The Soho Love Goddess

Fetishes are narrow, even brittle, phenomena. There are men who need to see women’s toes but not heels, or heels but not toes; men who need to see women in leg casts; men who need to see a specific kind of woman’s shoe pushing a specific kind of car’s accelerator. “That’s not at all an isolated fetish,” says Dian Hanson, the most cerebral pornographer in America. “There’s an entire club called Pedal Pumpers. The first man who called me about it could only be satisfied with a 1959 Corvette and white pumps. It had to be white pumps. He’d bring hookers home and take them to the garage.”

Hanson’s SoHo office is scattered with pleasantly filthy memorabilia: photos of penises with her name written on them, a comic of Wonder Woman removing her panties, crutches tied together with a leather whip. Hanson has pinned up production schedules for the three soft-core magazines she edits, but these are difficult to notice. The eye more naturally falls to, say, the freeze-dried pig or the Polaroid of the three-foot man with someone’s scrawled Post-it note reading “Do we need a dwarf?”

Everything Hanson has seen in 23 years of writing and editing porn has led her to one ineluctable truth: that sexual aberration does not exist. Paradoxically, aberration is the norm. The illusion of a comfortable sexual order, of a mainstream of behavior that rules the secret world of lust, did not survive the century. And if porn is even a glimpse of American sexuality, Hanson is its Margaret Mead.

In her career, she has observed several protracted seasons of erotic fashion. She has worked through the era of the curvy blonde, the cartoonishly augmented model, the hard-body, and now the natural girl. She has listened as men clamored to see shaved private parts, and now hears them clamoring to see the opposite. Recently, she offered to contribute cash to a model’s favorite charity if the model would simply stop wearing thongs for a while and develop a full-panty tan line. “When I ask her to keep her buttocks untanned, she looks at me as though I’m insane,” Hanson recounts. “But if I asked her to have her nipples surgically recentered, she’d say, ‘I’m free next week. What day?’ “

“I’ve made this magazine successful by listening to guys,” Hanson says. “I probe them for the subtleties of their lust.”

Hanson does not swear. She says the word pornography in the same neutral tone one might use for calligraphy or cartography – but beyond that, her discourse is immaculate. It would be simple to mistake her for an academic if she didn’t constantly refer to the magazines she edits: Juggs, Tight, and Leg Show, which is the most successful fetishist publication in the world. The text Hanson writes for Leg Show – what trade jargon calls its “girl copy” – is purchased by some 200,000 people each month, more than twice the circulation, for instance, of The New Republic.

Though she has started up other publications (Outlaw Biker, Big Butt), Hanson’s current trinity of magazines touches nearly every demographic of porn aficionado. Leg Show reaches a white-collar readership; Juggs – which Hanson calls “the sideshow of pornography” – is consumed mainly by blue-collar guys in the South and Midwest. “The Juggs woman is unchanged since the dawn of time,” says Hanson. “She’s a fertility goddess, complete with moist, hairy folds and creases.” Tight, at the other extreme, is carefully produced to look amateurish. In the main, it features 19-year-old girls sucking their pinkies and making comments like “I felt this big hot feeling between my legs where his thing was!” As male baby-boomers feel the sting of middle age (so the theory goes), they begin to like the idea of becoming Pygmalions. “They’re married to women who, to their great chagrin, have developed minds of their own,” Hanson says. “So they fantasize about having a girl to protect and mold.”

Hanson is 48 but could pass for 35. She has utterly straight blonde hair and a strong, lean body. Still, she is no exhibitionist. Posing nude is a frontier she has never crossed. “My hedonism,” she says, “is leavened with caution.” Staying behind the camera has not wounded her financially; she acknowledges that she does “very well” in porn. She has a flat in Park Slope but spends weekends in her house upstate, where she keeps a fine collection of taxidermy. “There’s a stuffed six-foot alligator eating a fawn, a fox killing a lamb, and a beagle wearing its collar,” she says quite proudly. “I’ve been to a few auctions.”

