Karen Lancaume was a French porn star who despised her profession and committed suicide at the age of 32. To be fair, not many female porn actresses enjoy their job: 69% of women in the sex industry report suffering from PTSD. For a sensitive and intelligent woman like Karen, her psychological wounds proved to be fatal.
She was born in Lyon to a wealthy family who would later disapprove of her career choices. Her real name was Karine. Her mother was Moroccan, and her father was French.
Karen was raised in the placid and serene countryside, spending much of her time with her brother and several pets. Her existence was sheltered, but as a child, the shy girl enjoyed playing in the forests and exploring nature.
She graduated college with a Communications degree, and considered a career in advertising. Karen lost her virginity at the age of 17.
The path she went down was antithetical to the promise of her youth. Attractive, educated, and rich; she was not your stereotypical “bimbo” pin-up queen. What forced her hand into the adult film industry?
It all began when she started working weekends at a nightclub to pay off her college debts. It is odd to note that her wealthy parents didn’t help her out financially.
When she met a disc jockey named Franck Ceronne at the club, Karen fell head over heels and the couple quickly married. He promised her a life of domestic bliss with several children. Unfortunately, the pair somehow managed to amass crushing debts and were struggling to pay them off when Franck came up with a bright idea: they should start filming pornos for quick cash.
At first Franck promised Karen that they would only make adult films together, and she would not have to engage with other men on screen. The couple quickly discovered that Franck could not perform in front of a camera, and he wasn’t sizable enough phallic-wise to impress producers.
Karen was then pressured into having sex with other partners on screen. She would later go on to say that “a man who truly loves you would never make you do that.”
The couple divorced in 1997, and Karen continued filming porn to pay the bills. Porn producers and directors adored her. She rose to stardom; working with the biggest names in the European adult film industry, and was even nominated for a Hot d’Or award.
Karen wrote of her work: “Double penetrated at a freezing 5 ° C, followed by an ejaculation. Covered with sperm, soaked, dead cold, no one handed me a towel. Once you have shot your scene, you’re worth nothing.” The lack of empathy she faced on set only fueled her distaste and disillusionment.
In 1995, Karen was gang raped: “I went to buy cigarettes at two in the morning after work, and three guys trapped me.” This was no doubt a brutal experience which scarred her psyche. Sex had become a tool of suffering in her life, which others used to brutalize and punish her for being attractive.
In 1999, almost four years into her porn career, Karen received an offer that would change her life. Writer and former sex worker Virginie Despentes was looking for someone to star in her new and explosive film project Baise Moi (Fuck Me), and required actresses who would consent to perform unsimulated sex scenes.
Virginie approached Karen and a fellow porn actress named Raffaela Anderson at Cannes Film Festival after seeing them in a documentary. She immediately knew they were perfect for the role, with co-director Coralie Trinh Thi noting how: “These two were really different from the other girls. The little one, Raffaela, was very funny. The big one, Karen, looked like she could beat someone up.”
Raffaela’s character is raped during a scene in the film, and it was emotionally difficult for her to perform since she had already suffered assault in real life, just as Karen had. She was raped by two men who recognized her from her adult film career. Outrageously, the public prosecutor told Raffaela not to complain about being raped, since she was a porn star and therefore deserved it.
The plot of the film centers around two angry women who go on a gory killing spree. There is even a a rather interesting scene where an abusive male bar patron is sodomized with a gun. Baise Moi was cathartic for its two stars, functioning as a satisfying rape-revenge movie in which the perpetrators receive scathing doses of violence in return.
For anyone who’s seen it, Baise Moi is unforgettable. It isn’t the type of film to win any awards, but it is a classic of the New French Extremity movement. It caused a massive controversy upon its release, and was initially banned in Australia, Canada, Singapore and the U.K. for its excessive depictions of sex and violence.
Critics were flabbergasted, calling the film “Thelma and Louise on crack.” To be quite frank: Baise Moi makes Natural Born Killers look like a children’s cartoon. French right-wing parties associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen attempted to have the movie banned, but it was finally released with an X-rated certificate for 18+ audiences.
Karen’s performance was powerful and charismatic: she was tall, dark, gorgeous, intimidating, and great with a gun; the personification of badassery. Audiences, however, were not prepared to see two former porn stars headlining a film. Director Virginie Despentes claimed that:
“The real problem is that Baise-Moi is a film about violent ‘lower class’ women, made by supposedly marginal women. The mainstream doesn’t want to hear about people with nothing, the disenfranchised, the marginals, taking up arms and killing people for fun and money. It happens, of course, but we’re not allowed to acknowledge it.
Then there’s the question of the actresses. Of course it’s fine to have porn films and porn actresses, but when you put them in a naturalistic drama that causes all kinds of problems. Why? Because you’ve destroyed the idea that they are sexual toys and brought them to life.
We really took the brunt of a lot of prejudice and paranoia. We didn’t realise just how much fear and hatred it would arouse, but it definitely stoked up a lot of nasty stuff. Not least because it’s about poor, non-white women. In France, there’s real conflict between the white majority and the Arabic population.
Our two lead actresses both have African roots – one is half-Moroccan, the other half-Algerian – and in France, don’t harbour any illusions, it’s visceral, this problem. A lot of people really don’t want to see two North African women who have been raped taking up arms and shooting European men. That’s a little too close to historical reality.”
Despite starring in an attention-grabbing incendiary film in which her performance was praised, Karen’s acting career never really took off. She was tired of porn and done with the industry, but she could not shake off the restrictive shackles of her past. The six years she spent doing adult films had taken its toll on her.
In an interview, she railed against gender inequality: “Why are women grabbed by the ass and not men? All we ask for is understanding, equality. In porn, guys enjoy the mouth of girls, the woman takes it on the face. Baise Moi, it’s the opposite.” Karen eventually wanted to write an autobiography about her life in the adult film industry, but sadly she never got the chance to.
On January 28, 2005 at midnight, Karen committed suicide in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment in Paris, with the aid of sleeping pills and alcohol. She left a note addressed to her mother, writing only the words “too painful.”
It was a week after her 32nd birthday. She died alone on a Friday night, with her friends returning later that weekend only to find her deceased. They claimed she had been in a good mood, and shown no signs of wanting to harm herself.
Associates described Karen as somber and introverted, often dressed in black. Virginie said of her; “She’s the only girl I knew whose big dream was to be a housewife. The first time she told me that, I preferred to put it aside, but knowing her better, I understood that it existed as a dream. It was her thing. We do not always do what we want.”
Karen had dreams that lay way beyond her porn career: to star in mainstream films, to fall in love, to have children, to write a book about her life, and to live with financial security and happiness. She did not manage to make these dreams materialize, and gave in to the psychological torment which had plagued her for years.
When you search “Karen Lancaume” on the internet, you are flooded with hordes of obscene photos and videos. Where are the stories of her life and humanity, outside of the pornographic industry?
In death, Karen deserves to be respected, regardless of what she did for a living. This written piece is a tribute to her life, and a lamentation for the things that could have been.
Let us end with the words of her friend Virginie, who said that Karen had “a sweetness, an incredible femininity. And at the same time one felt she was ready to take an ax and destroy a wall.”