Jiu-jitsu, Playboy parties, long-lost fathers, and discovering family heritage. Zebek Nazarian has an appetite for life that's nothing but contagious. She has filled her youthful years with an abundance of knowledge, adventure and compassion that few of us will experience in a lifetime.
You grew up in LA. Where exactly?
East LA, near Echo Park. My school was right by Little Armenia. I’m actually half Armenian and half El Salvadorian.
I think it’s pretty cool that my parents came from tiny countries that had a lot of war happening in them, but they somehow survived and also found each other.
Did they meet in LA?
Yeah, in a donut shop. Then they had twins. I have a twin sister.
And then you moved to the Valley?
Yeah, after the 1994 earthquake happened. Have you experienced an earthquake?
[Screams] I’m still super scared of them. Everybody I know that was born and raised here is still scared of them. I’m scared in this apartment alone! It was built in the 1950s.
Do you have an emergency kit?
Yeah! It’s in my room. I’ve never used it but I have cat food in there, too.
Do you remember the ‘94 earthquake?
I do. For me it was crazy. I was about seven years old and growing up Catholic. I remember we had a huge Virgin Mary statue at home, and everything was shaking and it was dark. I ran under a doorframe and I saw that the Virgin Mary statue broke—and that’s when I started questioning religion.
Are you serious?
Yeah! I’m not religious at all now. I think that moment planted the seed for me.
My mom is a caregiver, and she was taking care of an old lady at the time. The lady’s family wanted her to live near them after the earthquake so that’s how we ended up in the Valley.
Did you ever want to go back to LA?
Honestly, I hate traffic. It’s not worth it for me to drive in traffic just to live somewhere that I’m not even going to enjoy because I’m at work or jiu-jitsu all the time.
You do jiu-jitsu?
I started jiu-jitsu almost three years ago. I’m a blue belt now. I fucking love it. To be capable of doing the things I do now makes me realize I can do anything. I could start learning an instrument or a new language right now. It’s never too late.
Just seeing what you’re body is capable of is amazing. It doesn’t fucking matter what your body looks like. Even if I have a chubby belly it doesn’t matter, because I could still kick your ass or do a dope head stand.
Do you know who Ronda Rousey is? She’s one of the top female athletes in the world and she doesn’t have a “model” body but she’s a kick-ass athlete. You don’t know what people are capable of by looking at them.
Was starting jiu-jitsu a big catalyst for you?
I’ve been doing yoga since I was 16 and then I started meditating because I was very angry. I also really got into social justice stuff, which was getting me super pissed off.
How did you get into that? So many questions!
In high school I was president of the gay club and I worked for a campus environmental group planting trees. I always cared about shit.
In my 20s I was focused on my career and when that became comfortable I turned to Tumblr where I learned a lot about social justice issues. Tumblr is like my college.
Do you use Tumblr as a forum to talk about stuff?
I don’t talk about anything, I just read everything. I’ve exposed myself to very diverse feminists. There are people with disabilities, women of color, and women of all kinds of sizes…. Everything is on there and you can read all their stories. The cool part is that when I hang out with academics that are into social justice and sociology I can keep up with them.
Are there any issues you’re really into right now?
I’m really into the Black Lives Matter movement. But it’s also opened me up to a queer Armenian community. They have their own zine! I was like, “What the fuck? There are Armenians who are very conscious and supportive of other movements?”
My dad got deported to Armenia when I was four or five. My last name is Armenian so I’ve always been labeled as “Armenian.” When my grandma passed away in El Salvador I felt like I lost a lot of my culture, so I wanted to learn more about my Armenian side. For me, even though I didn’t grow up with an Armenian parent I still feel very Armenian.
What does that mean to you?
There was an Armenian genocide and just knowing that people survived and continued living is really important. My dad didn’t give a fuck and married my mom and had babies. It’s just all those things together.
Do you have any contact with your dad?
No, but I’m going to go to Armenia and be all old school, knock on people’s houses and say, “Hey, do you know this guy?” I’m going to try to line up some leads.
Are you part of the Armenian community here?
Yeah, I have some friends here who are my age group and they’re into social justice. It means a lot to me to carry on the Armenian culture in a place where different cultures haven’t always welcome.
My last name is Nazarian and I got made fun of for being hairy and having a big nose. In Spanish if you say narizona, that means “big nose,” so the Spanish kids would make fun of my Armenian side in Spanish.
Did it affect you in a negative way?
No. I was like, “I’m way cooler than you ‘cause I’m mixed. You’re just full Mexican, or full American.” I was always a tough kid.
Was your mom supportive of your Armenian side?
Yeah. That’s the other cool part. Whatever my mom and dad went through, my mother never had any animosity towards our father.
I find it weird when people hate the absent parent. I can relate to only having one parent, but I can’t relate to being angry that the other parent was gone. I was fine being raised by my mom. I was a happy kid.
Now, I’m going to go find my dad and be like, “What up? No hard feelings. Now teach me to cook some Armenian dishes.” [Laughs]
That’s really cool! Earlier you said that when you were 20 you were really career-focused. What were you focusing on?
I’ve been working on the business side of porn since I was 19. I was always curious about sex and into taboo topics. I was always a tomboy. “Girls aren’t supposed to do that? Well, I want to fucking do it.” I’ve always been in male-dominated spaces, like jiu-jitsu and work. I wanted to know how people could have sex for money, legally and with people watching.
