by Amy Chozick
BY THE TIME I knock on the door of Stormy Daniels’s room at the Roger Smith Hotel, a drab brown-brick tower in east midtown, she’s been holed up in New York for 24 hours, waiting to talk to prosecutors in the criminal investigation into President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. Lately, if Daniels takes more than a couple days off from her highly publicized nationwide strip-club tour, people assume she is at her home outside Dallas. “I’d bet by tomorrow afternoon there will be people at my house,” Daniels tells me as she settles down in the center of an oversize gray sofa. I sit across from her, on a faded upholstered armchair. Between us are a tawny Oriental rug and a table set with a pot of coffee and a spread of pastries in a striped Financier Patisserie box. The people she means—paparazzi and men in red trucker hats who want her to stop talking about her alleged affair with the president—began circling last spring when Daniels decided to take on Trump. In doing so she became globally known by a single name: Stormy, the unlikely, embattled symbol of our tempestuous times.
It is just after 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, still early morning in the world of adult-film stars and their entourages. Daniels is barefoot, in black skinny jeans with silver zippers at the ankles and a purple V-neck T-shirt. With no makeup Daniels, 39, looks much younger than when she appeared on 60 Minutes last March and told 22 million viewers about her dalliance with Trump, about the hush money and the threat to her daughter and the nondisclosure agreement that she says Cohen forced her to sign weeks before the 2016 presidential election. In person, she is nothing like that stoic, on-message woman. She is blunt, foulmouthed, funny. I ask her for more details on her alleged 2006 affair with Trump. “How many details can you really give about two minutes?” she says. Two minutes? I ask. “Maybe. I’m being generous.”
Calling room 811 a suite would be an overstatement, but there is a living room with a desk where Daniels’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who has parlayed her lawsuit against Trump and Cohen into cable-news ubiquity and a potential 2020 presidential run, works the phones. Late the night before, he changed locations, from the chic Park Hyatt, where he has practically lived since taking on Daniels’s case last spring (and where the media had begun to gather, knowing Daniels was in town), to the less conspicuous and infinitely less chic Roger Smith, with its shabby, red-carpeted lobby and dim recessed lighting. Avenatti is hardly paying attention to us, focused as he is on his latest clash with the White House, this time over the family-separation policy at the Southern border. During the nearly two hours that Daniels and I talk, Avenatti becomes a sort of white-noise outrage machine in the background. (“Juan Carlos, we need to find a way to make this happen!” and “This is why people trust me!”)
Avenatti, with his refrigerator-shaped jaw and overcaffeinated demeanor, can come off as Daniels’s macho protector. But up close their relationship is warmer and more equitable. For all his cable-TV cockiness, Avenatti seems to admit that Daniels could outsmart him. (“She’s really fucking smart,” he will tell me at least three times.) Daniels clearly trusts and relies on Avenatti, but she also treats him like a lovable, well-meaning stepbrother who forgot to take his Ritalin.
“You want a cookie?” Daniels calls over to Avenatti, extending the box of pastries his way.
“I’m trying to watch my girlish figure,” he replies.
She looks at me and rolls her eyes at him.
Daniels digs out a blueberry muffin, and as she picks at it she tells me that ever since “all this happened” she hasn’t been able to really enjoy a meal. The death threats—ominous notes mailed to clubs before she arrives; suspicious substances hidden in gifts in her dressing rooms—got so bad that she had to hire three full-time bodyguards. She calls them her Dragons and pays them with her tips. “We’ve been at restaurants when we order food and it’s taken too long or somebody was watching and we’ve had to leave—like that.” Daniels snaps her French-manicured fingers. She throws a look at Avenatti. “That’s why I’m so skinny!”
