Stormy Daniels answers the door of her Houston hotel room wearing little athletic shorts and a green Pantera tank top over a sports bra, her long blond hair in a loose ponytail. We shake hands and she jumps back onto her bed, sitting up with her legs tucked under her in half lotus. Her assistant and longtime friend Kayla Paige, a retired adult-film actress and wife of Limp Bizkit founding member Sam Rivers, buzzes with aimless energy around the room they’re sharing. They’d only just woken up and are in the middle of a discussion about penile implants, which I confess I didn’t know is a thing. Then Paige half-jokingly wonders if she needs vaginal lip reduction surgery and drops her pants for reference. She isn’t wearing panties.
Daniels rolls her eyes and laughs. I stand for a moment unsure where to sit, then motion to the other bed, which Paige says I can sit on. “I don’t have anything,” she assures me with a chuckle. I sit on the edge of the bed and Daniels and I make small talk. Her safe word, I learn, is “penguin.”
“Penguins have terrible breath,” she says.
“How do you know penguins have terrible breath?” I ask.
“They smell like they’ve been eating bad vagina. I got to pet one at a zoo – if you ever go to the zoo, the penguin habitat is the stinkiest one. It smells like a really bad porn set.”
She goes on like this for half an hour, bouncing from topic to topic. They had dinner last night with retired adult-film icon Randy Spears, an old friend; they need to do a Walmart run later; a fan sent Stormy a piece of very expensive Louis Vuitton luggage. Finally we get to the business of a proper interview. I ask what everyone is getting wrong about Stormy Daniels right now.
“If I was nominated for best sex scene at multiple award shows,” Daniels says, “how was I not current?”
“That I somehow needed this current situation to happen to revive or restart my career,” she says, without skipping a beat. She’s been doing porn and stripping consistently for the past 15 years and had 17 total nominations at last year’s adult-film awards shows, including for director of the year. “If I was nominated for best sex scene at multiple award shows,” she says, “how was I not current?”
In the month since news reports first revealed that Donald Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, paid Stormy Daniels $130,000, allegedly in exchange for her silence about a 2006 tryst the then-27-year-old porn star had with Trump, her celebrity had skyrocketed. She appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, was parodied on Saturday Night Live, and embarked on a nationwide “Make America Horny Again” strip club tour. Through Cohen, she issued a statement denying the affair, but then in public seemed to fan the story’s flames by coyly denying the denial.
But she was also in the uncomfortable position of being a political problem for the president of the United States. Behind the scenes, she was in a tug of war with Cohen, as she sought to free herself from the nondisclosure agreement she’d signed – in a cruel twist, after news broke of the alleged affair between Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels, Stormy Daniels was the one person on Earth forbidden from talking about it.
Hated by the right, mocked by the left and pursued doggedly by unscrupulous press over a decade-old tryst with a man twice her age, Daniels was at that very center of the swirling centrifuge of wide-eyed WTF weirdness that is America in the age of Trump. And in the midst of all of it she was doing a national strip-club tour with a title that played on Trump’s campaign slogan. At a time when many people might attempt seclusion, Daniels was, in the parlance of our times, leaning in.
My inbox is flooded daily with unsolicited press releases, and this meeting began with one such message, promoting a “Make America Horny Again” tour date at a club on Long Island. The release was riddled with typos, so I did what anyone does with something like that in 2018: posted a screenshot of it with a snarky tweet pointing out how Trump’s alleged porn-star ex-mistress’s PR people can’t spell. Daniels herself responded minutes later, “Haha! Not from my PR team. But my guess is someone from the club is gonna get in trouble for not proofreading.”
Moments later, she followed that up: “Side note: Wish I had a PR team. That sounds very fancy…although I’d make said team do other mundane shit just so I could say things like ‘When you’re done spelling checking the release about anal, can you get my Gstring out of the freezer & help me scrape the candle wax off it?'” In the exchange that followed she sent me a picture of her actual G-strings in the freezer – “overpriced butt floss,” she called them.
Needless to say, I was intrigued. She seemed funny and quick, but also thick-skinned and refreshingly playful in response to my light Internet derision. I asked if she’d be up for an interview, DM’d her my phone number. A few days later I got a call from “No Caller ID.”
“Hello?” I said, hesitantly.
“You shouldn’t answer calls from blocked numbers,” a female voice said. I stayed silent. “This is Stormy,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought you were my ex-girlfriend.”
“Not yet!” Daniels chirped.
We arranged to meet in Houston a few days later, when her tour passed through town.
“I have two choices,” Daniels says of the Trump scandal. “Sit at home and feel sorry for myself, or make lemonade out of lemons.”
