Isa Mazzei’s new book CAMGIRL – evocative but never flowery

“Una was my everything. My home. My lover. My sense of purpose. She gave me money. She gave me validation. She gave me power and taught me hope and accepted me exactly as I was. Una was the keeper of my shame, my pride. She was there when I was lonely, when I was sad, when I was bored, when I needed a friend. Una was always just a click away.

And I was about to kill her.”

When I saw Isa Mazzei’s debut feature film CAM (now available on Netflix) a couple of years ago, one of the things that jumped out at me was the feeling of authenticity. The horror film about a webcam model whose identity is co-opted by an internet algorithm felt so well-observed as to seem like a documentary, if not for the hyperreal nightmare it portrayed. On the heels of that film, Mazzei has penned a memoir, CAMGIRL, detailing her early life, her journey through the world of webcam modelling and, eventually, filmmaking. Besides providing texture to CAM, Mazzei’s memoir seeks to crush the preconceived notions and assumptions that many people have about the sex industry.

Photo Credit: Sara Baar

Blurring lines between reality and fantasy, Mazzei opens CAMGIRL, with a scene that mirrors the first one in CAM. The webcam model – Lola (Madeline Brewer) in CAM and Mazzei herself in CAMGIRL – “kills herself” in front of hundreds of viewers in an effort to snuff out her online persona, known as Una. She loops back on the story to give the reader context for this action, and to relate the journey she went on to reach that point.

Mazzei’s stories and experiences in CAMGIRL run up against traditional assumptions about sex work, and the motivations of those who enter and participate in the industry. While abuse and desperation are certainly still present, as they are in most other industries, Mazzei’s entry into that world does not seem to come from a desperation for money or a result of being exploited by others in the industry itself. She acknowledges her teenage years as ones with an exceeding amount of privilege, wealth, and influence (at least, prior to her parent’s divorce when the money “dried up”) but what comes through is a deep sadness in spite of that. Problematic (to say the least) parenting, including an often-absentee father with untreated mental illness and a mother in the throes of alcoholism, contributed to Mazzei’s acting out. Sex work provided a needed outlet for Mazzei’s complicated insecurities around sex and to work through childhood trauma.

Photo Credit: Sara Barr

CAMGIRL also smashes the stigma of sex workers as ‘sluts’ or people who are obsessed with sex or at least having sex. Mazzei describes how, despite being surrounded by sex and sex workers, the actual act of being intimate with another person is difficult for her, and from a young age, was always seeking another outlet to express herself sexually while stopping short of traditional sex. This is never so vivid as Mazzei’s description of a porn convention that she attends as part of the cam site she works with. The open hedonism and public orgies sound like what most readers would expect from a situation like that, but Mazzei’s deep discomfort at participating is apparent and shows how she, like many sex workers, used camming as a way to compartmentalize her sexuality and create distance from it. Similarly, when Mazzei describes visiting other webcam models to do highly-profitable dual shows, she is taken aback by the business-like and decidedly unsexy tone these experiences take on. Both are captivating looks into an industry that has always been insular, and which trades heavily on the mystique of how porn is produced.

“I say who. I say when. I say how much”

In the latter half of the memoir, Mazzei describes how her experiences led her to a number of important revelations. She gained a real understanding of her own sexuality, the boundaries she needed to create between her online and real personas (something that should be relatable to anyone with a digital footprint on social media), and why she ultimately needed to snuff Una out of existence.

Mazzei’s writing, as one could tell from CAM, is particularly evocative but never flowery or bogged down. It leans heavily on its naturally captivating subject matter but is presented in a way that the reader feels like they’re on the same journey that Mazzei is, feeling her same fears and triumphs.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Fullam

CAMGIRL is a truly rare, intimate, and candid look at the way that sex work is changing, both for better and for worse. By lifting the veil on this particular corner of the industry and focusing on Mazzei’s experience with webcam modelling and the way that it can be both an alternative and a gateway to traditional sex work, it feels so much a product of our time. It also feels like an intimate study of the layered and complex person that gave birth to the character depicted in CAM, and provides reasons why that character was so vividly drawn. For me, it was a window into the creation of one of the most exciting genre films I’ve seen in years, and I can’t wait to see where Mazzei goes next.

Isa Mazzei’s CAMGIRL will be available from Rare Bird Books in the US on November 12, Canada on November 22, and in the UK on November 28. You can order your copy at the following links:

US/Canada/UK

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