On August 21, as this story was going to press, Cohen reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in their investigation into the $130,000 payment to Daniels and a separate payment to Karen McDougal, both of whom have said they had affairs with Trump. In pleading guilty, Cohen implicated Trump, telling the court he paid Daniels off “at the direction of the . . . candidate” and “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
“How ya like me now?!” Daniels tweeted in response. In a statement later that day, she told me, “Michael and I are vindicated, and we look forward to the apologies from the people who claimed we were wrong.” Avenatti, who said the plea agreement may allow him to proceed to depose Trump in Daniels’s civil suit, texted me back just after the news broke: “Trump is in a lot of trouble. His habit of disloyalty and stepping on people is about to catch up to him.”
The violation of campaign-finance laws means Cohen will face criminal charges—even potential jail time. As for the president? If he weren’t in office he would almost certainly be indicted. Trump has denied the affair. He initially told reporters aboard Air Force One that he had no knowledge of any payment to Daniels. But after his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani admitted on Fox News that Trump had indeed reimbursed Cohen, the president confirmed as much, insisting by tweet that “money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll [sic] in this transaction.” In response to Cohen’s plea, Giuliani said “there is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the President in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen.”
It is a cruel, if unsurprising, irony that through everything that has transpired, Daniels is the one who has been living like a wanted criminal. “We’ve been in a couple car chases,” she tells me at our interview. “We’ve had people put notes under the door, which means they know what hotel I’m in, which means we’ve had to change hotels in the middle of the night.”
She sits cross-legged and clutches a throw pillow under one arm. Directly behind her is a window that overlooks an airshaft. “It’s like you’re on the run,” I observe.
“Oh, I’m a fugitive,” she agrees. “Do you want to be Thelma or Louise, Michael?”
“Who’s driving the car?” asks Avenatti, an avowed adrenaline junkie.
“Yeah, who decided to go off the cliff?” Daniels asks him.
“That was Thelma,” I interject.
“But was she driving?” Avenatti asks us.
“No,” Daniels and I say in unison.
“I want to be Louise,” he says.
“Which one of us gets Brad Pitt?” Daniels says.
ON THE DAY of our meeting Daniels had been cooperating with federal prosecutors for months, handing over documents related to the payment she received, readying herself for a possible grand-jury appearance. But the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York unexpectedly called off an interview with Daniels after the press got wind of it, according to Avenatti. When I ask Daniels about the abrupt cancellation, she just lets out a long it-is-what-it-is exhale. Pornography isn’t known as a medium for female empowerment, but as a writer, director, producer, and actress, Daniels has built a career for herself in which she can largely write her own story. Does she still feel in control of her own fate? “Mostly. No, yeah, for sure, mostly.”
Daniels argues that her nondisclosure agreement is invalid because Trump himself didn’t sign it. She is also suing the president and Cohen for defamation. Ask her about the intricacies of the legal cases, however, and Avenatti barges in: “That’s off the fucking record!” Does she mind that he so often speaks for her? “It sounds exhausting,” she says. “Michael had hair when he started this.”
The charges against Cohen also include bank fraud and tax evasion, but it is the campaign-finance violation—the charge that Daniels’s civil suit has highlighted—that most directly impacts the White House, says Rebecca Roiphe, a professor of law at New York Law School and a former member of the Manhattan district attorney’s office who has tried corruption and money-laundering cases. “I suspect the Trump White House is looking at the campaign-finance violation with a lot of concern, and it may just be the tip of the iceberg of what touches Trump,” Roiphe says. “In a way, it could play out that Stormy Daniels, in trying to save her reputation, pulls Michael Cohen and Trump down.”
That means Daniels’s individual case—who signed what; who defamed whom—could be a catalyst of historic proportions. “The Stormy Daniels episode is one chapter in a long volume of potential scandal and corruption,” says Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog group that filed complaints against Cohen with the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department. He points out what many have: that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III may use the illegal payoffs to women as leverage to get Cohen to talk. (Cohen’s plea doesn’t require his cooperation with federal prosecutors, but his lawyer Lanny Davis told MSNBC that his client is “more than happy” to tell Mueller “all that he knows.”) And the findings of Mueller’s Russia probe—the “witch hunt,” as Trump calls it—could further threaten the presidency. “So it is not at all out of the realm of possibility,” says Spaulding, “that this is the thread that pulls the whole thing into public view.”
