Laika, 27, is an up-and-coming pop artist from Toronto. Her music embraces the synthy, ‘80s-tinged vibrancy popularized by groups like CHVRCHES and The 1975. It’s hook-heavy, accessible ear-candy for teens and twenty-somethings. From a selling standpoint those are all good things. Though she’s new to the world of pop music, she’s entered it with somewhat of a celebrity status. That’s because, up until recently, she’s been known by another alias: Cortana Blue. And as Cortana, she’s one of the most popular camgirls on the planet.
For her, an average night camming can generate $1,000 with relative ease—a target she’s hit 20 times within a single month. Her premium Snapchat (which costs $50 to $100 to access), currently has 2,500 followers, and would be much higher, had it not been previously deleted. Her Twitter and Instagram both exceed the 100K follower mark, the latter having been deleted on more than one occasion as well. She’s represented cam sites at sexpos, walked the red carpet at the AVN Awards, and has even had fake accounts steal her content in attempts to bank off her success. Basically, she’s accumulated a level of social notoriety most of us will never come close to.
As I entered her two-bedroom home—a luxury condo located along Toronto’s waterfront—I couldn’t help but think, this looks expensive. At one end of her couch, next to her computer and dual monitor setup, hangs a small collection of fan art. On the other side, two guitars—one acoustic, one electric—are displayed in front of a massive wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling window. It’s probably not intentional, but everything seems to be metaphorically placed, as if to say, “this is a side of me the world should know about.”
While she sat across from me in a shiny blue dragon onesie, I asked if the decision to present herself as one entity, who does both porn and music, was a conscious one. She told me it was. “Why would I waste three-hundred-thousand people who already have my account, especially with cam, with people who know me as someone who sits and plays guitar, and sings on cam, why would I make it something completely different?”
The leveraging of a social media following is relatively new in the sex work community. A “past life” as a sex worker can be a source of stigma and shame for some public figures, but shifts in how sex workers interact with audiences on social media have helped artists like Cardi B, who used to be a stripper, thrive in the mainstream in part because of—not in spite of—a career in sex work. It’s an underdog success story that comes from a world we don’t usually associate with underdog success stories. The next evolution seems to be combining these careers seamlessly.
This is where Laika differs from let’s say, VeraBambi—a former webcam performer who’s leveraged her Instagram following in order to launch a career as a YouTube cosplayer/ makeup artist. (Vera currently has 912k followers). The difference is that, like Cardi, Vera left sex work before monetizing her other interests in a new career. Laika, on the other hand, doesn’t see sex work as a means to an end. Instead she sees it as a tool that can be flipped and utilized to fight stigma, all while setting her apart in the music world.
“When I go on tour, I will go on stage and be like ‘Y’all can buy my Snapchat for fifty bucks, you can get to see me naked,’” she said. “I can only imagine saying that in a room full of people, how many people will probably buy my Snapchat.” (Snapchat, her second largest source of income next to cam shows, generates about $7K a month.)
Until recently, the celebrity figures of porn didn’t have platforms like Instagram or Twitter to control the trajectory of their career. I often wonder what the Sasha Greys of the 00s could have accomplished had their peaks occurred after Instagram’s infancy. Laika told me that without social media and her four-year-long dedication to camming, her music career “wouldn’t have happened.”
In its first month, Laika’s debut single, “Earl Grey,” had surpassed a total of 100,000 combined Spotify and Apple Music streams.
“If people only cared about me being naked I would have no streams. So it's clearly like, people embracing the fact I can do both, and why not?” While wrangling up her cats, she mentioned (rather nonchalantly) that she’d also raised $30-thousand for her first music video. She did this by selling her private Snapchat, along with self-produced porn via ManyVids—a video hosting and e-commerce site for adult entertainment. “It was like, a crazy lucrative month for me,” she said. According to her, that exceeded any fundraising she’d previously done. All things considered, I asked if there’d ever be a point where she’d stop camming, to which she confidently replied, “No.”
Potentially alienating younger listeners, because of her involvement with camming, seems more likely than not, though she told me she’s not really worried. “When Christina Aguilera released ‘Dirty,’ we were in grade six... in grade six. And my mom still let me listen to that, my mom still let me go to her concerts,” she said.
In the past decade we’ve seen a push to view sex work as real work. As Laika mentioned almost repetitively, “it’s exhausting,” and her peers seem to get that. But the appearance of progress often comes with setbacks. Vex Ashley, who founded the adult film collective Four Chambers, is all too familiar with the risks associated with holding mainstream (or “real world”) space as a sex worker.
“I think it’s so difficult because the problem is that once you have done sex work, that will always be the most interesting, salacious, noteworthy thing about you,” she said. “We consider you’re either in sex work world or you’re in reality world and that’s something that’s really difficult to merge.”
Not long ago sites like Tumblr provided a safe space for sexually explicit content to exist alongside fashion blogs and pop culture GIFs alike. Vex’s Four Chambers is a product of spaces like this. Her UK-based project uses crowdfunding to produce artistically driven, conceptual porn. At the time they started in 2014 it was all rather progressive.
Supporters would make subscription-based contributions via Patreon in order to help fund future projects. All of this was done with the added bonus of complete transparency between contributor and creator. By 2018 she said the project was raising close to $26,000 per film.
Then, in June 2018, she got the call. Four Chambers was to be taken down from Patreon. They claimed community guidelines, supposedly enforced by the new FOSTA-SESTA laws, were to blame. Even over the phone, I could sense her skepticism as she explained that sex worker profiles on Patreon were being deleted long before these new guidelines. Prior to being shut down, Patreon gave Vex a month to bring subscribers up to speed, provided she delete every post that was in violation of their updated terms. “I literally had to go through and purge everything that I’d done on the site in order to get through that last month.” She said it was like starting at the beginning.
Vex, Laika, and countless others are constantly having accounts deleted. In the case of social media, particularly Instagram, there is no grace period; you aren’t given a month to advise followers; it all happens without warning. As Vex explained, there’s no human judgment as to what’s acceptable on these platforms, “it’s just an algorithm.” Once you’ve been deleted there’s really nothing else you can do but start over. So for someone like Laika, the very thing that’s helping launch her music career could also be the thing that holds it back; having to restart over and over again.
Still, Vex sees the appeal beyond self-promotion when it comes to social media and sex work. “The blessing and curse of social media is that it’s allowed people who do sex work to be more accessible in a domestic way that they weren’t before,” she said. “Hopefully that allows the public to have a more expansive view of the kind of people that are doing sex work, because that’s a wide church.”
According to Laika, that is the goal. “One space one name, doing both things.” With a grin on her face she told me that if her music career continues to prove successful, she’ll have porn to thank for it. “Camming gave me money, and money changed my life,” she said. After all, sex sells.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.