When Ken Tipton, a 45-year-old aspiring actor and filmmaker in Los Angeles, started a rumor that two teens planned to have live virgin sex on the Internet, it seemed like a good idea at the time. If the Internet broadcast of a live childbirth could attract an audience to a website, he reasoned, imagine how much traffic a live conception could draw.
He would lure the biggest audience in Internet history to his website, only instead of showing live sex, over 18 days he would present what he called a "PSA-E3," a free public service announcement, engineered, educational event, extolling the virtues of safe sex. In other words, a publicity stunt. But then he tangled with the folks who actually do show live sex on the Internet, and the buzz he'd hoped for turned into a buzz saw.
Tipton is no stranger to Internet promotion, having financed a small independent film project with a website. Nor is he a stranger to notoriety, having owned a video store in St. Louis that was picketed and prosecuted by fundamentalist Christians for carrying Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ." But having issued statements about his website under an alias, Oscar Wells, in homage to Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast "War of the Worlds," he is now catching some of the same flak Welles got for his Halloween hoax.
His website, "Our First Time" <www.ourfirsttime.com>, purports to tell the story of Diane and Mike, actually fellow actors Michelle Parma and Ty Taylor, who play two typical All-American 18-year-old high school grads, who supposedly decided to lose their virginity on the Internet. The two are shown hugging in swimsuits and cutoffs, but with their faces dramatically blacked out. "The LIVE birth of a child on the Internet was a beautiful event," they write. "We want to show that the act of making love, which is the first step that brought that LIVE birth about, is just as beautiful -- and nothing to be ashamed of."
Beginning July 18, the site was to have posted a new storyboard and pictures daily, tracking the progress of the two teens as they got AIDS tests, picked out condoms, told their parents about their plans and took other steps leading to an Aug. 4 climax, pardon the pun, that was to have been shown live in streaming video. The saga ends with Mike and Diane shacked up in a motel room, clad in "brand name white briefs" and a satin white teddy, unwrapping a condom. Suddenly Mike says, "I've got a better idea." After declaring his eternal love to Diane, he says he could wait until after they graduate college to have sex, and she agrees.
The camera then was supposed to pan to "Oscar," who was to have explained the hoax by saying that 60 years ago, Orson Welles "chose to shock the nation with an experiment that illustrated the power of the new communication medium called the radio," and that "over the last 18 days, we chose to educate the world with an experiment that illustrated the power of the new communication medium called the Internet."
But on July 21, Tipton posted all 18 days, with the live streaming video finale replaced by script pages. What caused Tipton to change his plans was Internet Entertainment Group <www.ieg.com> of Seattle, Wash., perhaps the largest adult content provider on the Internet, and the same outfit that got ahold of Pamela Anderson's sex tapes with rockers Tommy Lee and Bret Michaels. Tipton said he got hooked up with IEG because his hoax worked all too well.
He said that within 10 hours of
starting his virgin sex rumor by
having a message posted to an Internet newsgroup, his website was
so many visitors that he needed a bigger service provider. He also
a bigger check book, because mega traffic costs mega bucks. Then the
picked up the rumor, with deejays and even Rush Limbaugh denouncing his
site, and "Our First Time" began getting millions of hits a day,
a huge worldwide audience for the Aug. 4 live finale, he said.
Traffic, that is, people visiting a specific website, is the most valuable commodity in cyberspace. But Tipton said he was generating so much traffic that the only computers big enough to handle it were owned by governments or Internet service providers that specialized in adult websites. Enter IEG, which, Tipton said, contacted him, offering to host his site for free. In exchange, IEG would have exclusive rights to place banner ads on his page, funneling his massive traffic to its adult websites, he said.
"It had to be them (IEG) or the entire government of a small country," Tipton said. "I just wanted to put my show on."
In their July 16 agreement, it appears neither side was entirely forthright. IEG described itself as a distributor of "entertainment, news and information on the world wide web," and Tipton tried to pass himself off as Oscar Wells. The deal fell apart the next day, although exactly why is in dispute. IEG President Seth Warshavsky issued a press release saying he terminated the agreement. He also exposed Tipton's scheme, calling it "a money-making publicity hoax," and claimed Tipton planned to charge people on the final day, even though the couple weren't going to have sex.
