In high school, Isa Mazzei had an unusual daydream. “In my fantasies I was like, ‘Oh, I would love to be the madam of a brothel, but in the Wild West,’” she says.
Mazzei has yet to fulfill that particular fantasy, but she’s become familiar with the sex industry in her own way. Starting in 2014, she spent almost two years “camming” — entertaining and undressing for viewers on a streaming site. Mazzei, 28, was inspired by that experience to write the screenplay for last year’s horror film Cam and has now detailed her time performing for an internet “room” of admirers in her new memoir, Camgirl.
“I really want to help normalize and destigmatize this industry,” she says. “When I was working as a cam girl, people would decide things about me before they met me, and then they’d say, ‘Oh my God, but you’re such a normal person!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, sex workers are normal people.’ ”
Mazzei grew up in Boulder, Colorado, with a cinematographer father and makeup-artist mother. “In high school, I owned the identity of being ‘the slutty one,’ ” she says. “I would take my clothes off at parties. I’d brag about how many people I had kissed. I developed this fascination with sex work, because it seemed like this place where it was okay to express those parts of yourself.”
In addition to her brothel-managing dreams, Mazzei fantasized about becoming a writer and studied comparative literature at UC Berkeley, before returning to Boulder with no idea about what to do with her life. “I was trying to find myself, and throwing myself at jobs, and just being brutally unhappy,” she says. “I kept coming back to this idea of sex work.”
Mazzei began camming under the pseudonym Una. She admits there were times when her new job was frightening — “There were a couple of experiences that felt violating, for sure” — but mostly Mazzei found it an empowering experience. “As a woman, it becomes normal to get catcalled on the street or feel like someone is going to grab me in a bar,” she says. “Camming was the first space where I had really clear boundaries that I could set and enforce.”
Being a cam girl also helped Mazzei come to terms with a sexual trauma she suffered as a child and had struggled to process. “Camming was healing because it was this space where I had agency over my body,” she says. “It took feeling I was safe to be able to confront that trauma safely.”
Mazzei stopped performing partly to write Cam, which was directed by a filmmaker friend from Boulder, Daniel Goldhaber. Starring Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale, Hustlers) as a cam girl battling an online doppelgänger, the movie was released last year to rave reviews. It was while working on the film that Mazzei decided to write a book that would describe the reality of her life as a cam girl, which was often far from erotic. “It was the hardest job I’ve ever had,” she says. “It’s all-consuming all the time. It’s not just the time you spend streaming online, it’s the emails you’re answering, the Snapchats you have to send; it’s the costumes, and the lingerie, and the props, and the games you have to prepare to make sure you’re not boring people.”
Mazzei and Goldhaber currently have two more films in development, and the writer has plans for another memoir. “I really want to share what happens next,” Mazzei says, “the process of accepting childhood trauma and the things that literally happened [next] in my life. I feel like Camgirl ends at the beginning.”
Isa Mazzei will be reading from Camgirl, and signing copies of her memoir, at Stories Books & Cafe in Los Angeles on Wednesday.