The Real Zola on Storytelling, Sex Work, and Turning Trauma Into Art
Most writers are intimately familiar with the near-impossible task of writing a compelling lede — the first few lines of a story designed to hook the reader and draw them in. Yet in 2015, a former Hooters waitress from Detroit logged onto her Twitter account and did it in seconds. “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????,” A’ziah King, a.k.a. Zola, posted, accompanied by a selfie of her with a young white woman named Jessica. “It’s kinda long but full of suspense.”
That opening sentence, as well as the 147 viral tweets that followed, form the basis of the feature film Zola, out June 30th. Directed by Janicza Bravo and written by Bravo and Slave Play author Jeremy O. Harris, the film tells the story of how King (Taylour Paige) became fast friends with stripper Jessica (renamed Stefani in the film, and played by Riley Keough), who invited her for a two-day road trip to Florida to make money dancing at clubs. What follows is a chaotic, dizzying narrative involving sex trafficking, motel-room shootouts, violent scuffles with pimps, and a suicide attempt, with a couple trips to the pool thrown in for good measure (after all, as Zola puts it in the thread, it is Florida).
When the Twitter thread first went viral back in 2015, people all over the internet praised King’s storytelling chops, and turned many of her most quotable lines (my personal favorite: when she describes “fucking her man calm”) into memes. Others chided King for glamorizing her trauma, making the all-too-common experience of sex workers facing violence and coercion palatable for a mainstream audience. To this day, King insists that while she wasn’t trying to undermine the real issues sex workers face, her thread was a way of owning her story and coping with the intensity of what had happened to her. “I can’t be afraid of the humor in life. That’s just what the fuck happens,” she says. “I mean, slavery is not funny, but if you tell me you watched Jamie Foxx in Django and you didn’t fucking laugh, I would tell you you’re a liar.”
Zola’s journey to reclaiming ownership of her story has been a somewhat rocky one. Initially, the film was slated to be directed by James Franco and written by two white men, who King says failed to do her story justice; that screenplay, as well as the current one for Zola, was also based not on Zola’s tweets, but a 2015 article about them for Rolling Stone written by journalist David Kushner — another white guy. “It went from ‘Zola’s Story’ to ‘David Kushner’s Facts,’ ” she tells Rolling Stone. “And it actually really pissed me off.”
When Bravo and Harris, who are both black, came on board, however, they made sure King was intimately involved with the making of the movie, and it shows: Much like her thread, Zola is wildly funny, deeply disturbing, and exhilarating, often all at the same time. Not only does it buck traditional storytelling conventions by featuring a perspective that is rarely showcased in mainstream media — that of a black, female, out-and-proud sex worker — but it also works hard to subvert audience preconceptions about sex, race, gender, truth, and who does and doesn’t have license to tell their stories the way they experienced them.
“I felt a little wary about people questioning my experience, like, ‘How true is this,’ because that doesn’t typically happen to women who don’t look like me,” King explains via Zoom. “If a white girl says this is what she experienced and she’s a victim, that’s just what the fuck it’s going to be. “But since I’m black and I’m saying this is what happened…it’s like, ‘How true is that? Are you sure?’ ” In the leadup to promoting Zola, King spoke with Rolling Stone about storytelling, authorship, sex work, race, and why it was important to her to make a harrowing tale of sex trafficking and attempted murder funny.
Your Twitter thread initially won accolades for being well-written. But did you think of yourself as a writer while you were telling your story there?
No. Writing has always been how I express myself and what I do. I feel like I’m a better writer than I am a speaker. Even in regular life, I’d rather text you than talk on the phone. So that’s just my thing, that’s just what I do. But when I was writing this in particular, I wasn’t writing it from any space. I was just writing the way that I would normally.
But you were clearly considering pacing and storytelling conceits — things that a writer would keep in mind while they were telling a story.
I guess it just comes naturally, because even if I were to tell someone that story out loud, that is the way I would do it. I wouldn’t give you everything all at once. I’d kind of take you through it as if you were there.
Did you get the sense that Hollywood took you seriously as a creative when you were first shopping the story around?
