Ron Harris has a nice little deal going.
The photographer whipped up controversy, then drew millions yesterday to his Web site--ronsangels.com--hawking the donor eggs of gorgeous women, which he pledged to auction off to bidders seeking pretty babies.
But the enterprise may be nothing more than a scheme designed by an experienced purveyor of sex-related Web sites. According to Network Solutions Inc. in Herndon, the domain names for ronsangels.com and 14 erotic sites are all linked to the California-based Harris, 66. He has been operating his sex sites for about three years, said a former employee who did not want to be identified, and while those sites have provided a steady stream of revenue, "it's a very competitive industry, and he may want to branch out."
A Harris spokesman, who asked that his name not be used, said the photographer "is not involved with pornography." He said, "Ron got into the Internet taking photographs that he shot for Playboy [television] that he owns, and he put up a few beautiful sites."
Harris's philosophy of building better babies is available free on the site: "This is Darwin's 'Natural Selection' at its very best. The highest bidder gets youth and beauty."
Others who know him from the erotic photography business have a different view of Harris's intentions. "My immediate reaction was that it was a very clever scam designed to draw traffic to the site," said Humphry Knipe, webmaster for the site of erotic photographer Suze Randall. "I wish I'd thought of it. I would have grabbed myself a million hits."
The supposed auction site charges $24.95 a month for complete perusal--the same as the sex sites. But the other real currency of the World Wide Web is eyeballs. As with television, advertisers pay much of the freight for Web sites, and rates are set by how many visitors a site attracts. By last night, more than 5 million had visited www.ronsangels.com, said the Harris spokesman. He did not know how many of those visitors had plugged in their credit cards to become members, but added that the memberships, which automatically rebill each month, "are not a revenue source for him. The revenue will come from ad banners."
Harris himself "had been up since 12:45 this morning opening up his house for the satellite trucks" broadcasting television interviews and was unavailable for comment, the spokesman said. And he has been too busy to field requests from 52 models who wanted their faces and eggs to be added to the site or from potential bidders or sperm donors who have asked to be included on the site. Federal law does not appear to prohibit the sale of ova and sperm.
The online dirty-picture market has gotten much tighter, said J. Stephen Hicks, another well-known photographer who sells his wares via the Web. Crass marketers, he complains, are driving out the true artists like himself. "The only way to get traffic on an adult site," Hicks said, "is with a big media splash. . . . It's exponentially more valuable than any other marketing tool right now to get mainstream media attention. . . . My mom told me about this!"
And Harris expertly parlayed his entrepreneurial gusto into widespread coverage, with major stories in the New York Times Saturday and USA Today yesterday that took his offering at face value and quoted outraged reproductive ethicists. "It screams of unethical behavior," said Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.
Harris's models say they are offering to undergo painful ova extractions for prices up to $150,000. The process remains rare among reproductive technologies, and when egg harvesting does occur, donors typically have been paid between $2,500 and $5,000 for their trouble.
But there is no evidence on the Web site that the women pictured have any intention of selling their eggs. Harris is acting "more as a caretaker to the site. He will be the first one to say that this site is for very few individuals in the world," said his spokesman.
Instead, the site employs classic Internet come-ons: the sultry pose for free, with a promise of racier fare available only to "members only."
In the case of ronsangels.com, those who pay $24.95 learn merely that one of the three models--labeled Model No. 99--is 26, 5-foot-7, 34D, and wants an opening bid of $50,000. Her occupation, according to the site, is "mother, student, model, actress, married, daughter five [sic]," and her reasons for auctioning off the product of her ovaries are "I want to help others" and "I have healthy genes." There is no mention of IQ or LSAT scores.
The Harris spokesman said the women have not been compensated or paid to be on the site. "They are not supermodels," he said. "They are aspiring models and actresses, and they know they are getting some exposure."
Ronsangels.com lacks the sophistication of established auction sites like eBay. The bid for a such a life-changing transaction is a simple blank e-mail form, and bidders are not able to see what kind of other action the model egg is getting.
Additionally, the fine print of the users' agreement contains this blanket disclaimer: "Our site acts as the venue for sellers to list items (or, as appropriate, solicit offers to buy) and buyers to bid on items. We are not involved in the actual transaction between buyers and sellers. As a result, we have no control over the quality, safety or legality of the items advertised, the truth or accuracy of the listings, the ability of sellers to sell items or the ability of buyers to buy items. We cannot ensure that a buyer or seller will actually complete a transaction."
According to the site, Harris will charge an egg's buyer another 20 percent on top of the private transaction.
On his resume, Harris brags that he bred Arabian horses and that he has shot more than 10,000 photos of leading super-models and produced and directed more than 400 television commercials. But he doesn't do his own shooting anymore, said the former employee, who noted, "He got more of his content from other places. You can buy it. You gotta be in the business and know where to go."
Steve Easton, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., trolls the Web on behalf of photographers and other copyright holders looking for online piracy. Easton said he has gone after Harris numerous times in the past over complaints by other photographers that his Web sites used their images without permission. In fact, said Easton, looking at one of Ron's angels, "I might be wrong, but she looks like somebody I've seen before."
Harris is "the granddaddy of soft-core," said Bill Farley, a spokesman for Playboy, for whom Harris has made television shows. In the '80s, he created "Aerobicise," a long-running cable show featuring live models in taut leotards gyrating and twisting in choreographed routines. Hicks, whose work has appeared in Penthouse, knew Harris during those flush years and still speaks admiringly of his work then as "really sexy and cutting-edge. . . . Then I ran into him a few years ago and his career was in need of a transfusion, to say the very least."
Asked if Harris might be just trying to run up subscriptions for a new site, Playboy's Farley chuckled. "It's a question that certainly crossed my mind," he said. "We don't have any use for this ourselves, of course, because we have the cloning facility under the mansion, where we just extract the DNA from the existing Playmates."
CAPTION: The home page for ronsangels.com, purportedly a clearinghouse for bids on "eggs from beautiful and healthy women."
CAPTION: Ron Harris, promising natural selection "at its very best."