Some of you are aware that I appeared on a National Geographic documentary that first aired in February. Now the rest of you are aware. Once again, my brush with mainstream media is generally negative. Eventually I’ll learn.
NatGeo spoke to me in April 2009 about appearing on their Taboo series. One of their episodes was going to cover sex work. Though I spoke for 90 minutes on the phone with Kate Witchard and emailed with her, they decided not to use me. This was right before I was beginning my travels and I pitched the idea to her, but she told me National Geographic wasn’t interested in following a working escort around the world.
Utter waste of time. I don’t take kindly to having my brain picked for free. (Shortly after, someone whom I suspect was producing the Belle de Jour series wanted to do that too so I quoted a price and never heard back.)
Last summer I was approached by NatGeo again. I was not interested. Daniele Anastasion, the producer, assured me this was a stand-alone documentary focusing on the US and the legal issues surrounding prostitution. After back and forth emails, I agreed to a 5 minute phone call that turned into 45. It seemed okay and I agreed to it. Of course they weren’t going to pay me a dime. (It’s a documentary! They wouldn’t do something so icky as pay for interviews!) No makeup provided either. But it seemed like it would be intelligent. It’s National Geographic, after all.
We settled on a shooting date. They weren’t thrilled about having to come to Dallas but since they weren’t paying me to show up anywhere else, Dallas was it. They wanted to shoot an interview — which was the point. They also wanted to shoot “B-roll,” which is silent footage that shows up in the background with interviewed voiceovers. This is where it started getting to be a bit much.
They wanted to shoot the interview in my home, so that I would be “more comfortable.” Yes, having a camera crew in my private sanctuary in order to show it to the world makes me comfortable. We finally agreed on a hotel at the airport. (I’ve spent a lot of my adult life in hotel rooms, I’m comfy there.)
They wanted to interview a client. No. I gave them the name of someone they could interview by phone but apparently that wasn’t enough for them.
They wanted to film me preparing to go to an appointment. No, but I was willing to do my getting-ready routine for the camera anyway. Not good enough, this is a documentary and putting on eye shadow for a fictitious client is somehow different than putting on eyeshadow for a real client. (For the record, my getting-ready for a client involves the exact same things I do for getting ready to head out for a nice evening with any human; though these days it often involves packing a suitcase and forgetting things.)
They wanted to spend days filming slices of my life. Well, my life is boring. I run, I eat, I sleep, I sit at the computer. On fun days, I eat lunch out and go grocery-shopping. I read and sometimes watch movies. When possible, I get to spend time with people I like. Sure, you could film all this but who’d want to watch?? I threw out the best possibilities for shooting and most of them didn’t pass muster (my life is boring).
Then I got the great idea to do a photo shoot! Hey, this is something escorts do that “normal” people don’t! My regular photographer did not wish to participate. My other photographer, Shoshana of Dallas PinUp and a longtime friend, was game. We planned an awesome shoot which yielded some great pix. I hired a professional makeup artist, LaDonna Stein, to do my makeup for both days of filming ($75/day). I will hire her again and again — I’ve never looked so good in my life. Washing my face was a crime.
So it was settled. Film in September. One day of interview and B-roll at the airport, the next day the real-live photo shoot and B-roll of that. Yay!
My publicist and I had requested a list of the topics/questions we were going to discuss. I wanted to be prepared. The B-roll was not important to me (they were only concerned with how much footage of me they could shoot, seeming to think I was willing to spend days being filmed for free); the interview was everything. I only speak for myself but let’s be honest, if you’re going on TV as a sex worker, many of those watching will assume you speak for a lot of sex workers — which is sometimes true if I say things like “Most sex workers don’t like [whatever]” or “Most sex workers like the New Zealand model of decriminalization.” Or who knows, the viewers might assume I don’t represent any sex workers at all whatsoever because I don’t look like their stereotype and that I only speak for myself anyway.
