Sunday, March 28, 2010

Belle de Jour: Life After the Big Reveal

For the first time in print, Belle de Jour writes about unexpectedly disclosing her identity last year in a provocative article appearing today in the Sunday Times of London – the same newspaper in which she first revealed her identity.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with her, Belle de Jour had been the nom de plume of a celebrated British erotic author, who was also a London call girl for two years. She gained national and international prominence through her award winning blog.

Last year, Belle revealed she is Dr. Brooke Magnanti, of Bristol, England, a noted scientist. 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.

I don’t have the skills to do justice to today’s article in summary form, so here it is in its entirety, or read it directly at the Sunday Times website:

From The Sunday Times
March 28, 2010

Life without the mask of Belle de Jour

After outing herself last year as the bestselling call girl author, she tells of the death threats, harassment and surprising level of support that followed

By Brooke Magnanti

(Photo by Francesco Guidicini)

Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist, was threatened by an ex-boyfriend after she revealed her double life as a prostitute but her co-workers were understanding and her mother shrugged it off, saying: 'A girl?s gotta do what a girl's gotta do'

“Well, this wasn’t quite part of the retirement plan. Having to get a restraining order taken out on my ex-boyfriend. The revelation that my father was a user of prostitutes. The death threats. No: ever since I set up the anonymous Belle de Jour blog in 2003, I figured that when I hit 60, I could simply reveal my identity, quit work and enjoy life.

So it was a bit of a surprise to find myself on the front page of The Sunday Times quite so soon. Not only the front page, but three pages inside, a huge interview with India Knight disclosing that for 14 months, I, Brooke Magnanti, research scientist, had charged money for sex via a London escort agency, £300 an hour to be precise.

Obviously I knew that the piece outing me as Belle de Jour, the blogger whose online diaries detailing my erotic adventures had made me possibly the most famous call girl in the world, was running, but I always kind of thought it’d only be a small item tucked away on page 6. Little did I know that my mother would be chased down the motorway, reporters would try to accost my co-workers, and eventually I’d have to get the police involved.

So I must have turned slightly green when I picked up a copy in my local newsagent’s and saw it was above the fold. My boyfriend, whom I met on Gumtree.com, and whom I’ve been dating for two years, quickly suggested he’d buy it and would meet me outside. We walked to our usual Sunday breakfast cafe in silence, and then we read the piece together. There was a long pause while I waited for his reaction. He raised his eyebrows and said: “Does India Knight look as good as her photos?”

The truth is I’d been forced to contact India (Knight.) For six years, while the bestselling books based on my blog were published, even when Billie Piper played me in the television series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, many had tried, unsuccessfully, to discover Belle’s identity. Actually, that’s not quite true — a blogger called Darren had worked it out back in 2003 but, in a move for which I’ll be eternally grateful, had kept it secret. He had set up a widget that alerted him whenever my name was Googled with Belle de Jour’s. Suddenly, last October, he started getting odd hits and contacted me to say someone who clearly worked for a tabloid newspaper was sniffing around.

Quite independently, I had also thought something was up because a reporter had been found breaking into the office where I worked as a research scientist in Bristol just a week after I’d vacated it. These events shifted the timescale considerably, but I knew I had to act when my agent started receiving email from my ex.

He is referred to as The Boy on the blog. We’d split two years previously after I found pictures on my phone of him having sex with another woman. I had always worried he would reveal the secret, and now it looked as if he was trying to. He claimed the tabloids had approached him, but he accidentally forwarded my agent an email he sent a reporter agreeing to hand her my identity. I talked to my agent and we decided to come clean to a decent newspaper before the tabs could publish.

I was frightened; of course I was. I was convinced that if people knew, no one would support me, that I could kiss goodbye to my career as a scientist and my UK visa. I’d decided to tell my co-workers first. I told them all over a drink at work and, to my surprise, they were just, like, “Okay, fine.” There are constant jokes now, of course: if anything is ever described as “easy” in any context, I get a look. Sometimes I say things myself just to get a laugh — “I’m going to sex up this paper,” or, “I’m going to work this conference.” It’s all gone a bit Carry On. But I haven’t got fed up with the banter. The jokes are never mean-spirited. I’ve also noticed I get on with the Christian co-worker I share an office with better than before.

There was one ridiculous situation with a former co-worker from Belfast who threatened to sue me for racist discrimination because I called him “Irish” on the blog. I hadn’t known where he was born; the man in question is from Belfast and Protestant, but I didn’t know that. Of all the nasty things I wrote about co-workers I can’t believe that’s the one that caused the most offence.

India had suggested my boyfriend and I go abroad for a few days after the piece came out, but because I had no idea how serious it would be, we only turned our phones off. I’d been changing my number regularly because my ex had been trying to contact me, so when we turned them on again, there wasn’t much: a few texts, such as one from a running friend who’d read the books: “My mate the legend!!”

My boyfriend also had a text from his mother: we hadn’t told her because she’s a Guardian reader and we thought she wouldn’t notice. But she had. She said she thought I was very brave, and she was thinking of buying the books. Fortunately she also added that she wouldn’t read my Twitter posts, which is good because I tweet about the relationship. Some things a mother really need not know about her son.

I rang my mum. She lives in New York; we’ve had our ups and downs, as most do. Obviously, I worried about her reaction. But she was immediately supportive. “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do,” she said. “In my day we were giving it away for free.” I saw her about a month later, by which time — to my horror — she had read the books. She was upset I’d told the story about her getting grey pubic hair, in which I overheard her and my gran talking — Mum: “I can’t believe it: I found a grey pubic hair.” Gran: “Honey, just wait til they start falling out” — but actually by that time we were more preoccupied with my father, whom I hadn’t seen since 2005.

As soon as the piece hit, the other newspapers scrambled. They chased my mother on the motorway in America, staked out my best friend’s house in Sheffield. They offered £15,000 for a childhood photo. They printed a poor-me story from the ex, in which he lied about his job, saying he was a soldier in Afghanistan. He didn’t stop there, either. He started posting on his blog, threatening to attack me and my boyfriend. I went to the police, taking printouts from his blog and two years’ worth of unwanted and unanswered letters. Finally alerted to the extent of his harassment, they did everything right and will now intervene immediately if he comes anywhere near me.

Letters arrived at work, some pleasant — including ones from women who are also call girls, which made me all the more glad that I decided to come out — but also three anonymous death threats that I immediately reported to the police. I don’t like thinking about the death threats, but the other hate mail was sometimes funny — one postmarked “World Aids Day” hoped I “get Aids and die”.

I was less amused, however, when I read about my father. Mum and I had desperately tried to get hold of him — they’re divorced, and I last saw him in 2005 — but we couldn’t find his address. Eventually the tabloids tracked him down to Florida, where he spoke about using prostitutes and suggested that I had stopped talking to him because of this. Actually, it was his drug abuse that had made me walk away: he was addicted to crack, which affected his personality. When we met up in America five years ago, we had a lot of arguments and I realised my being there wasn’t helping him and was hurting me, so I returned to the UK. We haven’t spoken since but his behaviour had no part in my choice to become a prostitute myself; that happened a decade after I left home. No one else needs to answer for my decisions.

Otherwise, life continues as usual. Weirdly. I walk the streets in peace. I am seldom recognised; I blend quite easily into the crowd. Once a taxi driver clocked me, but he was a fan of the TV show and he was delighted. It took away the fear that I might be verbally abused in public, or worse. I don’t think I’ve lost any friends: I sent a bulk message to my friends on Facebook — at first there was silence, and I feared they’d all dumped me. But then a mate’s husband quipped back: “So are you going to introduce me to Billie Piper or what?” My friend N in London, who knew I was Belle from the start, always had this advice. If someone asks if you’re Belle de Jour, say: “Yeah? So?” Turns out he was right.

I was most grateful for my boyfriend. Coming out bound us together even more closely, and for that he will always have my thanks. But, most of all, I’m grateful that I finally know there are worse things than being called a whore. There’s being the person who says it.”

Belle’s Best Bits: A London Call Girl Reveals Her Favourite Adventures is published by Phoenix at £7.99

— The Curator

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