Isa Mazzei, a Colorado native, made her way into the film industry in a non-traditional way. She first began her career on screen but as a cam girl. Later, she took inspiration from that time and teamed up with her longtime friend and director Daniel Goldhaber to create the film, Cam — which is now streaming on Netflix.
Inspired to bring a positive light to the industry in a consumer-friendly fashion, Mazzei wrote the screenplay for the film and worked side-by-side with Goldhaber to perfect a film that would draw in audiences in an unsuspected way.
Released this year, Cam is a fiction horror film that follows the journey of Alice, a cam girl that strives to work up her ranking on a camming site. Alice faces horrifying realization that her account has been hacked by someone that looks identical to her taking her ranks, viewers and subsequently, her income. She must fight to take back her account while simultaneously dealing with viewers that have crossed lines of privacy.
303 Magazine was able to chat with Mazzei about her experiences and how Cam can give people a better understanding of the cam community.
303: How did you get into the adult film industry? And how did you become a Cam girl?
Isa Mazzei: I always was interested in sex work. I thought maybe I wanted to be a stripper and I actually had a sugar daddy at the time. I told him, I think I’m going to try stripping. And he was like, you could try camming instead. And I [said], I don’t know what camming is, I’ve never even heard of that. He kind of showed me what camming was and showed me some girls that he liked and I got obsessed with watching them. I [said], oh my God, this is the coolest thing ever. So I decided to give it a try.
303: What were your initial experiences as a cam girl?
IM: I spent a lot, a couple of months doing research and figuring out, you know, what kind of cam girl I want it to be, what I wanted my branding to be and just watching other girls for inspiration and ideas. And then once I started I was full time. That was my job. So I tried to work as many days a week as possible and [tried] to do different types of shows every night to keep things interesting and it was really fun. I had a really successful first month and I really liked it.
303: What are the most important aspects of being a cam girl that people wouldn’t necessarily see from an outside perspective?
IM: There are a lot of assumptions that I think are wrong and damaging. I think one of them is that it’s really easy money. I would tell my friends or people that I would meet, oh I’m a cam girl and they would kind of laugh and say, damn, I wish I could just take off my clothes and be rich. And I’d be like, that’s not what it is, it’s hard work. It’s the hardest job to date that I’ve ever had. And that includes making an actual movie, you’re constantly working for your shows, buying props. Making sure you’re waxed, to all the things that go into being a performer. And when you’re a cam girl you’re doing it usually all by yourself or just with a little bit of help. And so for me it was really important to get those elements into Alice [the character in Cam] and show her with her calendar and show her researching and show her constantly on her phone, engaged with her tippers and you know, it really is a full-time job and a lot of work. And I think that’s a part of sex work, in all types of sex work, that I think it was ignored … Another part that was important to me is that I think there’s a common misconception [that is] just a damaging stigma that people who go into sex work must be desperate for money or out of options or something like that. And for me and my friends that I knew that were cam girls, we all chose to do it. I had plenty of money, I just wanted to do something fun and interesting and new and so I wanted to try it. And I know a lot of girls who were in similar situations. Some people get a job to pay for Grad schools will get part-time jobs, some people get a full-time job, some people pursue their passions, some people just want to pay the rent. Those are all the same reasons why people get into sex work. And I think people would often say to me, Oh, do you really need money that badly? Or oh, I can lend you money if you really need it. And that was so frustrating to me because I just liked it. And so I think that’s what I wanted to show with Alice is that she’s a girl who just likes being a cam girl and that she finds it fun and it’s where she can kind of have this avenue of self-expression that she otherwise wouldn’t have.
303: Do you think that with the wave of the #MeToo movement the adult industry has changed in any aspects?
IM: I haven’t cammed in quite a few years now [so] I can’t really speak to how the #MeToo has influenced the industry specifically. I can say that, Cam has had a really positive response and it’s been really commercially successful and I hope that speaks to a changing mentality where the mainstream consumer is ready for this new type of protagonists [and] ready for representation that’s authentic and is ready to root for a sex worker and to empathize with a sex worker, in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to, 10 years ago.
