Dennis Hof says he wants to clean up legal prostitution’s image
Under the table, 24-year-old Victoria paws at the large man’s crotch. The owner of the Carson City restaurant walks by with a sour look, eyes averted. Victoria, a dark-haired hooker from Minnesota, passes a plate of lemon chicken, giggling.
“Do you want some, Daddy?”
Dennis Hof, prominent Nevada brothel owner and lately HBO star, grins.
Of course he wants some. That’s the idea.
Hof’s goal is to see prostitution become a major economic force in society’s mainstream. He’d like to help sanitize the sleazy street-corner-hooker image. He foresees a coming cultural atmosphere in which those seeking female companionship can easily find a safe, legal place to get laid.
“The Bunnyranch,” Hof tells me, “is an example of how sex-for-sale is going to be in America within the next 30 years.”
He tells his girls: “Everybody likes sex. If you’re not buying it, you should be selling it.”
In Nevada, wider acceptance of legal brothels could provide a needed tourism boost, Hof says. And that could provide a needed tax revenue boost for local governments.
“A guy will think of events to come to in Reno—ski trips, bowling, Hot August Nights, poker tournaments—and in the back of his mind think of going to the Bunnyranch.”
He references Amsterdam.
“People walk through the Red Light District buying T-shirts and enjoying a society that doesn’t have restrictions on personal freedoms,” he says. “The notoriety of brothels brings people to Nevada.”
It’s about 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, a few days after New Year’s. We’re having dinner with Hof and a few licensed sex workers. The group called ahead to reserve a largish table at a mom-and-pop Asian restaurant in a strip mall near a Scolari’s grocery store in Carson City. The proprietor’s wife seems less than thrilled at the presence of Hof, seven working girls, Bunny Butler Sir Edward, a reporter and RN&R photographer David Robert. She first ignores the table altogether, then walks by it, shooting fiery glances at the laughing girls.
“Where’s the boss at?” Hof asks her, referring to her husband. The woman doesn’t reply.
“The boss is right there,” one of the girls answers, pointing at Hof. “You’re the boss, Dennis.”
Hof is a large square-faced man in his mid-50s. He sheds his suit jacket for dinner and dines in a rumpled white shirt and a brash patterned tie. Hof owns two brothels—the Moonlite Bunnyranch and Kitty’s Cathouse—in Lyon County, a few miles from Carson City. Lyon is one of 10 counties in Nevada that allow licensed prostitutes to work out of legal, license fee and property tax-paying brothels.
After dinner, Hof pours the last of the sake for Victoria and announces a new twist on the reading of fortune cookies.
“Whenever you go out for Chinese food from now on, Deidre, you’ll remember reading fortunes with this old sex-seller, this infamous cathouse owner,” says Hof.
The fortune cookie game turns out to be the one where you read a fortune aloud and add a prepositional phrase to the end to shift the meaning. Hof suggests “between the sheets.”
Danielle, 26, a slender black girl from Alaska, reads her fortune: “You are always welcome at any gathering … between the sheets.”
“Isn’t that the truth!” Danielle says.
Hof pretends to read a fortune that forecasts an evening with multiple blondes and brunettes.
“I’m going to be busy girls, no locking the doors tonight!” he warns.
His actual fortune isn’t much different: “You will be extra busy for the next few days and enjoy every minute of it … between the sheets.”
Leaving the restaurant, Hof holds the door for the girls. Each files past Hof and pauses for a kiss. As Hof leans down to kiss Danielle, he opens his mouth and out darts his tongue.
“You’re bad,” she says, wagging her pierced tongue back at him for a second kiss.
The girls pile into the Hummer for a ride back to work.
Inside the restaurant, a frazzled Asian man rubs his forehead. The wife glares on.
Hof doesn’t miss a chance to get his name in the press. He’s offered free and reduced-price sex to U.S. military personnel who served in Iraq. The sex workers at Hof’s two brothels have done fundraisers for sick kids, fire victims, a skate park, library books and the Lyon County Food Bank.
Between coverage in The New York Times, the 2001 profile of Hof ("American Pimp") in The New Yorker and oodles of radio and cable TV coverage, the Bunnyranch is arguably becoming America’s best-known brothel.
Filmed at the Bunnyranch, the HBO reality TV sequel, Cathouse 2: Back in the Saddle, aired the Saturday night between Christmas and New Year’s. Within a few hours, Hof says, the cathouse’s Web site had gotten 14 million hits.
“We were prepared,” Hof says of the site’s ability to handle that much action. “We had a [data] pipe as big as a sewer.”