PEOPLE HAVE THIS IDEA about porn stars, of what their sex-fueled lives must be like. But Daniels is a working mom. She looks after seven horses, a hobby she dreamed of ever since she was a little girl, begging for quarters to put in the mechanical pony outside Kmart. She lives in a stone-and-brick home in Forney, Texas, a conservative rural community near Dallas that she chose off the map five years ago when she got tired of Las Vegas and Los Angeles. At the barn and on the North Texas horseback-riding circuit, friends think of Daniels as Hannah Montana, the pretty girl with the double life. “We joke that among all of us she is by far the most boring,” says one of her Texas friends, Kathryn Roan. “Nobody thinks of her as Stormy Daniels. We think of her as a training-level rider. She was very, very incognito here in Texas for a very long time.”
Daniels says she never really hit it off with other women (“I get along better with men”), but in North Texas equestrian circles, she found Roan and a cadre of close girlfriends — her “bad bitches,” she calls them. They work as real estate agents and in office jobs and drive GMC Denali pickup trucks with shiny platinum rims. Like Daniels, they own guns and mostly identify as Republicans. After Giuliani insulted Daniels’s looks (“Stormy Daniels? Pfft!” he said in an interview in Tel Aviv), one of her Dallas girlfriends texted her something lewd about Giuliani and a coat hanger that I can’t repeat in the pages of Vogue and that, weeks later, still amuses Daniels when she reads it out loud to me.
“They are ten times worse than me—like fucking filthy,” Daniels says. “They know what I do, and they don’t give a fuck. It’s not like a thing. They’re loyal and fierce.”
As is Keith Munyan, a Los Angeles photographer and one of Daniels’s oldest and closest friends. (They met at a photo shoot for one of her adult films; Daniels calls him and his partner, J. D. Barrale, “my gay dads.”) Munyan remembers how Trump used to try to get Stormy on the phone all the time after their 2006 encounter. “I’d be shooting and she’d call me over from the kitchen and say, ‘Look who’s calling,’ and we’d start laughing,” Munyan says. “Donald Trump? Who cared? He was just The Apprentice then.”
Munyan and Barrale know that critics see Daniels as a brazen opportunist capitalizing on her fifteen minutes of fame. Their response? So what? “Is she just taking that fifteen minutes and running with it? She’s like, ‘Yeah, I gotta work here. I have a family to support,’ ” Munyan says. Barrale chimes in with fatherly pride: “She got thrown into this, and she adapted and ran with it. She’s a street fighter. She will take him on.”
Part of what has made Daniels such an effective adversary to Trump is that she seemingly can’t be humiliated or scandalized. She doesn’t have a carefully crafted image or a political base to maintain. Threaten to leak her sex tape? “I’ll leak all of them, and you can have as many as you want for $29.95,” she says.
But Daniels’s playfulness also masks the psychological and personal toll that has come from being one of the president’s most formidable opponents. After a man tried to take a photo of her seven-year-old daughter, Daniels had to pull her out of her elementary school and hire a tutor. They FaceTime regularly but don’t get to see each other often. “If I contact her, it makes her sad, so I just kind of have to wait until she wants to talk to me,” she says.
She adds: “She knows that people date and do this and that, and she knows that Trump is somebody I hung out with or knew three years before I even met her dad, so that’s all fine. The problem is they keep using the words porn star, and she doesn’t know what a porn star is, because she doesn’t know what sex is, and I’m not quite ready to have that conversation.” Daniels isn’t ashamed of her career; she just thinks the use of the label is unfair. “It wouldn’t be ‘librarian Stormy Daniels,’ ” she says. “It’s only ‘porn star’ because it’s sensational.”
In late July, I was texting Daniels trying to meet up again, on her tour bus or at one of her upcoming “Make America Horny Again” shows, when news broke that her third husband, the heavy-metal drummer and adult-film actor Glendon Crain, had filed for divorce, including requesting sole custody (he’d been taking care of their daughter while Daniels was on the road). He also alleged infidelity and filed a petition seeking a temporary restraining order that the court granted. The couple subsequently (and, according to Crain’s lawyer, amicably) agreed to joint custody. “I’m very happy we have put our issues behind us and are moving forward with raising our beautiful daughter,” Daniels tells me (via Avenatti).
