To many in the capital, Ms. Clifford, 39, has become an unexpected force. It is she, some in Washington now joke, and not the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who could topple Mr. Trump.
Those who know her well have registered the moment differently. Ms. Clifford has subsisted amid the seamier elements of a
“She’s the boss, and everyone knew it,” Nina Hartley, one of the longest-working performers in the industry, said about Ms. Clifford.
“The Renaissance porn star,” said Ron Jeremy, once perhaps the most famous porn star of all.
“She was a very serious businesswoman and a filmmaker and had taken the reins of her career,” said Judd Apatow, who directed her cameos in the R-rated comedies “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” “She is not someone to be underestimated.”
In her own scripts, she has gravitated at times toward more ambitious productions, with elaborate plotlines and nods to politics.
Her standards on set can be exacting. Ms. Clifford does not mind firing people, colleagues said, banishing those who flub a scene or gild a résumé. She has demanded that an actor change his “dumb” stage name because it would look silly on her promotional materials. And she has coaxed singular performances from her charges, once guiding Mr. Jeremy through a scene in which he sang to her small dog.
Her competitive streak is not well concealed. After industry award nominations were announced one year, Ms. Clifford, who had amassed more than a dozen such honors, reminded an interviewer that she had been snubbed in the categories of cinematography and editing.
Credit The Penthouse Club in Baton Rouge, La.
When opportunities have presented themselves outside her domain — a Maroon 5 music video, a public flirtation with a Senate run in Louisiana, an appearance at a celebrity golf tournament that included a future president — Ms. Clifford has made the most of the publicity, helping her carve out a comfortable life in the Dallas suburbs.
She has a daughter, a third husband and an expensive hobby: equestrian shows. “She blends right in,” said Packy McGaughan, a trainer on the competition circuit. “A pretty girl riding a horse.”
More recently, inconspicuousness has been elusive in her life, but that is largely by design. Ms. Clifford has leveraged her newfound crossover fame into a national stripping tour, with scheduled dates through the end of the year. Not everyone is interested in attending.
“Pretty sure dumb whores go to hell,” someone wrote her on Twitter last week.
“Whew!” Ms. Clifford replied. “Glad I’m a smart one.”
Classmates remember her as a serious, unobtrusive student — a natural fit at a competitive, racially diverse high school with an engineering focus. They knew her as Stephanie Gregory, the girl with the auburn hair. She liked horses and Mötley Crüe.
A quote beneath her senior yearbook photo hinted at high aspirations: “We will all get along just fine,” it read, “as soon as you realize that I am Queen.”
Credit Ethan Miller/Getty Images
She thought she might be a veterinarian, or maybe a writer. “At first I thought I wanted to be a journalist,” Ms. Clifford said by phone on Friday in a 12-minute interview about her background.
Her parents, Sheila and Bill Gregory, divorced when she was about 4, leaving her largely in the care of her mother. She has not seen either parent in over a decade. Ms. Clifford, who later took her first husband’s surname, came from a “really bad neighborhood,” she said. She strained to remember exactly what she was like then.
“I don’t really know because I’m such a different person now,” she said. “I wasn’t like the popular girl, and I wasn’t the jock, and I wasn’t the ditz. I don’t know. I was just sort of in the middle of the road.”
She had offers from colleges, she has said. She had the test scores. The dancing started on a lark, of sorts. She was 17 and visiting a friend at a strip club in town, when she was persuaded to perform a “guest set.”
“I remember going on stage and thinking I was going to be a lot more afraid than I was,” Ms. Clifford said. “It was a slow night. There were like three people in the club, and I made enough money on two songs to make more than I did all week answering phones at the riding stable that I worked at.”
After high school, she found a professional home at the Gold Club in Baton Rouge, ingratiating herself with management as a reliable and magnetic performer, slogging through shifts from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. to earn perhaps a few hundred dollars a night.
Credit Bill Haber/Associated Press
A calendar from 1999, in which Ms. Clifford straddles a Harley-Davidson as the dancer for July, still sits in the club, now called the Penthouse Club Baton Rouge.
“We knew,” said Chuck Rolling, who has long overseen operations there. “She was moving in a direction that was bigger than us. We’re in Baton Rouge. We’re not even New Orleans.”
