By William Monette
“And the fruit of my vanity is shame, and repentance, and the clear knowledge that whatever the world finds pleasing, is but a brief dream.”
–Petrarch, Canzoniere no. 1
Sunny California began her career in director Pierre Woodman’s film, “The Good, the Bad, and the Naughty,” a wild-west themed hardcore film featuring—among others—stars Eva Angelina and Tori Black (just prior to her retirement from the industry). Sunny appeared in a segment with another rising starlet, Scarlett Gray, in a lesbian love scene.
She agreed to this interview eight months after police found her near death following a violent domestic dispute with her boyfriend, professional wrestler Marcello Castellmarse. On the cusp of her return to the industry, I sat down to discuss her body of work and to set the record straight about that horrible night in January. To help make her comfortable, I agreed to meet her at her favorite bar, The Baltimore, on Randolph Street, on a stifling hot Detroit evening. The bar was dingy, and low-lit; the walls were painted black, making the whole, tiny room seem like a biker bar or dungeon. But the drinks were cheap, so neither one of us cared about the shady ambience.
“I always liked this bar,” she said, chewing on the straw of her Vodka and Cranberry. She jiggled the ice cubes and then curled the ends of her jet-black hair, which was streaked intermittently with phosphorescent white strands, around her forefinger.
By now, everyone is familiar with the savage assault that took place on January twelfth. Sunny, a virtual unknown in the world of pornography, exploded into the forefront of America’s mainstream consciousness when she was nearly beaten to death by the six-foot eleven-inch Castellmarse and then left to die in her own kitchen.
“What did you think about how the media handled your assault?”
“It was alright in the beginning,” she said. “At first, everyone was real supportive, but then I started catching a lot of flack for what I do, like, being in the industry means I deserve to have a man beat the living shit out of me.”
“How worried are you about Marcello? Police seem unable to find him…”
“I think about it everyday.”
He ran away immediately after. What followed was a nationwide manhunt, with alarmingly empty results. “How the fuck does a guy that big just up and vanish?” she asked. She waved her hand at the bar and another drink was placed in front of her.
She kept a low profile during her eight-month recovery. This interview is her first public exposure after the incident.
“I agreed to meet because I think it’s time I put things behind me. I can’t stay cooped up at my cousin’s house for the rest of my life.”
She had been born Gina Masters in Taylor, a Detroit suburb, the semi-abandoned daughter of a waitress and a bouncer. She can remember seeing her father only twice in her life. “He was big and strong, I remember that. He had these gigantic shoulders. He was built like a football player, one of the fat ones who never touches the ball. For some reason, even though I can’t remember his face at all, I can remember the way he walked: he waddled like he had a ton of shit in his drawers, or like he was trying to remove underwear out of the crack of his ass without using his hand. I found it funny then and I find it funny now.”
“And what of your mother?”
She looked down long and hard at the table. Her gaze followed the black grain of the wood toward the table’s center, where a ketchup bottle and a saltshaker embraced a menu. She nibbled on one of her acrylic nails.
“I need a cigarette,” she said. She threw twenty dollars onto the table and led me, by hand, toward the door. Her palm was sticky with lotion, and though most of her skin was soft, there was a row of hard callouses along the top of her palm. Her fingers were delicate, and seemed to kiss, in the slightest way, the back of my hand. Her nails were painted in different colors, red then black then white then clear, with the thumb painted a four square pattern of them all. Though she is a tiny woman, no larger than five foot two in a pair of tennis shoes, she seemed strong enough to lead me wherever she wanted me to go.
Outside, the air was hot, humid. “I like this weather,” she said, “the end of summer is the best time of year here. I never liked the winter. I hope I can get back to Cali before the winter hits. I can’t survive Detroit winters anymore.”
I felt that I should repeat my question, but I sensed, watching her smoke, that asking again so soon might be rude or might upset her. I decided to reserve the question for later and moved on.
“Your first scene, can you tell me about it?”
“What about it?”
“Just walk me through some of your feelings about it. How nervous you were, stuff like that.”