I think that happened after the initial Rolling Stone article. For whatever reason, in that realm, people don’t really take things seriously or things don’t feel legitimized to them until it’s in print, which was a bit of an issue for me personally. So, no, based off the social-media aspect of it or the platform I shared it on, I don’t think that was taken seriously. I think that it was just entertainment for them. And so many people didn’t even believe me for various reasons. But once the fact-checking happened through Rolling Stone, once David came out and we spent a really long, long, long day together, and once it was legitimized in that way, I think that’s when they took it seriously.
Do you think that there would have been so much scrutiny on your story had you not been a black sex worker?
No, no, no, I don’t think they would have asked if I was lying. It would’ve been just what it was. I’ve seen so many stories told on the internet, even just Twitter. And I’ve never seen the world get so invested in fact-checking what the storyteller is saying, even a traumatic story. People share their trauma on the internet all the time. And I’ve never seen someone take a traumatized white person and be like, “Well, maybe you’re lying.” I’ve never seen it. Just wouldn’t have happened that way. If Jessica would have told her version in the way that I told my version, it would have been just what it was.
Would you characterize what you went through in Florida as a traumatic experience?
Absolutely. Granted, I was aware of where I was and how to maneuver through it, but I think if anyone else would have been in that situation, it would have went a completely different way. And I think it could have gone a completely different way for me had I not behaved so quickly on my toes. But I had been in sex work for so long, and I had been in this type of realm for so long, I knew what [Jessica] expected, I knew what [Akporode Uwedjojevwe, the pimp in Zola’s story, fictionalized as “X” in the movie] expected, and I knew what I was not willing to do. So I just took those three things and maneuvered in a way that I knew would get me home. I knew he wanted money. It didn’t matter who was making the money. Me, her. It didn’t matter if it fell out of the fucking sky. I knew he needed X amount of dollars to be satisfied enough to send me home. And I knew her job was to lure other women to get us here to get him X amount of dollars. [Ed note: Jessica disputes this version of events, offering her own in a 2015 Reddit post.] So at the end of the day, as long as he gets X amount of dollars, I will go home untouched. So, how the fuck do I do that? And that is what I did. I don’t have to be raped and abused, and I need to figure out how the fuck is she going to make [the money], because she’s comfortable. What she was experiencing was not sex trafficking. What she was experiencing was sex work. She was confident. She liked doing what she was doing. She was aware. She gave her consent. I did not. So I was in a sex-trafficking situation while she’s sitting right next to me, but she’s in a sex-work situation. So at that point, I just had to figure it the fuck out. That was the traumatic part for me, because it’s like, these people think that I have no knowledge of where I am and what I’m doing when I’m already three steps ahead of them. So at that point, I’m like, “I’m going to make sure that she makes enough money for the both of us.”
You say you were sex trafficked but Jessica was doing sex work. It’s fairly common for law enforcement and mainstream media depictions to conflate consensual sex work with nonconsensual sex trafficking, even though sex workers and sex worker rights’ advocates argue there is a world of difference between the two. How do you see your story in terms of the sex-work-versus-sex-trafficking debate? That was a major critique in sex worker communities when your tweets first came out.
It’s a thin line. What I do and what I’m comfortable doing is sex work, and that’s what I had always been a part of. But being in that world, you see it switch so easily. I mean, you go from being confident working in the club to meeting a guy, now he thinks he’s your pimp and now it’s a sex-trafficking situation. So I understood why people couldn’t differentiate [between] the two, especially in this story, because they were so close together. Like I said, you had these two women in a room together and one had been [someone who was nearly sex trafficked], and the other is a very confident sex worker who is essentially the reason why I was almost sex trafficked. So, I mean, I understand the conversation. I think they’re both extremely necessary. But I also think people need to understand — they were assuming we were both victims, and that wasn’t the case. So unless you were there and you’re really able to comprehend what the fuck was really going on, you wouldn’t get it. You would think that I’m glamorizing sex trafficking, but that is not the case at all. She wasn’t a sex-trafficking victim. That was me. Like I said, it’s a thin line between the both, but there are two completely different things. And I actually hope that this film shows that, because we go from being these confident sex workers and friends at the club to the very next second, I’m being forced to stay on this trip.
It’s interesting how clear you are about Jessica not being a sex-trafficking victim because, having watched the film, I did not feel that way. I saw you both as victims.
See, I was there, and I know her, and got to know her. And later on in life, as time progressed and other conversations were had — I mean, she [threatened] to sue me for defamation. She’s really just a master manipulator, and that’s just the fact of the matter. And even after I went home, there were these other two girls [Jessica Forgie and Breeonna Pellow, who according to police were recruited by Swiatkowski and were forced by Uwedjojevwe to prostitute themselves shortly after the trip Zola documented in her thread] that she lured down to go dance with her. But those girls weren’t sex workers and they weren’t a part of this world. They didn’t understand how to maneuver it, and they ended up being assaulted and, like, rapes happened and lots of other things happened. And that’s essentially what landed him in prison. And when she was questioned, her conversation turned to now she’s all of a sudden a victim. But I’ve seen it with my own eyes. She wasn’t a victim.
When your thread came out, many sex workers really enjoyed it. But many were also very concerned about the fact that people were making light of the trauma that sex workers face on a daily basis. What do you make of that critique? Was that in the back of your mind while you were making the movie?
Yes and no. See, I can only share my personal experience, what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced. And from my experience and where I’m standing and the work I do, I love sex work. I’m very comfortable and very confident. The backlash that I get is judgmental people not understanding how I could be so comfortable. I mean, it’s not all good, but it’s not all bad. I’m confident. I’m extremely sexual. I’m confident in my sexuality. Sex work hasn’t been traumatic for me. That experience was traumatic, but sex work hasn’t been traumatic for me. I command my respect in my space. I set my price. I go to the club, I dance. I have had sex for money. But I did that because I wanted to, never because it was a last resort or because I come from a horrible background or because I’m in a shitty city and I just need money. That is not my experience. So I can only share my experience. And that’s what I did. So my truth doesn’t have to be a reflection of all sex workers. But it is a reflection of me and the sex workers like me.
How much responsibility do you feel to incorporate identity politics into the stories that you tell? Like, we’ve been talking about sex workers, but also, as a black woman, do you feel an obligation to represent the experiences of black women in your work?
I have a huge responsibility to do so, and that’s why I think I needed this story to be portrayed accurately, especially in film form. I mean, there’s been so many stripper and sex-work movies and conversations, and none of them ever felt accurate to me. It’s always the girl, you know, this is her last resort or she needs rescuing. It’s always the Pretty Woman narrative or it’s always the glamorous stripper narrative or it’s always the sugar baby narrative. And I’m none of those things. So I felt a huge responsibility to accurately tell my lane of this experience. Like you said, I am a black woman and I am a confident black woman. Just based off of that alone, I [have] a different sex work experience, and I’m already judged harshly just for being a black woman. Imagine the type of things that I experience being a black woman in sex work. There’s even a scene in the film where the guy comes to the door and he’s like, “Oh no, I didn’t want a black one, I wanted the white girl.” And that happens to me all the time. People will come to the club and they’ll want a girl, but a girl that looks like me is not what was on their mind. That’s also a reason why I felt a little wary about people questioning my experience, like, “How true is this,” because why? That doesn’t typically happen to women who don’t look like me. If a white girl says this is what she experienced and she’s a victim, that’s just what the fuck it’s going to be. That’s what it is. But since I’m black and I’m saying this is what happened, and in my realm, the white girl was my villain, it’s like, “How true is that? Are you sure?” It’s like, come on now. And that’s the case in a lot of situations with black women and in sex work. So I feel a huge responsibility to accurately portray that, because, like I said, there are many black sex workers who are like me and share common experiences like me. So I needed it to be as authentic as possible. I didn’t want my voice to get lost at all.
You were talking about how the white women in these situations are often seen as the victim, and the part that I found really striking in the movie is the two-minute segment where Stefani is telling her side of the story, and she’s depicted as comically angelic. How did that scene come about? What was the function of placing that moment in the movie where it is? And what is it supposed to tell us about the nature of storytelling?
Well, with that, Janicza wanted to put [Stefani’s] voice in there in some form, because although this was supposed to be telling my story and my version only, in 2015 there was a Reddit [post by Jessica telling her side of the story] article that came up. [It was saying] I was dirty, I was ghetto. I was jealous of her. I only made one dollar at the strip club. She said the same things happened on the same days, but then would add, “No, we didn’t both dance and leave the club. She danced and only made a dollar.” No, we didn’t… [I] mean, these were things that came out of her mouth and never did I attempt to necessarily paint her in a bad light. But let’s be honest. You were an extremely bad person to me. You lied to me. And you have these intentions and you didn’t really care about my safety. I mean, no one did. And so even in her telling “the truth” or her truth, nothing that she stated was true. It was all aimed at me, and it was extremely racial, it was extremely inaccurate, extremely dramatic, and it was just all attempting to place the blame on me. It did kind of fuck with credibility. Everyone wanted to know what part of this is true and what part isn’t. So when [Janicza] did that, that’s what that portion was based off of. A lot of what Stefani said in the movie is exactly what was in the Reddit article.
You were highly involved in the process of making this movie to an extent that many writers are not. But despite that, do you think it’s ever possible for Hollywood to capture a true story, even when the subject is as involved as you were?
I do. I feel like this captures the essence of the true events tenfold. In my experience, I think it’s possible, especially when you work with people who relate and understand. In the beginning, I had a different kind of team, and many times I was the only black person, let alone woman, in the room. And things weren’t always comprehended how they should [have been]. And so I think when it comes to black stories, at least, I think black creatives need to tell them, if you want to get authenticity and you want the truth to really be seen, because there’s so many black stories out here that are not told by black people. And it’s like, how does that work? How does a room full of white men tell a black sex-work experience? That makes absolutely no sense.
Can you give an example of, early on in the development process, a time where you felt the story wasn’t being represented the way that you would have wanted it to?
Yeah. So the first or second year of this, there was a completely different script that was written. I forget the writers’ names. It’s not important. But there were white men and they had added and rewrote things… I didn’t relate to it at all. I didn’t even understand it at all. For example, in the original script, they had added other girls on the trip with us, and maybe one or two of them were like 15 or 16 years old. And I’m like, “Now that is a level of sex trafficking that I don’t even understand.” I couldn’t even speak on it, because I’ve never seen it. I have never in my life. I understand it happens. And that, too, is a conversation we need to have. But that’s not a conversation that I will be in the forefront of, because I don’t know what that’s like. Being the type of woman I am, I would never stand in a room and watch a 15-year-old girl be sex trafficked or put in any type of danger and be silent… So I was like, “We can’t change the script in that way. That’s not me. That would have made a whole different story.” […] I was like, “This is not the movie. This is a movie, but this isn’t my movie.”
Which parts of the film do you feel like are truest or most faithful to the lived experience that you had, regardless of whether they were depicted in a way that was factually accurate?
One of the most dramatic moments on the trip for me was [when] we went to an outcall — you know, that’s when the prostitute or the escort goes to the client. We were on the phone with the guys the whole time there. And they were like, “Yeah, this is the amount of money we have. We want the white girl, blah, blah.” They actually wanted two girls. But I’m like, “I’m not doing it. There’s only one.” And so she’s like, “OK, that’s fine. Just tell them half-price for one.” Cool. We did that. We’re talking. Everything’s good. It’s like four or five guys. That’s what they were saying. Cool. We pull up. As soon as we walk in, there’s like six guys actually, and half of them are already completely undressed, just butt-ass naked. And the house was disgusting. I mean, it was fucking horrendous. And I’m like, “Are we staying here?” And she’s like, “Well, let’s just give it a try.” No one hands her any money. Everyone starts acting like they don’t speak English. They’re speaking Spanish, language barrier-type shit. And I’m like, this is ridiculous. And she gets on her knees anyway and the room is just so quiet and still, it’s a feeling I can’t even explain. In the film, Janicza made it look more aesthetically pleasing for sure, but that’s the part where the Hispanic guys surround her, and that’s when it cuts to her telling her version of the story. But just the way that it feels in watching that, that is the way that it felt being there. It’s just like, “Oh, no way.” It just doesn’t make any sense to anyone. That is exactly how I felt in real life in that particular instance.
[Ed note: Jessica’s version of these events is different; and she has said her version of what happened prompted her and Uwedjojevwe to send Zola home.]
I think you told David Kushner something to the effect of, you made people who didn’t want to hear a story about trafficking want to be a part of it because it was entertaining. Did you have any complicated feelings about that?
That’s a deep, dark topic in itself. Just to say “sex work” or “sex trafficking,” that’s a deep nosedive of a conversation. There are so many people I know who started reading it and were like, “Sex trafficking. Get that shit out of here. That’s not my thing.” But then once the laughs start and the entertainment begins, they stay for the conversation. So I didn’t feel any conflicts with it. The experience itself and the way that I told it, it’s very hip-hop, you know what I mean? I’m sure your favorite rapper has said something crazy about his past life where he murdered someone or sold something he shouldn’t have or did something that is just so fucking ridiculous. But he gets in the studio and he sits there and he says it in a way that’s entertaining to you. And then you go out into the club and you’re nodding your head to this guy who’s on this track talking about murder and selling horrible drugs. That’s a traumatic life and a traumatic experience. But he is healing through it. And now all these people who are not in that life — we’re not drug dealers, we’re not murderers — we’re entertained and we want to stay for this conversation. Is he wrong for glamorizing his experience? No, he’s expressing his experience. It’s a fact. I can’t be afraid of the humor in life. That’s just what the fuck happens. I mean, slavery is not funny, but if you tell me you watched Jamie Foxx in [Django Unchained] and you didn’t fucking laugh, I would tell you you’re a liar. So that’s just that’s just it. That’s the reality of it. It’s not all good, but it ain’t all bad either.
It was an interesting experience for me to watch the movie because I’m a white liberal mom, and I’m supposed to think all these politically correct things about everything I’ve learned about the politics of sex work and racial identity. And the whole movie just sort of throws a grenade on that in a way.
Yeah, and both of these conversations are happening at once — the sex-work conversation and the sex-trafficking conversation, but also the racial conversation, because [Jessica is] experiencing things from from her white reality and I’m experiencing things from the reality of a black woman. So although we both are in the same realm, so to speak, we’re really experiencing things completely different. Even with her pimp, he and I had a different type of understanding. I know everyone wants him to be this horrible villain. And he is, that guy is shitty. But I never feared [for] my life, and I kind of felt this almost raw energy in his presence. I felt this warm energy. He never raised his hand at me. He raised his hand at her, and, as you see, he had a type — I mean, his girlfriend was white. The other girlfriend was white. The girls that worked for him were white and blond and cute. And then there was me. And even when I said, “I’m not going to be able to [hook]. I’m just here to dance,” he wanted me to almost be his partner in a way. And I think he just related to me too much in our black world. I feel like maybe I looked a little too much like his sister or something. I don’t know, but I never feared him.
We’ve already established you saw this as a traumatic experience. What was more helpful for you in terms of processing your trauma, making this movie or writing the tweets themselves?
A little bit of both. Writing the tweets themselves was how I processed it and put it out and found other people to even give a fuck. I had told it before — I had put it on the internet before, but it I didn’t get in detail. I was just like, “This girl lied to me. I went on this trip. It was really shitty. You guys pray for me. XO, XO.” That was it. But when I really sat down and looked through it and worked through it, it went from so traumatic to me feeling like I had processed it and now I can move on. So I thought. Because then when I saw it in film for the very first time, right before Sundance, I thought I had processed it, but when I saw it again with my own eyes, some of those feelings started to come back up. I was like, “Wow.” It took me watching the film two or three times to finally see the art in it. For me, it was just something that had happened. And I pushed it to the back of my brain. So then to see it again, I was like, “OK, I see the art in this. I get it. I understand.”
What do you see as the balance between accuracy and good storytelling?
The experience is one thing, but the story is only as good as the person telling it, as the storyteller. When I was telling those tweets, it kind of felt like theater. I began just telling the facts — I was telling the truth and the truth only. But once I saw I had this live audience and they’re applauding here and commenting here, then that struck up the need to now tell a story. In real life, no one got shot. No one went to the hospital. No one died. But when I began to get that from the audience, then that’s when I felt I needed to tell a story, not strictly an experience, to keep my audience here. So it turned into that. And so I think it’s a thin line. Embellishment and lying — are they the same? Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t think I lied about anything. However, I do think in order for a story to be worth telling, I mean, you’ve got to amp it up. There needs to be a climax somewhere. But not lying. Just a little tweak.