Stormy Daniels Is Telling a Different, Darker Story Than She Used To

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There’s a scene in the new documentary about Stormy Daniels from April 2023, when Daniels, buried in her plush hotel duvet in a room overlooking Tower Bridge in London, learns her 11-year-old daughter had just ended her school year with straight A’s. Daniels had been flown to the U.K. to appear on Piers Morgan’s talk show, as well as on Good Morning Britain. But instead of looking energized by her star treatment, she appears quite simply exhausted. When she explains the text from her daughter to the documentary filmmakers crowding her room, she fights back tears.

“Instead of being there with her, I’m here talking about an ex-president’s penis,” she says.

In the documentary, Stormy—which comes out Monday on Peacock—there are many moments when Daniels seems to confront, bleakly, the absurdity of her situation. There is no playbook for an adult film actress who finds herself at the center of a political scandal involving the president of the United States, and Daniels, the documentary makes clear, hasn’t been reveling in her explosive fame and new jet-setting lifestyle since she became a public figure in 2018. Daniels, you’ll recall, first entered the public eye in January 2018 when the Wall Street Journal reported on a $130,000 hush money payment from Trump over a sexual encounter with her from 2006.

In that story’s wake, Daniels projected a defiant, provocative, retort-ready persona to the public, all too aware of how that public would gleefully consume the entry of an adult film actress onto the political scene. But the Daniels of the documentary feels no such empowerment. She feels like she was along for the ride, just like everyone else. And she is miserable.

It’s a jarring contrast with the public memory of this time. The audience, which likely will best remember the most outrageous and salacious moments of the largely Trump-era saga—the juicy interviews with details about Trump’s sexual proclivities; the gleeful watch parties for her 60 Minutes appearance; the #Basta tweets from her bizarre, media-hungry attorney Michael Avenatti; the playfully politically themed stripping tour; the confident proclamation on Saturday Night Live that a storm was a-coming, baby—may be surprised to hear that behind the scenes, Daniels felt like a victim.

Daniels seemed—at least for those who wanted to make her into a liberal resistance hero—to be thriving at the time. In the documentary, we relive some of these moments: She goes on Jimmy Kimmel; fans host “Stormy Daniels parties” in support. She launches her wildly successful “Make America Horny” stripping tour. Women and gay men start appearing at her shows. (“If you drive an ice cream truck, and you’ve been driving it for two years, and you don’t drive it the week of a heat wave, you’re an idiot,” she says in defense of the tour.) The city of West Hollywood declares a “Stormy Daniels Day.” It’s easy to remember the left’s relishing of this moment and imagine it as a thrill for the woman at its center—but the documentary offers nothing like that unflappable, bawdy hero.

In one scene, when Avenatti calls, it’s clear he sees only triumph in the series of events. “The president of the United States has been transformed over the last six weeks into your bitch,” he says. “Congratulations.”

Daniels’ private reaction is not the one we would expect from the woman who told a crowd at the rapper YG’s show in Los Angeles in November 2019 that she was “the reason Donald Trump is fucked” or who responded to angry tweets by promoting her #TeamStormy merchandise. “Thank you, I think?” she responds to Avenatti, more bewildered than excited.

At that moment in the film, the toll of the overwhelming attention, and with it the common belief that she was seeking fame and financial gain, is becoming apparent. In the early weeks of Daniels’ celebrity, she was swamped by media attention. Her family life fell apart. She fled her home and left her daughter with her husband out of concern for their safety. Even as she had moments of fun, declaring her day on SNL the best of her life, she fretted about her safety and her future.

Daniels’ own low point came in July 2018 after she was arrested in Columbus, Ohio, on politically motivated charges of inappropriately touching undercover officers. The news instigated a crisis in her own family life, as her husband’s anxieties grew unbearable under the pressure. (“You left me at home with the kid, and you’re on a strip club tour of North America playing this up to the high heavens,” he says.) A few months later, news broke that she owed $122,000 in fees to Trump when she lost her defamation case against him. The liberal resistance seemed to deflate in response, in part out of fear that any money directed toward Daniels would be redirected into Trump’s pockets, and their financial support for Daniels dried up. (After appeals, that number would increase to $300,000.) Together, it left her in a financially precarious situation. Soon, she would learn that Avenatti had been stealing from her. He would be arrested (and he remains incarcerated), but she would never recover the money he stole.

