On the Metaphysics of Being a Porn Star

ShaunaGrant.jpg

The Life and Death of Shauna Grant

An Essay by John David Ebert


“‘Transcendence’ always involves departing from the known and familiar “beings” and going out in some way beyond them.”

–Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event)


Suicide

On March 21, 1984, Colleen Applegate – known to the porn industry as “Shauna Grant” – shot herself in the head. It was a little after 7 in the evening, and her friend Brenda Rosenow, after hearing a loud pop from the other room, rushed into the bedroom and found Colleen lying on two beds that had been pushed together, with a .22 caliber Long Rifle at her side, and a hole in her right temple where the bullet had penetrated, and exited through the left temple, leaving a star-shaped wound as it hit the wall. Brenda saw that her friend was still breathing, so she called for an ambulance, which rushed Colleen to Desert Hospital in Palm Springs, California. There, she was put on life support systems for two days, but she was already brain dead and the life support systems were unplugged. She was buried by her family on March 28.

She was 20 years old.

She had been living at the house of one Jake Ehrlich, aged 44, at the time, a cocaine dealer who had been arrested just a month before and who had recently called Colleen from jail to tell her to pack her things and move out. She had been living with him for about ten months, during which time she had stopped making pornographic movies, although her cocaine addiction had accelerated during this same period.

But on the night of March 21, she was out of cocaine and out of money and would soon have no place to stay. Furthermore, she had agreed to star in another pornographic movie and was due on the set in just two days.

Colleen Applegate, it seemed, had run out of options.

But now the question remains: was Colleen Applegate trying to kill herself, or rather was she trying to kill Shauna Grant?

Because the two personae, as we shall see, were not the same people.

Escape Into Transcendence

One fact about Colleen Applegate that often gets overlooked is that she had already, on a previous occasion, tried to commit suicide, and this was long before the invention of the persona known as “Shauna Grant.” Back in December of 1981, while working a desultory job at a phone company in the small town of Farmington, Minnesota where she was born and raised, she had had overdosed on some sinus medication pills and was rushed to the hospital. But the gesture was written off by family and friends as a mere plea for attention.

Before her job at the phone company, Colleen had had a job as a cashier, and she had a steady boyfriend, one Mark Marcell to whom, apparently at the age of 16, she had lost her virginity. She was already locked in, in other words, for the standard Midwestern life of a nine to fiver who married the first boyfriend who came across her path.

But according to friends and family members, there was always “something different” about Colleen, as they put it: she had a tendency toward introversion, and liked to read and write poetry. And an idea, furthermore, had already settled into her brain: she wanted to be a model.

But that wasn’t going to happen in Farmington, Minnesota, which she well knew. So, as word of her suicide attempt spread around the small town, Colleen, feeling trapped, packed up with her boyfriend Mark and headed west, for Los Angeles.

Toward the mountains.

Now, when one glances at a topographical map of the United States, what strikes one immediately is that most of the continent is flat. Starting at the serrated edge of the Rocky Mountains, however, the land ascends to the heavens and never stops ascending. The West is composed out of mountains, and even the Hollywood sign is perched atop a small mountain.

The West is not the realm of dreams for nothing.

It is the realm, in other words, of Transcendence. Mountains have, throughout the history of civilization, always been identified with the realm of ascent to the gods and the stars. The priest ascending the artificial mountain of his ziggurat would consort with the priestess of Inanna, goddess of the planet Venus, in a little chapel set aside for this purpose at the top of the ziggurat. Moses, at the top of Sinai, communed with his god. And Nietzsche’s Zarathustra begins his journey at the top of a mountain from whence he descends to the realm of the flatland down below to spread word of his new gospel.

The “flatland” is the realm of banality and of the everyday. (In Heideggerian terms, it is the realm of the present at hand). It is the plane of conservative values and conformity to social norms and the simplicity of black / white ethics. To people with dreams, however, the flatland is a hell of the same which must be escaped from at all costs.

