''Red Shoe Diaries'': Female-driven success -- Showtime's hit soft-core show proves that when it comes to women, sex sells

By Rick Marin
April 30, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Beautiful secretary finds love in an elevator with hunky bicycle messenger! Voluptuous Italian maid ”accidentally” discovers her employers’ naughty home movies! Stunning heiress hires grease monkey and makes his garage into her own personal body shop!

Plot blurbs from the XXX section of your local video store? Nope: They’re synopses from Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries, now in its second soft-core season on Showtime (Saturdays after 11 p.m.). This isn’t pornography, the show’s producers maintain, it’s erotica, and erotica with a twist, at that: steamy tales of lust and lingerie devoted entirely to female sexual fantasies and targeting female viewers. Last year’s two-hour pilot and four Diaries episodes were one of Showtime’s highest-rated original series ever. And that success has this year led to 20 more half-hour installments, many of them mingling name-brand talent like Ally Sheedy and Sheryl Lee with Playboy Channel production values.

King, the veteran erotic screenwriter and producer behind 9 1/2 Weeks and Wild Orchid, knows how to dress up (and undress) his NC-17 imagination in a soft-focus, feminine mystique. Each ”diary” is presented as one woman’s confession, scribbled in response to a newspaper personal ad placed by narrator Jake (David Duchovny), who opens and closes each episode, and whose fiancée’s mysterious suicide left him with a burning desire to figure out just what it is that women want.

What they want, it seems, is sex — and plenty of it. ”I wanted to do an anthology series from a very intimate, woman’s point of view,” says King, 51, whose wife, Patricia Louisianna Knop, and two daughters also work on the show. Says one, 27-year-old writer Chloe King: ”It’s not wham-bam thank you ma’am. There’s more intellectual than physical foreplay.” Plus, she adds, the woman is always fully in charge of her fantasy. As one diarist gloats: ”It was my game. I was making the rules.”

Best-selling author Nancy Friday (1991’s Women on Top, about women’s sexual fantasies), for one, heartily approves: ”Voyeurism, looking at naughty movies — this is taking control, doing something your mother didn’t do.”

King’s 10dB production company says hundreds of ”diaries” have been pouring in from female viewers as material for future shows. There is even a contest in the works for later this season, with the winning scenario to be made into a script for the series. Other spin-offs include an MTV video, with scenes from an episode to air in June featuring former C+C Music Factory rapper Freedom Williams, who plays a pop singer in the show. Also debuting later this year is the Red Shoe Diaries ”magalogue,” a magazine-catalog hybrid selling lingerie and other intimate items, with photo spreads of fantasies.

Mickey Rourke and Carré Otis pushed the erotic envelope in King’s Wild Orchid. Will Red Shoe Diaries go all the way? ”No full-frontal male nudity,” swears King, though many of his female stars do bare all.

Nina Siemaszko, the 22-year-old ingenue who gave steamy performances in Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue and this season’s premiere of Red Shoe Diaries, ”Just Like That,” says nobody took her seriously as a ”sexual entity” before King. ”I personally don’t have a problem with love scenes,” she says. ”Sex is definitely an interesting arena to play in.” But not all the Red Shoe women are as crazy about King as Siemaszko is. Director Mary Lambert pulled her name off Ally Sheedy’s episode, scheduled for May 15, because of creative differences with King; she won’t comment publicly.

A budget of $500,000 per half hour — about 60 times that of the average porn video — disguises the fact that most of the Diaries are as skimpy on story and substance as they are on undies. King prefers to think of them as stripped-down fables, ”morality tales.” But the ultimate moral is, cable TV provides the ultimate in safe sex.