Benic: Hello, everyone. This is Benic, and welcome to another episode of ELM Avenue, where sex and business meet. If you’re new to the show, this is the show where we interview adult industry workers, to educate people about the business side of the adult industry. Today we have with us a very special, special guest, the one and only Sunny Leone. We hope you enjoy the interview.
Benic: Hello, everybody. Today we have an extra-special guest, Sunny Leone: 2003 Penthouse Pet of the Year, past contract star for Vivid Entertainment, and owner of Sunlust Pictures, as well as Sunnyleone.com. In 2010, she was named one of the top 12 porn stars by Maxim Magazine. I don’t think I’ve done her career justice, but this intro’s getting a little long. So that being said, Sunny, welcome to the show.
Benic: First off, again, welcome. Thanks a lot for agreeing to do this interview. I think it’s great that we had a chance to talk to you.
Sunny: Thanks for having me.
Benic: I have to say, I’m glad Wikipedia exists. I don’t know who’s writing this, but they broke down a lot of your stuff, and I thought it was interesting to see how you started out just modeling in magazines, and then over the course of several years, you’ve built up this crazy empire.
Sunny: It’s definitely crazy.
Benic: So tell me, what is it that you are currently focused on now? I know you started doing the modeling way back in the beginning, but what is your area of focus now?
Sunny: Well, a couple years ago, close to maybe three years ago, I re-signed with Vivid to start my own production company. I never thought that I would ever own a production company, but I met my current partner, who made that possible. So we re-signed with them for me to make my own movies.
We would fund the movies. We would do all the international distribution; find VOD, pay-per-view, doing all that, the right companies to do the distribution. And then, Vivid would do all of our U.S. sales and distribution.
Sunny: So I’m forever a Vivid girl.
Benic: And how many videos have you done with the new production company?
Sunny: We’ve released about three to four movies a month over the last two and a half years, two years.
Benic: Cool, gotcha. I want to learn more about the production side of stuff, especially now that you’ve transitioned to that, but I guess I have some real brief goals I’d like to cover in this interview. One of them, really, is to just kind of learn what certain steps you took along the way as you went along and transitioned. The second is to learn about some of your thinking behind some of the decisions that you made, because it seems like you made a very conscious effort to guide your career along. You weren’t just doing things willy-nilly, I felt. But that might not be the case.
Benic: So I do want to make sure that’s the actual case. And finally, I just want to learn how you were able to really rise above the crowd in this field, because I feel like this field, not only is it competitive, but it seems like you’ve got to do . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what the secret is. Hopefully, you can shed light on the secret, so other girls who might be watching this can at least get some inspiration, I guess. Sound good?
Sunny: Sure. Okay, let’s start with the first one.
Benic: Well, I was just going to break it down in a timeline from the beginning. Is that okay?
Sunny: Okay. I started in the industry . . .
Benic: 2001, right?
Sunny: Yes. I was 18, so it was a little bit before 2001. But I shot the layout for Penthouse, and then Penthouse had me as their cover centerfold. From there, when you become a Penthouse Pet – I’m not really sure how it works now, but I’m pretty sure it’s same – but you get sent all over the country, all over the world. I call it porn star boot camp, because they teach you how to talk, they teach you how to do interviews, they teach you how to be in front of the camera and do TV shows, radio, TV spots. Whatever it is, they teach you how to do it.
You do so many different photo shoots throughout your career. That’s where my roots are, shooting photos, and I really enjoyed it. But what I noticed very, very early on is that the less I did, the more people wanted me, the more buzz I could create.
Sunny: When I say background, I’m not talking about school background. I’m just talking about basic instincts of just different business stuff that I learned through high school or through college.
Benic: I just want to catch up. So are saying that were you doing photos and modeling before? I know how you were studying nursing at one of the junior colleges in Orange County. Prior to that, was this even a thought in your mind? How did you even come up with this? I think it was your friend who was stripping or exotic dancing.
Sunny: Yes, she was a stripper.
Benic: So, is this kind of like one of these dark secrets you had in the back of your mind, like maybe I’m going to do this? Or was it something like you were doing just regular fashion shoots or photo shoots already?
Sunny: I wasn’t doing anything in the buff. I never thought that I would be in this industry. It wasn’t something that I was thinking about, something that I wanted to do, something I was trying to follow. I loved the fashion world. I loved the mainstream world, but I was just too short, or I wasn’t thin enough. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin yet, either. I was 18 years old.
Benic: Did you ever make an attempt to try to break into that world?
Sunny: I went to a couple of photo shoots trying to build a portfolio, which most girls do when they come into the mainstream world, whether it’s shooting commercial shots or fashion shots. And I just wasn’t comfortable in my own body, my own skin, to be able to project confidence. I didn’t have that at all. I was really, really shy.
Benic: So what made you think taking your clothes off would make that better? I would say that would be a lot harder to make that kind of jump.
Sunny: I know, you’d think it would be. But what happened was I met with this agent, and he was really respectful. He wasn’t some weird, creepy dude trying to tell me what to do, and I think he got the sense of, “I’d better not ‘F’ this up, because she’s going to walk right out the door if I do.”
So he played really chill, really cool, and he’s actually a really nice guy. He discovered a lot of really famous Penthouse Pets and got them where they are today. He’s like that stepping stone. But he’s not someone that is prominent in the industry where I would say you would even know who he was. No one knows who he is. Steven’s probably not even his real name.
So I walked in, and I saw, like, Hustler, Cheri, and Penthouse on the back of his wall. I’d never seen an adult magazine in my entire life, ever.