I was hoping to impress with my knowledge and articulate answers. Beth and I prepped, including the usual phone calls where she would mock-interview me. Part of her job is to try and trip me up with trick questions or ask the questions she knows makes me squirm (she’s far tougher than any interview I’ve had so far). I had a whole sheaf of notes prepared, with important dates, facts, countries, blah blah blah. I did Lincoln-Douglas debate in high school was my preparation now as a sex worker is far more thorough than anything I ever did back then.
And, frankly, I was kind of hoping that I’d get a little jump in business for all this effort. NatGeo viewers were intelligent, right? This should work. (For the record: not a single one of my TV appearances has led to clients. It is not the medium of choice if you want business. All it does is bring people out of the woodwork, some of whom you know and forgotten, some of whom only think they know you.)
I was hoping it would sell books. Every one of my TV appearances has accomplished this and it was a definite goal of mine.But the books weren’t mentioned on the show, regardless of my pre-interview agreement. Neither was the book’s website mentioned. So NatGeo cut me off at the knees in regards to recouping any of the money I spent on this interview — which was more than just makeup. The whole reason any author does publicity is to sell books and if you prevent them from doing so and don’t pay them for their time, then you have effectively ripped them off. (I have gotten a handful of book sales from this show due to the Google-searching of viewers but not worth it from an overall ROI standpoint.)
Congrats, National Geographic. You’re on my Bad Media-Client list.
Got up early, ate and knew I probably wouldn’t eat for a while. Got to the photo studio, met LaDonna, was charmed and we chatted as she made me beautiful and took total care of me. I couldn’t afford to drag her along with me but I wished (however she set my makeup to last all day and really she would have been sitting on her thumbs). Drove to the airport and was trying to find Daniele. In the lobby of the hotel I saw this young girl with a cell phone and after a minute, realized it was her. Wow, she was small and looked like a teenager (she’s in her 20s and a professional).
The interview space was set up in a room and we were finally ready to roll. She and I started talking. It was a very chatty interview, her style was extremely conversational. I flubbed a few lines but since this was being recorded, I was allowed to repeat myself. I made some excellent points (and forgot a couple important ones). I convinced the camera and sound man that criminalization was the wrong path. Danielle and I talked for two solid hours. I was hoarse when we finally reached a stopping point.
Lunch break after and we all sat at a table and chatted like normal people. It was fun.
Then the airport B-roll shooting started. Ugh. I was shot in and around the hotel room, on a computer, in the hall, in the airport, in a taxi looping the airport and I think that was it. They wanted me to hang around until dark and shoot me in a bar having a cocktail but honestly, I’d had a camera in my face for the past six hours or so and was totally drained. The knowledge that I was going through all this again tomorrow didn’t help. They finally let me go. I went home, ate food, regretfully washed my face and crashed.
Just as the airport/interview was draining, the photoshoot was just plain fun. LaDonna glammed me up like I’ve never been in my entire life, my dress was amazing, Shoshana created a great set. Things were great, there was a lot of laughter and the B-roll shooting was going okay, but neither Shoshana nor I could keep quiet long enough. Being able to focus on Shoshana instead of where the cameraman was really helped (I normally loathe being on the pointy end of a camera). There was a cat in the studio which was causing me to sneeze and my eyes to water but that was really the worst part of it all.
End of the shoot and we piled into a nearby bar for drinks (yay!!!!) and final good-byes. After the crew left, Shoshana, LaDonna and I went to an eatery to gossip. Shoshana and LaDonna had a photoshoot after, so I went home and stared at myself in the mirror for a while, knowing I could never replicate this on my own.
It was done. Whew.
I was told it would be released in early 2012.
sex for sale: american escort
One morning in February, I woke up, checked my email and got a message from someone saying they’d seen me on NatGeo. Damn. They’d aired it. I wasn’t ready in any way. Despite repeated emails, they didn’t bother letting me know when it was going to air. I was going to promote it via social media and overhaul the book’s website, but nevermind that.
