On Zoom, Dan Benson looks nothing like Zeke, the character he played on the Disney show Wizards of Waverly Place from 2007 to 2012. Zeke was a nerdy, baby-faced teen, the main character’s goofy best friend. Eleven years later, Benson, 35, is all grown up: biceps bulging, trimmed beard framing his more angular face, wavy brown hair expertly coiffed.
He’s also no longer starring in family entertainment. Now his product is decidedly adult: He’s an OnlyFans star. On the site, he shares videos of himself masturbating at home, in his car, in his shower; using a Fleshlight, a butt plug, a rubber male torso. “I think I’m more famous now than I was back then,” he says.
Benson’s not the only former sitcom or child star to enter the adult industry. Maitland Ward of Boy Meets World became a porn star in her 40s after years of trying to play romantic leads: “The wild thing about me going into porn [is] I actually got to act in the kind of roles that I wanted to act in again, because I was typecast in Hollywood as the Boy Meets World girl.”
Scott Schwartz, who played Flick in A Christmas Story, worked in the industry from the late 1980s to 2000, both in behind-the-scenes roles and appearing in films including New Wave Hookers 5. “I was the first one to really do it,” he says.
Schwartz’s turn to porn was, like Ward’s and Benson’s, driven by a career slowdown. In 1982, when Schwartz was 14, he shot to child stardom opposite Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason in The Toy. A year later he played the iconic kid in A Christmas Story who gets his tongue stuck to a frozen pole. His career was on the rise, yet Schwartz was deemed “too cute” and struggled to get roles.
In the late 1980s, he met a person at the Los Angeles Comedy Store who said they could get him work as a production assistant on a porn shoot. “When Hollywood stops calling and somebody else calls, you got to make a decision,” Schwartz says. “Do you want to pay the rent this month?” He worked behind the scenes on shoots and managed female porn stars. “Out-of-work actors sling hamburgers, that’s normally what they do,” Schwartz says. “My path just went in a different direction.”
In 1996, Schwartz starred in Scotty’s X-Rated Adventure, where he played an actor who wants to star in a mainstream movie about the porn industry. “Think of the headlines, the nice-little-kid illusion that I’ve been stuck with since the beginning: gone!” he tells his agent. His agent tries to convince Scotty not to do the film, but he ignores her. In the process of doing research, he visits porn movie sets. Eventually, he sleeps with a porn star who secretly records their sex session and gives him the VHS tape. Whether he becomes a porn star is unclear.
Ward’s real-life experience with her agent mimicked Scotty’s, but she thinks her agent’s advice was based on misconceptions. “There’s that stereotype that if you go into porn, you have to be desperate, even though my story of going into it is … I wanted to be this [type of] performer. I found I love sexual performing,” Ward says. “I surprised myself along the way that I was good at it.”
Unlike Ward and Benson, though, Schwartz didn’t view porn as a lateral move in the entertainment industry. “It wasn’t like I chose to go in that direction. It just kind of happened,” he says. Even while he was working in porn, he kept seeking out and landing small roles in mainstream films. Schwartz left porn in 2000, and had more acting roles, but his career still struggled. Last year, he appeared in the sequel A Christmas Story Christmas, but for years before that, his credits mostly included movies with names like Skin Walker and Doll Killer 2.
In the 1990s, doing porn was widely perceived as a career-killer, not something a performer could ever make their way back from. “Porn has been folded more into mainstream culture, whereas porn in the ’90s was still othered,” says Jennifer Pollitt, who teaches a course on pornography at Temple University. “I asked my students, ‘How many of you watch Pornhub or xhamster?’ Everyone’s hands are in the air. They’re not as ashamed to admit it because they also assume that everyone else has watched it too.”
For Ward and Benson, the adult industry is a part of the entertainment world that allows them success on their own terms. They are making more money and feel more empowered than they did at Disney.
“People from mainstream have done sex tapes, and they’re always ashamed afterwards … but that wasn’t my experience,” Ward says. “I actually got my acting career, and I got to write a book”—her memoir Rated X: How Porn Liberated Me From Hollywood. “I wouldn’t be able to do that if I didn’t have my story of coming from mainstream and being shunned by Hollywood, and then going into porn and finding such success.”
