Lunch with Angela White: “Laying out the bare essentials”

I’m alone with Australian porn star Angela White in a suite in the Darling Hotel, Pyrmont. We’ve ordered a meal from room service and we’re talking about sex. White’s breasts, waist and hips measure 42-28-36 (porn never went metric). Her blazing scarlet bra seems about to burn through her white chiffon blouse. I’m talking too much, and nervously sniggering “hurr-hurr-hurr” at the end of my sentences.

White lives in Melbourne but she’s in Sydney for the Sexpo adult lifestyle exhibition.

“As the name suggests,” she says, “it revolves around sexxx.” She draws out the word on her tongue. “So there’s a lot of sexual products, lifestyle products for adults: dildos, vibrators … ”

As she leans forward and locks eyes with mine, my body begins to betray me.

“… lubes, condoms, anything you can think of that would be involved in sexual play between adults … ”

Please god, no.

Is it a trade show? I ask banally, desperate to drag the conversation to neutral ground.

“That’s a part of it, yeah,” says White, mildly puzzled. “There’s also sexual products that are a little more to the sideline, like candles … ”

Great, I can talk about candles.

” … a lot of people like candles when they’re getting in the mood for sex … ”

I feel the blood running to places it shouldn’t.

“… so there’s candles there that, when you light them, the wax is like oil, so you can use to masaaaage someone to get prepared for sex.”

It’s no good. I can’t help it. I’m going to … blush.

If I do redden, it passes, and White doesn’t comment. After 10 minutes, I become more confident in the conversation, and she starts to pronounce the word “sex” in an ordinary, one-syllable way.

By the time the food and the photographer arrive, I’m breezily chatting about, well, sex with a porn star.

There aren’t many porn stars in Australia, because there is barely an adult-movie industry. Every now and again, a backroom operator in the ACT releases a low-budget commercial feature, but White has shot her entire oeuvre overseas, including B.L.O.W. (Busty Ladies of Oil Wrestling) and Ultimate Cherry.

White is cagey about her background, but says she was born in Sydney and comes from “a loving family”. Her mother was a photographer, her father a carpenter. She wasn’t molested or drugged or or trapped, but she’d wanted to be in porn since she was 14.

She won’t say when she has lost her virginity (and I don’t ask) because, she says, she’s worried readers might think, “She was too young. That’s what f—ed her up.”

“For the record,” she says, “it was with a boyfriend that I loved … There’s a myth in regards to people in the industry must have had something traumatic happen to them as a child that’s forced them into the industry. If you can say, ‘I wasn’t abused as a child,’ they’ll say, ‘Ah, you must be in a bad financial situation.’ If you can say you’re not in a bad financial situation, then they’ll say, ‘You must be under the influence of a pimp.’ For some reason, people can’t imagine that somebody would just want to have sex on camera, that that would be an exciting, enjoyable way to make a living.”

But why would you?

“Why would you be keen to have sex with beautiful women on camera?” she asks, as if it’s a foregone conclusion.

Well, it’s the camera thing.

“I’m a bit of extrovert,” she says, “an exhibitionist, so I like the camera being there.”

At Sexpo, White is on the “porn-star stage”. Fans pay $20 for a clothed photo and $40 for a topless shot. She also signs their magazines and DVDs.

“Most of the time, they’re incredibly nervous,” she says.

I can’t imagine why.

“They won’t say much,” says White. “Some of them are visibly shaking. They’ll usually focus what they say on a particular scene, or a particular magazine they saw me in. They’ll remember the positions I had sex in, how my hair was, all these fine details. Then they’ll say, ‘What was it like to kiss that person?'”

At high school, White was interested in “drama and cats”, and worked part time at Burger King and David Jones until she turned 18, when she flew to Miami to do her first solo shoot.

“I just sent them photos,” she says. “In a couple of weeks, they’d got me on a flight.” She began by making “solo” movies.

“I actually wanted to do girl-girl stuff right away,” she says, “I was really, really keen, but the company I worked for said: ‘We’re just going to ease you into it.'”

She waited a year before she filmed her first scene with another woman, and eight years before she was filmed having sex with a man.

When she first told her parents about her plans, “My mum wasn’t that happy with it. It’s taken her a little while to come around to the idea. When I told her I was going overseas to shoot porn she, like everybody else, thought the porn industry was run by seedy guys from a basement, who were going to abduct me and rape me. It wasn’t her No.1 choice for me, but she understands why I like it and why I want to do it. And my dad … I thought my dad would be really upset and my mum would be totally cool with it. It kind of was the opposite.”

Our room-service lunch turns up on a trolley. White’s Caprese salad looks a bit insipid. The tomato slices are almost as pale as the bocconcini.

“They’ve smothered it in a balsamic herb dressing,” she says. “It’s not usually the kind of salad I’d go for.”

My barramundi comes with roasted cherry tomatoes. The last time I cut into a cherry tomato, the juice spurted all over the place. I assure White this won’t happen this time. I carefully position the fruit and the knife and …

“It did!” shouts White.

I dab my shirt as she puts on a napkin.

In 2007, she enrolled in a bachelor of arts in gender studies at the University of Melbourne, and graduated with first-class honours in 2010. She had wanted to study journalism, but became more interested in the roots of the reactions she received when said she was a porn star.

“People would reel back and ask, ‘Aren’t you degraded?'” she says. “‘Don’t people just humiliate you on set?’ There were a lot of feminist arguments being thrown at me about the subordination of women. So I started reading feminist arguments and trying to understand where all this negativity was coming from, and why people were thinking this wasn’t a choice I had made.”

White felt she should master the case against pornography and articulate her own experiences “so that people know there is another side”. At first, she didn’t tell most of her fellow students she was a sex worker because she wanted to absorb and understand their opinions, rather than be “talked at”. She only came out as porn star to her class when she wrote her honours thesis.

Books such as The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry show the early US adult movie business was controlled by gangsters. White insists it’s not like that now, and she was “treated far better in the adult industry, with far more respect, than I ever was at Burger King”.

That sounds like an unpromising proposition from which to launch a career in gender studies. Did she face hostility from feminist academics? “I wouldn’t say I experienced hostility,” she says. “It’s hard for someone to argue with your experience. They can argue how they feel about the pornography industry as a whole, and what they feel it’s doing to women’s rights or the image of women or whatever, but they can’t say, ‘That’s not your experience.’

“Usually, if they don’t like what you’re saying, they’ll revert to, ‘Well, that’s just your experience, and most other sex workers’ – and they’ll say this never having interviewed a sex worker – ‘don’t like it and are humiliated and degraded.'”

Does her work put her off actual sex?

“No. Not at all. If anything, it gives me more ideas for my personal life.”

“I’ve had successful relationships while in the adult industry, but I’ve learnt to keep that separate now … I’m bisexual so I’ve had girlfriends and boyfriends, both in and out [but mainly out] of the industry.”

In 2010, she stood as the Sex Party candidate in the Victorian state election and won 2.9 per cent of the vote. She ran specifically to oppose local Greens aspirant Kathleen Maltzahn who – in a departure from Greens policy – advocated banning brothels which, White feared, would drive prostitution underground.

White says she isn’t worried about sexually transmitted infections, and that studies show sex workers have a lower rate of infection than the general population as they are tested regularly and are informed and aware. But how can she protect herself from unprotected sex?

“It’s not completely unprotected,” she says. “The STI test is a form of protection.”

For the first time she doesn’t sound totally convincing.

“I’m picky about who I work with,” she says. “I work with veterans in the industry. I don’t particularly like working with new people. In every sexual interaction, you have to have a certain amount of trust.”

She picks at her salad. She’s shooting for her website today and has to eat lightly, because a bloated stomach can spoil a picture and, she says, “You don’t want to have a big meal and then have sex.”

But afterwards, she says, she likes to have a hamburger.