The King of Porn Gossip: Meet Mike South, the Man Who Got to the Bottom of The Industry's Syphilis Outbreak

If you're a porn star and you learn that a bunch of other porn stars have a bad STD, what you want to know right away is if you've fucked any of those people. This August, a syphilis outbreak plunged the San Fernando Valley's multibillion dollar porn industry into chaos, and any information about the origins and extent of the scourge was maddeningly sparse. So when the porn gossip blogger Mike South confirmed the identity of the outbreak's "patient zero" as a porn star who'd covered up his positive syphilis test, the relief was palpable among performers who could now at least roughly gauge their own exposure.

It was another scoop in the long career of Mike South, the gonzo king of porn gossip. With sometimes questionable tactics but undeniable perseverance, Mike South has done more than any one person to expose the dark side of the porn industry he loves.

South, 54 years old, is a small-time porn producer and actor, but his unfiltered personality and reporting chops have made his gossip blog, Mikesouth.com (NSFW), a must-read in the smut industry. For more than a decade, South has churned out a pungent mix of rumors, rants and essays, sprinkled with the occasional gallery of girls from the amateur porn sites—Southern Bukkake is his biggest—he runs to pay the bills. If, as Ron Jeremy has said, the porn industry is like a family, Mike South is the know-it-all uncle you'd avoid at reunions if he wasn't right so much of the time.

"Anyone with any amount of influence in the industry reads Mike South," said Alec Helmy, owner of the porn industry trade publication Xbiz. " He is the king of porn gossip today." Though South won't say how many pageviews he gets per day, he says it's "in the thousands." A major scoop can bring in tens of thousands of pageviews.

A large part of what makes South such a phenomenon is his fearless—some would say reckless—railing against the entrenched institutions and figureheads of the adult industry. The porn industry sometimes seems to combine the oversized egos of Hollywood with the inscrutable power structures of organized crime. Mike South Hulk-smashes through it all with an anarchic distrust of all concentrated power and a Wikileaks-style taste for radical transparency. He's a self-styled defender of porn's powerless and self-described "gun-totin' Libertarian."

"When somebody mistreats the talent, or somebody does something scummy, that's a story and that's why a lot of people within the industry turn to my blog because it is a mirror on them," South said. "It lets the industry take a look at itself and sometimes say, ‘Well maybe there are some things we need to change, or maybe we do need to reign that person in.'"

This attitude has won South many readers but few friends among porn's power elite. Many view him with the same mixture of fear and loathing as mainstream movie executives see the notorious Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke. Once a few years ago, South came home to a disturbing display on the doorstep of his Atlanta townhouse: A box with a sympathy card, a bottle of lighter fluid, a book of matches and a toy fire truck.

"I took it as a direct threat," South told me recently in his thick Southern accent. "I've got a stack of death threats three feet high. It was the abundance of death threats that inspired me to get the concealed carry permit."

"I talk to quite a number of people in the industry who read Mike South regularly but would never, ever admit it," said the journalist Richard Abowitz, who covers the porn industry for The Daily Beast. "I actually think they review events and change information to make it look like the things on his blog are wrong. That's how obsessed they are with him."

If Mike South wrote about me, I too would do everything in my power to prove him wrong. Almost everyone who sparks South's interest he puts into one of two categories on his blog: a scumbag screwing up the porn industry, or a moron who's letting the scumbags getting away with it. In the rare instance that someone earns Mike South's praise, you can almost guarantee they'll be written off as a moron or a scumbag within the next month.

But South matches his muckraking attitude with a muckraker's ability to dig up facts powerful people don't want known. He monitors the numerous porn industry message boards like they're police scanners, and a stream of tips unlikely sources fill his inbox. Last December, South posted that Luxembourg-based porn giant Manwin had purchased the adult film studio Digital Playground. The deal was massive (within the industry, it was compared to Disney buying Pixar) and Manwin preferred to keep it quiet. But South got a tip from a worker in Digital Playground's IT department. The IT guy had noticed that the checks he processed from Digital Playground's affiliate websites were suddenly being made out to Manwin.

