Advertisement
News

The Sobering Lessons Behind the Death of Porn Star August Ames

Jon Ronson’s new podcast explores the death of Canadian August Ames, who died by suicide amid a cyberbullying campaign against her.

by Graham Isador
11 November 2019, 5:11pm

Photo via Facebook

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.

In December of 2017, August Ames died by suicide at age 23. Her death came just 48 hours after being lambasted for a problematic tweet. In the months that followed those close to her blamed internet bullying and cancel culture for the performer’s death. The onslaught of hateful comments towards Ames was simply too much to handle. Public shaming had pushed her mental health to its limits. The story attracted the attention of journalist Jon Ronson, who explores the circumstances surrounding her death in his latest podcast The Last Days of August.

Ames—real name Mercedes Grabowski—was born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia to a military family. Her childhood was tumultuous as her parents’ divorce caused strain with her family. The actress told her father she had been repeatedly molested by a male member of her extended household. He accused her of lying. Ames was sent to live in a group foster home. She was later diagnosed as bipolar, and suffered from depressive episodes.

At 19, Ames made an effort to escape the childhood trouble of her small town for a supposed life of adventure. She filled out a model submission form for the adult industry. Within weeks Ames was flown to California to begin working in porn.

Over the next four years August Ames would appear in over 270 pornographic films, shooting with major companies, and being nominated for multiple awards including female performer of the year. Her clips racked up over 460 million views on Pornhub alone.

But in the winter of 2017 Ames career took a sharp turn. She refused to shoot with a male performer because he had previously done gay work. She posted about her decision on Twitter. The tweet was met with a barrage of criticisms. Some users called her homophobic and close-minded. One tweet suggested she eat a cyanide pill. Ames’ defence of her comment—she shouldn’t have to sleep with anyone she doesn’t want to sleep with—only caused more friction.

Two days after her post Ames was dead by suicide. Her last tweet was the words “fuck y’all.”

In his bestselling book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson examined the effect that internet bullying and mob mentality can have on people’s lives. The book followed individuals like Justine Sacco. In 2013, Sacco became the No. 1 Twitter trend worldwide after posting a racist joke. This happened despite the fact that, at the time, she only had 170 followers. Sacco lost her job because of the tweet. Her social media was bombarded with thousands of awful comments, including threats of violence and rape. Ronson followed up with Sacco after the incident, acknowledging the terribleness of the comment while also asking bigger questions: was the appropriate response to a horrid post a mob of concentrated online shaming? What does that kind of shaming do to a person's mental health?

Ronson was contacted by Ames’ husband Kevin Moore—a producer 20 years her senior that she had met and married shortly after debuting in the industry—to look into the internet bullying he blamed for his wife's death. Initially Ronson assumed this was another story about the impact of online shaming, but after digging into the situation the journalist quickly realized the events leading up to the porn star’s death were more complicated. People within the porn industry distrusted Moore. Some speculated that he killed his wife. Roughly six weeks before her death, Ames filmed a scene in which her Russian co-star was particularly violent, bringing up unwanted memories from her past.

While the situation has all the trappings of a Serial-esque mystery, in an interview with VICE Ronson was honest about his intentions for The Last Days of August. It’s not a murder mystery. The podcast paints a picture of the everyday struggles sex workers face, and shows the humanity behind people the world often dismisses.

“When I was doing my show The Butterfly Effect [Ronson’s podcast examining how the rise of free streaming porn changed the industry] I asked someone if she knew the names of the porn performers she watched. She said she never learned the names. She compared it to killing a deer. When you kill a deer, you don’t name it, because then you can’t eat it,” Ronson said. “That quote stayed with me when I thought about August. Why were people only comfortable with porn performers behind a screen? And what does that do to the performers themselves?”

Throughout The Last Days of August Ronson points out that there are porn people who have healthy lives and enjoy their work. They like the attention and money it brings them. But in 2018 the industry saw a pattern of overdoses and suicides that pointed towards larger problems with addiction and mental health issues. The stigmatization towards sex work further alienates performers and can cause issues finding practitioners who offer sex-friendly mental health support. While people are happy to use porn on the regular, thinking too hard about the lives of the performers isn’t something they’re willing to do.

Ronson believes that hypocrisy can be deadly. He hopes his work can contribute to changing the narrative. “People don’t want to think about their own habits. They’re quick to judge people within the industry,” he said. “But porn is a huge and important part of people’s lives. The fact that people are uncomfortable with that makes it all the more important to tell these stories.”

The Last Days of August doesn’t offer listeners a definitive answer for why Ames committed suicide. Throughout its seven episodes it points towards all of the different ways the performer was mistreated by her peers, her loved ones, and the industry as a whole. The tragedy of the show isn’t just the fact the Ames took her own life, but how desperate she was to escape negative situations and please people who ultimately let her down. The backdrop of extreme circumstances is used to tell the very human story of a person trying and failing to create a better life for themselves. With so many shows in the current podcast landscape dependant on the sensational nature of true crime, it is a welcome—if sobering—listen.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

Tagged:
porn
Podcast
Jon Ronson
public shaming
August Ames