Isa Mazzei on Camgirl, Destigmatizing Sex Work & Her Next Horror Movies


Isa Mazzei arrived on the filmmaking scene last year with quite a splash. The writer of the Netflix breakout Cam, Mazzei channeled her experience working as a camgirl into the script for one of the breakout horror movies of the year; a sly and, yes, sexy look at matters of online identity, human sexuality, and self-empowerment that offered an unusually candid and empathetic look at sex work.

Now, Mazzei is stepping away from fiction and claiming her story for her own with the next memoir Camgirl, a detailed look back on how she became an online sex worker, what it took to create and maintain her business. It’s a fascinating look into a too-often exploited and disenfranchised workforce, but more than that, it’s a witty and moving portrait of one woman’s journey to empowerment and healing through camming. From her high school crushes to her failed first day online, to porn conventions, and ultimately, cathartic and hard-earned self-acceptance, Camgirl is candid as it gets, and infused with Mazzei’s voice, it’s a hell of a ride.

With the book now available, I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mazzei for an extended, wide-ranging chat. We talked about how Cam inspired her to write Camgirl, how coming out as a sex worker was like coming out as queer, what it means to live online in 2019, and destigmatizing sex work in the public eye. We also discussed her upcoming horror projects, including her feature followups to Cam and her episode of Sam Raimi‘s upcoming Quibi series, 50 States of Fright.

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Image via Rare Bird Books

When did you know you wanted to write a book based on your experiences? Is this a project you’ve been working on for a long time, or did the impulse come more suddenly? 

ISA MAZZEI: I decided to write the book — I don’t remember exactly when, but it was sometime either before we moved into production on Cam, but Cam was already a thing at that point. We hadn’t made it yet. I remembered having ideas of things that I needed to include in the book while I was on set working on Cam and I just remember running back to Video Village, where I had my laptop, and just typing down things really fast and then running back to the set. At that point, I think I was just working on the proposal, the outline for it. 

What was it like from a writer’s perspective, to unfold that story in two different ways? As you’re bringing that one version of the story to life on set, another one is coming alive inside of your mind? 

MAZZEI: I think that Cam was a really good way for me to be able to talk about a lot of the themes and experiences that really mattered to me, but in a way that was abstract. It was fictionalized and so it was safe. Cam was a really safe way for me to explore being vulnerable while still being able to say like, “Oh, this is fiction.” And I think that really enabled me to feel comfortable enough being as vulnerable as I am in the book. It was a nice way to kind of ease into that, for sure. 

Having read the book, you make it clear that you are someone who’s always been comfortable with the spotlight, but when Cam ended up getting a Netflix deal and as much attention as it did, did it ever alarm you? Or was the success all good feelings for you? 

MAZZEI: It definitely wasn’t all good feelings. I was really, really excited with the reception of Cam. I was really touched with people reaching out to me, sex workers and non-sex workers. A lot of women just saying how much the movie affected them or how much they liked it, or even how much they hated it. I just really liked people engaging with it and wanting to talk about it. And I think that I definitely, for a while, had this kind of like… It was hard because people were looking to me to be the person that could talk about camming and I was a cam girl for a very short period of time and my story is very much my story. I can’t speak for all cam girls or all of their experiences. So I definitely felt a lot of pressure to try to be really honest to my experiences but also not say that my experiences are everyone’s experiences, because they’re absolutely not. 

And I try to display a little bit of that in the book when I talk about all the other girls that are working and all of the different array of experiences, and of course, the site I worked on was only girls, but there’s also like cam performers who are not female. And so, there’s just a whole world that I don’t even touch on, really. 

As far as a public coming-out, that’s a huge spotlight, getting put on Netflix. You can’t really get more attention than that, in as many homes. 

MAZZEI: Yeah, it was definitely really terrifying. It was a decision. It was a deliberate decision to put my name on the script. My name wasn’t on the script at first. I was worried that… I know that sex workers have a hard time finding work afterward and people know what they did. So I was very aware that the second my name was out there publicly with this movie, that would be who I am forever. And I actually saw this post that I really love, it’s by Jacq the Stripper, and it says, “No one will ever let you forget that you were a stripper, but why would you want to?” 

And I really hold on to that because I’m really proud of what I did and what I did was like… Camming was the best thing I could’ve done at that time and it is such an incredibly transformative and fulfilling experience for me. I’m really grateful for it. I guess coming out in front of Cam was terrifying, but it also felt really necessary. I had a lot of privilege where I was safe enough. I was in a place where I was safe enough to be able to stand in front of somebody and say, “I was a cam girl.” And that was really cool. 