"There's an old saying, if you want to know who's going to get laid off ask the IT guy first," South said. They're the ones deleting all the email accounts.

Update: Mike South got it wrong, technically: Manwin did not finalize the purchase of Digital Playground until January 2012. They were in talks in December.

***

South's combination of self-righteousness and doggedness has been on full display in the fallout from the August syphilis outbreak, in which about 9 performers contracted the disease. South was the first to confirm that the source of this outbreak was a well-liked porn veteran named Mr. Marcus, who has since admitted that he hid a positive syphilis test so he could continue to work.

The King of Porn Gossip: Meet Mike South, the Man Who Got to the Bottom of The Industry's Syphilis OutbreakS
Mr. Marcus. (photo via Facebook)

In breaking the story, South scored one of the biggest scoops of his career and upset a carefully-orchestrated PR effort by the Free Speech Coalition, the porn industry's trade group, to have Mr. Marcus confess to sympathetic news outlets. After Mr. Marcus came to the FSC for help, the organization arranged for him to do interviews with the two porn trade publications, Adult Video News and Xbiz. They agreed to simultaneously publish their stories the day after interviewing him.

But just hours after Mr. Marcus gave his sanctioned interviews, he called up South. Based on tips, South had been hinting on his blog for days that Marcus was patient zero, and Marcus gave emotional confession in a voicemail on his cell phone. South immediately posted the recording, scooping Xbiz and AVN by hours.

In the message, Mr. Marcus offers a rambling apology, addressing to the entire industry.

"I just want to say I'm sorry, my conscience is heavy and I'm way better than this," Marcus says. "It's unprofessional, inconsiderate, I just wasn't thinking clearly."

Mr. Marcus' voicemail showed the extent to which South has become a de facto mouthpiece for porn performers. The voicemail not only confirmed crucial information about Marcus' role in the outbreak, it was also raw and dramatic. It resonated with performers in a way that the FSC-sanctioned reports never could have done. After South posted the clip, his site crashed from the flood of traffic.

"I believe [Mr. Marcus] just saw the value of getting in touch with me," South said. "He felt like I was on the frontline on this story and he had heard my name enough times that he decided it would probably be in his best interest to get a message out through me."

The syphilis scandal has also given South the opportunity to rail against his favorite villain, Manwin. As the porn industry has moved away from VHS and DVDs to online content, Manwin Technologies has grown into a multi-million dollar behemoth. The company was started by German programmer Fabian Thylmann, who capitalized early on the trend towards free porn "tube" sites—the x-rated YouTube clones—by buying up big tube sites like xTube and Pornhub. Leveraging wealth earned from advertising on the tube sites, Manwin has amassed a porn empire that includes popular properties like Brazzers, Digital Playground and managing Playboy TV's online and video properties . But Manwin's rise has earned it scorn from many industry insiders. They believe the company pillaged the industry by flooding the market with free, sometimes pirated porn that is easily accessed through the tube sites.

"My problem with Manwin is that they made their money off of their tube sites and those tube sites are notorious for hosting copyrighted content," South told me. "What they ended up doing was devaluing the content massively, and then going into the content producers and saying, ‘Hey, your stuff is up here anyway, why don't you just sell us the rights to use it?' It's like this huge assimilation machine that's steadily sliming through Porn Valley and assimilating everything they touch."

At nearly every turn in the syphilis scandal, South divined some attempt by Manwin to use its outsize influence to bully the industry into line. When Manwin announced it would require its stars to either get an antibiotic shot or wait months before performing, South saw a horrendous breach of personal liberty. He fired off an acerbic post that called out Thylmann by name: "A Post for you Fabian Thylman (sic) and the Rest of you Fucking Morons Pretending to be Doctors."

Even before the scandal, South's frequent rants against Manwin were enough to draw out the reclusive Thylmann. In the comments he often attempts to correct South's facts, which South has a tendency to bend to fit his pointed view.

