Dannii Harwood has an ass that should be dipped in gold, but that's not why she's one of the most successful performers on OnlyFans. While her latex-clad "Mistress Mondays" and underwear auctions always go down well, what counts is how much she cares. She remembers birthdays, asks how you're feeling after your mum's hip operation and advises you on the right shade of beige for your living room. Talking to Dannii is soothing; like breathing in steam off a hot coffee. The fact she looks like a Love Island Helen of Troy only adds to her appeal.
Back in the 2000s, getting close to Dannii would mean buying a copy of Nuts. Now, her fans actually get to talk to her for $12.99 (£10.35) a month. Behind the paywall, subscribers get access to a page filled with photos and videos, much like an Instagram profile.
OnlyFans has around 8 million registered users and over 70,000 content creators, who have received over $150 million (£119 million) since the company launched in 2016. Years after tube sites like Pornhub began streaming free videos, OnlyFans is helping to re-monetise adult content. The platform isn't exclusive to adult entertainers (it's also widely used by fitness influencers), but it does lend itself particularly well to a struggling porn industry – and in many ways has a hand in reshaping it. It gives performers more control over their own image and the ability to make thousands shagging from the comfort of their own living room, as long as they're cool with a casual work schedule and a heavy emphasis on selling their personality through social media.
For some, the low barrier to entry causes problems – more competition and choice means more pressure on performers to churn out content. But that isn't stopping people from signing up as creators.
Welcome to sex work in the gig economy age.
“Creators earn 80 percent commission," says OnlyFans CEO Tim Stokely when I ask him why the platform is popular with adult performers. "They can get paid as frequently as they choose, and OnlyFans works in a very complementary way to their existing social media. Similar to the way that Uber enabled anyone to monetise their own car, OnlyFans allows anyone to monetise their own content and following. Uber is a bolt-on to your car, just as OnlyFans is a bolt-on to your existing social media."
Thanks to its social media-oriented interface and chat features, OnlyFans has a humanising effect on performers. Rather than seeing sex workers as disembodied sex organs, fans learn about the people behind the big dicks and double-Ds – the girl who likes when people hold her feet, loves BBC period dramas and spooning peanut butter straight out of the jar.
Tommy Rose, another OnlyFans performer, got into porn the way most big shifts in life happen: through a bad break-up. Before then, she had served John Smiths at Wetherspoons, scrubbed hospital toilets, played hide-and-seek in nurseries and draped her body over motorbikes in glamour shoots. But when her engagement broke off it was the push she needed to start sex work full-time.
Everything on Tommy’s OnlyFans is staged. Her page is like walking into a fantasy world – like if Babestation was a Greek holiday island. Think women making out in front of linen curtains, perfectly blended mauve eyeshadow and beautiful interiors captured through a crisp HD lens.
"It's just my perfectionism," Tommy explains. "Some people post selfies from their phones or make two-second clips of them in the shower, but I can't. I get too annoyed with myself. Everything needs to be in order, everything needs to look clean. Last week I posted a selfie and I actually ended up taking it down."
Like Dannii, Tommy enjoys talking to fans, but she struggles with the more personal aspects of the job. "If you're a paying customer – that sounds horrible – but if you're a paying customer, you pay to see my content; that's what you're there for. You're not there to get to know me. My job is to know you. Signing up and getting to talk to me is just a plus."
You'd think Tommy's high standards would be a plus for customers, but her refusal to post more casual shots actually hinders her success. She suspects that people unfollow her because she doesn't upload as much as other performers. "Someone unsubscribed from my OnlyFans and wrote that it was because my price was too high," she says. "It really got to me. I have my account set to $10 a month; once OnlyFans takes its cut, that leaves me, like, $7, which – in pounds – is what, like a fiver? And then guys say to me it's too high? It’s like, are you serious? You see everything on here. Would you go to a girl on the street and say, you know, show me all that for a fiver? This is my job. This is how I make my money."
When it comes down to it, Tommy doesn’t earn as much as you might think. She takes around £1,500 a month from OnlyFans, but £500 of that goes back into the business: buying lingerie, paying camera operators, getting hairdressers to trim her block fringe. On bad months her pay has dipped as low as £500.
