my year as a hot girl for hire
a meditation on professional catfishing and the odd jobs that led me there
I believe the polo shirt to be the most utterly sexless piece of clothing ever invented.
I’m on my sixth week in Los Angeles, my second week of door-to-door solar panel selling, and my very last straw. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I check another gray box off of my company-lent iPad. No sale, I write.
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The solar panel gig had been a truly last-ditch effort at employment. My application to SunPower Solar was the 51st one I had sent since moving to LA after previous rejections from similarly esteemed establishments such as Urban Outfitters, Halloween Town Costumes, and the Chuck E. Cheese Game Room. As a current college student with marketable skills including “perfume knowledge” and “janitorial experience,” my options were limited. The autumn of 2020 was soon to turn into a grueling winter, and I was ready to move out of my dear friend’s laundry shed where I had to run the dryer at night to keep warm.
The SunPower training lasted a week at their office in Pasadena. I wore my hair in a low bun, trying my best to conceal the pink at my ends — lest this be an opportunity to be cut loose on my very first day. Luckily, they seemed to be as eager to find employees as I was to be employed. The job was advertised as having an hourly rate of $15, with commission opportunities if you could convince the future customer to sit down with a “solar expert,” a position that I was made aware I could move up to and that was salaried considerably higher. They took my photo, gave me a badge, and I sat through the routine slog of corporate Kool-Aid funneling, as I had done many times before at differing companies, indistinguishable in their vigor for SALES!
The higher-ups took to me immediately. I did well in the mock customer interactions particularly because they were done in front of the other trainees. As a teenager who had spent the better part of her year isolated and farming in the midwest, I was happy to be taken in by an audience again, and took a great joy in perverting my skills of (mild) interpersonal manipulation for the sake of an entertaining bit and a deal landed.
I entertained myself “on the ground” as well, trying out different tactics to invariable results. I tried the straightforward all-business approach, in which I lied about one of their neighbors recently installing SunPower solar panels, and wouldn’t they like a consultation with one of our experts? When that didn’t work, I slightly unbuttoned my company polo and hoped to charm an elderly man or lonely housewife into landing me a deal. When that didn’t work, I tried a day in my normal wardrobe, figuring that the polo was the lone obstacle between me and the unfettered sexual charm that would ultimately skyrocket me to SunPower fame. I was met with another day of less-than-ideal sales numbers. As it happens, when you spend most of the day alone and counting the numbers of doors slammed in your face, entertaining yourself becomes the only tether between you and this mortal Earth — one of the few things left (other than cigarettes!) keeping you even slightly mentally well.
My leave from SunPower solar was graceless and abrupt. One day I was done, and that was that. I was surprised to learn, recently, that the polo is still with me. I pulled it out of a duffel bag the other day and it smelled of mildew.
Following my hasty exit from SunPower, I leveraged one of my genuine skills, child care, for a considerably better deal. After a brief interview and extensive criminal background check, I became the pseudo-mommy to a Burbank tot whose actual mommy was spending the next few months producing a reality show in Northern California. My hours were ten — daily, for six days a week. The father was home, supposedly spending all ten of my working hours holed up in his office editing the next season of a different reality show, although I would frequently find him pouring himself a vodka Gatorade before retreating to the garage to work on “his projects.”
I liked the job well enough, although it isolated me to an unnerving degree. Part of this was due to the child’s respiratory condition, which was a terrifying thing to have knowledge of in the middle of a pandemic which, at the time, had no vaccine in sight. I gave him a breathing treatment every night and didn’t see any friends outside of the one I lived with, fearing contraction and subsequent infection of my charge at every turn.
Part of the isolation, though, was in being a full-time caretaker. I felt a profound degree of intimacy with his mother, a woman I met no more than twice, by essentially living in her house and resuming her role. She informed me before she left that in addition to taking care of her son I was also to do routine housework — dishes, laundry, and light cleaning — as her husband was not so inclined. On day three of the job I found myself Googling “housewife suicide rate.”
I quickly discovered that there is a short and ever-confounding list of things that will reliably keep a three-year-old entertained. I was instructed that screen time was strictly off-limits — a rule that I had serious doubts about the parents themselves following in my absence — so we spent a lot of time at parks and socially-distanced playgrounds, me yelling from across the jungle gym to halt the normal toddler obsession of putting ones mouth on literally everything. We went to the beach once a week, mostly so that I could experience an hour without having to entertain. His mother instructed that I only play 50’s music or the seasonally appropriate Christmas carols, a rule which I swiftly struck down for my own sanity. By the end of our time together, the child’s favorite song was Dora by Tierra Whack.
I left the job in early November, when his mother returned home. Although relieved to be through with 60 hour work weeks, I was greatly overcome with a sense of sadness at having to drop out of the child’s life so suddenly. Three years old is a critical time during which one significantly bonds with their primary caretakers. I felt an overwhelming sorrow at the thought of this child making temporary bonds with a rotating cast of similarly disengaged young people who had to chew Nicorette to get through spending time with him. I wonder how well memories are formed at that age, and if he still thinks of me as often as I think of him.