Colleen Applegate’s own “being” idea, then, was identified with the archetype of the glamorous female. Through identification with this archetype, she would attain to the status of the “other than usual,” the non-everyday mode which would have the effect of cutting her out from being just another face in the crowd, and causing her to stand out above everyone else as figure minus ground. She would be accelerated into the faster than normal temporal metabolism of the famous, lifted up amongst the stars, where she would shine and glimmer with a numinous radiance from whence altitude she could look down at all her admirers on the ground below, astonished at the majesty of her beauty.

Just like a goddess.

Colleen Applegate, then, had set forth from the banal plains of life in the American Breadbasket to trace out her own line of flight into a self-made Transcendence which her own society had failed to offer to her. (Charles Whitman, too, as we have seen, ascended into his own self-made Transcendence at the top of the Texas Tower: the difference was that he ended with Transcendence, that, namely, in his case, into the Ecstacy of Violence, whereas Colleen, as we will see, started with the Ecstacy of Transcendence and slid down into Hell).

The Birth of Shauna Grant

But the price of that Transcendence came to her in a wholly unexpected way.

In Van Nuys, California, she and her boyfriend Mark responded to an ad for a modeling agency known as World Modeling, run by one Jim South, who put her in touch with all the men’s magazines. She would be paid anywhere from $100 to $1500 dollars a day, depending on which magazine she posed nude for. Any sexual situations would be merely “simulated.”

Colleen took the opportunity, and within six months, became the most photographed nude model in the men’s magazine business. She made the cover of all the magazines that were popular at the time: Hustler, Oui, Erotica, Club, Velvet, etc. But she was warned by one of the photographers that she should get out of the business while she was still ahead, because once all the magazines had used her, the only route left open to her would be making pornographic movies.

Her relationship with her boyfriend had already dissolved within a couple of months, and he had headed back to Minnesota and the U.S. Army. Colleen, meanwhile, was put in touch with porn producer Bobby Hollander, who very quickly snatched her up to become the hottest new girl in the business. As she made pornographic films with titles like Virginia and Flesh and Laces, her pay rose from a few hundred dollars a day to the promised $1500. Over the course of approximately a year, she made at least 30 porn films and had sex on camera with about 37 men. Estimates suggest that she made over $100,000 in that year, most of which, however, she spent on an ever-worsening cocaine addiction. In that span of time, she also contracted herpes and had one abortion.

But the main problem with her, according to her co-workers in the business, was that she did not appear to enjoy having sex on camera. Some of the male actors, despite her astonishing beauty, had trouble getting erections for her – these were the pre-Viagra days – because she would often simply lie there like a dead fish. This problem seems to have worsened over time.

Transcendence for Colleen did not, apparently, come through the sex. It came from her identification with the Venusian archetype of the glamorous and seductively beautiful female. This was a Western archetype opened up during the Renaissance by painters like Giorgione and Titian, with their various recumbent nude Venuses, and then later with Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus and Goya’s La Maja desnuda. These are, of course, the prototypes for the later Playboy centerfolds, and it was identification with this archetype that got the blood flowing through Colleen Applegate’s veins. Having sex on camera did not interest her.

(Goya: Maja desnuda)

But the problem was that the Venus archetype that allowed Colleen to escape from the shackles of mundanity brought along with it, as a side effect, a simultaneous descent downward into the abyss: for it is well known to every student of mythology that every ascent comes coupled with a descent: if the original goddess of sexuality at the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia – namely Inanna – was the goddess of the evening star, Venus, which ascended onto the horizon after a certain specific astronomical cycle, it was only because she had already descended into the Underworld, there to visit her sister Ereshkigal, mistress of the dead. In the Greek pantheon, Venus, the goddess of celestial beauty, has her counterpart in Persephone, the young girl who is raped by Pluto and carried off to become the bride of the god of the dead in the underworld. One cannot just ascend – according to the laws of mythological Transcendence – without also, at the same time, descending, and Colleen Applegate’s unintended descent consisted in her celluloid journey through the realm of the genitals.

