One busy weekday night in May 2018, a Pittsburgh strip club dancer named Scarlet went to the bar for fries and ran into something unusual: a young man carrying a political non-fiction book conspicuously under his arm.
The book was Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, about the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the man – Isaac – was hoping that one of the other strippers would sign it for him.
“I’m not much of a strip club guy, but I had to come see this,” Isaac told The Pitt News as he waited in line behind a man carrying several bright red Trump hats.
These men were among the hundreds drawn to see porn performer Stormy Daniels as she danced across the country on her “Make America Horny Again” tour, closely followed by a political tempest over her alleged history with the serving president of the United States.
Just 10 minutes after the start of Ms Daniels’ first show in Pittsburgh, Mr Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani appeared to admit on Fox News that the mercurial tycoon had indeed authorised a hush money payment of $130,000 to his alleged ex-lover, contradicting previous denials.
Now Ms Daniels is again at the centre of a national firestorm as New York state prosecutors have brought charges against Mr Trump, marking the first criminal prosecution against a former president in US history.
On 4 April, Mr Trump was arrested and charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in order to conceal an alleged scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through hush money payments to suppress stories about his alleged affairs with women – including Ms Daniels. At his arraignment in New York City, Mr Trump pled not guilty to all charges.
Mr Trump has long denied an affair with Ms Daniels, and his lawyer has accused her of extortion. In a Truth Social post on 18 March, he described the allegations as “an old and fully debunked fairy tale” being exploited by “corrupt and highly political” Manhattan prosecutors.
Being convicted would not block Mr Trump from pursuing a second term in 2024, but could damage his chances, and would certainly make it harder for him to campaign if he is on trial, or barred from leaving New York state, or even in prison while the election is ongoing.
It is a moment that Ms Daniels, now 44, probably never imagined in 2006, when she allegedly had an affair with the businessman and reality star then best known for hosting The Apprentice and putting his name on everything from skyscrapers to steaks to casinos.
This is the story of how a woman at the crossroads of politics, business, and sex work – never quite as separate as American elites would like to believe – could end up sealing the downfall of the 45th US president.
‘She is not someone to be underestimated’
“We will all get along just fine as soon as you realize that I am queen.” Those were the words printed beneath Stormy Daniels’ yearbook entry when she graduated from Scotlandville Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1997, according to The New York Times.
Back then she was known as Stephanie Gregory, a serious student with auburn hair from a “really bad neighbourhood” who liked horses and the heavy metal band Mötley Crüe. Her real name now is Stephanie Clifford, after a previous husband.
“I wasn’t like the popular girl, and I wasn’t the jock, and I wasn’t the ditz. I was just sort of in the middle of the road,” Ms Daniels told The Times in a 2018 profile.
With good grades, she considered being a veterinarian, a writer, or a journalist, but a chance visit to a strip club at the age of 17 led to a guest performance and then regular gigs, in which she proved to be a talented and lucrative show-woman.
“We knew,” club employee Chuck Rolling told The Times. “She was moving in a direction that was bigger than us. We’re in Baton Rouge. We’re not even New Orleans.”
Business was good, allowing Ms Daniels to buy a house and car by the age of 23, according to an interview at the time. Yet she also expressed a fear that if she did not find some way of building a durable income, she could be left high and dry in middle age.
By all reports, Ms Daniels demonstrated a gift for self-promotion and snappy comebacks as she climbed the ranks and moved into pornography. She won industry awards and landed roles in mainstream reality TV shows, TV dramas, and then films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
In some ways, Ms Daniels has much in common with Mr Trump. According to former colleagues, she has been canny about crafting and marketing her own image in pursuit of success, and as a film director she is reportedly unafraid of firing people or taking them to task when she feels it is warranted.
"She was a very serious businesswoman and a filmmaker and had taken the reins of her career," Hollywood director Judd Apatow told The New York Times. “She is not someone to be underestimated."
She is also a frequent and voluble Twitter user, often skirmishing with her critics and blasting them with one of her most effective weapons: a cheerful refusal to be remotely ashamed of her profession.
“He opens his mouth more than I do my legs,” she told one Twitter user in January, referring to Mr Trump. “As a gay man, does it sting that I suck better d*** than you?” was her response to a detractor. To another user in 2018 who suggested she was a “dumb wh***”, she shot back: “Whew! Glad I’m a smart one.”
