Out With A Bang!
Vanessa del Rio doesn’t mind when it gets hot and sticky. She’ll opt for a light lunch of arugula and imported burrata instead of her preferred steak, but unlike the rest of the crowd at New York’s Da Silvano, sweaty and defeated by the 95-degree weather, the 55-year-old is still dressed to the nines. Painted-on clothes, hair done, nails impeccably French manicured.
Among the power-lunch crowd, downing glasses of white wine and sparkling water, not one person in the establishment fails to stare. It’s hard to tell whether they recognize her as the ’70s and ’80s porn legendâ€”the Latin from Manhattan whose claims to fame were no-holds-barred group sex, endless anal and a particularly tumescent clitorisâ€”or whether they’re just blown away by her physique. She still has a body that shocks, showcased by a banana-yellow, shoulder-baring top, black capris and strappy sandals. Oh, and then there’s the mouth. In person, it’s even more spectacular than on film, her red lips almost inconveniently large, pouting in all directions.
One waiter is particularly attentive. He has his heart set on her trying the mozzarella, emphasizing its creamy texture and gooey middle. “Fine, fine, give me that,â€ she says dismissively. When he rattles off wine pairings she opts for a merlotâ€””Like I know the difference,â€ she cackles. Behind her, the waitstaff stares. She retired from porn in 1986, but by the time dessert comesâ€”a complimentary bowl of cherries over iceâ€”it’s clear that to this day, Del Rio makes men giddy.
KING So 50-odd years in, looking back, how do you think you got here? Especially because you talk a lot about your super-strict Catholic upbringing in the book.
Vanessa Del Rio Yeah, a word to parents: Don’t try to keep your kids away from things, because they are going to make a beeline for it! In Catholic school, I remember sticking my fingers in my ears when they were telling us about sins. We had nuns tell us it’s a mortal sinâ€”that’s like a felony, the death penaltyâ€”to kiss if there is no table between you. It’s a venial sin if you kiss the guy and there is a table there, even if there’s a little tongue. But if there is no table, the guy’s going to get a hard-on, and you’re going to get a little moist, and that is worthy of the death penalty [laughs].
Which made you want in! So your parents were restrictive?
I grew up in Harlem, which was considered a bad neighborhood, so they didn’t want me to go out and play. That meant I didn’t have any friends, and with no brothers and sisters, I had to create my own playground.
Which was what, your imagination?
Yeah, my imagination. I mean, if you want to be esoteric about it, as an Aries, you’re already set up for being an exhibitionistâ€” wanting to be first, being rebellious. I always would have arguments with my father, who was very domineering. He got me my first pair of heels, and I remember he caught me with cigarettes and would threaten me with shaving off my eyebrows. Right then and there, I knew nobody would ever have control over me.
And your mother?
She was so pious and shy. She would take me to see these movies with [legendary Latina sex symbol] Isabel Sarli and it was like, “Oh, look at that kind of woman.â€ [Sarli] was a big influence in my life. I saw right then and there how much power she had. It was like she couldn’t help being one big sex organ, you know?
So that’s when the seed was planted?
Yeah. Later, I always liked the anonymous sexual encounters. I would go out by myself, and I liked turning men on and bringing it to a point. I don’t want to sound like I was a cocktease because I wasn’t, believe it. I liked having fun, turning guys on, going back to their place, but I didn’t have to. I never considered myself promiscuous.
That would probably shock some people.
But it’s not so.
You did porn for 12 years and did about 120 movies.
That’s not a lot. Besides, there were drugs then [laughs].
What did you do?
Coke, Quaaludes, acid, everything. Listen, you can’t unring a bell. I can’t be a porn apologist. You can’t undo the fun. I just considered my life an adventure. It’s like, I let the wind blow meâ€”pun intendedâ€”whereverâ€¦ Everything that you could consider exploitative, I found something to get out of it.
Was it ever too much?
In the porn business, if you didn’t want to do something, you didn’t do it. What is the point of making someone do something they didn’t want to do? How is that gonna translate on film?
Do you think that’s the case for most porn actresses?
Unless you don’t know any better, and they ask you to do something ridiculous, and you don’t stand up for yourself. But those are the women who don’t last long and get worn out.
Back in those days, at the end of a shoot, how did you feel?
I was raring to go! I partied after films and during films. You have to understand the ’70s: They were one huge party. It was all about having fun, getting high. Sexuality was totally free, and life was an adventure. Porn was still kind of underground and controversial, so the people in it were adventurous to begin with.
What was it like on-set?
