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interview: danni ashe

How did you find yourself getting into the Internet business?

... I'd worked for many years as what they call a house dancer, and then I became a men's magazine model, and did a lot of softcore videos. And then I became what's called a feature dancer. Once you have built a name for yourself, have magazine credits and video credits, you can become what's called a feature, and you tour around the country from club to club, city to city, as sort of the headline attraction. You have themed 20-minute shows, and you are the reason people come to the club.

So I did that for awhile, and had a number of really awful experiences. And out of those experiences I thought, "You know what, it's time to move on." ... And I had been using a personal computer for a number of years and running my fan club, and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I loved the computer. I was obsessed with the computer, and I thought, "I want to become a computer programmer."

And in the interim, while I was waiting for a course to start, I ventured onto the Internet, and quickly got into the Usenet newsgroups where I was hearing that my pictures were being posted, and started talking to people. ... I spent several really intense months in the newsgroups, and it was out of those conversations that the idea for Danni's Hard Drive was born. ...

And you were not personally intimidated by the technology of the Internet? What [year]?

Late '94, early '95. ... Well, I was very computer literate, and yes I was new to the Internet, but I was so fascinated by it and I was so intrigued, that I was just driven to figure out whatever I needed to figure out. And so every step of the way, if I wanted to do something, I would just pour myself into it until I figured out how to do it.

Ashe is founder and CEO of Danni's Hard Drive, regarded as one of the most popular porn sites on the Internet. Her site offers only softcore pornography and does not feature any female-male sex. Here, Ashe discusses her audience, what she offers them, and how she is planning for even further growth in her business, which she expected to make $8 million last year. This interview was conducted in May 2001.

So you're a geek inside.

I'm a bit of a geek yeah, I'm a geek with big breasts. (laughter) ...

Who is coming to Danni's Hard Drive?

I think that the average visitor to Danni's Hard Drive is someone who is more of a fan, someone who's generally interested in knowing about the women that they have fantasies about, wanting to have a more well-rounded fantasy, a little more reality in the information. ... And how I've managed to do that is by creating a place that people will want to visit again and again and tell their friends about. And I do a lot of publicity, and that's how I make Danni's Hard Drive a large destination that a lot of people go to.

theres absolutely no question that wed make a lot more money if we went hardcore, but its not something that I'm willing to do

The vast majority of the adult Internet business uses different methods to drive traffic to their websites. It becomes much more of a buying and selling of traffic, of content. It's very much a numbers game. It's all about moving that traffic around -- which initially, I think, was a brilliant idea. You don't see big mainstream corporations agreeing to trade traffic with each other, to share customers with each other. In the adult space you do see that quite a bit. ...

Can you explain that?

... Essentially what happens is an adult website will buy a thousand visitors, for instance. Of those thousand, maybe two or three will subscribe, so the 998 people who don't subscribe, they'll say, "Hey, I'm going to sell 'em to the next guy." The next guy will buy the 998 visitors, and then maybe one or two will subscribe. And so people just keep getting moved around. And, you know, the initial philosophy was, "Hey, you know, maybe this guy doesn't like my website, but he might like this other person's website, so let's give them more choices." But it's gotten to the point now where people are getting moved around and bought and sold too much. ...

So explain Danni's Hard Drive to me.

... When you come to Danni's Hard Drive you'll find a lot of things. We post a lot of regular content: picture of the week, model of the day, we have news features, the joke of the week. You can preview e-zines, read through all of the model biographies, read my FAQ and biography. You can see sample photos, we do parodies and fun little features. But what you'll quickly find is that the model's directory is at the center of the site. It's at the center of the file structure. Everything comes and goes from the model pages, everything.

How much money, how big a success over the last few years?

... Last year Danni's Hard Drive made $6.5 million. This year we expect to make $8 million. We now employ 45 people, and the business continues to grow and expand. ... Over the years, we've had to develop a lot of technology to support the business of Danni's Hard Drive -- streaming video technology, hosting technologies, credit card scrubbing technologies, processing, customer service. And all of these things are now working so well that they have value to other companies, and we're beginning to market those technologies to other companies. And that's actually the largest area of growth in our business right now.

And the other area that we're moving into is taking the Danni brand, which is probably the only pure adult Internet brand in the space, and moving it to other forms of media. We're doing a video and DVD line, I'm writing a book, we're talking about doing a magazine, doing cable and pay-per-view shows. So I'm trying to sort of expand in some more traditional forms of media. ...

You are considered, I think, softer.

Yes, Danni's Hard Drive is considered to be very softcore within the business.