The Bunnyranch received 3,000 phone calls in 24 hours. About 400 calls were from girls applying to go to work. Hof says he received numerous marriage proposals.
Several potential customers contacted Hof about threesomes with himself and another girl. One 18-year-old from Boston wanted to surrender her virginity to Hof.
Not that Hof is bragging, of course.
“I’m just telling you what’s been happening,” Hof says.
For five years, Hof says, HBO had wanted to do some kind of program on the Bunnyranch. They came up with the “reality TV” concept.
It’s true that, like so many other media concoctions, Cathouse 2 is barely reality TV. As the credits roll for the HBO special, fine print reveals that some of the clients on the hidden cams were paid by HBO to visit the brothel for the show. It’s said that at least one guy who appeared in the show works for a porn Web site.
No matter. It’s all about ratings. The idea is to coolify the brothel image. And, in Hof’s eyes, it’s working. Mainstream media coverage is “changing everything,” says Hof.
“I’m going to put it in the face of America, and I’m going to do it right,” Hof says. That includes “treating girls right,” he says, freeing them from the exploitation that comes with working as illegal prostitutes.
“Over 100 girls got maimed or killed last year by customers, pimps and rogue policemen who rape and maim them,” Hof contends two or three times during our talks.
Legal prostitution is about protecting girls—and clients—from sexually transmitted disease. In Las Vegas, Hof says, where prostitution isn’t legal, about 300 HIV-positive prostitutes have been arrested.
“At the legal brothels, we’ve been through hundreds of checks, and we don’t have any [HIV-positive sex workers],” he says.
That’s the message he’s taking to the public—in radio shows like Howard Stern, TV shows including The Man Show, interviews with Paula Zahn on CNN, and talks with elected officials. (He once stood talking with a Nevada senator who was approached by other elected officials from around the state. Each ended up shaking hands with Hof. “I said, ‘I’m Dennis Hof from the Moonlite Bunnyranch in Carson,’ and they all said, ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of that place, but I’ve never been there.’ “ This gives Hof a chuckle.)
Hof considers himself a fascination to the nation’s entertainment community. He attributes this to the fact that legal prostitution is a novelty in Hollywood and New York City. In the Big Apple for several media appearances just before Christmas, Hof and his girls received invites to the Fox News Christmas party, to an exclusive party at Hogs and Heifers (the bar in which the film Coyote Ugly was shot) and Caroline’s Comedy Club.
“Everybody was there, and I knew them all,” Hof says.
“Didn’t you go to Robin Williams’ Christmas party?” a girl asks.
“Yeah, I was at Robin Williams’ party. … I know all the top comics. For them, they’re impressed with us because we’re in the sex business. This is normal for us.”
It’s hard to get a sense of the physical Bunnyranch from watching the HBO special. Indeed, the series of low-ceiling structures and connecting passageways—some of which date back to the 1950s—has the feel of a Habitrail, a complex bunny warren with cozy nooks and mirrored crannies.
Think of the novel Watership Down, in which clueless rabbits are kept in high, comfortable style for what turns out to be, from the rabbit’s perspective, a much darker purpose.
Our trip begins when David Robert and I turn off of Highway 50, a few miles from Carson City, just after crossing the line into Lyon County. We take a left on Red Rock Road—yes, just look for the Christian day care center on the corner—and head toward the huge blinking red arrow.
Hof bought a parcel of land right at this intersection, where he plans to open up a nightclub that’ll be called NV-50. He sees no need to expand or improve the Bunnyranch itself. It’s already the hip, happening place, he says, for rock stars and comedians to visit when they’re doing shows in northern Nevada.
Example: When the rock band Bush played Reno, word got out among teen fans that Gavin Rossdale would be heading to the Bunnyranch after the show.
“We had 20 million girls out at our gate, waiting to see Gavin,” Hof recalls. When Rossdale was told that a flock of fans were outside the gate, he went out to sign autographs and pose for photos. Hof, ever mindful of public relations, took the fans’ addresses and had photos sent to their homes.
“Imagine those parents seeing their daughters in front of the Bunnyranch,” Hof says, laughing. “We didn’t let [the teen fans] in, of course.”
Dave and I ring the bell at the gate, causing the Pavlovian line-up of girls in the lobby. Black lights give a cool glow to the girls’ airy white evening gowns, short-shorts or a white bra under an open black shirt. Girls are still zipping into formation when we tell Madame Suzette, the Bunnyranch’s general manager, that we’re journalists.
“False alarm,” someone says, and the girls wander off, looking relatively bored.