Benson joined OnlyFans a decade after naked pictures of him were leaked online near the end of his run on Wizards, the Disney series that launched the career of Selena Gomez. “Of course they weren’t getting the most flattering pictures, right?” he says, his 14-year-old lab mix Lynn napping on his bed behind him. “Whenever you’re young and dumb, you get taken advantage of by catfish.” The catfish in question? Someone posing as an attractive woman. Benson feared the repercussions from nude photos circulating online. “Being on a kids’ show, my career is going to take a hit from that,” he says. “Some of those fears are overblown, because it lives in a corner of the internet that you have to search out to find. But in your head, it becomes this really big, crazy, dramatic, stressful, scary thing, especially when you’re trying to build a career and move on from Disney.”
Even before his pictures were leaked, Benson was having trouble making a living. “People sometimes just assume that once you’re on a Disney show, you’re rich and famous. And it’s like, well, no, that’s not exactly how that works.” Because he wasn’t a series regular like Gomez, his pay wasn’t enough for him to cover his living expenses. “I was in front of 4 million people every week. And I was working at Starbucks trying to survive.”
But the nude pics led Benson to find a new fan base. Fans sent him drawings and fiction of people shipping his character, Zeke, with the main character, Justin. “I think it’s cool that they create their own version. … A lot of gay people have come to me and been like, ‘I knew I was gay from seeing your character.’ ”
Then Wizards ended, and Benson tried to further his acting career. “It’s kind of difficult to go from a Disney show [to a non-Disney show] because Disney acting is so unique, and I’m not that great of a traditional actor,” he says. “One of the first jobs I had was signing autographs in a mall in Canada.” He struggled to get acting jobs. “If I would have stuck with the dorky best-friend identity that I had on the show, I would have found more success immediately after Wizards,” he says. “But I made the decision ‘I don’t want to be the dorky best-friend character forever. I want to be the leading character.’ ”
After his roommate and best friend, Ryan Kelley, booked a lead role on Teen Wolf and began bulking up, Benson decided to join him, hoping to get leading-man roles. “I put on 20 pounds of muscle and lost a lot of weight,” he says. “I was almost too big.” His head looked disproportionately small compared with his body. When he went for auditions, he faced challenges because his “quirky, dorky nature” reared its head. “I was trying to be something I wasn’t, so I struggled to get those roles,” he says. He wondered if his nude pics were preventing him from being cast.
His Disney fame had also slowly evaporated. “I based a lot of my self-worth on how many people recognized me, so when that went away, there was a huge mental struggle to be like, ‘Am I still worthwhile?’ ” He landed a few other roles, including voicing a character on Rick and Morty. But whatever the reason, his acting career sputtered, and five years after leaving Wizards, he got a degree in graphic design from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and started a new career in esports and gaming.
In 2018, Benson ended up working with an agency that “was part of the first wave of people helping Twitch streamers monetize and get brand deals.” Then his CEO stumbled upon an article mentioning the nude pics that he’d taken years earlier. “I came very close to losing my job,” Benson says. It was as if he couldn’t get away from the images. “I think the most significant real-life repercussions were on my mental health and having to live in fear of people finding out.”
He wanted to take more control of his life. “I had built a following on Instagram, and I was getting a significant amount of people who found those nudes,” he says. So he started a Patreon where he posted shirtless pics. “Most of the subscribers were just like, Can you please do an OnlyFans?” He mulled over the possibility. “I wanted to do an analysis of: What are the potential repercussions from this,” he says. “There will be things that will be cut off for me as opportunities.” But he eventually “got to this point where I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I am comfortable with taking this risk and going for it, knowing that everyone in the world that I know and love is going to find out about this and might think different about me.’ ”
With the help of his friends Bella Thorne and her sister, Kaili Thorne, who both had experience launching an OnlyFans, Benson started his own last year. (He acknowledges that Bella’s launch was rough and may have negatively affected sex workers.) He wasn’t sure what to expect. “I’m not the world’s sexiest person,” he admits. He initially launched it to his core group of followers, but “then TikTok got ahold of it. And popular TikTok creators who had watched me growing up found out about it … and then gay Twitter found out about it.”
Within three days, his Twitter following shot up from 18,000 to 118,000. “It was overwhelming,” he says. “I have a different perspective on it. I kind of understand that this is also just a fleeting thing, that it’s just a fun wave to ride, but I don’t base my self-worth on any of this.” He gets requests to role-play as his character Zeke. He always declines. Even though he bares it all online, in his private life, he says, “I’m still kind of shy.” He couldn’t even bring himself to get naked at Burning Man.
