The King of Porn

Sunday, June 16, 2002
Atlanta Journal Constitution

John Cornetta, his gold and silver chains gleaming, leaned back against his shiny white Mercedes, plucked a cigar from his mouth and stated flatly: “I can overturn any adult entertainment ordinance in the country.”

“They don’t belong,” he said. “This is America. People should have the right to choose what they want to watch or see without government interference.”

Cornetta is the owner of five adult video stores, has three others on the way and publishes a trade magazine in metro Atlanta. He has prevailed in the opening bouts of a series of federal court hearings with Gwinnett County and earlier this year became embroiled in a court fight with Bibb County over whether a bikini club there can go nude and serve alcohol.

“Cornetta is the Larry Flynt of Gwinnett County,” said attorney Jennifer Kinsley, who has represented him as well as Flynt, who was shot in Gwinnett County. “They are both tireless advocates of the First Amendment.”

But to many, Cornetta isn’t a patriotic pioneer. He’s a cancer waiting to spread.

State Rep. Tom Rice (R-Norcross) has opposed Cornetta’s venture into upscale Peachtree Corners.

“It’s harmful to communities, and it’s harmful to families,” Rice said. “I think what he does is not for the greater good of the community, but for the greater good of John Cornetta.”

Adult entertainment is big business in metro Atlanta. And while the area is home to 40 nude dance clubs, 40 massage parlors and spas, 35 adult video stores and eight private modeling businesses, they are concentrated in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties and the city of Atlanta.

Relatively untapped are Gwinnett County with 620,000 people, Cobb County with 630,000 people and some smaller outlying counties.

And adult-oriented businesses make money. According to Cornetta, the Love Shack II in Norcross grossed more than $400,000 in its first four months and is doing better than that now.

Other adult businesses are watching his battles closely, but thus far have offered little more than moral support.

“I’m pretty much fighting this on my own,” Cornetta said.

Sinful Samaritan

Cornetta loves his life. He’s making money. He’s happily married to a tolerant woman, and he’s surrounded by women.

“Everything is great,” Cornetta said. “My parents are alive. My family is healthy. I love what I do.”

Cornetta’s life might be good, but his world is full of contradictions.

He’s a former Young Republican who was invited to Jeb Bush’s inauguration as governor of Florida. On the door to his office is an emblem of the Christian fish and a closed-circuit camera so he can see who’s knocking.

In his spartan lobby, he displays plaques proclaiming him Samaritan of the Year from the Samaritan Relief Fund, an area charity, last year and for contributing to charitable golf tournaments. That same wall also holds plaques proclaiming Xcitement magazine — one of his earlier ventures — which won awards from Exotic Dancer publication for best regional magazine in 1998 and 1999.

The walls of his office, which could use a coat of paint, are adorned with sports memorabilia and some family photos. Among the volumes on his bookshelves are a law book, a book of poetry, a Bible and a sex guide.

Tapes and volumes by his motivational mentors — Zig Ziglar, Anthony Robbins and Les Brown — are there too.

“They would all be stunned if they saw I was applying their lessons in the adult arena,” he said. “They tend to be religious and moralistic. But the principles apply anywhere.”

He readily concedes a certain dissonance between his faith and his work.

“I’m a sinner,” he said. “My Catholic priest knows what I do. I’m upfront about my sinfulness. So who’s the hypocrite?”

And then there’s his family.

His father helps him run the club in Macon.

His daughter, 15, lives in New Jersey. She probably knows whaid. But she doesn’t ask too many questions. “Maybe adult entertainment is not as big a deal in New Jersey as it is in the South,” Cornetta quipped.

His mama rationalizes it away with ease.

“Someone has to do it,” Patricia Cornetta said of the adult business. “It’s better that they do that than grab someone who’s not willing.”

His wife, Irina Kharoujik, is from Russia. She’s the chief operating officer of Cornetta Enterprises.

“I guess I have more of a European perspective,” Kharoujik said. “They tend to be more laid-back about sex. But I see it as a business. I don’t take it personally. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s a blowup doll or a non-adult product. I’m behind John 100 percent. I’m confident that whatever he does, he’ll be 100 percent right.”

But there was one hitch in this perfect family arrangement, at least for a while.

Upon first meeting him, Kharoujik’s mother saw the jewelry, the clothes, the shoes with no socks and forbade Irina to see him. Clearly, she determined, Cornetta was a mobster.

Cornetta laughs at that, saying he doesn’t even know anybody in the mob.

Apparently he’s won Kharoujik’s parents over. They now work for him, too.

A lesson in business

Cornetta, 37, came to the adult entertainment industry indirectly. His father was a first-generation Italian- American and his mother was a first-generation Irish- American. He was raised a Catholic in New York and was an altar boy. His parents ran a dockside restaurant, and he attended public schools. But even as a boy, he was quick to challenge people in authority if he thought they were wrong.

“In school, I was the guy the teachers hated,” Cornetta said.