He said IEG didn't just want his traffic, but also to charge for the real deal, anticipating millions of dollars in revenue. When IEG learned that he was just in it for the publicity, and that there would be no sex, IEG "hijacked" his site, keeping its links on his page and siphoning off his traffic after he tried to back out of the agreement, he said.
He found another corporate sponsor, Condomania, a chain store that sells condoms, and just like Orson Welles, he held a press conference to try to explain that his 18-day "soap opera" had always been meant to be a free and family-oriented message about "safe sex and responsible choices." But by then the media had reported IEG's accusations of a hoax, and the damage had been done.
"Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and the only way to maintain the vitality of the story is to lay it all out at once... so that's what we're doing," he writes on his current site.
"I'm just sorry we never had the chance to put our show on the way we wanted," he said.
"Our First Time" is not the first time Ken Tipton has tried to promote himself via the Internet. The 45-year-old entrepreneur turned actor, writer, producer and director may be the first to use a personal Web page to finance an independent film.
Tipton grew up near St. Louis, where he was active in community theater and comedy clubs. He also was a small businessman, starting one of the first video stores in 1980, and in 1991 a paint-ball war game business. His video store was picketed and eventually prosecuted on obscenity charges, for carrying Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ."
In 1993 he decided to give acting a try and moved to Hollywood. He didn't feel like he was getting very far until 1995, when with writer Carrie Armstrong and director Karl Armstrong, he founded Makers Of Visual Independent Entertainment (M.O.V.I.E.), <www.moviefund.com>, a website that sold mouse pads, hats, key chains and T-shirts with the M.O.V.I.E. logo. Profits were to help pay for "Perfect Mate," a 20-minute short by the Armstrongs, in which Tipton had a starring role.
No one knew the website existed for several months, until a Web reviewer described it as strange, interesting and unique. Suddenly, thousands of people a day started visiting M.O.V.I.E., and some bought merchandise.
Even more important than the sales, he said, were the contacts. After seeing the Web page, a steadycam operator donated his services. Someone else offered to do animated credits, while others contributed free film. The Web page even helped persuade Disney to donate the use of an AVID digital film editor in exchange for a first look at the completed movie.
"Perfect Mate" grew from a short into a feature-length romantic comedy about a young woman who holds her party guests hostage while searching for her perfect mate. Tipton said the Web page helped finance much of the film, estimated to have cost $350,000, including the cost of donated goods and services.
In this business you have to make your
own breaks, Tipton said. The
only thing worse then failure is never knowing what could have been if
only you had tried."
IEG first achieved notoriety when it began selling tapes of former "Baywatch" babe Pamela Anderson having sex with her former husband, Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, and rocker Bret Michaels. Anderson, Lee and Michaels filed $90 million lawsuits, but IEG has negotiated for distribution rights.
The "Wall Street Journal" described Warshavsky as "short, scrubbed and apple-cheeked," and "looks hardly old enough to shave, let alone direct a sprawling adult-entertainment operation." He's also been described as a virtual Hugh Hefner or Bob Guccione. In fact, when "Penthouse" magazine went online, it hired Warshavsky to create and operate its site.
But he could also be called the Bill Gates of porn, because his cyber peep shows use cutting edge computer technology. With the profits he'd made from a phone-sex operation started in college, Warshavsky converted a warehouse near the King Dome in Seattle into a studio where women take off their clothes and play with themselves. The studio includes a bedroom, dungeon and shower equipped with webcams and microphones, which broadcast the video straight onto the Internet.
For a monthly membership fee, plus an hourly charge, you can watch the women strip and touch themselves in real time on your computer screen. For more money you can talk to the women over the phone and "direct" them, and if you like the show you can even tip them.
The video images are jerky and no bigger than a post card, but far more advanced than, say, America Online, which still presents celebrities using typed text messages, without pictures or sound, much less video. As for the women -- and men -- involved, it may be the skin trade, but a lot safer than prostitution.