Writer Sovereign Syre Says ‘Porn Has Made Me Brave And Tenacious’

By Graham Isador

Sovereign Syre is a writer, comedian, and internationally-published poet hawking her wit and words in the beautiful bowels of Los Angeles. She’s performed at the Comedy Store in L.A., The Stand in New York City, founded — and co-stars in — Boss Bitches of History on YouTube’s Wisecrack Channel, and runs a weekly podcast “where comedians get serious” called Observations. Syre’s also starred in some “controversial” films of the adult variety.

I first became aware of Syre when we both appeared on an episode of Kevin Allison’s RISK podcast, a storytelling show where performers are asked to share anecdotes they thought they’d never tell. On the program, Syre told a harrowing story the likes of which should be relegated to urban legend — her stomach got infested by a larval botfly — captivating the audience with a tale of tumultuous love, humor, and intelligence. (And a botfly removal, of course.)

I followed up with Syre though social media to congratulate her on her performance, stumbled upon the Observations podcast, and learned about her incredible story. In our interview below, Syre explains how she went from being a poetry prodigy, to a career in pornography, to sharing her comedy on stand-up stages across the country. When she isn’t cracking jokes, taking over the airwaves, or dropping trous, she’s doggedly working to defy the stigmas and stereotypes associated with sex workers.

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Photo by Richard Avery

Graham Isador: You’ve talked a lot about how your upbringing shaped your experiences. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood?

Sovereign Syre: I grew up in the Central Valley in California. It’s an agricultural community where household income is quite disparate. You have some streets with mansions on them, and then you’re driving down the freeway and the fields are full of migrant laborers. Meth and gangs have always had a stranglehold on the place. I grew up in housing projects and on food stamps. When we moved in with my adoptive father, we didn’t have a shower, just a garden house we had to use out in the yard, which was fucking awful during the winters. We cooked on a wood-stove and there was only one toilet between four people. We did get a shower by the time I was 7 or 8 and moving on from that, we did move into a conventional apartment and stuff, but . . .

Graham: Growing up did you feel like you fit in?

Sovereign: I was bullied pretty badly when I got to junior high. I went to a socioeconomically depressed elementary school, but I was sent to a magnet junior high school for kids that showed a gift for technology, science, and language. Most of my classmates were wealthy, which I was not used to. It was hard to fit in for me there, but I felt it on both sides. From the administration as well. I was called in for dress code all the time: Apparently my shape made what was “fashionable” on other girls “sexually suggestive” on me and “distracting.”

I didn’t even know what that meant, but a grown man was telling a 12-year-old girl she was too sexual. Dress codes are where rape culture starts. It still makes me angry that someone did that to me. I internalized that a lot.

I hung out with older writers and poets after school at a café in the arts district in our town. That saved me; I had no attachment to the culture of my high school. My head was already in the real world. I looked at school as a means to an end. I just wanted to do well in school so I could get money to go to college, which I was told was the only way out of poverty unless I wanted to marry a man with money and prospects.

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Photo by Richard Avery

Graham: You did end up in higher education based on your writing skills.

Sovereign: When I was 19, I started at Fresno State as a junior. I took a poetry class and the professor encouraged me to continue. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get an MFA though, but when they offered me a grant for the MFA at Fresno State, I took it. It’s a great program. The last two poet laureates of the United States were teachers in my program. It was also a lot.

I was working three jobs to pay for school — I was carrying huge course loads and on account of my age and the fact that I looked younger than I was, I had trouble wrangling my students as a TA. I remember realizing that this was going to be life for the rest of my life if I pursued a life in academia. I knew I wanted something more for myself, but I didn’t really have an example in my life of someone pursuing their dreams, so I did some wandering. In some ways I’m still wandering. At some point I started modeling.

Graham: You had a unique entrance into the adult industry. Could you share that story?

Sovereign: I was modeling for a site called godsgirls.com. I was selected for a shoot with one of their photographers and the guy that wanted to shoot me lived in NYC. We started emailing with each other and things got pretty heated. He wanted to fly me out to be his muse. He thought that I could be an art star type of thing — a model doing edgy stuff. During our long distance romance I made a video for him. It was implied masturbation. I uploaded it to a site because I didn’t know how to send a large file like that. I figured it would be anonymous.

About six months later, I was living with that guy in Palm Beach and a friend from high school messaged me on Facebook telling me I was on the front page of Fleshbot. They had found my video. They couldn’t figure out if they were watching art or porn, but they were intrigued. I should have been upset, but I was actually excited that they’d liked the video. I was also excited they were debating its merits. I wrote them and told them that it was me.

They wrote a profile about me and that’s pretty much what started my career in earnest. The write-up got a lot of people’s attention. I was modeling in New York, but I wasn’t an agency standard model. Photographers liked to shoot me because I wasn’t afraid of the camera and I’d shoot naked. There weren’t a lot of girls with my body type (a little thicker, a little imperfect) that were comfortable being shot nude. I’ve always been a bit fearless in that way. The profile and the video meant people were paying attention.

Graham: So from the start, your work in the adult industry has always been on the artistic side . . .