Ms. Clifford eventually graduated to higher-profile dancing work, traveling across Texas and Louisiana to headline at strip clubs, before transitioning to pornography. She was both determined to bend the business to her will and conflicted about the long-term consequences. “I have very mixed emotions about stripping because stripping got me where I am now,” she said, at age 23, in an industry interview. “I own my own house, I own my own car, I own my own business. My credit is excellent. I have nice furniture and nice things.”
Still, the risks were clear. “I have just seen so many girls that it just ruins them,” she said then, “so many women who are 35, 40 years old and still stripping and have nothing to show for it, and that is just really sad.”
Ms. Clifford chose a more tempestuous stage name than most peers. She was not an Angel, or a Summer, or a Destiny. She was Stormy. And she was blond now.
Often, she kept to herself. Mike South, a director and columnist in the industry press, recalled encountering her in 2004, the year she was named “best new starlet” at the Adult Video News Awards, pornography’s equivalent of the Oscars. “She was sitting in the lobby, alone, and I just decided to be friendly,” said Mr. South, who invited her to a group dinner. “She looks at me and doesn’t crack a smile — expressionless — and says, ‘I am really not that friendly.’”
Recognition came quickly anyway: awards, magazine spreads, feature roles and a contract with Wicked Pictures, a prominent pornography company. When she needed to, she charmed industry gatekeepers with a disarming wit.
“Are those real?” read a question posted on her website.
“Well,” she said, “you’re certainly not imagining them.”
In 2008, as Jenna Jameson, then the industry’s reigning monarch, announced her retirement at an awards show — “I will never spread my legs in this industry again,” she told the crowd — Ms. Clifford seemed to position herself next in line.
“I love you, Jenna,” Ms. Clifford said, accepting an award from Ms. Jameson moments later, “but I’m going to spread my legs a little longer.”
It was a striking political slogan: “Screwing People Honestly.” But subtlety was never the idea.
In 2009, well into her turn as a director, Ms. Clifford sensed an opening beyond her typical orbit. David Vitter, a United States senator in her home state of Louisiana, was staggering toward a re-election year, laid low by a prostitution scandal. Ms. Clifford declared herself a Republican (though a Democratic operative was said to be involved in her efforts) and courted wide-scale media attention as she publicly weighed the merits of running. In remarks at the time, she connected her professional journey to the lives of service workers across the state.
“Just as these misguided arbiters of the mainstream view an adult entertainment star as an anathema to the political process,” she said, when she eventually decided against a bid, “so too do they view the dishwasher, the cashier or the bus driver.”
Credit Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The false-start campaign coincided with a turbulent moment in her personal life, exposing her to scrutiny in the mainstream press. In July 2009, Ms. Clifford was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence after hitting her husband, a performer in the industry, and throwing a potted plant during a fight about laundry and unpaid bills, according to police records. The husband, Michael Mosny, was not injured, and the charge was later dropped. Ms. Clifford had previously been married to another pornographic actor.
She has since married another colleague in the business, Brendon Miller, the father of her now 7-year-old daughter. He is also a drummer and has composed music for her films. The family has been spotted often at equestrian events, where Ms. Clifford, the owner of several horses, has captured blue ribbons. Her preparations can be meticulous, matching her saddle pad with a horse’s bonnet colors.
“She takes it very personally that she does well,” said Dominic Schramm, a horse trainer and rider who has worked with her for several years. “She can be quite hard on herself.”
Ms. Clifford has not shown up at competitions since news broke in January that she accepted a financial settlement in October 2016 — weeks before the election — agreeing to keep quiet about her alleged intimate relationship with Mr. Trump. She has said the affair, which representatives of Mr. Trump have denied, began in 2006 and extended into 2007, the year she married Mr. Mosny.
Earlier this month, she escalated public attention by filing suit, calling the 2016 contract meaningless given that Mr. Trump had never signed it and revealing that the president’s personal lawyer had taken further secret legal action to keep her silent this year.
She has said that she does not want to expose the equestrian world — or her daughter — to the attendant circus trailing her now.
But the show has gone on for Ms. Clifford. She has danced across the country in recent months, from Las Vegas to Long Island. There are many more appearances to come. It would be foolish, she has said, to turn down more money than usual for the same work.
“She likes to maximize her profits,” said Danny Capozzi, an agent who manages her bookings, “not only on the feature dance bookings but at all times.”