Trumpstagram is Slate’s pop-up blog that close-reads Instagram accounts in the Trump orbit.
A common misconception about Stormy Daniels is that Donald Trump made her famous. True, she was never a guest on late-night talk shows or 60 Minutes before news broke that Trump’s lawyer had paid her $130,000 to keep quiet about an alleged sexual tryst with the president. But for a porn actress and director, she was already relatively mainstream, having appeared in a 2007 Maroon 5 video and two Judd Apatow movies, plus all manner of adult films with production values on the higher end of the spectrum.
Her Instagram account has only been active since September, but it’s still a fascinating chronicle of the evolution of Stormy’s self-branding. Before the Trump payoff story made her a household name on Jan. 12, Daniels mostly posted standard E-list celebrity fodder: behind-the-scenes pictures from her film shoots, low-quality selfies, and the occasional snapshot from trips to places like D.C. and New Orleans. She still shares such things today. But there’s one additional category of post that has proliferated across her page in recent months: the ad. What used to be a tinted window into the everyday life of a porn star is now a shopping-mall vitrine.
Daniels wasted no time getting in front of the publicity boost the Wall Street Journal gave her when it published the Jan. 12 story. Her very next Instagram entry, posted two days later, was a tour poster advertising a Jan. 20 appearance by herself, the so-called Twitter Storm Sensation, at a Greenville, South Carolina, strip club. She’d already come up with a perfectly cheesy name for her tour—Making America Horny Again—and soon began booking more shows. Within a couple of weeks, Daniels had posted an ambitious two-part list of tour dates that took her through November.
Some might call Daniels’ immediate pivot to moneymaking shameless. Lucky for Daniels, shamelessness is the currency of the porn and strip-club worlds she inhabits. In addition to the Trump-aping title of her tour, she advertised a February appearance with a photo of herself in a red baseball hat above the text “Making Thursday Great Again.” Soon after Daniels’ name hit the mainstream news media, she posted on Instagram that she’d left her home studio, Wicked Pictures, for new, presumably more lucrative production deals with Brazzers and Digital Playground. By mid-March, she’d posted a new promotional shot that identified her as an “exclusive performer/director“ with the new companies.
This photo, and so many of Daniels’ others, looks undistinguishable from any other commercial erotic image. Crouched on a bed in black lingerie, stilettos in the air, knees spread, blond hair set in stringy curls, she could be any porn star dreamed up by the cultural imagination. Elsewhere on her Instagram page is what feels like more proof that she is deliberately presenting herself as an interchangeable type, a kind of cutout of cartoonish female hypersexuality: a photo of a woman who looks exactly like Daniels, but who is identified in the caption as her assistant, bending over in a pair of underwear. Daniels’ last post before the Trump story broke was an old photo of her lowering the straps of a black tank top as low as Instagram’s nudity standards would allow—a throwback to “when I was 22 and my boobs were 2 … lol.” Yet the hair, face, makeup, and, yes, boobs in the photo look almost identical to the hair, face, makeup, and boobs Daniels displays in 2018, 17 years later. Daniels’ buxom-blonde style is an erotic-media standard that hasn’t changed since the ’90s, making her look both dated and, in another sense, timeless. She’s 39, but looks like she could be a decade in either direction. Like most successful porn stars and exotic dancers, she’s made herself a blank slate, open to her audience’s projections of whatever they want her to be.
For Daniels, this blank-slate quality serves her aims particularly well. The porn fans up in her Instagram comments talking about what kinds of things they’d like to unload on her ever-present cleavage, she posts photo after photo after photo of herself with lips parted, her tongue sliding out between them. For the audiences who might come see her strip club shows, she posts highly retouched, flat-lit centerfold portraits in undergarments or what look like sexy Halloween costumes. For the Trump haters who have exalted her as the hero who could take him down, she’s leaned harder into politics. She Instagrammed a Rolling Stone article that called her “the hero America needs.” She posted a press release that declared May 23 in West Hollywood “Stormy Daniels Day,” in honor of “her leadership in the #RESIST movement.” Last month, she announced a plan to visit the U.S.–Mexico border to “donate money and raise awareness” about the migrant families the Trump administration is separating and detaining. She recently asked a Chicago Tribune reporter if she should run for president, musing, “The terrifying thing is I might win.”
There’s no doubt that Daniels is a hardworking hustler whose opportunism is well-suited to the dynamics of the current presidency, in which a booming family business and the executive branch of the federal government work hand in hand. What’s notable is that, even with the eyes of the nation upon her, a spike in her profitability, and a quickly filling schedule, her social media presence still looks like the work of an amateur. She announces her tour dates on Instagram with a photo of a laminated piece of paper or a two-part screenshot of an inconsistently formatted page from what appears to be the Samsung mobile Notes app. Ads for Daniels’ appearances and webcam shows dominate her page, each one cluttered with text and bootleg graphic elements, as if they were designed on a desktop publishing program circa 2001. More recently, as she’s launched her new fragrance—a “limited edition sensual pheromone-infused gender neutral perfume/cologne” called Truth—she’s flooded her feed with ads for that. Soft-focus portraits of Daniels in an ill-fitting suit and a loosened tie are overlaid with pseudo-motivational aphorisms like “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” The ad campaign is one breathy narrator away from being an SNL parody of itself.
The garishness of Stormy Daniels’ commercial persona is the native language of an industry that runs on bleach, wax, silicone, and the libido of gross men. Her Instagram feed feels like a proud incarnation of all the porn-adjacent vernacular (“grab ’em by the pussy,” “shithole countries,” “trump that bitch,” “suck my own cock“) the Trump administration has wrought. If you scroll far back enough, you can find another kind of Daniels memento: pictures from the life she led before she signed up for a grueling tour schedule, before an alleged sexual encounter from 12 years back turned into the biggest shot at true stardom she’d ever get in her life. Three weeks before the fateful Wall Street Journal article ran, Daniels posted photos of messy homemade Christmas cookies decorated with monsters and her Christmas dinner: frozen lasagna and a Corona Light—a “#9yeartradition,” she wrote. A week later, she published a concert photo of her 7-year-old daughter, who, the caption explains, “possesses a pretty badass metal scream and knows all the words to Drowning Pool’s ‘Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.’ ”
These snippets from the normal parts of Daniels’ life have a humanizing effect on an account that otherwise portrays her as a built-to-specification product. Like Daniels’ 60 Minutes interview, which found her donning a collared shirt and a gloss of respectability, the Instagram entries from her offstage, off-screen life are relatable and earnest. If Daniels truly wanted a political career, she might post more of this stuff, and fewer selfies that so drastically foreshorten her body that she looks like a head on a pair of floating breasts. (Then again, the president at the center of Daniels’ current narrative started his own campaign for name recognition with similarly gaudy self-promotions.) She might also consider a more convincingly authentic approach to her budding lifestyle-guru persona. The “ones worth suffering for” adage on Daniels’ perfume ad, for example, isn’t her own coinage—it’s attributed to Bob Marley all over the internet, but its provenance has never been proven. As Stormy Daniels remakes herself into the resistance icon so many Americans seemingly want her to be, she can’t help imitating the M.O. of the man they’re resisting.
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