When she’s away from the gaze of those frozen animals, though, it’s Leg Show that fixates her. On the surface, the magazine reads like standard porn: “Know what I am? I’m a bad girl!” But much of what Hanson writes is actually an earthy translation of her theories about sex – theories that, as it happens, are rooted in academia. She has read every text about the libido that has come within her reach – starting at the age of 14, when she found Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in her local library. From there, she wended her way through Freud, Wilhelm Stekel, the sex-change expert John Money, and even the English satirist Geoff Nicholson, who is now Hanson’s boyfriend.

Having worked as a respiratory therapist, Hanson has a habit of couching her sexual opinions in medical terms. Other pornographers gibber about chakras, auras, the “weaving of energy.” She prefers to muse about apocrine glands: how “those odoriferous organs are located only in the nipples, armpits, groin, and feet – hence fetishists’ preoccupation with shoes, which are prized for their retention of smell.” To this day, she insists that her style of directing a photo shoot (calling everyone “honey,” soothing the model without losing control) was learned working at hospitals.

The rest of her pornographic schooling has come from reader feedback. Hanson’s correspondence reveals sexual urges of every stripe. She especially likes to tell the story of the Little Man. In her office, there’s a four-inch wax molding of a nude male figure. The Little Man was a gift from a Nebraska reader of Leg Show. Its nose is partly rubbed away, as is much of the crude brown coloring where its hair is meant to be. The penis, small even by Little Man standards, exists still, though most of the pubic hair has faded. The figure’s face offers no discernible expression: It is blank from waiting. For the Little Man was made to be stomped, made by a real man who dreamed of being stomped. It was the Nebraskan’s habit to stand in public and furtively place the Little Man where it would fall beneath heels – women’s heels, the sharper the better. Then he watched, wincing in ecstasy, as the Little Man was impaled underfoot. He would have spontaneous orgasms seeing the Little Man trodden upon. Ideally, he would then recover it, driven by the orgasms he knew he’d have with it later, when he studied the shape and depth of the heel wounds sustained by his tinier self.

“Consider the child,” Hanson says, as if the Little Man is some sort of parable. “When his mother’s angry, she’s powerful. The child feels safe. So he grows up fixated on a moment in his childhood where he was anxious or afraid, staring up at the tower of Mommy. It’s not uncommon for men to fantasize about being small. There’s even a magazine, Giantess, for that population of readers.”

It didn’t surprise Hanson to learn how the Nebraskan’s fetish started: how, at the age of 4, he earned the kind attentions of a neighbor lady after she accidentally pierced his hand with her heel, and how he was discovered a week later hiding under a table, trying to get his hand under her foot again. Hanson wasn’t even alarmed when the hapless Nebraskan offered his life to her (“who would know,” he said, “and who would care?”) so that his flesh could be fashioned into shoes or a rug. She finds it all quite endearing.

So she walks the narrow road. Any variation on a fetish, a single added or missing detail, shatters readers’ fantasies. If a nylon seam is crooked, Hanson receives irate letters from any number of impassioned readers: her man at the State Department, maybe. A roofer in Toronto. Leg Show men cross all boundaries. “I’ve made this magazine successful by listening to guys,” she says. “I probe them for the subtleties of their lust, and often translate their ideas directly into layouts.”

But fetishists, even with their ultraprecise tastes, are not without common ground. Hanson has a complex sexual theory that draws them all together: a mental Gesamtkunstwerk of perversity. To Hanson, sexuality in our culture is all about protrusion. “Women are concerned about their buttocks and their breasts,” she says. “They never worry about their vaginas.” Sex and porn are a simple function of flesh that sticks out, and the curve of the flesh, and the motion of the curve.

The fact that women don’t generally fetishize, in Hanson’s view, results from the culture’s more intense scrutiny of males: “Fetishes begin when a boy is attracted to something shiny or soft, something that feels like skin. It might be the satin edge of a blanket or something silky, but it’s perceived by adults to be feminine. So he’s directed away from it, often sternly – which fixates the boy on the object. His sexuality doesn’t go away; it gets twisted. The realm of fetishism proves that, as a society, we’re continuing to maim our children psychosexually.”

