Rebecca Steele: the life and death of a porn star

By EARL SWIFT , The Virginian-Pilot
March 24, 2004

SHE WAS DARK-EYED and fine-boned, with chestnut hair that tumbled over her shoulders. She had a body, lithe and firm, that she loved to show off. In the spell of her smile, sweet and inviting and crazy all at once, men gave her money, jewelry, a Corvette.

For years, Jeanette Dee Rogers traded on her most obvious strengths. She worked Norfolk's go-go bars young, made bigger money as an exotic dancer in Hawaii and earned an international following as Rebecca Steele, a centerfold model and featured player in scores of X-rated movies. She lived large, dressed well, partied without care.

But the heady times didn't last, and she wound up back in Norfolk with little to show for them. By the time she turned 42, on Jan. 17, Rogers had been through so many marriages that her mother couldn't name all her exes. She was flat broke, on the run from creditors and half a step from homeless. She'd fallen into drugs and spent days on end in chemical fogs. She was suffering from full-blown AIDS.

Her fall ended two days after her birthday, on the floor of a worn motel room on East Little Creek Road. Her obituary, two sentences long, failed to mention her peculiar fame - that a Google search of her name generates more than 4,000 hits, that she continues to flicker on video screens around the world.

Only a handful of people turned out for her funeral.

Rebecca Steele is easy to find: Years after her departure from adult films, her turns in such fare as "Down and Dirty" and "Open Ended," in "Bi-Bi Baby" and "Dutch Masters," still sell on the Web.

Online biographies chart her career: "Rebecca Steele was easily one of the most enticing young women on the late '80s/early '90s hard core scene," one reads. "Her endlessly alluring good looks were sure to please, but it was her energy and spirit that kept fans coming back for more."

The real woman is far more elusive, for Rogers assumed many names, and many roles, over the years. She was Jeanette Markvart, Jeanette Moore and Jeanette Zuelly, Mindy and "Rebel." She was a biker chick, a construction worker, a victim and a predator, exploited and exploiter.

Stretches of her life, some of them years long, are blanks.

This is certain: She was born in 1962 to an enlisted sailor and a teenage mother from the sticks named JoAnn Skeeter. The sailor took off before her arrival; a young Marine named Markvart married the pregnant JoAnn instead.

The couple split soon after. For a while, JoAnn Markvart raised Jeanette in an apartment nestled among the honky-tonks of East Ocean View, but she eventually sent the girl to live with relatives in Bent Creek, in Appomattox County. Jeanette bounced between Norfolk and Bent Creek for the next several years.

Before long, JoAnn was with another sailor, Joel Anito, and two more children, Priscilla and Joseph, followed. In the meantime, JoAnn Anito became troubled by her firstborn's visits. "All you had to do was say no," she recalls, "and she was almost like an untamed horse."

An angry Jeanette set the laundry on fire. She spiked her mother's bath water with broken glass.

"A psychiatrist told me that when she came home, if I had any knives or anything, I should secure them because she was capable of killing me," JoAnn Anito says.

"They told me that when she was about 7."

Rick Mills sits on the bed he shared with Jeanette Rogers. He is the key to another certainty about her: the manner of her death. Mills, a 41-year-old carpenter, was Rogers' fiance. He reaches into a knapsack of her belongings.

"This was her last cell phone," he says, eyes red-rimmed. "This is the bandana she wore. These are the earmuffs she wore when she was cold."

He continues to live in their motel room, to sleep in their bed. "She was my soul mate. We shared everything. There was nothing we didn't talk about."

He opens a small, wooden box to reveal a tangle of elastic hair bands. Opens a velvet box containing a long lock of her hair. He sniffles. Beneath his feet, at the foot of the bed, is the spot he found her.

"I seen her curled up, right here."

As the police report put it: "Ms. Rogers appears to have overdosed on prescription medication and pills were found on floor of room."

A couple feet away is a bright red Christmas gift bag. It contains her ashes. "I called 911 immediately," Mills says. "They talked me through CPR on the phone." He shakes his head.

He was the last man to fall for her. No telling how many came before him; his fiancee learned early that she had a power to beguile. Her family says she traded favors for cash with a Bent Creek neighbor while still a preteen. She broke hearts in Norfolk whenever she swept into town. Once her mother had her institutionalized, and she performed stripteases in the hospital.

"She was always wild, even when we were young," says her half-sister, Priscilla Garbett. "Men fell out over her. Guys went ga-ga over her."

"The men, it was like they were coming up out of the floor," JoAnn Anito says.

"She loved it," Garbett says.