We’re introduced to Air Force Amy, former Playboy model Jo Lay Lynn and the brunette in the white bra and black shirt who goes by Happy Horny Heidi with The Hooters.
We chat at the Bunny Bar, where Hof says “a guy can come in and drink all he wants” on the relatively cheap. Rather than charge $10 for drinks like other cathouses, drinks at the Bunny Bar are only $3 or $4. “Cheapest bar in town,” Hof says.
The Bunnyranch accepts almost all major cards (American Express only with a PIN number). And the ranch bills discreetly so that your statement won’t indicate that you’ve even been in Carson City. To what exactly will that $100 or $300 or $1,000 be attributed?
“I can’t tell you that,” Amy tells me, with a huge pretty smile. “Then it wouldn’t be discreet.”
The longtime Bunnyranch star takes us on a tour. A couple of years ago, Amy, then in her mid-30s, told Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker that she planned to retire within a year. She’s still going strong, working three weeks a month doing the kinds of sex acts that 15 years ago she says she would have kicked a guy out of her room for even suggesting.
“Today I enjoy it,” she says brightly. “I’m a freak.”
Amy jokes about her future.
“I’m going to marry a rich man with one foot in the grave, and I’m going to push him the rest of the way in.”
Let’s get some drama out of the way. Hof broke up with famed porn star and high-ranking Bunnyranch sex worker Sunset Thomas in mid-December. That was after the HBO sequel was taped and before it was aired. Thomas now works at a competitor’s brothel, the Kit Kat Guest Ranch.
Yes, there’s controversy. Yes, there are allegations. Thomas calls the break-up “tragic” in a missive to a porn-industry Web site, AdultFYI.com.
“I’ve gotten stronger and make my own choices,” Thomas wrote. “It’s just great. … Hopefully, we can still be friends.”
A reporter for AdultFYI quoted Hof: “The only person who’s ever been a friend to her in her life without expecting something in return is Dennis Hof. I stepped up to the plate. … Her feelings might be hurt but [people who’ve leveled accusations against me] are dreaming this stuff up. If I beat her or hit her, where’s the police report?”
At the ranch, Hof briefly alludes to the break-up. The rest of the girls seem bent on helping him forget his pain. As the Bunnyranch stars pose for photos in one of the larger, better decorated rooms, I read Sunset’s name on the door and start to write it down.
“No, no, no,” says Air Force Amy, waving her hands until I cross the name from my notebook. “She doesn’t work here anymore. We don’t want to talk about her.”
Hof, for his part, is moving on. At the bar, he stands behind Jo Lay, who’s dressed in a short pink Playboy bunny tee and short-shorts. Jo Lay studied industrial technology in college. She’s worked as a lifeguard and as a swim coach. She got her start in the sex industry by posing for Playboy and working as a dancer. “But stripping isn’t what it used to be,” she says, shaking her head. Now she flies in from Los Angeles to work every other week at the Bunnyranch. She hopes eventually to retire from prostitution and get a job as an engineer. As she talks, Hof wraps his hands around her waist and kneads her waist with his fingers.
“I just love this girl,” he says. “Isn’t she nice? This is going to be the next Mrs. Hof.”
Hof views himself as a rogue in Nevada’s brothel community, where tradition compels brothels to go quietly about their business without ruffling feathers or issuing statements to the press.That’s old school, says Hof. That’s the attitude that needs to change in order to add vitality to the sex trade. That’s why the Bunnyranch invites members of the community for a weekly “tea” at 3 p.m. Thursdays. (Wanna go? RSVP to 775-246-0243.)
That’s why Hof goes out and promotes himself during media events the likes of which send shudders through the rest of Nevada’s long-respected brothel industry.
“People have a bad image of prostitution,” Hof says. “They think that prostitution means underage, ethnic girls on a street-corner, pimp waiting down the street. … Sex is a $14 billion a year industry. Who’s making money? General Motors, DirectTV. They’re all making money off sex. Why shouldn’t Reno make money off it?”
He says he wouldn’t push for Reno to become too much like Las Vegas, where family is out and sex is back in.
“Vegas is a sex town, and they brag about it now,” he says. “Somewhere in between, there’s a happy medium for Reno. If sex were a little more prevalent and accepted by the business community, you’d see tourism go up.”
While others may agree, some don’t think Hof’s methods are appropriate for the task. In fact, his unpredictable antics keep some in the industry on edge, as worries mount that he might be putting the legal sex industry in danger.
When Hof first purchased the Bunnyranch, George Flint of the Nevada Brothel Association paid a visit to welcome Hof to the community.