"Let me take care of enforcing our rules, you can continue taking care of spreading false information and pretending you are a journalist," Thylmann commented on a post in which South criticized Manwin's performer testing practices.

(Manwin would not make Thylmann available to comment.)

But many performers in porn valley are sympathetic to South's anti-Manwin bent: like him, they've grown skeptical of the company's ever-increasing industry dominance.

"They're becoming a monopoly, and I think that's what people are afraid of," said porn star Danny Wylde. South says a number of performers have complained to him that Manwin will cut them off if they demand to use condoms, despite Manwin's professed openness to optional condom use. And Manwin suffers from something of a culture clash with the San Fernando Valley—imagine if Google took over Hollywood: The company's coldly efficient, technology-driven operation and European headquarters means it hasn't ingratiated itself with performers and agents in Porn Valley, says porn lawyer Michael Fatorossi.

"The way Manwin does their production, based on all of the tube sites and all of the traffic they have, they are very good at consumer research," he said. "They can see which girls are popular and which aren't popular and it drives who they shoot. It's good from a business standpoint, but when it comes to a public relations standpoint in the industry that's not so good."

"I'm not a journalist—my site is an op-ed piece and it's my opinion."

Even so, South's fixation on the company—which essentially renders Manwin the shadowy force behind a massive industry decline—can seem simplistic and paranoid, especially to an outsider. In the case of the syphilis scandal, Manwin did require the shots, but also offered to pay for them—not an unreasonable measure to keep its workers from contracting a serious disease. And the company has recently launched a subsidy fund to help porn stars cover STD testing. This is undeniably a boon for cash-strapped performers, but South spun it into another conspiracy meant to further cement Manwin's control.

"You can't get mad at [Manwin] for helping now when they screwed you over in the past," said Wylde, the performer. "It's like saying, ‘BP made that huge oil spill, that really sucks,' but then getting mad when they try to clean it up."

When it comes to Manwin, South neutralizes criticism by being so transparently biased that to complain he has a skewed view is like complaining your donut has a hole in it. He admits not all his facts are correct, but counters that he'll promptly issue a correction if proven wrong. When asked if he has an axe to grind against Manwin, South told me, "Oh yeah I do, I'll be the first to tell you that. I've never claimed to be objective; I'm not a journalist—my site is an op-ed piece and it's my opinion."

***

Many of South's opinions can be explained by his own history as a porn performer and producer. Mike South was born Mike Strother. (South is his porn name, which he says was suggested by the late, legendary Alabama songwriter Hampton Reese—"a good friend of mine.") He grew up in rural Georgia, and nothing of his early life suggested he'd pursue a career in porn. His dad owned a company that did commercial remodeling.

"I was just an average kid," South said. "I had a great family life, there were no issues there."

South graduated high school in 1976 and gravitated toward technology jobs, working at first for a small computer company and eventually ending up managing databases at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. After a few years working at NASA in Alabama and Florida, he quit to do independent computer consulting. He moved to Atlanta and "made obscene amounts of money."

Mike South's break into porn came during the late 90s in Las Vegas, at the Adult Entertainment Expo. Back then, the expo was part of the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual technology extravaganza. South had started attending CES in the late 80s to keep up with developments in the field, and would always check out the adult section.

He was sitting alone at a table eating lunch during one convention in the late 80s when the New York City fetish porn producer Rick Savage sat down next to him. They got to talking. Savage commented on his accent and asked where he was from.

South told him he lived in Atlanta, and Savage lit up. "Oh man, Atlanta, you guys have the best strip clubs and the most beautiful women I've ever seen," he said. "Do you shoot porn in Atlanta? You should. I know someone who would buy it.'"

BY 1992, burned out on his consulting job, decided to try his hand at porn. He knew the basics of filmmaking from shooting training videos during his days at NASA, and he'd watched a fair amount of porn. How hard could it be?

Recruiting his stars turned out to be as easy as walking into a strip club.

