Homegrown porn purveyor WindyCityXXX keeps its focus on local talent.
By Robert K. Elder. Photographs by Chris Lake.|
Here’s what the apartment of a pornographer looks like: A neat kitchen is home to nearly 20 small bamboo plants, twisted into spiral and heart shapes. Augustus Lewellen often gives the smaller plants to visitors and some of the women he shoots videos with (“They all have one, I think,” he says with a laugh).
In his light-filled bedroom, a picture of a waterfall hangs above his four-poster bed. It’s his third bed since starting his do-it-yourself hub for amateur hanky-panky, WindyCityXXX.com, in 2007, and with all the mileage he’s put on it—it’s the same one he sleeps on every night—he’s had to invest in better mattresses.
“I got a five-year warranty on this one,” says Lewellen softly, with just the slightest hint of a lisp. The 33-year-old’s videos—which he stars in and shoots himself—have featured a Chicago police officer, a teacher, a bank manager, a state trooper and two attorneys as costars (although not all at once).
The living room hosts a trio of tan leather couches and chairs, also seen in his movies. The recliner nearest the flat-screen TV was made famous in the viral clip “The Fiona Lazy Boy Video.” (Yes, with Lay-Z-Boy misspelled.) His windows overlook the Chicago River at an angle familiar enough that some viewers have come close to guessing his address.
“People used to complain that the videos were too grainy, so I installed higher-wattage bulbs in the track lighting,” Lewellen says. In his office—really a second bedroom—three massive computers sit in an L-shape. This is WindyCityXXX Central, where he stores and edits video.
Though Lewellen’s not Hollywood handsome, his biceps strain his short-sleeved collared shirt (and that’s not his only impressive muscle). There’s something antimacho and matter-of-fact about the computer consultant, motorcycle enthusiast and former gymnast. He prefers to be called Gus and speaks plainly about his website. “It’s just sex,” he says.
Clearly, however, it’s not just sex. On the Internet, where you can be anyone, anywhere, Lewellen chose to brand his site to Chicago partly due to local pride, partly because of what he saw as a lack of X-rated content produced in the Midwest. Only a few local sites, such as MorganaMoon.com, offer friendly competition.
In the city that spawned Hugh Hefner’s Playboy and Jim McBride’s MrSkin.com, Lewellen wants to keep the focus local. “Most of the women [in the videos] are from Chicago. Some of them even get recognized in the street.”
He’s not trying to make a political statement in branding the site with Midwest content. “I can’t say my site in particular is a reaction to the Puritan views of the Midwest,” he says. “I just love sex, women, and I happen to be from Chicago…. I remember reading in a men’s magazine that Chicago was the number-one big city for booty calls, so people here are just as sexual as anyplace else—they may just flaunt it a little less.”
But the life of an accidental pornographer—even one taking a tiny bite out of the multi-billion-dollar porn business—isn’t as colorful as one might think. He’s just an exhibitionist who leads a low-key, boring life, he says. A business is still a business, he insists: It requires editing video, late-night programming and answering fan mail. Then, of course, there’s his day job as a tech consultant, which requires travel and dealing with cranky computers.
“People think I lay around all day with naked women,” he laments. “I wish.”
Just as YouTube has revolutionized video on the Web, the popularity of free amateur porn sites has caused an upheaval in how porn is distributed. Lewellen posts clips of most videos for free, but he charges a membership fee ($11.95 for 60 days) for longer scenes.
“America has become more Internet savvy and they want a more personalized experience with their performer of choice,” says Dan Miller, executive editor of Adult Video News, a trade magazine covering the industry. That personalized experience often includes exclusive content for subscribers, explicit photo galleries, live webcam shows and full videos on demand—all staples of amateur sites. Though still a small part of mainstream pornography, the number of amateur outlets is growing; even stars such as Vicky Vette and Eve Laurence have followed the self-produced website model.
But the extent of the impact these DIY sites have had is up for debate. According to a 2007 survey conducted by AVN, adult entertainment was a $12–$14 billion industry worldwide. Since then, business has declined sharply—as much as 25 percent, Miller says. Part of it, he says, is the ailing economy.
“Adult entertainment really isn’t as recession-proof as people thought,” he says. And the glut of free porn on the Web isn’t helping. “It’s affecting those who might buy or rent a DVD when they can get it for free.”
In the adult industry, Lewellen’s videos fall under the category of “realcore”—a reaction against glossy, high-end productions like 2005’s hit DVD Pirates, which reportedly cost $1 million to produce and features computer-animated skeletons. By contrast, Lewellen’s videos are single-camera, low-lit endeavors. In an adult industry aimed at increasingly narrow interests and fetishes, Lewellen’s videos are tame in comparison—usually just himself and a woman having an intense coupling, maybe with a blindfold and some light bondage.
“A lot of porn is cheesy,” Lewellen says. “You have fake stories…. I hate that stuff. Usually, it’s just me and the girl.”
Lewellen’s videos have been viewed more than 100 million times through postings on WindyCityXXX and other sites. To add perspective, the most popular episode of YouTube’s megahit teen drama Lonelygirl15 attracted 1.5 million viewers in a year. In the same time frame, one of Lewellen’s postings—the infamous “Fiona Lazy Boy Video”—attracted more than 17 million viewers.
