Danni Ashe is the porn star who pioneered making money online. Ashe was the purveyor of the popular early internet softcore(ish) site Danni’s Hard Drive and the “Most Downloaded Woman in the World” according to the Guinness Book of World Records (a designation that former title-holder Cindy Margolis hotly contested throughout the early aughts).
“When the history of the internet is written, [Ashe] will have a chapter to herself; she’s a true internet innovator,” the E! Documentary Women of the Net proclaimed. Even more impressive, per a later court case, “In an independent study conducted in 2000, [Ashe] was found to have the most popular site run by and featuring women on the web, far surpassing the amount of internet traffic for websites of such ubiquitous celebrities as Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.”
And yet, since she sold her site for $3 million in 2004 to media investor John Morisano, she’s basically disappeared and became extremely NOT online, with very few digital breadcrumbs available about her new life. She now allegedly lives somewhere in either the Southwest or Mountain West, where she fulfills her creative impulses by working as a photo retoucher. The only downloadable images (and videos) left of her being the old stuff that made her such a big deal in 1990s and 2000s.
But because E! was right, it’s worth giving her the chapter in the big book of internet history she deserves. Or at the very least, revisiting how her star once eclipsed both Oprah and Martha Stewart.
1) “I’m a geek with big breasts,” she told PBS in 2000. At the time, her site was making $6.5 million a year and she predicted $8 million in earnings for the following year. In the same interview, she also described how her desire for more agency inspired her porn career, after some negative experiences as a stripper:
“I’d worked for many years as what they call a house dancer. Then I became a men’s magazine model, and did a lot of softcore videos. Then I became what’s called a feature dancer. Once you have built a name for yourself, have magazine credits and video credits, you can become what’s called a feature, and you tour around the country from club to club, city to city, as sort of the headline attraction. You have themed 20-minute shows, and you are the reason people come to the club.
“So I did that for awhile, and had a number of really awful experiences. Out of those experiences I thought, You know what, it’s time to move on. … I’d been using a personal computer for a number of years and running my fan club, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I loved the computer. I was obsessed with the computer, and I thought, I want to become a computer programmer.
“In the interim, while I was waiting for a course to start, I ventured onto the internet, and quickly got into the Usenet newsgroups where I was hearing that my pictures were being posted, and started talking to people. … I spent several really intense months in the newsgroups, and it was out of those conversations that the idea for Danni’s Hard Drive was born.”
2) The other part of the story goes that Ashe brought a copy of HTML for Dummies and Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book Being Digital with her on vacation, came home ready to invest $8,000 in her new online business and spent two weeks creating the site herself. When it first launched, traffic was so massive the site immediately crashed. Ashe had to get her own server, which she described as a “hot box,” which eventually inspired the name for the “HotBox” members’ area for paid subscribers.
3) Here’s how one fan remembers her, via comment on a “Busty Danni Ashe” fan forum: “She is an example of a beautiful, naturally busty girl-next-door who achieved unique superstar status not only because of her natural resources but also through hard work, good habits and thoughtful planning.”
Another member comment from Scoreland, the self-proclaimed “#1 [magazine/site] in big boobs since 1992”: “I can imagine few women more deserving of the Jackumentary treatment [a documentary about a masturbatory icon] than Danni. Your younger subscribers likely can’t appreciate — in the last years of the 20th century, before you couldn’t go online without tripping over porn — what a big deal Danni’s Hard Drive was. She was truly one of the greats of those early days, and one of the most beautiful, bountiful and delectable women ever featured in the pages of SCORE.”
4) As for her bust, in an industry filled with fake boobs, Ashe’s biologically endowed 32FF cleavage was a distinct market differentiator. A second large differentiator: Ashe never shot a scene with a man, meaning her site had no penetration and nothing “harcore,” favoring sexy, languid scenes with other women who embodied her same 1990s porn aesthetic (high-cut tan lines from their g-strings, frosted lipstick).
5) Because all roads lead back to Martha Stewart eventually, Ashe shot one of these quasi-softcore, kinda hardcore girl-on-girl scenes after Stewart went to prison (called “Martha Stewart Prison Living”), where Ashe played the incarcerated crafts mogul (embroidery can be found hanging throughout her cell) and Laurie Wallace (a fairly famous Penthouse Pet at the time) played a prison guard she seduces. (Spoiler alert: They have sex, and this clip is definitely NSFW.)