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Image via Netflix

But that’s not to say it wasn’t… Cam was reviewed in the New York Times and my name’s in the New York Times, which has been — That’s one of those things that you grow up and you think, I will never see my name in the New York Times. That’s crazy and it’s in there: “Written by Isa Mazzei, a former cam girl.” And that was such an interesting set of emotions for me to feel, like so excited and so proud that I had made something that was good enough to be reviewed in the print of the New York Times, but at the same time being like I’m also outing myself here in such a large publication. It’s a really vulnerable place to be, I guess is what I’m saying. I’m kind of ranting. 

No, I’m fascinated by it. I think it’s incredibly brave and singular, literally singular. No one else has done this. There’s not another you out there, which is inspiring. 

MAZZEI: Diablo Cody did it. 

True, true, but she wasn’t a cam girl. 

MAZZEI: No, she was a stripper. 

Which means she doesn’t have videos of her possibly out there for people to find. 

MAZZEI: Well, and that was the decision I made in my book. I say in the end, “All the names in the book have changed, except for mine.” My real porn name is in the book, and that was really important to me because the second Cam came out… It was 4Chan, it was on Reddit, it was on all these posts. I think if you Google me, one of the most popular auto-fill options is “webcam name.” “Isa Mazzei webcam name.” 

And I realized people want to find this, they want to know who I was. And so then I was like, “I’m going to give them what they want.” I’m going to be like, “This is my porn name and this is who I was. And if you want to Google me, okay.” 

Well, the thing I find so cool and moving about your story is that your book is your personal story of empowerment through sex work, but your larger story is ultimately now also impowering of sex work itself. Like you say, you don’t have everyone’s experience; yours is a very specific one. But I think that that’s a massive step in terms of perception and stigma. You are now a proven case, a public figure, that there can be public success after sex work, after camming, without hiding it.  

MAZZEI: I think that’s the thing about sex work is there’s this misconception often that I encountered a lot when I was working as a cam girl. And I was out as a cam girl within certain circles or whenever I met a new person I would kind of evaluate like, “All right, are you going to be cool with this or should I say I’m like something else?” But I was pretty out about it.  

And I think that there was such a misconception that I was confronted by, which is that all sex workers are the same and they’re all the same type of person and doing it for the same reasons. And that was so not my experience within the industry. There were people doing sex work for so many different reasons, who had varying levels of love for it or hatred for it, or didn’t give a shit about it. It was just paycheck or whatever. 

And I really felt like it was important to tell my story just to be one of those experiences and be like, look how diverse. Sex workers are just normal people and just like you can take any person in any other career and look all the millions of different people doing this job and they have different backstories and different reasons for doing this job and their different feelings about this job. That’s the same with sex work, and I think that’s an important thing to make known, for sure. 

Obviously, you made a very brave choice when you decided to put your name on Cam and put your camming name in Camgirl. Ok bear with me, this is about to get a little 3AM at the bar philosophical. 

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Image via Caitlin Fullam

MAZZEI: Let’s do it. 

There’s also something pragmatic about that decision in an age where we’re not even sure privacy exists anymore. It’s a time of disinformation, deep fakes, international information wars, and massive data hoarding; so, what does privacy mean? There is no safety net anymore, so you might as well be who you are. 

MAZZEI: I think it’s not even that there isn’t a safety net, it’s just that part of the journey of writing my book and even making Cam and of kind of coming out publicly was recognizing that… I don’t know, coming out as a sex worker, I felt a lot like when I came out as queer when I was younger. Which, first I came out as bi, then I came out as a lesbian. Turns out I’m not gay, but whatever. 

We learn, we grow. 

MAZZEI: We learn, we grow, we realize that maybe there’s more sexual identities than just gay and bi. But it feels a lot like that. It felt like this huge relief of being like, I don’t have to hide this part of myself and I don’t have to be ashamed of it because if people are going to reject me because of it, then that’s on them. At the end of the day I’m owning myself and who I am and my experiences, and it’s really beautiful and there’s safety in that. It’s not so much that there isn’t a safety net, it’s that there’s safety in not hiding things. And again, I was lucky enough to be in a position where I was literally physically [safe].  

A lot of sex workers don’t live in communities where they can necessarily come out the way that I did or be accepted by their families or have their friends stand by them. So I, again, was in a very privileged position where I was able to do that. But there was this tremendous safety, just like when I did come out as queer where I was like, “Oh, I can just be who I am finally. I don’t have to hide it. I don’t have to lie about it.” 

I remember applying for a job after camming. I briefly worked a little bit before, just while we were trying to get Cam off the ground. I remember just having to feel this intense panic of like, “I have to hide this part of myself. I can’t tell you what I did for the last three years.” And this kind of terror like, “Oh, if they find out, I may get fired” or all of this stuff. There’s definitely a freedom in, “I can’t hide anymore.”  

