This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
It was a warm evening, and my old friend—let’s call her Chloe—and I were sitting in a Tibetan eatery in Berlin. After gossiping about our times in high school, we began telling stories of our final summers spent in rural France, where we grew up.
Drunk on rice wine and nostalgia, Chloe divulged that at the age of 17, she began answering online ads to pose as a “nude model.” She’d never told anyone before, she said. The secret got me excited; we were sharing classified stories. In turn, I revealed that around my 18th birthday, a mysterious woman befriended me on MSN Messenger and offered to hire me as a “web model.” Before I could finish the story, Chloe interrupted. “Was her name Alicia Pimprelle1?” she blurted out. Chills ran down my spine. Seeing my face, she shouted in disbelief—so loudly that the waitress nearby almost dropped the soup off her tray.
Turns out, Chloe and I had both been approached around the year 2007. On the same platform. By the same woman—or at least people using the same name.
Recalling the experience, I was jolted back to that spring day when it all started. I was MSN chatting about school exams and reviewing my university applications when this so-called Alicia popped onto my screen. You’ve got to remember—this was long before the online world we’re used to today. Then, it wasn’t common for dodgy outsiders to request access to your digital shell. Receiving friend requests on MSN felt safe.
“Hi Sarah, thank you for accepting my friend request. My name is Alicia and I am a web model recruiter,” her first message read. Realizing she wasn’t an acquaintance, I considered blocking her. But then I took a look at her profile photo: a slightly chubby girl in a neatly ironed blue cardigan with straight, auburn hair flowing down her shoulders, adorned by a black headband. She looked harmless. Plus, she was a model recruiter. Maybe she saw that I’d been photographed by that Camille Albane hair salon the summer before? My beloved five minutes of teen-glossy-glory.
Alicia informed me that she was working for a Belgian paid dating website. “A bit like OkCupid or Match.com,” she said. The site was new, and more men than women were registered. To make their business work, they needed to hire girls to keep their customers interested. All I’d have to do was pretend I was looking for a date in Belgium and try to get members to stay online as long as possible by video-chatting my online matches. “Please note, you are only allowed to show your face to the camera. Nudity on screen is strictly prohibited,” Alicia clarified. I’d earn 8.50 euros an hour per person I talked to. The more I stayed connected, the more I’d get bonuses.
It didn’t take me long to accept. Anything to distract me from studying. Plus, I’d never had money of my own before, apart from what was in the Christmas envelope from my grandparents. And with no nudity allowed, what could go wrong?
I virtually baptized myself “saskia04.” (That’s not the actual screen name; I wouldn’t tell you that today.) My guidelines were to log in to an online platform and create my “model profile,” upload three to four photos of myself, and not forget to smile. “In order to help you easily hold a discussion, here is a set of lines that you can use, which also helps in not deviating to unwelcomed topics,” Alicia added. They included:
Hello, My name is... I am 18 years old and you? I’ve just moved to Brussels for an internship I am a student in marketing I registered to this website because I’d like to meet people Are you looking for a date? It’s been some time since I’ve dated someone What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever done with a woman? I think I am bisexual Maybe we could meet somewhere? Do you know how to be romantic? How would you like me to dress on our first date?
I think my 18-year-old self must have found it entertaining. To be fair—I still do. Sickening, sexist, and absurd—but entertaining nonetheless. It was a long summer, and I wanted amusement.
I put on my black tank top with glitter straps and applied a dangerous amount of my mom’s Yves Saint Laurent beige lipstick and purple eye shadow. Then, I clicked “Start the Show.” A window opened showing my image. Every five seconds, a new photo was taken of me, like I was trapped in a never ending photo booth session.
Names like “Guillaume,” “27cm,” and “GrosseBite” began populating my screen, with each newcomer introduced by the sound of Disney’s Tinkerbell gone rogue. Rather than their faces, the men’s cameras showed an array of cocks. At 18, I was a late bloomer—still a virgin. I had no intention of seeing such things, nor did I have the appetite for it.
I got in touch with Alicia. She had “forgotten” to tell me that I could hide my visitors’ live video streams. She then graciously sent additional “lines.” “In case someone asks you to strip,” she wrote, “say: I am sorry, I am rather shy, especially when many people look at me. I prefer real contact. Would you like to meet in person?” She added not to hesitate calling them by terms of endearment such as “mon nounours” (my teddy bear) or “mon petit homme” (my little man).
Excuse me? I felt grossed out by her words. “What kind of website is this?” I asked. She sent me a link to a half-baked webpage. “Thousands of singles near you! REGISTER!” it read in pink letters. I wasn’t convinced.
And yet, that didn’t stop me from logging in again. Several times, in fact, for the following two months. I liked the idea of playing Saskia, of earning money, and mostly, of avoiding schoolwork—and the interactions didn’t strike me so much as predatory as they did curious and pathetic. They’d ask me to strip, but they’d also ask me things like “do you wear stilettos?” or “can you brush your hair?” and I remember this one guy enjoyed wearing a parade of expensive lingerie. Having little experience in the art of seduction, I enjoyed discovering men’s bizarre fantasies.
Gradually, my identity became blurred between my everyday reality and an online fiction. And that wasn’t the only thing that got blurred: The more I pretended to undress, the more I’d be undressed. What started as me playing with my glitter strap to show the lace of my bra led to me taking off my black top and squeezing my laced boobs to the screen. Clearly, Deputy Alicia wasn’t there to tell me off.
It got me wondering: Who, exactly, was watching? I figured, at this point, that the men I was chatting with weren’t actually members of the site I was supposedly approached by. I googled “saskia04” and discovered the model profile I had created on several live porn websites. I felt sick to my stomach—realizing I was the victim of a scam, and the object of more onlookers’ erotic fantasies than I’d bargained for. I deleted my account and blocked Alicia over email and MSN. Three months later, I went to university in the UK and had far better—dare I say, sexier—encounters. I no longer needed Saskia.
Reflecting on the experience with Chloe, however, made me think: What kind of scheme had I gotten roped into, exactly? If Chloe had also been approached by Alicia while living 500 miles away from me, had it happened to young girls all over France?
This April, exactly 11 years after first becoming saskia04, I logged back into my Hotmail account and unblocked Alicia Pimprelle: “Hi Alicia, are you still hiring web models?” A few hours later, I received a reply: “Hello Sarah, I am contacting you on behalf of Alicia concerning your application. I am the new person in charge of recruiting,” wrote Julia2 from Dream Animation3.
After writing back with my availabilities, Julia asked to connect on Google Hangouts. There, she wrote: “So that there is no misunderstanding about the chat: most discussions revolve around sex.” I was told visitors do not pay to “exchange news and indulge in small talk.” My goal would be to attract subscribers and keep them talking for as long as possible. The pay would be broken down into two parts: The first at 12 euros per hour per subscriber for “fully clothed conversations” and the second at 50 euros per hour for “shows including a striptease (fully nude or partially).”
At that point my 18-year-old experience fully came into focus as an early, nonconsensual version of an erotic entertainment phenomenon that today is formalized and commonplace.
Curious to see what it would say, I signed the eight-page contract and immediately received a reply: “Congratulations, you’re an X Model, welcome to the world of cam girls!”