It was a formula: girl/guy, girl/girl, two guys/girl, and in those days it always ended with one huge orgy! It was so fun, ’cause then everybody’s in the pool! After the film, the party continued. My life off film was always as crazy as my life on film.
What was the craziest moment?
Well, I picked up five gypsies in the disco once!
They were hot! Dark, handsome guys with a Rolls-Royce. They were like uncles and nephewsâ€”they were gypsies! I used to go out by myself, start getting ready at midnight to go to the after-hours clubs. And this guy got behind me and said, “How would you like to have five gypsies?â€ He was dancing behind meâ€”I mean, come on, what am I supposed to say [laughs]? Here I am at the disco, lights are going off, and I am dancing away. I was like, OK, let’s goâ€”you know, all at once!
What are you supposed to do? You’d get kind of dry if it’s next, next, next. It’s like one big meat pile. I think it’s a big female fantasy.
Sure, but it’s not every day someone comes up behind you at a club and offers you five gypsies.
Well, that’s the whole thing; I guess it was my destiny. I allowed myself on adventures. Some good, some bad.
You don’t talk much about the bad ones.
Going to jail wasn’t a great adventure.
What were you busted for?
It started out as an obscenity charge. I was dancing in a manner you’re not supposed to in Richmond, Virginia [laughs]. There was a fan in the front rowâ€”a girl, actuallyâ€”and she was waving to me, and I thought she was just saying hi, but she was waving, like, stop! So I just kept doing what I was doing.
Which was what, exactly?
I was feeling myself off and gyrating and simulating masturbation. Stripping has been described as a woman making love to herself, and I always stripped in that teasy way with a lot of clothes and ended up in a complete frenzy! So they came to give me a summons for obscenity, but I had drugs on me. I got paranoid, so I threw them, and they found them.
Coke and Quaaludes. But when you find yourself actually in jail, you do a lot of introspection. It brings me to the Paris Hilton thingâ€”you do really freak out like that [laughs]. At that moment, you feel like your life is being taken away; you lose your identity. Then you read a lot. You sit around and think, “Why am I here? How did I end up here?â€ I was in the middle of thinking I didn’t want to do porn anymore. I became very disconnected from Vanessa del Rio: I wanted nothing to do with her. I had lived my whole life so in the moment, going to jail was likeâ€¦
A giant pause button?
Exactly! And I was looking at the stigma of what I was doing, based on being brought up Catholicâ€¦ But then I remembered the part of myself that was rebellious and sexual, the part of me that didn’t think that stuff was wrong.
So you went back to making movies for a few years, but then in 1986 you left porn. Why?
Well, AIDS. A whole bunch of different things happened, and it was time to move on.
Then, a decade later, you were back on camera, being fed grapes and getting a rubdown in Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s video for “Get Money.â€
Oh, it was so fun. Everyone was thereâ€”Mary J. Blige, Kim. Lil’ Kim came up to me, and she was, like, 20 or 21 years old, and I was already out of the business, and I was like, “Girl, how do you even know who I am?â€ [Laughs] It was like, you were just a baby when I was midway through my career.
But you had a lasting impact. Chubb Rock turned your name into an adjective!
I heard him say, “She got all Vanessa del Rio on me,â€ on the radio, and I was like, “Whaaat does that meeean?â€ This guy who was trying to manage me at the time was like, “Should we sue them?â€ I said, “Hell no! We should call them and thank them!â€
You’ve said that porn is the only industry where women are really in control.
If you’re a smart woman, sure. Look at Jenna Jameson. She wasn’t a fearful woman, and I think that’s what it takes: actually being in touch with the power that women have over men when it comes to sexuality.
Do you really believe that?
I hate getting in trouble over the things I say, but fuck it! If a woman knows how to turn on her charm, men will do just about anything. It’s always keeping something back, never exposing everything and always keeping a bit of mystery. That’s just how the human animal works. I don’t think we are built for monogamy.
No, or else I wouldn’t be sitting here with you. I think it’s a waste of time to think what would happen if I could do it all over again, but if there were a way to wave a magic wand and go back to square one, I think I would have tried Hollywood.
Is it ever hard being Vanessa del Rio?
Of course. I have my fucked-up days. I feel sorry for myself; I feel lonely. But you have to recognize that you’re in control. Whenever I find myself getting all Freudian about my life, it doesn’t feel right.
It sounds like you have it figured out.
Listen, I haven’t figured anything out. You look at life, and it’s like, is that all there is? And you know what? Yes, it is [laughs].