Mark Penny , email@example.com
1999, october 15
During the 1999 Fantasia Film Festival Montrealers were "graced" with the presence of Grace Quek (alias Annabel Chong), in town promoting a documentary about her life entitled SEX: The Annabel Chong Story, directed by Canadian filmmaker Gough Lewis. During production, subject and filmmaker embarked on a personal journey that would take Annabel from her porn movie gang bang sextravaganza (251 men in 10 hours), to leaving the business and retracing her steps to her formative years with her family in Singapore. The film is divided into two parallel parts: Annabel peeling off her screen persona to reveal Grace Quek, tortured little girl and USC critical studies student; and Lewis objectifying Grace Quek back into Annabel Chong. However, the film includes scenes that appear arbitrarily placed without proper contextualisation, and others that reek of premeditated phoniness. Although the film exposes the seedy side of the Los Angeles porn industry, it barely answers why Grace Quek is a part of that industry. What the viewer is left with is the filmmaker's opinion on the subject, with said subject denied her own voice. As the film reveals an eventual distanciation between subject and director, the film sees Grace transforming back to Annabel Chong, porn star.
What made the film interesting for this viewer was Grace Quek's personal involvement with the screenings. After witnessing a Q&A following the Fantasia screening, it became apparent that Lewis did not tell her story as she seems to have experienced it; and maybe that is just as well for it gave Grace the impetus to do her own critical documentary about this particular documentary. This interview took place the day following the Fantasia screening. Producer David Whitten, while at Fantasia, managed to sell the film to Cinema du Parc for its North American theatrical run during the month of September/October. In a wildly extravagant coincident that even a Herculean promoter could not have staged, the theatre in which the film played at the Cinema du Parc had a seating capacity of 251!
Mark Penny: What thoughts do you think Gough Lewis had in mind when he first contacted you with the idea of making this film? And do you believe that the finished product reflects these ideas accurately?
Annabel Chong: I think he was interested in character; that's what he said. In terms of his motivations pertaining to filmmaking specifically, I think he was trying to make a film that goes beyond the cartoon cut out puff piece or the kind of TV profile sort of thing. He wanted to go deeper and show different facets of a person's personality.
Q: But why specifically you?
A: He saw me on Jerry Springer and started getting ideas. There were also a lot of things in my life that he kind of identified with at that point in his life, because, I don't know we have a lot of things in common and he was just.......
Q: But he didn't know that when he first contacted you.
A: It was kind of like one of the things that we found out as we went along, but when he first contacted me he was just.....he saw me on Jerry Springer right? I was doing the Jerry Springer show and then, most bizarrely in a talk show, I start talking about Babylonian fertility rites, and since the talk show couldn't edit it out they kept it in there. That peaked his interest, he's like, "well, there's more to it than that, right"? So he decided to investigate. In terms of doing extreme things, he's been there in his own way. I mean he was in this really weird rock band called the something Sissy Boys right? Where he would dress as a drag queen and play guitar; a very GG Allin kind of thing.
Q: That's where his self-mutilation stuff comes from I guess.
A: I think so, I think so.....
Q: Sid Vicious...
A: Sid Vicious, Marilyn Manson and a lot of others; a lot of people do that surprisingly. I mean a friend of mine just did that like 3 days ago and, it's like, "don't go there". She was cutting herself up because she broke up with her stupid rocker boyfriend. In terms of personal motivation, at that point in his life, Gough needed to prove himself that he could do something good with his life, because he just went through this difficult phase of getting addicted to heroin and it was very messy. His mother was taking care of him. I was watching the film where my mother was talking about "you have to do me proud" right? You know that making this film was Gough's way of trying to make his mother proud of him, because he really connected to that scene emotionally when it took place.
Q: It's a very misleading scene. When I was watching the film, I had it in my mind that this was going to be another cliché film about a porn actress with self destructive urges who's life is breaking apart. But in other parts of the film that doesn't come across at all, so it seems muddled.
A: Well we make films about the things that we know about right? And these are things that Gough knows about; you know sometimes I'd be talking about sex in a more philosophical way, and he wouldn't really understand it so it really comes down to a crunch. How does he edit together a segment of me expounding these ideas when he really hasn't grasped them? So I guess Gough wanted to make a film that's got emotional impact and that's what attracted him. You know we had 120 hours of footage. And this is an 86 minute film; he had to really really pick and choose. There's a lot of projection going on there and at some point me and one of the producers, Suzanne Whitten, were saying that this is Sex: the Gough Lewis Story, told by Gough Lewis through Annabel Chong. All those scenes that happened to me really did happen, but they were not the entire picture; and in very many different ways.
