The irony is thick enough to choke on.
One of the first mainstream pieces written about John Stagliano’s Fashionistas the Show, by Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Mike Weatherford, posited, “Will Las Vegas take the guy seriously when he’s John Stagliano, and he made his millions as a pornographer known as ‘Buttman?”
Will Las Vegas take seriously a pornographer?!?
Please. You mean the same Las Vegas that, its allures notwithstanding, is widely viewed as a soulless golden calf, one that was built on greed, gambling, garish, low-to-middle-brow taste and, oh yeah, S-E-X? That Las Vegas? Sin fucking City?
C’mon, let’s get real here.
“I think that’s because they look at our business as not doing quality work,” Stagliano shrugged matter-of-factly. “Just trying to capitalize on the fact that we’re willing to show sex, and that there’s not much brains involved in presenting that. They don’t understand the nuances of our business and how difficult it is.”
Indeed, after seeing the show, Weatherford was singing a different tune. “A pornographer has just embarrassed a lot of people,” he wrote in his review.
A success — artistically
Disappointingly though, Fashionistas the Show, while garnering lots more critical acclaim and seen in some quarters of Porn Valley as another significant step in the mainstreaming of adult, hasn’t exactly been a smashing commercial success during its run at the 300-seat Krave night club. It’s doubtful though that that’s because its creator is a pornographer whose vision, as ludicrous as this sounds, is somehow beneath Las Vegas tastes.
If anything, the erotic, yet non-explicit dance review is too artful for large chunks of the multitudes who pour into Lost Wages every year, eager to run up their plastic or squander their retirement funds on slot machines, titty bars and Legends in Concert shows. Fashionistas the Show is extremely tame by Chatsworth standards (there isn’t so much as a single bared boob, though a few delectable derrieres are on display; hey, they don’t call him “Buttman” for nothing) and cannot be characterized as pornography in any way, shape or form.
Stagliano will be the first one to tell you that the show has been a money loser to the tune of, at first, $35,000-$40,000 a week, and more recently, $30,000 a week. At least those figures are moving in the right direction.
Among other costs, not only did he plunk down a sizeable investment just to get into Krave (more on that later), but he built a fairly elaborate set, employs a large cast of not-inexpensive dancers and prominently integrates a state-of-the-art video monitor system into the multi-media experience (complete with a few Cirque du Soleil-like touches).
Yet despite the financial bleeding — and this cannot be stressed enough — to hear Stagliano tell it, he has few if any regrets. Really. He remains upbeat and enthusiastic about the venture, plans to keep tweaking it and is looking forward to staging a version of it in London later this year.
This is because, above all else, for Stagliano, Fashionistas the Show is, as clichéd as it might sound, a labor of love.
“The money was not the bottom line for me doing this anyway,” Stagliano told AVN in an interview in his decidedly un-garish office in the Van Nuys section of Porn Valley, a work space that gives little indication that, as the founder of Evil Angel, he is one of the most successful figures in adult, not to mention one its most acclaimed, influential directors. “I could make more money devoting my energies to making porno movies. What I wanted to do is something creative that pushed my limits in a different direction.
“I don’t have any regrets about losing the money,” he continued. “I’ll make it again anyway. I don’t drive a Mercedes or fancy car or anything like that. I’m relatively conservative, given how much money I make. For this reason, now I can do something like this.
“And as much money as it cost me, it was still worth it, because I got to do the show exactly the way I wanted to do the show, and it works. The reviews have been incredible. And I’m real happy, artistically, with the show.”
‘The dream of a lifetime’
As just about everyone in greater Porno Land knows by now, Fashionistas the Show is a 90-minute, live dance review version — non-explicit, but erotically charged — of Stagliano’s landmark fetish-meets-hardcore film The Fashionistas, whichstarred Rocco Siffredi,Belladonna and Taylor St. Claire, and whichdominated the 2003 AVN Awards show, taking home 10 awards, including the coveted Best Film and Best Director – Film statuettes. Though it has no dialogue, it nonetheless — and this is extremely important to Stagliano — tells a story, loosely the same tale as the film, though not nearly as nuanced — a love triangle set in the L.A. fetish fashion industry between a young up and coming female designer, her ruthlessly manipulative female boss and a world famous male designer.
