“Twelve inches??” balked a man waiting in line at Chi Chi LaRue’s, a lingerie and sex store in West Hollywood, California. He pointed at various other doodads hanging near the “Blackballed” and its counterpart, the “Big White Cock,” demanding explanations from a companion.
But they were not in line for a 12-inch silicone dildo, nor were they in line for a cock ring, a penis extender, a masturbator, or any of the other sexual paraphernalia surrounding the scores of people in line. Like hundreds of others on Wednesday, they were waiting for an autograph and photo with Stormy Daniels, the porn star cum political figure who made a visit to West Hollywood to receive a key to the city and promote her new T-shirt line, #TeamStormy.
Seven news trucks lined the block in front of Chi Chi’s and the crowd in front of the store bulged with dozens of photographers, reporters, cameramen, and a gaggle of conservative vloggers carrying selfie-sticks or accompanied by a confederate with a camera. It had all the elements of a story in 2018. An on-the-nose hashtag campaign, the blurring between politics and business, the efforts of a powerful man to silence a woman, protesters and counter-protesters, the media, and, of course, looming in the background, Donald Trump.
As soon as Stormy took the podium, hands with camera phones jutted out of the crowd like a porcupine raising its quills. “As a woman with two wonderful gay days, Keith and JD,” she said, gesturing to two men standing behind her in an apparent joke as neither of the men are her actual fathers, “I feel especially at home here.”
“How small is Trump?!” someone shouted from the back—you know, lest we forget that Stormy has (allegedly) seen the President’s Chief of Staff.
But Stormy pressed on. “And this community has a history of standing up to bullies and speaking truth to power, and I am so very, very lucky to be a part of it.”
To a remarkable degree, Stormy Daniels is the perfect patron Saint of West Hollywood, a community built by sexual outlaws. The LGBTQ community and minority communities in general have long turned towards parodying the dominant culture around them as an act of protest and an assertion of identity. Stormy Daniels herself—the persona, not Stephanie Cliffords, the person behind it—functions as a parody not just of Donald Trump, but of the culture that elected him. She’s a larger-than-life character who trades in shameless sexual pageantry that defies cultural norms in a way that reveals deeper hypocrisies in society. She’s a troll—albeit an earnest troll—tailor-made to irritate conservatives in the same way that Trump enrages liberals.
Not to suggest that this is conscious on Daniels’ part, but what certainly is intentional is West Hollywood’s embrace of her. Her appearance at Chi Chi’s was originally intended just to unveil her #TeamStormy shirts, an undisguised effort to monetize her political cache, but then the city got involved a week before the event. City Hall’s endorsement and the ceremony provided cover for Stormy. Suddenly, the T-shirts became like merch at a concert—secondary to the music; not the main attraction itself. West Hollywood’s government, for its part, received ample validation in terms of national attention.
In terms of press coverage, the event was an unparalleled success. “When I pulled up to the store and there were two blocks of news trucks,” Rob Novinger, who co-runs Chi Chi LaRue’s, told me. “I was just like, ‘What the fuck?’”
“I think everyone was surprised by the overwhelming media attention,” he said. Not least of all, the media itself.
Many different sects of the media showed up to the fracas, from mainstream outlets like CNN, ABC, and Vice, to fringe elements like Breitbart and a coterie of self-produced conservative YouTubers and vloggers. The results were sometimes a bit incestuous.
Perhaps the best illustration of this came on Breitbart’s livestream of the event. At the beginning of the broadcast, the reporter turns toward a pair of conversing men and settles the camera on the younger of the two with a haircut and beard like Jesus of Nazareth and a wireless black microphone. “Hi, are you opining about what’s happening today?” he asks Action News Jesus.
“Yeahyeahyeah, we’re taking a street interview. Do you wanna do it?” Jesus responds, not realizing that he is currently on the other end of a street interview himself.
“Well, uh—“ he laughs, “I was asking your opinion.”
“Yeah, I can do it, that’s fine. I can do it.” Jesus sees a press badge. “From Breitbart?” he asks, pointing down. Then, after taking a second to compose himself, he answers, “I think it’s an interesting move to give her the keys to the city, but, you know, I’m not a hater.”
As for others in the media, the focus fell on Avenatti. While Stormy returned inside after the ceremony, steering clear of questions and selfie-hungry fans, Avenatti stood his ground as the barriers came down and the press and onlookers rushed forward. But the normally garrulous and media-savvy lawyer surprised reporters when he refused to answer a question from Vice News Tonight reporter Shawna Thomas.
“Just one other question, it’s about the 10 million debt you have, as well as the one million,” Thomas said, referring to a recent legal judgment against Avenatti’s law firm in a case involving a broken deal with a colleague.
“I’m not going to answer any questions about that,” Avenatti parried.
“But do you think that that’s bad for your client?”
“No, it’s—it’s ridiculous. If you want to ask me any questions about things that matter, I’d be happy to answer.” Then Avenatti pivoted away to push past the throng of reporters and fans surrounding him.
Even in the midst of an already surreal spectacle, reporters were caught off-guard by Avenatti’s defensiveness.
