While I never knew Ms. Royalle personally, in many ways, I owe my career to her. I got my start in the adult industry by making films that asked for an approachable, authentic, pornographic performance that would appeal to women and couples — a niche that may have never existed had it not been for Royalle’s influential work.
Art and entrepreneurship were in Candida Royalle’s blood. Born in Brooklyn in the fall of 1950, she grew up performing and training in dance, art, and music. The daughter of a professional jazz drummer, she was active in the women’s moment and attended prestigious schools such as Parsons School of Design. After a few bouts of clerical work, Royalle knew she was destined for more creative, free-wheeling endeavors — so at the age of 22, she moved across the country to San Francisco.
In her new city, Royalle led a bohemian lifestyle. She sang in jazz clubs, made art, and helped put on experimental theater productions with her new drag queen friends (including some of the original members of the Cockettes). To scrape up money for rent, she worked as an artist’s model.
Then, one day, her boyfriend landed a lead role in a big-budget porn movie. Royalle visited the set and was surprised to find it populated with attractive performers and professional crew — not a single sleazeball. The director was none other than Anthony Spinelli, a well-loved director during what was later coined the “Golden Age of Porn.”
It was not what she had expected from a porn set.
As her understanding of porn movies evolved, performing in them seemed more and more enticing. The money was great, especially for a struggling artist. It was the height of the sexual revolution, and cultural attitudes around sex were relaxed. Plus, Royalle was a born performer. We make love behind closed doors, she thought. Why not for others to view and enjoy?
In the span of several years, Royalle performed in about 25 adult feature films including Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls (for which she learned to skateboard) and Hot Rackets (in a sensual massage scene with her close friend Laurien Dominique). She loved being pampered and playing different roles, but overall, she found the experience predictable and uninspiring. Her creativity was not being stoked.
So, after 8 years in San Francisco, she returned to New York City and retired from porn performing. There, she flexed her writing talents by penning columns for men’s magazines such as High Times and Cheri. In 1983 she formed the world’s first porn star support group, Club 90. During one meeting, the enterprising women discussed how best to utilize the names they had built for themselves in the industry.
No longer wishing to perform in front of someone else’s lens, Royalle came up with a new plan. In 1984, she made her biggest and most lasting career move — she founded Femme Productions, Inc., the first adult production company owned solely by a woman. She explained:
Humans have been curious to look at erotic art and explicit sexual art forever since they etched and carved images into caves on walls, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. What I did feel was that these movies were being sold on the backs of women, and there was nothing about women’s sexuality . . .
At the same time I could tell women were becoming more curious and felt permission to explore their sexuality due to the woman’s movement of the late ’60’s, early ’70’s. With the advent of home video they had a safe place to look, but there was nothing out there for them . . . I saw a challenging new market that no one was paying attention to and I felt I would be a perfect person to provide content for it: my whole education had been in the arts, I had been a performer in adult movies and had first-hand experience on the set, and, having been a feminist activist in college, I liked the political challenge of putting a woman’s voice to a genre everyone assumed was for men only.
Before shooting the first movie for her company, Candida Royalle met with a successful porn producer to pick his brain. When she mentioned that there would not be facial money shots in her films, the man was so appalled that he called her investors to warn them they were going to lose money.
But they didn’t lose money — they made money. The world was ready for Royalle’s fresh style of filmmaking. Unlike most movies of the past, Royalle’s depicted genuine female desire. Using her own turn-ons as inspiration, Royalle crafted films featuring believable storylines, dynamic characters, and of course, sizzling sex. Above all, there was nuance.
In her career as an erotic filmmaker Royalle produced and directed 19 films in a range of genres, from drama to mystery and even satire. Stud Hunters hilariously spoofed the porn industry, while Eyes of Desire and Eyes of Desire 2 explored themes of voyeurism and soul-searching. Royalle also mentored other female directors, often giving them the directorial reins — as in the case of Afrodite Superstar and Caribbean Heat.
In 1999, Royalle released a line of sex toys called Natural Contours. A collaboration between Royalle and Dutch industrial designer Jandirk Groet, the toys were tasteful, ergonomic, and innocuous enough to appeal to mainstream sensibilities. The line was ahead of its time, coming out before now-ubiquitous sex toy companies such as LELO, Jimmyjane, and We-Vibe were even founded. The line’s Energie kegel exerciser remains a great option for PC muscle strengthening.
As a revolutionary in the feminist porn movement, Royalle spoke and lectured at universities and prestigious locales such as the Smithsonian Institute and the American Psychiatric Association. In 2004, she published her first book, How to Tell a Naked Man What to Do, and later contributed essays to The Feminist Porn Book and Coming Out Like a Porn Star.
In interviews, Candida Royalle often joked about her unlikely career. When asked what are you wearing? in a 20-questions style interview, she answered, “I’m wearing a lacy black push-up bra and the skimpiest black panties . . . okay, reality check: I’m wearing a turtleneck sweater with a pair of ultra-warm leggings over organic cotton tights.” More a homebody than a seductress, Royalle loved yoga, gardening, decorating her house, and spending time with family, friends, and her cats.
In 2006, Royalle won one of the first Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Feminist Porn Awards. She also received an honorary Doctor of Human Sexuality degree from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. In 2014, production began on a documentary called While You Were Gone: The Untold Story of Candida Royalle, a movie about Royalle’s search for her birth mother.
Royalle was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the summer of 2010. She fought the disease for years until, a few weeks ago, she died at the age of 64. Many would point to her awards and accolades as evidence of a life well-lived, but in a recent interview, Candida Royalle asked instead to be remembered for her independence, perseverance, and compassion for animals.