Pale light streams through tapestry hung over a window in a mostly empty room. Mariah, wearing a lacy bra, panties, and high-heeled shoes with sparkly straps, sits with her legs spread before a video camera. A television monitor displays her half-naked body as seen by dozens of anonymous men somewhere in cyberspace. Next to it, a computer screen displays in white letters her audience's sexual demands.
"Do you like oral?" a man named Steve asks.
Mariah pecks out her reply on a keyboard balanced on the arm of the chair. "Mmmmmm yes baby."
Mariah is a lithe blonde with the voice of a little girl. In the lull between her correspondence, she explains the ins and outs of webcam porn. "You can fake stuff over the Internet," she says. "If you wear a tampon, you can cut the string and you can still make it look like you're playing with yourself. And with a toy, you can make it look like it's going farther in than it is."
But the most important trick is enticing men out of the free chat room and into a private area, where they agree to charge their credit card $3.99 a minute to talk to a woman one-on-one. "They just really want to see you do a little striptease and touch yourself," she says. "And then they call and they want to hear you moan."
Some requests she won't fulfill. "Some people like gross stuff," she says. "You can just imagine, like bathroom stuff."
Mariah's writing will never earn praise from The New York Times Book Review; mostly she just holds down the "M" key. Then again, her customers aren't exactly looking for turgid prose. "Me so horny," writes Steve. "For you. Your body. Show me your nipples."
Down the hall, Mariah's Internet pimp checks up on her the same way everyone else does, by visiting camsathome.com, the Amsterdam-based website to which his cameras provide content. With his long red mane pulled back in a ponytail and a carpet of chest hair sprouting from his partially unbuttoned shirt, Forest Williams looks like he stepped out of Boogie Nights. On his computer screen, Mariah strokes her smooth leg, but Williams sees only dollar signs.
"When I first got into the biz, I did it for the sex," he says. "Let's be honest. I wanted to get laid . . . Well, that got old after a month."
What didn't get old is the money, and right now, Mariah is about to close another sale.
"R U ready hon?" she types.
"Let's go," Steve writes.
The screen goes black and shows a stock image of a woman with a dildo and the words, "The model is currently in a private show." Williams clicks over to a spreadsheet with up-to-the-minute transactions. The money rolls in, and he kisses his hands like a director thanking the academy. "Look at that!" he says. "I love her! I love her! She got a half-hour pre-buy."
More than a decade ago, noted futurist Howard Rheingold forecast the dawning of cybersex in his widely quoted book, Virtual Reality. Rheingold predicted that, in the not-too-distant future, we will slip into sensor-packed bodysuits capable of transmitting sensation over the Internet: "You run your hand over your partner's clavicle and, 6,000 miles away, an array of effectors are triggered, in just the right sequence, at just the right frequency, to convey the touch exactly the way you wish it to be conveyed."
We're not there yet, but one look at Forest Williams drooling before a computerized image of a blonde in Amsterdam, and it's clear we're not far off.
The woman's name is Elise, an old friend, and when he types a greeting followed by several exclamation points, she responds by flashing her enormous boobs. "She loves me," Williams says, grinning like a dog on a hot summer day. Elise types the words, "Hold on, pussy in cam," and Williams hastily scrolls down on a menu bar to select an upskirt shot just in time to see Elise pull aside her panties and show off her crotch.
He's watching Private Dorm, a voyeur house where about 30 women eat, sleep, and have sex for paying peeping toms. It's Friday night, which means it's time to party. Women and men swing dance and casually quaff spirits, but most of the party "guests" are sitting at home, watching over the Internet. Thanks to more than 55 live cameras running 24 hours a day, anyone in the world can attend this party, provided they've paid the requisite $39.95 a month to InterClimax, the company that runs the site.
"The secret is, the World Wide Web is giving people a chance to look in other people's bedrooms," says Claudia Van Lubak, a pert, 26-year-old blonde who's posed for Penthouse and Hustler, and who co-owns the Amsterdam company. "You get to really know the girls. That's the addictive part, and that's the difference."
Mariah knows this all too well. One of her customers, a paraplegic, became so enamored of her that he paid $99.95 to take her to a private room for a half-hour, just so she wouldn't have sex with her husband, who had wandered into the webcam's field of view. The customer "was obsessed with me and created this fake life in his head that me and him would be together," Mariah says.
