Books

A Former Cam Model Reveals How Desire Can Be Both Liberating and Confining

In her new memoir Camgirl, screenwriter Isa Mazzei joins the long tradition of women who use the personal to explore and deconstruct sex and culture.

Cover of Camgirl by Isa Mazzei (courtesy Rare Bird Books)

In the opening scene of the 2018 thriller Cam, Alice, a cam model, sits in front of her expectant virtual audience. Surrounded by soft plush in vaporwave hues, she engages with her chatroom as “Lola.” The energy is light and vibrant as her rapt viewers cheer her on. But then the mood is disrupted when one user invites violence into the room. The tension rises until Lola’s performance comes to an abrupt end with a mock suicide. The film was written by Isa Mazzei, herself a former cam model. Her new memoir Camgirl opens with similar dramatic flair. She writes about her own alter-ego, Una, who “was my everything. My home. My Lover. My sense of purpose … And I was about to kill her.” 

The book is messy and heartfelt, part confession and part cultural essay, as Mazzei dives deep into the contradictions of her work as a camgirl. She is part of a larger tradition of female writers who use the personal as a means of exploring and deconstructing desire. Her take differs from those of predecessors like Anaïs Nin and Catherine Millet, born of a wholly new context. Emerging technology has completely transformed the landscape of desire by upending longstanding power dynamics. In Nin’s diaries and Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, sex becomes liberating. These works are journeys in sexual fulfillment, and are self-reflexive in the sense that they explore how feminine sexual needs are at odds with society at large. In contrast, Mazzei explores how desire can also become a prison. 

As Mazzei tells it, in her early years, she became aware of the power of her desirability, and learned to wield it as a weapon, though her relationship with sex was fraught. Camming became a way of extending the high she felt in being wanted but safely removed from the act itself. “Sex wasn’t what I was after,” she writes, “But I did want to be sexually desired, and therein lay the paradox of my entire adolescence.” Camming gave her the opportunity to try to both undo and remake her sexual identity: “I wanted to create me, just … cooler.” Una allowed Mazzei “to reclaim [her] body.” But as time went on, the power and independence Mazzei’s sex work afforded her became tangled with the unresolved trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

Catherine M. writes extensively about enjoying being watched in the sexual act, yet it remains a private experience; meanwhile, Mazzei takes her body to the internet. The question of ownership of desire comes to the forefront. Think about cinematic images, and how audiences consume with our gaze. What begins as an exciting enterprise becomes more difficult to control. Una takes on a life of her own while Mazzei, torn between different expectations, shrinks. Power and trauma walk hand in hand. While she struggles with sex, camming allows her power, but eventually that power falls into the hands of her viewers.

This anxiety would eventually become the heart of Mazzei’s screenplay for Cam. The plot finds Alice locked out of all her accounts, which have been hijacked by a lookalike. This new Lola exists solely to please viewers, and to regain control over her persona and life, Alice must sever the bond between herself and her creation, which has taken on a life of its own. This sense of alienation, telegraphed metaphorically through horror in the film, is explored explicitly in the book. 

Mazzei’s writing is astute and funny. She makes heavy use of internet speak, even transcribing instant messaging exchanges with viewers. This also sets her apart from her literary fellows, as she relies less on fantasy. She writes about sometimes finding herself falling for her imagined versions of certain clients, but their reality inevitably fails to measure up. She’s not chasing some perfect other person or the ideal sexual experience; she’s chasing herself. 

But Camgirl is not about a fall from grace. It’s closer to a coming-of-age story, or a parable about online identities and how they intersect with trauma and desire. Mazzei views her life as a camgirl as labor that helped assure her independence and set her set toward a path of transformation. Even if that work became fraught, it was essential for her development and was ultimately a positive influence, even if after a certain point she had to end things.

When we engage with our online selves — most often a version of ourselves, “but better” — what are we reaching for? For some of us, maybe it’s a perfect life, one where our makeup is on point, we go to the right clubs, and we read the right books. But more than projecting what we want, we are hiding what we dislike; not just from the world, but from ourselves.

Camgirl by Isa Mazzei is published by Rare Bird Books and is available from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.

comments (0)