Jonathan Agassi in a shot for one of the porn films he participated in. 'A lot of free time, a lot of money, going around the world, and escorting is just one of the many steps on the way down' Thomas Shemesh

The Shocking Life of Israel's Most Famous Gay Porn Star

The wild life of Jonathan Agassi included starring in American gay-porn movies, working as an escort in Berlin and using hard drugs every day. Now his life story is exposed in a shocking new film

In an inner room in a darkened club sit two young men in work overalls. They are handsome and muscular. As they wait to go on stage, loud bass sounds and electronic music are heard clearly in the room. As they sit next to each other on a couch they engage in conversation. Apparently the two have met before: “Are you still living in Barcelona?” one asks the other. “Still working in porn?” The second man replies: “No, last year my sister got cancer, I couldn’t do anything.” “Is she OK now?” asks the first man. “She died in February.”

While this updating and consolation take place, the two are engaged in something else as well. As part of the preparation for the show that is about to begin, a live sex act on the club’s stage, they are handling their penises, aiming to create and maintain an erection. There is nothing erotic about it, it’s purely mechanical, almost totally incidental. It is not a sensual gesture, seemed to generate pleasure, but more like the polishing of a tool, with one hand consoling, with fluttering strokes, the other rubbing. The dissonance and the dissociation between their actions and their attitudes leave the viewer aghast.

The opening scene of “Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life”, a new documentary film by Tomer Heymann, leaves no room for doubt. Anyone who’s read a description of the movie, which follows a decade in the life of Israeli gay-porn star Jonathan Agassi, but who expects some refinement or concealment, will be disappointed. “Jonathan Agassi”, like the man himself, does not beat around the bush or commiserate with the audience. The film presents a certain world and one person within it, layered and full of contradictions. Thus, reality and its axioms regarding permitted and forbidden, good and evil, are constantly questioned in this movie. One moment things are portrayed through the eyes of the movie’s star and then they’re reflected through the eyes of the director, and then, ever descending, through the world of prostitution and drugs, until the final blow.

Lucas entertainment

“The first time I saw the movie, I couldn’t utter a sound. The second time, I thought I could react and speak, but I started crying,” says Agassi.

Is it hard to see yourself through someone else’s eyes, someone who presents fractures and chinks in the story you’ve told about a person who has found happiness and is at the top of the world?

“The movie isn’t difficult for me, I don’t watch it and experience anew the difficult period I went through. Now, when I look back on that decade, it really was some story, but I wasn’t aware of it until I saw the movie. Many people I know heard about the movie Tomer was planning to make about me, but no one imagined, no one could imagine from the way I described it, that it would be such a sad documentary.”

Perhaps because it contains things you didn’t look at directly, that you didn’t call by name, something which Tomer did?

Amnon Sinai

“Yes, that’s possible.”

For three months the movie has been playing at local cinemas to packed halls, accompanied by hardly any advertising, and no media. Last summer it received an award for best documentary and an editing prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival. At the time, it received exultant reviews, but for the most part remained below the radar. That should change beginning on November 11, when it will start screening as an expanded series on Channel 8, which was one of the film’s funders from its inception. (Agassi, his mother and two brothers also appeared in an earlier series from the Heymann brothers, "Families," which was broadcast on Channel 8 in 2013). A few days later, it will compete for the best-film prize at the IDFA documentary film festival in Amsterdam. This is a sufficiently long time for its star to get used to the exposure, not that exposure was ever a problem for him.

“The story begins way before the porn” 

Jonathan Langer, 34, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Holon. He would be the first to describe himself as an exhibitionist. It’s not his appearances in pornographic films, or the ease which he exposes his body (even in scenes from the film in which he’s not “on duty,” he walks around half-naked). It seems that he’s documented himself ever since he became aware of himself. His personal computer contains, as the movie shows, thousands of photos and video clips, from childhood onward, even before he re-invented himself as Jonathan Agassi.