(Colleen Applegate: 19 years old)

(Shauna Grant: 19 years old)

Ontological Confusion

Except that:

It wasn’t Colleen Applegate who put men’s penises into her mouth and her vagina. It was another persona altogether, a celluloid creation conferred on her by Bobby Hollander named “Shauna Grant.” This other persona was the mediatized Venus archetype that she had already been doing the modeling as. It was this persona, an entirely two-dimensional avatar, who was supposed to enjoy having sex with men on camera. Not Colleen Applegate.

The problem was that Colleen did not understand this. During those moments when, as her co-workers complained, she would fail to show enthusiasm for the sex – and this was not all the time – what was really happening was that “Colleen Applegate” was surfacing into the field of Shauna Grant’s consciousness and disturbing and throwing out of balance the phantasmatic nature of the world configured by Shauna Grant. It was not Colleen Applegate, the simple and naïve rustic girl from Minnesota who was supposed to be having the sex, but her avatar, Shauna Grant, the Venusian sex goddess.

There is a strategy that is known and used, albeit often unconsciously, by many porn stars in the business, which is what I would call the creation of a separate “somatic cartography” that is specific to the onscreen persona. Certain porn stars, that is to say, will perform certain sexual acts on camera that they would not otherwise perform in their personal lives. Some of them, for instance, will only have anal sex on camera, but not with their boyfriends. Some will only have sex with other women, as a way of keeping an alternate sexual cartography separate from that of their private relationships with men. Some of them will not have orgasms on camera, but will “save” them only for their real life lovers. And so on.

The function of such somatic cartographies is to give their personae specific boundaries that keep them from interfering with their personal lives. But even in the “real” world, couples construct private somatic cartographies all the time that give each relationship its own unique sexual signature. It is a little like the well-known phenomenon that occurs in multiple personality disorder, when certain personalities, rather mysteriously, will emerge into the body with specific illnesses that do not occur in the bodies of the other personalities.

The problem with Colleen Applegate’s alternate self as Shauna Grant, then, was that she was becoming confused by the two personae: at first kept separate, they soon began to cross and build up cognitive noise to the point where Colleen did not know whether she was supposed to be Colleen Applegate having sex on camera, or Shauna Grant. (And there was also a subtle schism in the Shauna Grant persona, as well, for the Shauna Grant – as yet unnamed – of the photographs in the men’s magazines had a dominating, searing gaze that burned holes into the the beholder and suggested that no man could withstand the seduction of such a gaze, whereas the Shauna Grant who appeared on celluloid was never the seducer, but rather always had to be seduced, usually by an older, more experienced and knowing man.)

In order to numb the nervous system of Colleen Applegate, then, she began to use cocaine as a way of creating an artificial membrane between the two personae. The numbing effects of the cocaine allowed Shauna Grant to step forward and to exist. And for a time, it protected Colleen Applegate against the “reality effects” of a simple and naïve girl from a conservative small town in Minnesota having sex on camera. But this required the use of more and more cocaine over time, which slowly began to catch up with her.

Genetic Fusion

What stopped Colleen Applegate from making anymore pornographic films was her meeting with the 44 year old cocaine dealer Jake Ehrlich. She immediately moved in with him, ceased doing the movies and reverted to just being Colleen again. And for a while, things were all right.

But repeated trips back to Minnesota, where she felt judged and unwelcome by both friends and family, caused her to realize that she could no longer just “be” Colleen Applegate. There had already transpired an irreversible genetic fusion between her own persona and that of Shauna Grant, for Shauna Grant was not just a figure removed from a ground, but a figure which was part of an entire world horizon that brought that world horizon trailing along with her. Friends from the porn industry, such as Bobby Hollander, for instance, would often stop by Ehrlich’s to visit. And though Ehrlich lived in Palm Springs, this was not located sufficiently far enough away from Los Angeles to create much of a buffer between the world of Shauna Grant and that of Colleen Applegate. During one of those trips to Minnesota, furthermore, Colleen had hooked up with a young college student who viewed her as “having made a mistake,” as he put it, which he was willing to overlook and to marry her. But when he flew out to Los Angeles to meet Colleen at the airport, she was so hung over from a two day party at Ehrlich’s that she had forgotten all about him. She had by then, in other words, already become too metabolically absorbed into the world horizon of “Shauna Grant” to ever again return to the life of a Minnesotan.