In the documentary, that is how we leave Trump-era Stormy Daniels: publicly, a defeated liberal hero, remembered fondly but with her moment gone; privately, a woman with wrecked finances and a family life in shambles.

So when the story picks back up again in 2023, with her new house and her new husband, and Stormy tending to her horses, it’s painful to know she’s about to be thrown back into the cycle again. We know, though the documentary doesn’t mention it, that Daniels has maintained some minor celebrity, appearing in the Surreal Life reboot and hosting her own raunchy dating show, For the Love of DILFs. In the shows, she began to publicly nod to just how exhausted she was. On the Surreal Life, she told her castmates, “I’m probably, unfortunately, most famous for the worst 90 seconds of my life that I spent with Donald Trump. And in standing up to him, I lost everything.” In promotion for For the Love of DILFs, she told OK! magazine that she didn’t want to talk about the Trump affair anymore. “Every time he pops out, I wish he would go away,” she said.

But there’s something darker to this new era for Daniels, as she faces the reanimated Trump scandal, this time around Trump’s highly consequential criminal trial in New York, over his alleged cover-up of hush money payments to her. In one shot, we see a wound in her horse’s flank—a shot from a rubber bullet, which she believes was fired by some bad actor to draw her out.

In nearly every scene from 2018, Daniels expresses intense paranoia. She recalls a friend telling her that the Republican Party likes “to make their problems go away.” She tells the journalist Denver Nicks, who shot much of the footage used in the early parts of the documentary (later used by Stormy’s director Sarah Gibson) that she had, in part, agreed to the hush money payment because she wanted a “money trail” linking her to Trump “so he could not have me killed.” She records a last will and testament. In one scene, as her daughter plays in a shopping mall, she tells Nicks that they need something in writing to ensure he retains the footage “in case something happens.”

“When I met Stormy, she was convinced she was living in the last weeks or months of her life,” Nicks says in the documentary.

For many in the audience, Daniels’ belief in a looming assassination might seem melodramatic. And it’s true that the tweets directed at her that appear on the screen during this earlier period smack more of virulent misogyny than violent tendencies. But between 2018 and 2023, there’s been an insurrection, Donald Trump lost political power, and a faction of his fans has grown angrier. In one particularly disturbing scene, on her way back from her appearance on Good Morning Britain, she reads out tweets responding to the news of Trump’s indictments. Over protests of a filmmaker, she reads off a list of ominous threats.

“Back in 2018, it was stuff like ‘liar,’ ‘slut,’ ‘gold digger,’ ” she says. “This time around it’s very different. It is direct threats, it’s, ‘I’m going to come to your house and slit your throat.’ ‘Your daughter should be euthanized.’ They’re not even using bot accounts; they’re using real accounts.”

The Stormy Daniels who starts the documentary is the one from our memories, only frightened. She’s likable—funny, tough, and clever. She has some agency; she makes choices, even if some were destructive to her family and, with the benefit of hindsight, ill-advised. (She herself has said she wishes she had never spoken out.) But even as she tries to exert some control over the narrative, the enormity of the story chews her up. The story takes on a life without her. (She claims, in the documentary, that Avenatti filed the consequential defamation lawsuit against Trump without her knowledge.) By the end of the Trump presidency, Daniels is left angry and weepy.

But wishful audiences should prepare themselves for a darker reality, tied up with the exhaustion of living through years of Trump-world fury: The Daniels we have today—and the one we should expect to appear before the New York court during a Trump trial—is not just overwhelmed but hopeless.

“The way that this is different from 2018 is I have more knowledge. The shock of it is not the same,” she says toward the end of the documentary. “I’m desensitized to some of it. But they’ve also become more violent with me. I’m more prepared with my legal knowledge, but I’m also tired. Like, my soul is so tired. And I don’t know if I’m so much a warrior now as out of fucks, man. I’m out of fucks.”