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Porn Star Colby Keller Talks Fashion, Sex, Politics, and Grindr

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Porn Star Colby Keller Talks Fashion, Sex, Politics, and Grindr

The multi-hyphenate has starred in a provocative film to fete Grindr’s seventh anniversary

BY KATHARINE K. ZARRELLA

PEOPLE  -  MARCH 31

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Academic. Texan. Artist. Model. Porn star. Meet Colby Keller, who last weekend hosted hookup app Grindr’s seventh anniversary party in L.A. It was there that the above Seven Ages of Man film, in which he starred, made its grand debut. Based on Shakespeare’s famed and oft-quoted passage from As You Like It, the video was the brainchild of Grindr’s VP of Marketing, Landis Smithers. “The film takes Shakespeare's iconic stanza on the seven ages of man, and reworks the tropes to emulate the stages of a gay man's journey, from the infancy of coming out to the struggle that AIDS has put on sexuality to emergence and self expression,” Smithers told Fashion Unfiltered. “Colby is of course a perfect example of a new man. He is a career multi-hyphenate (porn star/artist/model/muse) but also unapologetic, incredibly sensitive, and kind. We loved working with him and he brought the concept to life with a really human grit and beauty.”

Colby is the perfect poster boy for Grinder. Like the app—which, in addition to serving as a vehicle for saucy encounters, streamed J.W. Anderson’s Fall 2016 show and even sent texts to Syrian refugees in order to help them find safe houses—he is wildly multidimensional. He has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, a master’s in fine art, and is terribly fascinated by the human condition. The latter is one of the many reasons he launched “Colby Does America,” an art project for which he’s been traveling across the country in order to film and copulate with different men in each state (you can view the ongoing piece at colbydoesamerica.com). Oh, and he’s also the face of Vivienne Westwood’s Spring 2016 womenswear campaign. Here, the burly, compassionate Keller talks Grindr, “Colby Does America,” gay rights, and why porn and fashion aren’t so different.

Katharine K. Zarrella: How was the party last weekend?

Colby Keller: It was great. It was a lot of fun. It was interesting for me in different ways, but I think I enjoyed it. 

KKZ: What do you mean by that? 

CK: It was just a different group of people than I normally kind of spend time with, so that was a little strange for me. And I also have a little bit of a social anxiety problem, so it's not easy for me to be at parties or to host them. But I survived it. 

KKZ: Did you enjoy shooting the Seven Ages of Man film? 

CK: It was a lot of fun. I had a really good time with it. Everything from pouring glycerin all over my face to being painted gold. 

KKZ: Do you remember the first time you used Grindr?

CK: I don't remember. I'm sure it was right after it launched. And I’ve used it for my “Colby Does America” project. I really like it.

KKZ: Let’s talk about “Colby Does America”. Why did you want to do this?

CK: I found out that I was getting kicked out of my apartment in Baltimore that I'd been in for ten years. I had this really awful, horrible slumlord. The neighborhood was gentrifying and she thought that she could kick us all out and raise the rent to $1,500 a month, which, in Baltimore, is a little insane. I didn't have anywhere to go. I couldn't really afford another apartment or anywhere to put my stuff, so it didn't make sense to stay there. I thought really hard about how I wanted to address that issue and decided to do a piece where I would give away every single thing that I owned for free. So at the end of that project period, I didn't own a pair of shoes or socks or underwear or anything. And “Colby Does America” was a way to just get back on the road, find my feet again, and try to use what I do for a living, which is sex, to collaborate with other people, and see what comes of it. 

KKZ: It seems the project focuses on connecting with people on not just a physical but an emotional level. Does having sex with the people you met on the road take an emotional toll? 

CK: It definitely has a toll. But I've been very thankful that I've been able to travel with people who have been very nurturing. The person I've traveled with the longest is a friend of mine who goes by the name of Oliver Gray. I met him in Arizona and we traveled together for about six months. But it's very difficult. It can be very stressful and lonely on the road, and he did a great job of being nurturing and loving. I needed that, particularly toward the end of the project when it was the most emotionally trying. I had been on the road for two years, and I really can't thank him enough for being such a positive influence.

KKZ: You grew up in Texas. What was it like going back to film there? 

