We speak to the real London call girl

NICK MILLER
Last updated 11:41 19/03/2013
Brooke Magnanti
Malia Schlaefer

THE NOT-SO SECRET LIFE OF A CALL GIRL: Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle de Jour, refuses to be ashamed of her past.

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The meeting is arranged online. There's no mobile contact number, only an encrypted ''hushmail'' email address and instructions: at this time, be in this cafe in remote north-western Scotland. Dr Brooke Magnanti will see you now.

Magnanti, aka Belle de Jour, former prostitute, cancer epidemiologist and now author, is understandably cautious. Her anonymous 2003 blog, Diary of a London Call Girl, told how she sold sex to pay for life after college, in a series of graphic and often hilarious scenes, poetic asides and anecdotes.

The spin-off books and television series made her a big target. She was accused of making prostitution attractive to young women. One viewer said she - or at least her character, played by Billie Piper - should end up ''dead in a ditch''. The tabloids and the left-wing media don't hesitate to lay into her. She regularly gets threats of sexual violence, torture and death.

This is - to put it mildly - a shame, because Magnanti, 37, is great company: thoughtful, slightly nerdy, self-deprecating and entertaining on subjects from Doctor Who to German hikers. She tweets about Justin Bieber, food, knitting and homebrew. She gets all proud when one of her fiercest critics concedes that her husband is hot (yes, this bisexual fan of bondage, dungeons and open relationships is now happily married).

But occasionally there's a glint in Magnanti's eye, and Belle de Jour peeks out. As her alter ego, she called herself an ''alpha stiletto-wearing, lingerie-obsessed, Pulitzer-reading female'', and began book one with ''the first thing you should know is that I'm a whore''.

''Sex felt as much a spiritual calling as a biological need,'' Belle de Jour wrote.

''My friends always knew I was a slag,'' Magnanti says, laughing.

Magnanti grew up in Florida, her poor immigrant parents telling her, ''You are going to university, you're paying for it yourself and you're going to get a real degree.''

''Which, to my parents, meant science or medicine,'' she says. After maths and anthropology degrees she moved to Sheffield in England for a PhD in forensic science. But the dispiriting London job interview treadmill wiped out her savings, and she couldn't bear to cash a cheque that a friend sent as an emergency loan. So she became a call girl for £300 an hour, of which she kept £200, plus tip and travel expenses.

Magnanti writes in her latest book, ''the short hours of work I performed as a call girl left ample time to look for science jobs, finish writing my doctoral thesis, and participate in a demanding sport at high level. Juggling those things with a job as a professional waitress or behind a bar not only wouldn't have paid the bills, it wouldn't have left time to pursue a professional career.''

But she concedes it's ''a bit odd'' how her priorities work out.

''I think my moral compass is different from a lot of people's. I don't find it acceptable to take things from other people if you have literally any other option. I think it comes from my parents ... [after I was born] they went onto welfare for six months and I remember my father telling me this as if it was the most shaming thing that ever happened to him.''

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Soon after starting as a call girl she found a day job as a computer programmer. It was boring, quiet and staffed by introverted male geeks. ''I kept escorting because it was a lot more interesting than my job,'' Magnanti says. For example, she had a hilarious afternoon with a photographer taking pictures for her agency's website. ''It was awkward and weird and the pictures are absolutely terrible,'' Magnanti says. ''I was thinking, I would love to tell my friends that, but you can't explain the situation without telling them everything else that's going on.''

So she started the blog. She had online exchanges with other sex bloggers - a porn star, a dominatrix, a stripper. ''It was like publicly comparing notes ... the way you'd get together with your friends and bitch about your bosses.''

The blog became a book, and sequels, and the television series. She moved on from escort work. It all went swimmingly, until she was unmasked.

In 2009, a tabloid got wind of her true identity after years of wild speculation. She decided to head them off by going to The Times.

The first problem was telling her parents. They were in the middle of another family crisis (her cousin had been kidnapped and held for ransom, chained to a tree in Ecuador). Magnanti had to quickly update them on her secret life.

''I realised I'd lost out on a certain relationship with my mother by not being able to be honest with her. She went out and bought all the books and then she gave them to my gran, and I was horrified, but she was like, 'Oh come on. Your grandmother was a nurse in the war and she's had five kids. She knows what goes where.'''

The real blow was the media backlash. She expected it from the tabloids. But she didn't expect a feminist bloc to pour vitriol over her in the broadsheets, accusing her of supporting hatred of, and violence against, women because she refused to be ashamed of her past.

''It was very personal,'' she says. '''You, Brooke Magnanti, you cannot be a feminist. You specifically are not a feminist.' Having a bit of your identity publicly denied and taken away like that was very hurtful.''

So she decided, OK, she wouldn't call herself a feminist. It puts her in interesting company. New Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer recently said she wouldn't call herself a feminist. There seems to be a new school of not-feminists, tired of angry lectures on the patriarchy, though passionate about equality.

Magnanti's latest book, 2012's The Sex Myth, has again riled feminists. She applied scientific analysis to myths that have grown up about sex, exposing the lack of hard evidence for claims such as ''the porn industry objectifies women and leads to abuse'', ''strip clubs lead to a rise in sexual assault'', ''internet porn is harming children'', and the extent of sex addiction, sexual dysfunction and sex trafficking.

She provocatively brands old-school feminists as ''agenda setters'', like pharmaceutical companies or evangelist groups, who manipulate, distort or invent statistics to advance their cause, entrenching these myths.

She doesn't see it as a top-down conspiracy, just belief systems and practical needs distorting people's judgment. Behind it all, she thinks, a new conservatism has erased much of the sexual revolution.

''Our parents were more open-minded than we are,'' she says. ''I cannot believe sometimes that some of the people I end up debating [with] are the same age as me. I think, did you not live through the early '90s? That shit was freaky!''

Magnanti's position on sex work is like her position on sex. ''You could call it a simplistic view, but it basically comes down to: is everybody consenting to this?'' she says. ''Is everybody an adult? Is everybody alive? Is everybody human?''

She knows consent is tricky. Circumstances - often financial - make all of us do things we otherwise wouldn't. ''This is where a lot of opponents to sex work have a problem,'' she says. ''I think they believe that there will be some amazing revolution where people only make decisions uninfluenced by anything that goes on in human society.

''I get very frustrated. [Sex workers] don't have very many choices, so what we need to do is take their choices away?''

Magnanti's Twitter feed is, she sort-of jokes, ''basically hooker CNN with a bit of knitting and homebrew''. She believes the information age helps expose the shaky foundations of the agenda setters, hopefully leading to more rational public dialogue.

''You have to remain hopeful because if you lose hope ... why do anything?'' she says. ''I would just stay under my duvet all day.''

After the success of 'Fifty Shades of Grey', Magnanti's publisher asked her if she wanted to write a ''saucy book''. She said no. ''It wouldn't work. People would see it as being cynical, and it would be cynical.''

But still, Magnanti sometimes wonders if she should have written her life as a novel, to avoid the political blowback.

''I should have fictionalised my experiences, then people would love it,'' she says.

- FFX Aus

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