Y O U R  G U I D E  T O  T H E  B E S T    O F  T H E  W E B - May 1997
Hard Driving a Hard Bargain
A woman who turns cheesecake into Web gold

We were stuck in a screening room at the Sundance Film Festival for half an hour, because the 16mm projector had broken down. I was idly exchanging truisms and factoids about the Web with the person next to me. We worked our way around to a statement that everyone gets to sooner or later: "Yeah, but they still haven't figured out how to make money off of the Web."

"My wife has," said a voice from the row behind me. I turned around and saw a robust man in a ski sweater who seemed to be bursting with things to tell me.

"Your wife?" I said.

"She has a Web site that's making a lot of money."

"Who is she?"

"Her name on the Web is Danni Ashe."

Danni Ashe! The name rang more than a bell. Danni Ashe, heroine of pin-up newsgroups, star of Playboy's "Women of the Internet," and proprietor of Danni's Hard Drive. If her site were a magazine, you'd find it behind the counter at the convenience store.

"Your wife is Danni Ashe?"

He nodded. Happily, I must say.

"She's here at the festival. I'm sure she'd love to meet you."

I recalled stories of such unsuccessful Web pay ventures as Slate, the Microsoft Web-zine, which abandoned plans to charge a subscription fee. If Danni Ashe has succeeded where Microsoft failed, I decided, then it was clearly my duty as a journalist to meet her.

Two nights later I was in my aisle position for a screening of 35 Miles from Normal when my new friend, Bert, tapped me on the shoulder. "This is Danni," he said. Danni (who I will call Danni although that is not her real name) was a cheerful blonde of medium height, wearing jeans and a snug flannel shirt. We chatted about baud rates and site architecture, and made plans to have dinner in a few days.

Bert, I learned over baked halibut, is a senior vice president of a national theater chain. He met Danni in Seattle when they both lived there. It was love at first sight, in a topless club. After they relocated to Los Angeles, Danni went out on the road a couple of times to perform at top-ticket gentleman's clubs, but had bad experiences: "Not from the customers, who were wonderful, but from the owners, who were often liars and thieves."

Disillusioned by life on tour and happily married, Danni settled in at home, where one day in 1995 Bert brought her into the den to look at a wondrous sight, or site: his theater chain's new Web page. "As I leaned over Bert's shoulder and he started clicking between the pages," Danni recalled, "a strange sensation came over me. Almost a tingle. 'You know,' I told him, 'I think I could make money on this thing.'" Danni had spent time surfing the sex-oriented newsgroups, "where nobody would ever believe I was really me." She had friends and contacts in the world of skin magazines, particularly in that subset of the genre featuring buxom young women who, after plastic surgery, rechristened themselves with such onomatopoetic names as Candy Andes.

After lawyers advised her that nude pin-ups would fall "well under the line" of anti-pornography statutes, Danni signed pacts with a skin magazine, a London-based photographer, and a mail-order video company.

"Originally the site was intended simply to sell videos online," Danni told me. "I went through two professional Web designers. Neither one seemed to have the slightest idea what I was talking about; they didn't grasp the principle of hyperlinks, which I got the moment Bert showed me that first Web page." In despair, Danni and her husband left for a vacation in the sun, and on the way to the airport she bought the HTML Manual of Style. When she came back, she knew how to design her own Web site, and soon put Danni's Hard Drive up on the Web.

"This will give you an idea of how news travels on the Internet," she said. "I told four friends that the site was up. I asked them to check it out and send me their criticisms-and to keep it a secret, because I wasn't ready to go public yet. One of those guys blabbed. He told a friend. The next morning I got a panic call from my Web server. They'd taken me off the public server and put me on a dedicated one after I got 70,000 hits."

The free site was such a success that Danni wondered if a pay site might also work. "I got the rights to exclusive photos of the girls and put them in a separate section with password access. I charged $9.95 a month." Bert beamed with pride. "You remember those ads in the back pages of Popular Mechanics?" he asked. "The ones with the headlines, 'Make Money While You Sleep'? We put up the site and went to bed, and the next morning we had our first 50 clients. We were totally unprepared to handle this. I spent every evening for a week just entering credit card numbers."

And that, I said, is how your wife makes money on the Web?

"That's how," he said.

How much, I asked, are you making?

"Well," Danni said, "we have a monthly average of about 15,000 subscribers."

"So that's...$150,000 a month, give or take loose change?"

"Then there's the money from the tapes we sell," she added thoughtfully.

Her operation employs 10 people full time, she said, including former stripper Traci Topps, who interviews models for the interview section (which uses streaming audio technology).

"We sent Traci to London not long ago to interview all the top girls over there," Danni said. "She had good luck with Chloe, a German girl who has a really hypnotic voice. She's studying homeopathic medicine right now."

Danni decided early on that she would be a highly visible presence on the site herself.

"People have an idea of who runs a sexually oriented site on the Web. They think of a dirty old man with a cigar. A Mafia guy." To repair that image, she includes not only topless photos of herself, but a lot of folksy snapshots showing her with her models on New Year's Eve, at the Consumer Electronics Show, on the annual Boob Cruise, at their computer terminals, etc. It's almost like a regular home page with snapshots of the owner and friends-if all the friends were customers at Maureen's Problem Bras.

The site averages more than three million hits a day, she said. Presumably many of these hits are subscribers downloading images for subsequent digital manipulation involving a computer-human interface. At a time when Michael Kinsley doesn't think significant numbers of readers will pay an annual subscription fee for the splendid writing in Slate, what does it tell us that Danni Ashe is coining money from the Web?

"The two things that have driven all new communications technologies," she said, "are pornography and politics."

In a sense, they're related. Her site provider tells her he can track usage of the site by determining which land mass on Earth is experiencing high-usage hours: "I have a lot of subscribers in places like the Middle East, where skin magazines are banned."

Since her subscribers put their money where their libidos are, it may be that a site like Danni's could provide interesting field data for sexologists. Currently, she says, there seems to be renewed interest in "natural" models, as opposed to the alarmingly-proportioned silicone queens.

Internet economists, too, may have things to learn from Danni. Consider that The Wall Street Journal, the first consumer brand to brave the subscription changeover successfully, has more than 70,000 paying customers at $49 a year, versus Danni's 15,000 or so at $120 a year. What does this tell us? That Danni Ashe should subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, obviously, and learn to make even more money while she sleeps.

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"At a time when Michael Kinsley doesn't think significant numbers of readers will pay an annual subscription fee for the splendid writing in Slate, what does it tell us that Danni Ashe is coining money from the Web?"

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