The Lion of Chelsea

Photo: Phillip Toledano

Michael Lucas stalks up Eighth Avenue like a jungle cat on a fashion runway. A lot of hip motion is involved. Enormous Prada sunglasses shield his eyes. Three buttons of his fitted lime-green shirt are undone, revealing a Star of David necklace resting in a patch of chest hair. His gait and all-around grooviness recall Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. “Porn is show business,” Lucas says in his strong Russian accent. “You’re in show business whether you are an actor or an anchor doing news or fucking.” Then he crosses the street to seek refuge in the shade—though thoroughly bronzed, he has a vampiric aversion to the sun to match his Count Chocula voice. “And whatever you do, if it involves cameras, you cannot allow yourself to fry. There are great self-tanners.

“This place is the most difficult,” he adds, pointing to an orange patch on his forearm.

New York may be in the middle of a Hollywood moment, but when it comes to the X-rated-movie business, the city will never rival the Valley. We have few porn kings living among us, much to the chagrin of just about no one. In fact, now that Bob Guccione has been stripped of his townhouse, we may have only one bona fide member of porn royalty, self-styled emperor though he is: Michael Lucas, age 34, the president of New York’s largest gay-adult-film company, Lucas Entertainment, and its biggest star, and a man perfectly incapable of keeping his inner monologue to himself.

Lucas has been rather busy of late. There was some pesky legal business to attend to, and he just wrapped his newest film, La Dolce Vita, a glossy gay remake of Fellini’s classic that includes a “non-sex” cameo by triple-X starlet Savanna Samson. For a porn production, it’s had an unusually public profile. Photographs of Lucas and Samson cavorting in the City Hall fountain (all proper permits were obtained) made it online, raising the ire of government officials, who with the most cursory of Google searches could have avoided this problem. Lucas also shot in the Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker, with the full knowledge and approval of the designer—the staff brought the crew cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery.

La Dolce Vita is the follow-up to Dangerous Liaisons, a film Lucas has repeatedly touted as the most expensive gay-porn movie ever made, with a budget of $250,000. “The clothes had Century 21 tags you had to tuck in because they were returning them,” scoffs 27-year-old porn star Owen Hawk. “A great analogy for Michael is Ann Coulter. He’s a person who doesn’t really have anything to contribute artistically, so they compensate with outlandish claims.” Of course, Hawk, who has appeared in three of Lucas’s movies, is probably not the most impartial judge of his talent as a director. Hawk and his boyfriend, Matthias von Fistenberg (a nom-de-porn homage to Diane Von Furstenberg), are co-owners of a fledgling production company called Dark Alley Media, whose pornographic output tends to be much darker than Lucas Entertainment’s. One of their movies shows Von Fistenberg, a former classical-music producer, sitting down to play at a grand piano before having a jockstrap thrown at his face. They recently sued Lucas for $750,000 for slander, libel, interference with trade, and a host of other legal complaints. Among Dark Alley’s contentions was that Lucas was trying to have their videos removed from local sex shops. “I have a right to do that,” Lucas said at the time. “I can tell anyone, ‘You want my product? Don’t go to them.’ ” In August, the suit was settled out of court (both parties have agreed not to discuss the settlement). Shortly thereafter, Lucas signed on as a major sponsor of September’s Gay Erotic Expo in Los Angeles, the biggest annual industry convention, and Dark Alley’s registration fee for a booth was mysteriously returned.

It is obvious, upon stepping out of the elevator into the hall of Lucas’s Chelsea building, which apartment is his. All the doors have traditional peepholes and push bells, save for the one that has a large lion’s head with a ring in its mouth.

Lucas lives in the multilevel apartment with his boyfriend of five years, Richard Winger, a 50-year-old Austrian international investor; their enormous Great Pyrénées dog, Bianca; and a long-haired Peruvian guinea pig, a local delicacy that Lucas smuggled back from a recent vacation in his carry-on. He gives a tour while nibbling on fresh dates from a silver chalice. In the kitchen, he motions to a Richard Avedon photograph of a nude Nureyev, his penis almost touching his knee. “A lot of people think I look like him.”

