How Zola made space for Black sex workers’ stories with a Twitter thread

Zola discusses how the new movie captures her experience and how sex worker representation changed after her viral Twitter thread landed

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      One October evening in 2015, A’Ziah Wells King, a.k.a. 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, 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 weren’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 Workers 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,” Zola says, speaking to the Straight over the phone from Los Angeles. She says she recognizes the sense of community her thread forged. She felt the 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 tells the Straight about how much has changed for her and for sex workers since the world was introduced to her raw and candid storytelling in the historic thread. The movie version of those tweets, Zola, drops June 30 wherever theatres are open. In it, director Janicza Bravo’s sticks dutifully to Zola’s tone and plot, even re-creating those moments the author admits were exaggerations. The filmmaker recognizes that Zola’s voice is why we will be watching.

      The way people receive Zola’s storytelling has been eye-opening. “Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development,” filmmaker Ava DuVernay wrote on Twitter. “There’s so much untapped talent in the hood.”

      Zola, though, is 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 confused her Blackness for being ghetto and automatically assumed that her choice of occupation made 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 from which aspires to graduate with newfound success.

      “I’m comfortable expressing myself like that,” Zola says, describing camming and OnlyFans as spaces where she can continually reinvent herself. 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 more of the same old in an evolutionary trend. Sex work has always been a key economic driver for technological progress. 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 move the needle on how sex workers were seen and represented. Her story arrived at a moment when social media was giving marginalized communities a voice, and sex workers were among them. 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 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,” says Zola, whose story took things further. The story Zola put out was replete with on-the-ground details and nuances about strip-club and economics that you would never know from how sex workers were depicted in movies and TV, which Zola says always got it wrong. “Either it’s too glamourized or its 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 makes all the difference.

      “The dominant voices in this field have typically been cis white women talking at us or about us,” Ade Kur says, noting 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 its you’re dynamic with clients or with white and non-Black sex workers.”

      VVS Films

      Like the Twitter thread, Zola the movie is perceptive about 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 ad. Zola answers the door to check out the men seeking Stefani. “And the look of disgust on their face…” Zola says, her half-formed sentence recalling the real-life scenario, a whole weekend receiving men who made their preference for white women blatant. “They’re just like, ‘Umm, 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, Zola says, expressing the very sentiment that led to Black strippers striking 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,” Zola says. “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 “whorearchy” 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 whorearchy 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,” Zola says. “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.”