I moved to Chatsworth because I knew that was the porn capital and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I found a job at Sugar DVD, which is like the equivalent of Netflix. I took the job because it was a startup with young owners, so I could move up quickly. They shipped porn DVDs back in 2004, when the Internet wasn’t that huge yet. My first job was literally cleaning DVDs. We wore gloves.
Did you have a goal in mind of what you want to do?
I just wanted to learn about the industry. I didn’t have financial goals in mind. Within two years I was next to the CEO planning events with him, but by then I felt like I wasn't growing there anymore.
I worked on set doing makeup so I saw the production side of everything. In those two years I went to all these parties. I partied at the Playboy Mansion.
No you didn’t!
Yes! The Playboy Mansion was hosting a millionaire’s auction, and somebody wanted to surprise all the millionaires once they got out of the auction with a party full of porn stars. I heard this was happening, so I told my homegirl who was gathering all the girls to get on the bus to get me in.
The media portrays the porn industry as very superficial and demeaning to women. What’s your perspective, having worked in the industry for so long?
Everybody in every industry has bullshit to deal with, even people working at Starbucks. For sure I deal with bullshit and some of it is sad, but there are sad stories everywhere. Like people working in retail, or the people making the clothes for retail.
I think we’re such Puritans in this society, so people see the porn industry as being different—but it’s not. I see these girls every day and I try to empower them so they can empower themselves. They’re such strong women. Of course some of them aren’t, but people get taken advantage of all the time. Take internships, for example. Some of the stuff you have to do in an internship is crazy. Some of it is probably more demeaning than what people think porn girls are doing. The majority of the girls I meet love what they’re doing.
What about this perception that porn is degrading to women?
That could go a lot of ways. In my case, I produce the films so I do everything from hiring the director and editor, helping to cast the actors, making it to DVD and bringing in the box cover. So with every little step, I try to make sure I’m thinking how is this going to impact women in the world, or our society. Even down to the music we choose by making sure it’s not aggressive.
I do think we’re catering to men a lot but I’m trying to change that.
And with that do you have a goal in mind?
Right now I have a startup with some of my buddies. I hire all my friends. It’s fucking cool that I’m helping my friends pay the rent, but I hate that they have to keep their identity secret.
What do you mean?
For me, I used to never say that I worked in porn. I only started telling people openly as I got older. I was on MTV’s True Life. I was on the episode, “I Work in the Sex Industry.”
The thing that changed everything was that the episode aired in 2008. Bush was still in office, and I was really scared of somebody coming in and shooting me. I had that paranoia for about a year, but then the episode aired and I only got fan mail and nice letters. I never saw any negativity. So I realized that I shouldn’t be ashamed of what I do. Who cares?
My friends just worry that it’s going to mess with them on a professional level and it sucks that we have to think that way.
What does your family think?
My mom thinks it’s cool! I’ve traveled the world with the money I’ve earned. I have a career and I’m safe. My mom is so happy for me.
It’s refreshing to hear this perspective. It’s not often you get to hear the other side of things.
When you’re around these girls it’s fun. People ask me how I can be a feminist in this industry, but they’re the reason why I can be. The girls know they’re safe with another woman there, and I treat them like normal people. I try to bring that awareness into my work.
How do you make money?
Every way we can. Besides producing, my main job is liaising with Hustler. Hustler is one of the most famous porn companies. We provide their cable channel with content. When you go to a hotel and want to watch a movie, chances are you’ll see the stuff we make.
What’s the best part of your job?
I think it’s the freedom to be myself. My boss lets me do whatever I want. If I have an idea I can do it. I love my coworkers. We’ve all been there since the beginning. I see naked girls who are happy, and that’s even helped me with my body image.
Do you want to stay in porn?
I thought I wanted to change industries. You know, you hit those lulls. But no, I fucking love it. The thing is, I keep learning. So until I stop learning I probably won’t leave. And I still have side passions like jiu-jitsu, yoga and meditating.
Meditation helps me also, because there are days where I’m like, “What the fuck?” Dudes come in and treat you like you’re nothing. Sexual harassment is normal in our workplace because the line is so thin. I will school people if they say anything to me. You have to teach these people to respect women as humans. I’ve read crazy stories about what women deal with in the tech world, and it sounds similar to the porn industry.
I try to empower myself and empower my coworkers to talk about stuff that’s happening that is making them uncomfortable.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
I feel like people need to live for themselves. You need to care for yourself before you can care for others. I feel like some people over-extend themselves. I’ve done that, too, but you need to remember that you can love yourself and you can pamper yourself. You don’t need to sacrifice so much to make other people happy.
So we’re in Valley Village right now. What do you think about this area?
I fucking love it. I can walk to the metro and that can take me anywhere. There’s a community garden right next door. I have a mulberry tree—Armenians love mulberries. And I can be in Hollywood in less than 12 minutes.
Do you have any favorite local spots?
I don’t have favorites. I just go wherever my friends are. But if you go to Magnolia Blvd it’s just all bars, restaurants, and comedy clubs.
There’s a good Lebanese spot here called Skaf’s Grill.
What does LA mean to you?
I love LA’s diversity. The mix of black, Asian, white, Latino, everyone—all of us together. I can speak Spanish in a lot of places here and I love that. I was born and raised here. This is my city.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©