Benic: So what were you thinking when you walked in that room, when you saw that?
Sunny: I just was like, “All right.” I have a really open mind. I’m not judgmental towards people and sexuality. I still didn’t know what it was. Even though there were girls, they were just cover shots, so it wasn’t like them spread-eagle on his wall. They were cover, beautiful shots.
He started explaining to me what he did. He felt the best way to go about introducing me to adult was to have me shoot a couple of B movies, and shoot Playboy-style nudity. Way back, close to 10 years ago, live-cam was just coming about, and I think I did one little teaser live-cam thing and only went topless or in my bra.
So he definitely helped me get into what was going on. But the best part was that the amount of money that was offered was how much I made all year.
Benic: What were you doing for work at the time? I know you were still going to school, so you were working part-time?
Sunny: Yes, I was working at a tax and retirement firm. I was the front desk girl. I was answering phone, I was filing, I was helping HR, I was helping the accounting department. I was doing all these little things that nobody wanted to do, and I worked my way into every single part of that company. That’s something very natural for me to do, just take over and multitask and do a bunch of things all at once for different people, because sitting up front at the desk is boring. So that’s what I was doing.
Benic: How much did they offer you for that first spread that you did for Penthouse? Do you remember?
Sunny: I’m sorry?
Benic: Do you remember how much they offered you in terms of payment for that first photo shoot that you did?
Sunny: Well, the first thing that we did was this B movie. You can look it up. It’s this really cheesy movie called “NoAngels.com,” and it was close to $10,000 for the whole week. It was a full movie, and I was part of the top five characters. It was five girls. So, as part of this movie, from start to finish, the amount of money that I made over the seven to ten days was close to $10,000. And at 18 years old, I don’t care who you are . . .
Benic: Yeah, I know.
Sunny: . . . that’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of money now, whether I’m one year into my career or ten years into my career. So I was offered all this money to shoot this stuff, and they had to do promo shots of me naked, but it was like Playboy-style nudity. I remembered not wanting to turn over, because I didn’t want him to take a picture of my butt. He could take a picture of my pussy, but not a picture of my butt! Go figure. I don’t understand this logic in my brain, but that’s just what I was more uncomfortable with than the front side of me. Go figure.
Benic: And in the movie, were you nude? This wasn’t, like, a porn movie at all, because you were just saying it was a B movie, right?
Sunny: No, it’s one of those cheesy “Skinemax” movies, so it’s a bunch of girls getting naked.
Benic: And seven days of shooting, how many hours per day were you on set?
Sunny: They were 10 to 12-hour days, but it was fun. It was like being on set now. You meet all the girls, you hang out, and you have amazing craft services. And you’re being paid [inaudible 10:59] this is insane. I was just happy to be there. So it was a big learning experience for me. And that’s when the ding-ding-ding started going off in my head, going, “Oh my gosh. This is so much money. This is all the money I made all year, and I made this in one week.” I mean, it’s kind of like a no-brainer, and the business side of it helped the rationale in my thinking.
Benic: And then, how did it go towards confidence? Because it sounds like you had some confidence issues at the time – I think a lot of girls go through that – from when you were trying to go through the regular fashion modeling stuff. Did you think you could do it? You shot this movie, and you were like, “Hey, I think I can do this?” I mean, in addition to the money.
Sunny: Yes. You know, I was a really, really shy kid. I played with the guys, I can shoot hockey, I played basketball, I played soccer growing up. I was always the kid that was playing in sports and doing something, and I had confidence in that. But I didn’t have confidence in my own skin, in my own body, and my sexuality. In my household, if you said the word sex, you were in big trouble. Dressing sexy was completely inappropriate in our house. So I didn’t even know my body. I didn’t know what was underneath all these baggy clothes. Every single day, my mother looked at me and said, “Uh-uh. That’s way too much cleavage,” or “That shirt’s way too tight. You’re changing that before you leave the house.” So it was like I was itching to come out of my skin. I wanted to explore who I was and what I thought was okay.
And then, after that movie, a couple of pictures got submitted to Penthouse. Bob Guccione approved of them, and the shoot got funded by Penthouse. So when the agent came up to me and said, “I have a shoot for you, and it pays $5,000,’ I was like, “What? It pays what? Okay, sure. What do I have to do?” And I go, “Show me pictures of what you want me to do.” They showed me pictures and stuff, and even then, I wasn’t comfortable with using a dildo or doing anything like that. I think the photographer got me to use a dildo in a couple of pictures, and I was so uncomfortable. I didn’t even know what my vagina looked like. He’s like, “Spread your inner lips,” and I’m like, “What the fuck is he talking about? I’m spreading! This doesn’t make any sense to me!” So after that shoot I definitely went home and took a mirror and go, “Oh, okay, that’s . . .”
Benic: “I’ve got to study this.” So he was your agent, I guess, at the time, right?
Benic: And how did you guys set up the contract of how you guys worked?
Sunny: There was no contract. He was just the only person that I knew. It was only after the Penthouse layout, when Penthouse started sending me across the country, across the world. I would obtain business cards from people, and I would call them later and say, “Hey, do you want to shoot me? You’ve got me this weekend.” And they’d say, “Yes, of course we want to.’
Or, I’d meet one of the other Penthouse Pets who’d been in the industry for a long time, and I would say to them, “Look, I really want to do this. Can you please hook me up with some numbers so I can call people?” And all those girls were so nice. It was like a different era of Penthouse girls and adult models. Everybody was nice, and everybody was really beautiful, and it was all very glamorous, very, very glamorous. They definitely gave you the foundations on the way up.
