Technically it would be the “Adult Entertainment Expo” (“AEE”) that our first-time-visitor correspondent covers today, although they still call it the “AVN” Awards Show on the final night. It can get confusing, but we’ll try to pop in and help if need be going forward. That said, having lived through this trip with Renee, it is really not a matter of “help” with her as it is “hang on and try to keep up.”

An AEE Virgin at the AVNs

I’d overpacked again. My snakeskin suitcase was impossibly heavy and my purse, hastily filled with last-minute necessities, threatened to leave a train of rhinestone pasties behind me as I squeezed down the narrow cabin of my flight to Vegas. Twenty minutes later and I was 10,000 feet in the air. The cabin buzzed with nervous energy — the aggressive chewing of pretzels; the rattling of ice in little plastic cups; bachelorette parties ordering seconds of airplane chardonnay; travelers unsure of what their trip might hold. I was three hours out from my first time at the AVNs, the “Oscars of Porn” and, to tell the truth, I didn’t know what to expect either.

This year, the AVNs were held at Resorts World Las Vegas, The Strip’s barely-legal new kid on the block. Hosted by adult mega outlet Adult Video News, the AVNs are a four-day event climaxing in a Saturday night award show.

AEE Virgin: Meet The Beginning

My flight touched down just before 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, too late to catch the action of Day 1 on the expo floor. I consoled myself in the nostalgic kitsch of the Peppermill Restaurant & Fireside Lounge, conveniently located just across Las Vegas Boulevard from Resorts World. It was still early enough to grab one of the coveted spots by the fire pit — the same booth I’d seen in Scorcese’s Casino; a sunken velvet fortress framed with gaudy brass rails — all seemingly plucked from the floor of a 70s strip club. I ordered a drink to work up the courage for the trip across the street.

It was easy to spot the AVN talent amid souvenir-clad tourists — e-girls in cat ears, Amazonian giantesses, and recognizable mainstream veterans posing for photos with fans. I followed the mesmerizing glow of neon body stockings toward the “AVN Party” signs until I dead-ended into a wall of event security staff. Before I could begin to beg for admission, I was waved in, badgeless and all. Exhilarating. A triumph.

The banquet tent was mostly empty when I arrived, save for a few civilian partygoers greedily staking out seating areas. Above a barren dance floor, lingerie-clad go-go dancers gyrated alongside a DJ playing Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” and Usher’s “Yeah!”. I decided to make the most of it. launching myself onto the floor in a flurry of moves most frequently performed by drunken fathers of the bride. I disco danced, I dropped it low, and I performed a grossly underwhelming bachata. Eventually, I hit my limit and, breathless and slightly sweaty, I headed for the door just in time to watch the party begin to pour in. It turned out I’d arrived a bit early for the festivities — a move very on-brand for my whole deal. Partygoers filled the dance floor as I swam upstream through the crowd. I was tempted to stay and the tequila in my glass argued that more people needed to see me dance badly — but tomorrow would be a big day and I’d need to grab some rest. I didn’t want to miss a moment.

AEE Virgin: Meet The Throng

I acquired my AVN credentials the next morning and shrugged off the disbelief I felt seeing the title printed on my badge, “Renee Olstead: Penthouse Pet & Columnist”. It had been a year since my January cover hit newsstands and only months since I’d first started writing for the publication. I felt like the awkward kid that somehow managed to sneak her way into the cool kids’ party. This trip, I’d be shape-shifting between roles, journalist by day, Penthouse Pet by night — a real life porno Peter Parker. It was just before 11:00 am when I made my way to the casino’s lounge for my first interview. I’d chosen a white strappy jumpsuit for the occasion, a regrettable fast-fashion choice that collapsed midway through my first interview. I laughed it off, grateful for the pasties I’d chosen to wear that morning — nudity on the casino floor is grounds for removal. I quickly covered myself with my jacket and made a break for the bathroom, where I fashioned a top from a free t-shirt I’d grabbed off a swag table.

