Jun 22, 2012 6:56 PM GMT
NY TimesTHE bereaved reactions on Twitter came from all over: Kim Hastreiter, the editor of Paper Magazine; Bruce LaBruce, the independent film director; and Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, who called his recently departed friend “brave” and “honest.”
The source of their grief?
Erik Rhodes, 30, a 6-foot-4, 258-pound gay pornographic-film star who died last Thursday in Manhattan from a heart attack after a nearly decade-long career that had made him an unlikely celebrity in some New York social circles. He appeared regularly on Page Six, spent time with the designer Marc Jacobs, was profiled in magazines that had nothing to do with pornography, and shot an ad campaign for Loehmann’s.
Over the last few years, he had also been the author of a harrowing (and frequently clever) Tumblr feed, on which he detailed his escapades escorting, his rampant steroid use and his stories of winding up in psychiatric wards after crystal meth binges. (The blog was taken down last weekend, shortly after news of his death ricocheted around the Internet.)
Mr. Rhodes, whose given name was James Naughtin, was signed to Falcon Video in 2004, and became one of a handful of recognizable faces in an era when the industry was going through a painful economic contraction, thanks to online file sharing and free pornography sites like Xtube.
“The gay porn audience often looks to a hulking macho fantasy, and he provided that,” said Michael Musto, the Village Voice gossip columnist who was friendly with Mr. Rhodes. “He was Thor, the Hulk and the rest of the ‘Avengers’ cast wrapped in a gay package. And the fashion connection and the fact that he had a brain elevated him from your everyday escort-slash-porn-god and gave him texture.”
Mickey Boardman, the editorial director of Paper, said, “We would see him out all the time,” adding: “He was hilarious. He was totally self-aware, and the stories he would tell me were unbelievable.”
Mr. Rhodes grew up with his identical twin, Jon Naughtin, in Massapequa, N.Y., two children whose parents had a long and nasty divorce. Only Mr. Naughtin went to college, and Mr. Rhodes took a stream of low-paying jobs, working at a CVS and a sex-toy store, before moving into stripping and then pornographic films at 22.
At first, Mr. Naughtin, who is straight, was inclined to be open-minded about his brother’s new career. “I thought it was fine,” he said. “And I was a little naïve about how much money he was making. I thought, ‘If it pays the bills, why not?’ ”
But as the Web replaced video stores as the delivery mechanism for adult content, Mr. Rhodes found his salary shrinking, even while his celebrity rose. And there were other problems.
“People faulted him for doing steroids, which was the thing that allowed him to be the ideal they wanted,” said Samuel Colt, an actor who appeared with Mr. Rhodes on-screen and was a friend for the last several years of his life. “And people were always trying to push drugs onto him.”
Things went from bad to worse. Mr. Rhodes got into fights with boyfriends, and the police would be called. Famous friends like Mr. Jacobs, who did not respond to calls for comment for this article, fell away. Mr. Rhodes went from using steroids to dealing them. And then, a few years ago, he tested positive for H.I.V.
According to Mr. Colt, Mr. Rhodes found this out when he went to shoot a scene for Randy Blue, a company that requires testing. “They said, ‘Your test results came back, and you’re H.I.V. positive,’ ” Mr. Colt said. Nevertheless, Randy Blue still managed to get Mr. Rhodes to film a solo scene that day, Mr. Colt said.
As the novelty of being in pornographic films wore off, Mr. Rhodes turned increasingly to the Internet, using his Tumblr feed and his Facebook page to discuss his sense of anguish. “I feel so left out ... so alone,” he wrote in a post just weeks ago.
On June 13, after a night in which Mr. Rhodes was hired along with another escort to perform for a wealthy client (according to text messages later read by his brother), the two men continued the evening on their own, having sex and doing drugs. But Mr. Rhodes quickly realized that he was not feeling well and cut the evening short.
Once home, he apparently went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead in a hospital shortly thereafter, his brother said.
For many years, Mr. Rhodes talked of an early death, sometimes joking, sometimes not. Now it was here.
Mr. Naughtin looks back with regret at the casual attitude he took when his brother told him he was going into pornography. “I wouldn’t have let him get into it,” he said. “I would say that’s not a direction that can lead anywhere good.”