His parents divorced when he was six months old, and his relations with his father were almost non-existent. His mother, Anna, in contrast, played a key role in his life, and does in the movie. A few images in the movie seem like allusions to a Pieta tableau, with the mother cradling her tortured son, full of unconditional love for him – even when he's wearing garters and stiletto heels. Anna and Jonathan currently live together in a small apartment in south Tel Aviv. The movie may follow Jonathan through the twists and turns of life, but is largely focused on his relationship with his mother, and the way she manages to be the rock in his windswept life. It's a life that always seems to have been stormy, even when he was unaware of it.

“The story begins way before the porn,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “I was a delicate and feminine boy. I only had girl friends, never boys, I was a gay type of boy,” he says with a smile. “I always exhibited sexuality. There was a store on Sheinkin Street for accessories, such as fur purses. I was 14 years old with razor-thin eyebrows, and I liked shopping there. I had lots of social problems, being so girl-like. Getting beaten up at school was routine. It happened every day, but I’d hit back. I don’t know how to describe that period.”

We’ll get back to that period and to what happened then, which may have affected his sexual maturation and his outward exhibition of sexuality at a young age.

Langer lost his virginity at age 14, to an older man who told him to close his eyes and pretend he was a woman. What he thought of was a man. A year or two later, he relates, he came out of the closet openly, although he says that, “I never was in a closet and always went to the extreme."

He never finished high school, completing only 10 years of schooling. Instead, he studied makeup and hairdressing, and worked in a store that was part of a large makeup chain, making his way as a makeup artist for fashion shows. Those were quiet years. He rented a room with another man and topped up his income on weekends by working at a sex shop near the old bus terminal in Tel Aviv.

Ethan Tal

“It was a store for straights, with peep shows, the sleaziest you can get. I had a lot of time to kill on weekends, which is when I started taking an interest in porn. Those were the years I was handsomest, with a good body and good looks." He says that he didn't consume pornography until he worked in the store, which also coincided with him and his partner splitting up, when Langer was 23.

"When I worked at the store, I’d take out DVDs and watch the behind-the scenes features. Off camera, they have food, and people who look after all your needs. All you do is rest and wait for the next scene,” he laughs. "When my partner and I split up I went back to my mother in Holon, and I was in a confused state. One day I saw an online ad looking for porn stars. It wasn’t a big company, but I realized there was something there.”

He began to apply for auditions. At the same time, as fate would have it, Michael Lucas, a fervent Zionist, director and the owner of Lucas Entertainment, one of the biggest porn-production companies in the U.S., came to Israel to direct a movie starring local men. Langer jumped at the opportunity, and was quickly offered a role. While filming was still underway, even before Men of Israel became one of the most profitable gay-porn features, he was signed on for two more productions.

That’s when the name "Jonathan Agassi" was born, an alter ego that he describes in the current movie as a superhero, a character who helps him, who's always on his side. Jonathan Agassi became a star almost overnight. From a young man from Holon who had almost never left the country, Langer became a man of the world, moving around, familiar with all the world’s airports. He still describes that period as the happiest in his life.

“For me, sex was always something free,” he relates, crossing his legs on the sofa. “Doing sex never seemed like something forbidden, the body is something good and beautiful and I was always comfortable with nudity. Porn suited me like a glove." But when he told his mother about his new calling, she had a predictable reaction, he says: "'What in the world are you doing?!,' and the like. The thing is, I'm good at persuading people, and I was able to persuade her as well. I was on a contract that prohibited drug use, and I wasn’t in that world then anyway. As an innocent child, it looked organized and charmed, with people protecting you and watching that you don’t mess up.”

Like a models’ apartment in Milan.

“Exactly. That’s what it could seem like.”

Pornography, however – and this may be why it suited Agassi – was a gateway to a dive into the depths. And it seems that the persuasive Agassi suceeeded in deluding both himself and those around him for a long period. Even when it should have been clear that the life he was selling was actually about to collapse around him, the truth had a hard time penetrating the wall he’d built around himself.

