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Zola discusses how the new movie captures her experience and how sex worker representation changed after her viral Twitter thread landed
One October evening in 2015, A’Ziah Wells King, aka Zola, flexed her Twitter fingers and wrote something revolutionary. Zola’s words – “we vibing over our hoeism” – rang out like a mantra for sex workers who were finally finding online spaces to tell their stories.
In the crazy viral Twitter thread, which is now a movie directed by Janicza Bravo, Zola recounted how she met a white exotic dancer named “Jess” at Hooters in Detroit who lured our narrator on a wild trip through Florida involving a pimp, a stooge, several johns, a lot of stupidity and very real danger with abductions and shotguns.
What made #TheStory resonate wasn’t the hair-raising events, but the way they were told. Zola’s voice cut through the murk with humour and shaped the narrative with her authenticity, attitude, observation and insight. According to Ellie Ade Kur from Maggie’s Toronto Sex Worker Action Project, every Black exotic dancer remembers the moment they were reading that thread for the first time.
“It spoke to so many workplace dynamics that a lot of us were used to,” says Ade Kur, who was a dancer at the time that #TheStory dropped on Twitter. “It was so exciting because it was a narrative told from the perspective of another Black sex worker. That’s what made it so relatable.”
“I like to find people who relate to me,” says Zola, speaking to NOW over the phone from Los Angeles. She recognizes the sense of community her thread forged. She felt that connection with Black women, Black sex workers and even the LGBT community, which she identifies with as someone who is bisexual. “I found all of them in one space. I got to really get my whole sense of community in one space and really run with it.”
Zola talks about how much has changed for her and for sex workers since the world was introduced to her “raw and candid” storytelling. The movie version of her Twitter thread, Zola, drops June 30 wherever theatres are open. In it, Bravo sticks dutifully close to Zola’s tone and plot, even recreating those moments the author admits were exaggerations. The filmmaker recognizes that Zola’s voice is why we’re all here.
The way people receive Zola’s storytelling has been eye opening. “Drama, humour, action, suspense, character development,” Ava DuVernay wrote on Twitter. “There’s so much untapped talent in the hood.” But Zola was quick to point out that she’s not from the hood. She grew up in the suburbs. Her mom’s a paralegal. On more than one occasion, Zola had to correct observers on social media who confuse her Blackness for being ghetto and automatically assume that her choice of occupation makes her a victim of circumstance. She went viral. The stereotypes and easy assumptions she subverts showed up in the replies.
Zola is a hilarious and intuitive writer, performer, content creator and sex worker – often all at once. She’s still posting adult content to OnlyFans even though she has a buzzy movie coming out, because sex work is a choice, a way to express her sexuality and confidence, not something she has to escape or aspires to graduate from with newfound success.
“I’m comfortable expressing myself like that,” says Zola, describing camming and OnlyFans as spaces where she can reinvent herself, over and over. Zola started camming years ago, setting up a stripper pole in her living room so she could do her work from home while reaching a global audience. “I could be talking to a guy over in India for like 10 hours and would make way more money than I would just talking to a few men in my city at the club.”
The way the internet has created new avenues for sex work is part of an ongoing evolutionary trend. Think about how porn migrated from the printing press, Super 8, VHS, online and now VR. But Zola’s Twitter thread is part of another evolution. She helped moved the needle on how sex workers are seen and represented. Her story arrived at a moment when social media was giving marginalized communities a voice – and sex workers are one of those communities. OnlyFans wasn’t a thing yet. Cardi B was just popping off, chipping away at the taboos around sex work. The former exotic dancer turned rapper had been building her presence on Instagram before appearing on the VH1 reality TV series Love & Hip Hop. Meanwhile, people in the sex work industry began creating Twitter or Instagram pages for themselves. And Zola felt the moment was right.
“It was a now or never breakthrough type of time for me to share my experience,” she says. The story Zola put out in that Twitter thread was rife with on-the-ground details and nuances about strip club and backpage.com economics that you would never know if you saw a movie or TV show with sex workers in it.
Pop culture always got sex workers wrong, says Zola. “Either it’s too glamorized or it’s too dehumanized,” she says, referring to the Pretty Woman fantasy or the countless depictions of sex workers in danger in movies. “It’s never [about] just a sex worker who is confident, enjoys their job and that’s just who they are.”
Zola’s story also has moments of trauma and exploitation, which she adds is more reason to decriminalize the business. But she manages those aspects in her writing with confidence, authority and insight; the same way she handles the intricacies and relationships involved in sex work. And as Ade Kur says, it’s Zola’s Black perspective that made all the difference.
“The dominant voices in this field have typically been cis white women talking at us or about us,” says Ade Kur, adding that Zola’s thread inspired so many more voices to speak out. “It opened the floodgates for a lot of Black dancers and sex workers to use platforms like Twitter and Instagram to really be talking about what actually happens in the life of a Black sex worker, whether it’s your dynamic with clients or with white and non-Black sex workers.”
Like the Twitter thread, the movie is perceptive to the racial dynamics between Taylour Paige’s Zola, Riley Keough’s Stefani (the character’s name is changed from “Jess”) and the clients in between. In a pivotal sequence, Zola is set up with Stefani in a hotel room. They receive johns responding to a backpage.com ad. Zola answers the door to check-in the men seeking Stefani. “And the look of disgust on their face,” says Zola, her half-formed sentence recalling the real-life scenario, a whole weekend receiving men who make their preference for white women blatant. “They’re just like, ‘Ummm, I wanted a blond-haired white girl.’ I’m like, ‘Okay. Calm down. Don’t look at me like that.’”
That racism is obvious at a lot of strip clubs too, says Zola, which led to Black exotic dancers going on strike across North America last summer. White girls can show up, be cute like “America’s sweetheart” and make money. But Black women have to put in the work. “My personality and my dance skills have to make up for it,” says Zola. “I have to be better than that or I’m not going to make any money. That’s just what it is. That shows in the film when you see Taylour Paige dancing better than Riley Keough. All those little details are in there.”
The other big difference between Paige’s Zola and Keough’s Stefani is that the former sticks to dancing while the latter provides full-service sex work for a pimp. That gulf is also fodder for discrimination in the sex work industry, a so called “whore-archy” where upscale escorts look down on dancers who look down on cam girls who look down on indoor full-service sex workers who look down on people working the street. Zola acknowledges the “whore-archy” but makes clear that her story isn’t meant to diminish women who do full-service sex work. Instead, her story is about a woman whose lies and manipulations put Zola in compromising positions.
“If you really are in the community and you work in sex work, you already know,” says Zola. “Everyone has their niche. Everyone has their boundaries, so to speak. She’s a full-service sex worker. That’s the hardest work of them all. The issue wasn’t what she was doing but how she was doing it. She was willing to put other people in harm’s way solely for her own benefit.”
“I hope this was seen,” says Zola, asking if that came across in the movie. I say yeah, but I’m not the one to judge. We’re both eager to see how the sex worker community responds when they see it. They’re going to be talking about it all over Twitter.