Candida Royalle Interview: In-Depth and Personal with an Erotic Film Pioneer
Image attributed to Arthur Cohen
Born October 15, 1950, Candida Royalle trained in music, dance and art in New York when she was younger and eventually entered into the adult film industry, acting in about twenty-five films. She founded Femme Productions in 1984 in order to make female-oriented erotica and films aimed at couple’s therapy.
As Royalle’s work grew in popularity, she became a media darling appearing on many talks shows and has been written about in the Times of London, the New York Times, Time magazine, Glamour, Marie Claire and many others. In 1999, together with Dutch designer Jandirk Groet, Royalle created the Natural Contours line of high-style, discreet ergonomically designed personal massagers.
"Well, I have been interviewed for so many documentaries and magazine stories really primarily because of my work, and so of course, some of my life story gets told, but I never really went into the whole thing about my mother leaving when I was a baby. I just never wanted to get into that until I was ready to talk about it. Also I hadn’t really searched for her before, so it’s the story that hasn’t been told. It’s learning who my mother was and what really happened. The whole thing is sort of layered."
In 2006, Royalle authored How to Tell a Naked Man What to Do: Sex Advice from a Woman Who Knows. She is a member of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, a founding board member of Feminists for Free Expression, and in June 2014, she received an honorary Doctorate in Human Sexuality. A few years ago, Royalle was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer and is currently attempting to raise funds for a documentary entitled While You Were Gone that details the search for her birth mother.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Candida, is While You Were Gone still on Kickstarter?
Candida Royalle: No. We have transferred everything over to a link on our website which is whileyouweregonefilm.wordpress.com, and there’s a Pay Pal link there that people can still go ahead and transfer their Kickstarter pledge to, and anyone that wants to donate to the production can go there and do that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does the documentary include your entire life’s story or just the search for your birth mother?
Candida Royalle: Well, I have been interviewed for so many documentaries and magazine stories really primarily because of my work, and so of course, some of my life story gets told, but I never really went into the whole thing about my mother leaving when I was a baby. I just never wanted to get into that until I was ready to talk about it. Also I hadn’t really searched for her before, so it’s the story that hasn’t been told. It’s learning who my mother was and what really happened. The whole thing is sort of layered.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How long have you been searching for your mother, and have you found answers?
Candida Royalle: I hired a detective at the beginning of April, and I have found a number of answers, some of which have really been quite stunning. One of the most healing aspects of all this was to find out that I was loved, that she had wanted us (my sister and I), and that I was brought up on a pack of lies basically by relatives who maybe thought they were doing the right thing.
I always admired the fact that my father insisted on keeping us because he had actually apologized to me sometime before he developed Alzheimer’s. He said that he knew it was a terrible thing to take a woman’s children away from her, but that he just felt that she would take us back to St. Louis where she was from and that he would support us but never get to see us. I imagine he was worried about what would become of us. I always thought that was pretty admirable considering how many men really don’t even pay child support let alone insist on wanting to take care of the children.
On the other hand, I always suspected that there was a certain amount of bitterness there and spitefulness on his part knowing him as I did and that some of that was getting back at her like, “Sure you can leave, but you can’t take them when you go.” I am more certain of that now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How?
Candida Royalle: I found out that my father mistreated my mother and that there was a fear for her well-being, and I never knew this about my father. It came as quite a shock to me. In a sense, she had to get out of there for her own safety. In the end, it’s a dreadful story. It used to happen a lot back then. In the 1950s where the woman was the one who wanted to leave, she often sacrificed getting her children, getting to keep her children. It’s a horrible thing, so I think that was part of it also. I think it was a terrible thing for her.
Some of my relatives who may have thought they were doing the right thing, I don’t think they were aware of the damage you do to a child letting them grow up thinking that their own mother didn’t want them and didn’t love them enough to want to raise them. It is horribly damaging. It was a terrible decision to not only take us away from her and deprive her of keeping us but also deprive her of having a relationship with us and deprive us of having a relationship with her and knowing the truth.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Before you found answers, did you blame yourself for your mother leaving?
Candida Royalle: That is the assumption that children make. I don’t think that a child has the ability to reason, “Well, this had nothing to do with me. This was a problem between my parents.” When an infant loses their parents, I think it is something they assume it’s because they weren’t loved, and they weren’t wanted. They assume that they just weren’t good enough. I don’t think that’s something that comes in the form of reason or thoughts or words. I think it’s a feeling.
I spent a good amount of time in therapy in my 30s, and I looked into all of this stuff. I learned that babies and children have more of a “feeling” memory, a sensory memory, than of anything containing words or reasoning. They don’t “reason” yet, so the place they go to is, “I wasn’t loved,” and I think that it definitely affected my sense of self, my sense of self worth and my self-esteem. You basically grow up thinking, “I wasn’t good enough for my own mother to want to stick around. I’m just not good enough.” I think that’s the sense you grow up with. There’s nothing that can replace a mother’s love.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): True. I read that you were interested in music and dance at an early age. Were those your ambitions?
