07/30/2012 10:29 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Mystery Men: The Real Guys Behind the Myth of Jim French's Colt Studios

Last year I fell down a Google-image rabbit hole searching for a particular vintage photo of a mustachioed man, alone and nude, in the bluffs of a rocky desert canyon. Call it a keepsake from adolescence. As is often the case, the man in my head proved difficult to find.

What I stumbled upon instead was an online community of gays devoted to speculation over the fates of their favorite untouchably beautiful men from nudie magazines and dirty sex loops: alleged real names, alleged wives, alleged professions, alleged sightings in grocery stores or elevators. I found message boards dating back over 15 years, chronicling a network of starstruck detectives across the globe.

I suddenly did the math on the disco-haired, mutton-chopped, mustachioed man in my head: He would probably be in his early to mid-60s today.

Where does a life go after a naked stint in the desert? Do you tell your friends? Your family? Do you cross over to hardcore and burn out in the fast lane, Dirk Diggler-style?

If he was lucky, his career as a nude model lasted another five years or so, before he was spit back out onto the proverbial side of the road. But does his ass pop up on his computer screen as he drinks his morning coffee?

I suppose the narrative has more potential if we assume the man is gay and lives in a world where he can actually put his sexual celebrity to use. But what if he wasn't? Or if he wasn't sure? When his grandchildren take him out for Father's Day brunch, does the gay waiter recognize him?

As a lifelong consumer of porn, I couldn't believe these questions had never crossed my mind.

Where do porn stars go when we're done with them?

After the fourth or fifth "What Ever Happened To...?" forum I found, I noticed the objects of these fans' affections shared a similar watermark in the corner of their photos: Colt Studios.

Jim French began Colt Studios in the late 1960s, beginning the most successful empire of male nude imagery since Bob Mizer's Athletic Model Guild. The gay community had just torn its way out of the Stonewall Inn and into the public eye. The U.S. Post Office had just lifted its ban on male frontal nudes passing through the mail system. Under the pseudonym "Rip Colt," French created a sleek, visual language for worshipping the male body.

Today, French's images have become icons of a singular moment in gay history: post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS, post-beefcake and pre-VHS.

"Let's face it," one user posted on a Jake Tanner fan page. "Before the advent of VCRs, we had Colt. Period."

French sold his rights to Colt Studios in 2003. And when the company changed hands, the men of Colt went from looking like golden gods to looking... kind of like everyone else. Much has been said about the artistry of Jim French, but what about the men French captured in his lens?

John Pruitt, Carl Hardwick, Pete Kuzak, Steve Kelso, Gordon Grant. Before I flipped through the catalog of Colt names, I hadn't even realized the effect Colt's faces and bodies had on the fantasy world of my own awkward adolescence.

Since the days of Jim French, sexual stardom has become a self-made industry of amateur Xtube stars, requiring only a camera phone, an accident, an ex-lover's scorn, or a rough weekend. Even our higher-end porn stars can be possessed through Facebook and Twitter, until there isn't a shred of intrigue between "us" and "them."

But Colt was born of an era of fantasy, its men existing only in French's photographs. There is a tradition of these communication gaps between gay men, the narrative always broken into disparate eras with disparate priorities.

We'll fetishize an age demographic for their body type or wisdom or youth. But how often do we compare notes between generations?

Open gay culture is young. There's no need to speculate as to what the men of Colt experienced.

These men aren't "vintage." They are still alive.

I decided to search out as many Colt models as I could and give them the opportunity to answer my questions themselves.

As you might imagine, most of these guys are pretty hard to track down. They were working for Colt under pseudonyms. Straight or gay, many of these men grew uncomfortable with sexual stardom and made every effort to disconnect from their former selves. Googling Colt pseudonyms only led to more Colt photographs. For all the paranoia regarding the hyper-accessibility of personal information on the Internet, it seems it is still very possible to disappear in 2012 America.

Steve Schulte, who modeled under the pseudonym "Nick Chase" from about 1977 to 1980, told me that he had "figured it was this underground thing that would make [him] a little cash on the side and no one would ever see it and that would be that."

Schulte, an openly gay man, went on to a successful career in California politics, running for mayor of West Hollywood in 1986.

"I was as gun-shy about the pictures coming out as you might imagine," Schulte said.

His right-wing opponent published a flier showing a very professional Schulte in a suit and tie, beside a nude image Jim French had taken of Schulte in his days as a Colt model. A caption beneath the photos read, "Which Steve Schulte are you voting for?"

Schulte said the ordeal forced him to "face up to it and say, 'Look, this is a part of my past. I'm not ashamed of it.'"

Luckily, his opponent's attacks fell on deaf ears. West Hollywood's strong gay community came out in support of him and elected him as their mayor.

"I think that other gay men appreciated this part of my life," Schulte told me. "One guy said, 'Steve took off his clothes and became one of us.' But it was still very humbling for me. I couldn't come out claiming to be the best asshole in the world."

Some of French's models weren't as fortunate. From the collected notes and gossip on the Colt message boards, it seems many men did cross over to hardcore porn in the '80s and were killed by the AIDS epidemic. Some tried to bank off their Colt fame as high-priced prostitutes, spiraling into an underground life of sex and hardcore drug use.

"Please leave me alone," one former Colt model wrote in response to my request for an interview. "I really wish that whole part of my life would just go away."

So many men refused to share their stories with such vehemence that I assumed there was some lurid scandal of exploitation to cover up. But the models I've spoken with had only kind things to say about Jim French and the environment on the Colt set.

"Jim was always a very decent, very kind man," said Kip de Borhegyi, who modeled for French under the name "Jason Brahm" in the early '90s. "But it was my own personal legacy I had to think about. I just couldn't do anything that I thought I might regret 10 years later."

De Borhegyi went on to say that while he always considered French an artist and not a pornographer, the accessibility of Colt images over the Internet became confusing after he'd decided to move on with his life.

"Even when I began working for Jim, people were still ordering Colt in the mail. It was part of why I was comfortable working with him. He was very adamant about the release of his photos. We had no way of knowing how the Internet would change all that. My pictures pop up everywhere now. It's impossible to police, and, needless to say, very strange."

After thanking Kip profusely for his time, I decided to ask, "Do you ever regret it?"

"No," he answered, on a sigh. "I really don't."

He went silent for a second.

"Well, OK," he said. "There's this one photo of my butt that always seems to come up that I don't think I ever really need to see again. But for the most part, I really don't regret any of it. I think the photos are beautiful. And at that time, in terms of my body, I could compete with the best of them. I think it's amazing and kind of sad that some of these guys who used to model for Colt are trying to hide from it now. These men were beautiful. I keep saying it, but Jim's photos are works of art. I really believe that. I don't think we have any reason to be ashamed."

I asked Schulte what he thinks when he looks at the photos now. He answered on a sigh as well.

"I don't want to be labeled as a 'Colt model.' This is a part of why I stopped doing it. I'm not merely... anything. I wasn't merely the mayor of West Hollywood, I wasn't merely the director of the Gay and Lesbian Center, and I wasn't merely a model for Jim French.

"We're all lots of things. We're more complicated than a single part of our lives. No one wants to be labeled for just one of them."

He goes silent for a second, too. And for that second, I feel embarrassed for even asking, for even tracking this man down and attempting to compare notes with a fantasy I'll never fully understand.

"But here's the thing," Schulte goes on. "I don't really look at the pictures very often. Every once in a while, I come across them, or someone asks me to sign one. I guess a part of me is kind of shocked at my hubris, but... I think they're good pictures. And, yeah, I'm glad I did it."