Benic: So after the Penthouse one, you just went on your own. You said, ‘Okay, I’m just going to hustle and get work.”
Sunny: Yes. Yes.
Benic: So you mentioned they sent you on the Penthouse university, it sounds like, the training camp. That happened after the shoot, right, when they were promoting?
Sunny: I’m sorry?
Benic: When did that school happen, the training camp happen?
Sunny: It happened after I was cover centerfold, after I was a Penthouse Pet.
Benic: Okay. And then, how did you get that one? I know that happened a few years later. I think that was in 2003, right?
Sunny: No, being a Penthouse Pet was in 2001, March 2001, and then for two years, they sent us all over. Then they decided who was going to be Pet of the Year, so Pet of the Year was 2003.
Benic: Oh, I see. How did they determine who becomes a Penthouse Pet? How did you find out? Was it just based on that one shoot you did, or they did all those shoots after that?
Sunny: No, what happened at that time – I’m not sure how it works now – Bob Guccione, the owner of Penthouse who passed away recently, chose every single girl. He sat there with a slide projector looking at girls on a big screen, and he would see one girl and go, ‘Okay, I like her. I want her to be a Penthouse Pet.” Bob Guccione went through every single photo of the Penthouse Pets, chose the layouts, chose what pictures he wanted, chose the covers. He’s very, very in control, which led to his demise, but that’s how he functioned. So it was based on an approval from Bob Guccione.
Benic: Gotcha. And so, after you found out, I guess you must have been pretty excited.
Sunny: I had no idea what it meant.
Benic: Did they give you more money, too, or no?
Sunny: No, you become a Penthouse Pet, and then that’s it.
Benic: So there’s really the title, but that title means a lot, because they’re putting you on top.
Sunny: Yes, I had no idea at the time what it meant to be a Penthouse Pet. I had no clue until my first signing, and all these people are lined up to have their book signed or get an 8 x 10. And I’m like, “Why do you want my signature? I don’t even have a signature!” I’d never even signed my name to something other than sign a check or something at that point.
So it was really, really surreal, and as time went by, you really understood what it meant to be a Penthouse Pet. There are girls in this industry now that have been in the industry for years and years and years, and they’re still not Penthouse Pets, and they’re kicking themselves because they want it so bad.
Benic: Yes, that’s really great. So when did you decide to leave? Were you still in school at the time when all of this was going on?
Benic: Were you still working at the other job?
Sunny: I was working at the other job, I was going to school, and I was traveling for Penthouse. The day I decided that I should hold off on all this school and work was when I won Penthouse Pet of the Year. It had already started becoming really crazy. I was doing so well at school, and it just was so hard to balance the two out and be able to function. I’d just won $100,000, which was like hitting the jackpot, and they wanted me to travel basically every single week, or be on TV shows, or photo shoots, and traveling for different events. You name it, we were doing it. So it was really hard to juggle both of them. And then I thought, “Okay, well, this is only going to happen once, so I might as well grab it with both hands and ride this until I don’t want to anymore, until it’s over.” So that’s just what happened.
Benic: And then, how did you break this news? I know your parents – you have Indian background, and I’m Asian too – so I know school and education are very important, right?
Benic: So did you tell them what was going on, or did you hint to them? Were you living at home at the time? I know you were in Orange County.
Sunny: No, I moved out when I was 18, which is why it was so easy for me to . . .
Benic: So they didn’t really know what you’re up to.
Sunny: Right. They had no idea. I would go home two or three times a week and go have dinner, so that’s all they cared about.
Benic: I see.
Sunny: I told my parents about what I was doing and who I was when I won Pet of the Year.
Benic: Okay, you did.
Sunny: It just wouldn’t be something that I could hide anymore. Yes, I can go to their local convenience store and pull all the adult magazines off their shelves and buy them. I was making so much money, it’s no problem. But it just wasn’t possible to hide it from them, when I just knew other people would find out, and they would call my parents about, “Do you know what your daughter’s doing?” And the last thing that I wanted was for them to say, “No, I don’t. Tell me,” and be completely shocked and embarrassed on the phone and not be ready for that. That’s worse than me telling them, or my aunt telling them.
Benic: Yes, definitely.
Sunny: Just horrible. So I won Pet of the Year, and I was just about to go on Howard Stern. I sat them down and I go, “I’m Penthouse Pet of the Year, and I won $100,000!”
Benic: Did they know what it was already? Because I know you hadn’t really seen an adult magazine, I guess, prior to you shooting it. I didn’t know if they knew.
Sunny: Yes, my dad knew what it was. Probably ruined it for him forever. And I think that’s what parents might be upset about, when they find out that their child is in Adult, they’re lie . . .
Benic: Yes, then it’s not so sexy anymore.
Sunny: Fuck you, I can’t even watch any porn anymore.
Benic: It turns them off.
Sunny: Thank you for ruining it for me. So I think that’s what I would have more trouble with, than knowing my kid was in Adult. Now I can’t look at naked people anymore? This is horrible! I don’t know if you’re just going to pop up on the next page, so I can’t buy it.
Benic: Yes, that would be weird. So how did they take it?
Sunny: My dad knew what it was, and he sat there, and he’s like, “Okay.” My mom, it took her a couple of minutes, and then she goes, “You were naked?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And then, the waterworks.
Benic: Oh, really?