“I can say today that there were many situations where I could say that I was naïve. I really saw things that way and when I believe in something I’ll do everything to make people see things that way. At the end of the movie, I say that everything I battled against, everything people told me about what I was doing, things I didn’t want to listen to – it all happened. I fell, just like they told me I would. I believed so much and wanted things so badly that I didn’t see it coming.”

Maybe there was something inside you that yearned for it?

“Absolutely. I wanted it very much. Exhibitionism is the word that best describes me.”

Why didn’t you go for legitimate acting?

Itay Azrieli

“I never wanted to. Maybe if I’d have become a model it would have worked, but I think I would have reached the same place in the end. That’s what I believe.”

The combination of your character, a lot of money and a lot of temptation would have taken you to the same place?

“Yes, to the same spot. It’s not the porn that took me there, it’s the style of life associated with it. A lot of free time, a lot of money, going around the world, and escorting is just one of the many steps on the way down.”

'A trip with a client'

Ten years is along time for a slide that ends in collapse. The young Agassi was on top of the world. He had an exclusive contract with Lucas Entertainment, and he became a busy actor who raked in thousands of dollars per movie. Along with film appearances, he begn performing in live sex shows. Initially, it was sex industry conferences, which try to maintain an air of dignity and order. Then he appeared at sex parties at clubs in Israel and overseas. Eventually, after refusing offers for a long time, he began working as an escort as well. He tells his sister in the movie that when he says “a trip with a client,” that’s what it means, adding that he’s not a prostitute, more like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

A personal crisis led to further deterioration. He decided to move to Berlin, where he embarked, perhaps unconsciously, on a voyage of self-destruction. “Drugs and sex are plentiful and available in Berlin, but it took me two to three years before I became a daily user. I had a nice apartment in Berlin, I worked a lot, and people recognized me in the street, turning their heads when I walked by."

After two years, however, things began going downhill. "I moved from taking drugs once a month to using them on weekends, at parties. And then I’d start the weekend on Thursday and end it on Wednesday, sleep half a night and start over. I wasn’t afraid of anything, I only wanted to tear into anything I could. I was sure that death was nearby.

"I started with coke and that was a pretty calm period, using it 2-3 times a week. I still traveled a lot for shoots and performances. My career was going well.”

On one of his trips, Agassi tried crystal meth, “even though I knew the drug and what it does and that it’s a dangerous one.” He was hooked immediately.

Were there no warning signs? No alarm bells going on in your head?

Lucas entertainment

“All the warnings were there. I knew people died from hard drugs at clubs, I knew but I didn’t listen. My character is to always go beyond the limits. I have no fears. The extreme turns me on, I don’t fear it.”

From that moment his life moved between drinking GHB, a muscle relaxant that in high doses is used as a "rape drug," consuming crystal meth (“you become an animal with no inhibitions or fears”) and massive recourse to prostitution. On a routine day, Agassi would have no fewer than five clients, but sometimes it was more than 12. He estimates that his income exceeded a million shekels ($270,000) in those years. Sometimes he’d make 3,000 shekels in one day. “But I’d smoke it or inject it the next day. I was surrounded by people like me and it seemed normal that the day revolves around sex and drugs.”

This deterioration is depicted slowly and gradually in the movie, and is almost imperceptible. Even today it’s hard to pierce the shell surrounding Agassi. If during the first part of the movie the viewer wonders whether he’s watching a truly happy prostitute, and that he should give up old-fashioned notions about the immorality of prostitution, it's only in the second half that it becomes clear that there's no such thing as a happy sex worker who doesn't suffer serious physical and mental repercussions.