Williams's studios are similar in appeal to Private Dorm, though much more modest. Through a contract with InterClimax, he operates three live webcams in a sparsely furnished, apartment-style office in West Park. "I've got residential housing 15 feet from my studio, with kids running up and down the street," Williams says.
His neighbors, which include several churches and a school, would likely be surprised to learn they live so close to a pornographer, but Williams's business is entirely legal.
It would "not be classified as an adult entertainment business under Cleveland's zoning regulation," according to Robert Brown, the assistant director of city planning. "The reason for that is no customers are actually coming on-site. What you're describing is more akin to a photography studio than an adult entertainment business."
Williams is one of a growing number of webcam pornographers across the country, according to Frederick Lane, author of Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age. While webcams remain a relatively tiny percentage of the online porn business, estimated to be worth more than $1 billion a year, sites are increasingly using them to boost traffic, now that the Internet has become crowded with free smut. In fact, they may well turn out to be the mother lode.
"Interactivity is the killer app for the adult industry," Lane says.
Before finding his calling, Williams, 35, worked a variety of jobs -- from mopping up jerk-off booths in New York to selling ice cream in California. He inherited about $10,000 from his grandmother, then lost all but $1,500 on day trading. As he watched his bank account plunge with the price of Amazon stock, he consoled himself by surfing porn sites, where he discovered that better money was only a mouse click away. He invested his remaining cash in an online porn start-up.
He biked around Santa Rosa, California, posting fliers for models on college bulletin boards and at the county fair. "It's amazing what you'll get girls to do," he says. "I would . . . get a girl to come in for an interview, and she would literally give me a blowjob on camera as part of an interview. And 7 out of 10 girls would do it the first time." He has since sworn off consorting with his models, he claims.
But Williams soon earned a reputation in the porn business as a man who dreamed big but failed.
With money from investors, Williams rented out a California sex club and launched "Who Wants to Shag to Be a Millionaire?" an event as clumsily executed as its name. The plan called for amateur women to compete live on the Internet to break the record for the world's biggest gangbang -- a threshold set at the chafe-inducing high of 620 men. But according to one account, only three women volunteered, along with about 20 men, some of whom were stricken with performance anxiety. (Williams claims about 70 men showed up.)
The record remained unbroken, the female competitors badmouthed Williams for poor planning, and the video rights became hopelessly entangled by legal wrangling because of a contract dispute with one of the women. The project did, however, make Williams a recognizable name -- though not in a way he would have wished. MSNBC questioned the safety of exposing women to so many sexual partners in the age of AIDS, while Howard Stern wondered if one of the women had once been a man.
"I looked like a fucking idiot in front of a lot of people," Williams says. "I'll tell you what: It made me humble."
Not humble enough, apparently. He next tried to glom onto the reality TV craze with "Voyeur Survivor," a live webcast featuring 10 men and 10 women in Key West, competing in naked sporting events designed to incite jiggling -- from parasailing to banana boat racing.
"I had some girls with huge tits, so it would have been like, baboom, baboom," Williams says, miming the bouncing of volleyball-sized breasts.
Unfortunately, Key West didn't like being the host for his porn Olympics. Police pestered him with threats of arrest until he called off "Voyeur Survivor" on the first day, forcing him to refund money to the 1,000 people who paid to watch the webcast.
Between the two disastrous events, Williams says, he lost about $140,000. Frustrated, he packed his belongings into a camper and set off on a cross-country road trip, sleeping in Wal-Mart parking lots and cooking with the heat from his engine. Around Thanksgiving, his wanderlust led him to Lakewood, his hometown, where the porn broker's camper crapped out.
Broke, Williams cast about for an investor willing to fund a webcam business. He found a man willing to sink $40,000 into the venture, but the investor didn't see the profits he expected. "He locked the doors, and I moved on," Williams says.
With $3,000, a mountain of debt, and bad credit, he struck out on his own, buying three cheap video cameras and a slew of used computer equipment. Since October, his studios have brought in $131,022. InterClimax takes 40 percent, and what remains is split 50-50 between Williams and the women with whom he contracts. Counting the e-mail addresses Williams collects and sells to junk mailers, he expects to gross $100,000 this year. The women can average $800 a week if they work full-time and are skilled at tempting men into private chat rooms.