Shauna Grant, furthermore, had come into being and was already beginning to take on her own life independently of Colleen Applegate. At the 8th Annual Erotic Film Awards, for instance – held in March of 1984, long after she had stopped making the movies — Shauna Grant was nominated for best actress in Flesh and Laces I and II. She didn’t win, but when she showed up to deliver awards at the ceremony, she was mobbed with fans, and it was then that she had agreed to do another Shauna Grant film. It was becoming impossible, as had been the case for Marilyn Monroe many decades previous, for her to escape capture by the avatar of herself she had created and which was now insisting on its own independent reality.

The cocaine addiction was worsening, furthermore, and her lover, Jake Ehrlich was starting to feel suffocated by her constant need for attention. Then, in February of 1984, Ehrlich was arrested on charges for dealing cocaine and was eventually given a five year sentence.

Colleen’s cocaine supply was abruptly cut off. And it was then that she received the phone call from Ehrlich telling her to pack her things and get out.

How Do You Kill an Avatar?

When Colleen Applegate shot herself with Ehrlich’s .22 caliber rifle on the night of March 21, 1984, then, she wasn’t trying to kill herself at all. She had already attempted that back in Minnesota in December of 1981. It was Shauna Grant, the two-dimensional avatar who had hi-jacked her life and become genetically fused with her, that she was trying to kill. For that avatar was due to resurface into Colleen’s consciousness on the set of yet another pornographic movie in just two days. And the only way Colleen could figure on stopping her was by killing the physical somatic body that had generated Shauna Grant in the first place. With that body out of the way, Shauna could no longer use it as a vehicle with which to manifest herself into yet another endless series of pornographic movies. The vehicle of Transcendence which Colleen Applegate had set about creating by herself, on her own, was now defective and had to be destroyed.

She was unable to realize that her own somatic cartography – complete with its own nervous system — was completely separate from that of Shauna Grant’s, and the failure to realize this was fatal. By mistaking the two sexual cartographies for the same body, she had literalized herself.

The Word had been made Flesh.

Comments

  1. Unperson says

    This commentary by Ayn Rand, excerpted from The Voice of Reason, was originally published two weeks after Marilyn Monroe’s death on August 5, 1962.

    The death of Marilyn Monroe shocked people with an impact different from their reaction to the death of any other movie star or public figure. All over the world, people felt a peculiar sense of personal involvement and of protest, like a universal cry of “Oh, no!”

    They felt that her death had some special significance, almost like a warning which they could not decipher–and they felt a nameless apprehension, the sense that something terribly wrong was involved.

    They were right to feel it.

    Marilyn Monroe on the screen was an image of pure, innocent, childlike joy in living. She projected the sense of a person born and reared in some radiant utopia untouched by suffering, unable to conceive of ugliness or evil, facing life with the confidence, the benevolence, and the joyous self-flaunting of a child or a kitten who is happy to display its own attractiveness as the best gift it can offer the world, and who expects to be admired for it, not hurt.

    In real life, Marilyn Monroe’s probable suicide–or worse: a death that might have been an accident, suggesting that, to her, the difference did not matter–was a declaration that we live in a world which made it impossible for her kind of spirit, and for the things she represented, to survive.

    If there ever was a victim of society, Marilyn Monroe was that victim–of a society that professes dedication to the relief of the suffering, but kills the joyous.

    None of the objects of the humanitarians’ tender solicitude, the juvenile delinquents, could have had so sordid and horrifying a childhood as did Marilyn Monroe.

