Twitter is a wonderful platform when it comes to casually striking up a conversation with ‘famous people’. Even more wonderful when someone actually responds and you can run off and tell your friends about it; as if to say that person is now a close friend.
Having chatted to Brooke Magnanti (more commonly known as Belle De Jour) on twitter a couple of times, like a complete groupie, I almost squealed like a little girl when I found out Magnanti was talking at the Wigtown Book Festival.
The fact that Magnanti has previously been an escort, is a well-educated woman and was anonymous for a long time, gives us a lot to talk about, but what I really wanted to know was if she is prepared for a zombie apocalypse.
How have people who were fans of the Belle Due Jour books responded to the very factual The Sex Myth?
The reactions have been very different and it has been really mixed. As you can see they have put a sticker on the cover for people that didn’t already know. I don’t know how effective that particularly is. I think there is going to be an overlap of people who liked the Belle books, being interested in these topics generally, but then there are going to be a lot of people who don’t read non-fiction. The response and the reviews have been really mixed and I guess in a way that actually surprised me. I expected it to be a lot more negative than it was. So to get any positive reviews was like ‘yeeeeess get in’.
Did anything shock you during your research for The Sex Myth?
I don’t shock too easily (she laughs). I suppose in part it was more thinking about the people who conducted the research and wondering if it shocked them than the results that they found. My science research has always been very well...not sexy. I sometimes think ‘someone out there is a research assistant to someone whose job it is to put bands around men’s penises whilst they watch porn and measure whether they are getting engorged or what. That’s just a normal day at the office for them’
How does academic writing differ from writing a novel?
It is totally just getting into a different way of doing things. I think what really helped was the original books were structured like diaries so I could take each piece a bit at a time, rather like you would in any kind of writing of a scientific experiment.
The diaries were written in that style, they did have almost a clinical edge to them and that is why I think (when I was still anonymous) people thought I must be a man. People thought I was Toby Young. There were people who said they ran my work through the gender genie software and that it must be by a man. I think what people were actually picking up on is that I write like a scientist writing a memoir.
So why did it take them so long to find you?
The media wanted very much for it to be one of their own. They were working on the assumption that whoever wrote the book had never been a call girl and so once you have made that assumption it is equally reasonable to say it could be a man as well. So that is why they could not find me for so long. For a long time they were only looking within their own media circle. In 2004 the Times got a forensic linguist from the states to try and work out who Iam.
Have you ever had a misconception about someone?
I agreed to do the interview with Julie Bindel simply because I wanted to meet her. You know, it’s like here’s this person whose articles I have been reading. To meet her in person Bindel is actually really nice although she tears you apart in print.
How important do you think education is in modern day Britain?
I think it is enormously important and I am very aware of the fact that a lot of the advantages I have had in my adult life have come from having had a very good education and having gone to a good school and gone to a decent university.
I do worry sometimes on some level that there is a part of me that knows that maybe people would count me as a sexual phenomenon and some people thinking they don’t have to work hard, they just have to look sexy. It is a little bit depressing sometimes when you hear statistics that 30% of girls want to be glamour models. I have no problem with people being glamour models but do we need so many? It sounds silly but it’s the whole voice in the back of your head that says ‘always have something to fall back on’ and for me that was very much computer programming.
I had intended to quit escorting when I got a ‘real job’ but the computer programming was so boring I kept being an escort because that was something more interesting to do with my time. I couldn’t live the life of going on the tube, sitting in the office, ‘tick tock tick tock’.
What are your thoughts on tuition fees?
When I heard that tuition fees were going up I thought that’s the kind of money I was paying and you do kind of think to yourself there’s going to be a lot of people thinking oh maybe if I just strip for a summer I can pay that off. Nobody wants to come out of university in debt if they don’t have to. If you leave university with that level of debt you just have to take what job is offered.
What bugs you the most about the current education system?
I was only ever here as a post-graduate in this country and seeing the debates that go on especially around sex education; this is one that absolutely gets me. A year or two ago when you had people wanting to be able to opt out of sex education in schools but have to accept the fact that media has changed a lot and our kids are wearing various sexualised things. It makes sense that there should be good comprehensive sexual education in schools and people seem to just want to sweep that under the rug.
I have this guest lecture for forensic statistics that I love, love, love and give in a lot of places because I love it. You sort of think the enthusiasm for things like that is missing from a lot of places. I feel lucky that when I was at school our science and maths teachers were just fantastic. They loved it.
What made you move from somewhere like London to Lochaber?
It is beautiful. Wigtown is massive compared to the village I live in. It has about 300 people. There is one shop and then there’s the post office and everybody knows everybody. But I do realise that I am in quite the privileged position to have a career in writing that I can take with me anywhere.
And what about London...
London is a very interesting place to go to but I don’t think I could have lived there much longer than I did. I don’t suit cities at all; I found myself becoming very unfriendly towards the end because everyone has their London face on.
Really, I always viewed you as a city-loving-girl.
I didn’t make it easy on myself for one thing. Working as a programmer was very antisocial; sometimes everyone I worked with just didn’t talk to me. You know there was no chummy hanging out in the coffee room kind of thing. I can be antisocial at times but I had days where I would realise if I didn’t have a client the only person I spoke to was the bus conductor.
What do you think of books like Fifty Shades of Grey?
My first book now has a new cover to make it look like fifty shades of grey...
I have read them because I went on a Channel 4 documentary to talk about them. It wasn’t to my taste.
My mother e-mailed me with just the subject ‘50 shades’. I knew what the e-mail was going to be. ‘She’s going to ask me if I have read it and if she should read it – I said it’s a bit mechanical, you might enjoy it, but I think your taste is better than that’.
Did your Mum read your books?
She read all my books and then she gave them to my granny. Embarrassment! My face must have registered the shock when she told me she had given them to my grandmother. ‘Your grandmother knows what’s what, she’s had five kids. She knows where everything goes’.
I had such a fear for so long that if my family found out they would never speak to me again. There have been some members of my family that have got upset with me over it, but they were the ones that knew would, but my mother has been great. She is coming with me to a festival in Chicago in a couple of weeks; sometimes I get questions from the audience asking ‘what would your mother say’ and I’ll be able to say ‘she’s right here’.
After talking about Magnanti’s cousin abroad being kidnapped and held hostage, around the time of Belle’s identity being made public, we get on to the topic of survival and whether surviving a horror film would be possible.
My husband and I sit around and assess our chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse. Our house is kind of on the side of a hill and I we wonder ‘how could we block off the roads to make sure the zombies don’t come in and we need to alert everybody in the area’. We need a look out party and you know we have taken up the hobby of making our own wine and cider because in the zombie apocalypse there are not going to be any off-licenses. So, you need to have a drink.
As Magnanti left the interview room to return to her husband, who must be feeling rather impatient by now given that we had been chatting for over an hour. I thought that I had expected Magnanti to be a little controversial given the sexual context of her work but what did shock me was how different she was to the audacious character I had imagined. She comes across as quite shy but also content with her life in the country nowadays. I felt comfortable talking with her. To feel so at ease with a stranger signifies why Magnanti is so popular with the press and public.
What makes Magnanti popular is not only that she was an anonymous call-girl but that she has experienced the feeling of alienation and being scrutinised by the media. Most people, while not being hounded by the press, experience that same feeling of alienation and shame at some time in our lives.
We can relate to her.