Michael Lucas and Savanna Samson treat City Hall Park like it contains the Trevi Fountain in Lucas's La Dolce Vita.Photo: Tien Mao/Courtesy of Lucas Entertainment

Lucas tells me of problems with their neighbor, the actor Frank Whaley, saying that Whaley preferred to take the stairs rather than ride the elevator with him. Lucas confronted Whaley’s wife about this. “I said, ‘Your husband is a homophobe,’ and she said, ‘Don’t you dare call him a homophobe, you who are doing your movies.’ And I said, ‘At least I can afford not to do my laundry and you and your husband are running around with buckets of clothes soaked in piss from your babies.’ ”

“That is off the record!” interjects Winger, who is reading the newspaper.

“No, it’s not!” Lucas retorts dramatically, hands on his waist. Winger grumbles and goes back to his paper. (The Whaleys were surprised to hear that Lucas had brought up a years-old incident. “I think he had confused claustrophobia for homophobia,” says Heather Whaley. “We kind of boast that he lives next door,” adds Frank.)

Lucas and Winger first met at Winger’s Christmas party. Whereas Lucas is the embodiment of untrammeled id and hammy bravado, Winger is the inverse, calm and methodical. “Imagine if we were both the same?” Winger asks. “We would either be bored or just explode.”

Downstairs, Lucas has three walk-in closets, separated by season, that he keeps padlocked; Winger has one conventional closet. Lucas sometimes uses their bedroom to film sex scenes, but he insists that his taped infidelities don’t factor into his relationship with Winger. “It really doesn’t bother me,” Winger says. “Sometimes I think it’s kind of cool.” Winger is the former president of the Lesbian & Gay Center and the much-rumored source of funding for Lucas’s venture. (“Any smart hooker knows it’s better to have one good client,” Hawk says, “than to fuck everyone.”) Lucas has denied any influx of cash. “I think I am making more money than he does now.”

“I did invest some money in the company,” Winger tells me a few weeks later, “which I think was a very good investment—but I don’t see myself in any way as integral to his success.”

Lucas was born Andrei Treivas Bregman in Moscow in 1972. His father was an engineer and his mother a teacher of Russian literature. Like many Soviet Jews, Lucas is not very religious, but he is quite proud of his heritage. This summer he even made a Bob Hope–like jaunt to Israel to add some sunshine to soldiers’ lives: At a discotheque, he had sex on a platform and enlisted servicemen got in for free.

Lucas has brought both his parents and grandparents to the U.S., and his father now works for him part-time. “He’s very proud and won’t just take money,” says Lucas. “He’s walking the dog, brushing her, squeezing the juice, taking the dry cleaning, and arranging my closets.” They know about his profession and, he says, have no qualms with it. “When you talk to porn stars, it’s always, ‘My mother’s an alcoholic, I never met my father, I was on drugs laying in the street and I decided to do porn.’ The story is always the same—the ugly duck who became a beautiful swan—and that story is incredibly boring. I succeeded because I have a different story.”

This summer, Lucas made a Bob Hope jaunt to Israel. He had sex in a disco, and soldiers got in for free.

But other than his kin, Lucas was alone in Russia, a country with little tolerance for Judaism or homosexuality. “I did not have friends,” he admits. “The teachers couldn’t stand me. But I felt I was special.” After getting a degree from Moscow State Law Academy, he moved to Berlin, where he worked as a prostitute before appearing in French porn films. “I did something very logical. I had this ability to say, ‘What is my real chance to become a mainstream celebrity?’ I am an immigrant, I have an accent, I am not the most beautiful thing which crossed the world.” In 1997, he went to New York and continued hustling and appearing in porn movies before starting Lucas Entertainment. “That’s how I got to be worshipped and loved.”

“Look at that horrible haircut!” Lucas greets me a few days later. “Darling, no one else will tell you these things. I will be very happy to send you to my hairdresser. He’s a genius.” Lucas is sitting behind his glass desk in his spacious midtown office. There is a wall of windows, but the blinds are all closed. “I don’t want the light to come in here. The poisonous light.” He’s facing an audience of himself, what he calls his “show-off wall”—row upon row of framed publications (Inches, Unzipped) he has graced. It’s like a stroke-mag version of a Warhol multiple portrait.