Q: That's only one of the scenes taken totally out of context. When I saw it I thought there was something missing at the beginning and tail of that scene so that we 're not getting the full story. Even the scene in the restaurant where you say: "I hope I'm doing something good." You're on the verge of tears; your lips are trembling. The scene is not introduced.
A: You're missing certain pieces of context I know. All these scenes are dropped into the movie without explanation and you know it really bugs me, not just my life on screen, but as a piece of filmmaking itself. Those scenes are in there, but why? You know it's kind of disrupting the flow and leaves me feeling very puzzled. I watched the film the first time as myself and then went in the second time watching it as a piece of film, trying to see how he put it together.
Q: Do you feel the film over intellectualizes porn or erotica for the sake of selling itself to a broader public, or is it in fact anti-porn portraying you as another victimized person?
A: It makes me seem more of a victim than I actually am to the point where my friends Allen and Roger found the film very amusing. Roger was actually very disturbed by the film and Alan is brilliant in his own way because he was watching the film and just cracking up in the strangest places. Like why are you laughing? You know? He would say certain comments like "Oh! God that's such a cheap shot; it's like Goughs' life on screen".
Q: So Alan knew Gough pretty well I gather.
A: Oh yeah! Alan actually rescued me from the apartment one day when Gough got really drunk and really crazy at the time we were breaking up.
Q: The apartment we see in the film?
A: Yeah! That little shit hole.
Q: Are you still there?
A: No, moved on to bigger and better things.
Q: Getting back to the film, I think that there was some genuine feeling for you in certain scenes; it wasn't painting you all black. You can tell Lewis had a pretty deep attachment to you.
A: I know. I mean I felt I was given a pretty fair shake, it could have been worse right? It could have been.......well he did edit several versions of the film and there were a few versions that were probably hatchet jobs. And then he went the other way and did this puff piece. This sexy, real puff piece for Playboy channel type thing right? So I find that very amusing. I'd be curious to see all the different cuts of the movie.
Q: In reference to the question, do you feel that there is a need to intellectualize porn in the media. It seems to be spoken about more these days than it used to?
A: Yeah, I think it's just a different approach to porn. It does seem to be recognized as pop culture, and it is becoming more accepted as a form of entertainment. You know for better or for worse it's just the flavour of the month. Who knows?
Q: You think it might fade again?
A: Well, what did we have in the early 90's? We had super models, then we had celebrities; it seems we had rock stars. We had rock 'n' roll that was edgy, fun and cool, and now it's like..........it's really interesting to see how advertising and all these things are using the iconography of pornography to market their products. Porn stars are endorsing skate-wear and everything because suddenly it's edgy, cool and hip. So maybe right now it's porn, and five years from now it might be something else.
Q: It seems there's a very hedonistic type of lifestyle coming back, very sixty-ish and it's apparent in music. With the ecstasy and club culture we are seeing a younger generation getting into it as consumers.
A: Now it's porno chic, and before that it was heroin chic right? Do you remember that? It was early 90's, it was kind of depressive and people grasped on to something that's kind of depressive and dark. While porno is kind of light, fluffy and fun, and that sits completely well with a lot of what's going on in music, where we get all this fluffy, teen pop music. I'm still trying to analyze it and figure out for myself what's going on.
Q: Have you been doing work on that for your classes?
A: Yeah, I'm doing this magazine section in my website and I think the first article that's going to come out is on porno chic. It's going to be an ambivalent article because everyone in the porno industry seems to think that "that's so cool", and everyone else seems to think that's so cool for different reasons because it's really hip.
Q: Would you consider writing a book on the subject?
A: I'm actually talking to a friend of mine who's my writing partner, and we're thinking of writing a book on the history of porn. Because we are seeing a lot of shifts. For example, in Williams' book on hardcore [ed. Linda Williams, Hardcore], she talks about porn as if it has always been the same, but it's changed a lot from the 70's to the 90's. One thing I've noticed is that straight porn has become more fully erotic in a strange little way, and it's not just porn it's also mainstream culture. If you look at your average porn video right now, there are all these close-ups of the men and these cocks and penetration; I mean most of it is penetration anyway, and you don't get to see the woman a lot. The 70's porn film is on a more human scale where you get to see the partners having sex. You get to see some of the man and some of the woman; a lot of the woman actually and it's kind of nice. You get to see people having sex instead of machines.
Q: Especially the way they make them up in today's films......
A: They look like drag queens.
Q: They shave all the body parts, which makes it appear totally unnatural.