“Oh man, I was so nervous, especially when I saw Scarlett… super tall. Her IMDB bio lists her as ‘statuesque,’ which I always thought was a dumb word. Yes, we have IMDB bios. Anyway, she got out of the industry not long after that, but man she was hot. She was over in the corner smoking a cigarette and talking to a cameraman. I go to meet her, and when I walked up to her she gave me a cigarette. She could tell I was super nervous, and so she told me her real name. That’s a big deal. I didn’t know that at the time, but I still felt calmer. That’s when she said it.”
“‘Try not to hate yourself during. Save that for later.’ I don’t know why, but that really got me.”
“Did you hate yourself at all?”
“A little bit. During the scene, I was just trying to do the job right. She led most of the way. She kept touching my face. I remember that, because we had to cut a few times… I couldn’t stop looking at the camera. I don’t know why, because it’s not like you can even see it, except for a tiny red light above the lens. For the most part, there’s just this huge light, an enormous blinding light, and it’s hot. I’ve gone tanning before, but that light, that flare, feels hotter than anything I have ever experienced. I could feel myself getting sweatier as the scene went on. I could feel Scarlett getting sweatier too. And then I noticed that I was loving every minute of it.”
She ran her tongue over her lips. The butt of her cigarette was pink from her lipstick. There was a small scar running from the corner of her mouth up the ridgeline of her cheek, but it was almost invisible under her makeup. She was built delicately, like a teenager. She was small-breasted, small-waisted, small-boned and small-shouldered; her neck was frail looking, and looking at it, I could almost imagine Castellmarse’s huge claw hands wrapped around it, squeezing it.
“How did you meet Marcello?” A man, obviously drunk, stumbled between us into the bar.
“He got my number from my agent, who was also his agent, and he just called me. It was weird, but for some reason, I thought it was cute. I liked that we were both in professions where we were expected to perform for the benefit of an audience; he seemed to understand that emotions are the hardest thing to fake, that what I do is fake emotion, and get people to buy it. I had been struggling to meet people in LA, because of work and such. I was nervous, but I felt something when he talked. I had no idea who he was though, and none of the friends I had in the industry knew anything about wrestling, so I spent some time looking him up on the Internet. I turned him down the first time. But he was persistent. He kept calling and calling. At first it was annoying, it really was. But I would answer anyways. I didn’t have that many people to talk to, you know? So we’d chat, sometimes for hours, even though we’d never met each other in person. Maybe that should have been a sign to run away, or whatnot, but I didn’t.
“He had this big, stammering, cheesy voice that I loved. It reminded me of Goofy, from Disney. His voice seemed so harmless, even though he was so big. I played it safe though; I didn’t agree to have drinks or anything like that, but said I would come to one of his shows. He got me and a friend tickets to their Monday night thing. He played a guy who was ‘big and silly with a heart of gold.’ In a way, that’s kind of how he was too. Anyway, I saw him: he was fucking enormous, I mean, you’ve seen him, and read about him… but not just in his height; his shoulders blocked out light around him. I was absolutely petrified of him. I knew he was going to be big, you know? But there’s nothing like actually seeing him in person.”
“So why did you decide to date him?”
“It’s another one of those things that I have trouble explaining. I mean, I was scared of him, but I could feel that little flutter inside, you know? So I thought that maybe that fear wasn’t the same as being afraid of dying or something, but being afraid in that way. If you know what I mean.”
I told her that I did know exactly what she meant, though to be honest I don’t think I did. I watched her as she smoked her cigarette. The scar seemed to only be visible when she took a long drag. A car alarm began to blast in the parking garage across from the bar, forcing us to talk louder.
“So you felt like you fell in love?” I asked.
“Yes, absolutely. Well, not at first. He seemed rough around the edges in that adorable sort of way that you look for, you know? Like he was just waiting for me to cut his hair or teach him how to use a salad fork. I guess that’s a shitty example, since I’m from Taylor and I have no idea how to use a salad fork. But you get the idea.”
I did get the idea. He fulfilled the stereotype of the reclamation project: built well, sturdy, strong, and imbecilic, a piece of paper that could be folded, like origami, into a facsimile of a respectable shape. I thought it sounded stupid but I didn’t judge.
“So, it was good in the beginning?”
She said that it was, for the most part. She talked about the fun little dates they’d go on; she talked about how hilarious he looked when he tried to sit at a restaurant table for two, and wrap his enormous, logger sized hands around the stem of a wine glass; I could picture it, as she spoke: this large, bulky man, impossibly tanned by the radioactive California sun that both of them, transplants from “lesser” parts of the world, probably looked at like it shone out of a different galaxy, where snow didn’t fall and dreams actually came true. Even then, after everything, she still spoke with an attitude like her dreams were only deferred, not irrevocably destroyed; I felt a great sense of pity, but I did my best to hide it.
“I always wanted to be an actress, and I was, you know? And he wanted to be an actor. He came from New Jersey, and he said that he always idolized Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he was a big guy who made it in a pretty boy’s field. He looked at wrestling like it was a more athletic way of acting.”
I knew his life story. He had been born in an exclusively Italian neighborhood, and he was a caricature of the Jersey Italian stereotype, a mash-up of ideals and mannerisms heisted from The Sopranos. Thus, as he swelled to comical size, it seemed fitting that he found his way into a profession where men can be celebrated for being caricatures.
“When was the first time he hit you?”
She gave me a cross look, like she was ready to end the interview, but I didn’t pull back the question. She knew that this was why we were talking. Some people knew her as the star of exploitation sex-parodies or simulated prostitution scenes, but I and the rest of the world learned her name after a grisly assault so terrible that it briefly stole the spotlight of the American media away from the NFL. And then the conversation got louder, as it was actually debated –-here, in the 21st century— whether her career choices meant that she deserved what had happened to her.
“It was about two months into the relationship.”
“What set him off?”
“The same thing that always did…” She fetched another cigarette out of her tiny, bedazzled purse. “Come on, let’s walk. I need to move around.” I could sense that this was, yet again, another question that needed to be answered, but her dismissal of it indicated to me that I would have to wait for anything more specific.
Detroit can be sweaty on a September evening, so I took off my jacket and drooped it over my arm, but I kept my recorder visible, where she could still see it. As I listen back to the tape, I can recall all the beeping horns and shouts in the packed Greektown Corridor. We didn’t speak much, expect for a comment here or there, by both her and me, about this bar or that restaurant, where each of us held some vague, almost universally shared memory of a dinner or a date, or a birthday with a rowdy friend; we passed the Greektown Casino, the poorest of Detroit’s gambling houses, and shared a laugh over the old joke that no one—even the owners of the casino itself—ever made a dime inside.
After we passed the casino we turned south, and walked in silence down darkened avenues toward the Riverwalk. Once there, we sat down on a bench near the old Boblo Island Ferry.
“You ever go to Boblo when you were a kid?” She asked, lighting another cigarette.
I told her I had.
“I was actually on the last Boblo boat ride back from the island. It was around this time of the year. I was with my mother and a guy she ended up marrying. I don’t remember a ton of it because I was only like, five or six, but I do remember this girl with a giant tower of cotton candy. She was pulling off pieces of it and tossing them in the air, and her father was catching the pieces and then tossing them up too. I remember his jacket; it was one of those Carhartts you see U.S. Steel guys wearing in the winter. And I remember them laughing. In my memory, she is five or six, but who can be sure, really? We all sort of look alike when we’re five or six, and we all sort of look alike to those who are five and six.”
I agreed with her that this was so. Thinking back on it now, I can almost picture a Gina Masters, before Sunny California, before the black hair and white streaks, the caked on make-up concealing not just a scar but God-knows-what-else, before the menthol cigarettes dangling from her lips and her tiny fingers, leaving brownish stains on her overdone nails. When I try really hard, I can see that child in those eyes, which even then, after everything, didn’t look dead yet; her eyes looked out toward Windsor, across the cold, black, Detroit River, gleaming with hope for her future, which she still imagined as being filled with limitless potential out in the vastness of the American west, under palm trees and glow lights, from cut to cut, action shout to action shout, as she became the starlet of her childhood dreams, and, figuratively, the girl holding cotton candy in other people’s memories.
I felt my string of questions was reaching a natural terminus, which was unfortunate, since there was still much to learn, especially about the terrible episodes with Castellmarse, I ventured then, to move without segue, back to the topic of her career.
