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Under the Covers with Candida Royalle

Written by Anusha Alikhan
Photos Courtesy of Candida Royale

(Opposite Photo Evan Sung)

Candida Royalle stands back to survey the set. One section of a large concrete room at Context Studios in Brooklyn has been transformed into a trendy New York living room – a sofa with zebra print cushions in one corner, plump red leather pillows in another, tall vases holding bouquets of rippled palm leaves, champagne bottles on glass tabletops, and a backdrop of peach and lilac curtains.

A group of fourteen is spread through the room in pairs to create a lurid lair of hot bodies and impending innuendo. Each holds champagne glasses filled with sparkling pear juice and wears their own bold feathered Zorro masks. There is skin everywhere. And not the raw, unfriendly ladies locker-room kind. This skin is ripe and looking for attention. A woman in a tight black pleather skirt and spaghetti-strap blouse locks lips with her tuxedoed date. Next to the sofa, a man in a dress shirt and dark pants slips an arm around the waist of a striking blond in a sheer negligee which reveals her satin black bra, ample cleavage and high-cut panties. Adjusting his latex shirt uncomfortably, a broad man ogles a brunette with red lips and a jewelled bustier, while a woman in a fishnet dress which showcases her erect nipples hangs off a silver haired cowboy posing in a royal blue samurai robe.

It’s the third day of shooting for the film Under the Covers-- written, produced and directed by ex-porn star, Candida Royalle. The film is an erotic comedy about a journalist with a healthy sexual appetite, a married couple who want to rekindle their romance, a snobby sex therapist and the dominatrix who “tops her.”

“Look at all these beautiful people!” exclaims Candida emerging from the hallway. For the past four hours she has been directing a group sex scene, while the extras enjoyed Mexican take-out. She reveals a pearly white smile as she peruses her cast. Her high-cheek bones, bright eyes, and even skin make her appear startlingly young for fifty-five. Her blond hair is straight, cut to one length, and neatly arranged in professional Wall Street fashion. In her yellow boat neck long sleeve-tee, black slacks, and tortoise shell glasses, she looks more like a curator in an art gallery than a porn director.

Candida is considered a pioneer in the feminist pornography movement, which was started by a group of women within the industry who embrace their sexuality and support porn that empowers women and presents them in a positive role. She started in the business as an actress in the 1970s to finance her talent for underground art.

“When I first moved to San Francisco from New York I began living with a group of really colorful drag queens who performed in avante-guard theatre,” she explains. “It was a wonderful time in my life, and I got to use all the performance training I had. But we didn’t have any money. You know we sort of poo pooed materialism at that time. So I thought what’s a great way to make extra money so I can do all my underground art. I ended up going to an agent and he asked me if I was interested in being in a porn and I was really insulted, I had never even seen one, and I stormed out of his office. But my boyfriend at the time decided ‘hey I’ll try it.’ So I got to see what it was like by visiting the set of his movie. And I realized this is not the sleazy environment that I thought it was, it was very professional, and the money was great.”

When Candida initially entered the industry she kept her job a secret from her family. While her father, a jazz musician, and her mother, a singer, had always been liberal she was raised in a Catholic household and as a woman, was expected to uphold a certain value system when it came to sex. So when she moved to San Francisco having completed a degree in at the Parsons School of Design, she left her parents with the impression that she would pursue a career in art.



“My parents had no idea I was in the business until 1980, when I was getting out of the industry,” she explains. “My sister and I had a big fight and she’s the one that told them. It was very traumatic, I was very upset, but it was a blessing in disguise because then there were no secrets, it was all out in the open. And my mother, she said that in a way she envied me because I had got over my issues with men-- she had always had real issues about sex and men. Which wasn’t even true, I don’t think being in porn means that you got over your issues with men at all, just because you can perform sex on camera doesn’t reflect a healthy sexuality in my opinion. My sexuality really blossomed long after I was out of movies. But also she said she was shocked that her little Candy would actually be in movies, but that I was still her daughter and she would always love me. Which I thought was very loving.”


