Zola maybe notices her because of the neon-green rhinestoned leotard she’s wearing, or maybe it has something to do with the campy, USO-lite theme that permeates her stage persona, or it could be her beret, a quirky choice even here at the Clermont Lounge, where dollar-throwers come more for the kitsch than the sex appeal of the dancer. Or it’s possible that she’s adhering to that subclause of the laws of attraction, the one dictating that on any given night in any strip club in America, someone will fall a little bit in love. But tonight, at this dive bar–cum–strip club where Zola is sipping a gin-and-tonic, waiting for the room to fill and the energy to surge, she has just noticed a dancer, Amira, the woman who will temporarily become the object of our collective affection.
It’s Zola’s first night out in a while. She has been living in the suburbs just 30 minutes outside Atlanta with her mother, her younger sisters, and her daughter for more than a year now, writing, painting, recording music, birthing and taking care of a second daughter, and posting Instagram Stories and OnlyFans content. But mostly, she has been waiting for the movie based on her life — well, a specific incident in her life, one she originally relayed in 148 viral tweets — to come out.
She wrote the Twitter thread in 2015, chronicling a true-enough story about a trip to Florida with a fellow exotic dancer named Jessica. It started in a rosy flush of friendship, turned into a wild, careering two-day nightmare, and ended (maybe) with a gunfight. The tale spread fast and far enough to earn a place in the internet canon as “the greatest saga ever tweeted.” Those tweets became the basis for a lengthy, detailed Rolling Stone article that was adapted into a much-belabored screenplay that became a buzzy, A24-produced, long-delayed movie, Zola, about her and named for her — or at least for the name she gave herself and prefers to her legal one, A’Ziah King. After a five-year wait, the movie will premiere at the end of this month. So for her, this night isn’t just a foray back into her old life but a celebration of things finally, finally coming to fruition. An occasion for which she put on an Easter Sunday lilac wig, selected a going-out top that pushed her titties up to high heaven, slid her feet into heels that wouldn’t force an early end to the night, posted a callout on Instagram (“if ur in ATL&wanna come out tn, DM me”), and got ready to rage.
The plan, she shouts to me and her mother, NiChelle, over steaks at one of those restaurants where a DJ plays music at a conversation-annihilating volume and a waitress delivers chilled tequila shots to you with a sparkler, is to eventually end up at a queer dance party at a favorite bar, Friends. Along the way, maybe we’ll stop at a strip club where her friends work, or maybe we’ll swing by Magic City because you can’t not go to Magic City. Is a strip-club tour a little too thematically consistent? Maybe. But Zola, a 26-year-old with the nightlife stamina of a 26-year-old, could start at a club with a stack of a thousand $1 bills and end anywhere. She wants to show me that no story about her life is a match for the real thing.
She dips her head toward her mother, and they whisper into each other’s ears about which cut of meat to order. They’re best friends, NiChelle, 46, tells me with a big, beaming smile.
“I’m her best friend,” Zola jokes. “She’s not mine!”
NiChelle laughs and drapes her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and pulls her close. “You see how she do me?” she shouts. They agree to share a filet mignon.
Something about this night feels exceptional. For starters, A24, the studio behind the movie, is giving Zola perks usually reserved for a film’s stars, including both a car — a big black Escalade with a driver who will idle outside while we do whatever — and a PR ambassador: a white woman in a J.Crew-shirt who spends dinner fretting that she won’t be able to get into Magic City because she’s a white woman in a J.Crew shirt. (Two spicy margaritas and one shot later, she isn’t worried and instructs me to refer to her as “everyone’s friend” in print.) Early on, NiChelle, an energetic participant who loves a night out just as much as Zola does, suggests we veer into uncharted territory and make a pit stop at the Clermont to kill time because nobody gets to Magic City this early.
“What’s Clermont Lounge?” Zola asks on the car ride over. Her questions are met with “Oh no, just wait and sees” and “You’re in for the time of your lifes” from both mother and publicist, who are giggling conspiratorially.