“The industry isn’t as bad as people make it seem,” she said. “I know people look down on it, but I don’t really care, you know? I make a good living. I know what the stereotype is: that we’re all whores, that we all have drug problems, that everyone of us comes from broken homes, but that’s all bullshit. It’s empowering, in a way, to do what I do. It’s quite something to be this open.”
“Where do you think those stereotypes come from?”
“I’m sure back in the day a lot of that was true. Hell, it’s still probably true for some people, but not all of us. I just wish people would be more open with themselves, you know?” She tossed out her cigarette and looked back at Detroit. “It’s so good to know I won’t be stuck here much longer, that I’ll be able to go back home.”
“You feel like California is home now?”
“Of course I do! I have a nice place there. You should see the view of the ocean from the beach. You wouldn’t even believe how big an ocean looks.”
I didn’t mention that I had flown over that same ocean, or that I had lived in other places with oceans before. Part of me enjoyed watching her talk about this image of California; when she talked of the cities there, and the oceans, the beaches, and even the people, it wasn’t so much that she was talking about actual physical places, but a culture built out of her expectations of those things, expectations that had—without a doubt—been heightened by her absence from them; this served, in some way, to reinvigorate the dream.
It’s impossible for me to imagine she had not become at least a little disillusioned by California itself, if only by the sheer nature of her work. What must have run through her mind as she did scene after scene, with anonymous people, to be observed and objectified, ad infintum, by an incalculable number of even more anonymous people.
“Oh, yeah, a little bit, you know? Everything loses a bit of shine after it stops being new. But this place is so dead! A place like California… well, there’s no place like California.”
“Is that why you picked it as part of your name?”
“Ha!” She fetched out another cigarette while she continued to giggle. “I don’t really know, to be honest. I just kind of picked it because it seemed fun. It seemed cute. But, maybe I picked it because it sounded like happiness… I don’t know if it makes sense, but I associate happiness with sunshine, and California seems like it’s made out of sunshine.
“It’s a different kind of sunny, there… it doesn’t just feel warmer… it also looks brighter, like the sun and its light are closer to the world out there. I think that’s why Hollywood is out there… only in a place so close to the sun can you be a star.”
“Would you mind it if I asked… how did you get into all of this?”
She sat still for a moment and smoked her cigarette. On the recording, you can actually hear her exhaling. I felt like I could see her mind working, like she was turning over various stories to tell. After a long, definitely exaggerated sigh, she began to speak, her voice cracking as she strained to hold back tears.
“I originally tried my hand at being a prostitute. I tried, I really did. But I just couldn’t feel the excitement needed to even fake sex. It was awful. You’ve never seen anyone as bad at anything in your life as I was at that”
“Then how were you able to break into porn? Isn’t that kind of odd?”
“The industry is just different… it’s hard to describe…I don’t know… it’s just so exciting… so powerful…once that camera comes on… God help me, I love the camera.” She smiled at me.
“There’s just something about being in a film, you know? There is something about being in that moment, when you can hear the camera, and feel the hot stage lights… there’s nothing like it.”
“Not to jump around a ton with my questions… but did Marcello’s anger have anything to do with your career?”
“I don’t see why it should,” she said with audible agitation. “He knew I made films before we got together.”
“True, and if we are frank, that’s probably where he first saw you… but do you think that he maybe got jealous knowing you were…working?”
“Jealous of what? It’s not like I fell in love every day, but maybe. I think that sometimes, yes, he got pretty upset with me working. He… would yell about it sometimes. I don’t really want to go into that, to be honest though. There’s absolutely no reason to hit a woman. He has no justification for it.”
“I agree, one hundred percent. I guess I was just trying to get your opinion on what his deal was.”
“He was a little man, that’s what his deal was. A piece of shit who needed to feel bigger than he was.” This declaration had the finality of a full stop, and I could tell, no matter the questions I asked, that she would go no further down this rabbit hole.
I could sense that her aversion to answering this question was rooted in something she wasn’t saying. There was something else there. For all of her posturing about sexual identity, and openness, and being empowered, she was as much a victim to the oppressive views of modern American culture as anyone else. She would say that she was a free woman, living out her dreams, in the burgeoning stages of stardom, on the cusp of pseudo-immortality; but she could not overcome the very real shame she obviously felt. She cloaked her shame by avoiding it, by embracing the power of euphemism.
