Sunday, December 20, 2009

Faces 2009: Belle de Jour — Absolutely!

It’s been one incredible year for celebrated erotic author Belle de Jour, and now she’s been named one of 2009 Faces by the UK’s Guardian.

For those of you who are unfamiliar Belle de Jour, that had been the nom de plume of British author, and award-winning blogger, who was also a London call girl for two years.

On Nov. 15, Belle revealed her true identity, she is Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a noted scientist. She disclosed her identity through a voluntary interview with the London Sunday Times. Brooke’s specialist areas are developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and is now working at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health. She is currently part of a team researching the potential effects on babies of their mothers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

But, from 2003 to late 2004, Brooke worked as a prostitute via a London escort agency; she started blogging as Belle de Jour — after the Buñuel film starring Catherine Deneuve as a well-to-do housewife who has sex for money because she’s bored — shortly into her career as a call girl, after an incident she thought funny enough to write down.

She charged £300 an hour for her services, of which she got £200. The average appointment lasted two hours; she saw clients two or three times a week, “sometimes less, sometimes a great deal more,” she has said.

As Belle de Jour, Brooke, of Bristol, England, has written four books in addition to her blog about her work in the sex industry.

The UK Guardian named her as one of its Faces of 2009 today. In the article, Brooke was asked about her alter ego, prompting the good doctor to laugh.

"I think people might like to read a little bit more to how much she has changed things...on balance, she's been a good thing. But I don't think this is a fabulous life choice for everyone. It's more that every woman should be able to say, 'This is what I'd like.' Human sexuality is a massive continuum. We shouldn't forget that."

That quote underscores why I am such a deeply avid fan of Brooke’s. She is insightful, witty, brilliant and truly continues to break every mold, challenging tired and offensive stereotypes, while having a wonderfully sex-filled time of it all!

Since Brooke’s big reveal, I have devoted space to any and all fascinating news articles, features, or columns related to her. Thus, I have carefully sifted through the media deluge on both sides of the Pond and have found some that were mildly interesting, some insulting, and most poorly written. A very, very few have been exceptional. I think the honor that the Guardian bestowed today, qualifies! So, here it is in its entirety, along with the photograph that accompanied the feature article. Read it below, or at the Guardian website.

Brooke Magnanti: 'I've never had to psych myself up to take my clothes off' Observer
Faces 2009

Research scientist Brooke Magnanti, formerly call-girl blogger Belle de Jour, photographed in Bristol. Photograph: Richard Saker

By Rachel Cooke
The Observer

Sunday 20 December 2009

“Wild speculation as to the identity of Belle de Jour, the call-girl blogger and author played by Billie Piper in ITV's Secret Diary of a Call Girl, was finally answered last month when scientist Brooke Magnanti stepped forward to pre-empt an outing from a tabloid newspaper.

I meet the artist formerly known as Belle de Jour in a Bristol pub. To say that she's not what I was expecting is an understatement. Small, neat and meet-your-eye straightforward, Dr. Brooke Magnanti, research scientist, is also wearing a knitted hat that, though pretty, could easily double as a tea cosy. This is extremely confusing. After all, when Belle de Jour, the waspish former call girl who wrote about her adventures anonymously in a blog and several books, finally revealed her true identity to the world last month, she was photographed by a Sunday newspaper not in sensible boots and a bright red tea cosy but wearing a silk dressing gown and what I can only describe as a come-hither smile.

Did she like the picture? "Yes, hugely!" she says. But it was a one-off. In future, she will be photographed only in jeans or a lab coat or something. Does this mean that she is wary of her newfound visibility? Not at all. Six weeks on and she is still glad that she came out. Yes, her hand was forced – a tabloid was on her trail – but the burden of secrecy had also grown increasingly heavy.

"I thought I should just get this over with. The thing that bothered me was not knowing if, or when, exposure would happen. I would never pick up a withheld number. Never. So I went to my boss and I said, 'If you can think of any reason why I shouldn't be doing this [revealing her identity], say so now.' Her attitude was, 'So long as you get on with your work.' My boyfriend already knew and a couple of close friends. I warned my mother something big was about to happen and when I did tell her, she took it in her stride; she went straight out and bought the book. It was hilarious. Then I braced myself for other people's reactions. I decided to consider anything over 0% positive a success."