“Uh-huh. Y’all too extra,” Zola says, frowning skeptically. Once inside, she remains skeptical while a blonde dancer slowly peels off her bottoms to “Misery Business” to reveal a tattooed word right above her labia. Zola is squinting, trying to make out what it says, when her gaze accidentally lands on Amira, and Amira’s lands on Zola, and she approaches.
Their conversation starts with basic pleasantries, nothing special. Amira is friendly — maybe more cheerful than the other dancers we’ve spoken to. She tells us about herself (Lebanese, a student of chemical engineering). NiChelle asks if she has heard of Zola and introduces her daughter by proudly describing the movie and the tweets and Zola’s burgeoning fame. Just when we’re entranced, it’s time for her to walk away.
“Okay, ciao,” Amira chirps with a tip of her beret and a flirtatious waggle of her fingers. Then boom: Smitten switch flipped. Somehow Amira’s pheromones cut through the smell of decades-old bar-crowd sweat and booze and find their receptors in Zola.
“Oooooh!” Zola squeals as Amira swishes away to talk to another cluster of people who certainly couldn’t love her as much as we do. “Did you hear that? She goes, ‘Ciaaao!’ ” I loved that. ‘Ciaaao!’ ” She starts cackling. “ ‘Ciaaao!’ I liiiiiiiiked her.”
This is what Zola liked about dancing: being someone’s Amira. Being that girl. All eyes on her. She liked knowing she was “the prettiest girl in the club,” she says with a toss of the lilac hair. She would dance and leave it all on the floor, like it was therapy.
She started dancing when she was 18, when, during her “first job ever in the history of everdom,” at Hooters, a co-worker noticed how personable she was and how she raked in the tips. They all had to adhere to the rule of “two bites, two minutes” (the Hooters method of talking to your table every two bites or every two minutes), and Zola excelled. She would leave with $500 a night and think, I’m good, until her co-worker told her she could make $1,500 a night easy at the club she danced at, Penthouse, and told her to come audition.
“I couldn’t dance, I swear. At least not yet — and not in them shoes! I was just like, ‘Ooooooooooh’ and ‘Ahhhhhhhhh,’ ” Zola recalls, mimicking how she used to noncommittally shake her butt. “But the owner was like, ‘You’re cute,’ ” and hired her. When she was young, she had wanted to be Miss Michigan, but she realized it might not be her calling. “I’m a bit risqué,” she says with a laugh. So she sublimated her need for attention into dancing at clubs in Detroit. She didn’t know if it was because she was a new face or one of just three Black girls in the mostly white club, but her section was usually the most crowded.
Zola speaks in stories, and her club days gave her a million, she says, some she doesn’t want her mother to hear. NiChelle, always nearby, interjects, “When she started dancing, I just told her to be careful because it wasn’t like when I was younger.” When Zola danced, they would share locations on their phones so NiChelle could make sure Zola was safe. Even the dancing was different. NiChelle used to watch friends do this Detroit “jit,” she says, demonstrating with a little two-step in her four-inch heels. “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. Yes, honey! Nothing like what the girls do now.”
They tell me stories about Zola’s fellow dancers at that first club, such as the mother-daughter pair who performed together and a woman who could smoke cigarettes out of her hoo-ha. “Oh!” Zola interrupts herself and grabs her mother’s arm. “This is our song, this is our song!”
While Zola and NiChelle start shimmying in tandem, throwing their heads back to hit all the Christina Aguilera runs in “Lady Marmalade,” Amira appears onstage, giving her all in a split-heavy routine. Zola squeals anew. “Okay, choreography!”
After, Amira comes over to us. Amira isn’t her real name — she won’t give us that. We gush and fawn. She is happy to have women to talk to, she says, as she puts her number into my phone. “Men always promise to change your life, and they never do,” she adds mysteriously. We all stand there contemplating what that means.
It’s something Zola has been considering, the idea of someone or something being an agent of change. She has had half a decade to wonder what will happen once Zola is finally released in theaters. People keep asking her, she says, “Are you ready for your life to change?” — a question filled with a promise she’s sick of waiting for. So when, in a quiet moment between Drake songs, the A24 publicist, whose presence itself is proof of a new phase of life for Zola, asks her, again, “Are you ready for your life to change?,” the only thing she has to say is “You don’t understand. I’ve been ready.”
It’s late enough to hit Magic City, where, it turns out, not only can a publicist in a J.Crew shirt get in, she also has the plug that allows us to bypass the $60 cover and the line winding through the parking lot. Inside, she grabs drinks with NiChelle, who is telling anyone within earshot that Zola is a star and has a movie about her life coming out soon. From somewhere behind us, a man tosses a wad of dollar bills with the precision of an NBA player shooting a free throw. Singles shower down on two of the most beautiful, softest, least engaged women I’ve ever seen. They’re so beautiful and soft they barely have to do anything at all to get a deluge of money so dense they could drown in it. This is a perk of being hot enough to dance at Magic City: low participation, high reward. Zola estimates that $400 has accumulated on the floor in the few minutes we’ve been standing here. “I could never dance here,” Zola says. “It’s a whole different level, the way they inspect you.” She did make the cut at one Atlanta club, the Cheetah. She auditioned with a friend who wasn’t hired because her feet were too big. Zola doubles over laughing at her own story.
Zola made the most money as a dancer when she traveled to clubs in different states. After her first year in Detroit, she started taking trips to Charlotte, North Carolina, Atlanta, and, yes, Florida, the setting of the incident that inspired the tweets. As the told-over-and-over-again story goes, one night in March 2015, Zola, then 19, was working at Hooters when she met Jessica Swiatowski. Their friendship was immediate and intense — the film depicts it as almost romantic in the way it caught fire and engulfed them both. Jessica invited Zola to Florida to dance, so they piled into a car and drove south, accompanied by Jessica’s boyfriend, Jarrett, and a mysterious friend, “Z,” who was later revealed to be a pimp. They danced, but Z wasn’t satisfied with how much money they made, and suggested they “trap” (have sex for money) to make more. They got set up in a hotel room with a burner phone and a Backpage ad. Zola wanted to leave but felt bad for Jessica, so she agreed to stay to offer protection and became her manger of sorts. The story gets more grim and more absurd from there. It’s a first-person account of sex work that is equal parts harrowing and funny.
The whole thing started with the sentence “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” If you can’t remember where you were on the October night that #thestory moved from Black Twitter to the mainstream, you may at least remember the way the internet was in 2015. How much harder it was for things to achieve true virality and stay in the public discourse for as long as Zola’s story did. Now, a tweet that says, “Once I learn how to spell restaurant, it’s over for you hoes,” can emerge from the void and get 100,000 likes and retweets. But at the time, threads were a new enough concept that Zola can plausibly claim she invented them in her Twitter bio.
She’s an “internet baby,” she says. “We weren’t outside. We was figuring out the computer.” The internet, to her, is about expression, and has been since she signed up for Myspace when she was in seventh grade and added Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” as her profile song. Myspace shifted to Tumblr, where she would post poems and lyrics. She began to hone the voice she still deploys to talk to her followers via Instagram Stories or to tweet rants about people who have wronged her and cutting observations about human behavior.
Zola’s good at the internet, but what really set her story apart was her writing. She was profane and smart. She was observant, captured dialogue, and landed jokes. (A favorite part: “He goes ‘wow u even set up ur friend. U such a ho’ so they arguing for hours. I leave & go down to the pool. I mean, i am in florida !”) She invented and popularized phrases and words people had never heard of (or at least didn’t know you could say without getting canceled). One phrase, “vibing over our hoeism,” was so revelatory she almost put it on a line of T-shirts.
By the time she was halfway through her tweet thread, she couldn’t get her Twitter to load. She scrolled back up and saw that she had thousands of retweets. She finished the story and then she went to the Popular page and saw that her name was trending at No. 4 — “above ISIS,” as she told Paper magazine in a later interview. “I was like, Why is my name above ISIS bombing Syria? What is going on?”
She joked about it then. However, when she recalls it now, she remembers how anxious she was watching all the notifications pop up. “I wasn’t even done yet, and they had found this girl, they had found her mama, they had found her kids, they had found her — I’m like, Twitter is crazy. They found him, they found his mama. They screenshot shit to each other. They sending Instagrams. They done found burner accounts. I’m like, Oh, no! They done found my sister. They done found the Backpage ads. I was like, Whoa,” she says, dropping into her Twitter persona. Usually, when she switches out of her internet self, Zola is softer; she speaks like a sarcastic teenager who finds everything so funny.