Not bad for something that began as a whim in 2006, when he met a 19-year-old woman named Zoe on MySpace. (While Lewellen uses his real name, his costars do not.) It was Zoe, Lewellen says, who suggested they make an erotic video and post it online. Lewellen had made a few discreet videos with past girlfriends, he says, but nothing for public consumption. After a little encouragement from Zoe, the pair rented a room at the Apache Motel on Lincoln Avenue and, unbeknownst to management, set up a tripod.
Lewellen posted the resulting video—a grainy five-minute clip—on XTube. Almost immediately, he started getting e-mails from women who wanted to star in his videos. So, he made and posted more. In May 2007, Lewellen launched WindyCityXXX with a $30 website template.
“For me, it’s exciting knowing that the girls are excited by it and that I’m able to do it for them,” he says. “It’s definitely the women who keep me interested.”
He doesn’t openly recruit new costars, Lewellen says, though women frequently contact him.
“He is nothing like you would expect a porn person to be,” says costar Alexis, 45. “My perception of pornographers is…they kind of remind me of a cross between a used-car salesman and a pimp. Gus is exactly the opposite.” In fact, she adds, in life, as in his videos, Lewellen waits for women to make the first move.
Lewellen didn’t tell his family about his business until nearly two years into it, as he began to get more exposure. He finally broke the news when the G4 cable network featured him on its Wired for Sex series.
“It was just a really quick conversation,” Lewellen says, recounting the talk with his mother. “She asked me how business was and I said, ‘You know I run a porn website, right?’ She was like, ‘Oh, okay—but I won’t be looking at it.’”
Not all the exchanges have been positive. The girlfriend of a good friend said his videos “poison the mind” and tried to keep the friends apart. Then, in a June 2008 appearance on Fox’s The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet, one of the panelists called him a “suitcase pimp.”
“I told her she was on the wrong show,” Lewellen says. “We’re not porn stars. No one is getting paid. We’re about amateurs having fun.”
While it’s true no one got paid in the beginning, revenue from the site now accounts for half of Lewellen’s monthly income (he won’t disclose the figure). In addition to the membership fee to download bigger clips, he inked a deal with XTube’s pay-per-view channel in 2008. His costars don’t typically see any of the proceeds, though he says he’s helped some of them out with rent, vacation money, car payments, or setting up their own pay-per-view and webcam channels. Lewellen says because most of the women are girlfriends or fans, they didn’t want or expect anything “other than the fun and excitement.” One example, he recalls: “When I offered one of the attorneys most of the proceeds from a live webcam show we did, she looked at me and said bluntly, ‘I’m not a fucking prostitute,’ and we left it at that.”
Money doesn’t seem to be an issue. “I have a lot of people who want me to film them,” he says. “A lot of other couples wanting to submit their own videos to the site.… There’s not a shortage of people wanting to do it.”
This month, Lewellen is expanding WindyCityXXX with more features, including longer videos, DVDs for sale and sex-toy reviews from a couple of his costars.
“I haven’t jumped full head-on into it,” he says. “At this point, it’s not that I’m reluctant to make the step to full-time pornography, I just have other commitments with some of my larger, well-paying tech clients, so I don’t want to give them up yet.” Being a full-time pornographer would limit his life, he adds. Though he has a lot of friends, he says, his jobs make him a de facto loner—something that a 9-to-5 porn enterprise would only make worse. “I also like to get out and talk with people that aren’t in the porn business,” he says. “Editing porn all day and dealing with people in the porn business can get tiring.”
Besides, he’s dating someone, the bisexual contortionist Scarlette Kiss. You might guess from her name that the pair have already made and posted their own (very bendy) videos. They met in 2009 after she wrote him a fan letter.
“I said, ‘What you’re doing is amazing.’ The way he touches a woman’s body…I’d just never seen before,” Kiss says. “You can just tell he really likes women. He’s just so careful with the way he responds to your body.”
But Kiss knows the site’s business model thrives on new content and variety. In other words: more women. “Hopefully, he’ll be making those new videos with me,” she says. “I guess I’m going to have to cross that bridge when I come to it. I’ve never really thought about it.”
Maintaining a romance in Lewellen’s line of work can be problematic. “Once feelings start getting involved, then [women] are all suspicious, because they know how they met me,” he says.
“‘Are you meeting any girls the same way you met me?’ they ask. But it’s vice versa. I ask, ‘Are you e-mailing other guys? The same way you met me?’” But Lewellen says he hasn’t started looking for new screen partners. Besides, he’s diversifying his offerings. After getting many e-mails asking for advice on erotic stimulants, he’ll be launching his own “natural sexual-enhancement supplement”—Vivenza—this summer, with formulas for both men and women.
Both he and the Humboldt Park pharmacist he’s working with are aware of the recent controversy over “enhancement” products like Enzyte. However, “[Vivenza] is not a product to increase the size of your penis—nothing does that,” Lewellen says. “It’s a natural formula that will promote increased blood flow to the sexual organs, which will in turn help give someone more feeling, and a longer lasting, harder erection.” (We’ll await the scientific testing.)
Miller, the AVN editor, says the timing might be right for a local industry phenomenon like Lewellen. “It’s a rare occasion that someone is working out of the Midwest—it’s unique in that region,” Miller says. “He may be tapping into a niche.”
Then, of course, there’s the issue of whether the Midwest is ready for amateur porn branded to its biggest city. “It doesn’t matter whether Chicago is ready,” says costar Alexis. “It’s here.”