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Belle Knox Danielle Levitt
It’s a soggy spring night, closing in on 10:00, and Duke freshman Miriam Weeks is on the hunt for new panties. Which in someone’s fantasy is probably a pretty standard way for a college coed to pass a Wednesday night after a day of classes – in Weeks’ case, two sociology courses and a women’s-studies seminar on the “politics of pleasure.” But these panties have a higher calling. Two days from now, at a convention called Exxxotica, in Atlantic City, she will try to sell them for upward of $50 apiece to the men (and women!) who find themselves sexually aroused by any of the 30 to 35 pornographic film scenes in which Weeks has appeared since she entered the adult-entertainment industry in November.
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So Weeks needs panties. “Cheap panties,” she says wearily, gazing with big brown doe eyes out the car window as Duke’s hallowed halls give way to Durham’s less-hallowed strip malls. “Do you think the Dollar Store would have them?”
It’s been only a matter of weeks since news broke that a freshman at Duke University was paying her way through college by getting frisky on film, and Weeks’ hornier alter ego, Belle Knox (“Belle” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and “Knox” because of her fascination with Amanda Knox: “I tried to find a name that wouldn’t really stick in people’s minds”), became a matter of national debate. It wasn’t the first time a college woman had ever done porn, of course, but America’s collective consciousness seemed both scandalized and titillated by the idea of a woman from as prestigious a school as Duke choosing to do so. On the one hand, said some, why shouldn’t a consenting adult engage in a perfectly legal profession in order to better herself through higher learning? And what right does society have to tell women what to do or not do with their bodies, anyway? But, on the other hand, you know, WTF?
In the ensuing media frenzy, Dr. Drew told Weeks that if he were her father, he would “be chompin’ down on a cyanide capsule.” Piers Morgan asked Weeks how she would feel if she had a daughter who wanted to be a porn star. On The View, Sherri Shepherd said that in direct response to Weeks’ decisions, “My heart just breaks. It really, really does.” Meanwhile, Howard Stern asked, “Are you wearing underwear or no?” Weeks, a women’s-studies and sociology major, did not shrink back from her public slut-shaming. Instead, giggling like the teenager she happens to be, she came forward as both a feminist and a “voice” for women in the porn industry.
All of which is to say that it’s been a topsy-turvy kind of freshman year for Ms. Miriam Weeks, the type of freshman year that’s brought such fame and infamy that she can, and will, sell her panties to the highest bidder. A traffic light turns green and onward she goes.
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When I first meet Weeks, the day before, she wears a rumpled navy jacket and glasses, and carries in one hand a breakfast of mashed potatoes and in the other a pink backpack. She’s catching a bus to the west side of campus, where she has an interview at the Women’s Center for a coveted internship next fall. Entering an imposing gothic building, Weeks is greeted warmly by several of the older women who work there. The Women’s Center is one of the first places she came when a fellow student outed her as a porn star in January, and the only place on campus where she feels totally free of judgment. “Women come here to report sexual assault,” she says. “So they can come talk to me.”
At the student center and later back at her dorm (a blandly girly room cluttered with books and shoes and beauty products), Weeks outlines her biography: Her dad was a military doctor, so the family moved a lot before settling in Spokane, Washington, where Weeks attended a private Catholic high school. She was nerdy and studious, co-captain of the debate team, founder of a charity that sent water filters to El Salvador, food server at an old-folks home, a builder of a résumé that would land her a spot at Duke, her dream school because of the university’s reputation as the best in the country for pre-law.
She also started watching porn at age 12, lost her virginity at age 16 and can’t remember a time before she knew she was bisexual. While playing house, she would ask her friends to lock her in a dog cage. “I don’t know why, but it was something that was very appealing to me,” she says.
By the time she was in high school, Weeks was playing the part of the perfect student at school, but was partying on the weekend with college kids. After naked pictures she sent a guy started making the rounds, she “was grounded for, like, a year. My mom had always told me not to let any naked pictures of myself get out there.” She suffered from depression, which she says she responded to by cutting herself.
Miriam Weeks aka Belle Knox with her parents at high school graduation.
None of which, she maintains, has anything to do with why she entered the sex trade. When Weeks started at Duke, her father was working in a private practice. Then he got called by the Army Reserves to go to Afghanistan for less than half of his previous salary. Weeks says she begged Duke to revisit her financial-aid package, but “they didn’t care.” Staring at a monthly bill for $4,300 that they couldn’t pay, her parents suggested she take out private loans, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt she’d rack up by the time she graduated. In high school, Weeks had worked as a waitress – a job she has said she found more degrading than the sex trade – so she knew how impossible it would be for someone without a car or a college degree to make anywhere near enough to cover her tuition. In desperation, Weeks joked to her roommate, “Oh, screw this, I’ll just be a porn star.”