Nannying gave me a nice nest-egg from which I could pull to move into my first adult apartment. I hauled my modest collection of belongings out of the laundry shed and into a two-bedroom apartment shared with a friend, finally being able to enjoy the comforts of a full-sized bed and central heating.
The school year resumed, and I was taking a full load of online classes in addition to looking for work again. My father had offered to split my rent with me, as he had graciously helped pay for my housing when I was on campus, but the offer never materialized. The money from nannying had bought me some time, but not much. Additionally, I realized I couldn’t keep a job with a regular schedule as I was in class five days a week.
One of the few people I knew in Los Angeles at this time was someone I went to elementary school with. I swung by her beautiful Beachwood Canyon studio apartment one afternoon to catch up, but also to hear about a job. She told me she’d been working remotely for decent money, and I knew that she also did not have a completed college degree. I was intrigued. When I walked in, she was just wrapping up a session of work. She closed the laptop and slipped on a bikini, inviting me to come sit with her by the apartment complex pool. She seemed so glamorous in this way, and after months of wearing polo shirts and wiping asses, I was in desperate need of glamour. I mean, what kind of job can you leave at 2pm on a Wednesday to sit by the pool?
The offer, as described by the employer:
“A position best suited for self-starters and those who are socially savvy. Make your own hours, work when you want, and level up quickly! You will be hired as an independent contractor. Starting employees work on a fixed rate, and more experienced employees have the opportunity to work on commission. NDA signing required.”
The offer, as described as my friend who got me the job:
“It’s so gross, but it’s also kind of easy.”
After a cursory phone interview during which I was asked for my Instagram handle and briefly quizzed on my knowledge of internet celebrities, I found myself in a Google Meet with a few other similarly aged young women — one of whom was my new boss.
I was told that I now worked for an agency, but rather than pitching clients for jobs or other career opportunities, we managed their profiles on one platform. I won’t get into specific detail about a lot of what’s to come, the platform name included, at risk of violating my still-active and very obtuse NDA. The platform is a very convenient place for individuals to sell risque content, and the pre-eminent marketplace for digital sex work. I will assume that you are catching my drift.
The other girls and I were told that we had a week of unpaid training before we were assigned an account to manage. The training was mostly made up of our supervisor walking us through a day on what they called a “training account.” This account, unbeknownst to the client whose name was on it, was accessible by all of us, giving everyone a chance to get used to the platform and post some trial content. After suffering through some truly humiliating assignments such as “make a powerpoint of your 10 sexiest opening lines” and “FaceTune this series of photos,” I had made it through training and was assigned my very first account.
My role was formally titled “account manager.” From this information, you may think that I was meant to oversee the account and give clients strategic pointers on how to improve their content and earn more money. The company made great efforts to avoid admitting what we really were — professional catfish.
The reality is that the clients hardly ever logged into the platform, and if they did it was only to check their income. We received a Google Drive link of photos and videos that was updated on whatever basis the client decided to update it. We were encouraged to post multiple times a day on the main feed in addition to sending out paid content to subscribers in the messages. When new content was lacking on the client’s end, we were encouraged to strategically re-use older content in the form of photoshopping or selling it for cheaper than it originally went for. If the numbers went down, it was always our fault.
Our client roster included everyone from extremely prominent internet celebrities to non-famous women with extensive plastic surgery and a body banging enough to cut a check for the agency. My goal as an account manager was to rise through the ranks, acquiring more and higher status accounts, in order to eventually earn commission off of my labor. Sex sells, I was told, and this should be easy. What was not made immediately clear to me, and what significantly complicated the process, is that there was one thing that almost no client was willing to do: be nude.
This very fact runs counterintuitive to the entire platform design — the idea of this space is that it’s the one place you can see people you know take their clothes off. I quickly learned that my job was to make believe not only in the idea that I was an entirely different person, but that what I was promising as that person was indeed what was being given. I had to prop up the cardboard cutout of a hot girl and try to keep people in front of her, foaming at the mouth, lest I risk her blowing away in the wind and revealing the great fraud.
I was first assigned what were informally deemed “low status” accounts, meaning that they made under $10,000 a month. Eventually, when I was trusted with high status accounts, I was told that commission would be in my future — 2% of the client’s earnings from the platform — but until then, I was paid a flat rate of $3,000 a month, which was not bad for a job I could do “any time I wanted.”
This, of course, was not the truth. I could work any time I wanted, as long as I was logged on for the site’s peak hours, which were from 10pm to 2am every night and later on weekends. I had to post daily, multiple times a day, and constantly respond to a barrage of messages that ranged from innocuous to genuinely traumatizing. If you’ve ever been a woman on the internet, you know what men say to you when they think no one is watching. Now imagine that they think they are one of the lucky few to access a particularly inaccessible woman. These are the kinds of things men like that will pay sixteen dollars to say:
The job quickly became demoralizing. I developed a five song playlist of ultra-pop hype music that I would loop while working, effectively turning into a cyborg who could reliably barrel through messages detailing rape and assault and turn violent men into paying customers. I became increasingly jaded in my attitude towards men as a whole, even the polite ones in my messages, and this motivated me to drain them of cash so intensely that part of me wondered if this learned disgust was built into the job to improve employee efficiency. I was a machine, selling exclusive “nip slips” for $700 a pop and talking men into taking out second mortgages on their homes just to spend more digital time with me.