Overwhelmed, she deleted all of the tweets, but by then, they had been screenshotted and archived online. “And then I just had to ride with it,” she says with a flick of her wrist, as though she’s batting away all of the retweets.
Zola watched with increasing incredulity as celebrities like Missy Elliott and Solange tweeted about her. She watched as BET and Complex and MTV wrote about her. She saw a tweet from director Ava DuVernay that erroneously said she was “from the hood.” (Zola tweeted back, “Ima suburban bitch. Stil love you tho.”) The thread got rated on Goodreads, made it to Longform. Some praised her cinematic writing, while others criticized her for possibly lying. (Oh, she had something to say to those people.) It launched hot takes, think pieces, memes, and literary critiques.
That was the weirdest thing for Zola — watching how quickly it went from people talking to her to people talking about her. This crazy experience happened to her and then suddenly stopped belonging to her. Her true story was about to become content that was “based on a true story.”
After a couple of hours of spending too much money too fast at Magic City, we pile back into the car and are driving to the next club when the telltale splash of regurgitated liquor is emitted from the front seat, ending the night. As we drive home, Zola turns on the “cute little” EP she recorded over the pandemic. She sings along to her favorite song: a vibey, introspective R&B track called “A Letter to the Sky,” in which Zola plaintively wonders, “How do you make them love you?” (She’s a Pisces.)
The day after Zola tweeted, she remembers hearing about herself on the radio, where two DJs were discussing “that story on Twitter last night.”
“I was like, Ain’t nooo way. They are talking about someone else,” she tells me in her mother’s living room on a recent afternoon spent chatting, getting swallowed by an oversize gray leather couch while her mother lays out the pinnacle of suburban amuse-bouche — cubes of cheddar cheese, pepperoni, and Ritz crackers — and offers me a mimosa. Zola’s 2-month-old, ZäZen, is sleeping nearby. Her 4-year-old is peering down from upstairs, hoping for cheese.
It’s a cozy home, nestled in a neighborhood with beautiful manicured lawns, man-made lakes, and a lot of rules about how close the garbage can needs to be to the curb. Zola has been here since May 2020. When the pandemic hit, she was waitressing in Detroit until the bar closed. She was pregnant; she didn’t think she could make rent. She told her roommate, “I’m going home,” and came back to Atlanta to reset, as she often does, with her mother and sisters. She started an OnlyFans because — “Mom,” she calls out, “plug your ears!” — there’s this huge niche for pregnant porn. She spends an hour or two a week making content from her purple velvet-covered bed, or sometimes her car, or sometimes a hotel, bringing in anywhere from $700 to $5,000 a week from subscriptions and custom photos and videos. She kept busy recording music and writing, but it wasn’t the kind of busy she was hoping for.
She sighs. January 2020 started with her taking ’shroom chocolates with Jeremy O. Harris, who co-wrote the script for Zola, at Sundance. She went to parties where she met Issa Rae, Kelly Rowland, and Tessa Thompson. She wore fabulous hats. After three days, she was exhausted and sick of questions from the press, but she went home so happy.
“Now we’re just sitting ducks. I hate this,” she whines with dramatic flair.
Zola doesn’t mean to sound self-pitying, but damn, it’s been a long road of stops and starts. After the attention from the Twitter thread came the offers. “It was instantaneous,” she says. “People were like, ‘There needs to be a movie,’ and then maybe the next week, people were calling my phone, and I’m like, ‘How did you get my number?’ ” People were sending her their scripts, she says, and asking her to put her “Zola twist on it” for no money. She declined: “I appreciate art, but you’re not getting free labor.” Then a William Morris agent flew out to Detroit to meet with them.
“Oh, I did not like him,” NiChelle interjects from where she’s sitting in the kitchen.
“Who is telling this story, Mom?!”
“Well, he was bougie! He didn’t even let us pick him up from the airport!”