I can’t possibly agree more. As you say, I was also very privileged to do this in a way where I was never in any danger, but when I came out as bi or queer – well, we didn’t have “queer.” 

MAZZEI: Yeah, we didn’t have “queer” back then. It was like you’re bi or you’re a lesbian. That’s your options. 

But I was very safe and very young, I think 14 or 15, and then it just was. That was me. And since then, there’s been a comfort in knowing this is who I am and deciding that, if you don’t like me based on this one thing, then I’m probably not particularly interested in how you feel about me anyway. That’s empowering in its own way.   

MAZZEI: Yeah, it is, and it’s definitely a part of accepting it about yourself too, I think, that when you are queer. My parents always raised me that it was totally fine, whatever sexual orientation or gender identity you had was totally fine. I was very, very lucky, in a way. I still had a very much internalized shame around it where I just felt so confused and I remember this agony over trying to figure it out. And I remember just watching The L Word. I ordered the L word and this was back when Netflix was still on DVD. 

And I was so dumb. I ordered The L Word on DVD and I remember… I have so many memories of just racing to the mailbox to get it before my dad would check the mail so that he wouldn’t know that I had gotten The L Word, even though I was using his Netflix account, so he definitely knew, which I think is probably one of the clues when, later in my book, when he’s like, “Are you gay? It’s okay if you’re gay.” I think that probably one of his clues. 

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Image via Sara Baar

But I remember this overwhelming feeling of needing to hide it and I think that just comes from just needing to accept it in yourself and be comfortable with it before you can share it with others. And I think being out as a sex worker, part of it was that for me too. It was kind of disentangling the sex work from the shame I felt around how I was perceived as a huge slut in high school and that really affected my relationships with people in high school. Kind of like disentangling the shame I felt about that with how I felt about being a sex worker, and it took a while to really come to where I am now. 

The L Word is another great example of that power of representation and creating a public case for acceptance. Of course, it’s very of its time… Like we were saying when the era was like, you were either Tila Tequila or Melissa Etheridge. Those were the options. 

MAZZEI: Oh my God, Tila Tequila! 

But that show became the biggest shorthand. If I met a woman who made a reference, I was like, “Oh really?” And then it allowed me to talk about those things with other people because I’d be like, “Well, you watch The L Word, so we’re on safe ground.” I’m so glad it’s coming back. 

MAZZEI: I know, me too. I’m excited to see how they update it because I have watched it again, basically just a few episodes of the first season, and I was like, “This has not aged well.” 

Big yikes. Yeah. 

MAZZEI: But for the time, it was a huge comfort at the time. I felt so seen by it. I think that was really important as a very angsty teenager. 

Jumping back to Camgirl, we’re at this point where pretty much everyone watches porn and that’s just kind of known and addressed – you see it becoming a punchline in things like Euphoria and Long Shot — but as much as we’re getting closer to accepting that as fact, there’s still a lot of hypocrisy in the treatment and perception of the workers providing that porn. 

MAZZEI: I have a lot of things to say, obviously, but something I would say is that a lot of sex worker skills are super transferable and I think that’s part of the importance for me of showing the labor of sex work. I put a lot of that in Cam, showing her studying and taking notes and watching other girls.

Pretty soon after Cam came out, someone tweeted, “Oh my God, I didn’t know cam girls watched game tapes like Kobe.” And I thought that was such a cool way to kind of legitimize it. It’d be like, “Oh, we look up to these athletes and how they watch their game tapes and sex workers do that too. And they study their craft.” And I think that I tried to put a lot of the labor of sex work as well, because I think the more you see that it is transferable skills, you’re building a brand, you’re marketing, you’re doing web development, you’re editing photos. Just because you’re naked in the photos doesn’t mean you’re not learning a skill. 

I think that’s really important too because I think that gets discredited. And I still encounter that a lot. When I tell people about who I am and what I do, I get a very common response, mostly from women, actually is, “Oh my God, I wish I was brave enough to take off my clothes and just make millions of dollars.” And that, I think, is a super, super harmful way to characterize sex work, to just completely strip all the labor out of it. 

Absolutely. Something I think you do really well in your writing technique is also channeling the amount of person management that goes into that job and the anxiety of that. Some of the passages where things were getting really intense with multiple chats and texts, I was like, “I need to put the book down. I’m having an anxiety attack.” 

MAZZEI: Yay, I’m so glad! I really tried hard on that, because that’s what it feels like. Yeah, sex workers would be great at customer service, plan management. 

Exactly. 

MAZZEI: It’s very overwhelming and especially when you’re live streaming, and you’re juggling a billion things at once, but you can’t show that you’re stressed at all. And so it takes a lot of brainpower. 