Candida Royalle: Yes. I really loved music and dance and art. Both my sister and I were drawing since we could hold a pencil. We both came out that way. My dad was a jazz drummer by profession, a very serious musician, and so we kind of were born with that talent. I was singing from when I was a very little girl, so both of those talents I already possessed, but of course, I was trained as well. I began to train in dance when I was about eleven. I just loved it.
In terms of my art, it was just something I loved to do. When it was time to go off to high school because I lived in New York City, we have this wonderful school system where your parents don’t have to have a lot of money. If you have talent, you can go to specialized schools like performing arts, and I auditioned for both performing arts and dance and then art and design. I did have dreams of being a professional dancer actually, but they could see I didn’t have the body for a serious ballerina, so that was very heartbreaking for me. I could’ve continued to train. I was excellent in jazz dance and tap and all of that, but I had made it into art and design, so that’s where I went.
I had ambitions to become a fashion illustrator, but after my first year in school where I continued to major in fashion illustration, there was such a cultural shift, I got into women’s liberation (what it was called at the time), and I just started thinking differently and decided that the fashion world was sexist and shallow. I just started thinking differently, so I changed my mind about that. I think I loved doing things more than I had serious ambition about them to be honest. I kind of jumped around from one thing to another just because I loved doing it, but I don’t know if I was ever serious enough to continue with that particular ambition.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it because you wanted to act that led you into the adult film industry in the 70s?
Candida Royalle: No. No. I didn’t really care about acting so much. That was just a fun thing to do. I think I got into the industry for a variety of reasons. One was what I saw at that point in my life. I had moved to San Francisco, and I got involved with some really fun groups of people, some of the original coquettes, and I started doing really fun, experimental underground theater. I put my singing talent to use and got into some little jazz groups, I did a cappella jazz, and I had my own little jazz combo.
Back then in the 70s, the philosophy was to kind of pooh-pooh materialism and just do things for the love of it. We did a lot of free theater around San Francisco, and I got into adult movies to support my art habit. It was a way to make extra money and pay the rent while still getting to do the fun performances that I enjoyed doing without having to worry about making a living at it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you nervous the first time you had a sex scene in front of the camera?
Candida Royalle: Oh yeah (laughs), definitely. It was the so-called sexual revolution back then, so it didn’t seem like such an outrageous thing to do. A lot of people just assume that people who go into the industry are exhibitionists, and that’s just not always the case. I was really shy about my body. I don’t think I had a lot of confidence about it. It was very awkward for me the first time. I think the actor I worked with made it easier because he was so nice and so sweet, so it wasn’t as horrible.
I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but I didn’t go in completely blind because I did get an idea of what it was like when I went to a film shot of a production my boyfriend was in. When I was offered a part, he stormed out of the agent’s office, but he thought it was a great idea for him and got a plum role in a very nice Anthony Spinelli production. He was a director that everyone loved working for, so he got a nice role.
I went to see what it was like, and I was very surprised. It wasn’t this horrible, sleazy situation I thought it might be and that everyone pretty much assumes it is, so I went to it already having my eyes opened to the fact that it wasn’t as horrible as everyone thought it was, but it was definitely awkward. It was definitely not something I was completely comfortable with.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You worked with John Holmes in Hot & Saucy Pizza Girls. What was that experience like?
Candida Royalle: It was a really fun experience for me. I will never forget taking our skateboards and all of us girls going out into the parking lot when we were done after a day’s shoot and practicing our skateboarding. We really had a lot of fun with that. You know, the truth is that John was a very sweet guy. The first time I experienced him, I didn’t even have a scene with him. It was a movie called Hard Soap, Hard Soap, and it was a takeoff on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. My very close friend, Laurien Dominique who passed away too young had the lead role, and John Holmes was the male lead.
We were all brought together to go through the script and rehearse lines together the day before. I was like the new girl in town and the new girl on set. We went to take a break between rehearsing. There had been a lot of flirtation going on between us. He just basically took me into another room and made love to me. It was kind of embarrassing because he had the kind of ego … he was the star. Whatever John Holmes waned to do, people had to put up with and wait, so it was a little embarrassing that way knowing there were people out there waiting.
I was just a red-blooded girl. I didn’t have a scene with him in that movie, and I just thought, “Wow! I have to see what this is like.” (laughs) I was kind of lucky. I got to make love with him the first time I ever experienced him, and it was very sweet. He was every bit as voluminous as his reputation says (laughs). The interesting thing was that he was more into pleasing me and performing oral sex than doing anything else. He was very gentle, thank goodness, and very sweet.