Sunny: She was really upset. It took her a while to get over it, just like any parent would. My dad handled it a little bit differently in front of me, and said, “This is what you’ve chosen to do. You didn’t consult us, so I have to accept what you’ve done, but just make something of yourself now. Don’t get sick, don’t get into weird things. Just don’t change.” He didn’t want me to change.
Benic: And what were you thinking? Now that you had won this $100,000, you were Penthouse Pet of the Year, where did you at that time want your career to go? You said you wanted to ride it for as long as you can, but what direction were you shooting for?
Sunny: I wasn’t really shooting for a direction. I just figured, “Well, now that I’ve won this, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.” I had already started my website then, too, so I was working on that, and I would do all these appearances. I was really, really good about due diligence with contacting people, and making sure I was in their face and getting people to call me back. So it was really –knock on wood – it was easy. It wasn’t that hard.
Benic: But the thing is, you still weren’t using an agent. I know a lot of people use agents when they first start out, right?
Benic: What you did was kind of uncommonly. What was your thinking? I’m sure you saw these other girls who already had more experience using agents and getting work that way. Why didn’t you want to go that route?
Sunny: It just wasn’t something that worked for me at the time. I just figured, “Well, why do I want to give this person 15 percent or 10 percent, whatever it is, when I can do this myself? It just doesn’t make sense. I can make that phone call.” And I know just from experience that most studios would rather just hire a girl directly than deal with an agent, because then you have an agency fee, you have them getting a percentage. It works out better now for my production company to go through agents, because then I know that these girls are going to show up. But I wasn’t that girl, and my reputation started to build as being very reliable. So with everything that was going on, it was easier just to do it myself.
Benic: Gotcha. What kind of jobs were you going after? Now that you had won, and you were kind of touring around, what were you looking for? Who did you start wanting to approach, to say, “Hey, I want to do this?”
Sunny: It wasn’t that I was necessarily approaching somebody. I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve been really lucky and really fortunate in the adult industry, where it just kind of came to me. Everything good that could happen was happening. People were coming to me, and they wanted to hire me, and no one ever questioned the rates that I was charging, which were really high.
Benic: How did you set the rates, by the way?
Sunny: I just would hear something of some girl getting some amount, and then I’d go, “Well, screw it. If she’s getting that much, I want that much.” It was really funny, because it worked. It was really hard the first time when I said, “No, my rate is this.” It was really hard to work up that nerve. Then it worked, and I was like, “Holy smoke. This is amazing; my rate just doubled. Woo-hoo!”
Benic: So would you just hear another number and just increase it by so much, and just see if they would say yes?
Sunny: Yes, it was like a game?
Benic: Give me some sense of a number. Normally at these shoots, is it per shoot, per hour? How are these rates set?
Sunny: It was per shoot, per day. At that time, if someone wanted to shoot me, a standard rate to shoot an Adult was $500. For that $500, you were there all day, ten to twelve hours. Now I shoot for that rate for four hours. It was so different back then too. It’s completely different from what it is now, because of the digital camera age. I was shooting film . . .
Benic: Yes, and they take a lot.
Sunny: . . . which is why it would take 10 to 12 hours to shoot. We shot two or three sets. Three sets was the maximum. Two was normal, one set in the morning and one set after lunch, and you were there all day long.
And then one day, I felt like I had been in the industry long enough that I could change this, and all these good things were happening. So I went to them, and I go, “Okay, I’m increasing the rate by 25 percent.” And they were like, “Okay, that’s a little high.” It really was only, like, 250 bucks. It’s not like it was . . .
Benic: You’re not asking for like $2,500 or $5,000 more, anything like that.
Sunny: It wasn’t like that. I worked myself up in little . . .
Sunny: Yeah. I figure . . .
Benic: Sorry, we got cut off there. What did you say? You figured you worked yourself up to . . .
Sunny: Yeah. Just like any career, I believed that after one year of being in the industry . . .
Benic: You get a raise.
Sunny: . . . I get a raise, right?
Benic: That’s even better, because you get to determine that. That’s the best part. And if they say no, you can say, “Well, okay, we’ll go a little more.”
Sunny: Like, “Yes, I deserve a raise now.”
Benic: So that Penthouse Pet title, did you just automatically tack on?
Sunny: Oh, yes, completely.
Benic: Because they know it will sell. Were you just shooting various different magazines at the time?
Sunny: Yeah. I’ve been in every single adult magazine out there, except for maybe Playboy and, I think it was Perfect 10, because I wasn’t a Perfect 10 to them. The owners also own Swank, and they were such a conservative magazine that they’re like, “No, she’s shot for this magazine. We can’t put her in Perfect 10.” That was always like a thing.
Benic: They wanted that to be exclusive.
Sunny: A couple of things that I really wanted to do, but I couldn’t do.
Benic: Did you ever try approaching them, or no?
Sunny: Oh yes, I’ve approached everybody. They’ve all said, “Yes, we’ve talked to her.”
Benic: And how did the level of your modeling skills, or things that you were comfortable doing, how did that change? Because it sounds like you were doing a lot more than when you were still figuring out “spread your inner lips.” So how did you progress? Were you changing up the shoots that you were doing, or was it primarily the same?
Sunny: I just got to a certain point where I was like, “Okay, I guess I could shoot with some toys this time.” But it wasn’t until I met with Vivid Entertainment that everything changed. Even up until that point, I’d done some stuff with toys, but I was charging so much, people just didn’t care.
I went into Steven’s office, and I go, “Look, this is what I haven’t done and what I’m willing to do, but I want you to give me a contract. I want to be a Vivid girl, and everything that Vivid girls do, I want to do.” And he hadn’t signed a girl-girl contract since Janine Lindemulder.