CK: I am from Texas and it’s is probably the worst state. There were a couple of states that were really difficult, but Texas was the worst by far. It's incredibly conservative. Most of the gay men that I had interactions with were really bitter and sex-negative. I went to Houston; I went to Dallas Fort Worth; I went to Austin; I went to San Antonio; I went to Abilene; I went to El Paso, and I could not, for the life of me, film a video. I ended up filming part of a video with a guy [originally] from Oklahoma City—a really sexy guy—and I had sex with him and talked to him afterwards and he was really sad. He was describing how it was so hard for him to meet anyone or even to have sex in Dallas. You have a situation in Texas where people are still really closeted. Every time I've gone back home it seems to get worse and worse and more and more conservative. I talked to people on Grindr and I would just say Hi and send them a picture of my face—a headshot from the shoulders up, and I didn’t have a shirt on. And multiple times people sent nasty responses like, "Oh, I guess you don't know how to wear clothes!" I was just like, What? Excuse me? This is Grindr…you know what this is for, right? You know why they designed this app, right? It's not to meet your husband. I mean, it was crazy.

KKZ: Did you experience a lot of that growing up in Texas?

CK: I come from a pretty conservative background. Looking back, it was really difficult to have friendships and to find people that I could connect with. My best friend was a 75-year-old woman that I went to art school with, and we were Harold and Maude. But in terms of having sex in Texas, all I can say is I'm very fortunate that I started doing porn and had the opportunity to travel to places like California, or else I think I'd have a very different relationship to my body and my sexuality, and not such a healthy one. Texas is a hard place to live. It's oppressive, and [when I was filming], there were moments that were genuinely scary. There weren't too many places in the country where I had that feeling. Texas really let me down.

KKZ: What state treated you the best?

CK: I had a lot of really good experiences. California is a really easy state to work in. Kentucky and Oklahoma really surprised me. I went to Oklahoma after I’d spent weeks in Texas, which was a really unpleasant trip. I was like, Jeeze. If Texas is any indicator, I’ll probably get shot in Oklahoma. There’s no way I'll be able to film a video there. But the first night I got there, I shot one of the hottest scenes I've done, and then managed to shoot two other videos while I was there. Kentucky, same story. I shot three or four videos in Kentucky.

KKZ: Gay rights have been a huge part of the national conversation of late. After traveling throughout the country, do you think we’ve made progress?

CK: I think most people are, if not supportive of gay rights, at least willing to think through what equality means and to get to a point where they could be supportive of it. I think it's one of those issues that the right wing tries to exploit to reach their demographic. But honestly, they're not able to use that tactic as much now. It worked during the George W. Bush era, but I think that was maybe the last time using those issues will help [conservatives] gain support from their voters. Now they're turning to racism and hatred of the “other” and hatred of immigrants because things like homophobia just aren't selling anymore. 

KKZ: What do you hope to achieve through “Colby Does America”?

CK: The goal of the project was not actually to have sex with someone in every state or to have myself in every video. Unfortunately, that was the easiest way to get people to be on camera. I would have preferred to film other people, and I tried really hard to show as much diversity as I could. And that's simply to say that you can think of all kinds of bodies as being arousing and sexual and deserving of desire. It's hard to do that inside the porn industry because it's a capitalist business. I had a conversation recently when I was in California on set and I casually suggested a really hot idea that would have involved black models. The [guy in charge] was like, “Oh, no, black models don't sell so we can't do anything with black models.” And I'm like, You realize that's a horrible thing that you're confessing to. He said, "We've tried it and those videos just don't sell." I think that's true of the bodies that are presented in porn, too. A lot of the bodies aren't the healthiest representations of masculinity. But they sell well. I can't tell you how many performers I’ve worked with who I thought were beautiful—had natural, athletic, lean bodies—who start doing porn and then two months in they've taken like five cycles of steroids and are three times the size and not nearly as attractive. And they develop these horrible complexes and body dysmorphia. It's not healthy. Then other people see it, they sexualize it, and they feel pressured to be these huge crazy body builders.

KKZ: You could say the same thing about fashion, which often projects unrealistic physical ideals. 

CK: I think that's true. There's a great parallel there, and I think it's interesting talking about fashion and the fashion business, and about sex and the porn business. The business aspects of both porn and fashion are really concerned with cultivating desire in an audience—one that's not ever fulfilled because you want them to come back for more. There's a certain point at which you create a disease in society and in people. Hoarding is a great example of that.

KKZ: But both sex and fashion can also be means of expression—you’ve said yourself in previous interviews that you express yourself through sex. 

CK: Fashion is definitely a way to express oneself. And it's so hard nowadays to find spaces where you can be as free as you want to be and express yourself through fashion. We really need it. We need people who love fashion, who aren't afraid to take risks. You can say a lot with what you wear. You can think of the world in radically different ways just by what you put on your body, and the same can be said of sex. We don't have to think of sex only as something that happens inside a closed, monogamous relationship. There's a lot of space to be creative, to express yourself, to be loving with all different types of people. It doesn’t need to correlate with love or ownership. We put all these other ideas into sex that often aren't the healthiest for us or for the relationships that we have with other people. 

