Before he was entwined in naked men, “I worked as an art director for CBS and then Fox, God help me,” said Frederick Woodruff. “Then I got sick of that ... and I said, ‘I’m never working for anyone again as long as I live.’”
And so began a journey that led Frederick through psychic help lines and eventually to his unlikely hit: A porn site that, between sex scenes, critiqued the interior decor of nude selfies.
If you were on the Internet sometime in the early 2000s, you probably heard of his project, Lurid Digs. Frederick and his staff would find naked photos taken in garishly decorated homes (there was never any shortage), and ignore the naked men in favor of analyzing their surroundings.
“We’d do these Camille-Paglia-close-readings of the photos,” he recalled.
For a few years, it was such a hit that at one point he was approached about creating a makeover show in the vein of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The project bounced from site to site for a while, and then faded into a years-long hiatus. But beware, online sex fiends with questionable decor: From Frederick’s home just outside Seattle, Lurid Digs is preparing for a triumphant return.
These days, Frederick works for the Bob Mizer Foundation, which preserves and promotes the work pioneered by mid-century “physique” magazines and fights censorship. But in the 1990s, he felt crushed by a corporate job and desperately needed to flee.
“I quit, fell in love with a guy, moved to Seattle,” he said. “And then I didn’t know how to make money, so I took a job as a telephone psychic so I could work from home until I could figure out what to do next.”
He wrote a book about the experience called Secrets of a Telephone Psychic, and then became interested in the porn industry — specifically, in the aesthetics of the industry as it moved online. At the time, porn sites tended to look something like a menu at a truck stop diner, or like multimedia piles of rubble. (Not like today, when they’re all gorgeous and modern.)
“I thought, ‘this is so ugly, I’m going to take my design sense and make a great-looking porn site,’” he said, and he founded a concern called Nightcharm.
“I wanted to do something in the spirit of Playboy Magazine but for gay men, sex with editorial,” he said of the site. “Because it was online, I could do hardcore porn, so it had a front end that was editorial-focused, and a members area with the videos and shit like that.”
“How’d it go?” I ask.
“I went from almost living on food stamps to making, within a year, six figures,” he said. “Porn exploded at that time on the Internet. And I just rode that wave.”
Lurid Digs may have had the furthest reach of any of his content. Each post would feature a naked man posed in his home, the background always distractingly specific. A pic in a speckled mirror prompted Lurid Digs to call out “those who have the ego to paper the interwebs with naked self-portraits but not the pride to clean the mirror.” A wood paneled chamber with frilly pink curtains was described as requiring visual impairment on the level of “mom the morning after Champagne Night at the Parisian Room.” Beige wallpaper was declared “like being mugged in a wheat field by a Sandy Duncan impersonator.” They did an extensive spread on Donald Trump’s gold-plated residence.
A fastidious tidier, Frederick said his own living space would never qualify for the site.
After a long-dormant period in which Lurid Digs changed a few hands, it’s now back in his possession. He’s planning a relaunch sometime around April of this year, though he’s already gotten a head start with an incisive Twitter feed.
“Low-grade anxiety permeates this abode,” the Twitter account writes of a selfie taken in a shattered mirror in which a taxidermied deer and a statue of Miss Piggy leer at an erect dick. A nude porn performer pitching a baseball at the camera is reviewed more favorably: “We love the baseball bat.”
On those occasions when the subjects find out that they’ve been critiqued, Frederick said, they tend to be pleased; only on a few occasions has he had a request to take one down. He believes that anyone posting nudes in a public forum is aware that they are giving up control over images that can be saved, reposted, or commented upon, and that heightened attention is welcomed by those who make photos of their bodies available to be looked at by strangers.
“As everybody becomes more connected electronically, there’s a sense of invisibility that starts to impact them,” he said. “You’re lost, out in a mob of millions of people… And I think going nude or using sex to amplify your ability to get attention is part of the equation, too.”
Though at times the critiques have some bite, the purpose is not to be cruel. “We’re simply celebrating the candid and frank way that people present their sexuality to the world," Frederick said.
He likes to quote the film critic Pauline Kael, who once wrote that “sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider."
“I guess in Lurid Digs, both views collide into one another,” he said.
Frederick’s work for Lurid Digs and the Bob Mizer Foundation aren’t his only projects; he’s also working on a book entitled Peter that he described as “a supernatural, queer male erotica-romance novel that’s set in LA’s gay porn industry,” due out next year.
But for now, he’s looking forward to the impending relaunch of Lurid Digs, and he hopes that, if nothing else, readers might discern some tips for getting a decent shot of themselves. “Get out of the bathrooms,” he advised. “It’s just not that interesting. A toilet in the background is kind of a turnoff, at least to me.” He paused. “And make your bed, maybe.”