'Everything seemed beautiful and good'

Even today it’s hard to convince Agassi of this, two years after he stopped, after surgery intended to repair tears in his body caused by sex with men and his porn work, and after a recover period of months which he spent at his mother's house. In episode four of the TV show (though not included in the film version), we see Agassi preparing for a new kind of show. He will stand on a stage, surrounded by peepholes, and will pleasure any anonymous sexual organ shoved his way. It’s a totally dark scene, a cruel one, and Agassi looks like someone stripped of his humanity through his self-negation and self-destruction, exploited as a sex doll for multitudes of users who touch him and themselves. He’s so confused that his eyes glitter when he talks about the new work: “People respected me and were good to me but it quickly became work. I’d wake up, respond to a call and go where I needed to go. I wouldn't call it prostitution, it seemed just like any other job.”

But you needed to take Viagra beforehand, you took drugs, and what did it do to your body, satisfying at least five men a day?

“I didn’t see the negative impact on my body and mind. To this day I don’t see it. I think that many negative things didn’t come from the escorting.”

There’s a strange mixture in you, Jonathan. On one hand you’ve experienced the lowest things in life, really dark aspects, yet you have some terrible naivete regarding people and their intentions, what they see in you and for what purposes they use you, and mainly, what all this does to you.

“You know, I don’t think I ever thought of what it was doing to me. I didn’t see it. I didn’t see the self-destruction even when it was evident. My mother says I never listened to my body. Now it’s different, I try to listen. Then I was deep in ecstasy and the truth is that even now, I look at that period and don’t see it as a difficult one. I don’t see it as destructive.”

Jonathan, you were high the whole time.

“That’s true, but I’m proof that that there are happy hookers.”

You had to be drugged the whole time in order to succeed.

“I wanted to be drugged.”

Would you have reached that situation without being on drugs all the time?

“I think so, but I can’t separate it, since it was all one package – the porn, the escorting, the drugs. Everything seemed beautiful and good. I didn’t feel I was in a forbidden or bad place. I never saw escorting as a dark place. It did bad things to me ultimately, but it was also good. If I were a regular person, and not a user, many things would have been different or would not have happened, but I wasn’t. “

The father and his German partner

Things that were there under the surface emerge in the movie in uncontrollable outbursts. These are moments Agassi still can’t watch. He sometimes comes to screenings and holds short conversations with the audience (who respond with relief upon seeing him healthy, smiling, alive). In one recent Saturday night screening he avoided looking at an outside monitor showing people who were waiting what movie was on and how far along it was. Then he enters the auditorium with a smile - but he can’t stand the sight of himself rolling in the street, lying on a car and wailing in a psychotic fit. It happens during the movie when he’s on drugs and when the issue of his relations with his father and the family history come up.

This issue appears to be a bleeding sore that no one paid attention to, certainly not Agassi himself. When his older brother was 13 and he was almost 12, the two were sent to Hamburg to visit their father and his German partner. This was almost the first meeting between them, and it explains – at least in Heymann's eyes, and even though Agassi doesn’t see it that way – a lot of what happened in the son's life. The father looked askance at his feminine son, he scolded and teased him. He called him a "homo," and pressured him to have sex with his (the father’s) adult female partner. Agassi, an 11-year-old boy, turns out to have been a victim of sexual harssment.

“I never saw it as something traumatic. Today I realize it was sexual harassment. I still don’t understand how my father didn’t see it. Today I think it shouldn’t have happened. Perhaps my salvation was that it wasn’t part of my consciousness. Somewhere in my subconscious it always hovered, it was somehow related to my father, but I never brought it up, I didn’t think it explained things. Maybe that’s good.”

Like a defense mechanism?

Mari Laukkanen

“Yes. When we shot the film and the whole issue of my father came up, it was like scratching a wound that I didn’t know existed. Tomer took it there and ultimately everything was buried there. Do you think I’m repressing it?”

Don’t you?

“I think that after I brought Tomer into my story, after I showed him photos of that event with that German woman, only then did it enter my consciousness. Only then did I look at it through the eyes of an adult. Until then I told myself a story as if it was a funny experience and all I cared about was a thong I bought then.”

You told yourself a story in which it was a funny event, but in actuality it was something painful?

