I was Dennis Hof’s last ever interview, on the night he died. This is what I learned.

Working on a profile, I went to see the brothel-owner, reality TV star, and “Trump of Pahrump” speak at his birthday party in Nevada. It would turn out to be a strange, and fateful, evening.

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It was one of those surreal evenings that makes covering American politics worthwhile, or at least so I had thought. Brothel-owner, reality TV star and Nevada assembly candidate Dennis Hof presided over a political rally that doubled as his birthday party: Hof turned 72 on Sunday, and Monday was his third or fourth night of celebration in a row. Porn star Ron Jeremy, Hof’s closest friend, gave a spirited rendition of Oh When The Saints Go Marching In on a harmonica. Anti-tax activist and conservative sage Grover Norquist spoke; signed copies of his book were auctioned off to raise money for a local dog shelter. Disgraced former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio gave a rambling speech. Fox News host Tucker Carlson called in live on the air to say happy birthday. Through it all, Hof held court from the dais with a grin.

Twelve hours later he was dead.

The Nye County sheriff’s office announced Tuesday that Hof had been found unresponsive by Jeremy that morning at the Love Ranch, a brothel he owned in Crystal, Nevada, near Pahrump.

The act of journalism is to try to capture a story in the wild, and Hof’s was never going to be easy. The easy part, the starting-point for the narrative, is that in a notable number of ways he and Donald Trump appeared to be very alike. Both seemed like two brash and bombastic caricatures of men. Both were non-drinkers. Trump’s book was called The Art of the Deal, Hof’s, The Art of the Pimp. In their self-mythologising both described themselves as businessmen first, though – crucially – both got their real start in the peculiar ecosystem of reality TV.

But while Trump’s character has always seemed irredeemably malignant in his infantile entitlement, there was a sense of duality to Hof, of knowing self-awareness. I had a feeling that the self-styled “Trump from Pahrump” seemed to have what the man he was visibly trying to emulate did not: something that seemed to me like empathy.

This is an unfinished piece. In fact, I had barely started the work of researching it. I was at the Nugget casino in Pahrump that evening to gather colour; Hof and I were scheduled to sit down for an interview next week.

That means there is a lot this essay cannot cover. Hof, like Trump, has also been accused of sexual assault. He has consistently denied the allegations, and I will not now be able to put them directly to him to answer. By necessity, most of this piece as I originally conceived it will remain un-researched and unwritten, and I cannot properly evaluate that part of the story.

This is hardly a piece about Dennis Hof at all, really, as much as it is a piece about reality TV and character and writing and journalism. But it is rooted in how much the experience in its totality has thrown me. Bluntly: I’ve never had the subject of a profile die during the writing process before. It has left me with a strange feeling, on top of the usual shock of a brush with mortality. Unanswered questions and unexamined ideas rattle around in my mind, leaving me with a sensation something like restlessness.

****

Dennis Hof was born in Phoenix in 1946. His first business was running petrol stations in Arizona. On Monday night he told the boisterous crowd, packed into the large, blank-walled and windowless back room at the Nugget casino in Pahrump, about an hour west of Las Vegas, on Monday night, how in 1972 he had fallen in love with the state of Nevada while on a road-trip to San Francisco with his father. He bought the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, his first and most famous bordello, in northern Nevada 1992.

The crowd who had come to see him at the Nugget on Monday was dressed in the mix of windsor-knotted pinstripe Sunday best church-suits and slogan-badge-covered MAGA cap retiree just-popping-by-on-the-way-to-get-the-mower-fixed informal wear that is particular to small-town rural Trump-era Republican gatherings. Sure, Nevada has a markedly more libertarian bent than more traditional states; but even so, in front of the arrayed great and good of the local Republican party, Hof looked like he was getting a kick out of the incongruity of this picture. The brothel-owner sat grinning in front of the party of the Moral Majority as they cheered his name.

Unlike Trump, he seemed to me to have the self-awareness to recognise that he was an unlikely hero for Republicans. Although he was odds-on to win his state assembly election, his brand of live-and-let-live libertarianism was unlikely to convince the mainstream of the party. Many of Nevada’s most prominent Republicans, including senator Dean Heller, who is in a razor-thin race for reelection in the midterm election in November, refused to endorse him.

Still, Hof hit all the right party notes on things like guns, taxes and immigration, even if he did so with a hint of wryness: there was an element of satire when he offered to cheers and applause that he would be in favour of “building a wall with California”.