Early in the process, people would send over contracts to NiChelle, a paralegal, who was, and still is, Zola’s manager. But the contracts were mumbo jumbo that translated to “50 million ways of saying you weren’t getting shit,” Zola says. And there was this sense of urgency that turned her off, the Hollywood feeling that her hot streak would soon cool, so she should take what she could get.
“And I’m like, ‘I’m always hot. You’re tripping.’ This could come out in ten years, and the girls are going to be walking to the movies with their canes like, ‘We’ve been waiting for this.’ ” They decided to take their time considering offers. “I was patient because I’m like, ‘Listen, even if nobody wants this story, I got 50 million more.’ They ain’t got no idea,” she says with a brashness I’ve heard her use in Instagram Stories when she reminds some invisible skeptic what her worth is.
In November 2015, a Rolling Stone writer, David Kushner, came out to Detroit to write “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted.” It was published less than a month after the tweets went viral. Zola remembers liking him. He spent 12 hours with her and her family. She took him to her Hooters and answered every question and told him every story. “I thought, Okay, baby. We can be friends.” But then she didn’t hear much from him. The article came out. “It was accurate,” she says in a monotone. “That’s what happened.” She liked the story at first — enough that a page from it is framed on the mantel.
Hollywood loved the story. Real-life people’s real-life experiences are all the more appealing as intellectual property if they have been vetted and market-tested by a magazine story or a book. The Fast and the Furious, The Bling Ring, Hustlers, Argo, Saturday Night Fever — all were based on magazine articles. Recently, an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood looking for proven success, and media outlets looking for additional revenue, has created a particular frenzy for articles, podcasts, or books that can be transformed into TV or film properties. For example, the same day a Vanity Fair story about the college-admissions scandal dubbed Operation Varsity Blues was published online, Deadline announced a television adaptation based on the article.
It’s a boom time, but there’s still no model for ensuring the real people behind the story don’t get screwed. Some are given a lump sum for their life rights, but there is no standard amount: Rights can go for as little as $10 or as much as $10 million, depending on the perceived market value of the life. And securing life rights isn’t always necessary. Some subjects are left on the outside.
It was Zola’s tweets that had informed the article, but nobody had ever tried to option a Twitter thread, explains a producer who worked on the film. Initially, producers seeking to option the thread were told it couldn’t be done. So Kushner’s article, which reported the story from all sides — and contradicted some of Zola’s version — became the center of the deal. Zola still bristles at this: “I would see certain interviews or I would hear shit on the radio, and it’d be like, ‘The movie Zola, based off of an article written by David Kushner.’ It’s not based off of a fucking Rolling Stone article. Stop saying that shit.”
People treated the tweets like a piece of literary writing, but they weren’t exactly treating Zola like a writer. Maybe it was simply because tweets couldn’t be purchased at the time, or maybe it wasn’t until a white male journalist wrote a story for a mainstream publication that the tale became legitimate enough to make into a film. Whatever the reason, after the article ran, James Franco’s production company, Rabbit Bandini, reached out for a meeting.
Zola met with Franco in February 2016. Her family had moved out to California, about 40 minutes outside Los Angeles. (Coincidentally, they had already planned to relocate.) She remembers him inviting her to the set of the comedy he was filming, Why Him? “I liked him. I trusted him,” she stops and shakes her head. “Look at me,” she says with some surprise. “I trusted him, though.”
When she walked on set, he was reading the encyclopedia, “like a fucking weirdo,” she recalls. “And then we started talking, and he was more intrigued with me than I was with him.” She remembers that he asked her lots of questions. “And I’m like, ‘Stop.’ And he’s like, ‘So you’re only 20, and you just did what? And you just … oh my gosh.’ I’m like, ‘What? Stop. Mr. Franco, get out of here. You got to get on set in five,’ ” she says, mimicking how girlish her voice got at talking to a celebrity.
“I wondered about a white guy, but he listened,” she continued. “He said, ‘I never heard no shit like that,’ and I said, ‘I know you haven’t. You’re some rich white man. We don’t live in the same reality, but I’m glad you know that.’ ”
“We still made him wait,” NiChelle adds from the kitchen, where she’s making drinks.