In the early 1990s, Cornetta operated a struggling sports bar in Florida. Down the road, a friend ran a company that provided lingerie-clad models to bars and restaurants like his. The lingerie business was a big moneymaker.

Cornetta concluded he was in the wrong line of work.

A few months later in 1993, he opened a lingerie store in St. Louis with a scantily clad mannequin in a window. Neighbors protested, the business floundered and eventually authorities told him to leave or he’d be busted and lose all his inventory.

The Cornetta of 1993 left intimidated.

But the seeds of rebellion were sown.

Over the next several years, Cornetta bounced back and forth between Atlanta and Florida, opening adult video stores and modeling businesses, selling them and finding little if any success.

When he did find financial success in metro Atlanta, acceptance didn’t follow.

Cornetta tried to sponsor a police-run golf tournament, but they refunded his $750. Cornetta applied for membership in the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and was rejected. Chamber President Richard Tucker said the chamber prefers to have businesses it can comfortably promote. Cornetta is, however, a member of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

“I see myself as the Blockbuster of adult video stores,” he said. “I run my stores in a businesslike way.”

He insists his stores be clean and well-lit. His employees wear uniforms of khaki pants and identical blue shirts with the Love Shack logo. They greet customers when they come in and ask if they have any special interests or need help.

The Love Shack stores have female employees to help female customers, and the store layouts are designed to have more soft-core items up front so as not to immediately turn off women customers, said Kay Rich, a purchaser for Cornetta.

He currently has about 150 employees.

He starts a typical day with a series of phone calls to his lawyers. Cornetta is able to cite case law and query them with pointed questions on strategy and precedent.

Cornetta is constantly interrupted by staff members seeking his approval on virtually all facets of the business as well as phone calls from vendors, business associates, more lawyers and Realtors. He makes decisions on the spot and moves on to the next task.

Ultimately, he says, he wants to have 20 adult video stores in metro Atlanta.

“I plan to be the biggest adult e biggest adult video store owner in Georgia,” he said.

And any government that fights him had better be prepared, Cornetta said.

“I live on stress,” he said. “I was a small kid, and I got picked on. I don’t like bullies. I live for the fight.”

In March 2001, Gwinnett County arrested Cornetta, charging him with distributing obscene material, a misdemeanor, at his first Love Shack location, on Jimmy Carter Boulevard. That case probably will be heard in September.

That Love Shack had been quietly operating since 1997. Cornetta bought the store, then called Illusions, in February 2000, cleaned it up, painted it and boosted its inventory, he says, by a factor of 10. Business skyrocketed from $12,000 a month to more than $100,000 a month.

Wielding the law

After his arrest, Cornetta assembled a team of lawyers, including Kinsley, her partner, Louis Sirkin, and Atlanta-based Larry White.

Cornetta sued Gwinnett County in federal court, saying the county had frustrated his efforts to find locations for other sites. In July a judge agreed with Cornetta and spiked the county’s adult entertainment ordinance.

Cornetta had been waiting. He had a second location cleaned up, stocked up and ready to go. Before the county could recover with a new ordinance, he acquired a business permit and opened up Love Shack II in Norcross and the Burn Smoke Shop, which has a small inventory of adult videos, near Lawrenceville.

The Love Shack II, located in the politically active Peachtree Corners area of Norcross, generated a political firestorm from neighbors, who picketed, held prayer vigils and threatened to pack Cornetta’s criminal trial.

Cornetta was defiant, vowing, “I’m not going anywhere. My grandchildren will be selling adult videos to their grandchildren.”

Since then, the county has revised its ordinance twice, although County Administrator Charlotte Nash cautiously advises that the revisions weren’t targeting Cornetta.

Cornetta relishes the comparison to Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, who was charged with obscenity in Lawrenceville and tried in 1978. Flynt and one of his lawyers were shot by a sniper during a lunch recess, and Flynt was left paralyzed. The trial was called off and charges eventually dropped, but Flynt has fought other cases all the way to the Supreme Court.

Cornetta also wields the law in other ways. Community activist Judy Quigley was in the parking lot of Love Shack II last summer, writing down license tags of patrons. When Cornetta and an employee approached, she sped off. Cornetta called the police, saying she tried to run over him. The charge didn’t go anywhere, but Quigley has stayed away since.

Cornetta threatened to sue Gay Shook, a community columnist for The Weekly, a newspaper that circulates in Peachtree Corners, for her negative columns on him. Cornetta became incensed when Shook posted a picture of his Mercedes-Benz on a Web site and called it the “Smutmobile.” After he e-mailed her with a threat of litigation, she removed the photo and stopped writing about him. She commented cautiously about Cornetta.

“He’s in your face all the way,” Shook said. “The community can’t object in a meaningful way because we believe he will sue us. Because he has all these lawyers, he thinks the First Amendment only goes his way.” Once the new common-core assessments roll out, free essays online for free english mr

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