The Immigrant Who Conquered Porn and Became One of the Most Powerful Gay Men in New York
Michael Lucas is a Zionist, a neocon, and an award-winning porn star.
Photo by Matthew Leifheit
If you believe the conventional wisdom about the porn industry—that it's falling apart, that there's no money in it, that the studios that once made high-quality films are being supplanted by unwashed amateurs with webcams and stained mattresses—a visit to the immaculate offices of Lucas Entertainment will disabuse you of those notions.
Located on the second floor of an office building in midtown Manhattan, the place is less a palace of sleaze and more a temple to 21st-century showbiz yuppie living. The waiting room, which has a plethora of adult-film-industry awards on the walls, features a plush white chair, an abstractly shaped wooden table, and a fridge stocked with green juice, almond milk, and water bottles. Lining the hall are cabinets containing rows and piles of costumes for porn actors, who do their business in a space that can be decorated as a hotel, bedroom, or pretty much anyplace else where men would plausibly have sex. A few doors down from the set, the company's 15 employees sit in front of computer screens doing the behind-the-scenes work that results, eventually, in someone somewhere masturbating. For all this, Lucas Entertainment pays $16,500 a month, which it can afford thanks to its steady output of high-budget films that showcase the sexual talents of beefy muscle queens and often have cameos from D-list celebrities like Andy Dick.
"We're the only [gay] company that hasn't gone belly-up or been owned by a distributor at this point," Marc MacNamara, Lucas Entertainment's then creative director, told me when I stopped by last June. "We're the only company who still travels the world and makes big-budget movies." (MacNamara has since left Lucas Entertainment to start his own porn studio.)
I was there to see Michael Lucas, the founder and animating force of the company that bears his name. A former porn star who still dabbles in performing in films, he looks even today like a man who could sell his body for a living. The 42-year-old has the lean, sculpted body of a model, his skin is implausibly perfect, and his muscles show through his loose-fitting shirts (he told me he works out every day). His office is, unsurprisingly, a monument to all the success he's had in his 16-plus years in the industry. Gay-porn-magazine covers featuring Lucas are stuck to the walls—X-Factor, Unzipped, Man, Mandate—and the decor also includes antique cameras, Lucas's law degree from Moscow State University, and a set of artistic-looking photos of gay men: a naked guy standing behind an old TV, another naked guy balancing a TV on his butt.
When I asked him where he had gotten one of the pictures, he replied, "Someone gave it to me as a gift... It's interesting, but it's not good enough for my apartment. I have very beautiful stuff from [Robert] Mapplethorpe there."
Misha and Sasha, a Russian couple who have lived together for eight years and appear in Campaign of Hate
Everything about Lucas oozes wealth and power—a 2007 New York magazine profile called him "the Lion of Chelsea" and New York's only "bona fide member of porn royalty." But over the past several years, Lucas has also become notorious for using his fortune and name to promote his pet political causes—mainly, his support for Israel and hatred of Russia, the country from which he emigrated when he was 23. His worldview is clearly present in 2009's Men in Israel, one of Lucas Entertainment's most popular videos. The two-hour porno (purportedly the first gay adult film to use an all-Israeli cast) is loaded with long, loving shots of muscular Jewish men fucking, sucking, and rimming on riverbanks and beaches—if not for all the hardcore gay sex, it could have been made by the Israel Ministry of Tourism.
"I totally wanted to bring attention to Israel and bring tourists, and it was a success," Lucas told me. "Gay men would rather watch porn than the geography channels—and I don't think there are many films about gay Israel—so I not only showed men having sex. I showed them having sex in beautiful surroundings."
He's praised Israel in the pages of the Advocate, a popular gay publication, and has started to make documentaries: Last year he released Undressing Israel, which praised Israel's gay-friendly policies, and this April he put out a film about homophobia in Russia called Campaign of Hate.
His outspoken Zionism has naturally brought him into conflict with those on the left. The New Republic has called him "gay porn's neocon kingpin," and the novelist Sarah Schulman, a Jewish lesbian, penned a New York Times op-ed that accused Lucas of "pinkwashing" Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians. In 2010, Lucas joined a chorus of right-wing voices when he objected to an Islamic cultural center being built near the site of the World Trade Center, writing in the Advocate that the center was an "Islamic colonization project" and that "Muslims murdered 3,000 people and are building a mosque on the site of a crime."
Lucas is guarded about nearly everything, and talking to him about this stuff—the money, the controversies that surround him, any aspect of his personal life—can be a challenge. When I mentioned to Lucas that he is rich, he stopped me: "Who told you that I'm rich?"
Activist Masha Gessen (left) and her wife, Daria Oreshkina, speak to Lucas about Russian President Vladimir Putin's anti-gay policies in Campaign of Hate.
Lucas was born Andrei Treivas in Moscow in 1972. Jewish, gay, and possessed of a natural distaste for authority, he constantly clashed with the confining power structures of the Soviet Union.
"He was rebellious," Marina Giliver, Treivas's schoolmate and friend, told me. "He didn't want to go by the Communist standards for how people should be, so he was different."
By age seven, Treivas had started questioning the Soviet Union's government and politics. One day he asked his grandfather, a Communist Party member, "Why do we go to vote? It doesn't matter if we vote or not, because there's only one person on the ballot."
"Don't you dare say no!" his grandfather shouted. "Don't you dare tell anyone; don't you dare talk about it."
When his parents sent him to a Young Pioneer camp, the Soviet Union's equivalent of the Boy Scouts, Treivas refused to wear a red tie or wake up at 8 AM to salute the red flag. He told the camp leaders, "I don't want to go." They called Treivas a "fucking little Jewish brat," and an hour later he climbed the camp wall and escaped. He took the train to his family's country house; his father was infuriated when he saw him, and only the intervention of Treivas's grandmother stopped his father from punishing him.
"It was a Communist regime—there was no freedom of speech, and we didn't know anything about sex, so I was struggling with understanding who I was," Lucas told me. "I was abused by kids in school and by teachers, because I was very different, like gay people and others [marginalized in the Soviet Union]."
By 1995, the Iron Curtain was gone for good, and Treivas was 23, with a brand-new law degree from Moscow State University. He went west in search of greater freedom, entering Germany on a tourist visa that didn't allow him to work legally. He ran out of money in two days, but he did have a big dick and a willingness to do whatever it took.
He made porn—both gay and straight—in Europe for a time and moved to New York in 1997, after Falcon, then America's biggest gay-porn studio, saw a French film Treivas had made. They gave the 25-year-old a one-way plane ticket, a one-year contract, and a new, Americanized name. "Michael Lucas" was born.
"It's funny when people say, 'I don't have any regrets,'" Lucas told me. "I have regrets all the time... It's a big regret that I didn't fucking tell them that I wanted my real name. I like Andrei Treivas. I was 25, and I didn't know anything about the industry. Falcon didn't ask me. I saw my new name already in the movie. I was just some Russian boy to them."
Porn stars Rod Daily and Vito Gallo with Andy Dick and Lady Bunny, who have guest-starred in Kings of New York, Lucas Entertainment's cameo-heavy porn series
For his first four months in New York, Lucas lived in a basement in Midtown with ten other people—each room had just enough space for a mattress, a tiny table, and hangers dangling from nails in the wall. This didn't bother him. "When you're young, when you're 25, it's OK," he said. "You can survive."
Lucas did better than survive—he won a green card through the lottery system and, with his newfound legal status, left Falcon to found Lucas Entertainment in 1998. (He refused to talk to me about his experience at Falcon.) By the time he started his own company, he had a one-bedroom apartment in the West Village (he paid half a year's rent, plus a fee and the security deposit, in cash) and had achieved what he sees as the American dream. Not only was he hardworking—watch his early films if you don't believe me—he had started his own business and, in true bootstrapping immigrant fashion, hadn't even taken out a loan to help his empire grow.
"When you take a loan out you waste it," he said. "If it's your hard-earned money, then you actually think about how to spend it. You start to be more calculating."
Somewhat surprisingly, Lucas is generally a pretty hands-off manager who trusts his staff to decide when and where to shoot and lets them hire celebrities to make cameos. "I don't do it for business purposes," Lucas said of the guest stars. "I do it because I don't want my guys to burn out. I want to do something that excites them."
Lucas's only guidelines are that he have approval over the actors (he goes by looks, naturally), that the actors be sober on set (Lucas has tried alcohol but doesn't like it), and that the films feature intricate plots and big dicks. "A big dick is a major plus," he said. "I believe in plot because plots make it more interesting. It's sexy to know why people have sex rather than having people you know saying, 'Here's the pizza. Here's the delivery.' That's not sexy. The reason people have sex is hot. Sometimes you're watching a mainstream movie, and you don't see the penetration, but it's hot—and hotter than porn—because you know why they're having sex."
J. C. Adams, a writer who covers the porn industry, believes these creative decisions are why Lucas Entertainment has flourished in the digital age as older companies have imploded.
"This is an industry full of artists and mavericks, but Michael Lucas has never lost sight of the bottom line," he said. "Additionally, he tries different things, takes creative leaps, and goes against the grain. He released a fetish film called Farts! for Pete's sake."
The cover of the second season of Kings of New York
Last July, I went to MacNamara's apartment to watch a shoot for an episode of Lucas Entertainment's Kings of New York and was somewhat disappointed to find that, for all that talk about plots and high budgets, it was as cheap and narratively confused as a homemade YouTube music video.
The story revolves around two gay theater owners who are converting an abandoned playhouse into a "gaiety." As they arrive at the venue, former Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto, a fixture of New York's gay scene, arrives. He's just been fired from the Voice and has come to see his old childhood theater. After a flashback involving a young Musto at the theater and then a shot of the renovated theater's opening night, we see the theater owners having anal sex in their apartment for reasons that remain obscure to me.
After MacNamara cleared off the bed, he and Angelo and David, the two actors, figured out the scenes as Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez tracks played on a stereo.
The script didn't specify exactly how the actors should have sex, so, like choreographers working on a ballet, they had a lengthy discussion about how each position would flow into the next. MacNamara planned the cumshot. "Are you a shooter or a dribbler?" he asked Angelo. They were a little shorthanded on set, and I found myself being enlisted to hold a boom mic over David and Angelo's heads as they fucked.
While I was there, MacNamara wouldn't let me watch the cameraman shoot stills of the actors, which was just one of the many times Lucas Entertainment employees refused to give me access to something or attempted to influence the writing of this story. Lucas's assistant, Jeff, told me that Lucas would agree to be interviewed only if he could choose the photos that would appear in the story, and when I asked for photos Lucas emailed me glamour shots of himself in a Speedo. (He later approved the photos of him that accompany this article.)
Lucas also played coy when I spoke with him about some of the controversies he's been involved in. Schulman, the writer who attacked Lucas in the New York Times for his Zionist beliefs, later wrote a book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, that included a story of how, in February of 2011, New York's LGBT Community Center banned Siege Busters, a pro-Palestinian group, from holding events there. Lucas had threatened an "economic boycott" of the center if they didn't ban the group, according to Schulman, and the center's director, Glennda Testone, did as he asked within hours. (The center ignored my requests for comment.)
Shortly afterward, Lucas sent out a mass email to brag about the decision. "We prevailed! Congratulations to everyone who stood with me in support of Israel," he wrote. "With your help it only took eight hours to accomplish our mission." When I asked Lucas about the story, he replied, "I have no financial influence on the center... If I would, I would use it immediately. They use that stereotype a lot—the rich Zionist pornographer-mogul is shaking his checkbook." He failed to mention that his husband, the businessman Richard Winger, is the former president of the center. In fact, he didn't even mention he had a husband until I prodded him about it. (Since I last spoke to Lucas, the couple has started divorce proceedings.)
"Michael's very much about censorship," said Schulman.
Stills from Undressing Israel, Lucas's documentary about Israel's gay-friendly policies
Though he clearly tries to keep a lid on certain aspects of his life, he never shies away from expressing his beliefs, even if they alienate people or create enemies. The comedian Yonah Ward Grossman, a friend of Lucas's, said that even Winger disagrees with Lucas's politics. "He does not share any of Michael's more strident political or geopolitical views," Grossman told me.
Grossman also said that the porn mogul predicted Putin's anti-gay laws before anyone else was talking about them. "Some people thought he was crazy," Grossman said. "Occasionally, life and the world turns, and his craziness proves to be correct... Michael Lucas is probably one of the two or three most geopolitically informed people that I know, and I know a lot of people who are well informed."
Lucas retains the defiant streak that got him into trouble as a kid. Last August, at a tent Lucas sponsored at the annual Ascension charity party on Fire Island, he ordered his staff to kick Nick Gruber—the young, socially connected ex-boyfriend of Calvin Klein—out of the premises. Lucas told the New York Daily News that Gruber had said, "Keep your hands away from me!" to two men who had brushed against him by accident; Gruber then informed Lucas, "I'm straight, and I don't want gay people touching me!"
"You're leaving," Lucas told Gruber, according to Lucas's Facebook.
"Do you know who I am?" the 22-year-old said.
"I don't know," Lucas said, "and I don't even want to know."
Afterward, he was told who Gruber was but shrugged the incident off, even though it was likely to cause ripples in the insular world of New York City power gays, where he is well known.
"I'm happy it went public," Lucas said. "It was a no-brainer for me. I had to do it. Everyone should do it. It's so easy to stand up to homophobes. Did these other older men just lose it because he's cute?"
He may be secretive about many aspects of his life, but his defining characteristic is right there on the surface: He doesn't give a fuck and won't back down when he thinks he's fighting the good fight.
Lucas in Moscow. For years, Lucas has warned friends about Putin's homophobia.
"Michael sees the world in black-and-white," Bradford Shellhammer, the founder of Queerty and Fab.com and another of Lucas's friends, told me. "He and I mostly feel the same things about the world, but I subscribe to tact. He's in your face and aggressive at times. He's unwilling to accept compromise."
Shellhammer believes it's even fair to say that Lucas is anti-Muslim. "I think he does really object to many principles of the Muslim religion," he said. "He has very strong opinions about the Muslim religion, especially when it comes to the treatment of women and gays, and you can't argue with that to some extent."
Whether or not Lucas could fairly be classified as an Islamophobe, he clearly sees the world in terms of good and evil, famous and irrelevant, capitalist and communist, Zionist and anti-Semite.
"I experienced a great deal of anti-Semitism when I was growing up in Russia. Part of my family was killed in the Holocaust," Lucas told me. "That's why I understand the need for Jews to have their own state where they can defend themselves and never be exterminated again. My great-grandfather was a rabbi and was killed in his own synagogue by Nazis. I never believed in God. I have nothing to do with Judaism. I believe in the state of Israel and the history of my people, which was very tragic. The contributions Jews have made to the world are great, and all the Jews were getting back was discrimination and extermination."
Grossman said that Lucas reminds him of his own father, who emigrated from war-torn Europe in the middle of the 20th century. Despite the way he's made his fortune, Lucas holds a set of traditional, old-world values. In 2000, not long after Lucas started his own company, the porn actor moved his grandparents to New York, and he immediately took them to the giant menorah in Central Park.
"He was just amazed when he got here that a Jewish symbol could be put in a public place and nobody vandalized it," Grossman said. "That was one of the first things he took his grandparents to see, because he was so blown away by the freedoms we have here."
- VICE Magazine
- Vice Blog
- gay porn
- Volume 21 Issue 5
- Russian immigrant
- Lucas Entertainment
- the porn industry
- Michael Lucas
- X-Factor magazine
- unzipped magazine
- Man magazine
- Mandate magazine
- Powerful Gay Men in New York City
- Powerful Gay Men
- Campaign of Hate
- porn royalty
- Men in Israel
- Men in Israel film
- Young Pioneer camp
- Soviet Union’s equivalent of the Boy Scouts
- russian jews
- russian jewish
- lgbt issues
- gay in Russia
- Russian gays