303: You started moving into film because you wanted to make a pornography with Daniel Goldhaber. What did you feel you weren’t seeing in porn or you weren’t seeing enough of?
IM: Daniel and I actually did shoot porn. We weren’t in it together but he filmed it for me. So we were doing that together and that was incidental. I needed some videos to sell and I wanted him to shoot them. I think that the idea for the film originally it was, oh maybe, we should do a documentary. Because I really wanted to bring people into that world of the behind the scenes stuff that people don’t really realize is going on —because it looks so effortless on screen. I really wanted to bring people into that world, but I think that we decided a genre film made more sense because genre is great for getting people inside of someone’s head and inside of a fully immersive experience where it’s so tense, there’s so much adrenaline, in Cam, you’re rooting for us, for a sex worker to go back to sex work. And I like to think that you don’t even feel that necessarily when you’re watching because it’s so exciting and it’s got these genre elements that really suck you into the story. That’s why I think genre is incredibly powerful. So for me, it came from [that] I wanted to do a mainstream commercial film very intentionally because I was frustrated with the lack of accurate representation of sex workers in mainstream media.
I wanted to make a mainstream film because I felt like sex workers were not authentically or respectfully represented in mainstream media and I didn’t want to make a porn film or a documentary that would only be seen by a small subset of people that were maybe already interested in the topic. I wanted to make a commercial movie that people across the board would want to watch because that I felt [that] was important and what was lacking.
303: The film shows Alice going and picking up different items and makeup her taking time with fx makeup and her appearance. In your experience, how much time and money do cam girls usually put into their performances?
IM: I think it totally depends. That’s why we have that montage in the movie of all the different [scenes that] have different performers, different performance types. You know, I know girls who are fully nude girls who are never nude, girls who do very elaborate burlesque with elaborate costuming and elaborate makeup, girls that do shows with a lot of props, some that do art shows, some sign on and just sit there and listen to music. It totally depends on the type of performer. What’s cool about it is that the internet allows you to find your audience regardless of what it is you want to do. You can find people that want to do that. I mean even within my own shows, there [was] so much variety because I was working and most nights and days I would do very elaborate shows that I put a lot of time into and some days it would be a Tuesday night and I would be tired and I would just say this is what we’re doing. We’re just hanging out tonight. We’re listening to vinyl records and that’s gonna be cool. So I would say it really depends, but you know, for Alice, I think she is driving for that rank. She is super ambitious and so she is gonna put a lot of time into her shows and really try to kind of push herself that way.
303: Alice ends up being stalked by one of her followers who wants to be a “white knight” who wants to “fix” her situation. Were there times within your career that you had to worry about potential stalkers or actual stalkers?
IM: There was definitely this pervading mentality amongst a very small minority of my viewers about saving me. A lot of sex workers encounter this with clients who genuinely care about them and who want them to stop doing the thing that they’re consuming, which I think is fascinating. I had a couple of viewers who would frequent, frequently message me and say, you’re too good for this. Let me pay all your bills. I’m like, you’re paying me for my services, but you also want me to stop doing those services. I think this idea of saving sex workers is a problematic mentality that some men have. I did have some issues with some viewers regarding my privacy. I had an attempt to blackmail me but I think that overall my experiences with my viewers were incredibly respectful and I really appreciate that. And even now, I have a pretty public presence and they’re finding me and messaging me or messaging friends of mine and say, Hey, is it okay if I follow you? Is it okay if I engage with you on social media in the real world? And that’s pretty cool because even now, a couple of years out, they’re still really respecting my boundaries and making sure that I’m comfortable. And that was the majority of my viewers. So I think it’s really important that people understand that even though in the film I do have these two viewers who cross Alice’s boundaries and do kind of not respect her [privacy] or even in the case of Barney who assaults her, the majority of the men in her room are incredibly respectful and supportive of her. And that’s why they’re not in the movie because they stay on the screen.
