Dr Brooke Magnanti

Brooke Magnanti: Sex for money, why not?
Hannah Betts meets Dr Brooke ‘Belle de Jour’ Magnanti, the former call
girl whose blog became a media sensation. Now with a new book just
published, she is not done with challenging assumptions yet.
The artist formerly known as Belle: three years since outing herself
as the ‘happy hooker’ Belle de Jour, Dr Brooke Magnanti is back with
another book

The artist formerly known as Belle: three years since outing herself
as the ‘happy hooker’ Belle de Jour, Dr Brooke Magnanti is back with
another book  Photo: CHRIS WATTS

By Hannah Betts

The scene: a Highlands walkers’ café. Me [squeaking]: “I have no
desire to XXXX! It’s not that I’m prudish. I just don’t have a
particular urge to do it.” My companion [kindly]: “Well, you
understand your boundaries.” Journalistic life yields many surreal
situations. However, taking tea in Fort Augustus while discussing
sexual exotica (of the kind that I could specify only because most
readers would have no notion of the act to which it refers) rates
pretty highly.

This assignation has demanded elaborate machinations. My interview
subject boasts no mobile phone. We meet an hour or so from her home,
my having flown to Inverness, then taken a taxi for two hours
alongside the Caledonian Canal. I await her, as on a blind date,
endeavouring to look at once obvious yet inconspicuous.

But then I am meeting Dr Brooke Magnanti, formerly known as Belle de
Jour. This is a woman well acquainted with secrecy, having lived a
double life during, and in the aftermath of, her 14 months as a London
call girl in 2003-4, followed by a blogging, then publishing, then
televisual sensation.

Her first two books, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl and
The Further Adventures…, were top 10 bestsellers. The television
programme they inspired, ITV’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl, ran to
four series. It was a fabulously frothy confection in which Billie
Piper starred as the big-haired, big-on-gags-and-attitude working
girl. A fashion fetishising, Sex and the City-esque rendition, it did
little to stifle accusations that our heroine had glamorised
prostitution.

Speculation as to the identity of the pseudonymous Belle was as
rampant as the narratives she recounted. A host of writers – among
them yours truly and several men – were posited as the self-declared
happy hooker, while the real one turned tricks both erotic and
rhetorical. Her own mother and close confidantes failed to guess her
identity. Almost everyone, she says, has been supportive since; not
least the friend whose reaction was to exclaim not a judgment, but: “I
know a published author!”

Belle was palpably bright and this foxed people who preferred the
no-better-than-she-ought-to-be streetwalker stereotype. Worse, she had
the temerity to enjoy sex, hence the accusation that she was a male
construct of female desire. When Magnanti finally outed herself in
2009, The Sunday Times, in which she chose to break the story, was
clearly apprehensive that it might be the subject of another Hitler
Diaries-type hoax.

Demonstrating the rigour that secured the Sheffield University
doctorate in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science that many
found so impossible to countenance – and the waggishness that made her
writing such a hit — Magnanti informs me that she would have asked:
“Who’s already blogging and a bit of a slag?”

She tells me that she first had intercourse at 16, describing herself
since as “rather promiscuous generally”. American by birth, of
Jewish/Italian parentage, she came to Britain at 24. Her accent now is
a round-O-ed hodgepodge of Yorkshire, Bristolian and a fresh dusting
of Scots, aloft her native Floridian. Elusive, protean, it is the
perfect voice for a woman who has constituted a fantasy figure both in
private and in public.

Her new book, The Sex Myth, fuses her personae as research scientist
and sex worker. And it’s good: powerful in its exposé of knee-jerk
reactions and shoddy science, social or otherwise. The chapters
challenging feminist assumptions about pornography and the sex trade
look likely to prove constructively controversial. It deserves to do
at least as well as the books with Billie Piper’s lithe form
emblazoned on them.

The universal reaction from people I told I had met Magnanti was: “Did
you like her?” Part of it would appear to be a prejudice that no one
could like a former prostitute. There is also an impression that she
has come across as unsympathetically detached in previous interviews.

“I think there’s an expectation with women who are writing that if
you’re not projecting your emotions at all times, then you don’t have
any,” she says. She attributes any dispassionate manner to her
scientific training, adding: “I probably am a somewhat cold person.
How much of myself do I really want to share?”

Doubtless, it was the policing of such boundaries that enabled her to
share herself bodily for £300 an hour, of which her madam/manager
received a third. Conscientious, she paid tax on her earnings.

And, so, for the record: I liked her. Magnanti is one of the few
people I have interviewed who becomes still more endearing on
listening to the tape post-interview. She is funny. So funny, in fact,
that my diaphragm aches during our discussion of the mini-controversy
sparked by her ambassadorship of an Inverness shindig. “It’s a whisky
festival. There isn’t a colouring book area for toddlers.” I suggest
that next year she hosts a Highland crack den. She reads the ranting
Mumsnet forum “Am I being unreasonable?” as a comic guilty pleasure.

