This story contains sexually explicit content that is NSFW.
Colby Keller isn’t sure what he wants.
We’re drinking green tea at a café near the Brooklyn Museum on a Friday night, between my apartment and his friend’s place in Park Slope, which has become his de facto home base since he got evicted from his home in Baltimore. I’m catching him right before he leaves for Paris to hang out with his Marxist-Leninist friend, after which he’ll embark on his “project,” as he calls it: an ambitious pornographic video series called Colby Does America, where he’ll film himself having sex in every state of our vast country. It’s a sexual anthropology of America. It’s sort of porn; it could be art. “It’s intentionally vague,” he tells me.
It’s this kind of attitude that has made Colby Keller the de facto hipster king of gay porn. He comfortably occupies the grey areas between artist and gay porn star, hippie and hipster, Communist comrade and industry mainstay. He has alternately been called by Out and Vice the James Franco and Marina Abramovic of porn. Just last month he tweeted pictures of his summer reading, Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire. He’s the guy you could imagine checking out at Metropolitan, the gay bar in Williamsburg, or running into at the opening for a gallery show.
When I meet Keller in person, he’s wearing a loose cotton T-shirt, the sleeves framing veiny biceps that pulse when he brings his hand under his chin to think. When he speaks, his voice tends to curl up at the end of clauses so that he sounds a bit tentative—almost bashful—as though he’s testing out an idea on you. It’s this unflashy masculinity that has made him so popular—notably among women as well—and given him such longevity in porn (10 years and counting). He’s the guy you want to fuck, in part, because you wish you were him, or at the very least his boyfriend.
The ambiguity around who Colby Keller is and what he does comes from the fact that he doesn’t see himself, “Colby Keller,” as a singular person, but rather as a product of collaboration. “There are multiple people that make up who Colby is,” he says.
First off, there’s his name. It’s not really Colby Keller, but he won’t disclose his real name on the record, because his mom doesn’t know that he’s a porn star and would “have a heart attack” if she found out. (She does know that he’s gay, though.) He got the name Colby from Sean Cody when he shot his first film for them over 10 years ago.
“They claim to do that for everybody,” he says. “They probably looked at me and were like, ‘You look like [a] Colby.’” (He did not elaborate any further on this point.) He got his faux surname when he was doing a shoot with the director Joe Gage at Titan, one of the largest gay porn studios. “There was a point in time when I was painfully shy—really, I would say autism spectrum. And kind of as a mean joke, [Joe] named me after Helen Keller. So that’s how I got Keller.”
Keller necessarily sees himself and the work that he produces as an extension of collaboration.The guy he’s staying with in Park Slope, for instance (sort of romantic, sort of business; it’s complicated), masterminded the entire Indiegogo campaign video for Colby Does America, where Keller, clad in a Grecian urn-inspired T-shirt, asked for $35,000 and got over $45,000. He wants to work with people in every state—filmmakers, artists, photographers, and fans—to help him “fuck this great nation of ours.” “Remember when Sufjan Stevens said he wanted to make an album for every state?” he wrote on the Indiegogo campaign page. “Well, I plan to make a porn in every state.”
Keller comfortably occupies the grey areas between artist and gay porn star, hippie and hipster, Communist comrade and industry mainstay.
“His porn persona lives outside of the porn space as a creative individual and as an artist,” says Jake Jaxson, the head of Cocky Boys, where Keller has been filming as of late. Jaxson calls him his muse, because Keller’s open to doing more free-form videos like the series “A Thing of Beauty” (it should go without saying that the link is NSFW), based on the poetry of John Keats and Walt Whitman. Because of Keller’s artistic sensibilities, Jaxson doesn’t think his muse is “100% clued into” the porn world—which, of course, is part of his charm. “I bet you he would say he is more of an artist before he is a porn star,” he said.
While working with Cocky Boys has given him more creative license than before, Keller still knows that he’s working for an industry that commodifies sex. The problem for him isn’t the sex part, but the commodification, which renders something as unique as sex into something formulaic, and impresses impossible expectations on gay men.
