Annabel Chong and Grace Quek: Fame, Infamy, and the Two Sides of Porn
“Annabel is dead and is now replaced full time by her evil doppelgänger, who is incredibly bored with the entire concept of Annabel and would prefer to do something different for a change.”
The above phrase was written on Grace Quek's website in 2003, eulogizing Annabel Chong, Quek's adult industry screen persona that had, over the course of the previous decade, taken over her life. Quek, once a law student and artist, and who went on to study feminist theory as part of USC's Master's program, was finally saying that enough was enough, and elected to publicly sever ties from Chong. When asked by the producers of the biographical play 251: The Intimate Life of Annabel Chong, Quek was said to have responded with a curt, “do whatever you want with Annabel Chong because this person doesn't exist anymore.”
Annabel Chong skyrocketed to fame in the porn world in 1999 with the release of World's Biggest Gang Bang, a ten-hour film directed by John T. Bone wherein Chong was said to have had sex with 251 men in a row. In it, Chong, arranged on a Roman pedestal like Valeria Messalina, stripped from a gown and welcomed her many lovers, one right after the other in constant succession all while Ron Jeremy, acting as the event's Jerry Lewis-like host, shouted words of encouragement and manned a nearby scorecard. While there were lunch breaks during the shoot, World's Biggest Gang Bang was cut to look like a singular and uninterrupted sex act. The stated goal was for Chong to have sex with 300 men, but – as behind-the-scenes footage would later reveal – a hard scratch from a zealous participant with uncut fingernails would leave Chong stopping at 250 with Jeremy himself acting as the 251st.
In the introductory interview in World's Biggest Gang Bang, Chong seems completely relaxed and at ease. She explains that having sex with many men in a short period is not different from having sex many times with one partner, and that her libido was certainly equal to the task. Although harrowing from the perspective of a viewer, Chong seemed eager to try something extreme. She seemed far more upfront and earnest than the leering, foul-mouthed men around her.
Although Chong's libidinal flipness was certainly part of her screen persona, we also see much of Grace Quek in the expression of those qualities. Quek, as seen in the 1999 documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, was just as upfront and earnest, eager to discuss art, sex, sexuality, femininity, feminism, cultural subversion, and basic gender theory. Despite the prying “why?” questions of frequent interviewers, Quek was never apologetic about her role in pornographic films, and often presented her performances in the industry as simply pursuing a zesty, healthy interest. Indeed, in more academic settings, Quek would explain that acting in porn was the ultimate feminist act, as her films often depicted female sexuality as being just as sexually aggressive as males.' One of her fellow students even claimed that Quek began acting in adult films through an act of spite against a hoity-toity professor who claimed that porn was damaging to women.
Quek's intellectual confidence was leavened, however, by a relatable streak of self-deprecating awkwardness. Quek would often punctuate her conversations with a forced giggle, and often affected a bold way of speaking that kept the conversation sexy or silly. As one of her teachers explained in Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, Quek “tried to be an extrovert, but isn't really.” If left to her own devices, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story seems to observe, Quek would be happiest writing essays, having sex on her terms, and living well away from the circle of adult industry fame she found herself inside of.
Porn was a two-edged sword for Quek. On the one hand, it afforded her an outlet for her overwhelming libido (she is very frank about her partners, male and female, and the sex acts she prefers), and presented an opportunity for her to explore female sexuality in an artistic way. She often felt that, by getting involved in “stunt” porn, that she was engaging in a sophisticated form of performance art. It's certainly difficult to sit through ten straight hours of a single sex film and not begin pondering the entire work objectively and artistically; even the most casual viewer will be tempted to begin contemplating art theory.
On the other hand, the porn industry, dominated largely by straight men, sought to repress – or at least ignore – her humanity. In a telling moment in Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, Ron Jeremy reads one of Quek's essays and expresses astonishment that she could have been so eloquent, given that she has been notoriously awkward in conversation. To these men, Quek was never anything more than Annabel Chong, the porn star. A persona that was cemented not only by interviews and records, but by her terse negotiation; when a film producer tries to hire Annabel Chong, he lowballs her salary. Quek, annoyed, has to actually finagle a decent paycheck out of the guy. “It'll be the world's greatest scene because I AM ANNABEL CHONG!” This is not a declaration of ego so much as a simple – and relatably banal – salary negotiation. It's a moment any freelance worker will recognize.