Sitting across from one another in her hotel room, she tells me a little about her childhood. Daniels was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1979, and grew up with her mom. Her dad was rarely around. Her name at birth was Stephanie Clifford, but Stormy is in every other sense her real name – it’s what she went by growing up before it became her stage name. “Up until this, if someone called me Stephanie, I thought you were the IRS,” she says. “No one calls me Stephanie. My own child doesn’t even know that Stephanie is my name.”
She left home at 17 and soon started stripping, and then doing porn. She became one of only a handful of contract girls with Wicked Pictures, one of the industry’s leading companies, and in 2004 won “Best New Starlet” at the AVN Awards, often called “the Oscars of porn.” She continued acting and directing under contract with Wicked until January when, she says, she left the company and signed a contract with Digital Playground, another dominant studio in the adult-film industry.
She’s been stripping all along too, except for a forced interlude last year after she broke her back in a horse-riding accident. “A lot of the bookings were already in place before all the current things came to light,” Daniels says. In fact, there really is no “Make America Horny Again” tour per se. The name was concocted independently by a club owner in South Carolina, and “other clubs just jumped on board,” she says. The “Make America Horny Again” tour – a name Daniels finds irksomely cheesy – has evolved around her, almost independent of her, much like the maelstrom involving the payment and the president, with one key difference: Unlike the Trump and Stormy scandal, if she wants to turn the tour off, she can. But Stormy Daniels is facing her newfound infamy head-on.
“I can’t make it go away,” she says. “I don’t have a magic wand to erase what people are saying. So I have two choices: Sit at home and feel sorry for myself, or make lemonade out of lemons.” She was already dancing – now she’s dancing more, for a much higher rate. “I would be a fucking idiot to turn it down,” she says. “We live in a capitalist society. I think if anyone, in any field, was approached and someone said, ‘Hi! You know that job you are already doing? Would you like to do it next week for quadruple your normal pay?’ Show me one person who would say no.”
About eight hours before showtime, I join Paige on a Walmart run for props: a laundry basket, a sponge, squirt guns and body wash. Daniels would have only a light dinner before that night’s show, so Paige and I stop at a Chipotle. As we sit eating our burrito bowls, I ask her what it was like when the Trump news broke.
“It was just weird to me, because I remember being on set years ago and we would hear him calling all the time – it was like a joke,” Paige says. “She would put him on speakerphone and walk away and he’d still be talking.” At the time, no one thought much about it, she says, because there wasn’t much to it.
“She was just a girl that met a rich dude that runs pageants, and, like, ‘Fuck it, let’s go hang out, who cares?’ ” Paige says. “Who hasn’t gone and fucked someone we regret?”
When we get back to the hotel, Paige disrobes almost immediately and starts romping around the room naked, getting ready for the night. As Daniels and I sit down to talk some more, barely audible moans start issuing from the room next door, then a loud and distinct cry of arousal – by the sound of it, someone is having rather good sex.
Paige and I press our ears against the wall. “Look at you two,” Daniels says with mock ridicule. “Should I offer to give them some direction?” All of us laugh.
On the surface, Daniels seems to be having fun with everything going on. But underneath her peppy, inviting façade, this looks like an ordeal for her. In addition to come-ons from fans, she gets a steady stream of hateful messages on social media, mostly from women – I watch them pour in all afternoon while we talk. She’s quick to brush off all the hate mail, but she also keeps showing it to me, as if to convince me, and perhaps herself, of how little it bothers her.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an angel,” says Daniels. “I’m capitalizing on this.”
Then there are the news reports she says are untrue. She shows me an item in TMZ that she says falsely claims she took her dirty laundry to a strip-club appearance – for years she’s used a Walmart laundry basket to carry her show props. There was a report in the Los Angeles Times in which a club manager is quoted complaining of her arriving late – she shows me text messages that she says indicate the club manager flatly disavowing the quote. “I’m trying to salvage my reputation as a stripper!” she says. The trolls that do get under her skin are those who say she, at 38, is too old to be plying the sex-fantasy trade. “I mean, a woman doesn’t reach her sexual peak until 40, right?” she says.
Plus, there’s the fact that there are things she wants to tell me – to tell everyone – that she can’t. She can’t even say why she can’t. She’s frustrated.
“It’s supershitty,” she says, looking me dead in the eyes, moaning neighbors in the background. “I’m just trying to do things to keep it fun.”
Amid all of it, her life – the quiet, private life that has almost nothing to do with porn or Trump –has been turned upside down.
Daniels lives with her daughter and partner in a quiet community in the Dallas metro area, where she keeps seven horses, including a pony for her little girl. She’s a nationally ranked equestrian (the back injury last year was from a show-jumping accident), and her personal Instagram account is of the wife-and-mother variety, riddled with pictures of horses. Though she doesn’t talk to her mom or her biological father, she’s close to the celebrity photographer Keith Munyan, who is a generation older than Stormy and also grew up in small-town Louisiana. (She calls Munyan her dad.)