Benic: So, let’s back up. I do want to talk about this, because this part, I think, is interesting. I think this is around 2005, right, when you . . .
Sunny: What year are we in? Yeah.
Benic: [inaudible, 20:40] Wikipedia.
Sunny: Yeah, around 2005.
Benic: Up to then, I know you had done some stuff with Adam & Eve. You were helping out with their sales, with their internet sales stuff.
Sunny: Yes, I worked with them. I was just trying to do as much as I could, get my hands in the industry, and also retain as much information as I could. Because I wasn’t going to school anymore, my brain still wanted all this information, so I got really, really involved with my website, running my own affiliate program. I was building my own galleries, editing my own video.
Benic: So you’re very hands-on, from the sounds of it.
Sunny: Yes, because I’m a control freak.
Benic: And so, why did you even decide to walk into that office at Vivid, or talk to them in the first place? What was the light bulb moment for that, or what were you thinking?
Sunny: Well, I wanted to shoot with girls. I’ve always liked girls, I’ve always been bi-curious or bi since I was about 13. I’ve always liked girls, so this was something that was always in the back of my head, but I just wasn’t comfortable with doing it on camera yet.
I’d shot with a couple of girls on film, but it was all soft-core. I shot Penthouse videos, but they were all soft-core, too, so it doesn’t really count.
Benic: But did you like those experiences?
Sunny: [inaudible 31:07] do hardcore. In my head, I was thinking, “Well, if I walked into Vivid and just see if they want a girl-girl contract girl, I know that I have the looks, I have the brain, and I have the ability to talk and interact with people. I know that’s a big part of being a contract girl, and I have that, and I haven’t done anything. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? He’s going to say no? All right.”
It didn’t affect my life, because I was going to do it anyway. I emailed their web department, their webmaster. It’s like email@example.com, something like that. So I emailed him, and I emailed him a couple of pictures, and I go, “Hi, I’m Sunny Leone. Here’s a couple pictures of me. Can you please forward this to whoever’s in charge of hiring contract girls and talking to them?” And then the next day, Steven calls.
Benic: Oh wow, that’s fast.
Sunny: And he’s like, “I don’t know about a contract, but why don’t we fly you in and we’ll talk about it?”
Benic: Why did you want the contract?
Sunny: It wasn’t that I needed the money, because being a contract girl in this industry, you don’t make as much, but you get so much more fame, and you get so much more recognition as a performer.
Benic: Why is that the case? Is it just because they’re going to market you better than these other ones?
Sunny: Right. It’s not just me as an individual promoting my name. It’s a whole company. So everything that comes our way, all the PR, all the interviews, just like Penthouse, everything that comes in, they’re going to want their girls to do. That’s basically how it works.
Benic: So you thought this would ultimately just help your brand overall, because if they did say yes, you’d have . . .
Sunny: Oh my gosh, my website would do better, sales will be better, people would want to shoot me more. It’s just a snowball effect. It was the same basic stuff that Penthouse was doing, but Penthouse was soft. But now, this is Vivid. This is the top of the top. It doesn’t get any bigger than Vivid. There are about three, four companies that are huge and big on promoting their girls and contracting them. So I figure, “Okay, let me just see what the interest is. I have nothing to lose.”
Benic: That’s awesome.
Sunny: So I walked into his office. He set the meeting. He wanted to meet me, which was good. Usually, people go through a channel of people. They go through one department, then they go to Marcie, who is Steven’s sister. It’s just kind of like this process that it goes through.
Benic: So did you prepare something ahead of time? I never can imagine what an Adult meeting is. Do you have like a PowerPoint slide?
Sunny: I came in with a piece of paper with my business plan.
Benic: Oh, so you did have a plan.
Sunny: Yes, I had a business plan.
Benic: Okay. So it wasn’t like you just walked in and said, “Hey, give me a contract.”
Sunny: No, not at all, not for me. I walked in there, and I had . . .
Benic: And what did that business plan have?
Sunny: Something to hand to him. This is who I am, this is what I want to do. You are going to give me a contract.
Benic: So, you sound like you really took control of that meeting.
Sunny: Well, Steven was really intimidating, so it wasn’t like I took control. I listened well, and I told him in a very, very nice way, “This is what I want. I want you to sign me.” I probably sat there for maybe an hour, with us talking about websites, about my career, about what they do at Vivid, everything that we talked about. By the end of the meeting, he offered me a deal, and that was it.
Benic: It’s interesting, because it sounds like at the beginning of that meeting, or even prior to it, he didn’t want to give you a contract, right? He didn’t want to keep your hopes up?
Sunny: He [inaudible 35:24] didn’t want to say it. He’s not going to lay out all his cards.
Benic: He’s a shrewd negotiator.
Sunny: Yes, of course. And he’s like, “I don’t know about a contract, but why don’t you come in,” because his ultimate goal is to get me to sign a boy-girl contract. That would be amazing for him and his company. But I think there was an instant connection, there, as far as just two people meeting. Not a sexual connection, but just a connection with business, with how I functioned. He met me, and he was just like, “Okay, I really like her. She seems like a really nice girl,” is what I’m guessing went through his head.
Benic: What was the contract? What did he offer you at the end? So you told him, “I don’t want to do boy-girl. I just want to do . . .”
Sunny: He said he wanted to do one movie, and I said, “Oh, no. That’s not going to work. I want at least two movies in one year, then I know if I like it.” They had just been introduced to this whole virtual DVD thing that they were doing, so he was like, “Okay, we’ll shoot one movie, and we’ll shoot a virtual movie.” And the virtual movie actually ended up winning an award for them.