Curious, Beth and I went searching. We found the whole show online. I watched it in horror. The title alone let me know this was not a serious documentary examining criminalization in the US. In fact, they barely mention criminalization or its effects. They don’t bother to figure out that criminalization is the reason for a lot of the pushback they receive when trying to interview agencies.
My initial reactions remain. I have no idea who Mariana Van Zeller is or what she was doing on this show (actually, I still don’t).
That fabulous photoshoot Shoshana did was reduced to a couple seconds onscreen in which nothing is explained — what’s going on and where did that come from?
High heels = prostitute, apparently. I’ve seen fewer heels at a shoe store.
My role was “blink and you’ll miss it,” which was a bit of a relief by the end.
The “undercover” harassment of random agencies in Vegas was nauseating. I have no love for escort/stripper agencies in Vegas but this show actually made me feel sorry for the people who were just running a business and trying to make a buck. First time in history I’ve ever sided with a Vegas agency.
The supposed pimp-daddy in shades interviewed by Mariana appears to be a hobbyist indulging in what’s known as “role-play.” Even Shoshana thought the guy was fake and she doesn’t deal with pimps, hobbyists or agencies.
Sweet and cute Annie Lobert of Hookers for Jesus gets a lot of screen-time even though she hasn’t worked in a while. I can also tell you — as someone who has worked in Vegas and spent a lot of time in casinos — that the working girls aren’t going to be overly-eager to talk to two strange women. I’m not believing this was a “random” encounter. Focusing the “hidden” camera on the one girl’s boobs was completely uncalled for, especially given the victim-y slant of the whole show. Exploitation is exploitation, whether it’s a pimp, client, or “hidden” camera.
What turned my stomach the most was the Vegas escort they interviewed/exploited. Though they obscure her face, at one point they show her site and it was recognizable. Oh no. They shot her going to and from an appointment. Coming back, they had her count out the money on film. My stomach turned. Nonono. Her final bit in the documentary was her lying on the bed afterward, tired, and contemplating her future. [I talked to her after and while she consented to everything, seeing the show without knowing this was upsetting.]
This wasn’t too far away from my final bit, where I’m lying on the hotel bed, pretending to nap (I do a lot of this in hotel rooms), while my voiceover is something about the demands of the job. Great. Next B-roll clip will be some sex worker tying her pantyhose around the shower curtain rod and trying to hang herself.
I knew they’d spent something like ten hours shooting a Vegas stripper onstage and I was curious to see her dance. She got like 10 seconds of dancing and barely more interview-time than I did. I felt sorry for her. Unless she wanted to do a ten hour workout for free that day, this had to suck.
For the record, sex for sale in America happens in a lot more places than Las Vegas. The Vegas industry is not like the industry everywhere. While it would be hard to create an “average picture;” how Vegas functions is different than, say, Dallas, whether you’re a stripper or escort. I imagine NYC is different as well. And San Angelo, TX is probably different as well, though it might be a bit more similar to Dallas than Vegas. Just sayin.
I felt ripped off, for sure. On the other hand, I was also relieved that I didn’t play a more-prominent role in this disaster. The CNBC documentary I did in 2008, while it ruffled some feathers over its display of websites, treated us with a lot more respect overall and had as balanced a view as it’s possible to get with mainstream media. I’m still very happy with that documentary. This effort was not that. Not even close.
What happened? Did an editor get ahold of it? Was this the idea from the beginning? I’m leaning more towards the latter due to the huge amount of Vegas shooting they did, particularly the “undercover” work, how taken they were with Annie Lobert, and how hard they used the Vegas escort to score their own points. Exploitation is exploitation, whether a pimp, client, or a camera with a supposedly “good” name behind it.
Please note: While I’m only expressing my views, I showed this post to Shoshana, LaDonna and the Vegas escort before posting. I have discussed the show with Shoshana and the Vegas escort. All are welcome to comment here anytime if they desire.