“You’re a straight shooter,” Joe Arpaio, a disgraced former Arizona sheriff – Arpaio was pardoned by Trump in 2017 after being convicted of contempt of court for failing to follow repeated orders from a federal judge to stop racial profiling – said to Hof when he joined him on-stage.

“Yup,” Hof said.

“You carry a gun.”

“Yup.”

“Second Amendment.”

“Yup.”

If the exchange felt like part of a job interview, it was one that Hof was acing. He kept his smile, though stifled a yawn or two, as Arpaio rambled on about classic Republican bugbears including George Soros, Colin Kaepernick, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

Arpaio, who is most famous for keeping animals in the air-conditioned cells of the Maricopa County jail in Phoenix while forcing the human prisoners entrusted to his care to sleep in an outdoor “tent city” in 130-degree heat, is usually a reliably big draw for conservative crowds, but Hof luxuriated in being the real celebrity lure for the evening.

In fact, Arpaio, who was seated next to me, had the resentful air of someone here on sufferance. “What does he need me here for?” he had muttered, half to himself, earlier in the evening. Now, he went back to boasting about his treatment of prisoners, getting loud applause for noting that he had “brought back the chain-gang” and noting proudly that Amnesty International had said in 1997 that the tent city in which he was forcing prisoners to live was neither “adequate nor humane.”

Clearly this, for Arpaio – a grotesque walking satire of Republicanism at its most cruel – was not a bug but a feature, and much of the room seemed to agree with him. Whether Hof did or not was a question I made a mental note to ask him later.

In the corridor outside the room, Grover Norquist, a polished speaker and canny political operative best known for his no-tax-hikes pledge which became a must-do move for ambitious Republican candidates, signed copies of his book, Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government's Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives, for attendees. Norquist is a pleasant conversationalist, and the two of us chatted about Burning Man, which it turned out we had both attended.

As Norquist signed the copies of his book handed to him, I could see inside the jackets that Arpaio had somehow managed to sign most of them already. One fan had collected the signatures of both Joe Arpaio and Ron Jeremy before handing it to Norquist to sign. “That’s a first,” Norquist said with an amiable grin.

When I finally met Hof properly later that evening, it was that experience peculiar to TV stars – not actors, but those that play themselves – in that it felt like I was meeting someone I already knew.

That’s not just my brain retroactively projecting significance in light of his death. It’s also because I had spent time with him already, watching the reality TV show that made him famous. Cathouse, which aired on HBO, followed Hof and the women at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, Hof’s first brothel, for several years between 2002 and 2007.

Today Cathouse seems more twee than risqué, especially in the age of high-budget ultraviolence like Game of Thrones or hypersexualised modern reality shows like Love Island. Its audience may have come for the vague promise of partial nudity and adult themes, but they stayed for the petty squabbles and human drama that is the hallmark of all great reality television. Through it all, though, Hof remained a watchable and likeable figure, and a quotable epigrammatist. He seemed to me to be the most amiable kind of libertine.

But was that just who he played on TV, though? That’s what I wanted to know when I arranged to come and see him speak in Pahrump.

****

I once was invited to a party that turned out to be entirely for the purpose of reality TV. It was for a British reality show called Made in Chelsea, though as the first season had not yet aired it had not been finally named as such. I had no idea the event was going to be filmed: the first I learned that the party was not really a party was when I arrived at the venue, a riverboat on the Thames near Temple tube station.

Barring my way to the gangplank, a harried-looking man holding a clipboard looked me up and down before he told me, without ceremony, “that shirt’s not going to work.”

“I’m sorry?” I said, looking down at my blue and white check shirt. “What?”

“It’s going to bleed,” the man said irritably, as if talking to an idiot.

I looked around in confusion. “I’m sorry?” I said again. A small crowd had started to gather. A woman arrived wearing an earpiece like an air-traffic controller. I tried to explain that there must have been some mistake and I was simply here for a party. She surmised from my cluelessness that this meant I was a guest of one of the show’s cast, which also meant, it turned out, that I was one of the only guests not being paid to be there.

A runner was summoned and told to find me some kind of suitable attire, which explains how, when the episode eventually aired, I was pictured in the background of the boat party scene in an ill-fitting plain white shirt, cream tuxedo jacket, and badly-tied black tie.

The expression of transfixed horror on my face, however, is explained by what I was watching behind the scenes. The process of creating reality TV is fascinating, because while it is nominally representing the real lives of the cast, it was actually entirely under the control of the director. Writers pitch storylines with series arcs, and the real lives – or at least the public perception of the real lives – of the cast were under their purview.