"The first girl I talked to said, ‘You're gonna pay me $500 to fuck my boyfriend? Sure, I'll do it,'" South said. South remembers thinking at the time that porn was going to be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

He rented lighting and brought his stars to their set. But the challenge turned out to be more than technical: For two hours the stripper serviced her boyfriend orally, but he couldn't get it up. This is how South ended up starring in the first porn film he ever shot.

The King of Porn Gossip: Meet Mike South, the Man Who Got to the Bottom of The Industry's Syphilis OutbreakS
Mike South gets a pedicure. (photo courtesy Mike South)

"The whole concept of stage fright had never even occurred to me," South said. "So, finally, the guy looks at me and says, ‘You fuck the bitch and I'll film it.' And I'm like, um, that wasn't really what I had planned, but the show must go on. That's how my character was born."

South's ‘character' reflects his haphazard porn origins. James Deen has been hailed for his guy-next-door style but Mike South is truly average in appearance: a burly hirsute biker dude with a thick southern accent and an amiable grin. South went on to star and produce dozens of films, including Southern Magnolias: Fire Down Below and Mike South's Peaches and Cream. But he stopped in recent years due to health problems and his advancing age.

Atlanta is an odd place to make porn. Most of the porn you watch is made in the San Fernando Valley, hundreds of miles to the West, or in Eastern Europe. But South has come to an understanding with local authorities (the legality of shooting in Atlanta is questionable), and the untapped nature of Atlanta talent pool's seems to benefit his boot-strap operation.

More importantly for South's blogging career, his geographical isolation means he can tap insider networks while still maintaining his bristly independence.

"I'm a lot more isolated form the bullshit," South said. "I'm a lot less likely to defer to friendships. I have friends in the adult industry but I don't have to deal with them on a day to day basis."

***

For a skilled gossip like Mike South, Porn is an especially ripe field for tilling. Good information is hard to come by, guarded jealously by industry insiders. But unlike Hollywood, which is patrolled by a phalanx of more-or-less independent mainstream entertainment reporters, the only dedicated coverage of the smut industry comes from the solicitous trades, AVN and Xbiz. While the trades do a decent job covering the comings and goings of the industry, they're beholden to porn companies and the Free Speech Coalition for access and advertising dollars.

"There's not a lot of resouces dedicated to covering porn," said The Daily Beast's Abowitz. "Not a lot of professional journalists or commentators looking for the truth. In that absence there's a lot of rumor."

The precariousness of the entire adult enterprise fosters a further lack of transparency. The truth does not thrive in an environment built around fake names and shell companies. And the embattled porn industry is always fending off harsh criticism from AIDS prevention groups, feminists, and the religious right, not to mention Mitt Romney. There's incentive to keep embarrassing or scandalous information quiet, as its publication will only give more ammunition to critics.

Instead, then, the porn industry gossips. David Jennings, a former porn performer and author of the memoir Skinflicks, recalled that in the '80s the office of the porn agent Jim South, who represented a huge chunk of the industry, was the site of the industry's main rumor mill.

"Whenever you'd go to his office there would be all these porn stars—studs and ladies—waiting around to get their five minutes with him. So a lot of the gossip got passed around there," Jennings said.

When porn moved online, so did the gossip. Before Mike South, the adult industry of the late '90s and early '00s was dominated by the gossip blogger Luke Ford. By all accounts, Ford was as abrasive as South—Wired called him the "most hated man in porn." And Luke Ford was weird. He was an Orthodox Jewish convert (the son of an evangelical minister) who hated porn as much as porn hated him.

"I view porn, adultery, premarital sex, all forms of sexual expression outside of marriage as sinful, meaning against God's will," he told Salon in 1999, at the height of his influence. Luke Ford was a Freudian basketcase who did his best to destroy the industry even while lusting after its stars and earning $40,000 a year trading in their gossip.