“That was wild. ‘I’m not going to answer that.’ As a reporter, that was kind of wild,” one reporter repeated as Avenatti pressed his retreat.
Avenatti had little warning for what came next. Mary Beth McDade of KTLA called over the crowd like a general issuing commands in battle. “Bob? Roll on this.”
“The Santa Ana judge said that you didn’t pay-up and now you have to pay $10 million,” McDade shot off.
Avenatti leaned in close to McDade. “You do a wonderful job, but this is a sideshow,” he said.
“Tell me why it’s a sideshow. Explain it to me.”
“You shouldn’t get sucked into it,” he said before turning away.
McDade kept her mic in front of Avenatti. “Explain it to me then, what am I getting sucked into?”
“Explain it to me and then I’ll be more knowledgable.”
Avenatti flashed a full grin at McDade. “You look great today, by the way!”
“So do you. So can you answer the question?”
At this point in the exchange, one of the handful of conservative-learning YouTubers pushed his way to the front of the crowd and held out a microphone tied to the end of a wooden kitchen spoon with a latex surgical glove.
“Who’s paying you, man?” he asked, and Avenatti gladly answered.
One person in particular seemed to captivate the media’s attention more than most (aside from Stormy and Avenatti), a drag performer and pop-artist named Sham Ibrahim. As soon as Sham showed up to the scene in an electric blue dress with a shock of teal hair swooping across her forehead and a large sign reading “Stormy for President,” she was beset by the press—especially conservative reporters, attracted by the made-for-clickbait optics.
And while Sham talked about her adoration for Daniels—“I may have the dick, but Stormy has the balls,” she told one Right-leaning vlogger with a selfie stick—she also brought with her two framed original works of pop-art, one depicting a defiant Stormy Daniels staring off into the distance, the other showing a baby’s body with Donald Trump’s adult head sitting in diapers and playing with a baby-sized cutout of America. “I want to give these to Stormy,” she told me.
And as Avenatti made his way through the crowd, posing for photos along the way, Sham called out to a photographer from Getty Images by name, telling her to get ready. Then, after the lawyer gave a direct-to-camera address to 2,000 Breitbart followers tuned-in to the livestream, Sham jumped in.
“Michael? Before you go, I just want to thank you so much for everything you’re doing and I want to give you my artwork of Donald Trump.”
Avenatti laughed at the pop-ified baby Trump, but did not take the framed piece.
“This is my artwork of Donald Trump. I wanna give it to you. Okay?” As Sham pushed the picture into Avenatti’s hands, she cheated out to the photographers around them.
“If you could actually—if you could give it—if you could give it to one of those gentlemen over there,” he gestured with a pair of reading glasses, “that would be great.” Then Avenatti joined Sham in her quarter turn towards the cameras.
“Thank you Michael for everything. God bless you,” Sham said. She would later pose in similar photos beside Stormy, holding the second of the two prints.
Breitbart soon found Sham, who was more than happy to speak with the reporter and his thousands of viewers. The interview drew plenty of spectators worried about the potential combustibility of a conversation between the “Alt-Right” website and a West Hollywood drag queen.
“The key to the city, what does that get you in West Hollywood?”
“The key to the city might get you, like, faster access to a restroom in a bar.” Both the reporter and onlookers laughed.
Stormy is not the anti-Trump. She’s not his opposite—she’s his inverse. While Trump is a powerful man who has been dogged by his sexual past, Daniels—a karmic product of those indiscretions—is a relatively powerless woman who has embraced and weaponized her sexual history. Despite the differences, what they have in common is a very public sex life. But while this fact plagues Trump, it empowers Daniels.
But beyond any of that, what has made Stormy the perfect political foil for Donald Trump is that fact that she, too, is a brand. Even her lawyer refers to her by her stage name. Stephanie Cliffords, as a real person, is unsuited to challenge Trump. Stephanie Cliffords has a daughter. Stephanie Cliffords has two 24/7 body guards who live at her home. Stephanie Cliffords is probably a bit afraid. But as Stormy Daniels—as the star of Sex, Lies & Spies and Camp Cuddly Pines Powertool Massacre—she’s a character in a reality political drama. Her name appears on DVD boxes, T-shirts, and strip club marquees; his shows up on steaks, ties, and, of course, distinctly phallic buildings. She is a brand warring against another.
Also like Trump, Stormy has seized on the limelight to make a profit—in this case, by selling shirts that appear to have been designed on Microsoft WordArt using the “cracked” font blown-up to 700-point size. The proceeds from the 300-or-so shirts sold at $25 each don’t seem to be dogeared for anything other than her own bank account. And more power to her. She doesn’t command the world’s most powerful army with its attendant responsibilities and demands, and she doesn’t wield profound influence over the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings. In short, she doesn’t belong to us.
That doesn’t mean she isn’t coopting the narrative of “resistance,” but she is far from the only one. That’s what everyone was doing on Wednesday, in one way or another—hoisting their sails in the mysterious winds of public attention and hoping to get a little further ahead while the squall lasts.