Nikki Stern ... now a librarian. Photo: Julian Kingma
At the height of her career as a porn star, Nikki Stern was receiving an Australia Post sack full of mail most days from men begging her to send them dirty letters, underwear and pictures of herself naked. The men who wrote to her seemed to believe she was exactly who she appeared to be in the Horny Housewife video series: a happily married housewife whose love of kinky sex with multiple partners was encouraged by her "hubby".
What her adoring fans couldn't know was that the self-styled "horny housewife" was living in a sexless, emotionally abusive marriage with an alcoholic whose separate bedroom was a filthy hoarder's den of porn magazines, leaking baby-oil containers, sex toys, enema kits, used tissues and empty wine casks. "For your average John who watched [the porn Stern starred in], it was just, 'Okay, this is a highly sexed woman having fun,' " says Stern, now a 56-year-old librarian with Victoria's Eastern Regional Libraries Corporation.
I was awful at it. The clients never said anything, but, you know, they were submissive. They wanted to please me!
Despite the passing of more than two decades and the fact she is fully clothed, Stern looks, in person, remarkably similar to how she appeared on screen: a small, strikingly beautiful woman with a calm presence and an easy smile. In the intro to the first Horny Housewife film, her dark eyes seem preternaturally wide as she swallows a giggle and tells the viewer that "this movie features me and hubby and a few friends doing all kinds of naughty things". Chatting in the living room of the Warrandyte home she shares with two of her three adult children, her eyes are just as expressive, her laugh always only a moment or two away.
Family circle … Stern with her mother, Dory, and daughter, Shoshanna, on Shoshanna’s first birthday in 1986.
One imagines the laughs were fewer back in 2009, a "year from Hell" that began with horrific fires ripping through the bushland surrounding her home and surgery to remove a five-kilogram ovarian cyst. Soon after that, her estranged husband and father of her three children, Paul Van Eyk, died. That same week, Stern was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of ovarian cancer and advised to start chemotherapy immediately. The chemo "seemed to work", but a doctor's warning that she should never think of herself as cured got her "thinking about death and dying and what the kids would say when they found all this porn".
That's when Stern decided to write Not Your Ordinary Housewife, her account of how she went from being a working artist with multiple university degrees to a porn entrepreneur performing lesbian scenes while wearing her old Melbourne Methodist Ladies' College uniform.
Paul Van Eyk was nine years younger than Stern, but from the minute they met in an Amsterdam cafe she was in his power. Only 19 years old, the Canada-born Dutchman was a talented cartoonist, a captivating storyteller and dynamite in bed. Within months the two were married (the wedding dinner was at a baked-potato diner; the groom gave the bride a vibrator as a wedding gift). Van Eyk then accompanied Stern on her return to Melbourne.
Maternally yours … with Shoshanna in Canberra in 1990.
Not long after the birth of their first child, Shoshanna, in 1985, Van Eyk – who had been making some extra cash modelling – came home with news that he'd been offered big money to perform in a sex-therapy video. If Stern would do it with him, they'd earn double.
At the time they were living rent-free in a Robin Boyd-designed house owned by Stern's adoptive mother, Dory, who fled Vienna before the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 and was a former musical director of the celebrated Bodenwieser Ballet. (Stern's father, Egon, who had received an Order of Australia for his services to engineering, had died several years earlier.) Tensions were high due to Dory's insistence that Van Eyk get a steady job to support his family; Van Eyk responded by drawing a series of cartoons depicting Dory as a witch. He called it his "Jewish mother-in-law series". Caught between the two, Nikki Stern wished on one hand for enough money to pay her mother some rent, and on the other for her husband to stop hounding her to be bolder sexually.
The video shoot seemed the perfect solution: "I would hardly describe it as fun [but] it wasn't as bad as I'd expected." But Van Eyk had bigger plans for his photogenic, sexually compliant wife. He placed an ad in an adult-contact magazine and soon the two of them were driving all over Melbourne to perform "watch and wanks", in which Stern would masturbate herself, and sometimes have sex with her husband, while paying customers watched.
On show … Nikki Stern with husband Paul Van Eyk for the "Horny Housewife" video series in 1990.
Ever the entrepreneur, Van Eyk came up with the idea of letting clients photograph or film the sessions. Stern agreed on the condition that clients couldn't sell the footage and that she retained copyright, the original footage and negatives. The spare room of their home became an editing suite, with multiple VCRs churning out copies of the footage taken on client visits to be sold on to mail-order customers found through the contact magazine.
For a time, again at her husband's urging, Stern, who describes herself as "submissive and acquiescent", also worked as a dominatrix. "I was awful at it," she says, giggling. "The clients never said anything, but, you know, they were submissive. They wanted to please me!"
Van Eyk was the initiator of all their business ventures. He loved the money, but even more, he seemed to thrive on the sexual adventurism. When he decided he wanted to make his own porn film, to be titled Sick Flick, he pressured his wife into performing scenes during which she "felt nothing but total disgust". She did it because she couldn't take the barrage of abuse if she said no. As long as she gave in to him, he was a loving, considerate husband. So more often than not, she chose to do just that.