Reality TV can be a staggeringly brutal medium. The public gaze is like sunlight: when focused a certain way by a lens, it burns. It is another form of journalism, in a way; as is documentary filmmaking, and the lines are blurred between the three. But when a journalist focuses the lens there is, or ought to be, an implicit understanding that it is a power best exercised on the powerful: those who court the national gaze, those who have decided that power is worth the pain of scrutiny and that the risk is worth the reward. Politicians.

Reality TV is sometimes less scrupulous. Sometimes, it takes that lens and focuses it on the powerless, which can play as incredibly cruel.

But while reality TV done wrong can be incredibly depressing to watch, done right it can also often be a medium of soaring uplift. Because it purports to represent unvarnished reality, a producer who is a good storyteller can make truly great art with it. Intimacy is what makes moving pictures so powerful, and reality TV offers pure, freebase intimacy: access not just into the lives of strangers; but, through techniques like the cutting-in of direct-to-camera interviews, it offers direct access into their minds as well.

****

It is worth noting, though, that while reality TV producers are more usually the ones in a position of awesome power over their subjects, that is not always the case. If those subjects are powerful enough to influence the producers or even become producers of the show themselves, and canny enough to recognise the power of the form, then reality TV can hand them an immensely potent tool with which to create and cultivate their own narrative, their mythos. That’s what Trump did, and, following the narrative, I surmised that perhaps it’s what Hof did, too.

I may never get to properly judge the latter. Trump formally became a producer of The Apprentice, but it is not clear that Hof ever took steps in the direction of creative control over the show’s fly-on-the-wall coverage.

Certainly though, both Hof and Trump were able to use the platform the shows provided them to create exaggerated public personas for themselves. Because of it, they both lived larger-than lives.

But for me, their stories also seemed to differ in ways which I thought it might be fruitful to explore. Trump’s TV persona, the story he cultivated in the media during his time as a New York tabloid sensation, and then weaponised for his presidential campaign, was steeped in cruelty. His Apprentice catchphrase was “you’re fired.” In public, Trump still seems almost pathetically unable to prevent that cruelty from taking the lead. He can’t help himself. It is always his persona that drags him back again. His vanity is a black hole. Its gravity is impossible to escape.

The persona that Hof cultivated seemed to me as an outside observer to be the opposite. He never seemed to need to assert himself by putting others down, which is a defining trait of Trump. In person, brief though our meeting was, I was struck by how genuine Hof seemed, though I am aware that someone who seems genuine may not be so. Ultimately, I was curious to find out the same thing any profile-writer wants to know about their subject: whether he was covering up for himself somehow, whether it was all a performance, or whether he was really was the person he presented.

I wanted to know if the Dennis Hof that reality TV had shown me was real.

Perhaps I was projecting, but sat on stage next as Arpaio rambled on, Hof seemed almost to wince when the former sheriff boasted grimly about how he kept prisoners in un-air-conditioned tents in 130-degree heat. The more raucously authoritarian elements of the audience still cheered, though, even if the more libertarian elements did not. I wanted to ask him, because I genuinely wanted to know: “If you’re that empathic, why would you want to associate with assholes like Arpaio? Why would you want to compare yourself to a man like Trump?”

It was only at the end of the party, once most of the guests had left, that I finally managed to talk to Hof, who had been on stage for almost the entire evening. By a quarter to ten, only one table of people remained in the large, blank-walled casino event room. A middle-aged man in an incongruously neat suit who had been selling Make America Great Again baseball caps and bumper-stickers from a trestle table in the casino corridor was hovering around the periphery trying unsuccessfully to get the attention of a sleepy-eyed Ron Jeremy.

Hof slouched at the table. He seemed tired; not strangely so, except in hindsight, but tired all the same, and distracted, so we rescheduled our interview for the following week. But then just as I was preparing to leave he suddenly he turned to me.

“How did I do tonight?” he asked, waving a hand vaguely at the hall. There was no visible artifice in his expression, no calculation or manipulation that I could detect. There was something childlike about the way he asked the question that I found charming, in fact. It struck me that he was even a little nervous about what I might say.

“Honestly, I’ve been to a lot of these, and they can be pretty dull,” I said. “This one was great. You did great.” I meant it: he had put on a great show. Of course, putting on a show is the key point of reality TV. Everything is a show.

Hof appeared genuinely touched by the compliment. He gave a smile of broad pleasure, seeming to burst with relief and pride. Then I said goodnight, told him I was looking forward to chatting next week, shook his hand, and left.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.