Warning: This article contains sexually explicit material that may be NSFW.

If you’ve ever surfed the Internet for porn—and let’s face it, if you’re reading this on the Internet, you’ve used it to surf for porn—you’ve likely seen a pop-up ad with a nubile young woman sprawled out spread-eagle behind her laptop screen, or coyly winking at you in a pop-up. This, in case you didn’t know, was a camgirl.

You’ve probably wondered what she was doing. You’ve also probably wondered why she was doing it, or who was watching her, or whether or not her parents knew about her extracurricular activities. You’ve also probably wondered if she was actually real.  

I’m here to tell you that she is real. I know this because I met her, or rather many of them, in person at Camming Con, the country’s first convention devoted to cam models and their fans. Camgirls don’t fit into any one particular category: They’re fat and thin and white and black and blonde and brunette; they’re students, mothers, chefs, graphic designers, and activists. Some of their parents have no idea what they’re doing; some of them do, and they’re totally into it.

There are, however, two things that all camgirls have in common. The first is that they are all making bank. While the traditional adult industry is withering on the vine thanks to the prevalence of free streaming tube sites like Pornhub and porn piracy, the interactive adult webcamming business is flourishing. According to one estimate, it’s bringing in an approximate $1 billion in annual revenue.

The other thing that all camgirls have in common is that most of them have never met each other—let alone the fans who regularly spend hundreds of dollars to chat with them every night—in person.

That changed last week at the three-day convention, held in Miami Beach, Fla. Organized by producer Clinton Cox, promoter Dade Sokoloff, and PlayboyTV model Stacey Havoc, Camming Con was prompted by one basic question: What would happen if cam performers and their fans met IRL?

“Imagine if you’ve been camming with someone for five years and you’re finally meeting them in person. No one knows what’s gonna happen,” Cox told me a few months ago. “It’s the Internet. It’s the Wild Wild West. No one knows what’s gonna happen.”

This is what happened.

 

Day one

Camming Con is in the Eden Roc Hotel, a resort right next to the famed Fontainebleau on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. At registration, a group of deeply tanned middle-aged women hands me a bag of Camming Con swag that consists of a pen, a few packs of Chiclets, a baseball cap with the Camming Con logo inscribed on it, and a flyer for something called JobsforHotPeople.com, which sounds like an escort service directory but is literally a jobs site for hot people.  (I later meet the founder of this organization, and ask him what happens if you apply for a job and are not hot. “We stick you in the back with bad lighting and hope for the best,” he says. Fair enough.)

I’m led to the model reception area on the second floor, which is expansive and lavishly decorated in shades of baby pink and white. One of the first cam models to arrive at the convention is Frankie Zee, an enthusiastic, 26-year-old brunette menthol smoker with stick’n’poke tattoos on her thighs. She’s bopping around like a sock puppet, periodically glancing at the ocean.

Right off the bat, I learn two incredible things about Zee: 1) She’s never seen the ocean before, and 2) she drove down here from her small town in Iowa with her mom. A former army brat, Zee has been camming for about a month, after quitting her job as a hotel manager. She’s moving to Arkansas to be with her boyfriend, and waxes poetic about the difference between the mountains in Montana and Arkansas.

Zee is extremely effusive and credits her success as a camgirl to her “bubbly, spitfire” personality.

“I give the guys hell,” she says. “I don’t put up with their shit like some of the other girls.”

She also attributes it to her mania, which allows her to cam for extended periods of time. Camming, she tells me later, is an appropriate industry for people with neuroses. “I’m realizing that we’re all incredibly anxious,” she says. “Otherwise, why would we stay at home and work from our rooms all the time?”

I head upstairs with Zee to the penthouse, where one of the first in Camming Con’s three-day panel series is being held. It’s a seminar on Internet safety, led by Camming Con cofounders Cox (who resembles a pocket-sized version of Jon Favreau), and Havoc, the aforementioned cam model who looks a bit like a Wiccan on spring break. The panel is co-led by Platinum Puzzy, a BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) performer who runs her own BBW cam studio.

Performer safety is obviously an extremely pressing issue for cam models, who often stream from their homes and have to contend with obsessive fans. Platinum talks about a fan who tracked her down from her check-in activity on Foursquare. Social media, she says, is a “double-edged sword.” Performers, like anyone else, use social media to gain new fans, but if they don’t turn off their location settings, “a harmless picture you send out could disclose a lot of information about yourself you might not want revealed.”

