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The girl next door 

Homebody exhibitionists bare it all for titillation and cash

Talk about your Lana Turner fantasies. New to Atlanta, Heidi was waiting tables one day about four years ago -- a second job that helped the pretty, 25-year-old, sometimes-blonde divorcee make ends meet -- when she was discovered, in the classic sense, by a man who asked if she'd like to be in pictures. She had a certain look, that indefinable something the public is clamoring for, he explained, and would she please consider coming in for an audition?

Flattered, intrigued and gut-wrenchingly nervous, she showed up at the audition, knocked their socks off, signed a contract, shot a string of pictures, learned the ropes, paid her dues, made public appearances, answered fan mail and, a year later, stepped onstage to collect her first people's choice award.

Ah, a quintessentially American success story, our Heidi.

Mind you, the description of this heart-warming tale has skimped on some details that would disqualify Heidi from ever selling the movie rights to the Lifetime channel. For starters, Heidi didn't go to Hollywood; she went on the Web. Her adoring fans consisted entirely of guys surfing for smut. And, although she turned in some fine performances, the hundreds of pictures she shot aren't ones she's likely to show her mother.

Heidi was -- is, actually, for as long as someone cares to keep her image on a server -- a webgirl. Specifically, she's the subject of an "amateur" site, in online porn parlance.

She wasn't a struggling actress or a professional dancer. She hadn't appeared in stag films. She was neither rail-thin nor surgically enhanced. And while she wasn't a babe in the woods, she certainly wasn't the bisexual libertine that she found herself portraying on her website. But in her, the talent scout saw the essential quality for a successful career as an online amateur: Heidi was the girl next door.

"We don't want fake boobs or tattoos," Heidi recalls being told at her audition, moments before she was asked to strip down and provide visual evidence that she had neither. The audition took place in the living room of an otherwise average-seeming, middle-aged Stockbridge couple who own a local Web design firm. We'll call them Mr. and Mrs. Smith, largely because representatives from their company refused to take our calls.

The couple photographed Heidi's inaugural striptease and liked what they saw, the unvarnished naturalness and uncertainty that would have been absent in a porn actress or a veteran of burlesque. They signed her up and began work on her website. They chose "Heidi" as her nom de Web; she didn't -- and doesn't -- want her real name used.

"When we started, we agreed that it was only going to be Playboy-style soft-core," Heidi says. "I shot enough pictures in three weeks to last a year."

For Heidi, it was a year in which she would earn $30,000 for lending her birthday-suited image to the Internet and learning which end of a sex toy is up. In that same year, she would lose her fiance and her self-esteem while watching her life unravel.

"I'm not here to paint a rosy picture of this business," she says. "I want out of it."

Across America, there are thousands of Heidis -- teenage girls, thirtysomething women, even grandmothers and, of course, a few men -- who are letting it all hang out for all the World Wide Web to see.

Some amateurs drop trou online for the thrill; others, in an apparent semantic contradiction of the word "amateur," do it for a paycheck. Many sites are strictly PG-13 tease-a-thons, safe outlets for frustrated exhibitionists; many more are candidates to be bookmarked by Larry Flynt. Nearly all support themselves by selling monthly memberships at 10 or 15 bucks a pop to guys who want to see the juicy stuff.

Often produced at home with consumer-grade software on PCs located in a cul-de-sac near you, they are the very definition of cottage-industry smut.

Just as the advent of the video camera has given us The Blair Witch Project and its indie brethren, so has it, paired with Internet technology, put porn -- and Heidi -- in the hands of the people.

Together, they've helped bring about the great democratization of American pornography that, over

the past decade, has overtaken and reshaped an industry whose domestic annual revenues -- an estimated $10 billion-plus and growing -- quietly outstrip those of pro sports and the Hollywood box office.

Amateur websites -- featuring neophyte models of every shape and flavor, frozen in ill-lit, semi-candid poses or documented in real time by never-blinking webcams -- are to Penthouse what "Big Brother" is to "Party of Five," namely, the Net's version of reality TV. Debbie no longer has ambitions of doing Dallas; her back porch will suffice.

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