The Tragic Story of Local Porn Star Joey Stefano
How does a nice Catholic boy from Chester end up as one of gay porn’s biggest stars, only to suffer a sordid death in a Hollywood motel at the age of 26? A new film on the life of Joey Stefano aims to find the answer.
Immaculate Heart Cemetery in Marcus Hook would seem an unlikely resting place for a power-bottom porn star, but this is indeed where Chester native Joey Stefano, né Nicholas Iacona Jr., lays in perpetual sleep. His final resting place bears no headstone, making his presence in the cemetery derelict if not absent.
Yet 17 years after his death, Joey Stefano’s presence in both the mainstream and adult entertainment industries couldn’t be more noticeable. Hollywood director Chad Darnell, whose prior credits include casting Spider-Man and Lost, has spent the bulk of the past three years crafting a 107-page script that he hopes to shape into a two-hour indie biopic by February of next year. (Though the film, for which Darnell interviewed more than 50 sources over a three-year period, is still short $450,000 in funding.) The film’s working title is X-Rated, and it recounts the fast life and slow death of one of the biggest gay-porn stars of the 1990s, an era when being in adult film carried far more star power than uploading an amateur video to Xtube.
Darnell’s fascination with Stefano began when a copy of a 1996 biography, Wonder Bread and Ecstasy, fell—literally—at his feet in an L.A. bookstore. Devouring the book in a single sitting, he instantly saw its potential as a movie. “It’s that story of ‘little boy comes to Hollywood and gets taken by the scene,’” says Darnell, who has yet to cast the role of Stefano. “But the real villain in the script is addiction, which Joey had. They all did.”
Stefano was Philly’s Bradley Cooper of gay porn. A small-town, big-dreaming, all-American “dude,” he didn’t just settle for porn, but rather aspired to it. And though his story ended in an almost cliché drug-induced tragedy in November 1994, his list of accomplishments accrued by his death at the age of 26 remains impressive.
Featured model in Madonna’s salacious Sex book? Check. Winner of the Best Actor trophy at the 1992 Gay Erotic Video Awards? Score. Line of Joey Stefano-branded apparel? Just ask the former Spruce Street Video employee about his signature Stefano sweatpants, created to commemorate Joey’s appearance at the 1992 PrideDay Parade. First bottom to hit big in what was previously an industry of straight-acting tops? You bet your butt cheeks. He was one of the only porn stars the Village Voice’s Michael Musto says he ever found attractive. During a dinner together in 1990, Musto says Stefano implanted a Heineken bottle into his ass like a flag on the moon. Musto later dubbed it “the Heinie-kin.” Stefano was a bottom living on top.
Despite his subsequent battles with drugs, and contracting HIV before the dawn of retroviral drugs, Stefano never lost his movie-star glow. When he entered a room, he would sway, grin and, whether he wanted to or not, attract the eyes of everyone else in it.
“He had these timeless looks to him,” says Robert Prion, a New Jersey–based porn director who shot three flicks with Stefano. “He looked like Tom Cruise, only his eyes were much nicer.”
Stefano’s story has been told several times, in a biography and several plays, and will be again in Darnell’s soon-to-come film. It’s enough to make you wonder: Why? Why does a boy from the Philly ’burbs who went on to become a gay-porn icon continue to blow up news feeds and entertainment mediums—continue to fascinate—after all these years? Just who was Joey Stefano?
The better question is: Who was Nick Iacona?
As a teenager, Linda Iacona would resent her little brother when he squealed on her for smoking. Like a child guilty of sweeping brussels sprouts into a napkin, she’d be grounded the moment he’d point their parents toward her cigarette-stuffed shoes.
But today, sitting in the living room of her Glenolden apartment, pointing to a picture of Nick hanging on her wall and holding a lit cigarette between her fingers, she recalls the memory with fondness.
