Twenty-two-year old webcam model Jeze Bell (her screen name) leans toward the camera, smiles and runs a hand through her slightly tousled, bob-length red hair. She’s sitting in front of a computer in a room that’s big enough for a twin bed, nightstand, desk and chair. There are clothes casually strewn on the bed, giving it the appearance of your average dorm room. In actuality, it’s one of 73 rooms at Sin City Studio in Las Vegas, a webcamming company located in a nondescript office building at an industrial park just west of the Strip.
Jeze Bell is wearing a white leotard that’s cut high on the hip. Exuding a girl-next-door appeal that’s reminiscent of a model in an American Apparel ad—a kind of naughty innocence—she stands up, turns around and starts to dance, flirting and bantering with the men who are starting to fill her free chat and whose instant messages scroll down the right side of the screen.
“Hey, girl, looking good.”
“Show me your feet, baby,” types another.
“Newbie here. Never done a show,” one visitor chimes in.
There’s enough of a critical mass in her chat room that Jeze Bell decides to offer a Gold Show, where anyone who’s interested can watch with a minimum buy-in of $3, a real bargain, she says. With a Gold Show, Jeze Bell sets the terms, including how long it will last, what she will do on cam and for how much. In this case, once she reaches the goal of $85, she will strip, tease, twerk and play exclusively for her paying customers during a show that will last seven minutes. And, of course, she happily accepts tips.
“It’s my first show of the day,” she says to incentivize her viewers, “which means that you’ll get to see my first orgasm today.”
Jeze Bell was 18 years old and struggling financially—working two minimum wage jobs, one at Applebee’s and another at a coffee shop—when she asked a friend who always seemed flush with cash what she did for a living. The friend was evasive at first, but eventually told her that she was earning upward of $800 a week working as a webcam model.
“My ears perked up,” says Jeze Bell, a full-time student at UNLV who pays her tuition with money she earns by camming.
Although many of the guys who find her online are looking for sexual gratification, others just want to hang out and chat. Sometimes Jeze Bell will do naked yoga on cam, other times she’ll strip while hula hooping. When she first started camming, she still had braces.
“They loved me for that,” she says. “A guy would pay me just to put my hand in my mouth. His screen name was ‘tin grin.’”
Unlike traditional porn content, a webcam client is both a user and a director, someone who, for a price, can tailor their interactions with a performer to fulfill a specific fantasy or desire, such as foot worship, small-penis humiliation or financial domination. For the model, the exchange—which might be chatting, stripping, role-playing or something more—is a temporary intimacy.
“You have control over your shows and control over your schedule. I don’t know any other job that would grant me that freedom, flexibility and money.”—Jeze Bell
“It’s real, but not real,” Jeze Bell says.
Unlike working at a strip club or a legal brothel, it’s a job that requires no direct contact. The client—analytics suggest that more than 80 to 90 percent of paying customers on cam sites are men—could be sitting in front of a computer anywhere in the world. They can see the model but they can’t touch her, and she doesn’t have to touch, or even see, them.
“You only do what you want to do [on cam],” Jeze Bell says. “You have control over your shows and control over your schedule. I don’t know any other job that would grant me that freedom, flexibility and money.”
For Jeze Bell, who earns an average of $95 an hour and works 9 to 12 hours a week according to her rate analysis, webcamming is a mutually beneficial arrangement. “I get to go to school, and they get their rocks off.”
The webcam industry, with its ability to provide personalized interactions and lucrative returns, has become the dominant force in adult entertainment, according to Stephen Yagielowicz, a senior editor at adult media outlet XBiz. Although exact figures are difficult to tabulate with accuracy—adult companies keep their numbers notoriously close to the vest—it’s estimated that today’s webcam market is a multibillion dollar business that accounts for one third of all adult entertainment revenue globally.
In an era where profits from porn have slumped—the result of pirated content, free tube sites and the lingering effects of the economic downturn—the success of live webcam shows, where customers actually “pay to play,” is a game changer.
“From the consumer standpoint,” Yagielowicz says in an email, “live cams provide a high level of interactivity and personalization that simply cannot be matched by prerecorded photo or video content, and home Internet connections have gotten speedy enough to where the quality of this experience is worth the expense. … Suddenly, the unattainable girl, guy, couple or other of your dreams is attainable 24/7.”
Ron Lee, an affiliate marketer with a background in dating sites, and the key organizer of the inaugural Adult Webcam Super Conference and Expo taking place in Las Vegas this month, has watched webcamming become a massive industry. Lee argues that this development has less to do with shifts in the porn industry and more to do with the fact that online dating has flatlined and online relationships—and investor money—have migrated to cam sites. Men are hip to the fact that many online dating sites are full of bots and fake profiles and have moved their business to cam sites, where they actually get what they pay for.
“[Adult webcamming] is reality TV at its best.”–Stephen Yagielowicz
To Yagielowicz, Lee’s theory has traction. “The world of ‘casual adult dating’ is a bot-fueled fantasy preying on the loneliness of its customers, where the girl in the ad really does not live five miles away from me and is not waiting for me to call right now … With cams, what you see is what you get. There are no bots or bait-and-switch; there’s a performer you can see and hear live and in real time hoping to please you for profit.”