The week before Crain filed his thirteen-page divorce petition, Daniels was doing her usual routine at Sirens Gentlemen’s Club in Columbus, Ohio, when vice detectives from the Columbus Police Department arrested and charged her with three counts of illegal sexual-oriented activity, a misdemeanor. On Twitter, Avenatti called the arrest “a setup” and “politically motivated.” Less than 24 hours later, the charges were dropped and the Columbus Police Department said it would conduct an internal investigation into the arrest.
For most people, such an episode would’ve been enough to scare them out of the public eye. But Daniels couldn’t have thrived in the sex industry without developing an almost preternaturally thick skin—and an acute ability to detect and avoid the kind of threats and abuse that have so often come her way. Ever since she started stripping, at seventeen, she’s been aware of her surroundings and able to size up men and judge their intentions. “It takes a strong person to work in the adult business,” Daniels says. “You’re a scientist. You get to study people . . . but there’s also the feeling of ‘Oh, I’m not going into the VIP room with that guy.’ ”
This is something I keep hearing from Daniels’s friends in the industry—that a certain level of harassment simply comes with the territory for women in porn. “If Stormy prevails and wins that lawsuit, she will absolutely go on with her life, but she will always be looking over her shoulder,” says Alana Evans, an adult-film star who has known Daniels for years.
But Daniels doesn’t see herself as a victim. Not even close. She will admit only to a sense of feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s happened to her—that she feels like a glass about to overflow. “Let’s say you have white milk and chocolate milk and one of them is good emotions and one of them is bad emotions and you pour both in, you’re still going to fill up and run over,” she says.
IF DANIELS HAD TO POINT to one sign of how surreal her life has become, it would be the merch. Men used to line up after her shows to buy nude photos and DVDs. Now none of that stuff sells. In recent months, she says, “I’ve sold like five naked pictures. I’m like, What is happening?”
I saw this dynamic up close when I first met Daniels through a haze of strobe lights and fog at the Silk Exotic Gentleman’s Club in Milwaukee. It was a Saturday night in June, and Daniels had just finished what has to be the only striptease that ever opened with a 60 Minutes clip. She’d shed a sequined tuxedo jacket, top hat and virtually everything (save a silver thong) on a black lacquered stage. Before Daniels spoke out against Trump, the club might have been filled with members of her former fan base—white working-class men of the kind who helped deliver the 2016 election to Trump. But before midnight, Silk Exotic was merely two-thirds full. A couple of regulars vaped by vending machines selling five-hour energy shots. Another clutched a recent copy of Penthouse, the one with Stormy nude and draped in an American flag. At an appearance the night before outside Madison, Wisconsin, a liberal college town, the nightclub had been packed with hordes of students and women who lined up early to buy #teamstormy T-shirts. “Madison was craaaazy,” Daniels said.
Between her 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. performances, Daniels, who had changed into a black halter dress dotted with rhinestones, sat on a love seat behind a velvet rope, surrounded by her Dragons, to sign autographs and pose for photos. A couple of roadies pulled Stormy-branded souvenirs out of a laundry basket that now has its own Instagram handle (@stormysbasket). A secretary in a “Bernie Sanders is magical” T-shirt leaned in for a selfie.
“My fan base is completely different,” Daniels tells me later. The middle-aged white men who used to populate her shows and buy her movies—“now those guys are just gone.” In their place has sprung the so-called Resistance: women, gay couples, immigrants, and other assorted liberals who despise Trump. “It’s pretty much these packs of women, and they are angry,” Daniels says.
There’s an upside to this—“Women tip the best!” Daniels says—but she’s still struggling to get her head around this nightly outpouring of warmth. “People come up and they’re so emotional and they put so much on me. They’re like, ‘You’re going to save the world, you’re a patriot, you’re a hero,’ ” Daniels says. “It’s funny. It’s actually easier for me to handle the negative stuff. It’s not like I turned on Twitter today and was called a whore for the first time.”