There followed several days of fuss: newspaper columnists spouted; Magnanti appeared on a TV book programme; her father – estranged – gave an interview to the Daily Mail. ("That was his choice," she says. "I just hope he feels comfortable with his decision.") Then, as suddenly as the squall had blown up, quiet reigned once more. "Life continues as normal. I do feel a huge sense of relief. If someone asks me a question, I can answer it honestly. But day to day, nothing is any different. I go to work, I attend conferences."

Her current research project – it involves a pesticide she believes can be linked to developmental problems in children – is in its final stages and she must now start applying for new grants. "My concern isn't that people will interview me out of curiosity; it's that people will be less likely to interview me because they don't want to be associated with all this."

So is she determined to remain a scientist? "Oh, yes. That's my passion. I've worked really hard to stay in science. When people talk about my old life, they say, 'Oh, so she wasn't doing it to pay for a drug addiction.' Well, that's true. But I did have an addiction. It was to higher education. That's a very expensive addiction."

It is more than six years since she gave up her £300-an-hour part-time job; she is now 34. So how does she look back on the girl who decided to fund her doctorate not by waitressing but by selling sex? "I think I was a bit overwhelmed at the time. I was coming to the end of my studies and I'd applied for, and failed to get, so many jobs. Sometimes, I felt like a small cork bobbing on a large ocean. But I would have felt like that anyway, probably more so, if I'd decided to work at Starbucks."

She sounds detached, as though all this happened to someone else. Was it like being an actor? "Some aspects were like that. The bits where I had conversations, put people at their ease. But I'm not really self-conscious about my body. I've never had to psych myself up to take my clothes off. It's a difficult one to explain, but the job made me more sympathetic to men. They've got the money but not necessarily the power. If they had all the power, they wouldn't be paying for it. Somewhere, there is some vulnerability. Either they didn't have time for a girlfriend – I had a lot of those – or they were having a difficult relationship and were feeling confused. You're the one who can walk out. I've had some terrible dates, but the men who were clients bent over backwards to be nice to me. They were so eager to be seen as honest. They wanted to impress me. It was sweet."

Magnanti tells me that we shouldn't be too startled by the yawning gulf between her old job and the one she does now; we might be surprised if we knew how many women are working in the sex industry while outwardly maintaining every appearance of an ordinary, middle-class life. "A few of the girls I met at my agency were not dissimilar to me. I don't think there is such a thing as [a] typical [prostitute]. Go to some streetwalkers' charity and it's easy, from the outside, to think these people are abused. But everyone has a different set of circumstances."

But what about Belle? Is her career as an author over now? And how much has her frankness lowered the bar when it comes to writing about sex? Magnanti laughs. "I think people might like to read a little bit more to how much she has changed things...on balance, she's been a good thing. But I don't think this is a fabulous life choice for everyone. It's more that every woman should be able to say, 'This is what I'd like.' Human sexuality is a massive continuum. We shouldn't forget that."’

As a US fan since her first blog post hit the internet in 2003, I had never fully understood how devotedly the UK media had gone to unmask Belle. Nor was I truly cognizant of the amazing number of theories about her very existence! Apparently, the most popular was that Belle was a construct, a fake, a non-person created by a famous male writer or journalist! How utterly insulting and deeply chauvinistic/misogynistic.

As a reader, it never occurred to me that Brooke was anything other than she purported to be. Her writing is real, and her literary voice completely authentic and utterly unique. I still check her blog every day. I’ve never missed a post, not because she’s famous or controversial, but because she’s a lyrical, important writer who’s had a deep impact on me and my life.

Please check back frequently, as Brooke will take center stage on this blog whenever warranted!

Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men, published by Orion Books, hit store shelves in the United Kingdom on Oct. 1. Not yet available in the US, it is widely available across the pond at UK bookstores, or via Amazon’s UK division.

When you’re there, be sure and check out Belle’s other books: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, September 2005; The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl, May 2007; and Playing the Game, June 2009. Not a ringer in the bunch – trust me!

— The Curator

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