And the definition of softcore is?

It is no hardcore explicit sex, no penetration. I try to stay really focused on nudity and simulated sex. And as a performer, that's where my boundaries were, that's where my comfort level was, and I feel like in the running of my business, I have to stay within my own, you know, comfort zone, within my own boundaries, so that it can always be fun for me.

Is there a temptation, an impulse, a marketing demand to go harder for you?

Oh, there's absolutely no question that we'd make a lot more money if we went hardcore, but it's not something that I'm willing to do, and I believe that if I stand firmly in the softcore space, someday that's going to be really worth something, because there aren't a whole lot of people that are trying to stand in that space. ...

Tell me what softcore is.

[No men] ... other than just a clothed man as, you know--

In the lapdance or something.

Yeah, exactly. You never see penises on Danni's Hard Drive, that's what it is. You know, hardcore, like the word pornography, has kind of a moving definition depending on who you're talking to. So it's kind of hard to define because I have my own personal definitions, but other people have other definitions. Some people believe that Playboy is pornography and other people believe that it's not. Some people believe that I'm pornography and some people believe I'm not. I don't believe what Danni's Hard Drive does is pornography, only because it has such a negative connotation.

Do you believe any of the material is actually obscene that's available out there?

Well, you know, you can find anything on the Internet. I've seen some pretty horrific things on the Internet, yeah. I mean, the Internet is almost like a parallel universe. It represents every possible human thought, feeling, and emotion, both good and bad, it's all there. It's a mirror of us. And sometimes, you know, we don't like to see (laughter) what's there. ...

Let me ask you, do you consider yourself a feminist?

Sure. I consider myself a feminist. Why not?

What does that mean?

Another moving term. Pro-woman, you know. I'm very concerned about how I am perceived as a woman and how other women are perceived, especially women who have chosen this industry. I think a lot of times women who choose adult entertainment are up against a lot, something that maybe they don't recognize when they first get started, because it's all very exciting.

And when you first start stripping or you first start modeling, you don't really realize how much negative feedback you're going to have to deal with from the outside world. And I think that's kind of one of my personal goals. I suffered through that for many years, when someone doesn't want to rent you an apartment because you're a stripper, or somebody doesn't want to give you that car loan because you're a stripper, that hurts, and you internalize it. And I think in a lot of ways I want to stand up and say, "Hey, we're worthy of people's respect. We're not bad people, and we don't deserve to be treated that way."

This is not, in your opinion, degrading the models who work for you?

Absolutely not, no. I think what I'm doing is helping to reverse some of the sexual repression that we have in this country about nudity and about sex. And I'm not a psychiatrist, but it seems to me, the more you repress your sexual feelings, the more they're going to pop up somewhere else in a really unhealthy way. In our culture, we repress a lot of sex, and we repress our anger, and what you see coming out is a lot of violent pornography. And, you know, it's my theory that that's a direct result of our culture's repression.

I saw, yesterday, tremendously violent pornography being made, directed by a woman. A woman actually was beaten by the other actors. What do you think about that?

I think all media, including pornography, is a mirror of what's going on in our collective subconscious. It's something that's surfacing in us, in our culture, otherwise it wouldn't be there. And I think it has a lot to do, as I was saying before, about repressing sexual desires and anger. You repress them both, and all of a sudden it bounces back and in kind of ugly ways.

Do you think those people should be shut down?

I'm personally very uncomfortable with the mixing of sex and violence, you know. It's not a warm feeling. But I don't know, I haven't seen it, I don't know how bad it is. ...

Are you concerned that the Bush administration is going to crack down on the adult business?

Danni's Hard Drive is a very softcore company in relationship to the rest of the business. I don't personally feel concerned. I think there are some people in this business that are concerned, absolutely.

Actually, you may be the beneficiary of a purge in a way.

You know what? On a personal level, as a human being, I'm very much opposed to censorship and legislation. But as a businesswoman, if I was only to purely look at this as a businesswoman and look at my bottom line, sure, censorship would be the best thing in the world for me, because I'm the softest-core company out there. So I would be bound to benefit, because I wouldn't be competing with hardcore companies anymore. ...

How attractive is a company like Danni's Hard Drive to outside capital?

... We have taken meetings with some of the biggest companies on the Internet. Every time they come in, they want a piece of our audience, they want a piece of our revenues, they just want a piece of the market. But in the end, we always get right up to the altar and they get cold feet. Somebody on the board says, "Oh, no you don't," and the deal is dead. It happens all the time.

I have a sense that there's a kind of mainstreaming of the industry that's at least being attempted by the Vivids and the Wickeds.

