A Lighthearted Tale of Sex for Money

 

Published: June 10, 2008
(Note: This article will appear in this Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section.)

ITV2/Showtime

Iddo Goldberg as Ben and Billie Piper as Hanna in Secret Diary of a Call Girl

Michael Elins/Showtime

Billie Piper as Hanna in Secret Diary of A Call Girl

LOS ANGELES

HOW can a prostitute best put a nervous prospect at ease?

“I should say up front that I wasn’t abused by a relative, I’ve got no children to support, and I’ve never been addicted to anything.” If that is not enough, add this: “So why do I do it? Well, I love sex, and I love money. And I know you don’t believe I enjoy the sex, but I do.”

That soliloquy, from the opening episode of Showtime’s new series “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” tries to dismiss in one fell swoop many of the most virulent and frequent objections to prostitution, among them the often-scarred nature of its practitioners and the addiction and exploitation that often fuel the business.

Those words, spoken by Belle, the central character in “Secret Diary,” are directed not at a client, however, but to viewers, as if in anticipation that even in this day of celebrity sex tapes and girls going wild, there is something about prostitution that gives an audience pause.

After attracting the highest ratings ever for an original series on ITV2 in Britain last year, “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” was imported by the pay-cable channel Showtime without change, an unusual import for a mainstream American television channel.

The series is based on a similarly titled book that grew out of an anonymous blog written by a woman who called herself Belle de Jour. A cross between a fake documentary and a light character-driven comedy, the program tracks the life of Belle, played by Billie Piper. Known by her friends and family as Hannah, Belle tries to navigate the line between her personal life and professional persona.

The program, which will make its debut Monday night, is probably less sexually explicit than most R-rated films and even some cable series, like HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me.” Arriving as it does just a few months after former Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York put a spotlight on the world of high-priced escort services, the show tries to offer insight into just how a woman might navigate such an environment, what drives her there in the first place and how she maintains relationships with friends and family members.

But if the reaction here is similar to that in Britain, the show is likely to draw strenuous objections from opponents who believe that the series, with its beautiful and empowered protagonist, glamorizes a business that victimizes the women who work in it.

Supporters of “Secret Diary,” of course, dispute that. “I’m pretty sure there isn’t anyone associated with this show who thinks this profession is empowering to women,” said Chris Albrecht, the president of IMG Global Media, whose company produced the program in Britain and who brought it to the United States.

Ms. Piper, a British actress best known to American audiences for playing Rose Tyler in the BBC series “Doctor Who,” argues that as simple escapist entertainment the series should be able to focus on prostitution without being accused of glamorizing inhumanity.

“When you think about ‘The Sopranos,’ that is a story about a man who goes around killing people,” she said in a telephone interview from London, where the program’s second season is being filmed. “You empathize with Tony Soprano because he has this family and this life at home. But the idea that a woman can lie down on her back and be paid for it, that seems to cause so much more of an uproar.”

That uproar tends to be fueled by the often grim statistics that accompany most academic studies of prostitution: high rates of sexual abuse and drug abuse among women who become prostitutes, as well as frequent incidents of violence against sex workers.

None of those unpleasantries are present in the cheery tableau that characterizes “Secret Diary,” however. Here Belle’s biggest problem seems to be the jealousy of an ex-boyfriend who still harbors feelings for her.

After viewing excerpts of the show on Showtime’s Web site, one feminist scholar said that the series seems to want to do for prostitution what HBO’s “Big Love” does for polygamy — presenting a sanitized version of controversial sexual behavior.

The scholar, Laurie Shrage, the incoming director of the women’s studies center at Florida International University, noted that in setting itself in the world of high-priced escorts who court wealthy businessmen and politicians as clients, the series portrays prostitution in “its least controversial form.”

“I think most of the audience will understand that Belle doesn’t represent the average prostitute,” Ms. Shrage said. “But I don’t see that this show is going to do anything positive either” for the profession, given that Belle is portrayed as self-absorbed, selfish and materialistic.

The onscreen depiction of prostitution is not new of course; the 1913 film “Traffic in Souls” won kudos for its examination of the “white slave trade” and more than a dozen Academy Awards or nominations have gone to actresses for their performances as prostitutes.

It is also unlikely to be the last of its kind. Darren Star, the creator of the “Sex and the City” television series, is now writing a script for an HBO pilot, “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl,” based on the novel by Tracy Quan, herself a former Manhattan prostitute.

With dozens of other books of a similar vein out there — one is by a dot-com call girl, another by an “Ivy League call girl,” with a coming memoir by a woman whom New York magazine called the city’s No. 1 escort — a few more versions seem likely if Showtime’s effort succeeds.

The impression left by reading several of these books is that only happy hookers write memoirs. Ms. Quan, who says that she used her experiences as a prostitute starting at the age of 14 as the basis for her three call-girl novels, said that the dangers faced by high-dollar escorts are more subtle than worrying about getting beat up by a pimp.

“One of the things prostitutes are often most frightened of is being discovered or exposed — losing our business — or losing our looks.”

Which is not to say that the business is glamorous, she added. “Your body is such an important part of the job that every minute of your waking life has to be spent thinking about your health,” Ms. Quan said. “I don’t think that’s a glamorous position to be in.”

ITV has already commissioned two more seasons of eight episodes each of “Secret Diary,” said Andrew Zein, an executive producer of the series. Some of those darker issues that British critics said were missing from the current season are likely to be addressed in the second season, he said.

“Without giving too much away, as one becomes older and wiser, the question naturally occurs: ‘Am I doing the right thing?,’ ” Mr. Zein said.

Ms. Piper added that it was at first difficult for her to understand that someone would enter into the world of prostitution without having some kind of a tragic past. That feeling faded, however, as she talked with the real Belle, who has gained widespread fame in Britain yet still has not publicly identified herself.

“I genuinely believe the character in no way is in an ideal situation,” Ms. Piper said. “That becomes more apparent toward the end of Season 1 and into Season 2. Belle is seemingly in control and selective about what she does, yet she has to face some real moral dilemmas. She can’t tell anybody she loves anything about what she does. She’s on her own, and I think that becomes a massive problem.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/10/arts/television/15wyat.html

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3 Comments

  1. […] SWOP-LV News: A Lighthearted Tale of Sex for Money “After attracting the highest ratings ever for an original series on ITV2 in Britain last […]

  2. the story is good

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  3. This business is very hierarchical. Those of us at the high end have very little in common with those at the street, massage parlor, truck stop, bar or Cat house level. Billy’s Character is correct in that vast number of women choose this. They can relate to “I wasn’t abused by a relative, I’ve got no children to support, and I’ve never been addicted to anything”.

    The women we work with are educated, well spoken, drug free, many of whom you probably sit next to in church. We all know the stereotype but the truth is , it doesn’t apply to everyone and it definitely doesn’t apply to Dreams Escort women.


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