On the other hand, I have to say that as time went on, and by the time we shot Pizza Girls, John had begun to change a little. I think that’s when he probably had started to get too much into drugs, and he did have a terrible ego on him. He would have hissy fits on the set, and people would just have to sit around and wait until he was done with his hissy fit. I really think some of it was because the actors on the set back then had issues with their sense of what they represented. A lot of the crew guys looked down their noses at the men who performed.
Even though the fans might think it was a great job where they got to have sex with all those gorgeous women, it’s actually very hard work. I think that sometimes the guys, the actors, felt looked down upon by the guys on the crew, so for John Holmes who was such a big star, part of that might be him making up for that feeling. He really threw his weight around. As nice as he could be, he could also make the film set very unpleasant.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): His cocaine abuse was very well known, and I believe he was involved in the Wonderland murders. Even though he was cleared, that probably left a stain on his reputation.
Candida Royalle: Oh yes. If you watch the movies about the murders and the documentary, it seems quite likely … none of us will ever know for sure. It seems like he maybe had his arm twisted, and he was scared. It just sounds like John let some terrible things happen. In some ways, it’s very sad, but I think that having that as your main skill, the main talent for a man, actually was his undoing. It’s a sad thing. If anything, it really destroyed his life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was too early to worry about getting AIDS back then, so everyone was scared of other sexually transmitted diseases?
Candida Royalle: Yeah. Right. And honestly, I’ll tell you, people were so careful and so clean. If you were found to have brought a disease on the film set, you never worked in the industry again. People were very careful about that. I would say that the people in the business were probably far more clean and careful than the average person. Of course, I was very fortunate. I got out of performing in 1980 when all of that hit and came on the scene.
My own personal life was probably more dangerous in terms of that because I hung out in San Francisco, and my dating pool contained a lot of bisexual people, so that probably presented more of a danger to me than having been in movies. Probably what really saved me was getting married in 1980.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever suffer abuse, or were you ever the victim of stalking?
Candida Royalle: I was never abused. I’m very careful about that sort of thing. I won’t tolerate even being shoved by a man, so it has never been in my personal life at all, but in terms of stalkers, yes. I have been the victim of a couple of stalkers, and it’s really frightening. I received a call back in 1999 well after I was in the movies. I hadn’t been in the movies since 1980, but I got a phone call from someone who kept trying to get my street address out of me. By that point, I was very careful about any information getting out about me that could help people find me. Of course, nowadays we really have no privacy whatsoever. It is so unsafe.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sadly, yes it is.
Candida Royalle: At the time, I had started working from home again, and I kept all of my personal, private information out of the public domain. Someone called and kept trying to get my address. I finally asked, “Why do you want my address so badly?” He had kind of an accent, and said, “I just wanted to send you some metal and shrapnel.” I thought, “Does he think I’m a metal company?” I finally realized what he was talking about.
The amazing thing is that I’m one of those people who, if you’re in a disaster, you want to be with because I have this ability to remain really calm and cool. I basically talked him down. I told him how my work was really nice, that it was for couples to share to help them stay together and preserve their marriage. He started agreeing with me saying, “I guess that is a nice thing.” At one point, he said, “I don’t think the Lord would look too kindly upon what you’re doing.” I replied, “I don’t think the Lord would look too kindly upon what you’re threatening to send me.” He started to defend himself, but by the time we got off the phone, I think I may have changed his mind, but then of course, I flipped out.
I dialed *69 and got his phone number, went to the police, worked with the FBI, and it turned out he was calling from a Christian Fundamentalist group in North Dakota that had been started by a defrocked Catholic priest. He was calling from their headquarters. I never knew what became of him, but I can tell you it was frightening. I felt so vulnerable and so frightened. Honestly, why go after me? I’m a woman who makes movies that are endorsed by the sexology community for promoting positive sexual role modeling and used by therapists to work with couples.
That harkens me back to a story from several years ago in the early 90s. I think it was either Newsweek or Time that was doing a big cover story on pornography. It was the first time they were doing such a big explosive story, and I was interviewed twice extensively. They actually came to a premiere of one of my movies. When the story came out, it had a big red cover with the word “pornography” splashed on the front, and I was not even mentioned once. A friend of mine who was also a reporter called and asked the editor why I was left out, and she said, “We’re a family magazine. We can’t put something like that in there.” That meant the only thing worse than a pornographer was a female pornographer. That was pretty amazing.
Just in the last couple of years, I had a stalker right in Manhattan, a real creepy little guy who somehow got hold of my private phone number which was unlisted and under my legal name (that I never give to the press). The police kept giving me the runaround, so I had to do all the work for them. A friend and I used the Internet to find out where the guy resided. He was living in a set of apartments for homeless men over twenty-five and was this little balding, sad guy with no life other than going on websites that you pay to go on and find out all you can about someone. There was a handful of women he was harassing this way, leaving long messages all hours of the night. We finally got the police after him, and they put a stop to it.