There’s a lot of general discussion about the importance of keeping your private life and your performer life separate when you cam with a client.

“A lot of these girls don’t know this,” Alexa Johnson, a striking blonde in a plaid sundress who works for Playboy Live, Playboy’s camming platform, says. “A lot of these girls, they think, he’s my friend now, but he’s not your friend. This is your business.”


“And so many of these guys become Captain Save-A-Ho,” Platinum adds. “They get off on thinking that they’re saving you from your life on cam, and once they’ve gotten you to open up you’ll realize that they’re, you know, inside.”

I run into Johnson later in the model reception area, after an unsatisfactory meal of $19 crab cakes and mango salsa at the hotel bar. She tells me she’s psychic and draws me close so she can read my palm. (“You are compassionate and also so sad,” which is not necessarily inaccurate.) She seems highly sensitive, and also well in her cups at this point.

Johnson’s 28 and from a small town in Minnesota, where she lives with her 3-year-old daughter. She has a culinary degree and dreams of opening a Mexican food truck, but she’s been supporting herself by camming for Playboy Live for the past two years.

“Write this down: What got me into this is I loved my daughter so much. And that’s the whole reason I do this,” she tells me. “I made 400 people happy with food. The pay wasn’t good enough. Once I had my daughter, I just wanted more money to give her everything she wanted.”

Over champagne flutes in the model lounge, as the other cam models mill about in lingerie and fluffy bunny costumes, Johnson tells me more about her life. Although she’s demonstrative and friendly with the other models, drawing in perfect strangers for kisses and hugs, she says she doesn’t enjoy being in the camming industry. 


“The girly thing is very hard for me,” she says. “I’m the opposite of most of these girls because I’m a tomboy and I don’t find myself pretty, and I don’t try to make myself better than anyone else. I’m just me, that’s it. I want a garden. I want to be an old lady. I want to take care of everybody again.”

Another woman, a Romanian recruiter for another camming website, joins us. The conversation gets a little lighter—there is talk of going outside to smoke cigarettes and take a dip in the hotel’s topless pool— but then it quickly careens back to its starting point.

“Do I hate myself? No,” Johnson says as we tip back champagne flutes. “Do I feel like I could do so much more? Yes.”

 

Day two

It’s Industry Day, the portion of Camming Con where models attend instructional seminars and presentations from camming affiliates. I steel myself for a stream of sob stories about camgirls working 16 hours a day, creepy fans, and estranged families.

I do hear horror stories about things performers are regularly asked to do on camera. Eating semen in various forms is a big one, and many requests are just plain bizarre: One girl tells me on her first day, a guy “asked me to take, like, an hour-long bath, and then he wanted me to make muffins the kitchen.” (She said no: “I thought it was weird. Plus I didn’t have any eggs”).

But other than that, I quickly realize Johnson is in the minority. The vast majority of the female models I meet (as well as the smattering of male models) all really, really, enjoy camming, way more than you probably enjoy your own job (or anything else in your life). And it’s not hard to understand why: You make your own hours. You keep your own schedule. And if you’re really good, you can make thousands of dollars for a few hours of work, all without changing out of your pajamas.

The motivations behind camming are as complex and varied as the girls themselves. Some people, like camgirl and Cam4 performer training representative Nikki Night, consider camming a tool for personal and sexual empowerment. Night got into the industry shortly after a messy divorce.

“I went from a marriage where every single thing I did was wrong, to every single thing I did was hot,” she tells me. “[Before camming], I wouldn’t even wear a short-sleeved shirt because I was self-conscious about my arms. Now, I don’t give a crap who sees what and when. It’s just this unbelievable freedom.”

The secret to achieving this freedom, says Night, is to build your own brand and transform yourself into an “Internet personality.” “The second you become a body with a dildo, just someone saying ‘give me money, give me money, give me money,’ that’s all it is,” she says. “You have to think of yourself as a star, and the way you respond to your fans is a little bit of your stardust, and the fans who participate in your room become mini-stars as a result of that.”

Others enjoy camming not just because of the star power factor, but because they find freelance sex work more psychically and financially fulfilling than a quote-unquote "real” job.