Born and raised in Singapore, Quek excelled in school and was admired by her conservative Protestant parents and teachers alike. She studied law for three years at King's College in London, and eventually became an adoptee of America's Generation X. To make ends meet, she answered an ad in the once-venerable-but-now-fallen L.A. Weekly for nude performances. Having always been a sexual person – she has related tales of her sexual exploits with girlfriends and classmates – she answered the ad and become an adult industry icon after only a short time.
Thanks to the popularity of World's Biggest Gang Bang, Quek inspired a new sub-genre of stunt-based adult films wherein the groups only became larger. Shortly after setting the record of 251 men in 10 hours, a rival star Jasmine St. Clair beat her record by having sex with 300 men. In Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, St. Clair playfully asks if Quek will remain to watch the event. “I have places I need to be” she casually intones before slinking away.
Quek also experienced an unfortunate dark side of fame in the porn industry: public shaming. Quek was often asked about World's Biggest Gang Bang, and so many people insisted on finding the “why” of her performance. She had always been open about why she wanted to make the film, but was grilled constantly. Those who knew her would follow her around, stalking her in public. Her privacy began to tatter. In the most harrowing scene in Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, Quek has to tell her mother – ignorant to her adult film career – why she was being so aggressively stalked. Their confrontation is heartbreaking. Her fame had become infamy, and her personal life was battered.
“In Singapore, pornography is filth,” she laments. Quek theorized that exposing her in the public streets of Singapore wasn't the malice of a judgmental groupthink necessarily (although it was that), but the latent social echo of good citizens trying to prove their overwhelming decency. An intelligent woman with open ideas about sexuality and femininity was, thanks to disapproving parents and public misunderstanding, forced into depression, self-harm, and self-cloister. After an attempted re-entry into porn, Quek finally wrote the statement above, about how Chong was dead. Quek has since become a web developer and private citizen, living life out of the public eye, presumably happy.
Quek seemed keenly aware of her status as a celebrity, and also seemed to hope that her fame would bring questions about the nature of sexuality to the fore. Porn was a great outlet for a young, sexually energetic 22-year-old to take back popular and misguided notions of women as secondary sexual recipients rather than libidinous aggressors in their own right. Gone, too, were the age-old Puccini-inspired racist ideas that Asian women were wilting flowers awaiting romantic and sexual dominance from ultra-masculine white men. Quek was no Butterfly. She was a hawk and liked being a hawk.
But the men she worked with in the industry brought with them ancient sexist objectification that she unwittingly absorbed. She presented herself as an empowered sexual object, and many men were unable to look past the “object” part. Her professors reacted to her mind. Her directors never knew how to see anything but her body.
In the decades since World's Biggest Gang Bang, many of these two-edged questions of empowerment vs. objectification have become common talking points in a world that has only become more saturated with porn. As the consumption of porn has increased, the well being, life, and textured humanity of the performers have become increasingly acknowledged, and the ideas in Quek's essays and art have become the baseline reading for all discussions since. Public ideas about bisexuality have expanded to match ideas she expressed back in the 1990s. Female empowerment took steps forward based on what Grace Quek said and did.
Will she achieve fame as a New Wave feminist hero? That, as always, is for her to decide.
Witney Seibold is a film critic and film projectionist living in Los Angeles. He has been published in the pages of CraveOnline (now Mandatory), Movies.com, Nerdist, IGN, The Robot's Voice, and numerous other outlets. He is currently the co-host of the podcasts Critically Acclaimed (http://www.criticallyacclaimed.net/), The Two-Shot, and Canceled Too Soon, a podcast devoted to short-lived TV shows (https://www.patreon.com/canceledtoosoon). He has appeared on KCRW and KFWB to talk about film. He runs the projector at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A.