“It seemed to me that Dennis was never interested in learning the traditions of the business or those things that would continue to keep the business legal and respected,” Flint says. “From day one, he became aggressive and he began to attempt to normalize what is in most people’s minds not a normal business.”
Hof’s efforts are “well-intended,” in Flint’s eyes, but the media interest being produced is failing to buoy the public’s image of legal brothels.
(I can’t help but think of the scene in the HBO show during which Sunset Thomas and Air Force Amy engage in what’s plugged as recreational off-duty sex with a double-headed dildo.)
“He’s attempting to scrub the stripes off the zebra, and it cannot be done,” Flint says. “There’s a large segment of society who will always consider us in the industry as nefarious and, to some degree, immoral. That’s sad. And from my personal perspective, Dennis’ behavior saddens me. His treatment of the women saddens me. And additionally I’m saddened that he’ll never be an asset to our industry even though he has good intentions.”
During the 2003 Nevada Legislature, the idea of a brothel tax was brought up, hashed out and eventually dismissed in the final days of the session.
Hof pays about $82,000 annually in license fees and property taxes to Lyon County, a sum that’s probably less than what the average Bunnyranch girl is said to make in a year. The girls split their earnings with Hof—he takes 50 percent, and they also pay $19 a day to rent rooms, eat, drink, exercise, tan, have their kids cared for or their nails done at the Bunnyranch.
“I eat that in breakfast alone,” says Air Force Amy.
“I have that for a snack,” adds Happy Horny Heidi.
Girls who work for him say they admire Hof.
“You can talk to Dennis about anything,” one girl tells me.
Kandi got married while she was in the U.S. Navy. Her husband left her and her daughter, who’s now 9. He’s $8,000 behind in child support. In Ohio, Kandi worked two jobs to try to support herself and her daughter but had no time to spend with the girl. She eventually began stripping and, when she heard about the Bunnyranch, thought it might be worth a try.
“I thought, ‘You gotta do what you gotta do,’ “ she says. First, she started flying out one week a month. She made enough to spend the other three weeks at home with her daughter. Kandi, a cute blonde who looks much like any other soccer mom when dressed in street clothes, decided to move with her daughter to Carson City about two months ago. Her daughter loves her new school, Kandi says.
“And she loves me,” Hof adds.
“Yes, she does,” Kandi agrees.
When the two couldn’t make it to a Bunnyranch Christmas party, Hof loaded Kandi and her daughter into his Hummer for a shopping trip to Reno. The three walked into Toys ‘R’ Us and Hof told the girl she could pick out any toy in the store. Hof bought her a Nintendo Gameboy Advance and two games, then the three went to Chuck E. Cheese for lunch.
“I love Chuck E. Cheese,” Hof says. “HBO should do a segment, ‘Dennis goes to Chuck E. Cheese.’ Actually, they’d say, ‘Don’t ruin your image. Go to a sex shop—that’s what people expect.’ “
“Dennis is very, very giving,” says Kandi. “He does so much for all of us.”
“We have fun like this every day,” Hof assures me.
The Opry Station is playing on the TV in Happy Horny Heidi’s room. The room is small, a sink, nightstand and neatly made bed with a floral spread. A needleworked throw pillow reads: “A wild, wacky, wonderful woman lives here.”
A couple of pennies lie on the carpet by the base of a lamp. Assorted lotions and lubricants and a Diet Coke rest on the bedside table.
Happy Horny shows off her Hitachi Magic Wand.
“I like to get the guys up on the bed doggie style and clip this on,” she says, poking the vibrator uncomfortably near my groin.
Heidi puts on her make-up while Air Force Amy rolls around on Heidi’s bed. She fondles the vibrator absently while complaining about her health insurance. Her Blue Cross premium went up to $417 a month: “And that’s for a single, no dependents, and I don’t smoke. Isn’t that insane?”
A diminutive blond, Deanna, dressed in a tiny white shirt and skin-tight white pants stops by Heidi’s room. Deanna’s also a single mom. The father of her 3-year-old son won’t pay child support.
But who needs that deadbeat dad? For Christmas, Dennis bought Deanna’s son a Mercedes—a child-size play vehicle.
And who needs a family when you’ve got dozens of sisters at the brothel? Deanna and Amy enjoy flying to Vegas or Los Angeles to go on shopping trips, where they’ve been known to spend thousands. Deanna’s looking forward to a winter vacation in Hawaii.
“I’m just going to sit on the beach and put the little flag on my chair up for cocktails,” she says.
Before we travel down the hall to Amy’s room, Deanna invites the others to go for pizza and ice skating in Reno the next day. The girls think it’s a great idea.
“This is the happiest place on earth," she insists.