A: Yeah it's just completely contained and the hair is just completely frozen, the make-up's perfect and it's just really really weird. So I'm trying to analyze just what's going on. When Details magazine first came out, which is run by gay men, they always pushed the big campy blond women with the big hairdo, big tits, like Pamela Anderson. And then, of course, that's also very much a heterosexual advertising culture icon right? If you look at Maxim magazine, all their women look like drag queens. It's almost as if gay taste or gay camp and this weird uber-heterosexual advertising culture is converging, and agreeing that these women are icons of femininity. I find that truly amusing because both camps politically would hate each other. A lot of straight porn is just so gay that a lot of my gay friends have given up on gay porn.
Q: But do you think that an average guy who would go into a video porn section would even think in those terms as he's watching the product? How can you intellectualize at that level?
A: Well, there's what people are aware of consciously and what people are thinking subconsciously. I would think, "what sort of enjoyment are you getting out of this?" You don't get to see the girl and you keep looking at the guy. What's up with that? There's something going on.
Q: But they don't realize what's going on...
A: And that's what makes it interesting; if they were to realize it they would be completely appalled; so that's constantly amusing to me.
Q: What was the point of including the Jasmin St-Clair sequence in the film since both of you seemed to have two very different ideological reasons for doing the gang-bang; you seemed to want to prove something to yourself and she seemed to do it purely for the money.
A: I can't speak on behalf of the filmmaker, but I think he wanted to provide some kind of foil or contrast, but that scene was kind of dropped in suddenly. Also I felt that Jasmin was misrepresented and treated in a rather negative manner. O.K. everybody in the industry knows that Jasmin St-Clair is a difficult young lady. That being said she's always been very nice to me and she has been very helpful on several occasions. I know she had a lot of problems with other people, but she came across as being just a silly little bitch in the movie, when she's actually a pretty smart girl. It doesn't show in that clip, so I thought he really didn't give Jasmin a fair shake. Jasmin's a very smart businesswoman, with a business major from NYU. She may not be a very pleasant person in real life and she does make some silly decisions in her personal life, but I really wish that Gough would have given her some more credit.
Q: Why does Mr. Barnard refuse to be taped in the video? Did he know at that time that you were a porn actress?
A: Yes he knew; politically it would have put him in a very difficult position to be in the film because he was head of the humanities department and there were a lot of politics within the school. He's always tried to protect the humanities program, and the school is always giving him a hard time. If he had agreed to be in this film, they would have kicked his ass back to England; the school and Singapore being what they are.
Q: Your classmate Monica, whom we see early on in the film, says that you went into porno to prove a point. Did you in fact prove that point?
A: I think in very many ways Americans having absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever and did not get the joke of the world's biggest gang-bang. I mean, it was supposed to be very, very funny. It's supposed to be this over-the-top burlesque of what an American stud is supposed to be like; you fuck anything that moves and even if it doesn't move you fuck it anyway. The world's biggest gangbang is ridiculous, it's a joke, and everyone is just too busy in their own puritanical way going "ooh! This is so shocking." No one really thought to just sit there and laugh; a few people got it and sat there and just cracked up for the four hours. That's just too bad but then again it wouldn't be quite enough for me to just do the gang-bang. Any given event does not mean anything until it's been put into a context. The media creates its own context for events that took place. And being part of it, coming out here and talking about it is my own way of adding to that context, or creating various ways of looking at this event. You know some people watch it just to jack off and that's fine; some people watch it for titillation purposes; some people watch it and try to analyze it as a cultural phenomenon. I think that all these views are equally valid. The more ways you can look at something, the better it is. It would be terribly fascist if there would be just one reading of anything.
Q: Do really believe that some people are watching it to analyze it as a cultural phenomenon?
A: I've had people approach me at the weirdest places sit down and explain the whole thing to me. It is really bizarre. I did this interview where I just mentioned that I read Foucault. Who doesn't in university, right! I was in this strip club giving this guy a lap dance and all he wanted to do was to discuss Foucault with me. Well I can stand naked and do my little dance, or I can discuss Foucault, but not at the same time; too much information. That was just surreal for me because he brought me these little balloon animals and wanted to discuss Foucault. It was weird, but later I did sit down and have a little chat with him.
Q: Maybe for him the intellectual stimulation was a part of the physical as well.
A: I think so, but maybe there's this other thing that's going on where guys just naturally assume that everybody that I meet are jerks and just want to have sex with me. So he makes like he's interested in my mind so I can think he's a cool guy. I get a lot of that because back then I was just Grace Quek, USC student. When a guy wanted to get to me he would just grab me or something, but now they're really careful. They're like, "Oh! I bet you meet a lot of assholes." Just so you could start talking about art, music, like come on, I gotta leave by six, just drop your pants!