The more I worked, the less I felt, the better I got. They loved me at the agency — moving me up swiftly from an impossible “PG” account that sold only cheeky lollipop pics to a high profile internet celebrity who let me use the word “sexy” in messages. She and I developed a particularly good rapport. She was sick of account managers who sexualized her image in a way that made her uncomfortable and I was good at toeing the line. I didn’t sell sex, I sold the idea of sex, which in actuality is much more enticing. I made her a lot of money, enough to earn me an extra $3,000 in commission every month. I was in a sweet spot, and it probably would have felt good if I was feeling at the time.
The anvil came down around the holidays, when traffic on the website utterly exploded. I was on a vacation in rural Oregon with friends, and expected to have a decent amount of off-time as I assumed most people would be partaking in family gatherings and similarly wholesome activities. As it turned out, Christmas Day 2020 was the most highly trafficked day on the site.
I lay awake one night, in my cabin bed, keeping up conversation with a regular customer on my most popular page. The page was so big that I had turned on the “tip-to-talk” feature — one that is disadvantageous to a smaller account that builds rapport through messaging, and highly profitable to a large one that makes thousands off of identical “hi sexy” messages. I messaged brief replies, and he paid $5 to respond back to me. It was easy money. Until he said this:
“You know, I really appreciate you talking to me. My wife passed away a few years ago, and the kids don’t really talk to me much anymore. I can’t get out much, as I have a lot of health issues and the medical bills are expensive as is. But it is nice to chat with a friend, even like this :)”
I closed my phone immediately. I stared through the darkness and into the ceiling. I cried a bit, I think.
What at first seemed empowering — siphoning money from men who would see women as nothing more than customized pocket pussies — became clearer to me as feeling returned to my body. There were, of course, a small minority of men who saw their monetary exchange as one for a woman’s subjectivity — those who paid to feel dominant and make an object out of someone. And then there were the rest. There were men who sought an alternative to the wasteland of internet porn in the form of a page presumably in full control of the person who posted the content. There were men who found it exciting to get more intimate with an internet personality they’d been following for years. There were men who simply wanted to buy photos and flirt with a pretty girl. It was a time of isolation, a time where people had lost family members, friends, and communal events. It was a time where people wanted to connect and feel alive in their bodies, and had found a relatively simple vehicle for doing so. Even if they were connecting with me, who hid behind a facade of images and persona. Even if I ultimately could not give them the connection they bought.
I was also aware of the ways in which this use of the site disadvantaged legitimate sex workers who put time, labor, and energy into crafting their pages. This new industry of influencers and celebrities had invaded the space that once was fertile ground for a well-paying job. To be in the top 1% of earners on the platform, one only has to make $1,200 a month — not enough to sustain a single person in any U.S. state. I can’t help but think that if influencers stopped using the site to siphon customers and supplement their already ludicrous income, real people who run their own pages might have a chance at making good money on there.
I wish I could say that I left the job for purely moral reasons, but I didn’t. I had started a podcast with my roommate for fun when I first moved in, and by April the income from it was good enough for me to quit working at the agency. My leaving was a smooth transition, complete with a list of favorite phrases and off-limits words sent to the new account manager for my highest earning client.
It took a while for my mind to log off. I found myself waking intermittently at 2am, 3am, jolted by the phantom habit of needing to check the accounts. Sometimes, the more vulgar pictures and messages floated their way into the voidspace of my dreams, and I would wake up in a sweat. When I started online dating, I found it difficult to converse normally through the apps — feeling inclined to add gauche emojis and overly sexual innuendos as I had been trained. I found it difficult to trust men, and even more difficult to put in the work of knowing them. I had been a hot girl and I saw how she had been treated. How could I fare any better?
These days, I am having less trouble being embodied. I do my work and I listen to beautiful music and I really try to feel. The memory of that year — the year which for all of us was marked by increased atomization, loneliness, and helplessness — stings still. There’s nothing I can say to this end that hasn’t been said better by someone else in a way that feels more concise and less trite, but I still put my hand out into the ether for you to hold.
I know what it is to be an object, a voyeur, a cog, a salesperson, a schemer, and a liar. I know that many of us are trained that way to progress the goal of capital accumulation — the fruits of which most of us will not see. I hope that we have not forgotten each other. I hope that we have not forgotten ourselves in the mess.
Thanks for reading words from eliza! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
felt very emotional while reading this as I too have unfortunately been acquiring odd jobs these days (nothing to the extremity of being a catfish porn star, though). the worst thing is I did receive my college degree, graduated magna cum laude, too (if that even matters). however, after hundreds of applications, i have been rejected by every single company. feels like there’s no end in sight, but your writing gives me hope <3
this was beautiful holy shit. i work for a street wear sneaker brand in aus and often times it feels like i am selling my soul in order to reach arbitrary sales goals. we are forever competing against each other at a store, regional and national level. thank you for perfectly encapsulating the nature of the salesperson.