In between these battles, she has made efforts to protect her fans from scammers that use her likeness, regularly warning that accounts in her name on Facebook or other online services are nothing to do with her.
At the request of her fans, she even ran unsuccessfully against Louisiana Republican David Vitter for the US Senate in 2009, with the slogan “Screwing People Honestly”. News reports from the time claim that her political adviser’s car was blown up in a suspected bombing or arson attack, but The Independent could not ascertain the results of any investigations.
Around the same time, Ms Daniels was arrested for domestic violence after hitting her then-husband and throwing a potted plant during a fight, according to the Times. The husband was not injured and the charge was later dropped.
Hush money, threats, and alleged spanking
Long before Mr Trump’s election campaign, rumours of an affair between him and Ms Daniels surfaced on gossip websites, along with a photograph of Ms Daniels standing next to Mr Trump in his golfing clothes.
Ms Daniels herself kept quiet until 2018, when The Wall Street Journal published a bombshell report alleging that Mr Trump’s then-lawyer Michael Cohen had arranged a payment of $130,000 to Ms Daniels just before the 2016 election to stop her from disclosing the affair.
Cohen has since pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws by making this payment, and told prosecutors that he did so under Mr Trump’s direction (which Mr Trump denies). But once he first admitted the payment in 2018, Ms Daniels argued that her non-disclosure agreement was now void and became a crusader.
She spoke out frequently and candidly, saying Cohen had “acted like he is above the law” and “played by a different set of rules”. In an interview with 60 Minutes, she alleged that she had met Mr Trump at a celebrity golf championship near Lake Tahoe in California, when he was 60 years old and she was 27. He invited her to dinner and then her hotel suite, she said.
Bristling at Mr Trump’s egotistical approach to conversation – he showed her a magazine with himself on the cover – Ms Daniels said she jokingly ordered him to pull down his trousers so he could spank him with the magazine. Perhaps to her surprise, he did it.
Sex allegedly ensued, and although Ms Daniels was not attracted to the mogul she has said the encounter was “consensual” and she was “not a victim”. The pair kept in touch, with Mr Trump “dangling” the opportunity of an appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice, but Ms Daniels said they never had sex again, despite his entreaties.
In 2011, Ms Daniels agreed to sell her story for $15,000 to a celebrity magazine, which naturally called Mr Trump for comment. That, Ms Daniels alleged, was when an unknown man approached her in a Las Vegas parking lot and told her to “leave Trump alone” or else “something” might “happen” to her.
“I have no reason to lie,” Ms Daniels told 60 Minutes. “I’m opening myself up for, you know, possible danger and definitely a whole lot of s***.... he knows I’m telling the truth.”
Months later, Ms Daniels was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, for breaking the city’s “no touching” law for strippers. She filed a lawsuit alleging that she had been persecuted by police officers who were supporters of Mr Trump, and the city government settled out of court for $450,000.
Today Ms Daniels continues to work her trade and tell her story, hosting a critically acclaimed reality TV show about gay men dating called For the Love of DILFs (that’s “Dads I’d Like To F***”). In 2019, she came out as bisexual, and last week she celebrated her 43rd birthday.
She is married to Barrett Blade (real name Russell Barrett), a fellow porn actor and businessman. His company Alienwerks sells extraterrestrial-themed clothing as well as merchandise with Ms Daniels’ likeness.
Mr Barrett is Ms Daniels’ fourth husband. She was previously married to Brendon Miller, with whom she has one daughter.
Along with continuing to direct and act in porn films, Ms Daniels still likes horses, and in fact competes in equestrian competitions.
She has also spoken out against the Republican Party’s recent assault on LGBT+ rights in red states such as Florida. She has continued to take pot-shots at Mr Trump (whom she calls “Tiny”), calling the prospect of a second term “terrifying” and offering to testify as a witness in the New York case.
Her “Make America Horny Again” tour back in 2018 appears to have been successful too. As she strode on stage just after 1am in Oregon, dressed in the colours of the star-spangled banner, the crowd chanted “Stormy! Stormy! Stormy!”
The show had to be stopped after 10 minutes because a drunk patron threw his wallet at her. But Ms Daniels declined to press charges, and the patron was released after offering his contrition.
“I was wasted,” the man told police, according to Oregon Live. “I think she is a really nice person. I am extremely sorry.”
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