    To survive it and to preserve the kind of spirit she projected on the screen–the radiantly benevolent sense of life, which cannot be faked–was an almost inconceivable psychological achievement that required a heroism of the highest order. Whatever scars her past had left were insignificant by comparison.

    She preserved her vision of life through a nightmare struggle, fighting her way to the top. What broke her was the discovery, at the top, of as sordid an evil as the one she had left behind–worse, perhaps, because incomprehensible. She had expected to reach the sunlight; she found, instead, a limitless swamp of malice.

    It was a malice of a very special kind. If you want to see her groping struggle to understand it, read the magnificent article in the August 17, 1962, issue of Life magazine. It is not actually an article, it is a verbatim transcript of her own words–and the most tragically revealing document published in many years. It is a cry for help, which came too late to be answered.

    “When you’re famous, you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way,” she said. “It stirs up envy, fame does. People you run into feel that, well, who is she–who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe? They feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you, you know, of any kind of nature–and it won’t hurt your feelings–like it’s happening to your clothing. . . . I don’t understand why people aren’t a little more generous with each other. I don’t like to say this, but I’m afraid there is a lot of envy in this business.”

    “Envy” is the only name she could find for the monstrous thing she faced, but it was much worse than envy: it was the profound hatred of life, of success and of all human values, felt by a certain kind of mediocrity–the kind who feels pleasure on hearing about a stranger’s misfortune. It was hatred of the good for being the good–hatred of ability, of beauty, of honesty, of earnestness, of achievement and, above all, of human joy.

    Read the Life article to see how it worked and what it did to her:

    An eager child, who was rebuked for her eagerness–“Sometimes the [foster] families used to worry because I used to laugh so loud and so gay; I guess they felt it was hysterical.”

    A spectacularly successful star, whose employers kept repeating: “Remember you’re not a star,” in a determined effort, apparently, not to let her discover her own importance.

    A brilliantly talented actress, who was told by the alleged authorities, by Hollywood, by the press, that she could not act.

    An actress, dedicated to her art with passionate earnestness–“When I was 5–I think that’s when I started wanting to be an actress–I loved to play. I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim–but I loved to play house and it was like you could make your own boundaries”–who went through hell to make her own boundaries, to offer people the sunlit universe of her own vision–“It’s almost having certain kinds of secrets for yourself that you’ll let the whole world in on only for a moment, when you’re acting”–but who was ridiculed for her desire to play serious parts.

    A woman, the only one, who was able to project the glowingly innocent sexuality of a being from some planet uncorrupted by guilt–who found herself regarded and ballyhooed as a vulgar symbol of obscenity–and who still had the courage to declare: “We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.”

    A happy child who was offering her achievement to the world, with the pride of an authentic greatness and of a kitten depositing a hunting trophy at your feet–who found herself answered by concerted efforts to negate, to degrade, to ridicule, to insult, to destroy her achievement–who was unable to conceive that it was her best she was punished for, not her worst–who could only sense, in helpless terror, that she was facing some unspeakable kind of evil.

    How long do you think a human being could stand it?

    That hatred of values has always existed in some people, in any age or culture. But a hundred years ago, they would have been expected to hide it. Today, it is all around us; it is the style and fashion of our century.

    Where would a sinking spirit find relief from it?

    The evil of a cultural atmosphere is made by all those who share it. Anyone who has ever felt resentment against the good for being the good and has given voice to it, is the murderer of Marilyn Monroe. (and Miss Applegate, as well.)

  2. says

    A beauty, comes to Hollywood, she likes her beauty, she goes wild, gets addicted to coke, her supplier boyfriend gets arrested, he kicks her out, she has no where to go, and no coke. She is coming down hard off her habit. She is horribly depressed coming off her coke high. She has few options and no love. She offs herself in her depressed state. Sad, tragic, but not an unusual story. She should have run to Bobby H. He would have helped her, or Jim S.

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