“I do have a lot of moments where I feel guilty being part of an industry that, I think, does shape people’s desire and may not necessarily shape it in ways that I think are beautiful or good,” he says, veins bulging. “I try very hard to position myself in a way where even if it’s just the way I’m performing on camera to try to maybe provide some kind of alternative to that. But I’m not so naive to think that there aren’t certain images of the body that are perpetuated.”
That’s in part why he turned down an alluring six-figure offer from a major porn studio that wanted Colby Does America. Taking it would have meant losing artistic control and making porn that is shiny, perfect, and easily consumable. He hopes that Colby Does America, of which he’s already filmed six states, can act as a corrective.
One particular scene, shot in D.C., stood out when he talked about his project. It featured his old boss for whom he worked as a personal assistant, an overweight black man with a bum knee, and a schoolteacher from New York who came down for the occasion. The two were into kink and BDSM, and his former boss had a big, black bag filled with toys: electric zappers, ball gags, whips, chains, metal bars, and gargantuan dildos.
“His porn persona lives outside of the porn space as a creative individual and as an artist.” —Jake Jaxson
When Keller walked in and started filming on an iPad, the two were just screwing on the bed, but there wasn’t a lot of dynamism to it. (Bad knees, you must remember.) He noticed the scars running along his old boss’s knee, one green-and-gray sock dangling off his toe. “[I remember thinking] this is really beautiful,” Keller tells me later. “It’s beautiful to watch this man have sex, and of course, he should be entitled to have pleasure, and it’s a really amazing moment to be privileged to.”
It is those moments when Colby Does America is not exactly porn but not not porn either. The politics of porn are important to him: how it constructs desire, determines what bodies we find hot, and formulates what kind of sex we get off on.
“The political objective is to interrogate that role that I’ve had, and to try to bring to people’s attention other types of desire,” he says.
But if we’re being completely honest, doing so also requires opening himself up to desires that might not be reciprocal, and negotiating that awkward space between what the other person wants and what he wants. So we talk about that: his desire, what he craves, what curls his toes.
“I’ve been in this business for 10 years, my sexuality is very much informed by it,” he says. He feels bad admitting that what he likes is aggressively normative: “naturally athletic bodies,” very little body fat, “classically handsome” features, and big dicks.
“Porn stars,” I point out.
“I’m kind of embarrassed by it,” he admits. “Because it’s part of my sexuality and the type of men that I’m attracted to.” But at its best, Colby Does America opens up the erotic imagination: What’s the nature of desire? Is it fixed, or can it change? And does convincing ourselves that our sexuality is what it is close ourselves off from some new, enriching, life-changing experience?
“I do have a lot of moments where I feel guilty being part of an industry that, I think, does shape people’s desire.” —Colby Keller
There’s a palpable tension there between what Keller thinks he should be attracted to and what he’s actually attracted to. Recently, he’s been thinking about doing a collaboration with Bonus Hole Boys, a porn site that aims to produce “respectful culture” between “trans men and cis men.” Keller says that the company has had difficulty getting gay cis-male actors who aren’t gay-for-pay (a term for heterosexual performers who have sex with other men on camera) on the site, so getting someone like Keller would be a huge win for them.
He’s behind the collaboration ideologically, but he’s worried about how he’ll feel in the moment of the shoot, if he’ll say the wrong thing, or if he’ll be able to stay hard, which would make things awkward for everyone. He wants to produce something good for them, but at the same time, he’s not sure that doing it would be honest to his own desires.
It leads him to the question, both for Colby Does America and in his life: “How much responsibility do I have to myself to break my own desire and reshape it?”
“I could be the revolutionary body that has sex with anyone that wants me to and just leave myself open to anyone that wants to make a video with me,” he says. “There’s something about that that I feel isn’t honest to what desire is, which is a two-way street, not just a one-way street. And I think that should be part of it.”
That’s the lingering question around Colby Does America,and he knows it too: How willing is he to break away from porn conventions to imagine a more expansive erotic space? The way men fuck is as diverse and broad as America itself, and fraught with questions of masculinity, class, race, and ultimately, power. The possibilities in this sense, are limitless, and how successful he is depends on how much he allows himself to be pushed past his boundaries. It’s this clarity of vision and courage that will make his project not just porn, but art, and Keller not just a porn star, but an artist. Maybe.
Photo via Colby Keller/Big Shoe Diaries