Linda was six years older than Nick, but the two got along like twins. Nick, who she says behaved like a “big Toys ‘R’ Us kid,” would visit her regularly when she moved away from home to start a family. She was his confidante; he was her rock. He gave her away at her wedding. More tough-looking than her brother, the stress lines now etched into the contours of her face don’t distract from the same remarkable pair of eyes that he had. Her dialect, meanwhile, shines through as that of the small-town neighbor who boisterously emotes while telling a story.
Linda has never spoken about Nick to the media. Disheartened by how her family was portrayed in his biography, and distrustful of those looking to cash in on his story, she decided she would never publicly touch on the subject. And she hasn’t, until now.
“My whole world shattered when I lost him,” she says, her voice shaking, her face visibly anguished. “No one knew him like I did.”
Linda remembers Nick as the little kid who would engage in snowball fights, who’d dance when someone turned the music up, who always put family first. Along with his air of innocence, his aloofness was unmistakable to others. “He was very quiet, very sweet, but was also the type of guy you could interact with and still not really know,” recalls Lisa Seramone, who graduated with Nick from Claymont High School, right outside of Chester County in Delaware, in 1985.
Seramone’s memory of Nick was of a kid easygoing and rarely upset—except when a classmate jokingly called him “gay” in the middle of a biology class, prompting young Nick to jump him. Though that’s less the story of Nick Iacona than it is the one of every small-town, closeted, lower-middle-class gay youth in Pennsylvania.
Growing up in Chester, the Iaconas were far from wealthy, but they didn’t scrape pennies from the barrel, either. Nick’s father, a union painter, sent all of his children to Catholic grammar school and, as Iacona siblings’ childhood friend Rick Guarente now says, would “empty out a whole freezer to help someone else.”
Fifteen-year-old Nick’s world would be turned upside down in 1983, when his dad died at the age of 48 from colon cancer. Nick and his siblings had watched for three painful years as their large and bombastic father deteriorated into an 85-pound shell of his former self. After his death, Nick shut down, and soon after was regularly indulging in drugs offered by his neighbor—presumably to numb the pain that would end up haunting him for the rest of his life.
Like any good big sister, Linda tried to put a stop to it. Having caught word of his drug use, she barged into the neighbor’s home and threatened her. She then got Nick into the nearby Mirmont Treatment Center in Delaware County, where he stayed for six months.
After leaving rehab, Nick put together a modeling portfolio with a photographer in Upper Darby. In 1989, he encountered and impressed gay-porn actor Tony Davis at a Manhattan dance club; Davis would become his mentor in the business. A boastful student of ’70s and ’80s porn megastars, Nick was instantly excited by the prospect of joining the adult-film elite. He dove headfirst into the porn industry after meeting on-the-rise director Chi Chi LaRue during a trip to L.A. with Davis. He relapsed with a bottle of peach schnapps about a year into his new career, which would span five years and more than 35 adult films.
The pouty “Joey Stefano” persona was shaped by LaRue, and centered on his insatiable appetite for sex as a bottom; his smooth, fit, but appealingly ordinary body was made extraordinary by what Prion touts as “the best ass in the industry.” His eyes, which looked drugged with desire, made him the perfect candidate for roles below the belt.
Beyond that, Stefano earned a reputation—particularly through the 1991 film More of a Man—as a more believable actor than most other porn boys. Former theatrical talent agent David Del Valle continues to lament his failed attempt to tap into Stefano’s acting potential after meeting him at an L.A. “salon” (read: drug party for actors and entertainment gurus) in 1990—the year Stefano was also diagnosed with HIV. “I’ll always wonder whether I could have gotten through to him that night, whether he could have believed what I was telling him,” Del Valle says. “Could he have had an acting career? Because let me tell you, he really had ‘it.’”
