Michelle Sinclair was at a children’s birthday party with her 2-year-old daughter when another mother asked a typical icebreaker question: “So what do you do?”
Sinclair took a deep breath. “Actually, I shoot adult movies.”
“Oh. I’ve never met anyone who does that,” the woman said.
“I don’t want to lie to anyone,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair’s own job description, however, is modest. Under her stage name, Belladonna, the 25-year-old Sinclair, who grew up in Salt Lake City, is one of the porn film industry’s top draws. John Stagliano distributes her films through his firm, Evil Angel. “There are 300 to 400 girls working [in the porn industry],” he says. “Twenty of those girls are hot, really sought after. [Belladonna]’s close to No. 1.”
A veteran of 400 films, Sinclair specializes in what the business terms “gonzo”'essentially a themed sex scene. Sinclair and husband Aiden Kelly live in California’s San Fernando Valley and produce a movie a month for their own production company. Each Belladonna movie, for which Kelly does the camera work, offers five separate scenes; Sinclair is usually featured in one or two of them, typically with female performers.
Sinclair has been credited by some with dragging lesbian-themed porn out of its softly lit past and into mainstream hardcore. It’s certainly proved a rewarding formula for her. Last year, Kelly says, their company’s gross income was just under $1 million. That a girl-on-girl movie like her last film reached the No. 2 spot in Adult Video News (AVN) rankings is, Kelly says, “unheard of.”
The reasons Sinclair succeeds where others burn out and disappear revolve around her flouting of porn’s stereotypes. In an industry where women performers with typically pneumatic breasts blend into a sea of indistinguishable flesh, Sinclair defiantly demands attention with her nine tattoos, the distinctive gap in her front teeth and her noticeable lack of cosmetic surgery. That determined individuality extends to her porn persona, a subversive-imp-turned-sexual-miscreant who eagerly performs every perversion asked of her. Belladonna has a cultivated taste for almost anything'as Sinclair says, “nasty and naughty” as well as “deep and messy.”
Part sexual experimenter, part barker for a sexual freak show, one aspect of Sinclair’s work is indisputable'it’s not for the faint of heart.
Place Belladonna’s excruciatingly graphic work in front of an inexperienced porn viewer, and the result more likely would involve him clutching his stomach rather than his crotch.
f Sinclair ever wants to see how far she’s come, she need only watch a 4-year-old, porn-starlets segment on ABC’s Primetime, hosted by Diane Sawyer. Sinclair broke down on camera, admitting how unhappy she was in porn. Sinclair’s mother Dianna Paden told Sawyer her daughter was abused by a stranger at age 14. Porn opponents say many sex performers suffer sexual abuse when young.
Ask Sinclair about that abuse incident now, and she recalls accompanying a friend to a man’s house in Salt Lake City. When her friend disappeared, Sinclair went in another man’s room and closed the door. He flirted with her, touched her.
“In my head, I was saying, ‘I don’t want to do this, no, no, no,’” she recalls. “But I never said anything. … I never knew how to say ‘no,’ I wasn’t confident enough. People took advantage of me. In my head, I was raped.”
“Guess you were,” Kelly says.
But Sinclair has a different take on that 11-year-old event. “Afterward, he asked me if I liked it, and I said, ‘Yes.’ He wasn’t holding me down, beating me. I was too scared to say no.”
But if many found in her tear-streaked features one more casualty of an industry bent on victimizing young women, others, Sinclair says, found a face of porn they could relate to. The day after the first Primetime screening, Sinclair’s Website garnered 80,000 hits. Paradoxically, Primetime helped to elevate Sinclair’s star in the porn firmament.
Sinclair fought hard to disprove the “victim” label she blames Primetime for giving her, though she acknowledges she played the victim role much of the time before she met Kelly. She’s struggled to build her self-esteem and to find a voice in an industry where, she admits, intelligent and strong-willed women are rarely found. That struggle arguably didn’t escape filmmakers who used her in the early Belladonna years. Some seemed to pound her limits of sexual endurance as if they wanted to punish her for her very desire to please. Yet she always surfaced smiling, resilient, whatever her hidden feelings.
