The democratizing impact of the Internet has allowed plenty of folks to build media platforms on their own terms, but no one has used this technology in a more interesting, unusual and empowering way than Isa Mazzei. Her burgeoning career as an author and screenwriter flows from a form of broadcasting that's typically ignored or belittled by mainstream outlets: She earned a national and international reputation as a live, online sex worker operating from her home in Boulder.
Mazzei refers to the occupation as "camming," and her experiences inspired Cam, a thriller about a young woman in the field that earned consistently strong reviews and a streaming deal with Netflix, and Camgirl, a new memoir from Rare Bird Books that traces her journey with honesty, humor, compassion and a sense of pride that offers fresh insight into a profession that's much easier to relate to than most readers will expect.
"Camming is a job, the hardest job I ever had," Mazzei says. "It took so many skills in so many areas — super-transferable skills, I'd like to add." Overall, she goes on, "I'd say my time in camming was very positive. But like any job, there were parts of it that were boring and aggravating, and other parts that were very exciting and fulfilling. Like any job, it had ups and downs."
Julia Callahan, Rare Bird's director of sales, underscores this point. In her words, "I think what's so important about Isa's book is how it tells the story of a woman's coming of age through her work, and how she finds self-worth through the work that she's doing. I feel like we see that story so often in the context of men and women in Wall Street or fashion or any other number of industries, so seeing it through Isa's eyes as someone working within the sex industry puts a new spin on that story."
Although Mazzei was born in California, where she's currently based, she was just three years old when she moved to Boulder, which she describes in Camgirl as "a town renowned for its liberalism, used bookstores and having the most Ph.D.s per capita — a bastion of suburban wine moms, white supremacy and ninety-dollar yoga pants." Her parents, if not famous in their own right, certainly qualified as fame-adjacent: Her father was a cinematographer who shot videos for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, while her mother served as a makeup artist for a slew of celebrity clients. As a result, Mazzei was raised in very affluent circumstances that hid a dark side.
"I went to Fairview High School, and Boulder was a very idyllic town to grow up in," she notes. "I spent a lot of time outdoors, a lot of time hiking and walking around lakes and bike riding. There was also this big emphasis on being yourself and finding what matters to you, and a huge emphasis on schooling. That's the way my friends' families raised them, too — and encouraging self-expression was pretty nice as well."
Nonetheless, she continues, "my family life was not super-happy at all. My parents were very mentally ill, and it was very difficult for me to feel secure at home. That obviously affected my childhood."
So, too, did a horrific incident in her youth that she only faced after years of confusion. "I spent most of my life trying to figure out why I didn't like sex and hated my body and hated myself so much — and that ultimately led me to a place where I was able to confront that I was sexually abused as a child."
She found herself grappling with the fallout from this offense upon returning to Boulder after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. "When I came back from college, I was definitely looking for myself, like any college grad does. I was wondering, 'What do I do with my life?' But I was drawn to sex work. It was this place where you could be seductive, slutty. You could express yourself sexually, and it wasn't just okay; it was lauded. Sex workers seemed like they had everything I didn't have. They were comfortable with their bodies, comfortable talking about sex, and they had this type of power that I was envious of. I was watching this girl audition in a strip club, and when she was pushing her vagina into some guy's face, I was thinking, 'Look how comfortable she is with her body. I wish I could do that.'"
With the help of a man she met through a sugar-daddy site, Mazzei, who identifies as queer, obtained the equipment she needed and inked with a service. As she warmed up to performing for people across the web, she marveled at "the creative freedom that you could put into your shows and how you could tailor them to whatever you wanted."
But that doesn't mean excelling in such a competitive environment was easy. "On average, I would start my show around early evening — six, seven, something like that," she recalls, "and I would work as long as the show lasted, sometimes until two, three, even four in the morning. Then, once my main show ended, I would do private shows with clients or take phone calls. I was usually up until the early hours of the morning, then would sleep very late before getting up and preparing for the next day."
As for the financial rewards, "it totally depended on the month. My first month, I made $15,000. Some months, I made $6,000. Some months I made $1,500. Some months, I made $400. It totally depended. And another thing to remember is not all of that money made it into my pocket. I reinvested a huge amount back into the business. When you're running a show, you're burning through webcams and external mics, and I was having to constantly keep my lingerie and my costumes fresh, because no one wants to look at the same performer doing the same thing in the same outfit every night. I was constantly having to come up with new games, new lighting, new costumes, new ideas, and that cost a lot of money. So I made a comfortable living as a camgirl, but I was by no means swimming in wealth."
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Her efforts also took an emotional and physical toll that eventually caused her to look for other creative outlets, including the script for what became Cam. While writing the latter, she took pains to present camming in a positive context. Alice, the movie's protagonist, "could be replaced by a YouTube star or an Instagrammer or anybody else who exists in the digital gig economy. It's about her grappling with the fracturing she feels between herself and her digital identity. It's about her losing her online identity — but she regains it at the end of the film. So it's pretty affirming to sex work. At the end, the audience is left to understand that this is the thing that matters most to Alice, the thing she thrives in — and when she goes back to it in the end, that's an important moment."
Rare Birds' Callahan agrees: "I think that Isa's ability to tell her story is one of her strengths, and it surprises me not one bit that her storytelling ability is fluid from books to television to film."
Fortunately, Mazzei has other tales to tell. She's currently got two films in development, and in conjunction with her longtime friend Daniel Goldhaber, who also directed Cam, she's just completed an episode for Fifty States of Fright, a horror project for the new streaming service Quibi that's being assembled under the auspices of Evil Dead and Spider-Man auteur Sam Raimi. The anthology series will feature a terrifying narrative set in each state, and Mazzei says, "We did the Colorado episode. Christina Ricci is in it."
But even as she's moving into the next stage of her career, Mazzei continues to honor the camming culture. "My hope," she says, "is that when people read my book, they can relate to a lot of universal feelings I have — an awkward girl trying to find out who I am in the world and throwing myself into a profession with a lot of ambition and seeing where it takes me."