And this is just the beginning, says Williams, ever the dreamer. His latest scheme is a contest to send website visitors to Amsterdam. For a $1 fee, visitors to wegetyoulaid.com -- a separate site that funnels traffic to his webcams -- can register for a monthly drawing for an all-expenses-paid trip to the Private Dorm, Williams says. He'll even pay to get the winner laid by a prostitute in the red-light district.
He hopes the contest will establish him as the webcam sex king of Cleveland, a field with just a handful of competitors. He claims he's already knocked one competitor out of business, because local models would rather work for better money at his studios. Another, John Allen of Nastyjaxxx.com, took his cams off-line for six weeks. "There's nobody in town who can compete with me," boasts Williams.
He's studied franchisers like Dave Thomas of Wendy's and thinks he can have similar success selling porn. His plans include opening studios in other cities over the next 18 months. Big companies like InterClimax, he notes, pull in $2 million a month in webcam business.
"If some of these things I got working break . . ." He stops to catch himself, like a man who has dreamed and failed once too often. "But I've been saying that for years."
"So who was watching her before?" Williams asks. He's sitting at his cluttered desk, talking on one of three cell phones to Latin Diva, a model who is having trouble arranging a baby-sitter. "Do you have someone you could pay for $100 a week?" he asks. "Work on finding day care for your daughter, and I'll take care of it."
Latin Diva finds a sitter and arrives for work later that afternoon. She's five feet tall, with a few rolls of flesh hanging out of her barely-there neon stripper outfit. She started a week and a half ago, and it's clear she's still learning the trade.
"Mmm I am so horny," she pecks out on the keyboard at an achingly slow pace. "Cum on in so you can see something real nice."
By the time she presses the return key, most of her customers have disappeared. "See, they all left. That's why I hate typing," she says. "They're just looking to get a free show."
Several days later, Williams parks his Grand Marquis in front of Latin Diva's house and honks his horn. He's supposed to pick her up for work, but she's nowhere to be found. A young tough with neck tattoos and baggy jeans swaggers over and says he'll fetch her from inside, but he reappears alone.
"She ain't going," the young man says. "I'm her man. She ain't going no more."
Williams puts his car in drive and coasts a few feet down the street, smirking at the boy in the rearview mirror.
"What?" the boyfriend asks, spoiling for a fight. "What?"
"You're her man?" Williams scoffs. "How about you're her boy?"
Williams drives away. "See what I gotta deal with?"
Since coming to Cleveland, Williams's biggest problem has been maintaining a full stable of women. Compared to California, Northeast Ohio has fewer struggling actresses willing to do porn while they wait for their big break. Latin Diva's departure cuts his workforce to five.
It's a problem that also plagues John Allen of Nastyjaxxx.com. "One week, you've got seven, eight girls working for you," he says. "The next, you got two. The reason is patience. That's the worst thing that the girls don't have is patience."
But Williams has other problems, too, Allen says. He's heard from women that Williams isn't always forthcoming with their paychecks. "You want to have a bad reputation? Don't pay your girls on time," Allen says.
Williams counters that Allen is simply jealous of his success. "I'm sure there are girls that have disputes with me over money, but show me a boss that doesn't have a dispute with a contractor over money," Williams says. Several women currently working for him say he always pays them on time.
Williams recruits new women by placing ads soliciting "Internet chat models" in local newspapers, including Scene. He fields about 20 inquiries in a good week. His spiel is as patented as a telemarketer's.
"How old are you?" he asks. "How tall are you? And how much do you weigh? This is nude modeling, have you done any of that before? Have you danced or anything like that? What makes you think you're going to be able to get nude in front of people and feel comfortable with it?"
He tentatively books an interview with an applicant for Friday morning, though his hopes aren't high. "Forty-two-year-old who likes to walk around the house naked," he says. "Whether she's going to make money on the Internet remains to be seen. She sounds fucking homely, but then again, that's not everything."
It's a moot question, since she doesn't show. That doesn't surprise Williams. He screens out about 15 of the 20 weekly applicants before the first interview. Of the five who make the first cut, maybe two or three won't chicken out.