And then, having said the words, she started to actually consider it. “I Googled ‘how to be a porn star,’ and all of these agencies popped up. And then there’s this website called SexyJobs.com. It’s like the Monster.com of porn.” Weeks took a few naked selfies and submitted them, along with her height (five feet four), weight (95 pounds) and a short description (“‘I’m a college girl with a naughty side’ or something like that”). Within days, she got a call from a company called Facial Abuse that offered to fly her to New York for her first shoot, at a rate of $1,200 per scene. The night before leaving, Weeks says, “I was horny. I remember thinking, ‘This is gonna be really hot.'”
While Weeks maintains that everything that happened at the shoot was consensual, it was not the best experience. “They try to figure out what makes you tick and fuck with you. I remember getting naked, and the guy said, ‘You have cuts on your legs. You’re a cutter.’ He could tell I had written the word ‘fat’ in my thigh, so he started calling me fat.” Once they called “action,” she was pushed to the ground and slapped. “And I said, ‘Stop, stop, stop. No, no.’ And then they stopped, and they were like, ‘We have to keep going.’
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“And I was like, ‘Just please don’t hit me so hard.’ But it went on like that, me getting hit, pushed, spit on. I was being told I was fat, that I was a terrible feminist, was going to fail all my classes, was stupid, dumb, a slut. But I got through it. You know how you kind of zone out sometimes? I just disassociated.” It wasn’t until she got back to Duke that she felt the weight of it all. “I remember just being a wreck, like, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done? This is the most embarrassing thing ever. What if somebody finds it?'”
But still, she needed the money. To better protect herself, Weeks signed with Matrix Models, which booked her five scenes – including the “hottest” threesome with James Deen – during Thanksgiving vacation, flying her to L.A. She told her parents she was staying at school over break. She told her roommate that she was going to California – realizing that someone should know where she was – but didn’t explain why. In fact, no one in her life had any idea she was doing porn – especially not her parents, who thought she was still a virgin.
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Weeks returned to school with $7,000 and the feeling she had things figured out. “It was glamorous, exciting. Guys would reject me, and in my head I’d be like, ‘If only you knew that I’m a porn star. . . .'” To explain her new influx of cash, she told her mom she was dealing pot, which was legal in Washington. “My parents would have sold their organs to keep me from having to do porn. When my brother found out, he said, ‘Miriam, if I had known our family was having such an issue with finances, I would have worked every single extra shift I could have.’ But I didn’t want my family to have to burden itself. I wanted to lay as low as possible and just make the money. I didn’t want to have some big career. I looked at it like this: There’s hundreds, if not thousands, of porn stars. What are the odds of somebody even noticing me?” She pauses. “I realize it was very naive.”
It took less than two months for her to be noticed. Shortly after returning to campus from Christmas break, a friend of Weeks’ named Thomas Bagley informed her he had recognized her in a video. He promised not to tell anyone, then promptly told his fraternity brothers. By morning, Weeks was getting an onslaught of Facebook friend requests from guys she didn’t know. A Twitter message confirmed her worst fears: “I got this ‘Follow’ notification on Belle’s Twitter from somebody I knew was in my grade, and I immediately started crying.” On a Facebook chat that night, Weeks told Bagley he had “exposed my deepest secret that could ruin my whole life” and “I fucking hate you so much.” (Bagley, for his part, told her he was “so so so so so so sorry” and has publicly expressed regret since.)
As a professor points out during my trip to campus, all this might have been no big deal had it happened at, say, NYU. But this was Duke, a school on high alert after a spate of recent sex scandals. As Weeks sees it, Duke’s economically privileged student body and “prevailing frat culture” combine with the “conservative Bible Belt culture of the South” to make a “highly misogynistic and oppressive atmosphere for women.” Nonetheless, her friend Jacob Tobia tells me that “while there are some people at Duke who have been awful about the whole thing, I would definitely say that they are a small minority.”
Once her story was leaked, Weeks says, she tried to control the narrative, or at least “make lemonade.” “When I was exposed, I was still trying to come to terms with who I was. I was ambivalent about porn when I was outed, and there was that whole idea of shame, like, I’m a smart girl – I’m the only person in my school in 10 years to get into Duke – what am I doing?” Of course, there was one way to spin the story: She quickly became an advocate for porn.