“The moment a fetish starts,” she adds, forever veering into new avenues of her Theory, “is usually the moment of anxiety and stimulation when the boy is made to feel that if he expresses sexuality – if he breaks the rules – love will be withheld from him. That’s what I’d never have believed 23 years ago. Fetish pornography is all about the search for love.”

In the odd metaphysics of Dian Hanson, that is possibly the oddest tenet: Everything she writes, every overripe metaphor and sordid Leg Show fantasy, is an expression of love. Sure, smut is easy to mistake for filth – as a thuggish con, good for a quick buck. But Hanson insists that money is not what draws her to the trade. “The old Leg Show, before I joined the staff, was failing because it was contemptuous of its readers,” she says equably. “What we do now, and what men enjoy, is love in the guise of contempt.

“My magazine is a seduction, an ongoing love affair,” she insists. “That’s the sad thing about the Internet. Smut online isn’t glossy. You can’t hold it in your hand or keep track of your favorite models. The Internet is a one-night stand. So if online porn replaces magazine porn, we may all find ourselves living in a more loveless world.”

When Dian Hanson found Krafft-Ebing at 14, the lines of her life were drawn for good. She’d been raised, she says, by “right-wing eccentrics.” Her father is the head of a Christian-mystic cult. He taught his five children to be vegetarians, occasionally driving the whole clan to his office for a colonic – just to attain that extra measure of inner godliness. The religion was so secretive that Hanson’s parents never even tried to include their own kids. “They probably thought we weren’t worthy,” Hanson says, nearly giggling. “My father was presented to us as a holy man: not only as a godlike father but as a fatherlike god. Imagine. Instead of threats, there was always a lot of karma bandied about: ‘Do you want to be reincarnated as a leper in India?’ “

The girl Hanson was a pariah in school – so tormented by her classmates that she half wonders why she didn’t come in one day brandishing a weapon. A photo from the time shows what her classmates scorned: She is 11, wearing a ratty straw hat and looking gangly. Crouching in the snow, she appears perplexed. Her feet are turned inward. One boat-size hand is feeling the ground, as if this were her first moment on earth. Hanson keeps this picture in her office, right between a photo of a man fucking a shoe and a (doctored) picture of Chelsea Clinton in the buff.

Hanson’s schoolmates reserved their most exquisite derision for her height. In kindergarten, she was actually taller than the teacher, and she hit five feet ten by the sixth grade. She grew so fast that her frame outpaced her heart-lung complex. At one point, her arm span exceeded her vertical height. Doctors feared gigantism.

As a nongiant adult, Hanson has never wavered in her rebellion. Despite her vegetarian childhood, she’s spectacularly carnivorous, and a good drinker. But she could never be mistaken for a pariah these days. There are many thousands of readers who hang on her every word, write paeans to “the Goddess Dian,” and have even started up a club and a newsletter devoted to her.

She has also managed, quite by accident, to become a minor celebrity among media types: “It’s very common, when I’m at a book party with Geoff Nicholson, to have a publisher sidle up to me and whisper, ‘I just love Juggs!’ ” New York and L.A. are sprinkled with writers and artists who have, at some point, sought out a connection with Hanson. One of the few men who openly admit this, the German publisher Benedikt Taschen, says he wants to compile “a cool book of her writings.” (There’s even a Leg Show poster prominently displayed in the strip-club set of The Sopranos.)

Beyond that, Hanson has had long-term relationships with artist Joe Coleman and, more famously, the cartoonist Robert Crumb. It’s probably no coincidence, one way or another, that Crumb’s images echo Hanson’s own muscular vision of female power. At dinner on the night they met, Crumb was asked how he’d like to get home and replied that he wanted to ride on Dian’s back. Tourists in the Russian Tea Room snapped photos as he leaped aboard the woman and rode her off the premises. “Oh, her legs were even more powerful back then,” Crumb wistfully recalls. “She could go for blocks and blocks!