Glendon Crain, whom she’s been with since 2009, is a professional heavy-metal drummer who has played in bands like Godhead and Hollywood Undead and toured alongside the likes of Katy Perry and Korn; he’s not unaccustomed to dealing with media, but the scale and intensity of this have been something else entirely. Since the story broke, Daniels says, she’s been hounded by reporters, disinvited from a friend’s wedding, and seen her daughter disinvited from a birthday party.
“My daughter didn’t deserve any of this,” Daniels says. “[Crain] didn’t deserve any of this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an angel. I’m capitalizing on this.” But the idea that she needed 15 minutes of fame, or orchestrated or wanted any of this, she says, is absurd. “I didn’t retire, I wasn’t trying to retire, I wasn’t in any sort of need to do this,” she says. “It eclipses everything else that I’ve worked hard on that I wanted to be known as, and I was very happily living incognito back home.”
When we arrive at the Vivid strip club in Houston, the place is almost sleepy, with blank-faced women bouncing and rotating under purple lights while a few dozen men drink beers and watch. There’s a bar along the length of one wall and a fish tank in the corner where a hallway leads to the smoking patio and the private rooms in the back. In a small beige-and-brown, paper-strewn office in the bowels of the club, Daniels sits at the desk and takes her props out of a suitcase. She asks me to light some candles, which she tucks away in another room to burn undisturbed for a while.
A little after 11 p.m., it’s finally time for Daniels to hit the stage. The Cult’s “Fire Woman” kicks off as she walks out, and she struts up and down the catwalk in a hooded red cape. She’s got intense in-character focus, and the place transforms. “Is that really her?” a guy standing at the tip rail says to no one in particular. Daniels lays down a blanket at the front of the stage and places her tray of burning candles on it. She lifts one up to her face, pours wax down her enormous breasts and into the front of her G-string. She orders a guy at the tip rail to spin around and lay back onto the stage, then drops her crotch onto his face, writhing over him. Paige works the crowd, eliciting tips, and at the end of the set, about 15 minutes after it began, she scurries about the stage sweeping up cash. Daniels cleans up and, around midnight, sits at a table to sign fan merch before doing it all again in a couple of hours. No one can say she doesn’t work hard for her money.
Watching Daniels that night in full command of the crowd, titillating strangers for cash and flirting with her fans like a pro, I think of how she’s portrayed as a dumb bimbo in the SNL parody, in which Cecily Strong says that in 2018 Stormy Daniels is the hero America deserves. Whether that’s true or not, in 2018 Stormy Daniels may be the hero America needs.
A decade and a half working in porn imbues a person with an unusual frankness, a kind of extreme authenticity. A successful porn star with a career like Daniels’ must be comfortable in her own skin and with other people’s bodies, including the weird-looking parts (penises and vaginas, anuses and perinea), and with the various kinds of discharge the human body produces – all things the rest of us would rather stop thinking about when the erotic moment has passed and we put our clothes back on. Porn stars also have to be comfortable dwelling in the contradictions of porn: in fans’ fantasies, but also in the mundane world of bills, groceries, hobbies and, in Daniels’ case, being a mom; in exposing the most intimate parts of themselves doing one of the most intimate things humans do, while maintaining a life as an authentic person who feels passion and love. Maybe what America needs most in 2018, as we stew in rage, simultaneously enthralled, bewildered and revolted by ourselves, is a porn star to help us take a long, uncompromising, compassionate look at our country and culture, gross parts and all.
At around 3 a.m., back in the office, Daniels changes into street clothes and deflates a sex doll she had used in her act. She and Paige pack up her props and costumes and count out cash to tip the DJ. She gathers up her things, takes one last glance around the room where she’d prepped for two shows a night, three nights in a row, and flashes me a smile.
“Time to go put my G-strings in the freezer!”
Though she didn’t mention it once, throughout the course of the day we spent together, Daniels had been staring down the barrel of a restraining order filed by Michael Cohen to prevent her from speaking about the alleged affair or the NDA. She’d learned of it when she landed on her flight to Houston. She had recently retained a new attorney who was aggressively representing her interests, but when we met, the precise meaning of the restraining order was not yet clear and the fact of its existence not yet something she could discuss.
On the following Tuesday, Daniels filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump asking the court to declare the NDA she signed regarding the alleged affair invalid on the grounds that Trump himself never signed it. In her complaint, she confirmed that the affair took place and alleges that in myriad ways Cohen, acting as Trump’s agent, has intimidated and coerced her from October 2016, when she first agreed to sign the agreement, to the present.
“I was fine with saying nothing,” Daniels tells me when we catch up over the phone a few days later. “But I am not fine with being bullied into lying, or being bullied at all.
“Standing up to bullies is kind of my thing,” she says, cheerfully. “They started it.”
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied Daniels’ claims when asked yesterday. Watch below.