We live in a world where people still flock to watch these movies and relish the women in them by the millions, and yet women are still judged and condemned for it and are made to pay a very high price.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was your purpose to begin producing adult films?
Candida Royalle: I needed to come to terms with having been in the movies, and I took a long, hard look at what I had been involved in, saying, “Was this something horrible and terrible?” I really had to make up my own mind. I had to look at it from my own eyes and not what the culture told me I was supposed to be feeling. I really feel like there’s nothing wrong with people performing erotically, sexually for others to view and enjoy as long as everything is consensual, and the performers are not doing it under duress or being forced in any way, and the people watching are choosing to watch as long as no one’s getting hurt, and there are no children or animals involved.
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. Women had no voice in the movies, and it was time for that to stop. Women were curious because of the women’s movement that gave them permission to explore their sexuality. Women were curious and wanted to see if there were some sexy movies they could enjoy with their partner, and there was nothing out there for that. That was a booming market that really needed to be provided for, and no one was noticing. I thought I’d be the perfect person.
A lot of filmmakers would love to explore the erotic side of filmmaking, but they’re afraid it would hurt their careers. I already had a big red letter on my chest. I had nothing to lose. I knew the ins and outs, shall we say, of the business inside the camera and behind it, and I had a lot of experience. I was trained in the arts, and I thought, “You know what? Let’s try this. This could be very interesting.”
I wasn’t interested in just making the same old, typical, boring pornography some of which was degrading and ugly. I wanted it to be something that had dignity that was pleasing to look at, that women could enjoy and relate to and that couples could enjoy and maybe learn a few things about making love and what their partners wanted and needed. I wanted to do it my way, and that was very important to me. I had no interest in putting out the same old boring crap that was out there forever. I wanted to give it a woman’s voice, and I wanted to provide some good information for couples to actually benefit from them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I want to take a few minutes and discuss your health, Candida. When were you first diagnosed with ovarian cancer?
Candida Royalle: In the summer of 2010, four years ago.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How are you doing today?
Candida Royalle: I’m doing great in the sense that I’m in remission again.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That is great.
Candida Royalle: Yeah. The good thing is that my body responds very well to the chemotherapy. The cancer goes away right away. My little body is so resilient, I’ve done so much to it, but it just bounces back. My energy comes back after treatments. I still have a lot of vitality. I still work out and bike ride. I’m active. The problem I have is that I don’t get good long remissions. My cancer has come back three times since the first round of treatments. That has been disheartening for me, but each time it goes away, I do well, and I have another handful of months.
Very often it’s really not the cancer that kills you, it’s the treatments. There are just so many times your body can keep putting up with all of these toxins you’re putting in it. Fortunately, there is a new kind of treatment on the horizon that the FDA has been dragging their feet about, but they promised a few months ago that they are reviewing it and are going to make a decision. Basically it’s targeted specifically for women who got the cancer through family genes, though DNA, which I did.
Women who get it through DNA have a better prognosis. We do better on treatment, and we have a longer life expectancy. This particular new treatment does target the genes specifically, and it inhibits the growth and development of the element in the genes that enables it to multiply and grow. I’m not explaining it really well, but that’s basically the premise. It shows great promise, and it gives women like me longer remissions, so I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed that the FDA will get off their butt and approve this treatment. They’re supposed to be approving it in Europe soon, so if I have to, I’ll go over there and get it. That holds great promise for me, and that’s what I’m holding out for.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What have you learned about yourself throughout this four-year long journey?
Candida Royalle: Having this kind of challenge in life really shows you what you’re made of. I always knew I was a fighter and a survivor. I’ve been fighting things my whole life. I was assaulted in the woods as a little girl when I was thirteen. I was a tiny little thing, small for my age, but I fought this big, burly middle-aged guy off and got away from him. I knew then that I was a force to be reckoned with, and I still am.
I’m doing great so far, and I like to think I’m going to be here for several more years because this phase of a woman’s life, often referred to as the “third chapter,” is a great time for women. It’s a time when we’re really powerful, we can really just do what we want and don’t have to raise children and families. We don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone. It’s often when women do some of their best work or just take time for themselves, and I don’t want to give that chapter up. I’m really looking forward to it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is your strength and perseverance what you’d like the world to remember most about you?
Candida Royalle: Yeah. It’s my determination to do things my way. I’ve always been an independent thinker. I’ve always done things the way I thought fit, and I think that is a good indicator of my individuality, perseverance and strength. And kindness. I would say that above all.
I have such compassion for animals, for the things we do to animals to serve our own needs. It just breaks my heart. If I could, I would put every last bit of energy I have into helping animals in some way. I would like to be remembered as someone with kindness and compassion for the living creatures that don’t have a voice in the world.
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