To Stagliano’s disappointment though, some reviewers have found the dialogue-free story difficult to follow. To this reviewer though, it mattered not a whit. The show is a smorgasbord for the senses — mot to mention the libido — a series of gorgeously choreographed and frequently fetish-themed dance numbers set to the recorded music of such acts as Lords of Acid, Madonna, Prodigy and even Led Zeppelin, augmented by a live drummer. It all adds up to a thrilling 90 minutes, which goes by far too fast and which leaves at least some audience members wanting more, arguably the highest compliment an attendee can bestow on a production.
Stagliano, who comes from a dance background (he even once auditioned for a Vegas show at the Stardust back in 1977, pre-porn, but didn’t make the cut), says Fashionistas the Show is the most exciting thing he’s ever done in his storied life.
“Back in 1983,” he writes on the show’s Website, fashionistastheshow.com, “when I produced my first porn video, I was a professional dancer, and what I really wanted to do was make enough money shooting porn so I could produce a dance show that used dance to tell a story, kind of like a musical, but with no singing, and no dialogue. Well, I never felt ready to do that kind of show until now.
“It is the dream of a lifetime for me to do this show.”
After more than a year of intense planning and preparation, not to mention getting cold shoulders from whatever casino entertainment directors he pitched his idea to, Stagliano finally found a venue in Krave, and working with choreographers Enrique Lugo (who plays the male lead Antonio) and Nick Navarro, debuted Fashionistas the Show last September. Krave is relatively newly owned by Sia Amiri, a veteran of the L.A. nightclub scene, who had put together a deal to buy out the previous owner. Stagliano purchased shares in the deal and in return, got to stage his show there with, significantly, full artistic control. Even so, some Vegas movers and shakers were betting that Stagliano would fall flat on his, well, butt.
And indeed, despite those glowing reviews — “The Fashionistas is magnificent … Ahead of its time,” trumpeted Robin “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” Leach; “The show is among the most adventurous and exciting I’ve ever seen on the Strip,” echoed Richard Abowitz in his Fashionistas cover story in the Las Vegas Weekly — the show has had trouble finding its audience.
Stagliano has his theories as to why.
“First, because I play a really big show in a little room,” he said. “I didn’t have my marketing in place when I started. And the biggest problem is I’m in a showroom that’s not part of a hotel and part of a club there. So there’s no hotel marketing behind the room.
“There are no big shows like my show in the particular type of environment I’m in. It’s difficult to make money there. The two shows that were in there previously have lost money, and they closed. But I wasn’t able to do this show this way in any other situation. Nobody was going to put me in a showroom. Because of my name and reputation, it would have been very difficult for somebody to take a chance on me in a hotel.”
Also, Krave is seen as being too far off the Vegas Strip’s tourist-busy beaten path. Indeed, two former incarnations of the club, The Blue Note jazz club and the dance club Ibiza USA, went belly up.
And yet another factor, Stagliano said, was that he opened the show in the fall, “which is the worst time of year in Vegas.”
Despite all the talk within the adult industry about how acceptable its product has become to the mainstream in recent years, might there nonetheless be a XXX sleaze stigma attached to the show? Is it possible porn, or in this case a non-explicit show perhaps perceived as being porn, isn’t quite ready for prime time just yet?
“Quite possibly,” Stagliano allowed. “I’ve got a debate right now. I’ve got to decide on some marketing images and exactly how strong should those images be. But I need to do some different kind of marketing (he and his original marketing director have parted company).”
Or again, maybe the show is just too damn sophisticated for that tour bus just in from Bakersfield.
Fashionistas, Stagliano said, differs significantly from the typical Vegas “low brow sexuality, which treats the American public as if they are embarrassed about sex. We in the porn industry have a much more sophisticated approach to sex, and there’s a lot of that in Fashionistas. It treats people with more respect of their sexuality.”
