How Celebrity Sex Tapes Shaped the 2000s

Culture

How Celebrity Sex Tapes Shaped the 2000s

Celebrity sex tape leaks, the 2000s, and the end of privacy.

“I make $10,000 a day,” Real Housewives of Miami’s Larsa Pippen told her castmates. She was referring to her, apparently, extremely successful OnlyFans account, which she describes as “one-on-one exclusive content” outside of what she would post generally on social media. It’s not revolutionary, nor contemptible, for a public figure to capitalize on sexuality. What is uniquely modern about a platform like OnlyFans is one key element: control.

From the start of modern Internet culture, we quickly learned that consent would not be factored into consumption. Celebrities in particular were stripped of whatever privacy remained as new modes of communication were introduced and content reached digital form. No matter the source, an image, a video could not be contained; control was impossible. “Violation” is the word most used to describe the feeling of having something so personal become public domain. The best example is, of course, celebrity sex tapes. Where once adult entertainment companies could never distribute a movie without the consent of its performers, porn on the Internet changed everything. The source was often untraceable and from the mid-’90s through the 2000s, more than a few celebrities would fall victim to the wild west of this new industry, creating an era obsessed with catching salacious moments not meant to be seen, of forbidden content and stolen sexuality — all with a feeling that it couldn’t happen to us.

This period’s genesis goes back to 1996. “Macarena” provided the soundtrack to somewhat of an innocence at this time: Bill Clinton was re-elected, we were unaware of any White House interns, computers found their ways into many homes. Enter Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, two major celebrities making headlines for living with reckless abandon. A drug-fueled wedding in Cancun, wild parties, and in-your-face sex. While the paparazzi were particularly vicious, the true invasion came when carpenter Rand Gauthier stole a safe from the couple’s home after Lee had refused to pay him (and held him at gunpoint). The Internet was first only used to sell actual copies of the tape, but within a year, it became one of the earliest streaming videos. Internet porn pioneer Seth Warshavsky first streamed it, expecting legal ramifications, and offered only $250,000 to Anderson and Lee to settle. It was then that the couple made a cataclysmic mistake; they settled and signed over the copyrights believing that no one really cared about the Internet.

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The backfiring continued. Instead, many people actually got the Internet to watch the tape, cementing its influence in culture forever. Both in the court of public opinion and in legal proceedings, many excused the violation due to Anderson’s sex symbol status and her having posed nude, completely disregarding the importance of consent in the distrubution of her personal property — even questioning if it was personal property since they were public figures. “Newsworthiness” was debated. Incidentally, Anderson is still fighting such battles today as Hulu airs Pam & Tommy, a series narrativizing her trauma without her permission or involvement. While she has been vocal in her disapproval of the series and did not respond to actor Lily James’ request to speak as she prepared to star as Pamela, James performs Anderson’s lack of control both in the confines of the show and again in reality. In 2002, a judge granted Anderson and Lee each $740,000, yet a reported $77 million was ultimately made off of the tape in the first 12 months alone.

Paris Hilton was 15 years old when Anderson and Lee’s tape was released. Her family had just relocated from the West Coast and was living in the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Much would happen in the time between 1996 and 2004, both in culture at large — the mass loss of innocence incited by 9/11 — and in Hilton’s own personal life. After only a year at the Professional Children’s School in New York, her parents sent her to the Provo Canyon School, a boarding school for rebellious teens. In her 2020 documentary This Is Paris, she opens up about the abuse she and her classmates suffered at the school physically, mentally, and emotionally and has been taking her fight against these schools to Congress. She maintains that if she hadn’t gone to the school, she never would have had a relationship with professional poker player Rick Salomon, ultimately succumbing to his pressure to film a sex tape that he would release in 2004 under the title 1 Night in Paris.

When it was leaked to the Internet in 2003, Hilton had only recently found success on television with her show The Simple Life. The lawsuits began immediately, first from Salomon against the distributors of the tape and against the Hilton family, who he claimed had damaged his reputation with claims that he had exploited their daughter. He eventually dropped the lawsuit and began distributing the tape with Red Light District Video. He and the company offered to pay Hilton a share of the profits plus $400,000, yet in 2013 she claimed to have “never made a dollar.” Coincidentally, Salomon would go on to marry Pamela Anderson in 2007… and again in 2014.

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Throughout this time, Hilton maintained both a friendship and working relationship with Kim Kardashian, whom she knew through Nicole Richie. In 2002, on a vacation celebrating her 23rd birthday, Kardashian filmed a sex tape with her then-boyfriend, R&B singer Ray J, who she met while working for his sister, singer Brandy. Kardashian was celebrity-adjacent and made headlines only through proximity. She appeared on The Simple Life and was the first woman to be photographed on a date with Nick Lachey after his split from Jessica Simpson. While some were convinced Anderson and Hilton released their tapes for their own benefit, far more suspected that narrative of Kardashian. From the get-go, she was deemed more desperate, more fame-hungry and the tape was brought to Vivid Entertainment in 2007, reportedly purchased for $1 million from an unnamed source, the same year that Keeping Up With the Kardashians was set to premiere. It was ultimately released by Vivid under the title Kim Kardashian, Superstar, which would only be possible if copyrights were signed over. It’s said that Kardashian made a reported $5 million from a lawsuit with Vivid and receives royalties from sales to this day. It has generated more income than any other tape, ever.

Jim McBride, owner of the website Mr. Skin, which chronicles celebrity nudity in both theatrical releases and illicit leaks, considers Kardashian’s the last “successful” celebrity sex tape, ushering the era of sought after stolen media to a close. He notes 2014’s “The Fappening” — a massive celebrity nude leak — as another mark that shone light on our mass vulnerability. The salaciousness subsided once everyone had a picture or video on their phone that they didn’t want on the Internet. The element of control arguably becomes the appeal of a platform like OnlyFans, yet even this “control” is somewhat of an illusion. Is it possible for something to exist online and be private at the same time? Maybe culture has matured in a way, with some level of mass empathy, or maybe violation has become less sexy than being invited in to see.