But of late, Sinclair’s smile seems to have waned.
“She goes off track,” Kelly says. “There are times she’s said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re on top of the industry.’”
Two months ago, she signed up for massage-therapy college. “I give killer two-hour massages,” Sinclair says. She didn’t finish high school, so she had to study for a high school equivalency test. Kelly was unhappy about it.
“I don’t even need to be in the movies,” she says. “But he likes me to be involved.”
After a week of Kelly’s pouting, Sinclair returned to working with her husband. “It’s tough being married,” she sighs.
If Sinclair is at war, it’s not so much with the compromises of married life as the success her Belladonna alter-ego has built around her. Now that she wants to focus on raising her daughter, on doing other things with her body than sex for public consumption, stripping Bella out of her life isn’t all that easy.
But, if her instincts as a mother are telling her to exit porn, they are also forcing her to confront her family’s history and the victimization she says overshadows her past for three generations. It’s a pattern, she says, “that blows me away.” Now, for the sake of her daughter, Sinclair is determined that pattern will end with her own generation.
Her little girl’s future, she insists, will be different from her own past. “I spent a good part of my life comfortable being a victim, wanting people to be sorry for me,” she says. “I won’t let that happen to my daughter.”
Age of Consent
“Victims breed victims,” a therapist once told Sinclair’s mother, Dianna Paden. It was after Sinclair’s second attempt at suicide as a young teenager. Paden was stunned. The terrifying question hung before her: “Had everything [my] kids gone through been my fault?”
Paden grew up on a Missouri farm and moved to Virginia Beach when she was 12. Her mother, she says, was manic depressive, schizophrenic and, as a child, had been sexually abused for three years.
Big city life took a toll on the once-close Paden family. Their strict father was consumed by work. But he had time to dole out plenty of warnings to his daughter.
“Don’t go out. Don’t party,” he told her, “or you’ll end up being a slut.”
One night, when Paden was 15, out on the beach with friends, a hotel owner invited her up to his room. While she was in the bathroom, he made a phone call. Five of his friends turned up. “It was the biggest nightmare of my life,” she says.
Paden says she called her father after the gang rape; he refused to pick her up. She ran away and, for the next two years, after dropping out of school and moving from one foster home to another, ended up hitchhiking, desperate enough at times to trade sex for food.
A Missouri court made her an emancipated adult at age 17. She found a home in the Air Force, which offered a structured life, along with an education. She also met a young officer, Scott Sinclair.
Unlike previous men in her life, Paden says, Sinclair “didn’t expect anything from me sexually.” Three days after they met, Sinclair proposed. Two weeks later, they married. One rain-swept night, unpacking in an apartment near Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., there was a knock at the door from two LDS missionaries.
The Sinclairs wanted a large family. The LDS Church, “was an answer to us at the time,” Paden says. “We were searching for something that would be ours.”
Michelle was the second of seven children and raised in the church. She had a distinct personality, Paden says: extroverted and attention-seeking. If another child was in Paden’s lap, Sinclair would push her arm in between, pinch her sibling to get off. “She used to throw two- to four-hour fits if she didn’t get her way,” Paden says.
After Paden’s husband retired from the military, the family moved from a Delaware farm community to Salt Lake City. Her own history, Paden thought, was repeating itself.
She became increasingly desperate with her children. “I wanted sports, music, art in their lives,” she says. “But most of them ended up doing what I did'drugs, sexual experimentation.”
Now Paden wonders if, “I taught my kids to be too open.” For Sinclair, part of the problem was “we all grew up not being able to speak our minds. I still have issues with that; I have to make everyone happy before myself.”
When it came to seeking attention, however, Sinclair was in a league apart from her siblings. She attempted suicide at 11 and wound up having her stomach pumped of prescription drugs. At 12, she began stealing her father’s car. She’d wait till her parents were in bed, put it in neutral and let it roll down the drive, and turn the key.
