Update: Jessica has some ideas about what you can do.
Claire Hoffman, a staff writer for the LA Times, got a little more than she bargained for when she took an assignment to write an article for the paper’s magazine about “Girls Gone Wild” founder Joe Francis:
Joe Francis, the founder of the “Girls Gone Wild” empire, is humiliating me. He has my face pressed against the hood of a car, my arms twisted hard behind my back. He’s pushing himself against me, shouting: “This is what they did to me in Panama City!”
It’s after 3 a.m. and we’re in a parking lot on the outskirts of Chicago. Electronic music is buzzing from the nightclub across the street, mixing easily with the laughter of the guys who are watching this, this me-pinned-and-helpless thing.
Francis isn’t laughing.
He has turned on me, and I don’t know why. He’s going on and on about Panama City Beach, the spring break spot in northern Florida where Bay County sheriff’s deputies arrested him three years ago on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and promoting the sexual performance of a child. As he yells, I wonder if this is a flashback, or if he’s punishing me for being the only blond in sight who’s not wearing a thong. This much is certain: He’s got at least 80 pounds on me and I’m thinking he’s about to break my left arm. My eyes start to stream tears.
Francis turned on Hoffman for no apparent reason; they’d just spent five hours inside a nightclub with 2500 very drunk people, holding a “Top Bod” contest (photos here) and recruiting girls willing (or simply drunk enough) to go out to the “Girls Gone Wild” tour bus (they were not allowed to photograph half-naked women inside the nightclub; go figure) to flash their tits or kiss another girl on video in exchange for T-shirts, GGW panties or the odd trucker hat. Francis himself has gotten very rich from these images: GGW generates about $40 million a year in sales.
But back to that rather ill-considered assault on an LA Times reporter:
I wriggle free and punch him in the face, closed-fist but not too hard.
“Damn,” bystanders say. Francis barely blinks. He snatches at my notebook. He is amped, his broad face sneering as he does a sort of boxer’s skip around me, jabbering, grabbing at my arms and my stomach as I try to move away, clutching my notebook to my chest. He stabs a finger in my face, shouting, “You don’t care about the 1st Amendment. I care about the 1st Amendment, but you are the kind of reporter who doesn’t care.”
Not content with the riches he has made off the bare breasts of drunk underage girls (who might well have thought differently about exposing themselves for a wide-release video sold on TV in exchange for a little swag had they been sober — wonder if those model releases are valid if they’re signed while impaired), Francis wants to take his empire into the mainstream:
At 33, and after almost a decade as the king of soft porn, Francis says he wants to leave this twilight existence and wade into the mainstream. He is quick to list the projects he says he has in the works: a feature-length film, a series of “Girls Gone Wild” ocean cruises, a “Girls Gone Wild” apparel line and a chain of “Girls Gone Wild” restaurants. He says he’s producing a new line of videos called “Flirt” that will be racy, but not explicit, and could be sold in mass-market retail outlets such as Wal-Mart and Target.
In short, Francis wants to insinuate himself and his view of the world into the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the vacations you take and the entertainment—filmed and glossy—that you consume. He sees “Girls Gone Wild” as the ultimate lifestyle brand. “Sex sells everything,” he says. “It drives every buying decision . . . I hate to get too deep and philosophical here, but only the guys with the greatest sexual appetites are the ones who are the most driven and most successful.”
This is how he sells that success:
The call center, just past Los Angeles International Airport, is staffed by rotating shifts of 250 employees who earn $9 an hour, plus commission, to hawk “Girls Gone Wild” videos, which sell for as little as $9.99 each. A whiteboard on the wall sets the agenda: “Push That Porn!!!”
The workers are mostly young and African American, and the videos they’re pushing are almost exclusively of twentysomething white girls. “You like watching triple-X, right? You seen our doggy-style videos? Well, I’m going to send you out eight of the hottest videos of the year,” goes the pitch.
