For the 23-year-old sex video superstar known as Savannah, it was the most outrageous act in a short but outrage-filled public life. It was also the third major suicide in Los Angeles' adult video industry, whose most valuable and pampered commodity is beautiful but often troubled young women.
A decade ago, Shauna Grant put a .22-caliber rifle bullet in her head. Then Megan Leigh shot herself in the mouth after buying her mother a $500,000 dream house. Now Wilsey, the "adult industry's most celebrated star," according to the monthly magazine Adult Video News, has snuffed out her life apparently to end romantic and financial problems that only seemed to escalate as her fame and her income bracket expanded.
Is there a trend here?
Her family thinks so. They gave strict orders to limit the number of Wilsey's porn industry colleagues at the funeral.
Asked whether his daughter's problems were worsened by her involvement in the sex industry, Mike Wilsey replied: "Of course. People ask me if pornography is wrong. I say you can judge a tree by its fruit."
The X-rated industry has begun to respond to the implications of the violent deaths of its top stars. Plans are under way to establish a phone help line that performers experiencing personal crises can call 24 hours a day.
"We recognize the need for this, so it's going to happen in the name of Savannah and Shauna and the others," said William Margold, a member of the board of directors of the Free Speech Coalition, an industry umbrella group.
As to whether pornography helped destroy Wilsey, who reveled in her outlaw lifestyle, the people who had known her best since she burst on the scene five years ago as a cool, Elke Sommer look-alike, talk about a young woman who was seriously troubled before she ever shot her first X-rated video.
At the end of her life, she was depressed and in debt and slept with a gun under her pillow for protection.
If the sex industry contributed to Wilsey's demise, they say, it was by turning her into a pampered, highly paid star whose whims were indulged and tantrums endured. In an industry that shoots on a shoestring, she was known for pulling Hollywood-style stunts such as walking out in the middle of a production when a paramour rock star came to town.
If the Hollywood lifestyle is a fantasy, the sex video business is even more unreal because it gives its female stars celebrity and wealth but, unlike Hollywood, it can never give them respect and approval in the larger society.
"I don't blame the industry for mistreating her," said another X-rated star known as Danyel Cheeks, 26. "If anything, they spoiled her rotten. They put us on such a high pedestal. The limos are sent out. Anything I want is pretty much done for me. Sometimes it makes the real world hard to deal with."
Like others in her world, Shannon Wilsey hoped to make the transition from sex star to legitimate actress. Like others in her world, she did not succeed.
Over the years, many of Wilsey's wounds were self-inflicted.
Her parents divorced in 1972 when she was 2. She grew up in Texas with her mother and then, after a brief stay with her father in Oxnard, lived with her grandparents in Mission Viejo, where she became a high school cheerleader. Wilsey told her manager, Nancy Pera, that her childhood was unhappy and that she had been molested. That is not uncommon for women who work in the sex industry, studies show. Many were abused as children. Mike Wilsey said his daughter never told him about any molestation.
Mike Wilsey said she began dating rock star Gregg Allman while in high school, eventually going on the road with him for a couple of years.
After returning to California and deciding to go to Hollywood, Wilsey drifted into adult entertainment, where she rose to fame in the world of screen sex as fast as anyone. Her symmetrical good looks, enhanced by two breast enlargements, and her curtains of blonde hair brought her to the attention of Vivid Video. The company signed her to a contract and starred her in a four-part "On Trial" series that revolved around a porn star's obscenity trial.
Her growing celebrity and wealth enabled her to indulge her instinct for excess. Her fascination with rock stars endured, according to Adult Video News. "I love sex and I love sex with rockers more than anything else," she said in an interview.
Although some of that was probably propaganda for the consumption of naive fans who think, or hope, that porn actresses have insatiable sexual appetites, her exploits eventually filtered out of the insular world of pornography. People magazine columnist Mitchell Fink reported two years ago that she and one rock star engaged in what Fink called "full hit whoopie" in a crowded New York bar, after which she jumped into a waiting limousine. It was then that the whispers began: Here was a woman headed for destruction.
In 1992, Wilsey was named the industry's "best new starlet." At the awards show, she became an anti-Sally Field, reportedly saying in her acceptance speech: "I know a lot of you don't like me, but that's tough. I got my award."
She also developed a reputation for hard drinking and drug use. Her father said she used heroin for a time.
But Pera said this hard, wild veneer was constructed to cover a very vulnerable and lonely young woman who never felt pretty. Wilsey believed she had no friends and had trouble trusting anyone.
"She was very discriminated against because she was so big," Pera said. "She made big money. She knew her value." Her lavish tastes outstripped even her six-figure annual income. She bought designer clothes and decorated her leased house in the hills above Studio City with thousands of dollars worth of art.
As is the case in so many suicides, there was no single precipitating event. Some said her career had started sliding, but it appears more likely that she was growing frustrated over her inability to break away from the videos, as she told Pera she would do, or break into legitimate acting roles.
Pera, 46, who considered herself as much a second mother as a manager, said Wilsey had been depressed for months over her breakup with rock guitarist Slash.
A spokeswoman for Geffen Records denied that Slash had a romantic relationship with Wilsey. "If she was (carrying a torch) it was completely one-sided," she said.
Of late, Wilsey's problems were escalating. "Maybe I should kill myself," friends said she told them on more than one occasion. Police said she owed money to the Internal Revenue Service and her savings account was so depleted that she had arranged to send Pera money to cover checks already written from Nyack, N.Y., where she was booked for a nude dancing engagement at a club called Lace.
Although videos launch careers in the adult entertainment business, dancing is where real money can be made. Wilsey earned as much as $5,000 a night as a featured performer.
The engagement had been scheduled to start Monday, but Pera said Wilsey was out late Sunday night partying and riding around in a limo with a young man who was housesitting for the band House of Pain. Pera said Wilsey had been dating one of the band's members.
Wilsey drove up the winding road to her house just after 2 a.m. so erratically that her passenger complained.
"I'm fine," she replied. Then she crashed her Corvette into a picket fence, taking out part of it.
Pera said she was awakened a short time later by Wilsey's hysterical call. "I've just had a horrible car accident," the woman wailed. "I broke my nose. It's bleeding really bad and I've hit my head. You have to take me to the hospital."
Pera dressed and drove to Wilsey's house, not too hurriedly because she was used to late-night calls from Wilsey. When she arrived, she found Wilsey's body lying in the garage in a pool of blood.
Pera saw the exit wound from the bullet. "It looked like she had a big flower on the side of her head," she said.
Pera said Wilsey got the gun from a friend for protection against prowlers. She slept with it under her pillow.
Police ruled the death a suicide.
Like many in the business, Paul Fishbein, publisher of Adult Video News, resents any implication that pornography could have played a role in Wilsey's death.
"Porn didn't do this," he said.
Weighing on industry coalition leader Margold's mind these days are not the deaths that have occurred, but the ones waiting to happen.
"Six weeks ago at 3 a.m. I got a call from an actress who said the business has no soul. She said four years ago somebody told her that and then that woman killed herself."
Times staff writer Josh Meyer contributed to this story.
CAPTION: Photo: COLOR, Shannon Wilsey
DESCRIPTORS: PORNOGRAPHY--LOS ANGELES; SUICIDES; CELEBRITIES; ADULT ENTERTAINMENT; WILSEY, SHANNON; VIDEO INDUSTRY