Before Isa Mazzei was an up-and-coming screenwriter, she worked as a cam girl. One day, Mazzei went online and found that someone had uploaded a video of her to Pornhub, without her consent. The video was titled “Frizzy Haired Girl Drinks Coffee.” She peered closer. Sure enough, there was Mazzei on Pornhub, drinking coffee.
That wasn’t the only video the pirates stole, of course. Most of the time, they’d clip the watermark out of Mazzei’s videos and then upload the videos to free tube sites across the internet, without crediting her work. Friends would text her and say, “I saw you on Pornhub.” She’d go online and have the utterly disorienting sensation of watching another Mazzei—one who looked like her but whom she felt removed from. “It was this weird experience of watching this disembodied form of myself that I was completely alienated from that people were seeing,” Mazzei tells me down the line from Los Angeles.
Mazzei drew on her personal experiences of being hacked when writing CAM, the newly-released horror-thriller currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by Mazzei’s high school friend Daniel Goldhaber, CAM has received glowing reviews. The night before we speak, legendary horror writer Stephen King tweeted in praise of the film. Mazzei squeals when I mention it: “I alternated between screaming and sobbing for an hour."
CAM stars Madeline Brewer, best known as Janine from The Handmaid’s Tale, as Alice, a hard-working cam girl who performs under the name Lola. Alice’s career is going well, and she’s on course to become one of the most popular cammers on her site. Until one day, when Alice wakes up to find that her account has been mysteriously hacked by a doppelganger who looks like Alice and performs live on-air to Alice’s unwitting fans. CAM follows Alice’s increasingly desperate efforts to regain control of her online profile, career, and life.
Remarkably, CAM is the only major film about sex work to be written by a former sex worker, which is all the more disturbing when you realize how commonly sex workers are depicted in films. You can tell. Alice’s house is kind of messy, and she hasn’t stripped the Saran wrap off her new sofa. She plans out her performances meticulously in sharpie on a wall planner, assessing which ones work and which don’t. She has rivalries and friendships with the other cam girls, and long-time viewers she’s on good terms with. She’s a regular person who happens to do sex work.
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“I wanted to create a film where the audience was going to empathize with a sex worker, and which would help normalize sex work,” Mazzei explains. And part of normalizing sex work is showing the person behind the scenes.” Sex work is frequently depicted according to impossibly narrow stereotypes: the exploited street worker, or the stiletto-wearing high-end escort in French lingerie. Alice is neither of those things. “She’s just a normal girl.”
But Alice is ambitious. She creates elaborate, macabre performances to shock and disgust her viewing fans. In the opening scene of CAM, Alice fakes slitting her own throat, live on camera, whilst behind her an enormous, over-stuffed teddy bear watches mutely. In another theatrical stunt, a laughing Alice shoves a gun into her mouth and blows her brains out. She’s dedicated to her job, and she’s good at it.
When it came to depicting a professional at the peak of her performance, Mazzei was inspired by films like Whiplash and Black Swan. “Both of those movies have these protagonists who really push themselves to the edge for their art,” Mazzei says. “Even though Miles Teller’s hands are bleeding and Natalie Portman literally dies at the end of Black Swan, we never say, 'I don’t understand why you would do that.’ We think, wow, your hands are bleeding for your art. I have so much respect for you. That’s never done with sex work.” The pink-lit bedroom in which Alice transforms into Lola, night after night, is her “Lincoln Center,” Mazzei explains.
Mazzei is familiar with the hustles and struggles of top-tier camming. “You’re constantly wondering, how do I keep things fun for my viewers? You have viewers that watch you every night almost, and you’re trying to make sure you’re keeping them entertained, and maintaining the community in your room. You’re the hostess.”
Depicting the effort that goes into camming was important to Mazzei, because the products of her labor as a cam girl were so often appropriated. “If people want to support sex workers, pay for their content,” Mazzei sighs. She finds it frustrating that consumers find the act of paying for porn squeamish, but have no such compunctions about viewing free, often pirated, content.
“It’s incredibly harmful for cam girls, because I spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of my time making video content,” Mazzei says, explaining that cam girls deserve to be compensated for their labor because it is a form of labor like any other. “Deciding what props to use and what costumes to wear to wear and how to light myself and buying the microphones and paying for the internet that can stream me in HD—these are all expenses I’m spending on my business. To have people just rip that and post it online... it’s morally wrong.”
Although CAM has been met with mostly favorable reviews (and Brewer’s performance has been highly praised), there’s one group whose support meant the most: sex workers. “The response from the cam worker community has been the most important thing to me,” Mazzei says. “I wanted to make sure they felt respected and seen by the film.”