Well, I think Vivid and Wicked have done a really good job of working towards mainstreaming the industry. They've used a star system and they make celebrities out of their contract stars. And it's done a lot, I think, for adult entertainment's image. It is getting more mainstream, and I think a lot of the press coverage I've got has, in a way, helped make the business more mainstream. You know, ultimately, we will arrive at more European values and people will lighten up about sex a little bit. But right now it's still pretty taboo. ...

Does it surprise you how big the pornography industry is?

It doesn't surprise me how big the sex business is at all, no. Hey, listen, we are all sexual people. We are all interested at a certain level. And the more society tells us we can't have it, the more we want it. And that's what's going on. ...

Where is Danni's Hard Drive on the scale of all of the stuff that's available out there now? In terms of content or in terms of size?

I think Danni's Hard Drive is ... probably the biggest and best-established pure Internet brand -- meaning, you know, a brand that came up out of the Internet. So there's the Playboys, the Penthouses, the Hustlers, the Vivids, the Wickeds online, but those brands were all established somewhere else. But it's also still kind of a boutique-y business. It's still relatively small, because it's kind of focused on an itch, which is that of a fan club attitude.

So, comedy, the role of laughter. What is the role comedy plays for you guys?

I think Danni's Hard Drive is all about taking things that are sort of high on people's minds, taking a little bit of public consciousness, adding in a little nudity and a little humor, and mixing it up. And it's all about making people feel comfortable. You know, let's let people laugh, let's let them feel comfortable, let's let them not feel guilty or uncomfortable about where they are and what they're doing. ...

Asher of Vivid Entertainment Group says that in five years they will not be in the business of making movies anymore, that the movie will be small and maybe insignificant and maybe non-existent, but that what people will want to do is having this kind of appointment meeting with a woman in a room who does whatever you want. ... It will be essentially an affair with a woman on the Internet, a sort of sanitized non-AIDS, non-STD-oriented relationship, but she's somebody who I look forward to seeing every day or every couple of days and I'm willing to do that for a half hour a day. Is that the future?

Oh, there certainly may be a good business in that, but you know, the VCR didn't destroy the movie theater and MTV didn't get rid of the radio, and the Internet is not going to get rid of the video and DVD. The videos may go by way of the album; you know, it may all go DVD, but I think people like to collect things, and sometimes you want to have a passive experience. I don't think everybody always wants to have an interactive experience. Sometimes you just want to lay back and watch something.

So you're moving into the DVD, the movie business?

Yes, I mean, we've built up a pretty significant library. I produce 18 hours of content a month. And so the library is growing and growing and growing, and there are still some people that are still sitting it in the countryside at the end of a 56k modem, and they just can't get a satisfactory video experience and they want it on video or DVD. Then, there's the collectors. There are people who just like to have a collection. They want something that they can feel and hold.

So what is this called?

It'll be the Danni.com Video Line.

And will it be sold only on the Internet, or will you go through distribution?

Oh, we've established traditional distribution channels. Our first tape is coming out in two months. So we shall see.

What is the tape?

The first tape is called Naked Sex Stars. It's six adult film actresses doing, obviously, softcore performances. And it will be out in July.

And again, softcore performance is what?

Nudity, but not sex or penetration.

And what are the markets? Is it adult stores? Where do you market?

I don't know if I can answer that question that effectively. We've partnered with another company, and that's their business and I don't want to reinvent the wheel, and I rely on this other company to distribute my videos. I know that we will end up in a lot of mainstream outlets, but I don't know which ones. ...

Can the president and the attorney general ever hope to regulate this business, especially the Internet?

That's a good question. It could be that the cat is out of the bag. Certainly the Internet, the genie is out of the bottle. This is an international, global space. This is something that really represents the hopes and dreams and desires and feelings of everyone in the world. It is in absolute mirror of the world, and I don't know if any one government can just step in and say, "OK, we're going to erase those parts over there that we don't like." I'm not sure they can do it. ...

And yet you also talked earlier about this great irony, which is if the Bush administration pushed and locks it down a little bit, it is going to become the forbidden fruit, and because of the Internet, this thing could really explode in the future, as it did in the '80s.

I think if we just let people have it, pretty soon they're going to realize that's not what they want anyway. If you just let people experience their sexual feelings and explore, ultimately I think they're not going to end up wanting to see, you know, excrement. (laughter) They're going to want to see healthy fantasies. But people have to kind of make those decisions on their own, and I think the more you try to legislate it and beat it down and hide it, the more you just sort of keep that repression going and keep the problem going.

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