Bad Santa … Stern, in her Methodist Ladies’ College uniform, and Paul Van Eyk pose for the Christmas card they would send out to their mailing list in 1990.
Speaking of not only Sick Flick (which was never released) but all of the porn she went on to make, Stern insists she was "an active, if reluctant, participant. I don't want to be thought of as a victim."
Living in a feminist squat in Amsterdam in the early 1980s, Stern marched against porn although she'd never actually seen any. "I just assumed it was an undesirable thing," she says. Stern still claims to have seen "very little" pornography, but her views are more nuanced than they were in her 20s. "Undoubtedly a lot of porn, especially in the States, is totally exploitative," she says. "The women are very young or on drugs and they don't have any residual rights, they just get a lump of cash for the day's work, they don't have any share of the copyright or the royalties or anything like that. But there are women who have made a conscious decision. Who, like me, would say, 'I've got this asset - my body - and there's a demand for it. Why shouldn't I make use of that and exploit myself?' It can be a very easy way of making a lot of money."
Stern's ambivalence about the industry will make it difficult for warriors from either side of the sex-work wars to use her story as ammunition. Clearly she found much of the work unpleasant, and is adamant she wouldn't have done it if not for pressure from Van Eyk. She intimates that she could not have borne certain acts if not for the use of anaesthetic creams.
Yet, with few exceptions, her clients treated her with more kindness and consideration than did her husband. She felt admired, appreciated, and yes, she says, respected. Later, when the business expanded, she enjoyed the camaraderie of the office where she and her staff would chat and laugh while stuffing envelopes with "horny stories", photo spreads and worn underwear. And the excellent money and flexible hours meant Stern was free to do what made her happiest of all - spend time with her young daughter.
Motherhood had been a revelation to Stern, who had never spent time around children and had not really thought of having her own until she fell pregnant. She initially wanted an abortion, but Van Eyk again applied pressure until he got his own way. In this case, Stern is forever grateful to him. She adored motherhood from the first instant, spending hours studying her baby's face. She was utterly in love, but also utterly fascinated. As an adoptee, Stern found looking at her daughter "was the first time I'd seen anyone related to me by blood".
The routine of "watch and wanks" in the morning and playing with Shoshanna in the afternoon came to an abrupt end in 1989, when police raided the family home, confiscating pornographic photos and footage as well as Stern's carefully catalogued client files. Stern and Van Eyk were charged with multiple porn- and prostitution-related offences (most of which were eventually dropped), and four-year-old Shoshanna was removed from their custody and placed in the care of one of her babysitters for several months. (Stern is unclear on the exact length of time: "That whole period was just so horrible and full of despair, and I've sort of blocked it out.")
"Reliving that was the hardest thing in writing the book," Stern says, no trace of a smile now. "Her removal and the fear that we wouldn't get her back ... It was a very, very difficult period."
Compounding the misery was the fact that the public nature of the bust - it was featured on both ABC's PM and Graham Kennedy's News Show - meant that her mother learnt what it was her daughter did for a living. "Nothing had prepared me for Dory's reaction," Stern writes. "I thought she would give her usual ... lecture, but that ultimately she would stand by me." But she didn't, refusing to attend court with the couple or to accept temporary custody of Shoshanna.
Stern and her mother, who died in 1990, did eventually reconcile, but the relationship was never the same. "She was just so horrified about the whole thing," Stern says.
When Dory was alive, Van Eyk obsessed over her wealth, harping about how he was sure she'd leave everything to a friend or "a cat home". After her death, he turned her house upside down searching for her will, ranting about the "f...ing bitch" while her grieving daughter looked on.
But Dory had the last laugh. Her will awarded Stern lifetime interest from a testamentary trust - Stern would forever receive benefits from Dory's estate without ever having any of the assets or principal funds in her own name. A note left for her daughter said, "You know why I have done things this way." Stern did; her mother had ensured she was financially secure for the rest of her life and that Van Eyk couldn't ruin it.
Shoshanna, now a 27-year-old commerce graduate living with her mum, has sketchy memories of the years when her parents worked in porn. She says the book (which Stern would not have published if all three of her children hadn't given her their blessings), "was interesting because there was a lot of stuff that I knew about, but I knew it from my perspective as a child".
One clear memory she has is of starting school in Canberra in 1990. (Stern and Van Eyk made the move partly out of fear that Shoshanna would again be taken from them if they stayed in Victoria.) She knew her parents' work was not to be discussed with outsiders, although she didn't understand why. Knowing that "videos were involved", she told some kids her parents worked in a video shop, but her mum told her that wasn't right; she should say "graphic design", and so she did.