“I feel valued in the work I’m doing now, because I set my own values,” Diana Hemingway, a trans escort, dominatrix, and cam model who previously worked for a major HIV/AIDS public health organization, tells me. “I set the value for my time and what I’m willing to do for my time. I don’t have a boss looking at me and saying, ‘To me, you’re only worth $14 an hour, but we don’t think you’re worth that much, so we’re going to strip you of your benefits.’ It affirms my value to work three, four, five, six hours a week and make as much money in that four hours as I did working for the company that didn’t value me properly.”

Others simply like having sex for money on camera.

“Most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work,” Casey, a Streamate model who regularly cams solo and with his girlfriend, concedes. “It’s like, hell yeah, $100 for taking my shirt off. I get $200 to get my dick sucked. Yes, please and thank you.”

Part of the appeal of camming over other forms of sex work is the lack of real-life interaction with clients. While other jobs might require the exchange of bodily fluids—or at least feigned interest in the exchange of bodily fluids—camming requires no such physical contact with unsavory elements in the outside world. Even if you’ve never been remotely interested in doing sex work of any kind, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a job whose description ultimately boils down to a chain email forward subject line: “Get rich quick by doing pretty much absolutely nothing.”

Most cam performers, however, would be the first to tell you that camming is far from doing absolutely nothing. The first that comes to mind is Little Red Bunny, who has often been touted as “Queen of the Camgirls” and is arguably the most famous cam performer at the convention. (There are porn stars here with higher name recognition, but my impression is that they tend to keep themselves separate from the straight-up cam performers, only making an appearance during the parties and the meet-and-greets. They are oft-discussed yet rarely seen.)

Since winning the 2014 AVN Award for Favorite WebCam Girl (the first time the adult awards show had featured such a category), Little Red Bunny has been lauded for bringing camming into the mainstream, or at least the mainstream of the adult industry. The other girls at the convention treat her with respect, if not outright deference. At one point, a girl I’d previously seen whooping and chugging champagne approaches her with bent head and soft voice, like a Talmudic student approaching his rebbe.

Little Red Bunny is also the cagiest about sharing personal details. All she’ll say about her life before camming is that she was a “student”—what she studied, she won’t say—and that she was raised in New York (although her accent, as many have previously pointed out, is very clearly Gallic). But who she is and where she comes from doesn’t matter nearly as much as the persona she’s built for herself, as a Prohibition-era siren who writhes, slithers, and gyrates on her satin sheets to jazz and bossa nova standards.

When she started back in 2009, on the camming platform LiveJasmin, “most people were kinda static in free chat. People were typing and laying on their side just looking sexy, showing their ass a little bit,” she tells me. “But I was like, ‘I cannot stay there staring at these people staring at me staring at them. That would be so freaking boring. They are waiting for something.’”

This led to her developing her show in its current incarnation, which can best be described as an X-rated Cirque du Soleil act. She dances. She stretches. She adjusts her thong with a stiletto heel. She puts her legs behind her head and slips a butt plug inside her, as casually as one would take a sip of water. It’s surprising, and at times seems like way too much work. But it’s also sexy as hell.

“There’s an ambience to it,” Little Red Bunny tells me. “What members tell me all the time is, this is an artistic show. I didn’t expect this from a cam show.”

Little Red Bunny claims she regularly spends 12 to 14 hours on cam a day. Most girls I speak with over the weekend say they spend about five to six hours max, or “just whenever I feel like going shopping,” as one Playboy Live model tells me. She does this, she says, so she can cam with her fans in various time zones. She’s the hardest working woman in the cam business, the James Brown of interactive online porn. 

For Little Red Bunny, all that hard work has ultimately paid off: She doesn't say how much she makes for her shows, but one reporter speculated it could be well in the six figures, as well as an untold sum for LiveJasmin, the platform she cams with. But this success has obviously come at a price. She’s had her computer hacked and has stumbled over forum threads with so-called “fans” bragging about how they’ve obtained her personal information.

Later, I bump into Little Red Bunny outside the hotel. She tells me that when she first started out with LiveJasmin, she was harassed by a fan who’d come into her rooms every day counting down to her death: “Five days before I shoot you in the head, four days before I smash your face in.” It got to the point, she says, “where I wouldn’t leave my apartment for seven days.” She begged LiveJasmin for security detail, but it reportedly did nothing, citing a user privacy policy. This was back in 2010, before the accolades and the awards.