Five interviews later, I found myself amid the chaos of the AVN Expo, a gallery of performers and vendors crammed into a room the size of a high-school gym. Ring lights shone like little suns upon camgirls broadcasting the event to viewers at home. Slack-jawed fans in headsets demoed VR porn. Lingerie-clad performers signed autographs for fans on either side of cam site booths where streamers chatted enthusiastically with computer screens — a blend of the AVN legacy and a glimpse at what’s next.

I scanned the crowd for familiar faces, sharing hellos with Skye Blue, Tyler Cruise, and Lana Smalls. I stumbled through introductions with online mutuals like SexWorkCEO’s Melrose Michaels and Summer Hart, both fellow redheads and the latter a leader for Las Vegas mutual aid group SWAID. As Day 2 of the expo came to a close, I hurried to my room. It was time to change for the first party of my event itinerary, one I’d be attending as my hot girl alter-ego, Penthouse’s January ‘23 Pet.

Violet Summers, Renee Olstead, Lacy Lennon, Mia Ventura, Tahlia Paris ... Pets Aplenty

AEE Virgin: Meet the Party

It was nearly 11:30 p.m. and the Penthouse cohort would soon assemble at the MGM Grand. Tonight’s party was held at the casino’s popular nightclub, Hakkasan. I joined the Penthouse crew at a nearby casino lounge and added a tequila Red Bull to the company tab. I introduced myself to ‘20 POTY Lacy Lennon along with April ‘20 Pet Violet Summers and chatted with ‘22 Pet Tahlia Paris, a California girl three years into a move to Vegas. A few drinks later we we were led past Hakkasan security. I felt like a Trojan horse that had just breached the gates of hot girl Troy. A few drinks after that I was dancing on the back of a black leather booth front and center before the dance floor, grinding against some of the most desired women in the world — and then, it happened. Before I could stop myself, before my better judgment could beg me to reconsider — I started doing the Macarena.

I don’t know why I did it, but it was too late to save face now. I’d already revealed my true self, the redhead incapable of being cool, a rhinestoned vector of the universally undesirable Macarena virus. I braced myself for ridicule, but as I turned, I saw the unexpected. Violet Summers was dancing enthusiastically alongside me; left hand, right hand, cross, cross, hand on hips, butt wiggle. Then Tahlia Paris. Then Lacy Lennon. The ridicule I feared never arrived, just smiles, selfies, sisterhood — and more tequila. 

AEE Virgin: Meet the Other Party

The next morning arrived too soon. A whirlwind of interviews and photos hoots came ahead of another Penthouse event, this time at Las Vegas nightclub Drai’s. Tonight, T.I. would perform, followed by a DJ set from fellow Macarena conspirator Tahlia Paris. Tahlia and I agreed to meet first for drinks in the casino lobby. An hour later we were in the club, shouting politely over the noise of the crowd, dancing and — in my case — fleeing the all-but-obligatory tequila frequently handed out by club hostesses eager to clear their trays.

It was just before 2:00 am when all Pets were asked to assemble for a photo op. We posed together in the flash of cameras that blinded us to the wave of sparklers in the distance. As the lights enclosed upon us, manicured hands raised posters above the crowd — posters of Tahlia, the woman with whom I’d shared a quiet glass of champagne just hours before. Then 3,244 square feet of LED proclaimed “Congratulations Penthouse Pet of the Year Tahlia Paris!”

Photos filled the screen: Tahlia at the beach, Tahlia on the bed, Tahlia Paris, Penthouse royalty. I turned back to see my new friend. In her hands was a small black box that she pressed close to her chest. We all knew what was inside: the signature necklace that heralds the newly crowned Penthouse Pet of the Year. As Nov ‘22 Pet Veronica Perasso fastened the glittering pendant around her neck, we screamed and cried in celebration. Tahlia Paris was Penthouse’s 2023 Pet of the Year.