I first met Zola the day after she met with Franco. At the time, I was interested in following her journey through the Hollywood machine. Even then, she seemed like someone who wouldn’t let the industry eat her up. She was pregnant with her first daughter and invited me to the baby shower — a big event they were planning on taping for a reality-show test run. (They ultimately declined to go forward with the show. The producers wanted access to her whole family, including her younger siblings, of whom she’s fiercely protective.) She blogged about meeting me and mentioned we might work together, though it seemed like I was just one of many people courting her.
Deadline published an announcement soon after, declaring that Franco would direct the film from a script to be written by Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts (yes, two more white men). While the announcement mentioned Zola’s tweets as a source, it said the movie was to be “adapted from the Rolling Stone article by David Kushner.”
At her mother’s house, I ask her if she thought the movie would have gotten made without the article.
“Absolutely,” she interrupts firmly before I even get the question out. “That’s why I get frustrated by it, because it really didn’t amp up anything. The story was already what it was, it already had a life of its own, it was already in the works, it was already a thing.”
After the announcement, a few publications raised questions of creative ownership, wondering if Franco was the right person to tell a Black sex worker’s story. People wondered if Zola would be part of the process, as so many real-life subjects are not. Her mother quickly released a statement saying the deal was still in the works and assuring people that Zola would be involved.
So Zola waited in California for a bit, eventually moving back to Detroit with her then-husband. She had her first daughter — who is now 5. She bought a house. She waited for the movie deal to be finalized. She appeared on a reality show called You the Jury, where a panel of “jurors” decided whether Jessica, the woman from her Florida saga, had grounds to sue Zola for defamation, since Zola’s story painted her as a sex worker. The show was canceled before Zola’s episode aired, though she still got paid. She got a divorce and tweeted about the process. She kept bartending and waitressing because that’s what you do while you wait for your break. “The time in between checks, you got to do something,” she says.
People would sometimes recognize her at work. “I looked a mess. I don’t put my lashes on all the time,” she says. “I’d have my smock on, peach schnapps on my pants.” But they would still ask for selfies, invite her out, and ask for follow-backs on Instagram. A lot of dancers would thank her for telling her story and representing them.
Meanwhile, she wasn’t really hearing much about the movie. “I actually thought it wasn’t going to happen, for a minute, with him.” And then she heard people were adding material to her story, though she hadn’t been contacted. “I was like, Okay, it’s feeling real slave trade up in here. I don’t like this. And y’all just keep rewriting and remixing my shit is giving me nothing.”
Eventually, Franco called Zola and NiChelle to say he was dropping out of the project — a decision, according to multiple people involved, that happened in early 2017 owing to scheduling conflicts. However, his departure wasn’t announced until January 2018, the same month multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct. (Franco denied the allegations and settled an ensuing lawsuit in 2021.)
“I’m like, Maybe it’s just not meant to be. That’s how I was thinking,” she says. “After that fell through, for a little moment, I was over it. This particular story. I was like, ‘Can we talk about something else now?’ ”
While Zola was resigning herself to the end of something that had barely gotten started, director Janicza Bravo got a 2 a.m. text from her friend the actress Jodie Turner-Smith, who was partying at Chateau Marmont and heard that Franco was dropping out of the Zola project. Turner-Smith remembered Bravo had wanted it — she had tried to option the article in 2015 but was outbid. “She sent a message,” Bravo tells me as we split a bottle of rosé in her L.A. backyard, imitating Turner-Smith: “ ‘Babe, I’m at a party right now, and James Franco is talking about leaving Zola, and I’m telling him he’s got to get you for it, babe.’ ” Bravo then sent a 4 a.m. email to her agent. Bravo knew it wasn’t guaranteed she would get to direct the movie. Her first film, Lemon, had just premiered. But she was a Black woman. Didn’t that give her some edge in this situation? After an audition process, she got the job and brought on Slave Play playwright Jeremy O. Harris, then a student at Yale, to rewrite the script with her.