There is a certain watchful caution, however: perhaps by describing
her as “cold” what is meant is “intelligent”. It is also traditional
to allude to her looks. The diminutive Magnanti is a youthful 36 in
her knee socks and cowboy boots, face relatively free of make up
(“It’s a drag!”). When she ties back her long, (naturally) blonde
hair, she is the image of Cameron Diaz. She is attractive without
being obviously sexual, until she turns the beam of her attention on
you, provoking the response: “Ah, there it is”.

In a blow for the puritans, Magnanti is now married – something she
has discussed online, but has yet to feature in print. She met her
husband in Bristol under the casual sex section of the website
Gumtree. “You turned it into a relationship?” I ask, mock-shocked by
such a breach of decorum. He is 34 and from Birmingham, a “feminist”
who relishes debating her writing. She told him about her past when
she realised she had the potential to fall in love with him. She has
had sex with “hundreds” of people, he nine. They live in Lochaber
surrounded by new apple trees, and deer, who like to eat apple trees.
A former vegetarian, she has developed a “thrill” for retaliatory
venison consumption. Yesterday, she and her husband went kayaking.

There is, she acknowledges, a degree of escapism for one about whom
everyone feels entitled to a view to have decamped to the Highlands.
“My very existence seems to spur something in people that they feel
they need to answer.” She engaged in sex for money to fund her life in
London and has never understood the hysterical reaction. “Part of
women being permitted to make their own choices is that this was my
choice, and you may not agree with it, but, nevertheless, it’s a
choice. Do the people who say women should have the right to make
choices mean just not this one?”

Some commentators have exhibited a curious disappointment that
Magnanti has not been damaged by her experience. The same individuals
welcomed the revelation following her unveiling that, back in Florida,
her father had become a drug addict with a sex-worker girlfriend as
the psychology behind her sexual career. “I don’t judge her being a
streetwalker, but I absolutely judge the people who think that a
25-year-old woman would be so scarred by that that two years later
she’d become a prostitute out of some warped sense of revenge. That’s
the amazing thing, this infantilisation, even by people who beat the
feminist drum; they still feel my thought processes are somehow
subhuman, or sub-adult.”

In The Sex Myth, Magnanti makes clear that she feels that feminism’s
attitude towards going on the game unites it with some unlikely
bedfellows. “I cannot get past the idea that a number of feminists are
OK with joining forces with people who do not agree with very much of
what feminism is about for the sake of this one issue, and actively
rejecting people like me who agree with most things feminism stands
for apart from this one issue… Why would I want to be a member of a
group that’s actively rejecting me? I’m the anti-Groucho Marx.”

Her reluctance to marry may have passed, but not to having offspring.
“Fundamentally … I don’t feel that having a family is the best thing I
have to offer the world.” Nor it you? “Agreed. Besides, I have
accepted the fact that, if there’s an obituary about me, there’s one
thing it will be sure to mention, and it will be illustrated with
Billie Piper wearing that feather boa. And that’s OK. But the question
becomes: ‘What do you do about your children?’ because it’s a matter
of how people would treat them.”

Her book has changed my mind about aspects of prostitution. I’ve
always considered it a more honest position than, say, being a
salary-stalking Belgravia banker’s wife. However, her argument that it
is inconsistent that we can sell our brains and, indeed, bodies so
long as it’s beauty or physical strength – or, in certain countries,
wombs or organs – while selling sex remains taboo, is compelling.

Nevertheless, I still possess a block about the oldest profession. I
quaked when a lover merely gave me a taxi fare. I just don’t think I
could. “But it’s fine for me?” Magnanti counters, half joking, half
bristling. “I think you’d be more expert.” More laughter.

I tell her about my formative confrontation with the industry: an
(extremely clever) girl at my (extremely nice) school, who was put
into care at 13, and ended up being paid for intercourse – thus also
raped – by a man old enough to be her father. Her exposure a couple of
years later provoked an animal savagery among her peers and she felt
forced to leave. I think of her often, appalled by the loss of
potential that I hope she has been able to confound.

“So be an ally,” proposes Magnanti. “In terms of how you’re treated by
the law and how you’re seen by society, there’s a lot of similarity
between being a sex worker now and being gay 20 years ago. And what
really changed that was family, friends, members of the public coming
to know people who were gay. We need people like you who say: ‘I
myself am not a sex worker, but I do not object to their existence’.”

“If you want to identify a population that has been consistently
discriminated against, it is up there with racism, with religion.
There is the assumption that, once you have crossed this line, you
never go back and that it says something about you as a person and
your ability to do other things.” Magnanti’s book will have me — and
legions of others — ready to join the cause.