Benic: I saw that, I was going to talk about that.
Sunny: That’s amazing for me.
Benic: So stepping back, when you guys decided to do this, the contract he offered you was two movies, and then for a year? Is that how it works?
Sunny: Yes, it was over a year. Because they wanted to test it out, and he’s like, “I don’t know about a girl-girl contract.” My pieces sold very, very well for them. The virtual one did phenomenally. The first movie did amazing, because of the name of brand they built, and all the publicity they did with it. Both those pieces I still see numbers rising for each month with my reports, because after a certain number, I get a royalty from them. So they’re both still growing. It’s not a movie that’s extinct now, and people aren’t interested in.
Benic: Can you shed some light on these contracts that you signed? So it says, two movies over about a year. How are you compensated? I know they pay a salary, right? You said is not as good as you could make just doing stuff on your own, but you really wanted the publicity. So how was this contract set up, if you don’t mind me asking?
Sunny: At that time – they’re different now – at that time, it was a per-movie deal. So it was two movies. He offered me what people get offered to do boy-girl.
Benic: And how much is that?
Sunny: I can’t say how much.
Benic: Oh, that’s fine. Can you give me a ballpark range?
Sunny: Let’s just say it’s five figures.
Benic: Okay. Oh, wow, and that’s for one movie. And how long does one movie take to shoot?
Sunny: It takes about two, three days.
Benic: So again, it’s still better than working in the front office.
Sunny: It was so much money for me that I was just like, wow. No other company has ever offered that much money to a girl for a girl-girl contract. And then, he offered me double to do boy-girl when I was ready to do it.
So like I said earlier, everything good that could happen happened. And I don’t think that’s it’s just luck. I think . . .
Benic: Well, it sounds like you really prepared. I mean, there’s that one quote: “Luck is opportunity meeting preparation.” It sounds like you had all your ducks in a row, and it wasn’t like you were just, “Oh, this [inaudible, 38:56].”
Sunny: I wasn’t some cracked-out girl sitting in front of him. I was always on time, I always showed up, I always did my job. People loved working with me. And that’s what I think pays in any industry, is being persistent and being on it.
Benic: I love how you test the limits, too. He offered you one, and you could have accepted that, right? You’re like, “Okay, fine. I’ll take it.”
Sunny: Oh, it was so much money that I was just like, “Well, I’m not even going to fight this one.” I left his office like, “Oh my God, so much!”
Benic: So those two movies, is that enough to live, if you didn’t do anything else, just for the year?
Sunny: No, not at all. It wasn’t a lot. Maybe there are people in this country that make that much money in a year, and I don’t want to insult that, because they work really hard to do it. But for me, with my website, being Penthouse Pet of the Year, all the photo shoots I was doing and appearances, that added up to a lot. At 19 years old, I was making six figures.
Benic: That’s good. You hit your goal, right? You wanted to do $100K, you said, I think at one point.
Sunny: Right. So when I first got into the industry, that’s a lot of money. And after the first year, year and a half, I was like, “Holy smokes, I’m doing so good. This is amazing!” And then, once my website was up and running, and I was working with that, it did even better.
So I’ve been able to take what I’ve had and monetize my name and my brand, I believe, more than any other company has, except maybe Penthouse, because they sent us all over, and the amount of money they probably got for each appearance or photo shoot, whatever, you don’t know what they’re paying in licensing fees. So they, of course, make a lot of money off of their girls. And Steven is a business genius, so anything he does turns to gold. So it was really, really honoring to have all these good things happen.
Benic: So you had those two movies, and you did that one, I think it was the “Virtual Vivid Girl, Sunny Leone.” That was one of the first interactive titles.
Sunny: It was the first Vivid title.
Benic: And so, tell me, is that the ones where they shoot point-of-view?
Sunny: The whole thing is point-of view.
Benic: But it’s with girl-girl, or was it solo?
Sunny: There was girl-girl, there was solo, and there was boy-girl. I just wasn’t doing the boy-girl. It’s nine hours of footage for the viewer to watch.
Benic: And it’s not all you? There are other girls on there, too? Oh, okay.
Sunny: It’s a lot of me, mainly me, but then there’s other things that go on, and bonus stuff. I mean, they really put a lot of . . . by the end of that shoot, I was like, “I can’t stick this thing in me anymore. I don’t know what you want to do, but my pussy’s swollen shut.”
Benic: That’s a very long . . . that’s a lot of footage.
Sunny: It’s different than having sex. You have sex and then you’re done. But with virtual, you’re shooting the same thing . . .
Benic: Over and over . . .
Sunny: . . . because they have it in like, three different points of view. You’re shooting the same thing three times.
Benic: Oh, I didn’t know that. I thought they just had three cameras set up.
Sunny: No, they have all these cameras, but you also have to do it again . . .
Benic: Again and again and again. So that one an AVM award for, I guess, Best Interactive DVD.
Benic: I know. So, you first had that first contract, and is that when they said, “Okay, this has done really well. We want to sign you up for a longer contract?”
Sunny: It was before the contract was up. We had a discussion, and they said, Okay, let’s make four movies this year.”
Benic: And then, what did you do? Because if I understand you, you probably stepped it up another notch.
Sunny: I didn’t step up the number amount, and the only reason that I didn’t was because they doubled the movies.
Benic: That’s true, you were making per movie.
Sunny: And I loved working with them. It was so much fun.
