thousand times before, so I asked her questions I thought were more fun. I did ask her a bit about contemporary feminist adult filmmakers she admired, but also what she was reading, and what her food guilty pleasures were.
I learned she liked to read historical fiction, and to watch America’s Funniest Home Videos while eating a snack she called apple treat—apple slices smeared with tahini or peanut butter. “This is what I’m doing out in the country when I’m by myself, when everyone thinks I’m at some wild orgy,” she said in our interview, referencing the (hardly) embarrassing secret she’d revealed. One question I asked her, that in retrospect seems oddly like kismet, was: “If you could run into one person from your past, who would it be and why?” She answered that she’d like to have a chance to see her mom who left when she was 18 months old, a quest that became the focus of a documentary she began working on just last year. (On the film’s site, her collaborator Sheona McDonald wrote that she was committed to finding a way to tell Candida’s story through film, so hopefully that means the film will still be completed.)
Candida and I continued to email for a while with promises of “doing something fun together again soon.” Though it never did work out, I knew that our efforts were genuine, and that was enough.
I loved getting to know Candida, and spending time in her world. I loved not only that she was a feminist filmmaker, but a fierce and serious pioneer of the contemporary women’s movement as a whole; that she was youthful but did not try to act younger than her age; that she still had sleepovers with her friends, that she went to openings and book parties and film premieres with them; that she watched movies like Overboard and Trading Places for “laugh therapy,” as she called it. That she signed her emails with XXs in all caps; that she was ambitious up until the last minute, making art and chasing her longtime dream; and that, if only for a few brief moments, she opened her world to me. I feel lucky to have spent some time there.
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