LOS ANGELES — A heartwarming reunion of dearly-missed friends and colleagues transpired at the Kimpton Everly Hotel Beachwood Ballroom on Jan. 5, during the XBIZ Online Industry Honors 2022 dinner ceremony, where top execs seized gleaming trophies in recognition of their brand leadership, business acumen and community influence.

After several minutes of backslapping, handshaking and bubbly conversations among the guests, many of whom had not seen one another in the flesh for many months due to the pandemic, Alec Helmy, president of XBIZ, strode forth onto the stage against the black-and-gold backdrop logos of XBIZ Honors and presenting sponsor Chaturbate. He led the crowd in a rallying chant against COVID, coaxing them into a cathartic frenzy as everyone shook their fists with gleefully vented frustration at the circumstances that have kept them apart so very long.

Now fully warmed-up, the audience clapped as the cohosts hopped onto the stage, with dazzling Pineapple Support founder Leya Tanit and dapper Austin Fiascone, the head of business development for SK Intertainment and SKinfluential Media, commencing their opening skit. Fiascone first welcomed everyone to the awards, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to be under the same roof again, and Tanit said, “It’s been two very long years since we’ve seen each other and it feels so wonderful to be together in this room.”

Agreeing, Fiascone then pointed out that it would not be a proper award show unless Andy “The Traffic Captain” Wullmer kicked things off, prompting the bald and bearded juggernaut to rise up with a booming, “Make some fucking noise!” Excited guffaws and whoops ensued given Wullmer’s infamous refrain, which has echoed from many an event hall in the past. It was a nostalgic reminder of how sweet it is to have some semblance of normalcy.

Fiascone then jokingly lamented that the “keyboard warriors of XBIZ.net are at home, so we don’t get to hear their conspiracy theories,” alluding to the amusingly contentious political threads that frequently populate the forum hub. Chuckles peppered the ballroom.

The cohosts realized that some in the room may not know them, so they explained their background briefly, though the majority were surely well-acquainted. Tanit outlined her nonprofit organization’s mission to promote mental health and wellness for the talent community, while Fiascone observed that his own role was not nearly as impressive. He did however say that he was proud to represent the “hair on head ratio” for his boss, Sam Rakowski, whose cleanly shaven head contrasts with Fiascone’s lush locks.

“Normally, XBIZ goes out and finds somebody who’s a really trusted, well-liked and respected industry member to host the event, which is why they asked Leya to be here,” Fiascone self-mocked. “Normally, they would pair them with someone who’s a total smoke show, a rocket talent, so you’re really probably wondering why I’m here. Well, we’re just hoping that my long eyelashes, long hair and the amount of drinks you’re having will convince you I’m halfway good-looking. And if you’re disappointed by that, you can ask Holly later to show you some pictures of her centerfolds.” Holly Ruprecht of Playboy laughed and others nodded in agreement, given the legendary brand’s penchant for accruing a bevy of beauties.

Many a jab and barb was playfully exchanged with various audience members, and Tanit jested, “Also, if you were expecting us to follow up with Alejandro’s performance from last year, I’m very happy to say we will be saving your eardrums,” making reference to yours truly warbling renditions of Elton John and “Be Our Guest” at the 2019 and 2022 XBIZ Honors ceremonies.

“You’re very welcome to thank us for this,” she said, to a jovial round of laughs.

Fiascone then pointed out that the evening was missing the sharply-dressed Brad Mitchell of MojoHost “who has won 67 trophies” and who Fiascone surmised had decided not to attend lest he be overwhelmed with emotion at accepting trophies from such stellar cohosts.

Tanit then underscored how only a handful of luminaries were missing from the festivities, since the entirety of the Beachwood Ballroom was fully packed. She too acknowledged that Mitchell was missing, and that due to his famous generosity when buying everyone a round of drinks on his tab, the overall cost of attending XBIZ would be significantly higher for the alcohol-inclined in his absence.

Other targets for mirth and nostalgic merrymaking included attorney Corey Silverstein, who Fiascone refrained from commenting on, “Because I don’t want to be sued.” And after a few coarse witticisms from Fiascone, such as encouraging the audience to hire younger employees as he roasted the grizzled nature of many, Tanit stepped in and said, “The responsible host is back,” to which the audience expressed bemused relief. They then invited the first presenter, industry veteran Gunner Taylor, who filled the stage with his burly frame, charismatic presence and deep gravelly voice, to list nominees for “VOD Company of the Year.”

AEBN was announced as the winner, with company execs Bishop Wages and James S heading to the front. “It’s been a long two years,” Wages said, “coming to this event has been very exciting. The last time I was out like this, was actually the last time we had this event in person some years back. Thank you, guys.”