When Sinclair got her first tattoo at 13, Paden, incredulous, tried to rub it off. Then Sinclair again tried another drug overdose, this time with two friends. She was put on 24-hour watch in a hospital, then discharged.
Sinclair dropped out of high school at 15 and moved in with a boyfriend. When she was 17, she accompanied a friend who worked as a stripper and another woman to a bachelor party to see what it involved. Sinclair says the two of them danced before a room of cops.
One cop offered Sinclair $50 to take her shirt off.
“I was so happy,” she says. “I looked people in the eyes, I wanted them to have a good time, have this fantasy with me in it. … ‘Wow, people think I’m beautiful.’” She laughs. “They just wanted to see my tits and ass.”
The Pain Barrier
One muggy morning in Los Angeles in 1999, Sinclair got out of her agent’s car in the porn-capital suburb of Chatsworth and went into a house. The homeowner, also the director of what would be Sinclair’s porn debut, introduced her to the makeup artist.
“I was so nervous about am I going to do a good job,” she recalls. “I kept asking him, ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’”
The male talent arrived.
“Are you sure you won’t do anal today?” the director asked.
“Does it hurt?” she said.
He offered her another $600 beyond the $1,000 she’d been promised. She recalls worrying, “If I don’t do this, am I going to be hired again?”
When Sinclair flew out to Los Angeles several months earlier, she hadn’t intended to do film. She’d sent her photos to a West Coast agent who told her he’d pick her up in a limo at the airport. Instead, he turned up in what she calls “a ghetto car with its windows broken.”
Her plan was to do girl-on-girl magazine photo shoots, but the agent said the work was in boy-girl porn.
Straight sex on camera with a stranger was one thing, a request for anal sex quite another. She didn’t want to do it, but finally agreed. “This is what people want from me,” she resolved. “I’m going to give it to them.”
Word spread quickly in the tight-knit porn community she would do what many others would not.
The first year, at age 19, she claims she made $100,000. But if five anal sex scenes per week was hard work, so was the preparation.
“No one gave me a clue,” she says. “I had to learn this stuff on my own, even figuring out how to do an enema right. Girls get paranoid about shitting. They don’t want to make a mess on the scene.”
Sinclair quit filming after she started dating a porn director who believed the female talent was no different than prostitutes. When they broke up, she returned to Utah for six months, then went back to California. “I wanted to prove to everybody I was a great performer.”
An agent and a director talked her into doing a 12-man rape scene in a prison cell while she was menstruating for $3,500.
“I didn’t handle the pressure well; I gave in,” she says. “The guy who owned the company said, ‘I really want you to do this. I’ll give you the box cover.’ ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’ I was sick of being asked.”
Her voice drops to a whisper. “There were only three guys I really liked, and I tried to be as close to them as possible.”
But Sinclair refuses to play a role she clung to growing up: the victim. As she’s grown older, she says, “I’ve realized no one ever forced me, I could have said, ‘No.’ I could have walked away. I chose to do those things.”
Beauty and the Beast
Sinclair doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. Rather, it’s tattooed across her lower spine in the form of one word: Loyal.
If loyalty was all she asked of her boyfriends, she was sadly disappointed. A Spanish porn star, her lover for three years, acted as if her feelings didn’t exist. There were times, she says, she felt all she was to him was a whore.
She was in a cold, dark, depressing place, she says. “I used to smoke a lot of marijuana. That was how I woke up in the morning, that was how I went to bed at night. I was just numb, nothing ever affected me. I did scenes like the gang bang, then smoked it away. I was making everyone else happy, but a lot of the times I didn’t do what my heart wanted.”
The Spanish boyfriend eventually persuaded Stagliano to take on Sinclair as a filmmaker. Stagliano was already familiar with Sinclair’s prodigious sexual abilities. Before the Primetime story aired, he wrote, produced and directed a $350,000 hardcore porn epic called Fashionistas, in which Belladonna received top billing.