Safety isn’t the only area where cam sites can fail performers. There’s also the issue of how much control popular studios and sites like LiveJasmin, My Free Cams, Streamate, and Cam4 have over their performers’ livelihoods. Most websites and website recruiters take a percentage of their performers’ earnings in exchange for handling their backend and bringing them traffic via front-page exposure. If you don’t have a camming setup of your own, you can go through a studio, which often takes an additional cut and requires a tighter, less negotiable schedule. Over the course of the weekend, I hear numbers between 35 and 50 percent; Casey and his girlfriend Lydia, the couple who work primarily on Streamate, told me the website takes 75 percent of their earnings.

Considering that cam performers are essentially independent contractors with no union, network, or support system to speak of, the issue of camgirl exploitation is an extremely pressing one. The enormous commission that most studios take from their performers has prompted some performers to leave the cam sites and work independently, offering shows on platforms like Skype.

“The truth is the pimps [website owners] have killed the industry,” Amanda 36C, a veteran performer who regularly blogs about her frustrations with the industry, told me via Skype. (Amanda did not attend Camming Con, saying she found the idea of cam performers meeting their fans in person “creepy, if you ask me.”) “They ripped off clients in the millions [as well as] the girls, and continue to do so.”

Amanda says streaming platforms also scam fans by double or triple-billing them, or recording performers’ shows and billing them as live content. The clips are then uploaded on free tube sites, thus taking money out of the performers’ pockets.

What keeps performers on sites like LiveJasmin and Streamate, instead of independent platforms, are seems safety concerns, according to Nikki Night, who regularly coaches 45 to 60 camgirl “students” in an open forum on Cam4. While she doesn’t deny that both fans and less legitimate cam websites have been known to upload performers’ shows, she strongly disagrees with the suggestion that performers could fare better by going independent, saying doing shows on Skype poses serious security threats to performers.

“Skype, to me, is one of the dumbest things you can do,” she says. “If someone pays you to Skype with a stolen credit card, either you find out later it’s a stolen credit card and you get dinged with fraud, or if the transaction goes through on PayPal, now they have your actual name, your actual email address, they know things about you… People get impersonated constantly, and there’s so much of a chance of fraud.”

 

Day three

Like the vast majority of the other cam models I talk to, Night also takes a strong stance against performers meeting their fans in person, which is somewhat ironic, considering that she and her colleagues have come to the convention for that purpose. She says she’s only met a fan in person, one time, and it was not a positive experience. But she thinks it was actually worse for the fan than it was for her.

“You actually kill the fantasy for your fan,” she says. “If you get too personal or emotionally involved, you’re killing the fantasy that they pay you for.”

But where are the fans? It’s something I ask every cam model and every industry figure I meet for the first few days at the convention. Everyone is identifiable by a label on their badge—I am “press,” the models are “models”—and up until the third day, even the more well-established models say they haven’t met any fans yet. I do, however, see a ton of burly security dudes, who stroll outside every panel and event to make sure no one gets too close to the models.

One of the security guards I talk to, who also works detail at concerts, says that he doesn’t expect that to happen.

“This is a much different crowd,” he tells me. “The fans are more well-behaved.”

After the fan convention, I hear otherwise from another security guard, who said he had to remove a few fans for asking to marry the models and saying they knew where they lived. But apparently, on average, the type of guy who’d pay $40 to masturbate and talk about his problems with his wife is a lot less inclined to obsessive violence than the kind of guy who’d try to get backstage at a Cher concert.

It isn’t until the third day of Camming Con that I meet my first fan: Mr. Balls, a 20-something IT guy who storms into a fascinating yet otherwise poorly attended panel on legal practice and Internet safety. (Side note to cam models: Don’t play a Drake song during your cam shows, or else you and your website might get sued for copyright infringement.)



 

Mr. Balls—his official camming screenname, and also his Twitter handle—is a Marine who works in IT and is stationed overseas. He’s burly and deeply tanned, with close-cropped hair and comically oversized delts; he also has a tattoo of a smiley face on his scrotum, which he doesn't hesitate to show me at the conclusion of our interview. He’s carrying around a giant gallon of water in a fanny pack and eats raw vegetables during our interview.