AEE Virgin: Meet the Awards Show

It was final day of the AVNs and I poured myself into a tight white dress in preparation for the night’s awards show. Last night’s party had given me new confidence. I flashed my badge for security and strode into the awards pre-show VIP section. More familiar faces; this time, nominees Vivianne DeSilva and ‘16 Penthouse POTY Kenna James. James was up for four awards this year, and her AVN schedule had been even more packed than mine — daytime appearances followed by late night feature performances at Vegas gentlemen’s club Scores. She was further scheduled to perform a final set after the conclusion of the awards, and Sunday she’d drive to LA to shoot a series of scenes. I admired her endurance as I shifted my weight back and forth against the event’s rental furniture — a futile effort to comfort feet I had abused for three consecutive days. James eyed my 7-inch heels, my calculated oscillation, and lifted the hem of her dress to reveal a pair of ballerina flats. A far wiser choice, Pet sister.

Our conversation was interrupted by a voice over the loudspeaker: the award show would soon begin. Popcorn in hand, I limped to my seat. Onstage, a video of half-naked models looped on a 40-foot-tall screen. 90 minutes after the show’s scheduled start, the stage’s topless screen saver faded into the show’s pre-recorded opening, a slideshow of “Hall of Fame” inductees and a somber “In Memoriam” segment. Two noticeably late additions had been added to the end of the segment, AVN Hall-of-Famer Jesse Jane and fetish legend Masuimi Max.

The stage burst into light and revealed Iggy Azalea, gyrating in neon green spandex amid a throng of dancers. Pre-recorded skits sandwiched between award categories like “Best Blowbang Scene” and “Best Female Mixed Age Movie” while demurely cropped clips, noticeably devoid of “money shots,” rolled on the screens surrounding the presenters. 

As the show came to a close, I couldn’t help but feel the AVNs weren’t nearly as lascivious as anticipated. The chain-smoking, tattooed starlets described in “Big Red Sonwere noticeably absent, replaced by a new generation of performers (some tattooed, many with vapes in hand). A lot has changed in the adult industry over the 32 years since the award show got its start, and AVN has done its best to roll with the punches. Seedy adult video stores have been replaced with tube sites, and mainstream studios now compete head-to-head with amateur creators, cam sites, and performer-produced content. It’s a change clearly visible on the expo floor and in the AVN award categories themselves, with awards for creators, podcasts, and collabs.

AEE Virgin: Meet the Conclusion

Perhaps it’s my proximity to the work that dampens the shock value, but for me, the event’s more explicit moments won’t be my greatest takeaway. Was my first time at the AVNs sexy? Sure — but what I’ll remember most is the acceptance I felt in a Macarena line of Penthouse Pets; the look on Tahlia’s face during her big moment. I’ll remember the conversations I overheard in casino bathrooms and the performers gracious enough to run the length of a casino floor for an interview amid a packed schedule. I’ll think about all that has changed — the webcam booths; the virtual reality chairs; the independent creators — and all that has remained constant: the fans, the community, the impressive staying power of the Lycra dress. Above all, my first time at the AVNs was special — the way you always hear a “first time” is supposed to be. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Renee has been an absolute joy, although her professionalism — and perhaps as she suggested her “proximity to the work” — made her a lot less shocked than any other AEE Virgin we had shepherded through the event. Honestly she ended up leading a lot more than she followed, which we found both refreshing and tiring at the same time, if you can relate to that.

Renee was absolutely correct with her insights regarding how the “AEE/AVNs” have evolved to reflect the current industry, and that continues to make the event both relevant and great fun, even to us aged, grizzled veterans. If we can be looking forward to next year while still being tired from this year, AVN has accomplished a remarkably good thing. … Although next year maybe we should all bring ballerina slippers.

AEE Virgin Renee Olstead with Experienced Friends Lacy Lennon and Violet Summers

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