Shortly after, Sinclair began dating Kelly. An ex-Bostonian, Kelly built the Evil Angel distributing company’s Website. “I didn’t mind looking at porn all day long,” he says. Indeed, Kelly was a fan of Belladonna’s work. “She was the only porn star I fantasized about.”
But when Stagliano arranged for Sinclair to strip for Kelly on his birthday while the two men were in a meeting, Kelly pushed her away and fled. Sinclair was smitten. “I was blown away by him.” Later she asked him to accompany her to the Adult Video News awards. In gown and high heels, she entered the Las Vegas hotel lobby to find him in jeans and T-shirt. “Everyone told me you were playing a joke on me, so I believed them,” he told her.
At the beginning of their relationship, he told her it wasn’t about sex. He did her laundry. Where other men in her life had problems with her sexual past, he said it was fine.
Their relationship skirts porn norms, if only because it’s an industry truism that female stars’ husbands or partners have trouble watching their partners having sex on camera. Not for Kelly.
He says the girl-on-girl scenes he mostly shoots do nothing for him. When Sinclair asks him why, he says he can’t relate to it. But if there’s a guy involved, that’s a different matter.
“I’m a voyeur,” he says. “It’s also a fantasy of mine to see my wife have sex with another man.” But not off camera, Sinclair adds
On camera or not, dollar signs seem to complicate Kelly’s erotic impulses. His single-minded goal is building a Belladonna-movie-catalog that will provide financial security for his family. If, he hypothesizes, he were to find himself spying on his wife with another man, he’d be too angry at not having a camera on hand to film it to get much pleasure from what he was watching.
Ask Sinclair what arouses her on film, and she sighs. “I would get off to something in a regular movie. Two people kissing. I love kissing, almost touching but not, kind of like a tease.”
Kelly, however, thinks French kissing is for 13-year-old girls.
“At times in [our] relationship I miss [passion],” Sinclair says. If she wasn’t married to Kelly, she’d be in a relationship with a woman. “With a woman you have to discover her, find out what she likes. It’s hard to please a woman. With a man it’s easier. You turn him on immediately. You have to get to know a woman, get past those walls she sets up.”
Since her husband isn’t, she says, as passionate as she is, “[porn] helps me find that somewhere else.”
Working in the sex industry can have a strange effect on performers’ libidos, Sinclair says. Men, especially, gravitate toward bizarre sex. “They prefer a 400-pound girl or want an old woman.” She pauses, pondering her sex life at home. “I consider myself quite normal compared to other people in the industry.”
Sinclair counsels women pondering porn and Los Angeles’ bright lights to think carefully and do a self-inventory: “Am I going to regret doing this? Do I care what people think? It might affect me getting into a relationship. ... If you don’t see it as a career, don’t do it.” Above all, she says, if you’re young, wait a few years. She sees so many girls who don’t want to do what she does, who are disgusted by it. “I think to myself, why are they doing this?”
That’s a question Sinclair still has problems answering herself.
She’s never more animated than when talking about building a compost pile, bird watching or her passion for holistic health cures. There’s a captivating limpidity in her voice when she says she wants a little spa with homemade candles.
For her mother, Sinclair’s passion for New Age healing and cleanliness might have to do with purging porn from her system. “I’ve gotten glimpses of what she does, I can’t put that with Michelle, it doesn’t fit,” Paden says. “When I look at her, she makes her family life so clean, so pure, that [her instincts to cleanliness] helps her clean herself from that.”
Children of the Porn
Sinclair’s 2-year-old daughter was born into porn. Whether she’ll be able to avoid being touched by her mother’s profession as she grows up seems unlikely. She’s already had a brush with porn notoriety. When born, Kelly put her picture on the Belladonna’s Website the same day. Sinclair told him to take it down. Fans still send clothes for their child. Sinclair doesn’t know how to respond.