“It’s devastating how well Dian understands male sexuality,” adds Crumb, who now lives in the south of France. “She caters to perversions with an expertise that’s scary. She’s like an Albert Schweitzer to pathetic foot-suckers, and she’s pretty good-hearted about it.”

Inevitably, there are those who decry Hanson as a traitor to the subversive spirit of pornography. Al Goldstein, the very loud and very fat man who edits Screw, becomes apoplectic at the mention of her name. Goldstein has spent as many years being a reprobate as Hanson has spent not being one. “When was the last time she was busted?” he asks, touting his own nineteen arrests. “I fight for free expression. You ask me about someone who wants to keep quiet? That’s like asking Martin Luther King about blacks who want to pass as white. Dian Hanson is gutless, a coward. I tolerate her like a mosquito bite on the ass!”

It’s true that Hanson has little desire to spend her life in court. The magazines she edits are technically soft-core, which means they stop short of depicting actual penetration. Under federal law (namely, 18 U.S. Code, Section 2257), a hard-core-porn operation must cross-reference all models with explicit releases and every name the model has ever used in her life. It’s like chasing mice through a thicket. To fail in these record-keeping duties, under the law, can bring a five-year prison term, even if the model in question is 70 years old. Hanson, as a purveyor of soft-core, is legally exempt from these inventories, but she does them anyway.

Dian Hanson’s direction of a photo shoot is the purest expression of her work. All her skills – her quiet command, her knowledge of exactly what poses will provide Leg Show readers with quality masturbation – are called into play. On a breezy Tuesday, she packs a few bags with clothes she has bought for Tammy Lee, a longtime favorite with her readers.

Walking to the studio, Hanson gushes about cookbooks she has purchased over the weekend. “You should see The Poultry Bible or some of my German books!” she says. “They’re lit much the same way we light a shoot – the same contrivances. Everything is well oiled. Everything’s full and round, meticulously arranged to stimulate the appetite.”

“Dian Hanson,” says her former lover R. Crumb, “is like an Albert Schweitzer to pathetic foot-suckers, and she’s pretty good-hearted about it.”

The studio, run by a Swedish photographer named Anneli Adolfsson, is a vast room in Chelsea. Nine giant shades keep out the piercing sunlight; a German boxer dog is sleeping in a cage. Nearby is a closet filled with legal boxes marked antique lingerie and, true to Leg Show fetishism, gas masks.

Beneath the chipped white ceiling, Tammy Lee is standing nude as Hanson “de-malls” her flame-red hair. It needs to be de-malled: This is a glamour shoot and must elicit images of old Hollywood, not the shopping center where Dian Hanson finds fabulous deals on Manolos and Betsey Johnsons.

Tammy Lee, a “featured entertainer” who performs in San Francisco, Miami, and other strip-friendly cities, has earned combat pay from Leg Show. In past issues, she has exposed herself on the streets of New York and London. On a more puzzling assignment, she was taken to a meatpacking plant and photographed among cattle parts. There was so much suet on the floors that, to avoid slipping on her stiletto heels, she had to be carried out to the meat hooks, where she bravely swung around until Hanson and Adolfsson got the pictures they needed. “We shot her near a hanging tree of gluteus muscles,” recalls Hanson, who never resists the chance to be medically specific. “It was a beautiful layout.”

A porn photo shoot is itself a slightly medical, or at least clinical, event. It’s five or six hours – fifteen on a tough day – of asking a model to move her elbow three inches to the left, or arch her back, or swivel her left buttock just slightly toward the lens. Every few minutes, Hanson reminds Tammy Lee to “Barbie the foot”: her slang for making the perfect S-shape that drives Leg Show readers to private distraction.