Bravo describes the original script as masculine, a movie with a capital M. Fine, but the voice just wasn’t right. The writers had added a fictional scene that involved Zola becoming a madam not just to Stefani (the analog of Jessica) but to Russian sex workers who were being child-trafficked. Bravo wanted the movie to live at the “intersection of Blue Velvet and ‘Bodak Yellow’ ”: “a little bit naughty, a little bit stressful, a little bit funny, and a little bit fucked.” The finished film, to its credit, pulls off that exact balance. Bravo’s take is a beautifully shot kaleidoscopic dream that somehow feels like Twitter and captures all the peaks of hilarity and valleys of dread of Zola’s telling.
Harris and Bravo wanted to capture the spirit of Zola’s narrative. “This woman had written something on Twitter that was an epic poem,” Harris tells me, FaceTiming into the hang from “the fucking south of France,” where he is filming season two of Emily in Paris. “It was in the style of The Odyssey, in the style of The Epic of Gilgamesh. And it had a very clear narrative.” He pours himself a 5 a.m. glass of white wine from his all-white hotel room, where he’s ensconced in a cream cotton Thom Browne union suit.
Bravo chimes in, “I was like, ‘This is Ibsen. This is my adaptation of Ibsen. This is me adapting Heiner Müller. This is me adapting Chekhov. It’s me adapting Shakespeare. I want to treat it the same way I would any of those texts. This is my Hamlet, right? In fact, when I think about Hamlet, I think about Heiner Müller’s Hamlet, right? Which is so fucking delicious to me and so abridged. And so I’m like, This is my version of this. This is my entry into what would be the experimental-theater space, right?”
The first thing they had to do was return to the core of the story, which, to Bravo, meant bypassing all of the articles — she hated how they all seemed to challenge the validity of Zola’s story — to get back to the original tweets and finally to Zola herself, if she could ever get her on the phone.
Zola had no idea anybody was trying to get in touch with her until Bravo called and said, “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.”
“I told her, ‘Girl, you should have just DM’d me!’ ” Zola says. This was the first time since 2016 that anybody had interviewed her. “She came in and saved the day with her pretty little cape.”
They went through the story tweet by tweet, filling in the gaps. Zola recounts how Bravo would randomly text her to ask for pictures of her old apartment, of what her space and clothes looked like. “Of course, I had them,” Zola says. “I’m a blogger.” Together, they added context to the film, dropping in little details about Zola’s life and personhood and relationships.
Harris wrote the script during his summer break, Bravo added notes and thoughts and then they sent that script to Zola for approval. Bravo wanted Zola to have a role in decision-making — and, just as important, credit. During her negotiations to come on as director, Bravo fought for Zola’s writing to be credited. Her legal name, A’Ziah King, appears onscreen with a “Based on the Tweets by” line and an executive-producer credit. As for monetary compensation, NiChelle handled those discussions before Bravo and A24 were even involved. She held off on agreeing to work with producers until they met the number she suggested, securing 2.5 percent of the film’s profits (the original offer from Franco’s team was one percent, she says), a number she requested on the advice of a friend who worked on a Nickelodeon show. Zola was paid life rights, though NiChelle won’t give exact figures. “We’re not rich,” she tells me. “But we’re fine.”
“It means I can get the check tonight, but don’t call me tomorrow,” chimes in Zola with her cackle.
For Bravo and the current producers, it was a moral mission to include Zola. “How can you almost do to her again what happened to her in the story, which was someone trying to take her voice and identity away from her? We couldn’t then, in a Hollywood way, do something that in any way resembles that,” says a producer.
“I will say this very much on the record, that the way that Janicza navigated getting this woman the respect she needed,” says Harris, “she did backflips for three years to make sure that Hollywood bureaucracy did not, once again, profit off of a Black woman’s story, a Black woman’s pain, and a Black woman’s complexity without fairly compensating her.”
Bravo and others suggested that the five-year delay, though frustrating for Zola, was ultimately to her benefit. Only in the past few years have the gatekeepers in Hollywood slowly begun to change. Five years ago, two white men were hired to write the story for a white director; now a Black gay man had written the script for a Black woman director. The permission structure had shifted in a way that allowed Bravo to do right by Zola; perhaps it has shifted enough that their arrangement will be the model going forward, not an exception.