Q: What about issues of safety, are you still checking out as HIV negative?
A: Yeah! Not only do we have to be tested every month, but there was an AIDS scandal that happened in the industry with this guy named Marc Wallice. He tested positive and went around shagging these girls.
Q: He knew about it?
A: Yeah he's a murderer, I think it's disgusting so I'm really careful. Now that I'm directing I would make sure that everybody gets tested and shows up in good health. Once this guy turned out with a flu so I sent him home.
Q: Considering the issues of AIDS and safe sex, do you believe your statement in the film that sex is good enough to die for?
A: I thought that specific event was worth taking a risk. I decided to take that risk and made a conscious decision; if anything goes wrong I take the responsibility, I'm not going to sit there and cry and say I'm a victim.
Q: Was the scene where you are shown negotiating with Rob Black for $1200 staged?
A: Rob's reaction was not staged; me negotiating with a face mask and toe separators was Gough's idea. I was actually just painting my nails while doing it, but he thought it would be so great if I had this cream mask all over my face. He taped a little sound piece to the phone and played Rob's recording back to me like if I was responding to a live conversation. I did ham it up slightly, because he wanted to make it a really funny scene. We did it twice; once when I'm trying to reenact my conversation using the same tone of voice. For the second one we really hammed it up. The third one we really went for it; I think he chose the second one, the kind of in between version where I'm not completely over the top.
Q: If Black's reaction was not rehearsed, didn't you feel that he has a very low esteem of women?
A: Rob Black is a ham; he thinks he's a character from a Quentin Tarantino movie. He plays a role in front of the camera all of the time. He's obsessed with the idea of himself as this bad boy; I think he bought into his own mythology and he's become his own monster that he's created. Now he's in really bad shape business wise. All his cliques have left him because he bought his own press; which is really sad because now his films really suck. I liked his earlier stuff, I thought they were kind of weird and funny.
Q: Black seems to be a very exploitative character in this scene. Considering that the talent do not reap anything out of the sale of the video itself, but rather get paid a flat rate for each individual scene.
A: That's why I'm in production right now rather than just performing. Now I get a cut of everything I make.
Q: But not all talent can get into producing their own material. Yet, one would like to see a situation where that's the case. A situation where the talent gets some kind of percentage out of the toil they put into the product, rather than being exploited by guys like Rob Black or John Bowen.
A: That's why I'm meeting up with a bunch of sex workers at about 5:30 today. I'm very interested to hear from how they managed to form a coalition; to unionize and watch after each other's interests. For months I've been trying to puzzle out how we could do it within the industry. I've just been running into walls of resistance, even if most people think it's a very good idea. I'm trying to figure out a way to do it.
Q: It's too bad because you'd think the actors or actresses would think it's a good idea to eventually reap benefits from the productions.
A: Yes but most people don't have their act together in the industry. It is as bad as the music industry.
Q: Is John Bowen telling the truth that after the gangbang you fell into a pit of drug addicts that bled you dry?
A: Oh no, that's John Bowens' mythology. He tends to badmouth a lot of people once they leave him. I had the temerity to ditch him. I just basically didn't want to work with him anymore. He would spread all these rumors about me which created problems for me. For example, right now I've been trying to get some photos cleared for my web site. He spread all these rumors about me at this company and it took me 4 months to get clearance. For most people it would take about 24 hours. Guess what? My company is now suing John Bowen.
Q: But you're not going after him for the money owed to you from the gangbang? Is it a closed issue for you?
A: I don't feel the need to, since it's been so long ago. I'm making my own money right now so I really don't care.
Q: The scene with the caption that says you decided to return to the porn industry is a little unsettling since it's after the disclosure to your mother?
A: It didn't properly explain my motivations for going back It just happened suddenly and once again there's no context for that scene. It's just really strange why he chose to do it that way. It's almost as if he's got to make the film 86 minutes so suddenly "BAM" that's the last scene.
Q: He just dropped it in?
A: I don't know, I'm not the filmmaker so I can't speak for him.
Q: How's the relationship with your parents at the present moment?
A: They'll be visiting me in L.A. in October and will stay with me for a month. They're gonna go house shopping and they've given me specific orders about what kind of house they want to buy. They're going to sell their house and move to L.A. I'm so stoked.
Q: Can you give us some background to the Cambridge scene?