Most of his subscribers are gay men. “They all want me to be doing gay porn,” he says. But he won’t. “I’m comfortable as a straight man to put this stuff out in the world. And I know that gay men are enjoying this kind of content. And I think that’s great,” he says. “I’m really trying to support the gay and trans communities that have given me so much over these last six, seven months in terms of relaunching my career.”
For the first time in his life, Benson doesn’t have to worry about money. “My whole world is opening up,” he says. “I’m still being an actor, even with my clothes off.” And he’s still playing a character—it’s just that this time it’s a version of himself, and it’s not owned by Disney.
Maitland Ward’s rise as an actor was rapid. She starred in The Bold and the Beautiful in the mid-’90s, and from 1998 to 2000 was one of the leads on Disney’s popular sitcom Boy Meets World, where she played Rachel, the beautiful girl next door who moves in with two male roommates who compete for her affection. Being on a Disney show meant that her sexuality was both downplayed and exploited. Young actresses “were very much used as these objects, and their sexuality was controlled,” she says. “They had to be these virginal people but then also be sexual. In my personal life, you could never do anything sexual, because then that would be a shame to Disney.”
Now she’s 46, and an A-list porn star who works for top studios. (She also has an OnlyFans.) She vamps across red carpets at the AVN Awards, aka the “porn Oscars,” where she won Best Leading Actress this year. Like Benson, Ward is arguably more successful than she was while on Boy Meets World. “I actually get more respect from people now,” she says. “And more attention.”
She, too, struggled with her post-Disney acting career. “I was typecast in Hollywood as the Disney girl,” she says. Publicists and managers told her, “ ‘You can play the soccer mom. You can do sitcom Disney stuff. But you can’t do the kind of roles that you want to play.’ … It wasn’t like I could say, ‘I want to audition for all these dramatic roles and sexier stuff.’ ” Then she aged out of sexy roles. “After you got to be 25, you were done with sexy,” she says. “They want that young sexual thing, and it’s really sick and twisted.”
At 30, Ward enrolled at New York University to study theater, but her stage career never really took off. She moved back to Los Angeles and studied screenwriting at UCLA, but her scripts were “more provocative than people expected,” and she had trouble getting them produced. Around 2015, she began posting pictures online of herself in cosplay outfits and sexy slumber party scenes. The response from fans was resoundingly positive. “Social media was absolutely instrumental in that because I was just directly connected with the audience,” she says. To Ward, it seemed as if her career was finally taking off again. Her agent had a different view. He told her, “Nobody cares about that!”
Around that time, Disney announced a reboot of Boy Meets World called Girl Meets World. Ward was up for a guest spot but knew she’d have to stop posting sexy snaps. “I didn’t feel like it was worth it … to sacrifice the audience that I was growing,” she says. Plus, she’d have to play Rachel again, and she was ready to move on and be seen as a sexy, self-possessed woman.
Instead of going back to Disney, she went further into the world of adult entertainment, and by 2019, when she was 42, she was shooting for major porn studios. The porn world is less ageist than Hollywood, she says, and more open to allowing her to be who she had spent years trying to be on-screen. “The wild thing is, going into porn [led me] to act in the kind of roles that I wanted to act in again.”
Other performers were surprised that Ward did porn under her real name, but “I was like, ‘I’m proud to do this,’ ” she says. “ ‘I need to have my name attached to this in order to make a difference.’ … I really feel that me having been in [fans’] living rooms on a TGIF show makes them more comfortable to ask me questions they’re curious about in the sex industry. There’s so many stereotypes that people have that it’s really cool to be able to dispel them.”
The sets of her high-end porn films were similar to those of Boy Meets World: the same high-end cameras, craft services tables, hair and makeup. “I wasn’t expecting it to be so much like a mainstream film set,” she says. “It was such a happy surprise.” Ward also says that porn has pioneered ethical ways of filming sex scenes. “Long before mainstream was having intimacy coaches, people in porn had to discuss everything ahead of time, and get your yeses and your noes.”
Now she’s moved into directing and producing films, something she wasn’t able to do in mainstream entertainment. “There’s more opportunity for women because women are already set on a little pedestal in this field. They’re recognized as being an important part of the industry,” she says. The most recent film she directed, she says, “is a take on Hollywood, which is the casting couch, where I finally am in control. I am a producer. And I’m calling shots now.”