In recent months, three documentaries have hit the festival circuit that are either about Lucas or the making of his movies. All are self-produced. Whenever he does anything of the slightest interest (this week, it was going to a fashion showroom), Lucas hires a cameraman to document the outing. So, naturally, a crew was with him at the Gay VN Awards in March when he accepted the trophy for Best Film for Dangerous Liaisons, which substitutes Chelsea for eighteenth-century France (not as difficult a switch as you might think). Lucas gave the following speech: “Thank you for those who voted for me and fuck you to those who didn’t. I’d like to thank my chauffeur, my pilot … ” Many in the industry-only crowd hissed. Some chucked ice. “You don’t want to make a boring documentary,” explains Lucas, “so I got them reacting. It was like a bunch of dogs barking. They were throwing ice from their empty booze glasses—that’s a reaction from alcoholics.”

Lucas’s relationship with his own talent is often just as tempestuous as his feuds with the competition can be. This summer, one of his best-known models, Bruce Beckham, left his stable on bad terms. “All porn actors are incredibly insecure,” says Lucas, who practically requires his stars to come in for a monthly weigh-in as if they worked at a fifties airline. “This is the No. 1 thing that unites them. They are desperate for attention. They have no patience. They are big-time liars, and just not together.” I remind him that he himself is a porn star. He insists that these traits don’t apply to him.

A few weeks later, a very different Lucas is sitting behind his desk. He is in a T-shirt and jeans and has been waking up at 4:30 in the morning and working until 11 p.m. for ten days straight. He’s tired, and his energy level and word output are those of a normal human. Earlier, Lucas had told me that he has no plans to stop acting in his own movies yet. But does he still enjoy it? Did he ever? “It doesn’t fulfill me to be in front of the camera. This is just what I do, and I always do it well.” The office staff has mostly gone home (including his father, who’d been helping build a set), and one of the final sex scenes of La Dolce Vita is being shot: two male models having a bathroom tryst after a fashion show. Both men have on catapult-applied makeup—raccoon eyes and rouge. “Kiss louder!” Michael says firmly as he directs the scene. “Gag. I want to hear you gagging.” The straight sound guy in his twenties who’s holding the boom mike stares at the ceiling as the scene unfolds. The take is interrupted when a (real) pizza deliveryman rings the bell. Dinner.

Later, Lucas is looking over the rough edit of the La Dolce Vita footage, including a fight scene shot outside the Hotel Gansevoort, whose staff wasn’t nearly as accommodating as Marc Jacobs’s and tried to eject the crew. He stares at an image of himself onscreen and says, “I think it’s better than the original.”

NYC: Sodom and Gomorrah or … Boston?
1840s—Obscene postcards can be purchased at nickel-and-dime stores all over town.

1908—Burlesque founding father Abe Minsky kicks off his adult-entertainment business with a downtown theater showing lewd films.

Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

1930s—Times Square becomes porn central during the Depression, with “grinder houses” showing blue films.

1937—A stripper at Minsky’s New Gotham Theater in Harlem is spotted working sans G-string. City revokes Abe’s license.

1960s—Martin J. Hodas, “King of the Peeps,” puts porn movies in nickelodeon machines in Times Square.

1969—John Lindsay sets up a task force to crack down on sex shops and peep shows.

1972—Deep Throat opens to impressive grosses. The same year the first Times Square peep show promising LIVE NUDE GIRLS debuts.

1977—Show World Center, a bright, unintimidating Wal-Mart of porn, opens in Times Square.

1978—Women Against Pornography moves into its Times Square office. The group conducts tours of local peep shows.

Photo: Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis

1980s—The VCR.

1995—Rudy Giuliani ushers in new adult zoning laws.

1996—The last 42nd Street porn shop between Seventh and Eighth Avenue closes.

2005—The state’s highest court rules that stores selling pornography should be given a chance to prove they’ve cleaned up their act enough to remain in business. X-rated shops (with lots of legit DVDs in their front windows) make a pronounced comeback. Some even open up near Times Square.

NYC: Sodom and Gomorrah or…Boston?

The Lion of Chelsea