Daniels didn’t get into this fight with a political agenda. “I’m not like some big Hillary supporter,” she tells me. “I’m a Republican.” There is the gun that she owns, the state she lives in—but she is quick to say she is socially liberal (“I’m pro choice, pro-gay”) and that she was disgusted watching the 2016 campaign, when Trump insulted Mexican immigrants, Muslims, women, and so many others. “I just thought most of it was this character. And then I slowly started realizing, Wait a minute. . . .”
But she didn’t ask to be a mascot for the Resistance. “There are people crying every night, and I’m like, ‘There’s no crying in titty bars!’ ” Which is Daniels doing what she so often does—deploying humor to shift the weight that millions of enraged Americans have placed on her (bare) shoulders. Her face stiffens. She fiddles with the throw pillow. “When I started this, I just wanted to save my own ass,” she tells me, “not everybody else’s.”
GROWING UP in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, had a running joke that her parents, Bill and Sheila Gregory, must have stolen her from a rich couple at the mall. “They can’t be my real parents,” she remembers thinking. “Like, my mom lives in a house that has a boat in the front yard that hasn’t seen water since 1982, and she’s content to just sit there and chain-smoke, and I just couldn’t be like that.” Her dad left when she was four, and Daniels remembers her mother working two jobs but falling behind on bills. She’ll never forget the August in Baton Rouge when the electricity was cut off, and even today when one of her roadies tears open a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos on the tour bus, the scent viscerally takes her back to a childhood fueled by junk food. “Hi-C, the punch. And Vienna Sausage on saltines—that was an actual meal in my house,” she says. Daniels is still fuming about a Dallas Morning News story in which Sheila Gregory told a reporter she was hurt by her daughter and that she would vote for Trump “four more times” if she could. Did Daniels talk to her mom after the story ran? “I haven’t talked to my mom in over ten years,” she says, “and I haven’t talked to my dad in 22 years.” I ask her if there was abuse in her house—as has been the case for so many women who get into the sex industry. “Not abusive,” Daniels says about her childhood. “It was neglectful.” (Gregory told the Dallas Morning News she often worked two jobs “to pay for whatever Daniels wanted.”)
Daniels attended Scotlandville Magnet High School, then an engineering-focused college-preparatory school. Daniels was one of the few students who didn’t come from a private school and a middle- to upper-middle-class background. After school, Daniels would go to McDonald’s, where her best friend worked, and would hang out until closing to get free food. In 1997, as a senior determined to move away from home, Daniels got a job dancing at the Gold Club. She bleached her hair and reinvented herself as Stormy Daniels—named after Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx’s daughter Storm and the whiskey Jack Daniels. Daniels laughs because at the time, she’d been a relatively unpopular teenager who’d had to pay a guy to take her to prom. She aced her ACT and says she got full scholarships to Mississippi State and Texas A&M. “I still have the letters,” Daniels boasts. But as her Scotlandville peers set their sights on becoming doctors and lawyers and engineers, college and an out-of-state move were not in the realm of possibility for her family. She didn’t even tell her best high school friend (who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity) that she was stripping. “She said when I saw her last month that she didn’t tell me because she didn’t want to disappoint me,” Daniels’s high school friend says. “I have such a tender heart for Stormy.” Daniels isn’t one to have regrets, but when she thinks about Scotlandville she says, “I always wonder what my life would be like if I had parents like the other kids who went to my high school.”
At the Gold Club, Daniels found the maternal warmth she’d long been missing. “I learned all my early life skills from the strippers at that first club I worked,” she says. From the start, Daniels stood out from the other dancers. She was driven. She worked six days a week. She’d appear when the club opened, at 3:00 p.m., and stay until it closed, at 2:00 a.m. “She just carried herself and had this aura of being bigger than everyone,” Chuck Rolling, who managed the Gold Club at the time, told me.
