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Camgirl Memoirist Isa Mazzei Wants to Take the Shame Out of Sex Work

Isa Mazzei. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for AFI

In 2017, Isa Mazzei wrote a screenplay for a horror movie called Cam, the story of a camgirl whose feed is taken over by her doppelgänger; Netflix released the film in November 2018. A year later, Camgirl, Mazzei’s memoir of her own experiences as a camgirl, has arrived in bookstores, lifting the veil of fiction from her life story. In a conversation with Vulture, Mazzei discusses vulnerability and safety in camming and in writing, how to promote empathy for sex workers, and where to find honesty in cultural sexuality. (An excerpt from Camgirl is available exclusively on the Cut.)

What required more vulnerability on your part — working as a camgirl, or writing about it?
I think writing about it, because there’s no persona to hide behind. When I came out as the writer behind Cam, it was this super public thing; when I was performing it was very vulnerable, but it was also protected. I existed on my little corner of the internet with my persona and username, and now it’s just me, Isa Mazzei. There’s a huge vulnerability in that, for sure.

That’s a story I’m sure a lot of people can relate to, based on their own social media personalities.
Absolutely! Anyone who exists online has experienced some degree of that, where you have this digital identity that’s somehow very representative of you but also entirely separate. That’s what Cam, the film, is ultimately about: the anxieties of the distance between who we are online and who we are in real life.

Did writing Cam and Camgirl allow you to bridge that gap?
Yeah, absolutely. Cam was fiction. It held a lot of my real anxieties and fears, but ultimately I was processing them through Alice [Cam’s protagonist]. This book was the next step, really trying to write from how I felt at the time. Cam was a nice bridge between the two. Being able to put my fears out there but have them be another character’s experiences was an important part of the process.

Sex work is still taboo in our culture; is there more of a risk, in light of those taboos, in being a sex worker or writing about it?
I wouldn’t be able to write about sex work if I hadn’t been a sex worker, so I don’t think the two can be divorced like that. I think the process can be different. But in terms of which one is riskier, that’s hard for me to answer because they’re one and the same to me. Neither of them would exist without the other.

When making the film, did you feel a certain responsibility to yourself, your subjects, and the audience in representing the world you knew?
Absolutely. That’s why it was mandatory that I’d be integrally involved in every single step of creating it, and why we involved many other sex workers in its creation and release. It was important to us that the story felt authentic to me. I wanted to make sure that other sex workers felt seen and respected by the movie. So much of that goes into the language, the language that not only is literally in the movie but also the language we use to talk about the movie, and even the art to promote the movie.

What about your cast?
This was a really important thing for us with [lead actor] Madeline [Brewer]. She’s playing a camgirl, and camgirls sometimes — not always, but mostly — get nude. We didn’t want the nudity in our movie to feel gratuitous or exploitative, like it was coming from a place of the male gaze. To do that, we needed to make sure that whenever [her character] Alice was naked was really a time when Madeline wanted to be naked. She knew Alice, and we asked her when Alice would be naked and when she wouldn’t be. And she knew! She nailed it. Sometimes she pushed for more nudity; sometimes she pushed for less. And she was always right, because she was approaching it from a place of character.

I wonder if there was a similar dynamic at play in writing the memoir. Did you ever feel outside pressure to be more or less explicit, or were you able to write your story exactly the way you wanted to? 
It’s absolutely the book that I wanted to write. If anything, the process was about forcing myself to reveal myself more, but it didn’t come from a place of wanting the book to be more explicit; it came from wanting the book to be more honest. Sex is still something that is not the most comfortable for me, and especially putting myself back in the mind-set of how I felt about my body and my sexuality in my early 20s or even in high school. But it was important that I wrote from the voice of who I was then. I would often find myself hedging, or hiding for lack of a better word. That was a really interesting process through more and more drafts of the book — not only learning how to be honest with myself but also how to accept that and to say, like, “This is how you felt about masturbation.”

I don’t know if you’ve heard about Katie Hill, the congresswoman who resigned from office because of sensitive photos leaked by her ex-husband. Her fiery resignation speech seemed to resonate with your call for honesty.
Yes! Something I address in the book is these simultaneous pressures. If a woman is sexualized by others, then it’s acceptable, but the second she sexualizes herself, it’s not okay. So taking nude selfies is looked down upon, but catcalling a woman on the street still happens all the time. So much of camming for me was about owning my sexuality; it was about making a decision to embrace the parts of myself that I had been shamed for. I had been called a slut, and shamed for wanting to take my clothes off at parties. To find a place where I could not only do that, but was celebrated for doing that, was an incredible reversal for me.

Owning that now as a working writer is also important. There’s a huge misconception about sex workers that they can only do sex work, or that sex work takes no talent. Sex work takes a lot of work! And more than that, sex workers are talented in a variety of skills, fields, and professions. I think the more we recognize that many humans are sexual beings and work to destigmatize both sex workers as well as consumers of sex work, we’re going to start moving toward a place where people can be accepted for who they are and how they sexually express themselves. 

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