“My father and I never talked about it. We didn’t have a real open relationship until some years later when we re-connected, my Dad and I. I was by then producing and directing Femme films, and we got on to the subject of what I do. We’d never really talked about sex, and I said to him, 'you know Dad, I feel kinda’ funny talking about this.' And he said one of the loveliest things. He said to me ‘You know with all the things people in this world do, politicians are corrupt, they lie to everyone, corporations pollute the world we live in, people hurt and murder each other, all you’re doing is bringing joy into people’s lives.’ And that really shocked me. Some years later he developed Alzheimer's and has since passed away, but that was really a gift for him to leave me with.”

“I heard one of your actresses dropped out yesterday,” says Steve, an extra, as Candida greets him. “Yeah it was such a nightmare,” she explains. “For the sake of saving my movie, I thought maybe I should step-in and do it, because it was just a lesbian scene, I didn’t have to do anything but use my hands on the “dom” and I was just going to use a strap-on dildo on her. But in the end I thought I couldn’t cross that line again.”

A crew of about a dozen put the finishing touches on the set-- curtains are straightened, lights are repositioned, glasses are filled, a lone cameraman adjusts his view-finder, the still photographer climbs on a ladder at the rear end of the room. The extras take their position, chatting lightly as they wait for their cue. Among them are a chiropractor, an artist, an advertising executive, two public relations agents, a doctor, and an investment advisor. Each was told two days prior to attend the “Big Party Scene” wearing sexy cocktail dresses or lingerie.

“Don’t you think Diane should show-off her beautiful breasts?” pipes Candida, her New York twang almost maternal. “Wooo-hooo!” Cheers of encouragement echo through the studio. “I’m out of this,” says Steve, Diane’s boyfriend with a smile. “It’s up to her.” “She’s such an exhibitionist, every time we go to the beach it’s off with her top, why is she being shy?” Candida responds. “She has gorgeous breasts, she should show them.” Diane trots off the set and returns a minute later smiling coyly, her shapely breasts jiggling beneath a mesh black dress. The crowd lets out another, “Hoopla!”


Under the Covers is the eighteenth film Candida has produced. After five years as an adult film actress she retired and started Femme Productions, moving behind the camera.

“The truth is that after being in a handful of movies, I noticed that I would do a few movies and I would start to put on weight. I started to question why this was happening. I was a little lost, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life anymore. I had to ask myself what is my body trying to tell me, and you know I was brought up a nice Catholic girl. We weren’t super religious at all, but we do still live in a world that for women to perform sexually is breaking a big taboo. I mean part of me thought-- this is not a big deal, we do it behind closed doors. But another part was really feeling ashamed you know, how do I tell people, how do I tell my relatives.”

"Then I met, the guy who would become my husband, a young producer in the business from Sweden, Pear Sjostedt. We got married within 6 months. I came back to New York and you know, I’m really very monogamous by nature so being in love, and being with him, I didn’t want to be with other men. I didn’t want to have sex with other men, and in order to make a good scene you’ve got to make your partner feel like you want them even if you don’t, and I didn’t want other men thinking I wanted them. It was just perfect timing.”

"I did a bit of soul-searching. I actually put myself in therapy. I wanted to make sure I was ok with what I had done, and not dragging around a whole bunch of shame. I looked at the industry and the history of explicit expression and I came to my own conclusion-- I think humans have always been curious about sexuality, its one of the greatest driving forces in our lives, of course we are going to be curious about it and express it, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I did feel that that majority of pornographic films were negative, because they are created by a culture that has a very negative relationship with itself, with its own sexuality, and that they look the way they do because of the culture that creates them.”

With her films Candida wants to change the image of pornography by making it a guide for couples and women to optimize their pleasure. Like Candida's other films Under the Covers is plot driven, but is designed to teach couples the intricacies of great sex.