Francis and his company are under investigation for what went on in Panama City:
In Panama City Beach, his lawyers successfully fought another battle. Authorities had filed a 77-count complaint in state circuit court that accused Francis and his crew of gathering a group of minors—a 16-year-old and four 17-year-olds—and taking them to the Chateau Motel. There Francis paid two of the girls $100 each to make out in the shower while his crew videotaped them and told two of the girls he would pay them $50 each to touch his penis, according to the complaint. Francis pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Francis, poor baby, doesn’t like how his empire has changed the girls he exploits:
But the women are changing, Francis tells me, and that makes him sad. In the beginning, when “Girls Gone Wild” cameramen first popped up in clubs, the women who revealed themselves seemed innocent—surprised, even, by their own spontaneity. Now that the brand is so pervasive, the women who participate increasingly appear to be calculating exhibitionists, hoping that an appearance on a video might catapult them to Paris Hilton-like fame.
The question of why these young women do this for a T-shirt is pretty complex. It’s not simple exploitation of drunk young women, but it’s also not simple enjoyment, empowerment or calculation:
I know that Francis’ assertion that women bare all for “Girls Gone Wild” because they enjoy it—while undeniably self-serving—is at least partly true. But I find myself asking the same question I had put to my friend back in Iowa: Why?
Francis doesn’t have an answer. “I’ve never focused on why they do it,” he says. He rattles off suggestions: “It’s empowering, it’s freedom.” Would he do it, I ask? “Probably not,” he responds. “I’m too shy.”
I call Vicki Mayer, a sociologist and Tulane University assistant professor, for guidance. Mayer teaches a class on the nudity rituals that take place on New Orleans’ infamous Bourbon Street. She has studied and written about “Girls Gone Wild,” and she contends that it’s simplistic to say that Mantra takes advantage of women. “For some women this is liberating, for some women this is something they do on a goof or for a lark to show friends they can, for some it’s a way of flirting with the cameramen,” Mayer says.
Francis and his staff maintain that it’s the “girl next door” they seek out for their videos. In reality, the “Girls Gone Wild” girl is almost always slender and young, with nice teeth and very carefully groomed private parts. At the same time, Mantra recruits hard-working and attractive young men who will be able to sweet-talk women into taking their clothes off for the cameras. (Mantra has released several “Guys Gone Wild” DVDs filmed by female camera crews, but they have not sold as well.)
Mayer has studied the young cameramen, who, she says, often sign up because they hope to break into Hollywood. Usually, she says, they end up disillusioned after spending night after night with women who lose their inhibitions for a T-shirt. “As much as it would be easy to see this as a simple relationship of men treating women a certain way, there are mutual relations of exploitation. I kind of feel like both sides could be seen as exploited.”
She’s concluded that the winners are “the owners of these companies who are contracting cheap labor and free talent for a media product.”
It would be bad enough if Francis left it at just exploitation of the images of these young women. But what makes him even more of a scumbag is his willingness to use their physical bodies for his own purposes. Hoffman writes of an awful encounter with a very drunk, barely legal girl whose description of what happened sure as hell sounds like he raped her:
Above the dance floor, the stage is full of girls who rotate, twist and shimmy their way up and down three strip poles. One of them is Jannel Szyszka, a petite 18-year-old who prances around the stage like a star. At her feet, a crowd of hundreds is gyrating to the pounding house music. Dozens of polo-shirted boys shout up to her, making requests like “shake your titties” and “get crunk” (meaning crazy-drunk).
Szyszka tells me later that as she was spinning around the strip pole that night, Francis appeared, grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him. “You are so going on the bus later,” she recalls Francis saying. “I was like, ‘Um, OK.’ I was shocked. I was like, ‘Whoa—Joe’s, like, trying to talk to me, like out of all the girls in here.’” Francis invited her back to the VIP area to do shots with him, she says, and she said yes.
Szyszka says the more shots she drank, the cloudier her judgment became. She says she agreed to join Francis and his crew on the “Girls Gone Wild” bus. “I thought ‘Girls Gone Wild’ was like flashing, and I thought I would flash them and be done. And so when I’m walking to the bus, that’s all I’m thinking is going to happen.”
At first she felt comfortable, she says. Inebriated and excited, she says she was led to the back of the bus, to a small bedroom. The double bed, with its neatly folded iridescent purple sheets, takes up most of the room. A flat-screen TV faces the bed, and cabinets are filled with remote controls, lubricants, condoms, sex toys in plastic bags, baby oil, a DVD called “How to be a Player” and a clipboard full of waivers for girls to sign. A small bathroom is off to the side, with a half-sized shower with faux marble tiling, and on the floor of the shower is a crate holding cheap and fruity-flavored rum, whiskey, tequila and Kool-Aid.