When I ask Tommy the last time she had a day off, she can't even answer ("It was, back in, I think, er—"). The pressure to post constantly means she works 12-hour days, seven days a week. This might mean booking shoots, filing taxes, promoting herself on social media or losing her anal virginity to a girl with red hair covered in anchor tattoos. She never fully switches off. Sometimes she ends up dreaming about editing her videos. The home, where other people veg out after a long day filling in Excel spreadsheets, is her office. "I always feel like I can be doing better," she says, "and I always feel like, because the industry I'm in is so fast-paced, if I stopped doing something, someone will take my place."
It's such an oversaturated market, Tommy says, that if she didn’t post for a week it’s likely that around ten subscribers would be gone when she returned. This becomes a problem when performers can’t work. A few weeks ago, Tommy found herself burnt out – so sapped it felt as though all her bones had been removed from her body. Instagram had just deleted her account after introducing a new policy that took a tougher line on explicit images. OnlyFans works by recruiting subscribers through other social media sites, so losing her 29,000 followers meant Tommy had lost her marketing strategy. "I thought, 'Do I even have a job? Do I exist?'" she says.
Tommy kept working. "I wanted to lay around feeling like crap, eating junk food, but I can’t. You can’t just go on Twitter and write, 'My life sucks' – that’s not going to get you new fans and more money. You have to constantly present this facade that you’re happy. So I spent the day writing, 'Don’t worry guys, new content soon!' – pretending to be excited, when really I was laying there panicking."
Dannii responds to around 100 DMs every day and works seven days a week, but points out that OnlyFans stars are not the only ones glued to their phones. "Everyone’s always chatting to friends on social media and taking selfies, or whatever. I'm just monetising that," she explains. She says she enjoys the freedom of being able to earn money wherever she wants. Last week she was in New York; next week she’s off to a hen do in Dublin. "If I go on holiday, the content I upload is better because I'm in a bikini all day."
The accessibility of OnlyFans has meant it's gone some way to normalising sex work. Women whose naughty content would normally peak at photos of Calvin Kleins pulled below the hip bone are now selling nudes through OnlyFans. A lot of its allure lies in the interface, which features clean lines, minimal colour and none of the ass-slapping GIFs you might get on clip purchasing websites with names like Big Tits 4 U or XXX MILFS. Its anonymous appearance is likely down to how it was never meant to be a porn site to begin with.
"It was never about 'filling a gap' in porn," Stokely explains over email. "It's certainly true that we have content creators posting adult content. However, we market the platform to creators and influencers of all genres, and we have seen a significant increase in non-adult social media influencers, including high profile fitness models, YouTubers and reality TV celebrities. Influencers are coming to OnlyFans to post their vlogs, behind the scenes footage, tips and trick videos, live Q&A videos and general exclusive content."
It's unsurprising, then, that the line between influencer and sex worker is blurred on OnlyFans. While Tommy sees the democratisation of sex work as an exciting shift – "I think it's great the way that it kind of opened up the community more" – she bristles at the new demographic that OnlyFans has spawned: sex workers who deny being sex workers.
"If you look up 'sex work' on Wikipedia, it’s described as exchanging sexual services for material gain. So whether you're a glamour model, a stripper, a burlesque dancer or sell pictures of your feet, you are part of the sex worker community," she says. "I mean, you’re taking your clothes off – it's sex work. But I have encountered a lot of people who say, 'Oh no, I'm just a model, I'm not a sex worker.'"
This tendency is reminiscent of what sex worker rights activist Tilly Lawless has dubbed the "whorearchy" – placing certain forms of sex work on a hierarchical scale, where street prostitutes are derided while sugar babies become the topic of glossy magazine spreads about free Louis Vuitton bags and rent money. But does it matter in what context you take your clothes off? Does it make you any better if you bare it all for a traditional camming site or in an OnlyFans selfie?
Either way, selling a personality isn’t as fun as it sounds. OnlyFans allows performers to befriend their fans and control their image and working hours, but casualisation of labour – something common across many gig economy jobs – can be exhausting when earning money means long days and struggling to set yourself apart from an open market of competitors. In fact, OnlyFans probably would be easier if it really was just about having a magisterial pair of tits.
Tommy says she wouldn’t choose to go back to mopping antiseptic around hospital floors. She loves sex work too much; she just wishes it was a bit easier. Before we say bye, her flatmate brings her a plate of burnt fish fingers. Watching her on Skype curled on the sofa in a fluffy dressing gown, I wonder if she'll be able to unwind in front of an episode of First Dates, or whether she'll find it too difficult, given that she’s sitting in the same place she edits and uploads her videos. After a long day, it's hard to say whether she'll be able to cloud out the noise in her brain – the one that permanently commands her to always be doing more.