Benic: What’s so good about them? I hear a lot of good things about them in the industry, but what, from your perspective, was so fun or great about them?
Sunny: They’re just nice. They’re just nice people. They treat their girls with a lot of respect. And anything that you hear about agents or companies being mean to their girls, or different things like that? All that stuff is not true with Vivid. None of that is true with Vivid. I mean, I live across the street from them, and they gave me an office in their building for free, just because we have such a great relationship. I go, “”I need an office.” “Okay, there’s one available right here for you.” “Okay, thank you!”
Benic: I know they distribute your videos now, but you’re not on contract with them, right?
Sunny: I’m under a contract, but it’s an exclusive contract for me to shoot movies only with them.
Sunny: So I own the movies 100%.
Benic: But they have to distribute.
Sunny: I paid for them, I paid production, I paid for replication, box covers, wrapping. You name it, we paid for it. What they do, just like any distribution company, is take a percentage of distribution.
Benic: Okay, I see.
Sunny: Any distribution will do it. You have any type of deal with any distribution company, no one says, “Okay, here, you can have 100 percent of that sale that we sold.” It doesn’t work that way. So they get a small percentage of every unit that’s sold.
Benic: Yes, that makes sense. They already have the channel.
Sunny: Yes, it’s so easy for them, because in my eyes I now own my content, but in Steven’s eyes he has a Vivid girl that he doesn’t have to pay.
Benic: And so, the next step after you re-signed the contract, I think this is where I read that you started doing boy-girl for the first time.
Benic: What was the thinking then?
Sunny: Just like my first meeting, I went in, I had no idea what I was coming in for. I came in again with my little piece of paper and handed it to him. I go, “This is what I want to do.” He read through it, and he was like, “Okay.”
Benic: Tell our audience, what did that piece of paper say? What were you proposing to do?
Sunny: I had how many movies I wanted to do, how many scenes per movie. I talked about issues that I wanted to change with different PR stuff. I wanted to do more. I was hungry to do more, and I’m going to do this, but I want you to give me 100 percent of everything you have to promote what I’m doing. And that was really important. So it had all these different bold points I wanted to talk to him about that I had thought about and wanted to do.
I had done my research. When I say I’d done my research, I had talked to different people. I had talked to different companies. I had talked to different business owners and girls, about what was a normal amount of money, what wasn’t a normal amount of money, what I should be getting.
There was a company that’s a really well known company in our industry that offered me what I was being paid for a girl-girl, and I was insulted, and I walked out. They had no idea what my contract was with Vivid, so when he didn’t offer me at least what I was being paid already, then it made absolutely no sense for me to be with them. And it’s not like he doesn’t know who I am. I’ve seen him a million times. He’s a very respected, great businessman in the industry.
So, I did my research and talked to them, and Vivid just offered me the best deal. I was already happy, so I figured, “Why do I want to change something that’s great?” That was my end rationale. Why go with another company that’s not going to give me not only the popularity, but also peace of mind, and to be able to still function and have control of my career? Because most of these other companies can’t.
Benic: What I find amazing, especially with the second part, is that you said that you would do boy-girl, but only with the same guy.
Benic: I didn’t even know that even happened in the industry. I was like this girl, is that normal? Like, oh, I can bring my, I think he was your fiancé at the time.
Sunny: It’s not normal.
Benic: And so that’s what I want to know. That’s like the dream, like, “Oh, I can just have sex with my husband or my fiancé.”
Sunny: I’m in my career, and I’m like, “What? I get to just do what I want. This is the most amazing thing.”
Benic: But I think it’s more than just like we talked about. I mean, you made a conscious choice to do that. I think it’s good to at least set the precedent so other people can be like, “Wow, at least someone has done it.” And I just find I have to take my hat off to say, hey, you don’t see that very often, at least when I’ve talked to other people.
Sunny: No, it’s like, unheard of, because people just laugh at you.
Benic: You didn’t think you were going to get laughed at in that meeting? You didn’t think they were going to be like, “Dude, you’re crazy. What do you think you’re doing? No, you’re going to have to sleep with this guy, this guy, this guy,” right?
Sunny: And if they said that, I would say, “Well, then, I can’t continue to work with you.” But we had built such a great rapport together, Steven and I and Marcie, and everybody in their office, that they just loved me, and I loved them, and that’s just the way that it was. And I think that because I hadn’t done any work at all, that they were willing to . . .
Benic: Make some exceptions.
Sunny: . . . say, “Okay, let’s give this boyfriend a chance. And who cares, because with the amount of pieces we’ll sell just from her doing boy-girl, if we have to deal with a little bit of bullshit, then we deal with a little bit of bullshit.” But I’m a really good performer, so even if he wasn’t that great, I would have been that person to get everything out of him that we needed.
Benic: And of course, you talked to him beforehand. It wasn’t like, “Hey, I have this announcement I have to tell you.”
Sunny: It wasn’t a surprise. It was something that we discussed before I went into the office.
Benic: Though he wasn’t a performer before, right?
Benic: And the funny thing is, so you decided you really didn’t want to do . . . why was it that you didn’t want to do boy-girl with other people?
Sunny: I just didn’t know if I would like it or not. I’d never done it before. Unfortunately, I’m a serial dater, and I fall in love very easily. So with me falling in love so easily means that I just haven’t had a lot of time to be by myself in this industry to test out whether I like that or not. I love to have sex, don’t get me wrong, but I like having sex with one person, a lover. I don’t know how to explain this, because it doesn’t make [connection lost, 50:10 to 50:14], right?