Our discussion is interrupted by another dart across campus to the public-policy building, where a professor has asked her to speak to his students about her work in the sex trade. “I’m so scared, I’m so scared,” she tells me on the way over. But she more than holds her own, patiently explaining the “money shot” to a preppy woman who is obviously a bit confused (“I’m not an expert, but isn’t it the end, when it shows, like, the vagina?”) before defending her right to be both a feminist and a woman who likes it rough. “Women who enjoy BDSM have historically been marginalized from feminism,” Weeks said. “While you may not like getting cum on your face, I personally think that’s really hot.”
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Weeks is actually entering a discussion that’s been around for decades. “I still get people telling me we’re all brainwashed, and we choose to do this because the patriarchy blah-blah-blah-blah,” says Nina Hartley, the godmother of sex-positive feminist porn. If Weeks becomes a lawyer, Hartley tells me, “she’ll have to be twice as good for people to get over her past.” Sasha Grey, Weeks’ porn-star idol, rose to prominence because of both the intensity of her scenes and the intelligence with which she supported her right to film them. “Just because I enjoy sex that’s considered more perverse than perhaps my mother might be into doesn’t mean I am anti-feminist,” she says. “I think it’s great that Belle wants to balance sex and education. I just wish it wasn’t presented as something scandalous.” (This is not to say the adult-film industry has been supportive as a whole: Recently, porn star Belle Noire sent her an e-mail in which she called Weeks a “liar” and “mentally unstable,” accusing her of “blaming the U.S. school system” for her behavior.)
Weeks knows that the prevailing narrative for women who enter porn is that they’re crazy, damaged or have daddy issues; and so she hesitates to tell me the parts of her story that seem most to fit that narrative. It’s not until dinner at a Panera Bread close to campus that, picking nervously at a cup of soup, she reveals that she was raped at a house party in high school. She’d had so much to drink that she passed out in a bedroom, waking when a guy she’d seen eyeing her earlier opened the door. She wasn’t strong enough to push him away. The experience, and her friends’ responses to it – blaming her for being slutty and careless, begging her to not press charges because they’d all been underage and drinking – are what got Weeks interested in women’s rights to begin with. And the vast difference in her mind between what it felt like to be raped and the consensual sex she has on camera has made her defense of the porn industry come more naturally.
Still, the lines between her two identities get blurred. Walking back to campus, she explains her predicament. “Belle was somebody I took out on the holidays when I did porn. And I would put her away and go back to being Miriam and have no issues. But now that I’ve become more popular in porn, they’ve morphed together. I’m answering calls as Belle. I’m doing interviews as Belle. She’s no longer somebody that I can just put away.”
And though “Belle is too crazy for Duke – a dirty little girl, who I bring into the bedroom, Miriam is studious, sleeps a lot, loves her family, loves her friends.” Miriam wants to get married, have kids, work as a lawyer for women’s rights. “I don’t know who I am, you know what I mean?” Weeks looks at me imploringly. “Like, don’t you have an alter ego for when you fuck?”
Suddenly her phone beeps. It’s a text from an extremely WASPy, extremely handsome guy who’d asked for her number after class. He wants to take her to lunch, “ask her some questions.” “Noooo!” she shrieks, uncertain what his motives are. But then, grinning broadly, she demonstrates how her alter ego might react. “Belle would say, ‘I’m a nice schoolgirl. Come and fuck me.'”
The Dollar Store was closed, so the hunt for panties moves to Target, where Weeks eschews slinkier fare in favor of the type of unencumbered undergarments one might wear to the gym. “They like stuff you would wear on an everyday basis,” she explains. “The other thing you can do is sell clothes you wore on shoots and get a lot of money from that.” She has this on the advice of her publicist, who spent years representing porn stars.
Pawing through the bins in the juniors section for extra-smalls, Weeks tries to explain just how crazy her life has become, from the paper she was up writing late last night on the feminist manifesto of her choosing (“I chose ‘The Bitch Manifesto’; it’s talking about someone who defies the rules of society”) to the way in which Duke has tried to protect her from harassment (“The administration told all my professors, ‘You need to make sure it’s safe for her to be in class'”). This summer, she will intern at the X-rated website Pornhub, working in the PR and marketing department, and spend weekends flying all over the country for porn shoots and stripping engagements. Not to mention the fact that she’s hosting a new reality series called The Sex Factor and coming out with a Doc Johnson toy line, for which she had molds taken of her vagina, butthole and mouth; and she’s still actively engaged as a student. Plus, at some point, Weeks would like to see her family, even if her older brother and sister will no longer speak to her and her relationship with her parents is “forever changed.” “My grandpa has been really supportive, though,” she told me. “He was just like, ‘I don’t think it’s anybody’s damn business what you do.'”