“It’s going to be tough for her growing up,” she admits. But if porn has taught Sinclair anything, it’s the value of self-esteem. Where during her “dark days” she’d spit “I hate you” at the mirror, now she holds up her daughter before the mirror and they say in unison, “I love you.”
But if her daughter says she wants to follow in Sinclair’s footsteps, she’ll support her. “I’ll help her have a good time, not let anyone fuck with her. If I don’t, it’s like saying what I was doing was wrong. It’s not a bad job; you can have a great career.”
It’s just a career she doesn’t seem to want anymore.
When Sinclair and Kelly were struggling over her future, she says, “I had a tough time for a week. Then something changed inside of me. I want to be involved, to do something different, learn more. Aiden’s teaching me how to edit, do video clips, and it feels like such a stress-release.”
As to her hopes for a spa, she says, “Eventually, one day, when we’re ahead of ourselves.”
The Ties That Bind
“Belladonna’s very sincere and unabashed about engaging in sexual encounters with other people,” says Claire Adams, an articulate 26-year-old whose career and personal life revolve around bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM).
In Belladonna’s Fetish Fanatic 4, Adams dominates Sinclair, slapping and choking her, putting an inflatable butterfly gag in her mouth. “The most amazing thing about the experience was she never stopped eye contact,” Adams says.
Sinclair draws the line at bestiality and use of “skat,” or feces.
“I do so much already,” she says.
The fetishes she portrays in her films are not ones that would have interested her in private life, she says. “They were created by the work I’ve done. They’re not something I would have thought about on my own.”
It’s not the act so much, it seems, but the taboo that arouses. That and the thought of being watched.
But then porn is all about spectacle, whether degrading, athletic, perverse or degenerate. And to provide a porn spectacle, you have to cheat.
You change positions every few minutes so the viewer doesn’t get bored. You tilt your head to show what you’re doing with your tongue. You have to think about the camera. Which is why, despite her unfeigned enthusiasm, Sinclair says she hardly ever has orgasms onscreen.
Whether or not porn’s male viewers are concerned that female performers fake their on-set orgasms is, at very best, a debatable point. But Sinclair, never one to shy away from contradiction, has also built a large female fan base. This is because some of her work’s sexual gymnastics is grounded in intimacy. She and Kelly seek performers who can develop onscreen chemistry. But it’s Sinclair who leads the way. Indeed, she breaks the one porn taboo left: She makes emotional connections with other performers on film.
It’s noticeable even in Fashionistas’ most graphic scenes, when Belladonna touches a performer on the shoulder or thigh. Such tender gestures contrast so harshly with the pounding she’s receiving, they seem subversive.
What’s even more surprising is that Sinclair’s gone one step further. She’s “made love” on camera, shown emotion, a handful of times, she says. This, it seems, is where Sinclair’s desire to please and Belladonna’s urgent sexual appetite meet: lovemaking on the set.
One Belladonna scene Sinclair includes in the lovemaking category features makeup artist and porn newcomer Lili Paige, whom 18 months before the shoot told Sinclair she wanted to do a scene with Belladonna.
Paige’s sexual excitement was such that it turned Sinclair on. So much so, Sinclair forgot about the camera and pleasured her companion for 20 minutes. Finally, her exasperated husband, Kelly, called it off. The trouble with filming real sex, it seems, is that it’s boring to watch.
Belladonna provides Sinclair with so much: financial rewards, a satisfied husband, an outlet for her sexual and even emotional needs. As much as she wants to leave the industry, as much as you might root for the clean-faced young woman who enthuses about holistic healing to become the person she yearns to be, it seems to be as unlikely as a woman having an orgasm during a porn shoot.
And yet that’s exactly what Sinclair did during the shoot with Lili Paige. Behind-the-scenes material shows her desperate to finish the job Paige started. Finally, using a sex toy, she cries out, pressing her long legs together and draping them over Paige, who’s watching beside her.
“It’s so different from the movies,” Sinclair says, laughing. “It felt so good.”
But it’s not what her fans want, she adds. “If I did that every time, my sales would go down.