As an extra favor to those who lust after Tammy’s curvy feet, Hanson has brought a pair of custom-made English shoes she’s been saving for the occasion. She rightly calls them “the torture shoes.” They look like matching cliffs. The heels are a ludicrous six and a half inches high, with an angle of descent of 45 degrees. “Tammy’s woman enough to wear these,” Hanson says, in the calming voice of a respiratory therapist. “We love our Tammy!”

Eventually, her lips rocketing into hypergloss, Tammy is trapped in a wilderness of straps, nylon, and silk. From the looks of her, she might explode if just one of the hooks or clips gives way. “Men are entranced by the complication of lingerie,” Hanson says, buttoning Tammy’s gold bustier. “The fact that women need pounds of elastic and tressing fascinates them, because all they wear is a shred of cotton underneath their clothes. And it’s a very male urge, an aggressive and sexual one, to want to fight through layers to get to the female.”

Tammy slips on a pair of long black gloves and strikes an Evita pose for fun. Then she gingerly makes her way to the square of glass she’ll pose upon first. The effect of the glass, in addition to playing up the veins in her brand-new four-pound breasts (she recently weighed them, at 2 a.m., on a grocery store’s fruit scale), is to make her look like one of Hanson’s happy German recipes.

“Don’t ask me to smile,” Tammy says in her rough Pennsylvanian accent. “I look stupid when I smile.”

But the last thing on earth Dian Hanson wants is a smile. Tammy’s target reader, she tells me quietly, is the man whose fantasy is to marry a bad girl – one who will cheat, bring strangers home, have sex with them in his presence. “Do the smirk,” she tells Tammy. “There! There’s the resentful look. It says, ‘Your penis isn’t good enough!’ “

Within minutes, Tammy collapses on the torture shoes. Hanson rushes over and lowers her to the floor like a mortally wounded soldier. “She’s crippled but beautiful,” Hanson says. “We’re a full-service magazine.”

Tammy smokes. she’s been dying for a cig anyway, and now has the double joy of smoking it while she works. As Hanson is proud to remind us, Tammy was Leg Show’s very first smoker, way back in 1996. Some readers were electrified; others dashed off complaints, desperately hoping their “favorite woman” would give up this filthy habit before she died of it.

Over the entire shoot, the spite in Tammy’s baby eyes never dims. She is tireless. Into the fifth hour, the entire crew’s performance has taken on an air of athletic prowess. Anneli Adolfsson, herself a classically beautiful woman, has not faltered in her singsong praise of Tammy’s dirty poses. Dian Hanson presides over the event playfully but with a hidden gravitas when it comes to the exactitude of poses.

For the nude shots, Tammy taps her labia to wake them for the lens. Hanson has a score of euphemisms for vagina. She asks Tammy to reveal her “bunny parts,” then, moments later, compliments her on the “cootchie.” Tammy, sprawled upside-down beneath three 2,400-watt klieg lights, doesn’t alter her smirk by one degree.

“Hey – let’s get some butt shots,” Hanson says, as if this is only now occurring to her. “We can’t waste those fine buttocks of yours.”

“Oooh, very nice,” Adolfsson chirps. “Yum, yum, yum, yum!”

“More, Tammy,” Hanson says. “Obey Mommy!”

Tammy gives more. She suddenly shouts, “Kiss my ass! Lick my shoes!”

Hanson corrects her: “Buy me shoes!”

The shoot ends. Hanson steps back into the gray light of Chelsea. People on the street alternately smile at her, glance at her, ignore her. Unlike the masturbators and transvestites who favor Leg Show, she has no secret terror that she’ll be revealed as an Unacceptable Person.

Quite the opposite. Last year, a German fan wangled her a ticket to the 300th performance of The Sound of Music as well as a private party with the Von Trapps. Hanson dined across from one of the storied couple’s grandsons. “They were a hearty bunch – genetically superior people with fabulous blue-green eyes,” says Hanson, as ever connecting beauty to biology. “I sat behind Maria during the play, listening to her whisper, ‘Oh! That isn’t how it happened at all!’ It made me realize: What a wonderful life I have. And I owe it all to pornography.”

The Soho Love Goddess