Footage from that night shows a close-up of Szyszka’s driver’s license, proving she’s not a minor. The camera then captures Szyszka lying on the bed. Her nails are chipped, her eyes coated with makeup. Following a camerman’s instructions, she shows her breasts and says, “Girls Gone Wild.” She seems shy but willing. She smiles. The unseen cameraman asks her to take off her shirt, her skirt, then her underwear. She sprawls on the bed, her legs open. At his suggestion, she masturbates with a dildo, saying repeatedly that it hurts but also feels good. Francis enters the room at certain points and you hear his voice, low and flirtatious, telling her, “You are so adorable.” When she says she’s a virgin, he responds: “Great. You won’t be after my cameraman gets done with you.”
When I talk to Szyszka seven days later, she says she “didn’t quite realize” she was being filmed. “But I didn’t care because I was drunk and who cares?” Then she adds: “It didn’t feel good to me at all, but I was totally faking it because I was on ‘Girls Gone Wild.’”
Eventually, Szyszka says, Francis told the cameraman to leave and pushed her back on the bed, undid his jeans and climbed on top of her. “I told him it hurt, and he kept doing it. And I keep telling him it hurts. I said, ‘No’ twice in the beginning, and during I started saying, ‘Oh, my god, it hurts.’ I kept telling him it hurt, but he kept going, and he said he was sorry but kissed me so I wouldn’t keep talking.”
Afterward, she says, Francis cleaned them both off with a paper towel and told her to get dressed. Then, she says, he opened the door and told the cameraman to come back, saying, “She’s not a virgin anymore.”
Francis told her to keep what happened between them, but Szyszka eventually told her parents and sister what happened. They were angry, but kept quiet at her request. But she finds herself confused and, as women have been conditioned to in this culture, guilty about what happened:
She’s confused, she admits, about what happened. She feels guilty, she says, for getting herself into the situation in the first place. She says she never would have undressed for the cameras if she hadn’t been completely drunk. And she is adamant that she said “no” to Francis. She says she’s haunted by that night.
“I feel like it was planned,” she says. “Sometimes I’m driving along, and I think about it and all of a sudden feel weird.”
Francis, let’s remember, took her to the VIP room and fed her shots and only then took her out to the bus to be filmed. She might be old enough (as evidenced by the creepy closeup of her driver’s license) to pose for porn, but she’s not old enough to be served at a bar.
For his part, Francis angrily denies that he even had sex that night — hey, if it didn’t happen on camera, it didn’t happen, right?
Six weeks after that night outside Chicago, when I call Francis on his cellphone and ask him about the incident, he says he doesn’t remember Szyszka and that he didn’t have sex with anyone that night. He seems to lose control, repeatedly referring to me by a crude word for female genitalia. “If you print that, I will [expletive] sue the [expletive] out of you. If you print that, baby, you just put the nail in your own coffin,” he tells me. “You are a [expletive expletive]. You decided to blast me . . . You are a [expletive] bitch . . . I will get my last laugh on you. I will get you.” He then refers me to Burke, his lawyer.
Burke, for his part, allows that his client had consensual sex with Szyszka, but denies that he fed her alcohol and claims that any pain was simply due to Francis’ endowment.
This anger and revenge has been on display throughout Hoffman’s encounters with Francis. He assaulted her, after all. Not only that, his jokes and anecdotes all had a barely concealed undertow of hostility and anger that belied his claims to “love” women.
But he doesn’t appear to be equipped to deal with women who aren’t very young, very drunk and shedding their inhibitions for a chance at some kind of fame. Hoffman scares him, and in an attempt to neutralize the threat she poses to him with her ability to use his own words and actions against him, he tries the “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” tack:
Francis sounds scared in the message he leaves on my office voicemail: “I’ve seen some excerpts from your article that I guess you’ve sent to the photographer and, um, I want to talk to you about it.”
No photographer has been assigned to the story, and no excerpts have been sent to anyone.
I don’t call Francis back right away, so he calls my editor. He tells her that I have a crush on him, that I have an ax to grind because I am jealous and angry.