Stern and Van Eyk's second daughter, Ya'el, now a 21-year-old student, wasn't yet born when most of the events in the book took place. (Nor was 20-year-old aspiring pilot Ben.) She read the memoir in one sitting, staying up all night to finish it. Ya'el insists she wasn't shocked by anything in the book, although she did skip over the graphic sex scenes between her parents. "No one wants to imagine their parents having sex, let alone read about it," she says. Shoshanna nods vehemently: "Yeah. They were hard to read, those bits."
Neither Shoshanna nor Ya'el is bothered by porn, as long as "everybody is consenting adults". In her mother's case, Ya'el says, "the only reason I thought maybe she shouldn't have done it is that her heart clearly wasn't in it. She clearly felt pressured to do so from my father." Adds Shoshanna: "Obviously she was a consenting adult. But my dad could be very manipulative, very persuasive. Given their circumstances at the time, of him not being able to keep down a job ... I think that she wanted to help him work and she saw he was personally doing so well in terms of being excited and pumped about something ... I think she did it for reasons of just wanting to make things work."
Both daughters were surprised (but, they insist, not upset) by the revelation that in those first few months in Canberra their mum had worked at Touch of Class, an upscale brothel frequented by politicians and public servants. It was information that gave Ya'el "a new-found admiration" for her mother: "[She was] compelled to support us and did what a mother had to do, no matter what, to provide for the household."
For Stern, the prostitution had been a stop-gap measure to help pay their legal bills while she and Van Eyk began rebuilding their porn archive. With the intention of setting up as a legitimate business under the ACT's more liberal pornography laws, they began filming around Canberra with the help of volunteers, including a moonlighting ABC sound technician who helped out on both sides of the camera, and professionals such as popular porn star Alice Springs.
A joint venture with Australia's "king of porn", John Lark, allowed Stern and Van Eyk to market their videos to the 250,000 customers on Lark's mailing list - the second largest in the country after Reader's Digest's. The cover blurb of their first legal video declared the footage "really IS home-made, the actors aren't actors, and the action is non-stop, shot just as it happened".
Of course, Stern had no interest in sex with women, group sex, bondage or any of the other outré activities depicted in Horny Housewives. She certainly had no sexual interest in her husband, whose financial excesses had long caused her considerable stress. By this time, their marriage was held together by a shared love of Shoshanna and a business that was very quickly bringing in "mountains of money".
Adult industry lobbyist Robbie Swan got to know Stern and Van Eyk shortly after they moved to Canberra and says he first thought that Stern was "a bit too soft and sensitive [for porn]. But I was wrong ... She was very successful. A very erotic performer. She had this incredibly beautiful, sensuous, dark thing about her."
Today, Swan sees Stern as a hero. "She showed enormous moral courage in fighting censorship and people who want to keep women in a box," he says. "I think she showed enormous courage to do what she had to do and to deal with an alcoholic husband who was self-destructing."
It was Shoshanna who prompted her mother to finally leave Van Eyk in 2001. The family had been living in Melbourne since their business went broke in 1993 (something Van Eyk blamed on a newly introduced tax, but which Stern attributes to Van Eyk's financial mismanagement). Stern was a stay-at-home mother before beginning work at the library in 1998 and Van Eyk worked in a series of graphic design and advertising jobs, as well as holding what he claimed was the first ever "web designer" position in Australia.
While Van Eyk was successful at work, at home he was frequently drunk and abusive. Eventually, a teenage Shoshanna gave her mother an ultimatum: "Either Dad goes or I do." Stern chose her daughter and Van Eyk moved out for good. Eight years later, aged 45, he was dead; the autopsy cited chronic and acute alcoholism as cause of death.
There is no bitterness in Stern's recollections of her husband now. She is quick to list his good qualities - talented artist, brilliant marketer, funny, creative - and to talk about the good times early in their relationship. She is also thankful for the support he gave her during her search for her birth mother. Van Eyk had a fraught relationship with his parents and was insistent about Stern's right to know her biological parents. The eventual meeting with her mother was not a particularly happy one, and Stern has since lost contact with most of the extended family she discovered. Nevertheless, the memoir is dedicated to her "four parents".
Although Stern says that if she had her time again she would do "so much differently", her life is not shadowed by regret. Clear of cancer ("for now"), she is happy working at the library, researching her family history, drawing, painting and hanging out with her kids: "I'm in quite a good place right now. Life's good. No complaints at all."
As for how the MLC Old Collegians might react to the news that there exists hard-core porn featuring their uniform? "Well, they've changed the uniform since then," she says. "It's still green, though. Hopefully, they have a sense of humour. I'd say there will be quite a few there who won't be impressed, but I don't care. It's done." And she laughs again, loud and long.
Not Your Ordinary Housewife is published by Allen & Unwin on December 17.
Lead-in photograph by Julian Kingma. Hair and make-up by Paddy Puttock. Styling by Kim Ellmer. Patrizia Pepe shirt and DVF skirt courtesy of Cyberia. Shoes by Alannah Hill.
This article originally appeared in Good Weekend. Like Good Weekend on Facebook to get regular updates on upcoming stories and events – www.facebook.com/GoodWeekendMagazine