Taylor then announced “Paysite Network of the Year” nominees, revealing Bang.com as the winner. Andrew H trotted to the stage and said, “Well, Clement went to the bathroom, so I’m taking this on his behalf! Thank you so much to XBIZ and to everybody.”

Fiascone congratulated him and asked AJ Hall to come to the stage, but not before remarking, “Gunner, I hope I look half as good as you do when I’m your age.”

As AJ Hall set the soon-to-be-granted winner’s trophy on the podium, it tipped over and fell, as audience members gasped. But, given the sturdy material that comprises XBIZ’s girthy trophies, it was unharmed. Others throughout the night would occasionally attempt to balance the trophies on the podium with mixed success, but nonetheless all winners happily took home fully intact symbols of their triumph.

As he read the nominees for “Account Exec of the Year,” Hall noted it was a big category, given how instrumental the position is to the financial well-being of companies. Several names attracted loud claps and whoops from their adjoining tables.

Matt Mund of MobiusPay landed the coveted prize and declared, “This is pretty cool! We love what we do and we love you guys … you’re like family, thank you!”

“I’m only going to drop it once,” Hall said after returning with the next trophy in hand. “These things weigh like 50 pounds. If you guys don’t have one of these at home, you can probably kill someone with it.” Many laughed.

Reading the nominees for “Marketing Exec of the Year,” those present were cheered on by their colleagues, until Kate Ames from Chaturbate was announced as the winner. Alighting on the stage in her shimmery white dress, she said, “I was not expecting this, but thank you to everyone at the Chaturbate team for working so tirelessly behind the scenes. Thank you!”

Boisterous biz dev consultant Jasmine James was brought up as the following presenter, bantering with Fiascone before proceeding to list nominees for “Photography Site of the Year.” The winner? PlayboyPlus.com. Holly Ruprecht sauntered to the stage and exclaimed, “Thank you very much for everyone who voted, it’s been quite a fucking year has it? But you know what, we’re all together here and that’s all that matters.”

Afterwards, it was time for “Payment Services Company of the Year — Merchant Services,” which went to MobiusPay. The incandescent Jonathan Corona and formally-garbed Matt Mund graciously accepted, with Corona saying, “Thank you all. We love what we do.”

“We’d love to welcome Clement to the stage,” Fiascone said, with the previously absent Bang heavyweight now present in the room and ready to read nominees. He revealed “Brand Ambassador of the Year” was Chris Youngs of Paxum, who humbly said he was not expecting such a win.

“It’s always wonderful being recognized for what you do,” Youngs offered.

Clement then read out “Progressive Leadership Award” nominees, with Gino Sciretta of BranditScan scoring the award. Since Sciretta was not present, Fiascone took the mic and said, “Gino was unable to make it tonight, but if he were he’d want to tell everybody how amazing they are and what a year it’s been.”

Megan Stokes from NMG Management came to present “Payment Services Company of the Year — Alternative,” and once she finished reading the nominees, Paxum won its second trophy of the night. Youngs returned to the stage, stating, “Hi, I’m back again. I want to thank all our clients and I’m so glad to be back again with all of you.”

Stokes then revealed “Payment Services Company of the Year — IPSP,” which went to Segpay. Head honcho Cathy Beardsley stepped forth to accept. “Hi everyone,” she began. “Thanks to XBIZ and everyone throughout the years who has always supported us. Thank you.”

Fiascone then invited Shirley Lara of Chaturbate, Mitch Farber of Netbilling, Holly Ruprecht, Gunner Taylor, Chris Youngs and Mark Bauman of DigiRegs to the stage, for a special tribute to the dearly departed industry photographer Julius “JFK” Kedvessy.

They offered at-times tearful tales of his presence at shows over the years, warm remembrances and kind words, with Fiascone also noting the passing of other notables such as DatingGold’s Allan Henning.

“He really carved out a niche for himself, photographing these moments, and we were so fortunate enough to have him capture those,” Lara said. “The industry was really blessed to have him.”

Gunner commended his pioneering spirit and Ruprecht and Youngs gave emotional farewells; Farber said he wanted Bauman up there given how close they both were to the recently deceased. “There’s just so many memories that come from all these people,” Farber expressed. “They’re pioneers and legends,” Bauman noted. “I never would have thought we’d lose them. Rest in peace, our fallen soldiers.”

Transitioning from the somber memorializing back to the awards ceremony, Lara took on presenter duties for “Business Development Exec of the Year,” with the winner announced as Andrew H of ePlay. “Kind of shocked!” he confessed delightedly. “It’s a good list of people here. Thank you so much to XBIZ. Thank you all.”

Upon seeing “Community Figure of the Year” as the next category, Lara expressed gratitude for being chosen to announce such important notables. “I have so many friends from this category that I’m afraid to announce the winner,” Lara admitted. She unveiled Tanit from Pineapple Support was to be crowned and clapped excitedly.