“I just felt that Claire may have had a little affinity for me,” he says as she takes notes. “It may have come out when she had a few drinks.” He describes my behavior as aggressively romantic. “Originally she hit on me. That’s how I met her. I took her to a lunch. She called me all the time and it wasn’t about work. It was about me. I know when a girl has a crush on me.”
He tells her I was drinking heavily—”we all were”—and offers to send photographs to prove it. When my editor asks if he put his hands on me that night, he doesn’t hesitate.
“I did absolutely get physical with her—but not romantically,” he says. “We were outside standing by a police car. The officer told her to quit taking notes on what he was saying. I said, ‘There’s no freedom of the press here.’ I took her arms behind her back and said, ‘Let’s take her to jail.’ I said she should go to jail and the officer agreed with me. She didn’t get the sarcasm. She listened to him. She stopped writing. Can you believe that? That’s the 1st Amendment. She’s not a journalist. I stand up for the 1st Amendment. But she didn’t.” My problem, he tells my editor, is that I “wasn’t smart enough” to “get” what he was saying.
Oh, she’s smart enough. And she’s smart enough to check out whether he’s done this kind of thing before. And he has: police and court records allege that he’s responded to women who haven’t complied with his every whim by making threats, attempting to break into their homes, screaming obscenities at them and harassing them at work.
But here’s where things get scary and depressing, because even though Francis attacked Hoffman on a public street, in front of witnesses (who included law enforcement officers), it was initially dismissed as affectionate play:
I phone Ementi Coary, a Melrose Park, Ill., police officer who witnessed Francis roughing me up. He says he didn’t intervene at the time because he had been told by “Girls Gone Wild” crew members that Francis and I had “hooked up” and that we “had a thing going” and that I was “just jealous.”
“I was under the impression that you guys knew each other, that something was going on between you and that you guys were playing around,” Coary says. “I changed my mind when he was grabbing your arm. That didn’t look like playing around anymore.” That’s when Francis’ bodyguard physically separated us, escorting me to the edge of the parking lot, and when Coary called for backup; a patrol car arrived moments later. “He’s one of those guys who has money and does whatever he wants to,” Coary continues. “I would’ve been happy to put the guy in jail.” He had advised me to press charges that night, but I declined.
Then I phone Leland Zaitz, who was working for Francis in Melrose Park as a producer and was in the parking lot during the episode. Zaitz says he interpreted the whole thing as Francis being affectionate toward me, despite the fact that the pressure he applied was so intense that hours later, my arms were covered in red hand marks.
“He starts having fun and he realizes that most people can’t keep up with him and he gets a little rough. I think it was just Joe’s version of being playful and goofy,” Zaitz says. “I think he was trying to bring you in closer.”
Boys will be boys, after all. If he’s teasing you, it means he likes you. Amanda, not surprisingly, also sees the hostility, the possessiveness and the coercion. She’s also anticipating that she’s going to get the kind of emails she got when she wrote about Dov Charney, the scum who runs American Apparel and treats his staff as his personal harem. Because it’s all in good fun, they said. What, are you some kind of prude?
Hoffman’s piece ends with a perfect example of how intertwined violence, sex and power are in the minds of a lot of people in this culture:
When I think back on that night, our very public scuffle isn’t what seems the most revealing. Instead, the moment I saw Francis most clearly—his charm, his rage, his cunning and even his regret—came later, when no one was looking. I was waiting, still shaken, outside the club for a cab to take me back to my hotel. Francis, who had disappeared inside the bus, returned.
Ignoring the two policemen who hovered a few yards away, he tiptoed past them to stand over me. He rubbed my shoulder. His gestures were oddly gentle—even fond. I felt sick.
“I’m sorry,” he said, reaching over to tousle my hair. “We love our little reporter. Don’t we guys? We love our little reporter.”
I stared down at the dirt as he whispered in my ear, “I’m sorry, baby, give me a kiss. Give me a kiss.”
- Joe Francis, Again by Thomas April 28, 2008
- How To Stop Rape by Jill April 20, 2006
- Joe Francis, Child Abuser by Thomas March 13, 2008
- Well, Gosh, Officer, Doesn’t Being “Just Passed-Out Drunk” Mean That You Can’t Give Meaningful Consent To Sex? by zuzu April 13, 2006
- How Do We Stop Rape? by Jill April 11, 2006