303: In the end,
IM: Alice’s journey more about discovering the boundaries of a performer. I think [that] in the beginning of the film, Alice is very much herself online. There’s not a lot of distinction there [and] that was playing with these anxieties that I had myself where I was performing someone and that person was very similar to me, but by definition, they were work-related. There was always this anxiety in [my] mind — [wondering] did [the viewers] actually like me or are they actually my friends, or do they just like these parts of me that I’m choosing to show them in? And where does that stop and start and would they like me in real life? And that’s a real anxiety when you’re validating yourself through a performance. And so, the face slash at the end is really, Alice’s triumph because she’s recognizing [that] I exist in this physical body, I am more than this image of myself. This is me as a person. And that on screen is just digital. That’s not real. And so in the end, when she puts on this makeup and she transforms herself into a different person [it is] symbolically saying this is the performance and I am just the performer and [that] I’m going to validate myself through the performance and those two things are separate and those things need to be kept separate. And I think that’s something that I wanted everyone to relate to even if they’re not a cam girl or just anyone who exists online. We all have social media and we all validate ourselves through our social media to some degree or another. And I think it starts to get dangerous when we start to think that these digital selves that we create are real or that other people’s digital selves are real. And I’m looking at my friend Kim and I’m saying, “oh my god, she has everything. Her life is so perfect for Instagram, it is so perfect. She must be so happy” and not recognizing that that is a performance. I think that’s where the danger comes in.
303: You have a book coming out next year, is that similar to the film or does it deal with other aspects of your time as a Cam girl?
IM: The book is a memoir, I think it’s funny. It’s kind of the answer when people say, well, how much of this film is based on your actual life? That’s what the book is. I want it to be exciting but I think it does something real too, like Cam, I think it, it’s a very real message, packaged in a really fun way. It comes out November of next year.
303: To anyone thinking about a career in the adult film industry, what advice would you give them?
IM: Advice for people who want to get into the adult industry, well I’d say yay! Fucking do it, like go own it. I think it can be an incredibly fun and an empowering industry, but I think, it’s also important to be aware that there can be [backlash]. You know, we live in a society that’s going to judge you for that. So, people need to be aware that, especially when they’re posting things of themselves online, that’s forever. I think it was totally for me the right choice and was totally worth it. But that’s not to say that people haven’t been really uncool to me because of it. People have sexually harassed me because of it. People have told me I deserved to be sexually assaulted because of it. People, while pitching my movie wouldn’t take me seriously because of it [and] still don’t take me seriously because of it. People [will] post really gross things about me online because of it and it (camming) was for me a really transformative and cool experience. And so for me, it was worth it. But whenever anyone does [decide] to go into this field, they need to be aware that not everyone is going to be okay with it and they need to be okay with that and standing behind that choice for sure. But that said like, my main advice is fucking go for it and research and it can be a really, really cool thing.
Another thing I would say to people going into the end to the industry for the first time is don’t let people take advantage of you … especially as a cam girl. I remember when I did my first show, people kept demanding things for free and I felt this weird pressure to do it. And I actually remember there was a really, really lovely a viewer of mine who came in very early during my first show and I was wondering, am I supposed to do these things for free? I don’t know how this works. And I remember he came in and he’s like, “no, no, no, you don’t do anything for free. You make them pay you for it. Don’t do anything for free. Make them pay [first].” And I remember feeling so soothed with those words that I could [charge]. When you do work in the adult industry, it can be a really supportive community but people who are outside the community can sometimes want to take advantage of that.
Finding a supportive community can also be incredibly helpful for those new to sex work, especially when it comes to legal issues and safety. That’s what’s so amazing about the internet: there are incredible communities of sex workers online that are there to support one another and that’s so beautiful
You can find Cam on Netflix or stop by a screening of the film at Alamo Drafthouse Denver on November 30. The event will feature a screening of Cam and a chance to participate in a Q&A with director Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei herself.
Photography by Drew Levin and courtesy of A Hendricks of Divide Conquer.