Porn production shut down for a month after Darren James tested positive in 2004, changing his life. Now he hopes he can protect others by telling his story.
By Rong-Gong Lin II
June 15, 2009
Darren James saw the news flash on his TV screen last week: A porn actress had tested positive for HIV. James, 45, felt a moment of shock, then sadness.
“I feel really bad for this girl,” he said. “One thing I can say, I just wish her well. It’s the worst thing to get that call.”
It’s the call James got in 2004 when the well-liked porn star known for his courteous nature on set found himself at the center of an HIV outbreak in the San Fernando Valley’s multibillion-dollar porn industry. His diagnosis, and the spread of the virus to three actresses he had worked with, shut down porn production for a month.
He had tested HIV negative just days before performing on screen.
“I predicted it would happen again,” he said late last week in an interview at his attorney’s Woodland Hills office, his second since his name became public five years ago.
James, dressed in trim black slacks and a fitted black T-shirt that showed off his muscular frame, said he decided to speak out now because he hoped his story would spur the porn industry to require condoms, rarely used in straight porn films.
The latest HIV case in the porn industry became public last week when officials from the San Fernando Valley-based Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation said a female porn performer had tested positive. The acknowledgment came as rumors about a new HIV infection spread on porn websites.
Officials from the clinic, which serves the porn community, have said the woman most recently worked June 5, the day after undergoing tests for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The medical director, Colin Hamblin, and co-founder, Sharon Mitchell, have given conflicting statements on whether the woman’s test results first came back positive June 4 or June 6.
Regardless, clinic officials said the woman should not have worked on June 5 since she had last tested negative April 29, outside the industry’s voluntary requirement that performers show negative test results within the last 30 days.
Los Angeles County public health officials said last week that the woman’s case, which has not officially been reported to them, would mark the 22nd report of an HIV infection in an adult film performer since 2004.
When he worked as a porn star, James said, he followed the clinic’s guidelines closely, paying $100 a month out of his own funds to be tested. The rules, he thought, kept him protected, even as he routinely worked without condoms. If everyone had to test, he reasoned, everyone was safe.
By April 2004, he was at the pinnacle of his career, traveling to foreign countries to shoot films, sometimes working six days a week and two or three scenes a day.
“You’re like Superman. Especially with the amount of work that I had? It was nonstop,” James said. “I’m thinking, I’m invincible. . . . That’s just the way our mentality was. It was, you get the test, you’re clean, not realizing that in between the tests, and after the tests, you know, other people, you don’t know what they’re doing.”
The call that changed his life came as James was getting ready to book tickets to Japan for another international shoot. AIM clinic officials told him he was HIV positive. And, he said, they told him they planned to release his name publicly.
He asked them not to — in part out of concern for his parents who did not know how he made his living — but they did anyway.
“It was like a hit in the gut,” James said. “My whole world stops. . . .Life was pretty much over.”
A Detroit native, James said he joined the Navy after high school, working in the construction battalion. When he left the Navy in 1989, he settled in Southern California, attracted by the sunny weather. He planned to pursue a career in law enforcement but struggled to find work.
At times, he was homeless. At one point, he lived at a friend’s gym. Then, in 1997, another friend referred him to a modeling gig in the San Fernando Valley, which turned out to be a porn shoot.
Desperate for cash, he performed, the shoot went well, and he was hired for more scenes. In the beginning, he worked as a standby performer without getting credit, making little money. But by 2004 he had loyal fans and was earning a good living. Then he got the HIV diagnosis.
Distraught, James said, he bought a bus ticket to Tijuana, planning to disappear. But the news spread quickly. In Mexico, he saw TV footage with a photo of him smirking as if, he said, he was smirking at the situation.
In Tijuana, James said, he tried to kill himself. After the attempt, he woke up days later in a hospital near San Diego. It took him months to recover, he said. He later found out that his mother learned about his diagnosis, and his porn career, on TV at her church.
In 2005, James sued the AIM clinic and several of its officials, alleging medical negligence and invasion of privacy. His suicide attempt and the turmoil caused by disclosure of his name are among the lawsuit’s contentions. James and his attorney said the case settled out of court under terms that they not disclose the amount.
James said he recently started talking to public health officials and young adults about his experiences and is studying to become an HIV counselor. Other than a bad knee and bad back, James said, his health has remained good and his viral count is low.
James, who looks as if he is in his mid-30s rather than his mid-40s, has worked steadily as a security guard since recovering from his suicide attempt. He said his porn past and HIV-positive status have cost him some jobs when he is recognized, but he still wants to speak out. His story, he said, might get the attention of people who could require condom use on porn sets.
“That’s why I want to come out and do a little more, if I can. And if it’s just to help . . . just to get them to listen. Not to boast up porn, not at all, just to make people be aware that I got caught up, man. I thought I was invincible, and I got shot down so fast. . . . There’s some really good people, and they want to change.”
Asked whether he felt he was to blame for infecting the three women with whom he had performed, James said: “I don’t know what to say on that one. I wish I could just go back and rewind that time. If it was just me and myself in place of them not having it, I would do that. But I can’t.”