For all her involvement, Zola struggles to let go of the fact that Kushner’s story is credited as the basis for the film (and that he was able to go on set during filming, while she wasn’t aware of the dates until the last minute). When he tried to talk to her at the movie’s premiere at Sundance, she wouldn’t speak to him, Zola recalls. She feels a little bad about that now, but it is what it is.
“That’s not something that I really was aware of,” Kushner responds when I ask him about it, and he explains how he admires her. “The thing that always struck me about her is that she was just a great writer. I think it was just really cool how she proved that Twitter could be this compelling medium for storytelling, and that’s how I always saw it. That’s how I saw her.”
Zola viewed the film two times before Sundance, first at a private screening in L.A. with her mother, Bravo, and Harris.
“I was watching, like, How do I feel?” Zola recalls. “I had to get used to someone else saying my words. I kept asking my mother, ‘Is this how I sound?’ ”
After that screening, Bravo asked what she thought. Zola couldn’t give her blessing right away, she says. She needed to process it. On her second viewing, Zola decided, “Okay! I like that!” She liked Taylour Paige’s portrayal of her. She found a montage of penises particularly funny.
But she got quiet during the scene depicting the scariest part of the night, when she and Jessica went to a house where six guys were waiting, expecting to have sex without condoms. “The place was fucked up and smelled like cat piss,” Zola recalls, suddenly serious, noting that the film didn’t truly portray how scary that environment was. “I pulled Jessica out of there. I was a little traumatized.”
When Zola starts to unravel this part of the saga, it’s easy to understand her frustration about the story not feeling like it’s hers anymore. It wasn’t just because it was her tweets and her words. Her retelling of the experience was funny because it had to be; it was her way through an ordeal that had left her momentarily without agency. When she says she’s ready, it isn’t that she’s necessarily ready for the money (though that’s nice) or whatever amount of fame might arise (that’s probably nice too). It’s that she’s ready for her story to be hers again.
If Zola is nervous about how the film will be received, she doesn’t let on. “It was funny — me and my mom were just talking about how people who don’t know me, or people who judge sex workers, think you’ve had to have some type of traumatic background to end up here,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, maybe she just had daddy issues.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t got none of that.’ I was great. I just wanted to dance. A lot of us just wanted to dance.” Zola knows that’s not everyone’s experience, and she thinks the movie does a fair job of showing the much darker reality.
“I think it shows how easy it is to get trapped, to get bamboozled in a situation like that,” she explains. “It’s not always violent. It’s not a white van pulling up and snatching you and throwing you in the car, tying you up; it’s not Taken. Your homegirl invites you to Florida, and you never come home. Like that.”
At NiChelle’s house, Zola’s baby, ZäZen, is waking up, and she needs to feed her. While she tends to the baby, she contemplates what’s changing about her life the closer she gets to the release of the film.
“Everything hasn’t really changed, I guess. I mean, more people know me. More people want to interact with me,” she says. “But most important to me, important Black women who I’ve looked up to my entire life know who I am. That’s enough for me. I don’t care. If nothing else changes, knowing Solange Knowles told me to keep doing what I’m doing? I mean, stop playing.”
Sitting with Zola, I hope that the opportunities last beyond opening weekend, that there is permanence to the attention and goodwill being showered on her now. But Zola herself just hopes the movie will be a jumping-off point for something: “Now that I know I’m good at writing, I would love to do more movies. I would love to do something like a series because, like I said, I have 1,000,010 stories. You have no idea. Working in the club, I’ve seen some wild shit. I would love to tell them all at some point, maybe in book and film form.” (In mid-June, A24 will release her Tweet thread as a book with an introduction by Zola.) “I don’t want to force anything, but I’m open to whatever works, honestly.”
I ask her to give me a teaser of one, and she starts a yarn about a girls’ trip to Miami, some guys in a hotel, locking herself in a bathroom — well, wait, that one may be too traumatic, she says. “Okay, once I met a man named RJ, who took me to his house in the middle of nowhere and — ” You know what, I should let Zola tell that one herself.