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Image via Caitlin Fullam

I also find it fascinating that Patron as a platform basically just lifted cam girl strategies and made it applicable to any artist or entertainer. It’s the same structure. Tip me for my attention and my content. 

MAZZEI: Yeah. I think another big thing about it is access to your private life. I remember selling my Snapchat and then some girls would sell like their porn Snapchat and then their personal Snapchat, and everyone wants a personal Snapchat, right? They just want to see you, not for the porn. They wanted to see me make a sandwich and go on a walk and pet my neighbor’s dog and like, “Oh, I’m going to my friend’s birthday party” Snapchat. They wanted to feel like they had access to something really personal. 

Well, I think the popularity of camming kind of speaks for itself in that right. Yes, sex sells, but also the growing loneliness in computer culture’s a huge thing. That doesn’t surprise me at all that people want the perks that makes you feel like their girlfriend or their best friend, and not just the nude girl on the other side of the screen. 

MAZZEI: Totally. And I’ve definitely been on the other side of it too. You see it in my book a little bit, but there are definitely cam girls that I was really a huge fan of and you start to think like, “Oh my gosh, she actually likes me and we actually have a real connection and I’m kind of in love with her!” It’s really easy to kind of be swept up in feeling so close to someone even though they’re completely removed from you. 

Before I run out of time with you, I have to ask you a little bit about the filmmaking you’re doing now! You’ve really explored the experience and issues of your experience with camming pretty intensively now between the book and the film. Would it be a safe assumption that you would like to write about different things as you’re moving into your new features? 

MAZZEI: Yeah, I think that it’s really important to me to tell stories that matter and that are trying to do something. And so, I can’t share anything about my next two features, but I can say that they are doing… For me, they’re doing really important work, in the way that Cam was. But I think that, I am, at my core, a writer, and I think writing can be such an incredible place to…  I feel like movies, and horror, in particular, are really powerful and incredible places to explore. Not just what scares us, but also things that are subversive or thorny, where we could really dig into them.  

And I think horror is a great place to build empathy with characters that maybe we wouldn’t normally empathize with or that we should totally empathize with, because the second you sit down in the horror movie, you are with the protagonist, you are like, “We are going to get through this together. I am rooting for you.” And I think that’s one of the huge powers of horror. 

Did you ever try to write a version of Cam that was not genre or horror? 

MAZZEI: I never tried to write a version of Cam that wasn’t genre. Me and the director definitely talked about making it a doc, but we never went that far down that route. I would kind of talk through like, “Oh, you can shoot this and we could do this.” But like I never really wrote any of that. I definitely wrote a version of my book, or I started writing a version of my book, that wasn’t funny and that was not good. I took myself very seriously in college. I was kind of a pretentious asshole and I was like, “Oh, I need to write very serious things.” 

And so part of my journey as a writer has been realizing that you can write things that are fun and funny that has chats in them and obviously slang and things like that, and still have them be doing real work and affecting people. I had to learn to take myself less seriously. 

Almost every human could work on that problem, honestly. You’re also doing an episode of Sam Raimi’s series 50 States of Fright. 

MAZZEI: Oh yeah, the Quibi episode! 

What can you say about working with this emerging platform and have you had a chance to work with Sam Raimi directly? I hear he’s the loveliest. 

MAZZEI: Yeah, so he’s amazing. His notes are just spot on, and that’s been a really cool experience working with someone who will just say something and you’re like, “Oh, duh.” And then you feel kind of like, how did I not think of that? A little bit. But he’s been great and I think that I’m excited about our episode.  

It’s fun, and I can’t say much about it. I actually just had a whole conversation with their people about what I was and wasn’t allowed to say. But I will say that the title of our episode is pretty self-explanatory. [Editor’s Note: Mazzei’s episode is titled “Red Rum” and takes her to her home state of Colorado.]

So Quibi has a lot of eyes on it because it’s playing with structure and shorter installments in the storytelling. What are the unique challenges of writing something in that format? 

The idea is that you can just watch it while you’re waiting in line or whatever. You just watch a little at the airport, you watch a little piece… I feel like it’s a lot trickier because you have to pack a lot more character into every line. And I actually think Danny, the director of Cam, who’s also directing for the episode, he has this thing that he says —  which I know he stole from some filmmaker, but I don’t know who it is — he says the ideal page count for any script is zero. 

And he really pushed me on that with Cam. Every time I would like, you know, right, he’d be like, “Cut three pages out.” And I’d go to the top and I’d be like, “What is unnecessary? Or what two lines can do the same work in one line?” And so it makes everything feel like every line really matters, and so when you’re writing something that’s shorter than a feature, but you’re still trying to get some character in there and some development in there, every line is so precious and you really try to make everything as nuanced and as layered as possible. 





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