Close friend and former Adult Video News gay-content editor Mickey Skee says Stefano was poor with planning his career and budgeting his money, easily swept away by the gay-porn industry’s off-set drug culture. Skee admits other Stefano friends casually indulged in drugs, but said Stefano was the type who continued to laugh long after a joke stopped being funny. “That’s if he even got the joke at all,” Skee says.
“Nicky’s” trips back to Philadelphia became increasingly infrequent. But he updated Linda with new phone numbers where she could reach him; she routinely checked in with him. They regularly corresponded through phone calls and postcards, the latter now packed away in a box in her basement. The last time she saw him, Nick entrusted her with his signature black-leather jacket—“You can wear it, but only till I come back,” she remembers him joking. She still wears it.
But however intertwined their lives may have been, Linda acknowledges she knew far more about Nick than she did about Joey. She was largely kept in the dark about the more salacious parts of his lifestyle and career. “I didn’t know how big he was until after he died,” Linda recalls. To this day, his mother is unaware that her son was a porn star—or, for that matter, gay.
Linda discovered that her brother was more than just a mainstream L.A. “model,” as he had told his family, when her young daughter pointed to his picture on the cover of an adult magazine at a local mall bookstore in 1990, excitedly saying, “Look, Mommy! It’s Uncle Nicky!” Linda, mouth agape, immediately called her brother—not out of anger, but with a jab of humor and admitted embarrassment that her nine-year-old daughter had just seen her uncle, nude, on a magazine cover. “He laughed and said, ‘We’ll talk all about it, Lin.’”
In the summer of 1994, Nick splurged on a big family vacation to Wildwood, even paying a limo service to escort them all down the Shore in style. Such beach vacations had become routine over the years, but this time, after shipping his furniture, dishes and feather bed to Linda’s house, Nick put into action a plan to leave L.A., and porn, for good. When he arrived at her doorstep, he was ready for the family vacation—and a clean slate. Linda says he was “willing to mop floors” if that was what it took to reboot and embark on a “normal” life.
Before leaving Linda’s house that summer, he told her, rather forebodingly, that he had “unfinished business” in L.A. He had to go back, he said. She begged him not to do it. “The last words I remember saying to him were, ‘Don’t go,’” says Linda. “I had a gut feeling when he left that something would happen.”
Four months later, Joey Stefano was found nearly lifeless in a Hollywood motel room, his ashen body spread across sweat-soaked sheets, garbed in a red hoodie. He was pronounced dead later that day at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Cause of death: an overdose of cocaine, morphine, heroin, and Special K.
Though Linda says the years to follow nearly “destroyed” her, others merely shook their heads. For Skee, the death was hardly shocking news. “He always said he was going to die before he was 30, even before his HIV diagnosis,” he says. “It’s impossible to imagine him being old. It’s like imagining Marilyn Monroe as a senior citizen.”
It’s easy to point to the gay-porn industry as the red-handed culprit in the death of Joey Stefano and so many like him. But life, and death, is always more complicated than we think. The truth is that Nick Iacona was troubled long before he became Joey Stefano, before friends were peeling him off of street corners in New York in drug-induced hazes. Stefano’s—Nick’s—wounds went deeper than even the film of his life will be able to capture: his story is less the “little boy comes to Hollywood and gets taken by the scene” proposed by Darnell than it is the more strikingly simple tale of a young man who never quite learned to grapple with the death of his father, a profound loss that was exacerbated by an entertainment industry that feeds on tragedy like a leech. It’s a less erotic reality that, to the dismay of book writers and filmmakers everywhere, doesn’t sell quite as easily to consumers.
“Major names, from Monroe to Janis Joplin to Amy Winehouse—all of these people were a mess,” says Michael Lucas, a gay-porn actor since 1996 and today one of the most successful producers of gay adult films around. “These people, they have managers, agents, promoters—they have so much money that they can get all the help possible, and they still can’t get healthy. They still don’t succeed.
“Porn stars,” he says, “they don’t have anyone.”Sign up to get a free subscription to G Philly’s quarterly glossy.