She quit school in seventh grade, about the time the Anitos' marriage was breaking up in a swirl of drunkenness and violence. At 15, she was pregnant. She married her baby's father, who lived near Bent Creek, but the pairing didn't stick. Neither did motherhood: When her son, Brian, was still a baby, Jeanette Moore - that was her name by now - left him with her husband's parents and took off.

Back in Norfolk, Jeanette dropped by the beauty shop where her mother worked to announce she wanted to dance at a go-go joint. She was "about 17" at the time, JoAnn Anito says. That's her recollection, anyway: Rick Mills says his fiancee told him she was 14 or 15 and that she used a fake ID to get the job.

Whatever the case, Anito accompanied her daughter to an audition near the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base. "She did real well. She looked good. And before I knew it, she had beautiful outfits, and the money was rolling in."

She worked clubs in Ocean View and the Peninsula as "Mindy." She danced at military bases. "She could work two, three days a week," her half-sister says, "make a couple grand, and do what she wanted, when she wanted."

She bought a motorcycle and in her off hours ran with a gang. At a North Carolina bar, she was jumped by other bikers, dragged into the woods; they broke her ribs, even shaved her head. Years later, she told of having been kidnapped by a rival gang, too, and held prisoner for months.

If so, she managed to escape back to Norfolk. She danced under a tough new name, "Rebel," and the money kept coming. "She could pick a sucker out of a group," Garbett says. "She'd say she could tell them by the shoes they wore. She'd use 'em up, take everything they got and leave 'em with nothing."

Greater glory beckoned, however. Anito remembers Rebel telling her she was headed to California to make movies. "I said, 'I guess there's not a whole lot more you can do in those movies that you haven't already done,'" she says. " 'You're 18. I can't stop you.' "

So was born Rebecca Steele. She moved west, got a house in the San Fernando Valley, and got busy. One online database lists her as a performer in 66 titles. Anito says she's heard her daughter appeared in 152. Mills says she was in about 350.

Rebecca Steele movies tended to be the sort the porn industry turns out by the hundreds - shot in bad light, with bad sound, on cheap tape, with little thought given to plot or actual acting. Performers weren't paid well, though some, like Steele, earned more by agreeing to onscreen acts that others refused.

One of her 1990s vehicles, "Sex and Other Games," was typical. Steele, who has top billing, appears about halfway through the movie, couples with a stranger, then pairs up with a girlfriend. The camera shows off her tattoos - eagles on her left shoulder and upper back, an amateurish flower on her right thigh, smaller images scattered elsewhere - more than talent; her screen presence, in fact, approaches lethargic.

She took pride in her work, however. "She took me down to the place they were doing the filming," Anito says of a visit to California. "They had different scenes going on. To them, it's like sitting down, having a cup of coffee and lighting a cigarette.

"She wasn't working that day," she adds.

Last year, Adult Video News, the trade paper of the porn industry, estimated that adult film performers engage in as many as 50 sexual contacts per workday. At the time Steele made most of her movies, male performers rarely used condoms, and testing for sexually transmitted diseases among her co-stars was not the routine it is today. Sometime in the early 1990s, she was infected with the HIV virus.

Apparently unaware of her illness, she moved to Hawaii to dance. Many adult film performers join the stripping circuit, where a performer with a national following can make thousands of dollars a week. She tried her hand at film directing, too, and posed for Cheri magazine in leather chaps and little else. She appeared with Anito on "The Joan Rivers Show," in a segment devoted to mothers and their porn-star children. Otherwise, her activities left few footprints.

Anito figures she was married again, perhaps several times, and says that after seven years in Honolulu she moved back east, to bounce among Norfolk, New York and Florida. She stripped, raised pit bulls, kept snakes. And she fell ever deeper into drugs: Anito and Garbett say she was jailed in Florida on a cocaine charge in the mid-1990s, was busted in Mexico at another point. She may have broken her neck in a car wreck and acquired a yen for prescription painkillers. She married yet again, becoming Jeanette Rogers.

In 1999 she was back in the Virginia Piedmont, with another husband. As Jeanette Zuelly - the spelling is inconsistent from one court record to the next - she ran up a slew of bills, was arrested for stealing from a drug store, lived in a trailer in the woods. Her family says she was almost constantly drugged - on crack, cocaine, pills, marijuana.

The marriage broke up, and she moved in with one "J.D." On Christmas Eve, 2000, he threw her out of his car on a roadside near Crewe, Va. She sought help at a truck stop where Rick Mills, born in Richmond but living in Dinwiddie, was sitting in his car.

"I had a '93 Ford Mustang, and I had the whole back of it filled with presents and flowers, because I was going to Richmond the next day," he says. "Jeanette came walking up. She had on baggy jeans, an Oakland Raiders jacket. She was beautiful, and she asked me which way I was headed."

