All photos by Kimberly Kane
I first met Zak Smith and Mandy Morbid back in 2007 while shooting a porno in the Mojave Desert. Zak “Sabbath”—his stage name—performed the role of a transient squatter, and I played a trailer-park housewife who dreamed of making it big in Hollywood. Mandy accompanied Zak on set, and we quickly became friends, darting around the property in a beat-up golf cart and taking photos of whatever caught our eye.
In the years since, Zak, Mandy, and I have worked together on a lot of strange projects. They’ve always inspired me artistically and sexually, and I’ve really come to admire their dedication to each other. Last year, Mandy was diagnosed with Ehlers–Danlos syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes loose joints, damage to blood vessels, and skin that stretches and bruises easily. Her diagnosis was a relief in some ways. For years, doctors had no idea what was causing her debilitating pain, and her health deteriorated until she was often unable to get out of bed, let alone work. Some days are better than others, but if Mandy leaves the house she must do so in a wheelchair or with a cane.
Through all of Mandy’s hardships, Zak has never left her side. And she is always there, inspiring his art. Their love is honest, real, and somehow exists gracefully in their world of disease, art, and pornography. You don’t normally bombard people you see almost every day with deeply personal questions, but Zak and Mandy have always made me curious. So when I asked whether I could document their relationship and they agreed, I knew it was also my opportunity to ask them everything I’ve ever wanted to know and then some.
VICE: You two grew up in very different environments. How did you first meet?
Zak Smith: I’m from DC. I went to art school at Cooper Union, held a bunch of shitty jobs, and worked at an abortion clinic before I got a big loan and went to graduate school at Yale. I earned my MFA and started showing my paintings. Then Benny Profane, an adult-film director, got in touch with me and said it would mean a lot to him if he could use the [unofficial and unauthorized] illustrations I made for Thomas Pynchon’s book Gravity’s Rainbow in his autobiographical porno movie. I was like, “It would mean a lot to me if I could fuck all the girls in your movie.” So he asked me to send him pictures of myself, and that’s how I started performing in porno movies. Then I made a series of paintings of girls in the sex industry, and Mandy at that time was a nude model. She contacted me and said I should paint her.
Is that accurate, Mandy?
Mandy Morbid: That’s kind of how it happened. I grew up in Montreal and later moved to Ottawa. I was very sick growing up so I didn’t have a bunch of shitty jobs. I was always looking for a porn site where I could express myself because Ottawa is unbelievably boring, and I didn’t like most of the websites I found. I discovered Suicide Girls and started modeling for them. Zak would sell his paintings of the other girls on the same site. I contacted him and told him I liked his art. He said he wanted to paint me, so he came to Canada for a weekend. An hour after he got off the plane we were fucking in his hotel room. A month later I was living with him in New York.
Mandy: Or insane.
But you haven’t been with many men, right?
Mandy: No, I’m extremely picky. I’ve only been with five men my whole life, and I’m 28. I was 21 when I met Zak, and I haven’t been with another man since.
Zak, what did you think when you first met Mandy?
Zak: She’s hot.
Yeah, but you’ve obviously had sex with a lot of “hot” women. What made her so different?
Zak: I thought she was literally the most attractive woman in history. I needed to make sure she was always in arm’s reach or someone else would take her.
Speaking of your arm, what are all of these tattoos you have? Is that the logo for the band Eyehategod?
Zak: Yeah, and I have Mandy’s preexisting medical conditions tattooed on my right forearm. I think there are around 12 of them. They’re for when we have to talk to EMTs or if we have to fill out medical paperwork. You would have them, too. They’re hard to keep track of, and I’ve got a lot on my mind.
You told me a story once about the first day she was in New York, the day you realized she wasn’t like all the other girls.
Zak: Right. I went to pick her up from the station, and as soon as I saw her, the shuttle bus was pulling away. I told her we needed to run to catch it, and she said she couldn’t run. I thought, Wow… You can’t run. OK, what are other things you probably can’t do? 1) Hop trains. 2) Run from cops. 3) Skateboard… There are several lifestyle issues that could come up.
Mandy: That first weekend he came to Canada I told him I had health issues, and we talked about it. When I finally went to New York he realized the seriousness of my afflictions.
Did you two discuss Zak being in Benny Profane’s porn movie?
Mandy: That was right before we met. I knew he had been in that porn.
How did you feel about that?
Mandy: I was like, “This is perfect. This is exactly what I need.” It was a selling point.
When did you guys make the big move out to LA?
Mandy: In the summer of 2007.
And that’s when you guys started doing more adult films? How many movies have you done?
Mandy: Only four or five actual movies, but I’ve also done sex scenes with girls for my website.
What’s the process that you two go through when someone books Zak for a porn scene with another girl?
Mandy: First: Is she hot? If she’s hot, it’s OK. If I’m not attracted to her then I don’t get anything out of it.
