As It Happens

How a new podcast is shedding light on suicide of Canadian porn star August Ames

Podcaster Jon Ronson set out to investigate what appeared to be a case of cyberbullying in the suicide of Canadian-born porn star August Ames. But when he started digging, the truth turned out to be very different.

What started as a story about online shaming became something else entirely, says podcaster Jon Ronson

Adult film actress August Ames is pictured here at the Adult Entertainment Expo in 2016. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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A little more than a year ago, Mercedes Grabowski, a Canadian porn star who performed under the name August Ames, took her own life. Since then, writer and broadcaster Jon Ronson has been trying to find out why.

There was a lot of activity on August Ames's Twitter the day she died. Her feed was inundated with responses to a remark she posted about refusing to film a scene with a male actor who had previously performed in same-sex porn.

The next morning, Grabowski was found dead in a park near her home in California.

Ronson's podcast about Ames, The Last Days of August, was released on Audible on Jan.4. Here is part of his conversation with As it Happens host Carol Off.

Jon, why did you decide you wanted to look into the death of August Ames?

Initially, the story about August's death was a story about Twitter bullying. August's husband Kevin [Moore] had put out a statement saying that he blamed Twitter bullying for her death.

Because I'd written about online shaming, and spent a year in the porn world for this show I'd made, The Butterfly Effect, it seemed that I was kind of uniquely qualified to tell this story.

So I had an idea for the story, which completely changed — almost immediately — because so many unexpected twists and turns occurred.

On the day that August Ames died, what was Twitter all about?

August had tweeted something that certainly came over badly.

She'd been booked to shoot a sex scene with a company called Erotica X and she didn't recognize the name of her scene partner. And so she looked him up, and saw that he'd done gay work, and said she didn't want to work with him because of the possibility that he may have HIV.

So she tweeted that, and a lot of gay performers were upset. And they told her so in very reasonable terms.

But then, Twitter being Twitter, it became very unreasonable. 

August Ames's husband, Kevin Moore — when you spoke with him — made it very clear to you why his wife had taken her own life, in his view.

He laid particular blame on a famous porn star called Jessica Drake, who had tweeted things about August that day. And he said that one of the last things August said when she left her house to kill herself was, "Jessica Drake hates me."

He had also written a statement, which he was going to release straight after I interviewed him. And in the statement, he was going to name names. It was going to be like throwing a hand grenade into the porn industry: "These are the people who contributed to my wife's death" — the people who had piled in on August on Twitter.

We really do solve the mystery. It's heartbreaking and mysterious. But it's not murder.- Jon Ronson, podcaster 

You went after each of these people considered responsible, according to the husband. One of those people was Jaxton Wheeler, a porn actor. And he wrote what's considered the most horrible of the tweets: "You either apologize, or you take a cyanide pill."

Besides being unrepentant, he tells you something else? What's that?

He said: Nobody wants to say this, because everybody wants to blame me. But my cyanide tweet was written after she died.

She died around 3 a.m. L.A. time, and his tweet was written about three hours later.

And if that's the case, the tweet could not have influenced her decision.

But then there were the other people who piled in on her. So we didn't know. There was still Jessica Drake, who Kevin said on a number of occasions was, to a great extent, responsible.

Writer Jon Ronson during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. (Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images)

Jessica Drake — you find her. She agrees to talk to you. And she tells you something that makes you ask more questions. Were you starting to wonder what else is going on here?

Yeah — coded things. She didn't want to say it outright, because people would have felt, with justification, that she was trying to take the blame away from herself.

But at the same time, she wanted me to know that people had been saying things about their relationship. 

Did you start to suspect August's husband Kevin for having a larger responsibility for her death?

At that stage, only because that's what people kept on saying to us. We started asking friends and colleagues of Kevin, and we would hear the same thing over and over, from people who had obviously heard too many true crime podcasts.

People were saying "I think he murdered her."

But we also heard more plausible things, like he's got a reputation for being very controlling. He may have portrayed their relationship as devoted but, in fact, she wanted to divorce him. 

Ames and her husband, adult film producer Kevin Moore, at the 2016 Adult Video News Awards. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

You begin your second episode in a very interesting way: You say this is not a murder mystery. You want to make that clear early on. Why was it so important to make sure people didn't think they were listening to a murder mystery?

It was preying on me, the ethics of it. It could have been a murder mystery. We just didn't know. But by the end of it, we really do solve the mystery. And it's extraordinary and devastating and heartbreaking and mysterious.

But it's not murder.

Interview produced by Kate SwogerQ&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention