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Crying on camera is a new experience for Bree Olson.
Especially on cameras that don’t belong to a porn producer, a news crew, or a Hollywood backlot. It’s just Olson in her bedroom, cellphone propped up on her dresser, candidly chatting about gratitude, anxiety, and recovery.
It is in this safe space, hair pulled back, T-shirt loosely hanging off her frame, that perhaps Olson is able to be herself for the first time in her adult life.
Born Rachel Oberlin, the woman we know as Bree Olson started working in porn at age 19 and dominated the industry for five years. She racked up 487 film credits, swept adult awards shows, and made the cover of multiple men’s magazines. For a time, she was porn’s biggest star—and after retiring in 2011, she became a daily fixture in the headlines for her three-way relationship with Charlie Sheen and model Natalie Kenly while Sheen seemed to have one public meltdown after another.
Since her relationship with Sheen and her career in porn have ended, we haven’t heard much about Olson—other than her remarks about her ex-boyfriend’s HIV-positive status and a recent Daily Dot essay about the stigma that follows retired porn performers. But Olson has been shooting footage on a near-daily basis for the past year. This time she’s not baring her body, though—she’s baring her soul on Periscope.
Screengrab via Periscope
Without announcing her broadcasts to the public at large, she has been quietly building a following of female fans who offer her support as she transitions out of porn, and explores what it means to be an adult woman—including financial worries, dating dramas, and stretches of loneliness—outside of the industry.
Recently, Olson’s Periscopes have taken on an intense emotional charge. With the help of her newfound community on the social media platform (who pooled money on GoFundMe), Olson recently underwent a 45-day inpatient treatment to wean herself off the anti-anxiety medication Klonopin, which she’d relied on for 11 years. She was also forced to face her intensely traumatic childhood, including a mother with “terrifying” untreated schizophrenia. “The memories that came up for me,” she said on Periscope, “were things I had worked so diligently to forget.”
For many in the adult industry, there’s pressure to appear extraordinarily positive and gleeful about the work. Admitting to a traumatic background is akin to admitting that the anti-porn people are right about everything. Porn is dirty, it harms women, only broken women would do that to themselves: These are the pathologies that women in the sex industries must deflect in order to be left alone and pursue a lucrative income.
Olson is done pretending like everything’s fine, though. Months away from turning 30, she’s only now just beginning to enjoy the freedom of self-definition, of talking openly about who she really is and the not-so-sexy experiences she’s had.
This means analyzing her relationship with butch ex-girlfriend Suzy and discussing her own nonbinary gender identity for the first time. It means talking fearlessly about mental health and medication, and tiptoeing into the real circumstances of her childhood. It means speaking openly about the dark side of working in porn while explaining why her new job as a cam girl is not the same thing. Best of all, Olson’s bare-faced confessionals have even brought real friendships with some of her 700,000-plus Periscope followers who’ve collectively pitched in to help her reclaim her life.
A photo posted by Bree Olson (@breeolson) on
From watching the comments pop up, it seems like most of your Periscope viewers are women, which is a surprise.
Bree Olson: It was a huge draw for me. It’s always been men who were my primary following, and on Periscope, it’s mostly women. Which was such a breath of fresh air, because that’s, of course, who I relate to the most. And we would just talk—I’m a part of their lives and they’re a part of mine. One of them became one of my best friends. She comes in from Vegas and hangs out here in L.A. with me on weekends.
Why do you think women have responded so overwhelmingly to your Periscopes?
I completely had my guard down. I wasn’t worried about being a certain way for a male audience. I had no makeup on, didn’t have my hair done. I would talk about just anything going on in my life: dating, work, anything IRL.
At what point on Periscope did you start sharing your struggles with anxiety and depression?
I was just doing really bad and everyone could see it. They were saying, “I’m worried about you, what’s going on?” I was really spiraling out of control, just in a manic way. I never left my house, I was really upset and sad all the time. I felt like I had to do something. I was on the verge of ending it. I thought, “There has to be a way to change how I feel right now.”
But what about your real, everyday-life friends? Were they saying that too?
You know, I was really isolating myself. I’ve had huge ups and downs before but..more than anything, I wasn’t even seeing people. I was Periscoping, but I wasn’t seeing anyone in person. It’s like when you’re texting someone, but then they call and you’re like, “I’m not answering a phone call!”
So you were getting this feedback. And that inspired you to go into treatment?
I looked up places, but they were so much money. I started a GoFundMe, and I didn’t really know if it would be successful or not. And it raised a huge portion. That’s the biggest reason for the Periscope updates. Maybe it’s not the best idea to share every facet of my life, but I give them updates on the program and on how I’m doing now, because I feel like they deserve that for helping me.
A photo posted by Bree Olson (@breeolson) on
Had you ever been in any kind of program like that before?
No. More than anything, I was able to get off the Klonopin I had been on for 11 years. It’s just crazy that doctors would prescribe something that’s so addictive. So that was at the forefront, but even more than that, I was extremely depressed and had so much anxiety, and I really wanted to get that under control. It was getting to the point where it wasn’t tolerable anymore. And now it’s a complete 180. It’s so much different.
You’ve gone through a lot. And you share these really intimate, vulnerable details on Periscope. Are you ever worried that people will judge you for talking so openly about mental health and medication and stuff? Especially after being stigmatized for doing porn?
If anything, I feel like people can relate. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have a family member who’s dealing with depression and anxiety, or who isn’t dealing with it themselves. It’s so common. And people are curious to see how it can change things and make a difference when you can get an extensive amount of help.
I mean, come on—I come from porn. If I can face the world after that, whatever. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s like…how many friends do people have anyway? They have their five close friends who accept them no matter what. I’m good there.
One of the things you’ve talked openly about on Periscope is your cam work. Can you tell us why you’re doing camming after leaving porn, and more importantly for people who don’t understand—how is it different from shooting porn?
I feel like I would have done it a long time ago if I had known how lucrative it was. With camming, you don’t have to leave the house. You work three hours a day. There’s no one touching me. I don’t have sex with anyone else. I don’t even get naked most days.
It’s like, why not? With the name I have created for myself and the amount of money I can make off of that name, it would almost be a shame not to take advantage of that. Porn is the only industry where there are no royalties as an entertainer. In music, sports, film, everything else, there are. And it’s a really sad thing to think about because it puts women in a vicious cycle.
The women make a decent amount of money, but after a year or two, when they leave, there’s nothing to show for it. Women in porn pay the biggest price, especially with the internet. Their images are there forever—everyone will be able to see them, and it will always be held against them. It can make it difficult to get into other careers. If they can’t get another job and also can’t get royalties, it doesn’t make very much sense.
A reasonable, logical step from porn is camming. Especially compared to what I was doing, this is so vanilla. It’s a nice job. It pays well, and it’s easy compared to what I did before. I was traveling so much throughout my years in porn.
There are some trolls on Reddit who call you a hypocrite for quitting porn and then doing camming. But on Periscope, you’ve talked about recovering from childhood trauma and camming seems a lot safer for someone going through what you’re experiencing now.
Yeah, that’s the biggest thing. I don’t have to have anyone touch me ever again. That’s huge for me. Especially before Periscope, I never talked about the [trauma]. Porn is like any other entertainment industry at the end of the day. They don’t wanna know about the sad stuff. It’s about making the best image you can. I always lied, lied, lied—said I came from a great background. It’s just, everyone lies about it.
It was an extremely difficult childhood. And it was validated when I had counselors tell me they couldn’t believe I didn’t die somewhere with a needle in my arm—it was some of the most traumatic things they’d heard. They told me I needed to continue, and I listened to them because I wanted to be successful. I wanted it to stick. I never wanted to feel the way I felt before I went in.
To go through this intense process and talk about it publicly at the same time is very brave.
I wanted to raise awareness. I thought because I had a prescription for my meds and I’m not out partying, [that I had it under control]…but that can be just as damaging. And I can’t believe how many people have come forward and told me they’re also on Xanax or Klonopin or Ativan some form of benzodiazepine. It’s so addictive, even if you’re taking it just to sleep. People go through withdrawal and sometimes don’t even realize the symptoms they’re having. I thought that because a doctor was prescribing it, it was OK.
They say in rehab that it’s the most difficult thing to come off of, that it’s worse than heroin. I didn’t believe them until I started withdrawal, and it was a nightmare.
Also, not having cellphones and computers, that really helped me heal. Before that, I was on a screen at all times unless I was in the shower. And even then I was like, “I can’t wait to get out and see who’s texted me and who’s on Instagram.” Now I stay away.
I’m such a homebody, that will never change. I had to determine how much of staying home is healthy versus just being a homebody who prefers to be alone. I spend my time just cleaning, reading, and meditating—which sounds so hippy-dippy but it works, which is why so many people do it.
As the LGBT reporter, I have to ask about the Periscopes with your ex-girlfriend Suzy. Can we talk about your personal life? Has your sexual orientation and dating life changed at all since leaving porn?
Definitely not. My first kiss was with a girl, my first everything was with a girl. I had a four-year girlfriend all throughout high school until after I graduated. While I was in the industry, I leaned more toward men. Obviously, I was always open, which was crazy coming from a super small conservative town in Indiana. I was always the only person who was out, and that itself was a real challenge.
But the thing that was really the biggest challenge was not being able to be who I was in terms of my gender identity. I have always felt like I leaned more toward male than I did female, but I was such a cute young girl. It was so confusing to really push toward that, because I was always rewarded for looking and acting a certain way. So much of that was a facade for other people.
But I guess I’m still finding myself. I’ve come to peace with the fact that in 2016 I don’t have to pick. I don’t have to choose one or the other [in terms of gender expression]. I don’t necessarily have to dress the way that I feel inside, because, honestly, I haven’t done that yet. All I really have to say about it is, it’s 2016 and I can just be a badass assertive woman.
It sounds like what you’re describing is a nonbinary or genderqueer identity. It also sounds like you started out very openly queer, and then got into this industry where you had to be extremely feminine.
Yes, absolutely. I was rewarded so much for being feminine—in praise, in money, and in the attention. Dealing with women is so much more difficult. Like Tinder, for example. I can swipe right on hundreds of women on Tinder and only get two matches, but I can switch over to men and get hundreds of matches. My ego! I need validation sometimes. I’ll toggle between the two because I can.
And to be honest, it’s easier here in L.A. Of course, it’s OK [to be LGBT] and be accepted. But going back to Indiana, it’s still completely frowned upon.
Wait, you’re on Tinder?! How is that even possible—aren’t you recognized all the time?
Not really. L.A. is so much more chill. But there is one thing: Dating women after doing porn—what a nightmare. They’re so less cool about it. Men are easier. If I get a good woman, that’s my longest relationship and I’ll stick with it. But it’s hard to come by, it really is.
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.