“I only have a few more questions, Sunny…” She nodded, and in that moment she looked more doubtful and sad than she had at any point in the night.
“I’m an open book,” she said, tossing out her cigarette.
I can remember tossing various questions back and forth in my mind, balancing the weight each would have not just upon her as a subject, but on the interview itself. For all of our discussion, I still had no real measure of who she was.
“Are you happy, Sunny?”
“What kind of question is that?” She asked, forcing a fake chuckle as she lit another cigarette.
“Like, really happy with how your life is going?” She was silent for a long while then. A car drove by and the sound of it clipping over an iron manhole cover can be heard on the tape.
“I am, actually. I have a good job. I have a nice apartment. I have wonderful fans. I can’t wait to get back to it, to get back in the sunshine, back to California, back to my dreams.”
“Do you really feel like you will achieve your dreams?”
“Of course I do! What a silly question. I’m already living it! I wanted to be an actress, and that’s what I am. What a silly question.”
“But aren’t you being a bit naïve? Is this what you meant by being an actress? When you first had that dream? Did working in porn really factor in?”
“The industry is a way for a lot of people to get into the mainstream…”
“You won’t even say the word…” She looked straight into my eyes. Her tiny eyes, which for the whole evening glittered with the reflected light of the charming skyline, seemed black, vacant, and devoid of hope. Her scar seemed longer, brightened out of its opaque discretion by the burning hot of her cigarette. Her lip began to quiver, and a single solitary tear slid down her cheek, carving a visible black path through her mascara, streaking like a veiny river toward her frail neck.
“I have the life I have,” she said, stammering, holding in tears. “I have lived, I have loved. I’m no different than you. I see my life now, like it’s part of this big fucked up melodrama… like I am outside of everything, watching it happen like a shitty movie. I can see that piece of shit slapping me all over my apartment, throwing kitchen knives at me… he stabbed me in the stomach three times… do you have any idea what that’s like? Then he got down on me, pinned me to my own kitchen floor, and choked me, trying to finish off the fucking job. And I don’t just see it from the camera of my own eyes, like a memory lived… I see it like some play on a stage… like I’m just some random ass performer on a stage… and I can see her…me, with my eyes bulging out, eyes that used to be trusting and…and those eyes are losing focus…I can see those eyes shutting for the final time… do you have any idea what that’s like?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You’re so afraid at first… and then you’re calm… you accept it…” She got up to leave then…
“You know, you can judge me all you want… anyone can. I don’t care. This is my fucking life. I didn’t ask for it, but it’s what I have. You’re no better than me… yes, I make porn. When I talk about being in a film… I do mean a ‘fuck-film.’ And yes, I hate myself, just like anyone who has to climb out of bed and go to a job that makes them wish they were dead… but I have something that you don’t… I have a dream, and I do have one thing to love: the camera… Think about anytime you’ve ever been around a camera…You’re always aware of it… you’re drawn to it… all of us perform for cameras. We smile, we frown…whatever… but we are always aware of it, staring into it, waiting… and in that instant when the picture is taken, or the video is made…It’s thrilling, it really is…
“So yes, I hate my life. I hate what I do. Every time one of those assholes climbs on top of me, I feel like less of a woman. I get to be an object for a living. But nevertheless, there I am…” She paused, and straightened her hair. Even then, alone with me by the Detroit River, she was performing in front of some non-existent audience.
“I love the camera.” She turned and vanished into the dark. The flat soles of her shoes pounded loudly, loud enough to reverberate on the tape recording of that night. I sat back down then, and thought of the story that I would tell, and the meaning behind all of it…
In any light, The Detroit River is only beautiful because of the landmarks on its other side, namely the shining beacon that is Windsor, Canada, which rises up like a gleaming jewel. I always imagined that looking at Windsor from Detroit had to be similar to standing on New Jersey’s coast and gazing at the New York skyline, where the opulent fortunes of the millionaires rose up like testaments to a very real and still living dream. I know better now, not only that Canada is uniquely Canada, but also that such dreams are had by dreamers only.
Copyright Monette 2016