The women who show up usually aren't the too-perfect fembots who populate Vivid videos, a point that's clear when two friends come for their audition. As soon as Williams opens the door, it's a blind date gone bad. One of the women has meaty legs and a plain face; the other is pear-shaped, with teeth that don't fit in her mouth.
Williams puts on a good front, patiently explaining the business. The two women nod their head attentively like office-job applicants, even as they stare at images on his computer of porn stars cramming dildos in every available orifice. When the applicants leave, one of Williams's workers emerges from her show. "When do they start?" she asks.
Never. "I'd be embarrassed, unless I'm going to have the 'ugliest fucking chicks' website," Williams says.
Aside from a shared lack of inhibitions, the women who work here are as different as any two people plucked off the street.
With her string-bean body and garish tattoos, Lorelei looks like a punk rock Olive Oyl. "I've always been interested, I guess, in doing these silly porn things," she says. Before going to work for Williams, she started her own amateur porn site, which mostly featured shots of her friends in their panties. The site has since been taken off-line. "Some girls would consider porn a totally feminist thing to do. But another feminist, an older one, wouldn't. I'm lucky; I also have a boyfriend who's politically aware. He came with me for my first interview."
Tabitha is her physical opposite. "I'm basically a big-booby girl," she says, swearing that her 38 DD breasts are authentic. "I bring a suitcase of imaginary outfits. Guys never know who I'm going to be. It's fascinating. I do this one day a week. This gives me a chance to not be serious, 'cause it's fun."
When she walks out of the room, she places an eight-inch pink phallus on her chair, "like the director would leave a script," she explains with a laugh.
Still, it's not easy finding keepers like Tabitha and Lorelei. Williams has to pay his women more than workers in other places InterClimax does business, such as Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic. "American girls can go and get a regular job for $10 an hour," he says. "Why are they going to show their pussy on camera for $15?"
Mariah is the franchise player.
Her husband, Mike, a burly ex-football player, sits on their balcony, smoking Marlboro Lights, drinking iced tea, and discussing why he doesn't mind that anonymous men pay to watch his wife masturbate.
"I'm the least jealous person you'll ever see in your life," he says. "She won't do nothing. I was her first [love], so that's why she's so attached to me."
Yet this isn't the life they planned.
Mike and Mariah met at a coffee shop when they were each still in high school. He remembers being drunk. She thought he was cute and nice.
Their romance blossomed over movies and miniature golf, but it was threatened after just two years by Mike's decision to join the Coast Guard. Mariah convinced him they should marry.
He was 19; she was 18. "I was young," she says. "You think you love somebody right away."
Mariah knew she should stay home and finish high school, but she was tempted to accompany Mike to his Coast Guard station in Bayfield, Wisconsin. When her mother argued against going, it provided the only excuse Mariah needed. Her little brother begged her not to go, but she hastily packed her things and left.
At a gas station a little before midnight, she called home to talk to her father. "He was mad that I left, and he told me wherever we were, he would pick me up if I wanted to go home," she remembers.
Fate would intervene first. Not long after that call, Mike fell asleep behind the wheel as they drove through Wisconsin. The car rolled at least eight times as it tumbled down the highway. Mike was ejected through the sunroof and landed in a tree, then fell to the ground. The impact crushed four vertebrae and pinched several nerves. He staggered to his feet to check on Mariah.
She, too, had been ejected, but was in far worse shape. She was knocked into a coma and remained that way for eight days. Her spleen was bleeding, and doctors had to cut her open to staunch the flow. The surgery left a wormlike scar squirming from her navel to her breastbone.
"She was scared to wear a bikini," Mike says. "But I told her guys look past that."
When he recovered, Mike was no longer fit for Coast Guard duty. He was granted 20 percent disability pay and took a job with the Disabled American Veterans, then suffered a nervous breakdown that forced him to quit. With a high school education and a back too battered for manual labor, Mike couldn't find work. "Everybody's like 'We'll call you in a couple days,' and the phone never rings," he says.
After hearing an ad on the radio, Mariah applied to a modeling agency, but it turned out to be a $400 scam. The fee was supposed to pay for a photographer, but after taking the money, the agency never called back. Then she saw an advertisement for Internet models, which she knew was code for working nude.
