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The dancer who inspired the movie 'Zola' talks Detroit roots, female friendship, sex work industry

Zola, sex work, film
Anna Kooris

This year has its hit indie film of the summer. Zola, which premieres for video on demand on Thursday, is based on the true story adapted from a lengthy tweet thread by A’ziah “Zola” King, a co-writer and executive producer on the project.

Zola’s 2015 viral Twitter thread, titled #TheStory, tells how the 19-year old waitress and stripper from Detroit made a new friend and tagged along for what she thought was a lucrative weekend dancing in Florida clubs. What she got was a brush with sex trafficking, guns, and mayhem.

The film, directed by Janicza Bravo and starring Taylour Paige, is a stunningly suspenseful piece with smart takes on sex work, race, and female friendship. Zola herself joined Stateside to discuss her experiences in the sex work industry in Detroit, the dynamics of female friendship, and the journey from Tweet to screen.

Prior to the events of the viral Twitter thread, Zola was working at Hooters, a place that she said filled the void of female friendships in her teenage life by creating a “sorority” atmosphere.

“A lot of the girls that I worked with at Hooters, I also worked with at the club, so you just kind of started to see this very specific realm that we all committed and existed in. So with that, we just naturally had each other’s back,” Zola explained.

While the sisterhood between sex workers was universal, Zola noted that not all clubs were created equal. Some require permits, others give out $500 fines for patrons who touch the dancers, and many forbid the use of illegal back rooms--but those aren’t the ones that Zola was used to.

“If you can survive dancing in Detroit, you can dance anywhere, because I learned once I began to travel that anything goes in our clubs,” said Zola.

After dancing in clubs for about a year, Zola met Jessica, the white stripper who invited Zola on a road trip to Florida, the day after meeting her at Hooters. Despite only knowing Jessica for one day, Zola said she didn’t have any reason to be concerned.

“As sex workers and as dancers, that's what we do. I mean, that wasn't my first girls' trip. That wasn’t the first time I met someone, and the next day we're in a car together, or on an airplane."

On the road, Jessica--who is renamed Stephanie in the film and played by Riley Keough—begins to exhibit strange behaviors. She quickly adopts a ‘Blaccent,’ a phenomenon defined as the imitation of Black English by non-Black people, which throws Zola off to say the least.

“People like that, they get around their Black friends and they want to be more like their Black friends, and then they get around the white friends and they want to be more like their white friends. So I think that’s what she was doing,” said Zola. “It was like, the more Black people that was in the room, the deeper the Blaccent got.”

Despite their quick connection, red flags soon begin to appear. Jessica told Zola she didn't want to be the only woman on the trip, but it turns out the guy Jessica said was her roommate turned out to be her pimp. Even so, Zola was not sure whether Jessica was a victim or a willing participant in a more sinister scheme.

“I wasn't sure if she was manipulated. I mean, I've been around women with pimps before. But I have seen this dynamic where the man's in control and the woman's a bit brainwashed or manipulated or she thinks she's his top girl. And that's just not the case. And I mean, I've seen so many different dynamics of this type of relationship that I still wasn’t sure what kind they had, honestly. And so I didn't want to leave her,” Zola said.

After the Twitter thread went viral, Jessica published her own version of events on Reddit and sued Zola prior to the film’s production. Despite this negative reaction, Zola believes that the finished film is true to life--and even truer to the Tweets.

“Even when it came to verbatim lines that I Tweeted, you would hear the Twitter chime go off in the movie. I mean, that was an amazing touch to me,” said Zola.

The completed film is a stunning piece of work that recounts this dark, occasionally funny, and suspenseful story, while also bringing attention to the often-overlooked world of sex work. While many people associate sex work with sex trafficking, Zola says the important principle that separates them is consent.

“What I did before that trip was sex work,” said Zola. “When I got, you know, lured on this trip and they attempted to remove my consent in the work, that is when I’m now in a sex trafficking situation, and that is the topic that needs to be talked about.”

You can watch the film Zola on demand here.

This post was written by Stateside production assistants Mary Claire Zauel and Ronia Cabansag.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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