Adult webcamming, he says, is “reality TV at its best.”
It’s Saturday at noon, and Sage Montana, the 33-year-old manager of Sin City Studio and cam performer with a loyal following, walks through the facility. Her hair is pulled back and she’s dressed casually in a gray sweatshirt with an image of Marilyn Monroe on the front. Montana, who just had a baby, says that she cammed all the way through her pregnancy. She wasn’t sure how her fan base would react, but according to her, “they ate it up.”
Montana goes down a hallway and past the Wall of Fame, where more than a dozen framed copies of models’ weekly checks in amounts ranging from $1,257 to $3,948 hang on the wall as a testament to their hard work, serving as inspiration for new performers. She passes a locker room with showers—it’s spotless, with nary a stray hair in a drain—and a large break room with filtered water and a fancy coffee maker. She turns down another hallway and on each side, doors open to small rooms—“pods,” Montana calls them—that are brightly painted with a bed, desk, chair and computer. The setup resembles a college dormitory, a communal space that, once you close your door, becomes intensely private.
Although many webcam models work from the privacy of their own homes, others opt to work out of studios where they don’t have to worry about a slow Internet connection, the sound of the television in the next room or their diploma hanging on their bedroom wall. Sin City Studio is one of three webcam businesses in Las Vegas.
The studio makes its money on weekly booking fees, which start in five-hour sessions, although models aren’t required to work the entire time slot. For those such as Jeze Bell, the separation of home and work is worth the money, which for her can be anywhere from $100-$125 depending on how much she works. “I like that I don’t have to worry about Internet issues,” she says. “I pay the studio to do that.” She also likes that she has access to a community of female co-workers whose doors she can knock on if she has any questions.
The hiring process at Sin City Studio starts with a headshot. It’s the first thing a prospective model—who legally must be at least 18 years old—sends to Montana, who oversees the hiring and training of all new talent. She avoids hiring “yes girls,” women who send nude photos when she hasn’t asked for them. To her, these applicants are likely not cut out for the business side of the industry, which requires the ability to follow directions and to negotiate what you are and are not willing to do.
Cam models are independent contractors who are their own makeup artists, lighting directors, stage managers and business administrators. Being a successful webcam model, in Montana’s opinion, is less about looks—although those are certainly a bonus—and more about personality and the “ability to be intrigued by other people.” The best cam performers are open-minded and nonjudgmental; they are people who are willing to roll with sexual and nonsexual requests that, in other contexts, might sound weird.
“What we do isn’t scripted,” Montana says, “so every time we get on camera, we are doing something new. Some of these guys are lonely, and they are just looking for someone to talk to. [In chat] they can talk to a pretty girl that they might never approach in a bar.”
All of this sounds very familiar to Barb Brents, a professor of sociology at UNLV who has conducted research on Nevada’s legal brothel industry. “It’s what sex workers have been telling researchers for years,” she says, “that much of what they sell is not just sexual gratification, but connection and intimacy.”
Anywhere from 60 to 100 models work out of Sin City Studio each week. Montana prides herself on being a 31-flavors-type of studio that has a little bit of everything.
“In our industry,” she says, “there’s an ability to make money at any age and any size. It’s the media that makes us think that older women or bigger women aren’t sexy, but there are women in their 60s [at the studio] pulling in $1,000 to $1,500 a week for working 15 to 20 hours.”
Although webcam models like Jeze Bell work for Sin City Studio—the company cuts their checks each week minus their booking fees—they work on Streamate, a network of live adult chat sites with more than 10 million members. It’s Streamate that drives Internet traffic to Jeze Bell’s chat room and, on the back end, takes care of all the processing. It also owns all the content and the rights to use a model’s image or clips on its affiliate sites. Jeze Bell gets 35 cents of every dollar she earns, with the rest going to Streamate. So, if her take home pay is $2,000 a week, she’s actually generating more than $5,700 from paying customers while she’s on cam.
While this split may seem lopsided, it comes down to Streamate’s business model. “The value of [Internet] traffic is worth more than the value of models,” says Lee, who hopes to make this point during the professional development and business seminars at the Adult Webcam Conference, January 20-21 at Alexis Park Resort. “I think it’s important at the end of the day to share the value—the true value—of the users with the cam models and to get the models to be more active in the business side of the industry.”
There are things models can do to increase their cut of the business, including using social media to build their fan base. Every time a model at Sin City Studio tweets her affiliate link and brings new members to Streamate, she gets 70 percent of what those users spend in her chat forever, compared to the standard 35 percent. She also gets 20 percent of what those users spend on other models. According to Lee, “I don’t think models realize how important their affiliate link actually is.”
The world of adult webcamming is big business, but for someone like Jeze Bell, it’s much more than that: It’s a job that’s given her the financial independence to make her life what she wants it to be. She can go to school full-time, help out her family financially and even have time left over to do volunteer work, which she does on a regular basis.
“Having [that financial stability] has changed my life forever,” she says. “It’s mobility, man.”