Benic: Yes. Sorry, we got cut off again. The connection kind of cut out. Can you repeat the last part you just said?
Sunny: I said it seems really abnormal for a girl in Adult to say, “I just want to have sex with one person,” when we have a reputation for having sex with anything that walks.
Benic: Yes, that definitely is the reputation. But then, looking at your career, it seems like that wasn’t the case with you. That’s why you made these decisions.
Sunny: Yes. For me, the way that I broke it down to Steven was like, “Look, you’ve got nothing to lose. I’m willing to do boy-girl; you just have to be willing to shoot this guy that I want to shoot with, and it’ll work out. I know it’ll work out, and you’ll sell so many pieces just because of my first boy-girl.” So then, he’s like, “Okay, we’ll sign a four-movie contract.” So that’s how it started.
Benic: And then, how did it do? So you did these four movies? How was the response, or how did it sell?
Sunny: The first one I made with the first boyfriend. The third one, we had broken up. So I made one movie with two other male performers. And then the third movie, I found another innocent bystander from the regular world to do it with me.
Benic: Really? So do you just not date people in your industry? I don’t know, it sounds like you found this other guy, not off the street, but . . .
Sunny: The person that I chose to do the first two movies with, he was in the industry, but he wasn’t a performer. He worked with, I think it was, Playboy.
Benic: Email marketing, I think.
Sunny: So he was in the industry, but he was on the back end of the industry, and not even in production. He was on the internet side of the industry. So it wasn’t that I was purposely trying to do this. I was just trying to figure out what I was comfortable with.
The third movie that I made with the two performers, I’d known those guys, they were my friends. They are performers in the industry, but they’re just really nice guys. One of them has a wife, and one of them I had known for so long that it wasn’t like I was having sex with a stranger. I was having sex with two people that I knew. I knew them enough, I knew their personalities [inaudible, 52:33].
Benic: You were comfortable with it.
Sunny: Yes, we’d hung out so many times. I knew the guy’s wife, we’d all hung out, his wife shot me. It wasn’t like I was having sex with a stranger. So it wasn’t that bad, but it definitely hit a part inside my brain, that I was like, “Okay, this is what I was afraid of.” Even though I knew them, I wasn’t with them. So it was kind of weird.
Benic: It’s hard to separate, I know.
Sunny: It’s like having that weird one-night stand, and then, you liked them the night before, and they were nice. But what happens after, you know? You’ve got to see them again.
Benic: It was awkward. Sorry, we lost you again. You were saying that you see them, and it was awkward.
Sunny: Yes, and you have to see them again. So what are you going to do? It was kind of like a weird mental trip in my head.
Benic: Have you talked to other performers, and do they even share that they feel the same way, or no?
Sunny: No, most of the other performers in the industry are really open to what they do. I’ve never met another girl that says, “Oh, I’m just having sex with my boyfriend.”
Benic: Yes, like I said, that was the first one I’ve read about.
Sunny: It just doesn’t work. It really doesn’t work at all. But what I’ve found with owning my own company and making my own movies, like I said, I’d see reports every single month of how each movie that I’ve ever done with Vivid does. I see numbers. We found that movies that I currently make with just one person do better than the one movie that I made with those two other guys, so go figure.
Benic: Why do you think that’s the case? Like, how much better does that movie do compared to the other ones?
Sunny: It does so much better. The movies that I make now, the numbers are really, really good, compared to the one movie that I made with two other people. It’s really amazing to see.
Benic: So now that you have this production company, what do you want to do now? I mean, when you started it, what was your kind of inspiration to start that and then not be under the performer contract before, like with Vivid?
Sunny: What did I what?
Benic: What were you thinking that you wanted to do when you decided to start Sunlust Pictures and go off on your own. Was it like, “I want to be the kind of head honcho now?” Why did you decided to do that?
Sunny: Well, I’ve always owned my own company. It’s just certain aspects of it, I was partnered with another company or contracted with them. So I just have control over every aspect of our company. So it’s just really nice to be able to be creative and be able to do things that I want.
Benic: So what do you have planned in the future? I know I wanted to talk about, you have a new feature you mentioned that will be coming out?
Sunny: Yes. We still have a working title, but the movie is about a girl who’s an escort, and it’s going to be shot very European-style/documentary/feature. So it’s going to be a little different than what people are used to seeing in big features from Vivid. But we are going to follow the girl, we’re going to have her do different interviews and confessionals, talk to her clients, talk to all these different people that we need to. But we’re going to follow her story, and there’s no happy ending. It’s just a story about a girl in the adult industry who’s an escort. But I wanted to touch on a subject that’s very taboo, which is what we did with our last movie.
Benic: Cool, I will look forward to it. And when can we expect that to be coming out?
Sunny: It should be coming out this Fall.
Benic: Okay, cool. I’ll keep an eye out. And finally, for our listeners or audience who are watching this, what’s the best way for them to learn more about you, get in touch with you, or reach out to you, I guess?
Sunny: Well, you can check me out on SunnyLeone.com, and if you want to be my Twitter friend, it’s just Sunny Leone.
Benic: Cool. Well, again, I really appreciate your time. It’s been great to step into your career here.
Sunny: Thank you.
Benic: Thanks for watching this episode of ELM Avenue. If you enjoyed this episode and you want to check out more episodes, be sure to check us out at Elmaveshow.com. If you want to keep up with more updates, follow us on Twitter at Extra Lunch Money. And finally, if you’re looking for some custom adult products, don’t forget to check out Extralunchmoney.com. Make sure to check us out, and we hope to hear from you. Bye now.
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