Candida tries to encourage a real intimacy between her actors, so erotic scenes are filmed on a closed set, open only to herself, the cameraman, and the producer. She also actively seeks out real-life couples to perform in her movies to capture a real connection between the characters on-screen.

“For Under the Covers I got some really wonderful fresh faces. Like that couple Mariah and Tyler. I’m finding now, because it’s so much more acceptable, that I’m getting a lot more people and couples that just love doing it, that are exhibitionists. Mariah’s an exhibitionist, she just loves it. She really came on camera, I just, I couldn’t believe it. I never did as an actress – I think it’s hard enough for people to come in private sometimes.

I was ninteen before I even knew what a clitoris was, I mean I was very innocent. I read the first issue of "Our Bodies Ourselves" made by the Women’s Collective-- this was a feminist endeavour. They had illustrations for women on the vulva and clitoris and it described how you masturbate to orgasm. I remember thinking I’m going to try that. I remember the very first time laying in bed, and doing it, and having my first orgasm. And I just remember my eyes were closed, and I saw bursts of color and I was so blown away. It was like ‘Oh my God’ this is what I’ve been missing, this is amazing, and that was through the feminist movement. It was actually a very pro-permission giving movement for women initially but that changed. I was a big part of the movement in New York but I became very disenchanted with it…”

A similar disenchantment with the mainstream porn industry, which she believes is geared primarily towards men, led her to re-create herself within the industry as a director and producer. Candida does not like calling her work pornography and prefers the term “explicit adult erotica.” She admits her films depict graphic sex but they are different from conventional porn movies because they focus on women’s pleasure, and a realistic portrayal of intercourse. For this reason, Candida prefers to cast actresses who have natural, healthy bodies and exude a certain confidence both on and off screen. Candida sometimes has trouble finding actresses because of her precise requirements, and Under the Covers was no exception.

“There’s just not a big talent pool here and I need women who are willing to perform sexually on screen, who look good, and who can act. That’s a hard combination to find in New York because there’s no industry here. But I don’t like shooting in LA because everyone looks the same there, it’s the same Barbie doll look. I don’t like when women get breast augmentation and too much work done. I feel like it sends a message that in order to be desirable you’ve got to surgically enhance yourself that’s not what I’m about. I would have preferred that Lisa Ann hadn’t had cosmetic surgery, but she was really good for the role of the journalist who comes off as very prudish and uptight but turns out to be the biggest sex fiend of them all, and of course has had lots of cosmetic surgery just like the women on televison.”

For the “Big Party Scene” Lisa Ann emerges wearing a skin tight dress which accentuates her roller coaster curves. She has the physique of a super-sized Barbie doll – thin waist, triple D implants, and a firm ample behind. A tanned glow colors her skin. Tyler weaves his way through the masked mayhem hot in pursuit of her. “There will be surprises,” says Ari, the assistant director, instructing the extras. “You may be hit-on by one of the actors, or they may pick a fight with you, stuff that happens at a regular party. Just roll with it.”

“Action!” Tyler shuffles through the crowd and stops in front of one of the extras, who is socializing with her date. He introduces himself, taking her hand to kiss it. “What are you doing, baby?” he croons. “Um…” She swallowed. “Just having a few drinks, what about you?” “I’m enjoying the view,” he responds perusing the length of her body, as she giggles nervously. He shifts his attention as Lisa Ann brushes pass, leaving his new friend mid-sentence. There are six takes in an hour, and then Ari yells “That’s a wrap!”

“That was fabulous guys!” Candida exclaims. “Ok, now here’s the clincher – everybody take their clothes off and let’s have sex!” “I’m game,” pipes Mariah trailing in behind her, she lifts her shirt in an exaggerated sweep. The extras whip off their masks and look to each other, faces skewing into question marks. They almost believe her.

*Under the Covers is being released February 6, 2007 – check out http://candidaroyalle.com for details


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