Tanit accepted and joked, “I wasn’t sure if the host could even win an award, I thought it was like a consolation prize to be hosting. So, wow! Thank you all so much. It’s been quite a process for the past few years and this just means the absolute world to me, thank you.”

A commercial from Chaturbate played on the screens next to the stage, before Fiascone asked everyone to give a round of applause for the beloved cam company and presenting sponsor.

He then brought MobiusPay’s “Jonathan Corona” up on stage to present the next categories, joking about how he was the man with the most unfortunate surname of the past two years. Corona took the pandemic-themed jab in stride with his characteristic good-natured charm, then read nominees for “Emerging Web Brand of the Year.” Breakout NFT and crypto player Pokmi won, and co-CEO Marco Garniga proudly walked up, flanked by his teammates. “Thank you everybody,” he said. “Everyone has been so kind since we’ve arrived. Thank you for welcoming us. Don’t hesitate to come speak to us about NFTs and cryptos, we thank you so much.”

For “Cam Company of the Year,” Chaturbate took the crown, and Lara expressed, “Thank you XBIZ for the recognition. Honestly we work so hard and we realize that the core of our business is cams and like Kate mentioned earlier, our team works hard. I’m not going to stand here and say it’s not deserved, because it’s fucking deserved!” The room exploded into applause, agreeing vociferously.

Tanit thanked Corona for presenting, incorporating his dashingly sparkly jacket into her introduction of the following presenter. “From one fantastic jacket to another, please allow me to welcome Dominic Ford of JustFor.fans to the stage.” The also-shimmeringly-garbed Ford waltzed up the stairs and said, “Hello XBIZ, how are you all doing tonight?”

He announced nominees for the “Senior Leadership Award,” with the trophy going to Colin Allerton from Adult Empire. Allerton said, “Wow. Thanks, guys. It’s an honor just to be included in this group of people here. Everyone’s deserving of this. Thank you, XBIZ, and thank you everyone at Adult Empire. Cheers.”

For the next award, “Chief Exec of the Year” was given to Moose of Penthouse, who could not be there that evening; Sara Ramirez of XBIZ accepted on his behalf.

Fiascone then introduced the penultimate presenter, who he fondly remembered had once called someone in the audience the second-biggest lesbian in the industry several years ago, given her own primacy. “So, I’d like to call to the stage the first-biggest lesbian in the industry, Holly Ruprecht of Playboy,” he said.

“By the way you’re all lesbians in my book,” Ruprecht said after hopping on stage, her heavy metal jacket emblazoned with the iconic bunny.  “Oh, yay, I’m doing gay stuff!” she noted, upon seeing that she was reading nominees for “Gay Cam Site of the Year.” Flirt4Free won the award, but was unable to attend, while “Cam Site of the Year — Premium” went to Streamate, who likewise could not come.

Fiascone offered identical, humorously boilerplate-sounding acceptance speeches on their behalf.

Attorney Larry Walters was on duty next for presenting the last two categories. “Alright, let’s take this home!” he said. Reading out the “Businesswoman of the Year “nominees, Walters revealed Megan Stokes of NMG as the winner.

After a brief delay, she appeared, and said, “Sorry, I was super-invested in my risotto! Thank you so much. This is amazing. Every single woman in this category is someone I not only consider a friend but an amazing human being, so I’m just super-honored. Thank you so much.”

And lastly, “Businessman of the Year” went to Dominic Ford of JustFor.fans, who glided to the stage in his radiant coat again.

“I still remember coming to my first XBIZ and not knowing anybody, being afraid to talk to anybody,” Ford remembered. “Now, to win this is just crazy. Thank you, XBIZ, I have great people who work with me. Jonathan Corona of MobiusPay takes my calls 24/7 and he regrets saying he’d do that for me; I drive him crazy. Thank you Jonathan.”

He also reminisced about meeting Alice Skary, his model liaison, two years ago at XBIZ Miami. “Now, without her, I would be lost. Thank you Alice, thank you so much.”

Fiascone sprinted back to the stage to bring the show to a close, saying, “Everyone give one more round of applause for Alec, Leah, Moe and Alejandro of XBIZ, and one more round of applause for all our winners tonight!”

From the audience, Wullmer hurled out one final “make some fucking noise!” while Fiascone apologized for his own “shitty jokes” and thanked everyone for dealing with the cohosts. Not to be outdone by Wullmer’s interjection, Fiascone shouted his own “make some noise!” as Tanit likewise thanked everyone and asked winners to remain afterwards for their group photo.

Uplifted and energized by familiar faces, shared congratulations and several impressive trophies, many attendees lingered for drinks and dessert, before filling the lobby of the Kimpton Everly late into the evening for continued merrymaking and ribald carousing. As with the panels and mixers throughout the week, one thing was crystal-clear: it’s good to be back.