Sovereign: I think that art and sexuality have always been linked. Most paintings in museums are of naked women. Marquis de Sade was talking about coming on girls faces back in the 18th century, you know? Most movies and novels center around romantic relationships. It’s the most essential part of ourselves.

I think because it’s still taboo in the mainstream society to talk about sexuality without having to condition and qualify it, art remains the place where we can express it, even if we have to clothe it in pretense (no pun intended).

Graham: Your work has also been labeled as feminist porn.

Sovereign: I think the porn I make is feminist, because I’m a feminist so that philosophical orientation is always going to be there whether I’m holding the camera or helping to dream up the scenario.

Graham: Do you feel like your time in porn has made your pursuits in writing and comedy more difficult?

Sovereign: Some people treat me differently if they find out I “do adult” before they meet me. They might come at me like I’m stupid or promiscuous, but that usually gets shut down pretty fast when they meet me — the minute I start talking. I don’t really deal with much static in my immediate social circles. I like genuine connections with people.

Photo by Jon Asher
Photo by Jon Asher

People think that everyone in the sex industry is damaged and out of options. The fact that I don’t hide my education or try to dumb myself down on social media, that fact that I don’t play the character of the “sexy baby,” are all ways that I fight against that stigma. I understand that someday someone is going to have a problem with the fact that I starred in some controversial films, but so far, everyone I’ve encountered has been supportive, in terms of writing and stand-up.

Graham: When did you become interested in comedy?

Sovereign: I’ve been writing jokes on Twitter for five years. I thought using Twitter like a blog was boring, so I started using it as a space to write jokes. At first people wondered if the girl in the avatar and in the movie links was the same one tweeting, but once they realized that yes, I was the girl in the photo tweeting jokes about dicks and Foucault, they got into it.

Graham: You’ve mentioned on your podcast that you started taking writing and comedy more seriously after a difficult diagnosis. Can you tell us that story?

Sovereign: In December of 2014 I went to get tested for my usual STI panel. I got a call back that I’d tested positive for Hepatitis C. It was terrifying. Hepatitis C can be transmitted sexually, but it’s very rare — honestly, we get tested for it more as a courtesy, so I was bewildered. I’ve never shared a needle with anyone and at the time I didn’t have any tattoos. It was this great mystery how I’d gotten it, but because I was in porn the assumption was that I must have gotten it on set somehow. For the first week I was beside myself. I thought it meant I couldn’t work anymore, so I had immediately lost all my income, not to mention I didn’t have health insurance to take care of it.

I cried, I bargained, I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I also realized that after four years in adult, I hadn’t done anything with the free time the job afforded me (the very reason I’d said I’d taken the job in the first place). It was a huge wake-up call. I found out that I could still work because my antibody levels were well below what was considered an “active” infection. So I went back to work, but now I was thinking: What have I done with my life? How sick am I going to get? How much time do I have to do the things I want to do? I knew that I had to do something to build a future for myself.

At the time I had just started my Observations podcast and was keeping my blog and my site, but I wasn’t focused on anything. I was being tested every month, waiting until I could get insurance; my Hep C levels stayed low. I was interviewing comedians, because I wanted to be a comedian and I wanted to talk to them. I didn’t know that yet, but that’s what was going on. I was ready to talk about ideas and to exist in that capacity again. I built up a weekly show. I was blogging every week. I was starting to think about what I wanted to do in terms of writing projects.

In July of 2015 I got a call from the testing office saying that I no longer tested positive for hepatitis C antibodies. This could mean that I never had it, or that I had it and my body cleared it on its own. I’ll never really know. A couple other girls that tested with the same office had similar stories to mine, though. I’m inclined to believe it was a false positive.

It was all very scary, but at the same it was the best thing that happened to me, because it got me to start my transition out of adult and into comedy and writing. It took another six months of false starts and detours, but I finally hired a writing coach to help me narrow down the projects I wanted to get done. I was also dating a comic and actor who pushed me to do a storytelling show and from there I got booked to do a stand-up spot at the Comedy Store. Then the booker wanted me again the next week.

After that I just started going up every night and I haven’t stopped. Now I have my weekly podcast. I have a monthly variety show out of the Steve Allen Theater in L.A. I got to open for Marc Maron. I’ve been in a few web series. I’ve just finished a graphic novel script and I’m working on another traditional format novel. It’s all starting to come together.

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Photo by Joshua Darling

Graham: Do you think you’d be where you are today without your time in the adult industry?

Sovereign: No, I don’t think I would have gotten here without my time in the adult industry. I don’t think you can take out any of your experiences. Life isn’t like Jenga. I don’t talk about porn at all in my act. A lot of audiences don’t realize that I’ve also worked in porn, but all the same, it’s informed my point of view. Porn has made me brave and it’s made me tenacious. I am relieved to have to worry less about my looks when I’m on stage doing stand-up, but I just think that’s part of the evolution of life. I used to fantasize about being objectified because I was so intellectually driven, and now I’m cycling back into a phase where I want to engage with ideas and challenge people in a different way.

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