Originally posted on Webcam Stars
Harli Lotts (not her real name) knows her audience better than just about anyone I’ve ever met in online media. In just two years, the bubbly blonde from El Paso, Texas, has gone from manager of a rent-to-own store to rising internet starlet by making personal connections with a loyal online audience. She arrived at our interview on a sweltering Friday morning in a hotel suite on the Las Vegas strip with a small entourage of two other budding social media influencers, Amber Vixx and Stefanie Joy (also not their names).
NSFW Warning: This story may contain links to and descriptions or images of explicit sexual acts.
After our interview, she and her friends will probably hit the pool at a local apartment complex and do what millennials do: eat pizza and play out their lives in front of tiny, portable cameras. During our wide-ranging conversation she’ll talk confidently about the business of live streaming video, the ephemeral nature of online fame, Rashida Jones’ controversial Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted and the markup on consumer eyewear.
But one question gives her pause.
“Have you ever thought about how intimate your relationship is with your computer?” I ask.
“Not until right now, actually, talking to you. I’ve just realized that, yeah, like, probably it’s my best friend right now. It helps me through everything,” she says.
Lotts’ computer isn’t just her best friend — it’s her main revenue generator and her connection, not only to her fans but also to the outside world. Lotts is a social media star in the truest sense of the word. She is one of a growing number of independent, live streaming video personalities who can make thousands of dollars in just a few hours broadcasting mostly unremarkable acts for a captive internet audience. She just happens to do some of it naked.
Lotts is a cam girl, part of a booming at-home workforce made up of young women — and a few men — who are upending the adult entertainment industry and social media at the same time. Like Instagram influencers or YouTube makers, today’s webcam models need little more than a strong WiFi connection and an internet-connected camera to make a living.
Signing up for services like My Free Cams, Flirt4Free, or Chaturbate, which are essentially platforms like Facebook or Snapchat, is simple. Once you’ve filled out a web form, verified your age and agreed to the service’s terms and conditions, you can immediately start streaming to a limitless audience of viewers seeking human connection and, of course, sexual release. With the right tools and an ID that says they’re 18 or older, these 21st-century push-button celebrities don’t even have to leave their bedrooms to make a living, and they all have one woman to thank.
When Jennifer Ringley picked up a webcam at her college book store in 1996, she had no way of knowing she’d serve as the catalyst for an industry that’s been estimated to pull in more than $1 billion in revenue annually. Just two years earlier, Connectix, a small peripheral maker released the QuickCam, a digital camera that sat on top of your Apple’s Macintosh and delivered 320-x-240 black-and-white images at 15 frames per second for $100.
In a rare 2015 interview, Ringley told Gimlet Media’s Reply All podcast that she found herself at a loss for what to do with her impulse purchase and decided to put her amateur programming skills to the test. She rigged her webcam to constantly record candid stills from inside her dorm room and upload a new image every 15 minutes to her site, Jennicam.org.
Ringley wasn’t the first subject of an experiment in webcamming. That honor belonged to a coffee pot at Cambridge University, but she was the first to give the world 24-hour access to her private life via the internet. For the next seven years, Ringley streamed her daily life, uncut and uncensored for an audience of millions of strangers.
She would become something of an internet phenomenon, a precursor to the unvarnished YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram celebrities of today. She appeared in profiles for major media organizations and eventually made a much-cited appearance on David Letterman’s show. But for all of the mainstream hype, Jennicam’s appeal was decidedly NSFW.
Early on, she decided to giver her followers unrestricted access to her daily activities, including intimate moments like masturbation and sex. At its peak, Jennicam attracted seven million visits per day. Despite its success, Ringley took Jennicam offline in 2003, following a sex scandal in which she hooked up with a fellow lifecaster’s boyfriend on camera.
The following year Facebook was born and over the next decade, live streaming video would become a cornerstone of mainstream social media. YouTube launched its live video service in 2010, followed by Facebook and Twitter in 2015 and Instagram in 2016. The big social networks have put their money on live video but anyone working in the adult cam industry could have told you: It’s been a safe bet for years.
“Cams are the adult industry’s response to Facebook, frankly.”
Kelly Holland, owner and CEO of Penthouse, says beyond driving profits, the adult entertainment industry and social networks are serving the same basic need.
“Cams are the adult industry’s response to Facebook, frankly,” Holland says. “Facebook happened for a reason. It became what it was, I would tell you, not through Zuckerberg’s brilliance, but because it was just the right thing at the right time. It was in the pocket for where we were culturally, and where were we. We were in this incredibly desperate world where we had all moved away from home, we weren’t with the kids that grew up with. We weren’t with our families, and we were in this huge world of billions of people, and we needed to create our little tribes.”
People in the adult camming business consistently draw the connection between online social networks like Facebook and the work that they do. Clinton Cox, founder of Havoc Media and Cam Con, a “model convention” focused on webcamming and other forms of social media, got his start in the early days of commercialized live streaming video.
At the time, large webcamming studios were being built across the US, Latin America and Eastern Europe, churning out 24-hour streams from sometimes hundreds of models per day. These studios provided, and still do outside of the US, access to a safe space as well as the means to stream. Ten years ago, Cox, who worked in live music video production, was hired to build out a network of studios in Colombia. He says that at the peak of that project, the studio network shot 250 models per day.
Marco Ducati, a stout, muscular webcam model and adult film star, got his start camming at a Flirt4Free studio in Los Angeles 11 years ago.
“At the time I was going to school and working construction,” he says. “I was making $600 a week, which wasn’t bad, especially being sort of young. And I remember [my girlfriend] took me to West Hollywood where a webcam studio was set up, and I made like over $400 my first night. Like, literally in three hours. Safe to say I wasn’t in construction for long.”
Ariana Marie lives in a DIY cam house, where her fans can watch her 24 hours a day. AOL
Soon after Ducati started camming, Flirt4Free shuttered its West Hollywood studio. According to Pew Research, nearly 75 percent of American households have broadband internet, compared to about 50 percent in 2007 and many laptops have cameras capable of streaming HD video live to the internet. Models no longer needed the studios to make a living in the US, but developing countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe still rely heavily on studios to provide technology and a safe space for camming. While US models split revenue with services like Flirt4Free, MyFreeCams and Chaturbate, they’re otherwise largely independent.
“I love cams because at one level I like to say that it is the ultimate entrepreneurial experience for young women.” Holland says. “They can make as much money or not as they choose.”
While webcamming has taken off, traditional adult entertainment has struggled to remain relevant. Businesses like Penthouse have had to be creative to thrive, due in part to the economic recession of the late aughts, the rise of free tube sites and internet piracy. The material effect of camming on adult media pioneers like Penthouse is unclear, but Holland says it has changed the way that they work. She says her staff now trolls sites like MyFreeCams and Chaturbate for its infamous Penthouse Pets and recently introduced a monthly cam girl spotlight called Cyber Cuties.
“In a world of a quarter of a million girls, and that’s a complete back of the napkin number, success is how you can differentiate, how you can become your own superstar,” she says. “How you can become the influencer in your own environment? Part of that is if we make you a Penthouse Pet, or we put you on the pages of a magazine. There may only be a hundred thousand people that see that magazine, but that moniker ‘Penthouse Pet’ counts as a differentiation.”
My Free Cams President Leo Radvinsky has said the site serves more than 100,000 models and 5 million users worldwide. One of those models is Aspen Rae, a one-time Penthouse Pet and full-time webcam model. When we meet at the AVN studios in Chatsworth, California, Rae’s flawless, long black hair cascades over her chiseled muscles, creating an immediate visual dichotomy. In her downtime, Rae is basically a real-life John McClane in the making.
She uses the money she makes as an award-winning cam model to fund an amateur bodybuilding career and commercial helicopter lessons. She says keeping her life interesting gives her plenty to talk about during her streams, but Rae uses the adult industry to keep her name relevant and boost her visibility. She occasionally shoots girl-on-girl films and has a list of XXX accolades, despite the fact that camming is her main source of income. She demurs when I ask how much she makes but says her goals are in the thousands per day. She only cams for two to three hours daily.
“Some girls might do extremely well. They’re gonna have to shoot every day. They’re gonna have to be working their asses off.”
“I make a hell of a lot more doing webcamming and that might not be the same for everybody,” she says. “Some girls might do extremely well. They’re gonna have to shoot every day. They’re gonna have to be working their asses off, you know, shooting full-time, which is something that I couldn’t imagine doing, and I give mad props to anybody who can shoot full-time. But with [MyFreeCams] I’ll have tremendous days where I will make more in one day than I could ever possibly imagine shooting for one week.”
Rae, who now serves as a spokesperson for MyFreeCams and co-hosted the 2017 AVN awards (the so-called Oscars of porn), prides herself on being a self-made woman. She does all of her own lighting, editing and booking, and though many models do the same, there’s no industry standard for how to be a cam model.
About 300 miles northeast of the AVN studio, in the desert suburbs of Las Vegas, Ariana Marie, a Southern waitress turned cam girl, is returning to camming in a big way after a short stint in hardcore porn. Marie, also a former Penthouse Pet, and her husband, Jack Spade, a retired adult performer, are building an empire around her good-girl-gone-bad brand. Their large, stucco home in a palm-tree-lined gated community is kitted out with a series of always-on cameras that give her fans 24-hour access to her most private moments.
As Marie gives me a tour of their home, which she proudly says she’s decorated almost exclusively with furniture from Ross, I can’t help but be reminded of Jennicam, and how simple her always-on streaming experiment now seems. Like today’s most successful social media influencers, Marie isn’t just a personality — she’s a holistic brand selling connection to an otherwise inaccessible lifestyle.
“I’ve created my own little community within this giant community. And the reward is, you get to see me naked every once in awhile.”
“I still shoot movies — adult film — I webcam, I feature dance, we have a cam house here in Vegas, which is our house,” she says. “And that’s pretty much the main stuff, but it comes with a bunch of other things here and there. You know, like custom videos and just all that. It’s crazy. Like I can’t even sometimes. I don’t even know what I did yesterday because of how much we do.”
Camming offers a nearly endless supply of revenue streams. Models are only limited by their own inhibitions, time and motivation. In addition to adult films, Marie regularly performs at strip clubs as a feature dancer, solicits gifts from fans via an Amazon wish list and records videos scripted and commissioned by her fans. She also charges by the minute or message for direct communication through an app called Sex Panther. During our visit, she and Spade will also take a break to entertain a pitch for a reality television show.
As cam models go, Marie is as close as you can get to a bona fide star. She admits that her time in adult films set the stage for the success that she’s experienced, but it also cemented her audience’s expectations.
“I can’t compare myself to the regular cam models that haven’t done adult films,” she says. “My guys are gonna expect me to do something more crazy than a girl playing video games or something. Like I’m not going to make any money from a guy that’s watched my scenes just playing a video game.”
From the early days of Jennicam, webcamming has been as much about the promise of the eventual money shot as it has been about all of the moments in between. With the tools of production in the hands of the models, they decide what those moments look like. Holland says she loves it “because it gives so many more girls so many more opportunities to do what they want with their bodies.”
Models can be as hardcore or reserved as they want, but everyone I’ve spoken with says it’s all about giving your fans what they want, and, according to Cox, that’s not always an orgasm.
“The majority of it’s just interaction and talking and people spilling their guts to each other. It’s just like psychotherapy, digital psychotherapy.”
“Eighty percent of it is interactivity — if we’re talking about hardcore cams — the final 10 percent is where there’s actually something sexual that happens,” Cox says. “The majority of it’s just interaction and talking and people spilling their guts to each other. It’s just like psychotherapy, digital psychotherapy. I literally used to watch the numbers and watch these people consume the amount they would consume, and it wasn’t anything more than just internet companionship. Like, ‘Hey, let’s press play on this movie at the same time on YouTube and watch it together.’ Play. Press pause. ‘You want to order a pizza? Let’s get a pizza going.’ Pause. Order a pizza. ‘Pizza’s here! Let’s eat pizza.’
“It wasn’t about porn, or about adult. It was about two people that were just digitally connected.”
The nature of interaction on cam sites has allowed a new breed of adult performers to emerge. Models are known as much for the personality, party tricks and gimmicks as they are for their sexual prowess. Lotts tells me she shot a hardcore scene once. It was a girl-girl scene with Aspen Rae. It wasn’t as profitable as she’d hoped and her fans aren’t looking to her for that sort of hardcore action anyway. As opposed to the “girlfriend experience” or the “porn star experience,” Lotts says she provides her fans with “the best friend experience”.
Aspen Rae’s reputation in the adult entertainment industry, with titles like Penthouse Pet, has catapulted her above the competition. AOL
“I think I play the-girl-next-door role the most,” Lotts says. “I think that’s how I come off. So, my audience is like those boys who had girl best friends in high school, and they’re just used to having girls to talk to. And they run their ideas by me, or they ask me their opinions. I kind of feel like a therapist sometimes.”
Lotts is constantly connected to her fans through Instagram and Twitter; she plays games with them on her streams, raffles off PlayStations and Oculus Rifts, and dresses up as their favorite video game and comic book characters at their request. For Lotts, her viewers aren’t just pay-to-play voyeurs but a community of close, personal friends.
“It’s a chat room,” she says. “We’re just all hanging out as friends. They hang out as friends outside of my chat room now, because they’ve met outside of my chat room. I’ve created my own little community within this giant community. And the reward is, you get to see me naked every once in awhile.”
Throughout my conversations with Aspen, Marco, Ariana, Harli, Stefanie and Amber, the conversation always comes back to connection: that same connection that Kelly Holland and Clinton Cox speak of, the one Mark Zuckerberg proselytizes to investors and journalists. It’s the same thing that drove millions of people to flock to Jennicam.org. Cox says he doesn’t see the difference between what these girls do and what plays out on social media every day, and with mainstream celebrities like Kim Kardashian proudly exposing their bodies on mainstream apps like Instagram, it’s hard to argue with that logic.
But just as in the real world, that pursuit of connection online has real consequences. Mounting evidence shows that the more we connect online, the more isolated we feel in real life. Loneliness is a very real thing.
Live webcamming gives lonely, introverted people all over the world the opportunity for human connection. For Lotts and her friends Amber Vixx and Stefanie Joy, that connection isn’t a one-way experience. Lotts says that the most successful cam models are the shy ones, the ones who never leave their houses. She says that since she took up camming she’s spent more and more time at home. Today, she rarely leaves her house, except for conventions, going as far as to have her groceries delivered to avoid the outside world. Her computer has become, at least for her, more than a source of income or a way of cashing in on male desire. Camming has created a unique relationship with her tools of production
“It is a security blanket,” she says. “That’s exactly how I put it. As long as I have it on, I feel okay.”
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By Christopher Trout