So would you consider yourselves polyamorous?
What are the rules of your poly relationship?
Zak: Fuck if I know.
Mandy: Bringing another girl into the equation in real life depends on how healthy I feel and how much effort it’s going to be. And we have to both be attracted to the person, because that’s not always the case.
You two had a live-in girlfriend before, right?
Mandy: We dated somebody for a while and it was nice while it lasted. Ideally it would be me, Zak, and another girl.
Why would that be ideal?
Mandy: I like girls. Back when I was less handicapped, taking care of our sexual needs wasn’t that big of an issue. Now it would be nice to have another girl around so on nights that I can’t give him a blowjob because my jaw is in too much pain, she could do it and I could watch and get turned on and then get fucked, or the other way around. And I’m greedy!
So you want a hot dude and a hot girl?
Mandy: Yeah! Also, emotionally and socially there is a different kind of intimacy that you share with another woman, and I like both.
Zak, what are your thoughts about having two ladies in the house?
Zak: Who’s going to complain about that?
There will be a lot of complaining, I’m sure…
Zak: [laughing] The number of problems you could have during a threesome approaches infinity, but the rewards… Let’s say one girl accidentally chopped off one of my legs and the other one knocked all my teeth out—in the end I still have a two-girl blowjob, which is more good than anything could ever be bad.
Can you handle two women emotionally?
Zak: I don’t think handling things is an issue; I can handle everything or nothing.
Two women at once would be intimidating to some men.
Zak: Well, every Saturday I am simultaneously paying attention to six women while I DM a Dungeons & Dragons game. I could handle that on a daily basis if there were blowjobs involved… Sure.
Why do you guys enjoy playing D&D so much? Is it an escape from the world you live in?
Mandy: Well, I read a lot as a kid, and still do. D&D is like an extension of that, as are video games, but I wouldn’t call it an escape. There are interesting things for me to think about—there are puzzles and problem-solving. My brain wants to do stuff; it’s very active. So I do like playing, but it definitely is a distraction from the pain.
Would you call yourselves homebodies?
Mandy: We used to go out a lot more, but Zak works in the house and I’ve always been an indoor person just because of my physical limitations, although as a kid I didn’t think about it like that. I just like to read, draw, play video games, and hang out with my family. Socially I was more comfortable at home, so that’s kind of my default mode of operation. I don’t know if I’m antisocial. I may have a touch of high-functioning autism.
Zak seems to literally work all day, every day. Is he a workaholic?
Mandy: I think he has a lot of stuff in his head that needs to be manifested in a physical format.
Would you consider your work and painting style to be obsessive?
Zak: I’m like anybody else who might like the art I make—it has to be detailed and intricate or it’s not fun for me to look at, so I have to put in the hours.
A lot of artists I know love to paint but hate sitting down all day. You’ve had other jobs—how’s this gig?
Zak: It’s a good gig if you can get it. It’s my second-favorite thing.
What’s your favorite thing?
Mandy: [laughing] Sex!
Mandy, you were recently diagnosed with Ehlers–Danlos syndrome. Can we talk about that?
Mandy: I’ve had it my whole life, but when we moved to LA I did some porn, modeled, traveled… I was able to do it all. Since the condition is progressive, nowadays all of that is way harder. Now it’s like, how do we adapt to this constant sickness? I need leg braces, arm braces, and a wheelchair. How can you still maintain your life when your body doesn’t want you to have this lifestyle?
How do you?
Mandy: I talk about it a lot so people know where I’m at. That’s really important—to let people know I’m in pain. “I’m tired, this is what’s wrong with me, this is why I’m coughing, this is why I’m in a wheelchair.” If I talk about it, people get it, and that makes everything so much easier, but we’re still adapting.
Does Zak work hard to help you?
Mandy: He has from the very beginning. One of the things that happens to sick people is that they start to worry about when it’s going to be too much for the people around them. I’ve learned to trust that it’s not going to be too much for Zak. He helps me out a lot with little things: If I’m too sick to take my dog out then he’ll do it. He’ll pick up my medication, make me cups of tea, push my wheelchair, or load the heavy motorized one into cabs or friends’ cars. He takes time out from what he’s doing to help me with these things. He’s very dedicated. When I went to Canada to try to get diagnosed, he spent months with me in a city he didn’t want to be in.
What do you guys want in life?
Zak: I’m a guy. I don’t want to be anything, I want things.
Mandy: I learned at a very young age that I wanted as much mental, emotional, and physical stimulation as I could possibly get before I died. By the beginning of my adolescence, I had already survived near-death experiences due to my health, and I realized that the only real thing is death. There is nothing after that.
So what does the future hold for Zak and Mandy?
Mandy: Well, it could go one of two ways…
Zak: She dies or I die.
Zak's next show will be in May at the Fredericks and Freiser gallery in NYC.
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