Mr. Balls got into camming a few years ago, while he was living in the barracks as a Marine. “A lot of jobs I’ve had have put me in weird living situations in the middle of nowhere, and right now I’m on an island of lonely, horny dudes,” he says. “I need an outlet. Right now, my outlet is camming.” When he first started frequenting camgirls, he says he spent more than $8,000 a year on tips and private chats; now, he says that number has gone down to about $100 to $300 a month.

I ask him why he prefers camming over masturbating to porn. “I got tired of watching some dude fuck some chick and choke her and slap her and shit, while I’m sitting here jerking off,” he said. “There’s no interactive aspect to it.” And he doesn’t just jerk off to the girls on cam sites. He talks to them and to their other clients about everything from music to the current situation in Ukraine, which he regularly discusses with cam girls from the region: “They’re saying don’t believe what you hear, it’s a war, it’s a violation of people’s right to vote, it’s a disgrace for democracy. I don’t blame them for getting angry.”

While Mr. Balls’ description of discussing geopolitics with women he’s paying to masturbate to might sound odd, it jibes pretty well with what other cam performers have told me about their own relationships with their fans. “Some guys will pay for hours just to talk,” Casey tells me. “They just need the interaction.”

His friend Bianca, a camgirl who also performs with her boyfriend on Streamate, told me she has one client who lost his legs in a car accident, who confides in her about his depression. “He's like, ‘Would you still hang out with me even though I have bad legs?’ I'm like, ‘Of course, dude! I hate walking. I'm gonna sit on your lap and we're gonna roll it out. We got handicapped parking, we got first place in the roller coasters,’” she tells me. “These guys, they aren’t creepy. They just need someone to talk to.”

At first, Mr. Balls seems to fall in this category. He seems affable, if not lonely and eccentric—a far cry from the trope of creepy, mouth-breathing fans I’ve heard the models discuss all weekend. But there are times when he says things that make me understand why a woman he interacted with online would be terrified to meet him in person. He says security asked him to leave the models alone at a party the night before. He says he’s been banned from numerous streaming sites, including Streamate and Naked.com, because the admin “got jealous” of his relationship with a model. And he mentions, completely offhand, spending thousands of dollars to fly to Prague to visit one of his favorite models, only to find he “couldn’t get in touch with her” when he got there, because the site had blocked his IP.

It’s hard to tell how much Mr. Balls is aware of how he comes off to me, or how he comes off to the models. But when I ask him if he thinks he has a shot at the models in real life—if this was the reason why he flew to Miami for Camming Con—he says no. “I have my favorites I look forward to getting on cam and saying hello to, but just like anything it fades away after a point,” he says. “We’re all human beings. We all want physical contact.”

To this end, he’s started moving away from camming, logging onto Backpage.com to find escorts for hire. But he clearly feels a connection to the women he’s met online. When I ask him who he’s most excited to meet, he mentions Alexa Johnson, the blonde I met on the first day. He’s encouraged her to exhibit her art, which she shows to her clients on cam.

“The people on the cam sites, they’re actual people and they’re living their lives as well,” he says. “People don’t realize that the world isn’t just their living room.”

On the last day of Camming Con, there’s a party at E11EVEN, a nightclub in South Miami that appears to be frequented almost exclusively by tourists, underage boys in polo shirts, and women with breast implants they should probably sue over. E11EVEN is part standard nightclub, part strip club, so we drink vodka Red Bulls while watching women in platinum thongs gyrate on big-bellied businessmen, as an extremely buff blond dancer descends from a silk rope on the ceiling. 

As I watch the cam models watching the floor show at E11EVEN, I think about what Frankie says about the other members of her industry: That they all have social anxiety in one form or another, otherwise they likely wouldn’t be doing what they do. I also think about Little Red Bunny, spending 12 to 14 hours a day chatting with her fans online, sipping red wine in a bustier and dancing to jazz standards and laughing with virtual strangers until the wee hours of the night.

At E11EVEN, no one seems to be suffering from any form of anxiety, social or otherwise. No one seems concerned about missing four days of work for the convention, or making enough in tips to take care of their children, or warding off unwanted attention from crazed fans. Here, they are in their element, laughing and drinking and primping in the ladies’ bathroom mirror, heads tipped back and bodies writhing in the dark; here, at Camming Con, they are all stars, and we are just the people who get a little bit of that stardust. 

Photo via CammingCon/Instagram