Then, on July 9, 1999—Daniels remembers the exact day—she finally earned enough to get breast implants. The surgery led to skyrocketing tips and inroads into the adult-film industry. (Daniels told me that she now regrets her 36DDs. “At the time, that was what was needed. Now it’s more of a natural look,” she says.)
When Donald Trump met Daniels, in 2006, she’d achieved a level of success almost unheard-of in the adult-film industry. Porn isn’t something polite society talks about, but nudge anyone who admits to watching, and they’ll tell you a Stormy Daniels film is the gold standard. “I don’t know how much porn you watched in the nineties,” Kelli Roberts, a writer and producer in the adult-film industry, asks me. (Not much! I say.) “Well, it was bad. The floors were dirty and gross. But Stormy would rent a mansion for the day.” Her sets were clean and safe. “She’d bring bottled water and doughnuts to make the girls feel comfortable.”
Daniels even tiptoed into the mainstream, with cameos in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and a 2007 Maroon 5 video. She says she’d always had an interest in politics, loosely basing her most famous adult film, the irreverent, slapstick title Operation: Desert Stormy, on the first Gulf War. And in 2009, Daniels even explored a run for the U.S. Senate to replace Republican David Vitter after he was connected to a Washington, D.C., prostitution ring. Her slogan: “Screwing People Honestly.”
DANIEL’S ALLEGED AFFAIR with Trump—and even the payoff—wasn’t a secret in her circles. “We made fun of her because she took so little money,” says Roberts, who’d known for years about the weekend Daniels met Trump at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe. Daniels told me it was “morbid curiosity”—a continuation of her penchant for strip-club anthropology—that prompted her to go to Trump’s hotel suite. In Trump, Daniels said, she saw someone who “had sort of lost touch. He’d created this character and then became it.” But Trump wasn’t a bad conversationalist. He asked if adult-film stars get royalties and residuals. Was there a union? He was shocked when Daniels told him she and her cohort didn’t get any of the benefits afforded to mainstream Hollywood actors. “Businessmen like to talk about business,” Daniels says. “The questions were good.” When she came out of the bathroom, “he was in his underwear and his shirt and he was like, ‘Heeey . . . ’ and I was like. . . .” Another roll of her blue eyes. “It was just normal-people sex.”
Daniels goes into the bedroom to get a manila envelope full of cash and hands it to one of her roadies (“This looks like a drug deal, but it’s not,” she assures me). He heads downstairs, where her team is loading her luggage onto an unmarked black tour van parked outside the Roger Smith. They have an eleven-hour drive ahead so Daniels can get back onstage for two shows at clubs in Indianapolis and Evansville, Indiana. In the early hours on the tour bus one recent night in some town or another after a performance at one club or another (“They all kinda blur together,” Daniels says), Travis, one of her Dragons, summed up the frenzy over Stormy Daniels this way: “People just need hope and you’re giving them hope, but you’re real, so there’s something about you that everybody can identify with.”
Daniels doesn’t see herself this way . . . at least not yet, not while the legal case is still unfolding and history hasn’t yet judged where she—or Trump—will stand. “I’m just the lesser of two evils,” she says. “Trump or Stormy? Which one am I gonna pick? Well, if I have to pick one, she’s got better hair.”
Our interview is almost over, but I have a nagging question left to ask. She’s always insisted the sex was consensual and that her story has nothing to do with the #MeToo movement. But ever since I watched Daniels tell Anderson Cooper that she felt a sense of obligation to Trump (“I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone,” she said), I’ve wondered why she didn’t just leave. Did Trump do something that made her feel like she had to have sex with him? Daniels is emphatic. “No, nothing,” she says. “Not once did I ever feel like I was in any sort of physical danger. I’m sure if I would’ve taken off running, he wouldn’t have given chase. And even if I had, there’s no way he could’ve caught me.” Avenatti laughs in the background at this. Then Daniels says, “He’s even less likely to catch me now.”
In this story:
Fashion Editor: Phyllis Posnick.
Hair: Garren for R+Co. Haircare; Makeup: Diane Kendal.