Mills agreed to drive her to Norfolk the next day. On the way, they stopped in Richmond. His family, Mills says, recognized that she was high on something, and horrified, urged him to dump her.

Already smitten, he refused, creating a rift that has yet to close: When his mother died last April, Mills says, he didn't attend her funeral.

In the late spring of 2001, the couple moved to an apartment on Norfolk's Willoughby Spit. They got construction jobs on a new department store, and for a while, the money was good. But both used copious quantities of cocaine and other drugs. The cash didn't last.

"She had an - I'd call it an arsenal of pills, all prescription drugs," says Chris Glover, a neighbor who befriended her. "I've seen pictures of her when she was younger, and she was a knockout. But that lifestyle, it'll burn you out."

The worst was yet to come. The couple bounced among Ocean View motels and apartments, growing ever more lost in drugs. They argued frequently, three of their fights ending with Mills facing battery charges. He was locked up for several weeks.

When he got out of jail, Mills moved to Richmond without her. He got work. He cleaned up. "But one night I got to missing her real bad," he says. "I wound up going and getting her the same weekend." The happy reunion gave way to another bout with drugs. Miserable, the couple attempted suicide together in Richmond in April 2002; they split a 100-count bottle of Carisoprodol, a prescription muscle relaxer.

"We both woke up in Chippenham Hospital, not dead," Mills says.

Once released, they lived for a while in another motel, then moved back to Norfolk. Rogers - she was using that name again - raised money by hustling. Around the same time, she began to complain of chronic diarrhea, and in short order dropped to 90 pounds. A thrush infection bloomed in her mouth. The symptoms went undiagnosed until she and Mills tried to donate plasma at a Wards Corner clinic in the fall of 2002.

"I used to say, 'Look, Mom, we've got to let her hit bottom,'" Garbett says. " 'We've got to get her to the point where she realizes she needs to get clean and get her life together.' Then she found out she had AIDS."

Her downward spiral steepened. While Mills checked himself into a hospital in July 2003 to straighten out, an emaciated Rogers began abusing the prescriptions written for her by doctors treating her AIDS. In the fall of 2003, she overdosed on pills four or five times, Anito says.

Once, she collapsed in a supermarket. She seemed to turn a corner late in the year: The AIDS medicine appeared to be working. She put on weight.

"I said, 'You can get pretty again. You can,' " Anito says, "and she was just getting to grasp that. She seemed really happy that last week."

Mills agrees: "Jeanette was very happy."

Perhaps she was. Acquaintances say Rogers was proud of her past, comfortable with herself and generally upbeat.

"She considered herself a movie star," says Cindy Williams of Virginia Beach, who came to know her about the time she was diagnosed. "And she was no angel, but she had a whole lot of compassion. Doors opened for her and people wanted to be kind to her because she was always kind to them."

Still, whatever odd glamour Rogers had enjoyed earlier in life clearly was vanished from it now. She and Mills lived in a room at the M.D. International Inn. They ate meals she cooked in the room's microwave.

"All she had were a few things in a bag," Anito says. "Her life kind of deteriorated."

A final certainty: On Friday, Jan. 16, Mills picked up Rogers' prescriptions, and she immediately dived into one - another bottle of Carisoprodol.

"She started doing pills that day, and she stayed that way all weekend long," Mills says.

She passed her birthday in a stupor. Garbett called on the couple to drop off a present; Rogers gave her 10 of her pills, but later remembered nothing of the visit. Monday came. Mills left for a roofing job.

"I begged her, I said, 'Jeanette, please, don't be all messed up on these pills when I get in," he says. On his return, the motel manager told Mills he'd discovered Rogers incapacitated in a hallway. Mills found her cross-legged on the floor of their room, surrounded by strewn clothes. Of the 100 pills in the bottle, 13 remained.

He called for help. Norfolk paramedics arrived. She told them she didn't want treatment and signed a form saying so. The rescuers left. Just before midnight, Mills woke - he'd drifted off to sleep - and found his fiancee lying on the floor. The same paramedic crew returned to declare her dead.

Mills hangs his head, eyes welling. "After I met Jeanette," he says, "my whole life changed."

Friends came into town from Florida for the service, but no one from the movies, no co-stars or directors or producers from her glory days. Mostly just family, and not all of that; her son didn't make it, either.

The few who did were surprised when they approached Rogers' open casket, Garbett says. It was as if she hadn't spent decades in a high-mileage life, as if too many bad decisions had left no mark. Years had vanished from her face.

She looked beautiful.

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