Ford gave up porn gossip in 2001 on his Rabbi's recommendation and sold his site for $25,000. He planned on moving to Jerusalem. But he didn't get away from the industry without getting hit with a number of defamation suits, including one, by the porn star Christi Lake, that accused Ford of publishing false rumors that she'd shot a scene with a dog. Ford still blogs at Lukeford.net, but mostly on religious matters, with a special focus on the right-wing Jewish radio host Dennis Prager.

The King of Porn Gossip: Meet Mike South, the Man Who Got to the Bottom of The Industry's Syphilis Outbreak
Luke Ford.

Back when Luke Ford was still king of porn gossip, Mike South was one of the more dedicated commenters on his blog. The two became friends. When South got sick of being a commenter, he decided to start his own blog in 2000. "I thought, if Luke Ford can do it, I can do it."

In some ways South is just picking up where Ford left off. But South distances himself from Ford in one important aspect.

"He hated the industry; I love the industry," South said. For South, the main problem with the industry is its exploitation of vulnerable performers. "I identify with the performers more than the company owners, and the producers and directors and I tend to stick up for the little guy, and I see the little guys as the performers. Now, don't get me wrong, I'll be the first to tell you that half the problems in this business come from performers acting like they're retarded, but still, they're my people."

South's reputation as an advocate for performers was boosted considerably in the spring of 2011, when he spearheaded the takedown of a site called Porn Wikileaks, which published a list of thousands of performers' real names and intimate personal details in order to terrorize them. Porn Wikileaks published photos of stars' homes and phone numbers for their day jobs— even information on their children—exploiting their biggest vulnerabilities. For months, performers whispered about the site, but refused to even name it lest they become a target.

"They all wanted to keep it under the rug and keep it quiet because they didn't want to be attacked." said performer Mercedes Ashley, who was an early Porn Wikileaks target. The trade publications were silent, as was the Free Speech Coalition. "Nobody came to the porn actors' and actresses aid except Mike South."

Beginning in March, 2011 South hit Porn Wikileaks with a scorched-earth campaign of information warfare. He published proof that Porn Wikileaks had been started with records stolen from an STD testing database that served the porn industry, potentially in violation of HIPAA laws. He named and shamed those he believed to be involved in the site, aided, he says, by a shadowy group of hackers who leaked him information. When he published allegations that Porn Wikileaks was financially backed by a well-known porn actor the site quickly shut down in July, as did the STD clinic whose shoddy security practices left performers so vulnerable.

South has celebrated the victory with a characteristic lack of modesty. "It was one of the more selfless things I have done in my life," he later wrote in a post. "I wasn't even on [Porn Wikileaks'] radar… but because I love the business and I have a great affection for the people in it I felt it was my obligation to enjoin that fight."

Mercedes Ashley agreed: "He's a superhero," she said.

But South's berserker style was criticized even as the industry celebrated the demise of Porn Wikileaks. Some complained he let his zeal overshadow the facts, dragging innocent bystanders into his crusade. One person whose correspondences South leaked, supposedly as proof of his support in Porn Wikileaks, said the messages were abridged and taken out of context.

"If he would have published the full correspondence, it would have showed that my desire was to put that situation to an end," he said. But South, sensing he had uncovered another layer of conspiracy, blazed ahead anyway.

One of South's former allies in the fight against Porn Wikileaks, the filmmaker and blogger Michael Whiteacre said South had less to do with Porn Wikileaks demise than he took credit for. Whiteacre and a partner painstakingly collected much of the information used to destroy Porn Wikileaks. But when they shared it with South to get his feedback, South instantly published the half-baked information, Whiteacre said.

"That was the day I realized Mike South was only interested in Porn Wikileaks for web traffic," Whiteacre said. "Here's an old man who lives at home in Georgia, whose claim to fame is winning a best amateur porn video AVN award in 1997, who's pretending to be an expert in porn. If you want to know how to shoot a blowgang in the sticks in a shack in Georgia, Mike South is your guy. In terms of insight into an industry where everyone despises him or doesn't know who he is, it's ludicrous."

The grudges go both ways when it comes to Mike South.