“Yes, I’m beginning to think that. I know you might expect it, but I don’t hate my father. I even love him. I don’t feel traumatized by it, I’m not angry since it ended well, and I’m not some wretch whose life collapsed. I’m not a pessimist. I’m immune, things pass over me.”

There’s a heart-wrenching moment there, where you look like someone who understands that he’s been deceived, that his father deceived him.

“It ended with a cold break. The hug I give him without looking at him again, that’s how it ended. A year later I returned to Berlin, we met and things were okay. My problem with him, with Raviv, is not how he was as a father, but that he didn’t help me to live when I was in Berlin. He had an opportunity of fixing our entire history, and it didn’t happen. I’m angrier about that more than about the sexual harassment I experienced when I was 11 or 12.”

There is also the story of the gay community and what the movie says about it, and the responses, harsh at times, people have after seeing the movie. What is depicted is a culture of clubs and drugs, sex, for cash or without any restraints; the reflection the movie places before the community is not a picture of a normative society of people working in high-tech, twins born through surrogacy.

“I wouldn’t want to generalize,” Agassi says, lighting another cigarette. “I don’t think the movie says anything about gays, only about some parts of this community. Perhaps large segments. It’s a community that does drugs, that parties, that’s deep into sex. We’re a community of men, that’s part of it. I hope I’m not describing it too darkly, I wouldn’t want the community portrayed that way.”

You said that at the age of 15 or 16 you were already receiving offers of sex for cash.

“At the age of 15, I opened a profile on a dating website for gays, and I started getting offers. When you’re that age you obviously get offers from older men who offer you ‘support.’ All my friends were offered money at a young age, I don’t think I was special. As soon as I entered the LGBT community, I started getting offers of sex for money. Gays measure you and assess if you’re young, if you’re handsome, if you have a big penis. Regrettably, that’s something the community is based on. I worry that people will think I’m tarnishing the community, but it’s a large part of what it looks like, lots of drugs and sex, a thin line between sexual freedom and abandon. It’s a world managed by men.”

Sex as power

There is something complex and heartbreaking in the honesty with which Agassi expresses himself. He smiles and tends to minimize the impact of his lost decade. He’s charismatic and sweet in a way that makes it difficult to make him face up to to reality. He’ll reject descriptions of himself as a victim of the sex industry, even though he fits the prototype. There is a sobering up in his attitude to sex and relationships (in a wrenching scene in the movie, he declares that he doesn’t need a partner or love, since he can ask his clients to hug him at night), and in his desire for the first time in years to have a relationship. At the end of our talk, he says that the past year was the least sexual he’s had. “I turned from someone whose life constantly revolved around sex into someone who doesn’t give it the central role it used to have. My life revolved around sex. I went crazy at home, looking for it. But during the last year, I only had sex twice. I’m trying to turn it into something more human.”

Sex for you was like your super-power for along time. That was where you were safe and confident, with your body and penis, the fantasies, you were confident you had something to give.

“It was like that. I don’t think it’s like that today. I don’t think sex is all I can give, that it’s my strong suit. I haven’t yet found what is. I don’t know yet what I can give the world, I’m still searching. I really want the movie to take me into educational work, so that the community changes its approach to drugs. I want to know I have the experience and wisdom to do that, and what happened to me is what I can give the world. I used to give my body without thinking about my soul. Now I’m no longer there, and I think a lot about what I can depend on. I’m sure I’ll find it. I’m in a good place now. The movie put the puzzle together for me. There are many things I didn’t remember. If I could have analyzed them as they were happening I may not have come out of it.”

And what would you like to happen to you?

“I really want children, but feel I’m moving away from that since that is a long and difficult process, financially difficult. I’m not very optimistic about that. I’ll try to find myself in the near future. I work at a kiosk, but it’s not forever. Now everything is temporary and I don’t know what direction to go in. Maybe I’ll return to makeup and hairdressing. I’m searching for myself, but mentally I’m calm. I was always very impulsive – I’d do whatever came to mind. I think that’s passed. I’m trying to plan ahead and do things more wisely.”

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