A: I was invited there through my friend Calvin, whom you see in the film. He used to be their treasurer at the Cambridge Union. I was going to an English university, but it never ceases to amaze me the amount of drunkenness that goes on. At the end of the debate, all the guys you see with ties on are stark naked and hanging on the walls. One of their journalist guys was interviewing me for the school magazine and he got incredibly drunk before he came to do the interview, so he started hitting on me and tried to come on to me. Next thing he had to do was transcribe the tape so when the transcriber was out of commotion, the editor got the tape and decided to do it himself. When he heard it, the journalist got fired. The guy was taking off his clothes in front of me and I was like: "Dude, back off." That was the strangest incident there.
Q: Tell us about your University studies and how that might influence your ideas for your own porn productions. How would you use what you've learnt in a class situation to affect such a project?
A: On the most basic level: composition, composition, composition. It was really funny because while watching this documentary I was constantly recomposing a lot of things. One of the big contentions I had with Gough was that he couldn't compose. He believed I was a bitch. "Grace, this is my film and I'll shoot the way I want." So I backed off. But if a lot more care would be put into it, it would look much better as a porn genre piece. Which is what I'm trying to do.
Q: Do you want to broaden it out to a female public as well?
A: Yes, I want to make it more inclusive by making porn for both men and women. We're all sexual beings so I assume that we are, at some level, interested in sex. Also I want to be more truthful to the psychology of sex. I see a lot of porn films that are just so unsexy; they seem to be made by a machine. To prove my point, my friend and I took a porn video and substituted all the extreme close ups with a watermelon and a dildo; and of course the film still made perfect sense. We'd sit around, watch porn films and gamble on what would be the next shot, how long is it going to go on for. I think it could actually be made to be more interesting and can be sexy without being completely stupid. That's something I really want to see. I see a lot of directors going along those lines, like Michael Ninn and David Clarke. It is just a very encouraging direction and didn't make it less sexy because it was smart. As long as it's not pretentious.
Q: Now that you're producing, do you find there's a rift between realism and fantasy in porn and which way do you find yourself going; what do you find more erotic?
A: With the first one I went for the realism and for the second one I'm gonna mix it around. I find both interesting. Some of the fantasy doesn't really have anything to do with the sex; it has something to do with what happens before the sex. Not so much like the plot, but the situation leading up to it which makes it interesting. There are all these things that make people aroused, and everybody has their own personal preferences. I don't know what turns everybody on, but I know what turns me on so we all make films about what we know.
Q: Will you continue performing in your own productions?
A: Yes, I'll be doing the next one which deals with a woman who has a sexually deviant relationship with her cell phone.
Q: I was struck by your persona, Annabel Chong, and how a lot of the characters in the film didn't see the irony of you playing another character, Annabel Chong, who is not as bright as the Grace character. Are you one of the first female porn actresses to do this, as having an alias is quite prevalent among male stars?
A: I know for sure I'm playing with that. Anybody who puts themselves in the public for whatever reason is putting on a persona. They are not really themselves. Am I being myself right now? No, I'm not. Left to my own devises I'd be crashed out over a couch with a glass of orange juice. Of course I'm performing Grace Quek, documentary film subject. We're always playing all these different characters; we're like the sum total of our representations. Are we really ourselves when we're alone or not. We are playing at being alone.
Q: With the Annabel Chong character you get the feeling that she has to have sex almost all of the time. When you were talking yesterday during the Q&A, you were saying that you hadn't had sex in a long time. So it's a huge contradiction between wanting it every hour and going weeks without having it at all!
A: Yes, it's like Annabel Chong is very cartoony. But Annabel Chong is going through a lot of changes with her persona. In the newer stuff that I'm directing, for example with the cell phone story, Annabel is a very unsympathetic character, very acute. She's not a very pleasant character, but just this terrible uptight woman. For the next few films she will be playing the same character, so now in the business people perceive me as this uptight kind of business bitch. "Let's get down to the contract." "Here's my cell phone number." People are saying, "Wow Annabel is growing up". I think we go through phases.
Q: What do you see yourself doing in 15 to 20 years from now?
A: Teaching and going for my Ph.D. At present I'm raising money for my masters. I want to do it in New York which means money, money, money. New York is very expensive I just found out.
Q: In what program?
A: Probably Critical Studies. Most of my friends advise me to go into something that's more hands on because they know I have a tendency to retreat into my brain. I just get really disconnected, so it would really help me to do something that is very physical. I have a certain reticence inside of myself. I just want to sit there and not need to do anything but write. A quiet life. School would be like a vacation for me, because now if I screw up I get producers yelling at me!
At the time of writing, Grace Quek is in production with her meta-documentary on Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, tentatively called Sex Goes on Vacation, which she hopes to have completed within a year's time.