On the other hand, he said, by even being able to stage the show in Vegas in the first place, “I’m taking advantage of the fact that porno is becoming more and more acceptable. So it’s not quite as shocking to see a porn producer put on a show in Las Vegas then, let’s say, two or four years ago. The bottom line is what kind of quality you produce, and I think that what people come away with from seeing our show is they’re just surprised. And I think it proves that what we’re doing in the porn business is quality stuff.”
Make or break time
The next few months, he said, is the “make or break period, financially, for the show. I need to make money or at least come close to breaking even during this period. And then I’ll be continuing the show for a long time in Vegas, hopefully.
“Vegas is a place where you have to be there for awhile,” he continued. “You have to be there for a long, long time for travel agents to want to book groups to come in to see your show, because they want to know you’re gonna be there three months from now, four months from now, which is what we’re planning for.”
“Even if I loose a ton of money on this,” he believes the venture has positioned him to potentially “make lots more money if I can establish a reputation in the bigger, general market. Which I think I’m starting to do.”
“Before, people didn’t know what I was going to do, really,” he noted. “They were wondering what kinda crazy shit is this guy going to do. Now people know what I’m going to do. A show that’s not topless. That’s very intelligent sexuality and with really good tease. And now I think I could move the show to a showroom.”
Stagliano hopes to open the London version of the show this summer in conjunction with shooting the much-anticipated Fashionistas 2. The London version would pretty much ape the Vegas show, though Stagliano indicated it could evolve into something distinct, incorporating elements of the Fashionistas 2 script and “considerably more fetish fashions, wilder looks.”
“I’d like to shoot the movie mostly in England, because I want to use the creative talents of the people in the underground fetish business in England, which has more fetish designers, I think, than any other place,” he noted.
He has flirted with the idea of staging the show in Los Angeles, too, but for now, that’s off the table. “I don’t see a market here in L.A.,” he said, despite the fact that it’s home to his very own industry.
New York, though, that remains a possibility, however distant. His sales manager, Chris Norman, knows the owner of several theaters there.
“I might open a dialogue with somebody, but I’d like to be wanted first,” Stagliano said. “But, oh my God. I don’t know that I’m ready for New York.”
Goodbye to Buttman
Despite the adventure of Las Vegas and a non-porn documentary he’s working on called It’s a Free Country, Isn’t It? about, of all things, what he views as the Bush administration’s anti-business economic policies (Stagliano holds a degree in economics from UCLA), it’s unclear exactly how far into the mainstream Stagliano sees himself heading.
But one thing he makes absolutely, stop-the-presses clear: Due at least in part to the success of Fashionistas the film and the thrill of Fashionistas the Show, he’s through with Buttman, the alter-ego who was instrumental in launching the gonzo revolution in porn in the late ’80s, as well as Stagliano’s fortunes. Since 1989, Stagliano has directed some 60-plus Buttman titles (The Adventures of Buttman, Buttman’s European Vacation, Buttman Goes to Rio, etc.), and it’s safe to say that he’s known better among the vast porn consuming demographic by his ass-obsessed screen persona than by his real name.
Nonetheless, time to move on.
“I’m over shooting Buttman,” he said with an air of finality. “It’s just not interesting to me anymore. I’m over shooting vignettes. It’s nowhere near as much fun for me to shoot gonzo. All I want to do is story-oriented stuff.
“I much prefer the challenge of storytelling,” he explained. “To me, the great thing about porno today is that we’re doing this really hard sex, and this really hard sex shows people putting themselves into extreme situations, into very, very interesting situations, into very emotionally moving, very artistically beautiful situations.
“And that to me is an incredible wealth. And I’m one of the few people that’s positioned in the world to take advantage of this art that we’ve all created in the porn business and utilize these tools through this incredible strong sex that we can do now to make a feature film.”
Wow. The man who helped make non-story-oriented porn the dominant genre in adult has now come full circle and is only interested in story-oriented porn. Now there’s an irony to match a newspaper columnist wondering if Las Vegas will take a pornographer seriously.
Fashionistas is staging indefinitely at Krave — The Nightclub, 3663 Las Vegas Blvd. South (at Harmon Ave., next to the Aladdin), in Las Vegas, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 9:30 p.m. 702.836.0830 or 702.836.0833. For tickets and video clips of the show, go to fashionistastheshow.com.