World

Russian Porn Star Michael Lewis Debates Gay Rights

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09/20/13
In the Magazine
Eliana Aponte/Reuters

Michael Lucas’s online biography describes him as “a porn star evolved”—and over the years, he has indeed branched into unusual territory for an adult entertainer, regularly issuing political pronouncements about the Middle East that range from impassioned and inflammatory to prejudiced. Now, Lucas has found a new cause, and it’s one rooted naturally in his biography: the gay, Russian-born porn tycoon has thrown himself into the debate over the rise of homophobia in his native country.

“I am the only porn star who will tell you my age,” the 41-year-old Lucas says when I interview him recently in his Hell’s Kitchen office, where large family photos, male nudes, and an antique camera collection adorn the walls. Lucas, a Russian Jew, grew up not knowing what homosexuality was, and he says he made up his mind to leave his native country forever when he read an article about how the “damned” West embraces homosexuality: “I thought, Oh my God, that’s fantastic. And from that time, all I wanted to do was to leave.”

Lucas hustled and did porn in Europe before coming to the United States, where he figured out he could make more money as a porn producer than a porn star. His business became wildly successful: Lucas says he shot the biggest-budget gay pornographic film ever, and broke his own record a few years later. (For the latter film, titled Michael Lucas’ La Dolce Vita, he beat a lawsuit alleging consumers would confuse his flick with Federico Fellini’s version.)

He also developed a penchant for holding forth on politics—often in a bigoted way. When artist Charles Merrill burned a rare edition of the Quran, Lucas saluted him for his “artistic and social bravery” and termed Allah the “Supreme Nincompoop.” He called ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel “vermin” who can’t stop breeding. (Lucas is a dual American-Israeli citizen.) During our conversation he suggested that, in Muslim countries, “a woman is equal to camel.”

Such ugly views make Lucas a strange spokesman for civil rights, but he is attempting to pull it off. In April, he returned to his native country to film his latest project: a documentary about gay Russians. Since leaving Moscow, he has returned only a handful of times. (He renounced his citizenship in 2010, and says he doesn’t consider himself Russian. He also brought his parents, grandparents, and brother over from Moscow in 2001, although some of them have since returned. “When we arrived, Andrei orchestrated such a reception,” his 92-year-old grandmother Miriam tells me in Russian, calling Lucas by his given name. “This apartment, fully furnished.” He calls her twice a day.) The early rumblings about a law banning gay propaganda—which was eventually passed in June—sounded familiar to Lucas, who grew up surrounded by anti-Jewish witch hunts of a different era. “I know Russian authorities very well. They go through with what they promise,” he says. “Gays are the perfect enemy. They’re invisible in a way; they’re among us at the same time.”

Lucas had filmed in Russia before, a few adult films in the early 2000s. (For them, the casting process was “disastrous.” “Russian men are good looking until the age of maybe 25,” he says. “Then they’re just ... not.”) For the new film, Lucas interviewed LGBT activists and conducted man-on-the-street interviews with ordinary Russian citizens. He asked them whether they knew a single gay man. “About 95 percent told me ‘no.’ Very rarely someone would say ‘yes,’ ” Lucas says. “But they do!” To acknowledge that, though, is increasingly difficult. “You know, what are the gay people? They molest children. So they don’t know anybody ... so they think.”

The release date for the film (his second nonpornographic documentary; the first was titled Undressing Israel) keeps getting pushed back: the situation on the ground shifts so quickly that Lucas can’t figure out how to keep the material from seeming dated. He’s even filmed updates with activists who visit New York.

Meanwhile, he’s continued to sound off about the issue. Recently, he took out a full-page ad in Next magazine advocating for a boycott of Russian vodka, and exchanged online blows with a Russian activist who opposed it. He also has a suggestion for U.S. Olympic athletes participating in the Sochi Games this winter: at the opening ceremonies, he says, male athletes should walk hand in hand with other men, and women with other women. Lucas himself, however, will not be returning to Russia anytime soon. “I don’t want to sit in Russian jail,” he says. “I don’t think I would get out of this jail.”

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