6) Ashe was already married to Bert Manzari, who went on to become president of Landmark Theaters, at the time she created her site. In a 2010 essay aimed at trying to figure out how to monetize his own site without putting his reviews behind a paywall, film critic Roger Ebert remembered hearing about Ashe’s financial success for the first time from Manzari:
“‘Nobody on the web has figured out how to make any money,’ I said one day before a screening at the Sundance Film Festival. I was talking to another movie critic whose reviews were also online.
‘My wife has,’ said a voice 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, proprietor of Danni’s Hard Drive One of those few webmasters capable of taking their shirts off without driving down the hit count.”
7) Ebert also emphasized that Ashe is “the only woman in the world who has appeared on the cover of both the Wall Street Journal and Juggs magazine.”
8) In 1999, Ashe attempted a viral live event long before most had considered such a marketing strategy. The Boob Bowl I went live on Danni’s Hard Drive during the Super Bowl halftime show. At the time, Wired reported this move “boosted subscription rates to her Danni’s Hard Drive adult-entertainment site by 50 percent,” resulting in “3 million users a day and an average of 6,000 new paid subscribers each month.”
9) This is what she was competing against:
10) Of course, Ashe was frequently asked if she was a feminist during the height of her career, a favorite inquiry among journalists ignorantly curious about whether or not a sex worker can, in fact, be a feminist. One of her best answers was as much about the way society discriminates against sex workers as it was about her “pro-woman” stance: “When you first start stripping or you first start modeling, you don’t really realize how much negative feedback you’re going to have to deal with from the outside world. And I think that’s kind of one of my personal goals. I suffered through that for many years, when someone doesn’t want to rent you an apartment because you’re a stripper, or somebody doesn’t want to give you that car loan because you’re a stripper, that hurts, and you internalize it. And I think in a lot of ways I want to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we’re worthy of people’s respect. We’re not bad people, and we don’t deserve to be treated that way.’”
11) At the same time, in the grand tradition of Hollywood rivals, Ashe’s profile rose as her competition for downloads with bikini model Cindy Margolis grew into a full-on “cat fight.” According to Ashe, Margolis was the “Most Downloaded Woman in the World.” For a year — 1999. After that, Ashe claimed the title was her own. Margolis laughed her off, insinuating that Ashe could never be the most downloaded woman because “America Online” would censor her revealing content.
12) The feud reached a fever pitch on Howard Stern:
13) Guinness basically split the difference in 2001, announcing that the two women would share the record — with Margolis occupying the title for a nonsubscription website and Ashe for a subscription website.
14) In the last 15 years or so, the only time Ashe’s name has made news again is when the Daily Mail ran a photo of Ashe under the 2013 headline “Porn Industry Shuts Down with Immediate Effect After ‘Female Performer’ Tests Positive for HIV.” Although the article never stated Ashe was the female performer in question — and the fact that it had been more or less a decade since Ashe had appeared in an adult scene — the pairing certainly implied otherwise. Ashe won another $3 million when the case was settled a few years later.
15) “If all a publisher needed to do was to deny the allegation, all implied defamation suits would be dead on arrival,” the July 2016 U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit decision read. (It was this decision that likely precipitated the settlement.) “If, for instance, a newspaper ran the headline: ‘High Profile Figure Accused of Murder’ alongside a photograph of the Mayor of New York, or ‘Industry Shocked that Grocery Sprayed Veggies with Pesticide’ along an image of a nationally-known grocery chain, the publishers would be hard pressed to plausibly claim that they had simply selected a ‘stock’ photograph. The same holds true for a story about the pornography industry, featuring a picture of a world-famous pornographic actress with her name written in neon lights behind her. This sort of willful blindness cannot immunize publishers where they act with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the implication they are making. [Ashe] meets the ‘minimal merit’ threshold to avoid outright dismissal of her complaint.”
16) All the while, Ashe has been putting her Photoshop skills to use as a photo retoucher. “To pursue my passion in photography would mean living in a big city so I’ve chosen to pursue retouching because it allows me to work in the genres I find most interesting without having to live someplace I don’t want to live,” she writes on her Model Mayhem page. “Through retouching, I can experience other photographers’ visions and passions and enjoy amazing collaborations while still enjoying a peaceful life in the country…,” she writes.
17) She remains beloved, though. And far forgotten. A nude beach photo of her headlines a recent post entitled “God, I Miss These Days of the Internet” on the Danni Ashe subreddit (1,807 readers strong). The only drawback to those halcyon years when Ashe was the download queen, per redditor HeatherHunter: “Ah, but in those days, you’d also have had to wait for 20 minutes as the picture downloaded line by line!”