July 2008

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Belle de Jour

As blogging culture becomes an endemic part of society, and the private becomes increasingly public, different permutations of personal exposure evolve. Personally, I prefer the anonymous to the exhibitionist: among strangers, some people feel free to be honest in a way they wouldn't among friends, and that's what happens when you conceal your identity on the Internet -- everyone's a stranger to you.

The nom-de-plumed Belle De Jour began blogging about her experiences as a London call girl in 2004, and quickly built a following with explicit tales of her exploits, both on and off the clock. The blog's real charm is in Belle's sharp, wry commentary on these encounters, as she's extremely open about her preferences, embracing a whatever-gets-you-off mentality that leaves her open to new experiences -- and the occasional bout of heartache. While occasionally she works too hard to show off her education and non-girly tastes, it's refreshing to hear an intelligent female commentary on sex, for fun or profit.

Due to the high quality of its writing, not to mention the salacious nature of the material, a plan to make money off it quickly evolved, and choice entries from the blog were compiled and expanded for two books (one which sold well, one that didn't). There's a fair amount of overlap between the blog entries and the books -- certain stories are expanded into greater detail while the trappings of bloggery, such as acknowledging one's audience and apologizing for delays in updates, are eliminated. But they still manage to capture what's so engrossing about Belle's point of view -- an intelligent voice, unafraid of talking about the dirtier bits of sexy fun.

And because that one book sold well (even if the other didn't), plans to make yet more money were developed, and soon Belle's adventures were adapted for the ITV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. For the sake of any future legal pickles I may end up in down the line, I'll pretend that I didn't somehow manage to watch the entire first series of Secret Diary of a Call Girl when it aired in the United Kingdom last fall. But now the series is on Showtime, and so I can write about it with impunity.

While some of the sexual encounters are recognizable from the blog and book, the series' writer Lucy Prebble has developed a completely new personal life for her main character, creating a Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque conflict that sustains most of the drama. Belle as portrayed by ex-pop star/time-traveler Billie Piper is single and relatively comfortable with her chosen line of work -- her biggest problem is the conflict between her private and professional personas. For in real life "Hannah" has a hard time relating to people, including her ex-boyfriend/best friend Ben -- she prefers the control that comes with being on the clock. What's fascinating is that while Sex and the City got shallower with its transition to television, Secret Diary takes advantage of its fictional trappings to really explore the internal conflicts at the heart of this scenario. Freed of the stigma, the show is basically reduced to a character study -- showing exactly what it can cost a person when she sells it.

And what's even more exciting about the whole phenomenon is that the real Belle has continued her blog even after leaving the business -- which means, gentle reader, that we get real commentary from her on the series based on her life. While overall enthusiastic (from an entry the week of the premiere: "Planned Friday coffee break conversation starter: 'So, did anyone else wank to thoughts of Billie Piper last night, or was it just me?'"), she does call bullshit on a couple of points, such as the Belle analog needing to have palindromes explained to her. The overall experience of seeing her life on the TV doesn't seem to have affected her too profoundly: perhaps because it's been clearly fictionalized, perhaps because she still remains, for the most part, anonymous.

Suspicions persist that Belle is not a real person, but I believe her -- if only because, aside from commenting on the fiction made of her life, she still writes candidly about her sexual experiences, drops updates on her other writing projects, and in general blogs about the same sort of trivialities one fills a personal blog with. I can see someone faking the blog of a prostitute -- but the blog of an ex-prostitute? There have to be better ways to spend your time.

The thing you glean from reading the collected backlogs of Belle De Jour is what always comes after tracking someone's life through the years -- as they freely or obliquely admit to the mistakes they've made, you see how they've evolved, see what they've learned. Today, the real Belle seems to have a pretty good grip on her life -- which is why it's for the best that Secret Diary is for the most part a fictional take on this scenario. Not only for Belle's sake, but for the show's future seasons. See, Belle today is single, anonymous, and overall pretty happy, which makes for a decent blog -- but not much of a series.