When 20-year-old Michelle saw the handsome Spaniard who would later become her fiancé, she thought it was love at first sight.
[WARNING: This article contains descriptions of sexual acts that some readers may find offensive.]
"The day we met, he said, 'You're going to be the mother of my children. I love you,'" she remembers. "You know what I mean? I never had that before. I never had a guy be so in love with me."
The couple met on the set of a porn film in a rented house in Prague in July 2001.
Michelle, the daughter of a retired Air Force captain and former bishop in the Mormon Church, was an up-and-coming starlet in the adult video world. She had had some setbacks in her first year in the business, but believed her career was turning around with the Prague trip, which would be her first starring role. Her co-star, 28-year-old Nacho Vidal, was already a well-established star.
The director had told Michelle that Vidal liked her work, and when the pair saw each other they immediately fell into each other's arms, kissing from one side of the house to the other.
"There's nothing bad about you," she told him admiringly as they prepared for the shoot. "You don't know me very well" he replied with a grin.
But when the director finally got the pair to settle down to the business at hand — filming a sex scene — the tone changed. Without any prompting, Vidal got rough during the sex, slapping Michelle's face violently from side to side, and choking her.
Afterward, she looked shaken, her face reddened and her eyes watery. But she insisted she was OK. "I look torn up — can you tell?," she asked an ABCNEWS producer who was following her progress for Primetime. Laughing and wiping her eye, she turned away and said without conviction, "I took a beating today, and it was great."
'Belladonna' Is Born
Michelle had gotten her start in the business at 18, when she came to Los Angeles from her home in Utah to look for work as a nude photograph model. When she failed to get modeling work, her agent encouraged her to try porn. She refused at first. "I always hated porn. I thought it was the most disgusting thing in the world," she told Primetime, which followed her career for more than two years.
But she finally agreed. Taking the name Belladonna, like the poisonous flower, she found herself preparing for what she thought would be a simple boy-girl sex scene. She was shocked when the director told her he wanted her to do anal sex — something she says she had never even thought about before. Worried she'd have to go through with it if she wanted to work again, she let him talk her into it. "I was kind of scared. I didn't know if I could say no," she remembers. "I didn't know any better, you know?"
After the session, she was shattered. "I wasn't ready for anal sex … It was painful. But I can hide it really well." She had just turned 18, the legal age for participation in sexually explicit films.
Michelle went on more shoots over the next few months. Then her agent sent her on a job where she would have sex with male actors in prison outfits — 12 of them. Once again, she tried to back out, telling the director it was "sick," but once again she was talked into it. She had sex — all kinds — with the 12 men. "It was really hard because I really felt like a piece of meat … in a lion's cage, 12 lions … I had to do a lot of things I can't imagine anyone wanting to do." She was paid $4,000.
Afterward, she says, she couldn't stop crying. She packed her bags and went home to her family in Utah.
Glimpse of the Big Time
But within a year, she was back, even agreeing to promote the prison movie that had so upset her.
She began to feel that her career was picking up. She got a small part in a movie for VCA, one of the "high end" companies that produce big-budget films, and hoped it might lead to a contract. On the shoot, she met porn legend Ron Jeremy, who was making a cameo, and began to feel like she was fitting in. "The first second I walk in, this girl grabs my breast, and I'm like, Wow, you know, that's like the best welcome … 'cause then you feel like, Oh, someone likes me, you know?"
Another company considered giving her a contract, but at a meeting, the owner, veteran porn star Ona Zee, sensed that Michelle was not emotionally ready to become an adult star. "There's a part of me that wants to say to you, 'Run for the hills, girl, do something else, because you can be something better,'" she told her.
At the high-end companies — which produce a small proportion of the thousands of adult titles released each year — performers often have contracts and can make six figures by shooting just eight to 10 movies a year. They can pick their own partners and condoms are generally required. Shot on film with elaborate, sets, costumes and plots, the movies can have budgets up to $250,000.
But Michelle did not get a studio contract, and ended up taking a job with a company known for "gonzo" porn — sex-only, amateur-looking productions shot on video. The company, Elegant Angel, was making a film in Prague and offered her a starring role, which she hoped would show the big studios that she could carry a film.
Love Blossoms in Prague
She was thrilled at the attention Vidal gave her during the week in Prague — but wary. "It's weird to have a guy love you that much. That almost scares me because I have a hard time trusting men," she told Primetime, explaining that her first boyfriend cheated on her repeatedly and ultimately left her for a stripper. Privately, Vidal had told Primetime he could never be with just one woman, and would be happy if Michelle's attraction did not lead anywhere.
She came back to Los Angeles by herself, so sore from the week's filming that she says she could hardly walk. But then she flew to Spain to visit Vidal, and their relationship seemed to be going places. She said he could keep having sex with other women, as long as he agreed to be "honest to me, loyal, and just respect me and tell me that I'm number one every day."
She even began hearing wedding bells, telling Primetime, "The second I get married, I won't having sex with men in this business any more."
By December 2001, Michelle and Vidal were engaged. As she proudly showed off her diamond ring, saying how pretty it was, Vidal joked in his Spanish accent, "I need to f—k so many girls for that ring."
The couple was in love, Michelle says, but they were fighting regularly. Vidal would sometimes get what he calls "Latino jealous" when he saw her talking to other men at clubs. Michelle told Primetime, "It's hard to be in a relationship with someone in porn."
By now, she was working steadily, even shooting for the same company she shot the prison gangbang for. "I guess now I've gotten past the whole feeling-bad-about-it thing. I'm like, 'OK, I did it and that was pretty damn rough of me' ... Like wow, you know?," she said with a laugh. "I can say that I've done pretty much everything there is to do, and I can walk away feeling a little proud about it, you know?"
The Primetime producers who had been following her noticed changes. At 18, she had said she would never use drugs, but now Primetime learned that she was sometimes high on marijuana during her scenes. She was working without condoms, though she said the risk of AIDS was never far from her mind — or her prayers. "The fans don't like to see condoms … If I would have said I want to use condoms every time, I really wouldn't get any work," she explained. She contracted chlamydia, which can make you sterile.
And anal sex — which she had be talked into during her first shoot — was now her specialty. "Funny, isn't it? Something I didn't want to do and now I'm known best for it," she told Primetime. No longer a fresh face in the business, she found she had to agree to even riskier sex acts to earn the same money.
Ona Zee, the producer who had interviewed Michelle the previous year, noticed a difference, too. "I said to my husband, 'Our baby is all grown up and left home.' She's no longer the adorable fresh-faced girl that I met … Now she's really in the life … Even in the pictures that I see of her, she's much harder, much tougher."
Behind the Smile
During interviews with Primetime, Michelle kept the happy smile she had always had — even when describing things that many people would find disturbing. However, her composure cracked when Diane Sawyer asked why she always smiled. Tears came to her eyes as she said, "Because I like to hide — hide everything, you know?" Then she began to cry, explaining that she hides her real emotions because she wants to show everyone how happy she is. "And I'm not happy … I don't like myself at all," she said.
Michelle confessed she often felt physical revulsion during her scenes: "My whole entire body feels it when I'm doing it and … I feel so — so gross." While pretending to be enjoying the sex, she said, she was in fact counting the minutes, telling herself, "Hey, I only have this much time left. Don't worry about it. Get the check. Gonna go deposit it in your bank." She admitted: "You get addicted to the money."
Like other performers Primetime spoke to, Michelle said that during shooting she often imagines herself outside her body. "I call it the 'other half,' " she said.
Bringing Home a Trophy
In January 2002, Michelle's Prague movie won an award at the Adult Video News awards in Las Vegas, considered the Oscars of the adult industry. Things were not going smoothly with Vidal that day — he complained that Michelle "don't do the ironing my clothes … I still 28 and I need my mother," and at the ceremony he openly checked out other women — but there were crowds of admiring fans for Michelle and she soaked up the attention.
After going on stage to pick the trophy, she was beaming, telling Primetime she had worked hard for it. "I think this is the very beginning of my career, like I've just begun," she said.
And at the 2003 AVN awards two weeks ago, Michelle was an even bigger winner, taking home awards for best supporting actress and three other categories.
This story originally aired January 23, 2003.
Postscript: After Primetime's initial report on Michelle, she said she was going to make one more movie, and then get out of the business.
"I don't want to perform anymore," she said. "Not because I don't think I can do it, not because I don't want to, but because I'm ready to move on, that's all. I did three years, and I had fun, and I got my awards and I'm done. That was my little phase with porno."
But she didn't. Over the past 18 months she's been in more movies and directed four.
When Primetime recently caught up with her at an autograph-signing in Huntsville, Ala., she had a surprise: she announced she was pregnant.
Michelle says her new husband is not a performer in the business and she's still hoping she'll leave and live happy ever after.