It would mean going against her strict Catholic upbringing. Even now, her parents turn off movies her younger brothers are watching at the first sign things will get steamy. "Even kissing. They think it's so wrong, everything sexual," she says.
Yet the couple needed money, and Mike did his best to soothe her nerves. After her first day of work, "I wasn't nervous at all," she says. Mariah now takes home $800 in a good week.
Mike had nothing better to do and found himself frittering away money when left alone, so he began working at the studio as an unpaid intern. Williams wants Mariah and Mike to take over as studio managers when he decides to leave Cleveland to open webcam businesses in other cities.
But Mike and Mariah have other plans. He would like to join the pro golf tour and open his own driving range. She's going to Cleveland State for her undergraduate degree in psychology. She wants to become a neuropsychologist, an interest she developed in the hospital after the car accident.
Mike knows not everyone would approve of the life he and his wife lead. "If her parents ever found out, I'd be the biggest fucking monster," he says. But it's her choice, he says. "Do you see a gun to her head?"
"What position do you prefer in love?" someone types.
Tall and lanky with wavy blond hair, Atlantis turns around in her chair and bends over, giving her audience a view of her butt, obscured only by a spaghetti-thin thong. She sits down and takes off her clunky black shoes, then peels off her white stockings ever so slowly.
"I love your smile," someone types.
"Thank you," she says to the camera, blowing an air kiss.
She started less than two weeks ago. She's a natural.
"When I first came here, I wasn't thinking I was going to do it," she says. She stood Williams up on the first interview after driving to the neighborhood and getting cold feet. But she came back, and this time, "I felt comfortable," she says. "I like my job a lot. They're very good to us here. It's not what you would think it was."
She's 21, but tells the chat room she's 18. Williams says she's more marketable that way. She also claims to be single, but later the truth slips out. "I have children," she says. "Three. All by the same daddy. I'm married. Oops!" She puts her hand over her mouth.
"My husband doesn't know," she says in a panic. "He's wondering where I'm working. He knew I had an interview here, but I told him I wasn't going to do it."
Her husband lost his factory job and hasn't worked in six months, she says. "He's a very controlling person. I wasn't allowed to have friends. And I couldn't work. He would go to my work and get me fired. He thinks money's just going to be mailed to us or something." She hasn't told her family about her job, either.
But her secret doesn't keep long. A family friend works in the building where Williams's studios are located. So a few days later, during Memorial Day weekend, Atlantis tells her mother she's working as a lingerie model.
"She said she would rather me be a dancer, and on the side, a hooker on the street, 'cause less people would know," Atlantis says. "Come on now! I'm in my own private room. I am not a ho!"
For added emphasis, she types it for the chat room to read. "I am not a ho."
Atlantis tells Williams what her mother said. It gives him an idea. He sees it emblazoned across a television screen, the teaser before a commercial: "My mom wants me to hook and strip, on the next Jerry Springer."
Williams e-mails Springer, and within an hour, a producer calls to invite them on the show. Atlantis's mom rebuffs the offer, but a producer convinces Atlantis's husband to appear, with the promise that his wife will tell him a secret. They are supposed to fly to Chicago on June 5 to tape the last show of the season.
"My mom says, if I go on the show, she'll never speak to me again," Atlantis says. "But hey, life is short. I want to go on Jerry Springer."
Like so many of Williams's plans, the appearance on Jerry Springer doesn't work out. On the morning Williams and Atlantis are to fly out, a producer calls to say Springer is stuck in London; the show will be postponed.
"Am I disappointed that I got pushed back? Yeah, a little bit," Williams says. But producers weren't going to let him plug his website, anyway. "Fuck, I don't give a shit."
Atlantis is even more sanguine. "I'm a little nervous about the whole Jerry thing, 'cause it's Jerry Springer," she says, alluding to the show's trashy reputation.
Besides, her husband already discovered her double life. She doesn't know how he found out, but he gave her a letter addressed to Atlantis -- her chat-room pseudonym. "Now he's calling me a tele-ho," she says. Her husband also confessed a secret of his own: He cheated on her several times. Now she's planning to get divorced and worries what will happen to her children.
Mike and Mariah arrive with a bag from Taco Bell. Mike finds Atlantis looking distressed, her hand over her heart.
"You got heartburn?" he asks.
"My heart aches," Atlantis says.
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