Mike South inspires such controversy simply by being Mike South, throwing himself so fully into a story that he becomes it.

"He's very gonzo," said Xbiz's Helmy. "He does it in a way where he just doesn't give a shit about any consequences. I believe he genuinely means well but at the same time there are times where he can be offensive."

One of the few instances where South abandons his brash pose is when talking about what he sees as a coarsening in the porn culture. South has an ongoing crusades against the increasing popularity of porn where women are violently choked, or subjected to rape fantasies.

"He's a superhero."

"When I got into the biz in ‘92, we were much more respectful of each other," South told me "Sometime around 2000, it seems that porn became a train-wreck. People were trying to outdo each other in terms of who could stage the bigger train-wreck. That's when the risky practices, like ass-to-mouth, and the really misogynistic and violent sex scenes really started becoming the norm."

South does things differently. "I made myself a pledge when I got into the industry that I would treat the talent with respect and a degree of responsibility," he said. "f I have a girl coming to me to shoot, she has to do more than look good. She has to convince me that she can handle it emotionally, that she's not doing it as a quick-fix to a financial problem, that she's not doing it to support a drug habit, or a sorry-ass boyfriend who is pushing her into doing it, or whatever."

But as with the porn industry he covers, there's a darker side to South, too. Last year South was charged with 4th degree menacing, a misdemeanor, after allegedly accosting a stripper in a strip club he was helping run in Dayton, Ohio. He had broken his leg and was in a wheelchair, and the woman bumped into his bum leg. He allegedly grabbed her by the hair and screamed at her, "stupid fucking bitch, watch where you're going." A rival blogger later leaked the police report, and the case is still pending. South denies that he roughed up the woman.

"I put my hands on her shoulder and pulled her down to where she could hear me," he said. "I called her a stupid bitch, but I would never assault a female."

***

Mike South may love the porn industry, but his blog is an odd way of showing it. Wallowing in the scandal and outrage South digs up is enough to give pause to even those of us with the most permissive views on porn. The porn industry I've read about on South's blog seems to be a machine to turn naked flesh into cash with the cruel efficiency of an industrial farm churning out chicken tenders. The game for porn companies is to extract as much value from performers before they're worn out by disease or age. Inevitably, the female performers are the ones who get chewed up the fastest and are hurt the most in the process.

But then this is Mike South's gonzo view of the porn industry, written for insiders by someone who is, increasingly, an insider himself. (This March, South was a participant on a well-attended panel at the Xbiz trade conference in Florida.) Mike South's picture of porn is a caricature that accentuates the industry's failings but contains an implicit prescription for fixing it all. For South, who often mentions the political science classes he took in college, porn should be a social contract between people who want to fuck on camera for money, gently enabled by a benevolent industry apparatus. If we could get rid of all the scumbags and morons clogging up the system, porn might actually become one big pervy, happy family.

Buried among South's screeds are a few posts where he waxes poetic about the good in porn. In these you get a sense of his ideal industry, where performers' lack of discretion on camera translates to an unguarded warmth when nobody's filming.

One post recalls how Ashley, one of the girls South shoots, nursed him back to health after he underwent surgery to remove a tumor on his spinal cord in 2007. The surgery caused some serious nerve damage which left South unable to walk for days, and he and Ashley booked an extended-stay handicap-accessible motel room. Ashley stayed by his side 24/7. (With her husband's consent, South says.)

"She helped me shower and get around, and made me get out," South said. She bought him a walker when he was well enough to stand and the two tottered around the motel grounds three times a day. After five days he felt well enough to go home and Ashley drove him back and stayed a couple more days before she went back to her family.

"I am forever in her debt for her staying with me at that time," South said. The promise of this kind of relationship is ultimately what gives South's blog, for all its darkness, an underlying sense of optimism.

"I think that this industry attracts two kinds of guys into it, guys who love women and guys who hate women," South told me. "There are too many of the latter these days and not enough of the former. But we in the industry have the power to fix that."