Thus far, Duke has proved to be a pretty lonely place. Weeks’ roommate has been very supportive, and Weeks has made some friends through clubs like the College Republicans (although she identifies more as a libertarian). But forums like CollegiateACB.com, which has allowed kids to post anonymous messages to boards for their school, have been rife with insults, even death threats; the “How will Belle die?” thread had 12 different posts. One hateful tweet read, “The school should expel her, or we will take matters into our own hands and make this fuck up suffer.” And on several occasions, she mentions a high school sweetheart she broke up with just before starting college and how hard it has been for her to not have found that type of intimacy at Duke. “Men didn’t want to date. They just wanted to fuck,” she had explained in the car. “I would have sex with these guys, and I would think that that could maybe turn into something. But I learned very soon that the culture at Duke was not dating.”
Weeks wants me to experience the Duke nightlife, so after purchasing a dozen pairs of panties and a razor to shave her legs, we stop by a bar called Shooters, where there’s a mechanical bull and a sign above the dance floor proclaiming the place the wild wild west. We’ve barely cleared the door, however, when she stiffens. A young woman in a pink dress has glanced over at Weeks, and recognition registers on her startled face. She scoots around the beer-pong table to whisper into the ear of her male friend. Soon, the entire crew is staring – as if Weeks were a unicorn who had magically pranced into the bar and could easily be spooked. Which, in fact, she can.
She clutches my arm. “They’re all looking at me,” she says in a small voice. “Let’s leave. I want to go.” Just beyond the bar’s threshold, she turns and retreats back into the night.
The next time I see Weeks, she’s “Belle Knox” and at the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City for Exxxotica – a Comic-Con-esque convention for the porn industry. When she arrives at her booth on Saturday, a line of men hoping for the chance to meet her has already formed. Wearing a “schoolgirl” outfit of a plaid skirt, fishnets and a tank bra emblazoned with BJU, she sets about gamely signing photos of herself wearing a dog collar and posing with men who grip her tiny waist and grin sheepishly for $10 a shot. When one guy calmly expresses his great desire to perform shockingly lewd acts with Knox, she doesn’t miss a beat. “Thank you!” she replies cheerily. Nina Hartley (“Still a great ass from the Eighties,” one guy says in passing) swans over from the neighboring booth with some motherly advice: Never do anything on camera that she wouldn’t do at home.
At 9 p.m., Knox retires to her hotel room to change into a lacy black dress, eat cold french fries and count her newly made $980. Soon her presence is required at the red-carpet step-and-repeat, where Polish porn-star sisters Natalia and Natasha Starr, in complementary bodycon dresses, can’t seem to keep their boobs from “slipping” out, and Miley May, a dead ringer for Miley Cyrus, twerks giddily. Everyone puckers and pouts and vamps it up. But Knox mostly stands there, tiny and wan, staring off into the middle distance, looking less like Belle Knox than Miriam Weeks.
And it doesn’t seem remotely calculated, even if it is hugely effective, this sense that with Knox you’re getting something untrained and therefore authentic, a “Real College Girl,” as an upcoming film is aptly named. “It’s an exploration into her innocence,” said director Luc Wylder when he stopped by her booth earlier that day, holding onto a little fluffy dog with the very leash Knox had worn for the shoot. “There are things that are very clearly indicative of her lack of experience, but the industry loves that.”
Once inside the awards show, Knox perks up when she receives a text from her ex saying he misses her. And the show itself is campy good fun. Knox takes home the award for New Girl on the Block, which no one expected her not to win. Still, it’s a heady moment. “This has been the craziest, most random year of my life,” she says from behind the lectern. “But I’m so grateful to be here. I love being in porn.” As she told me back at the table, “I don’t feel respected at Duke. I feel respected here.”
After the show, she clutches her award and accepts congratulations before heading to a party in a suite upstairs. “I’m getting all emotional,” she whispers at one point. “All those nights I wondered if I made the wrong decision or ruined my life? This just proves I didn’t.” She smiles sweetly. “It’s a good day.”
This story is from the May 8th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone