Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Belle de Jour's Married Life in Scotland

In her most revealing interview to date, Belle de Jour describes her life as a married woman living in Scotland.

The REAL Belle de Jour, the famous U.K. erotic author, has always been passionate, and the woman behind the famous moniker maintains that tradition. She is now continuing her wonderful writing career while in the Scottish Highlands, she tells The Herald/Scotland.

In 2009, Belle step out from behind her famous pen name and revealed her identity. She is Dr. Brooke L. Magnanti, formerly of Bristol, England, a noted scientist whose specialist areas are developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and has worked at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health as part of a team that researched the potential effects on babies of their mothers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

But, from 2003 to late 2004, Brooke worked as a high-class call girl for a London escort service. She has written an award-winning blog and several bestselling books based on her experiences as a high-end call-girl in the sex industry. Her writing also formed the basis of the TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl on Showtime, starring Billie Piper in the title role of "Belle."

As any fan of Brooke's knows, she'd been dating then living with a man referred to only as "T" in her books and blog — because he first began leaving his toothbrush in her flat, then gradually the rest of his belongings. While Brooke has not publicly named him, they have been married almost a year.

Recently, she and T moved to Scotland, after Brooke decided to take a hiatus from penning new entries for her award-winning blog (where she says simply, "Belle de Jour is the pen name of Brooke Magnanti, a UK-based writer and science researcher. Interests: whiskey, taphonomy, PGP encryption), in favor of concentrating on writing a new book, and a variety of articles. She also decided to leave the field of science behind because of the funding crunch in the U.K. for research projects. She has said that since she has other means of support — name her incredible writing — she didn't want to take a science slot away from a researcher who does not.

I have included the great interview in its entirety below, or read it directly at The Hearld/Scotland's website:

[Above Photo: Brooke Magnanti caused a storm when she came out as the infamous call girl Belle de Jour. Now she is happy to move on with married life as a research scientist in Fort William. Photograph by Stewart Attwood]

Interview by Vicky Allan
20 Feb 2011

"There’s a way you could easily tell the story of Brooke Magnanti, which, given she’s now married, living in Fort William and spent last Christmas Eve sleeping in a bivouac with her husband on a deer-inhabited, snowbound hillside, might involve some idea of redemption.

If not, at least the suggestion that here we have someone who has fallen off the wrong path and ended up back on the right. Off the game, and now sleeping wild with the game. You see, Magnanti is the woman who, in 2009, came out as the author of Belle de Jour, the blog about a twentysomething’s experience of a year-and-a-half working as a call girl, charging £300 an hour, which would later become a book series and be adapted for TV as Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, starring Billie Piper.

But Magnanti, who turned out to be a research scientist attempting to fund her way through her PhD, doesn’t do redemption. Nor does she do guilt. As she sits in the cafĂ© of an outdoor sportswear shop, winter sun glinting off her large hoop earrings, she has the air of someone who is on a satisfying new chapter in life. She has just finished a research project and is up in the Scottish Highlands mainly to work on some writing ideas, and is keen not to be drawn into any stories of regret.

Magnanti says she turned down a number of television appearances, including Oprah, because she feared they might transform her story into a tale of redemption. They would, she felt, want her to cry and say how much she had learned. But crying is not for her. “I subscribe to the Seinfeld philosophy,” she says. “No hugs, no learning.”

Nor does she really believe there is any element of redemption to be found in her story. She did sex work for a while to support herself, then stopped when she got better-funded research jobs (like the project she finished recently, looking at the links between pesticide use and infant neurological problems) and the alternative earnings of successful books and a television series kicked in.

She resists, too, any psychobabble around why she went on the game – interpretations, for instance, that say the blame lay with her drug-addict father, who had gone off the rails and frequented prostitutes. “People do seem to be very reductionist, trying to reduce people to an explainable set of influences, and I just don’t think life is black and white like that.”

It is one of Magnanti’s most appealing aspects, her refusal to countenance that her call girl work was anything other than a practical, financial matter, a result of being the kind of person who would “rather not borrow money from friends, and would prefer to do things for myself”.

In her guilt-free approach to matters of sex, she is, strangely, almost refreshing. Before I met her, I had started to find her irritating. There was something about the fact she seemed to take an age to answer emails, responding, always briefly, via a cryptic scientific-sounding email address, and then wouldn’t give me her phone number when asked.

But then, when she called me, number withheld, she had me at her warm hello, with her odd, geographically unplaceable, slightly American twang. “So what if she is paranoid?” I thought. Perhaps anyone who has had her experiences might be – she only came out as Belle de Jour because she feared that an ex-boyfriend, known in the blogs as The Boy, who was displaying stalkerish tendencies, was going to do the job for her. She used to receive hate letters at her work. So I can understand why she doesn’t tell much about her husband, who is often called T in the blogs and books. “We got married last year actually. He’s very into the mountains. He’s an ice climber and things like that, so for him this has been a fantastic move.”

If you want to know who Magnanti is, you only have to consider her own description. She is, she tells me, a “complete glasses-wearing dork”.

When I ask about her personal demons, she says she is “an overachiever by temperament, always worrying if I’m not doing something well enough. When I was a child I was very precocious. I was put ahead several years at school, went to university very early. I had the giant glasses, little dorky pigtails, was shorter than all my classmates, was bullied.

Her dad was her hero back in those days, and she grew up wanting to be an astronaut, talking about science and ancient history over the dinner table. It wasn’t until university that she developed an interest in sex and started to diverge from that very “white-bread” identity. The overachiever mentality, however, remains and it has fed into not only her research, in biological anthropology and maths and, later, forensic science, but also her sex work – she wanted to do a good job. She no longer talks to her father, whom it seems she gave up on following a rescue visit in 2004, when, at a support group for relatives of drug addicts, she realised “there comes a point at which you need to protect yourself”.

There is something rather wonderful about the way her scientific, analytical and comparative mind approaches almost everything. Magnanti is influenced by Edward O Wilson’s consilience theory and sees parallels in everything. She describes, for instance, a time when she was looking at a “crown ether” molecule, thought it looked rather like the hip bone, and started to think of a way one might scan mass graves for information. There is also the fact she thinks there are “quite a lot of overlaps” between her work in forensic identification and her own personal experience: “How does someone know you are who you say you are? How does anyone verify identity?”

She recalls that after the revelatory interview with India Knight in the Sunday Times in which she came out as Belle de Jour, Knight rang her up saying her editor was worried she wasn’t who she said she was. The way she had to prove it was by writing something into her blog. “I thought, how bonkers is that? She’s met the actual person, but she goes back to the actual blog to prove I’m me.”

There is a word Magnanti loathes almost as much as redemption. She recently turned down an invitation to do a radio show because its theme contained it: shame. But has she really managed to escape it? Magnanti wants to behave like there is no shame to what she has done. However, she isn’t an out-and-out crusader for sex work, nor when she was working was she able to crawl out from the taboo herself. The very fact she didn’t tell her friends and family throughout those years – her mother didn’t find out until after she told the press – suggests she was also gagged by convention. She recalls, for instance, that towards the end of her relationship with The Boy, he really did have her convinced that no-one else would ever want to be with her, that “this was too much for any man to bear. And I believed him; after all, there are so many messages in the media that say this is an undesirable person.”

My own feeling is that one of the reasons people are fascinated by her is that women are still not meant to be the ones in the relationship who can bear sex without love. They’re not meant to be able to go out, do a job like that and not feel the backlash. Any reader of her blogs or books will know the story of her deteriorating relationship with The Boy is far more gruesome than any of her descriptions of sex work, ending in him leaving photographs of him having sex with someone else on her phone.

Her comment on this, revealingly, is that this betrayal was different from her own because it wasn’t for money: “If it had been for money it would have been slightly more bearable because I would have understood it.” When I ask her if she thinks she would ever go back to that work, now, as a married woman, she answers vaguely, saying, “We [she and T] have sort of talked about it, even though it looks like it wouldn’t happen.”

The problem for Magnanti is how to move on from Belle de Jour. It’s been more than six years since she last took her £300 an hour, and the books have well and truly exhausted that material. She says she has no gift for fiction. She has the skills, however, to move on, to be a different writer. She wants, she says, to be a Simon Singh, a great communicator of science. But will Belle be a help or a hindrance in getting her there?

“The great thing is that when I have an idea for a radio show or something and send it off, now someone will answer my email. In some ways it’s like the experience I’ve often had working as a woman in a male-dominated field; they might not listen to what I say for the first five minutes because they’re thinking of how I look, but they’re not walking away yet.”

[Brooke Magnanti will be talking at Aye Write! on March 10 at 6pm, www.ayewrite.com]

Brooke's books include: Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men, 2009; Belle’s Best Bits, 2009; 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.

Each one is well-worth reading and re-reading – trust me! You can find all of her books at the U.K.’s largest independent bookseller, Waterstones.

Also check out Brooke's op-ed articles on a variety of topics including reforming libel law in Britain, sex-work and science related-topics. She remains a voice to be heard and a marvelously unbelievable force to be reckoned with in the literary, and sociological communities.

— The Curator

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