KKZ: Do you categorize “Colby Does America” as an artwork or as porn?

CK: I categorize it as an artwork. It can be porn. A lot of that decision belongs to the editors. There are a lot of people who are helping flesh out this project, and they have a lot of responsibility for defining what it is. Some of the videos definitely look more like porn and some of them maybe are between porn and art. For me, doing the piece, and continuing to do the piece, is much closer to an art practice. Porn is a business practice. I'm definitely not making any money from this. I have no money in my bank account. I never will. There are a lot of videos where you don't even see sex and that's perfectly fine with me. And honestly, I don't know if there are too many videos that you can watch and get aroused. But I'm not opposed to that. It’s an interesting space, right? Like, what is desire? What is an art object? What is an art video? What are they supposed to do to us? I think there needs to be a conversation about how we limit art, because art should really be an emancipatory practice, not one that's confined and constricted by a market. 

KKZ: Speaking of the art market, I know you have an MFA. Do you want representation from a gallery? Or are you hoping to continue to do these projects independently? What’s your end game? 

CK: I don't know if something like “Colby Does America” would make sense in a gallery context, and I don’t know if I’d be able to address the ideas I’m interested in in a gallery context. If I have an objective, it's to expand how we define art and how it's practiced.

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Photos: Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood

KKZ: On a totally different note, I have to ask you about starring in the Spring 2016 Vivienne Westwood campaign. That was pretty epic.

CK: Since I was a teenager, I have been a huge fan of Vivienne Westwood. I'm friends with Bernhard Willhelm, and we were in L.A. thrift shopping and there was a pair of Vivienne Westwood trousers. I put them on and he said, “Oh, I'll take a picture and send it to Andreas [Kronthaler, Westwood’s husband]. I think that's how I got on their radar. I couldn't be more honored. Just the experience, just to be able to get to meet Vivienne Westwood was all I needed to say yes. And one of the things I'm interested in as an art practice is being a public person, even in a really small way. So being able to participate in a fashion campaign and work with a hero of mine and to work with Juergen Teller was a great honor, and it felt like a really important step in that practice.

KKZ: We’ve covered a lot, but I haven’t asked you how you got into porn in the first place. And do you think you’ll do it forever?

CK: I had just graduated college with an anthropology degree. We were in the midst of a great recession, the Clinton-era recession, and I have some social anxiety problems and I could not for the life of me find a job. It was getting to the point that I was really desperate. I couldn’t feed myself and I didn't know what to do. Like a lot of people, I watched porn, and there was one site in particular called Seancody.com that I used to frequent quite a bit. So one night, I decided that I would take some photos and submit them, really thinking that they were going to come back and reject me. When they didn't, I was like, Oh wow, what did I just do? How do I proceed with this? I was the one that made the decision to apply, but do I really want to go down this road? And then there was another voice in my head that was like, You really don't have a choice because you need the money. So I did it and I was really scared and I thought I'd get off the plane and they’d turn me right around, and none of those things happened. So I took it step by step and decided to see where it would go. I really did need the money, and I've continued to need the money. That hasn't changed. But I'm pretty old for a porn star. I've been in the business for a while.

KKZ: But you're so handsome! 

CK: Aw, thank you. I don't know. As long as I can do it, as long as I need to do it, I'll probably try to do it. I've also learned—and the opportunity with Vivienne Westwood was a great example of this—that you never know what kinds of fantastic opportunities will open themselves up to you. And if you're not open to them, they probably won't happen. So I try to open myself up. Hopefully it will involve me generating some kind of income for myself because I do need that. We'll see. But I'm still doing porn. I'm about to leave for Barcelona tomorrow to shoot a few scenes. 

KKZ: That sounds pretty glamorous. 

CK: Yeah, it'll be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I shaved my beard for the Seven Ages of Man video and I just found out yesterday that the porn scene I'm doing in Barcelona is about werewolves, so they really wanted me to have a big, bushy beard. 

KKZ: They can just glue on some hair.

CK: That's actually funnier. I hope that they do that. 

KKZ: Do you have any regrets? Are you happy?

CK: Yeah, I'm pretty happy I think. I'm about as happy as I could be. I've made my fair share of mistakes and there are things that I could do better. Where I might have regrets are about personal relationships that maybe didn't work out. But I don't know how dwelling on a regret helps you move forward. The best you can do is learn from the mistakes you've made and try to use those examples to prevent that kind of behavior in the future. That's how I try to look at it. I'm pretty happy with where I'm at right now.

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