Lucy-Anne Brooks is sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of an enormous gilt framed mirror, applying make-up. Dressed in ripped jeans and a tight-fitting jumper, she is a friendly, chatty presence. She is also the epitome of the heterosexual male fantasy of the girl next door: petite but curvaceous, full lips sticky with gloss, clear blue eyes. Behind, her husband Lewis potters about, fixing a television to a wall – they only moved into their Hertfordshire home last week and there are packing boxes everywhere. Brooks’ phone goes – it’s her sister Sophie, who is running errands. There’s a problem, Sophie says. They don’t have the knickers in the size Brooks wants. “Get them in a 10,” she says airily, curling her long blonde hair. “I don’t want them digging in.”
I’m at Brooks’ house to observe the 33-year-old mother-of-one at work. Once a Page 3 girl, lads-mags regular, and stalwart of late-night soft porn TV, Brooks has turned to OnlyFans, a social-media platform on which users pay to view photos and videos, and found remarkable success. As one of the most successful content creators on the mobile-only app, Brooks creates a stream of topless images of herself, which her followers can see for a monthly fee. Many pay extra for personalised videos, photographs or texts. She earns between £19,000 and £22,000 a month. “It has completely and utterly changed my life,” says Brooks. “The money is incredible.”
She stumbled across OnlyFans by chance, after a contact in the glamour industry told Brooks they were making £5,000 a month on it. “I thought, ‘if she’s doing that, I can,’” says Brooks. Her instincts were correct: since turning to OnlyFans full-time in August 2018, Brooks’ success has been staggering. “The biggest-ever month, I made £30,000,” she says, brushing out her curls. “I slogged my guts out. It was amazing money-wise, but difficult mentally.”
Success on OnlyFans doesn’t come easy. Brooks talks me through her content plan, which is scheduled with military precision. Each day has a different theme, whether it’s Help Me Monday, where Brooks asks her 780 fans what they’d like to see on the page, or Fantasy Friday, when Brooks will dress up in costume – a recent Bond-themed day went down a storm, a superhero version less so. Having such a detailed schedule helps fans stay engaged - there’s only so many times you can pose in your underwear, before people start to get bored. (Brooks will pose topless, but no more.)
Sophie arrives with the underwear and Brooks begins shooting for her page. Today’s photos are Christmas-themed, and Brooks hoiks up a novelty jumper to reveal her breasts, then squats in front of her Christmas tree and pouts.
It’s an odd domestic scene, to be sure, but it feels normal. In between photographs, they chat about what to have for lunch. Lewis volunteers to go to Nando’s. It’s about as unsexy a situation as you can imagine, a fact confirmed by Lewis. “It’s weird, but you get used to it,” he says of watching his wife in lingerie at 11am on a Monday morning. “It doesn’t even register.”
OnlyFans, a British company which launched in 2016, claims to have 12m registered users worldwide. Users pay a subscription to follow - and view - their favourite content creators who typically charge fans around £5-15 a month, with more for extras. Inevitably, OnlyFans is popular with those in the sex industry. But it’s not just sex workers who are flocking to the site: the platform also attracts the sort of health, fitness and beauty content creators who’d typically gravitate to YouTube, but can monetise their content more easily on OnlyFans. Scrolling through the app, you’ll see everything from hardcore fetish porn to eyeshadow tutorials.
The app was founded by Timothy Stokely, a British tech entrepreneur and a veteran of the adult entertainment world. Speaking to Wired in 2019, Stokely explained that OnlyFans hits the sweet spot between influencer culture and web camming. Camming sites host live streams of models, usually with a chatroom feature, much like a digital peep show. Camming is live and usually depends on viewers giving tips, OnlyFans functions more like a traditional social-media platform, albeit with a paywall for those who wish to indulge their voyeurism. It’s easier for creators to use, and to build personal relationships with their fans, and more inviting for subscribers to discover and connect with them.
OnlyFans is not the only platform of this kind vying for attention: there’s also AdmireMe, Patreon and JustForFans. Patreon, a company based in America, is probably the best known of the subscription-only platforms but has cracked down on adult content in recent years due to pressure from payment processors and banks, leaving OnlyFans as the undisputed leader in subscription-only adult content.
OnlyFans is a response to the decimation of the porn industry by the internet. Once, paying for pornography, whether through pay-per-view TV channels, VHS tapes or top shelf magazines, was de rigeur. Not any more. Why pay for something that you’re used to getting free? On any given day, 100m users visit porn sites owned by the company Mindgeek, such as Pornhub, RedTube and YouPorn. As with any industry in decline, as profits crumble, labour rights and pay are affected. Female performers may be paid £300 for a shoot, with another £100 thrown in for extra sex acts. As a result, performers are pushed into performing more hardcore scenes to make money.
OnlyFans has also disrupted existing adult publishing models. Traditionally, glamour models like Brooks relied upon middlemen – and they were, mostly, men – to make money from their images. Brooks would be paid a few hundred pounds for a photoshoot which would be resold by the photographer who owned the copyright. When she worked for softcore TV channels, Brooks was paid an hourly wage of £40. OnlyFans, by contrast, takes a standard 20% commission, allowing the creators to retain most of the revenue from their own work.
Brooks now has no need for intermediaries. She plans and art-directs her shoots; she takes photographs herself and edits the images using apps; she schedules her content and engages with her audience using just a smartphone, tripod and ring-light.
The sex industry has historically commodified women’s bodies, but kept the profits of this commodification in the hands of men. OnlyFans changes this. No-one makes money from Brooks’ image unless she wants them to. (She even has an agent on retainer, to scour the internet for pirated images and get them taken down.) “At the end of the day, I feel like it’s my body, so why should anyone else be making money off it?” Brooks asks. Brooks didn’t always feel so in control. “When I was younger,” Brooks says, sitting beneath the immaculate Christmas tree, “if I went to a job or a photoshoot or whatever, if there was something I didn’t really want to do, I sort of just did it.”
A generation of young women has grown up posting provocative images of themselves on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat; stepping over to OnlyFans doesn’t feel like a big leap. These women are drifting to the app as a way to make money from images they’d previously given away. Adele, a 20-year-old university student from north London, is unconcerned by any long-term fallout. “To me personally, I don’t see any issue being half-naked on the internet, she says.” But many of these women are in full-time employment – they are office workers and hairdressers – and can suffer repercussions if their colleagues find out about their side hustle. Brooks’ sister, who is also on OnlyFans, was fired from her job at a car showroom after her boss found her page.
And unlike Instagram and Facebook, which have support teams that scrub abusive or malicious content from the platform, OnlyFans has no stated policy on abuse or harassment. There is the option to block abusive users on OnlyFans, although there’s a financial disincentive for doing so; one fewer fan - even an abusive one - means less money for the creator. As a halfway measure, OnlyFans introduced a mute button, which allows content creators to prevent annoying users from messaging them directly, but still retain them as subscribers.
Compared to other forms of adult entertainment and sex work, however, it is easier to retain distance from problem characters. When working for softcore TV channels, Brooks had to take out a restraining order against a fan who had been stalking her. She says she hasn’t had any harassment on OnlyFans. “I do feel in control,” she says. “Because I can just block them and they’ll disappear. It’s not like when I worked on TV when they would call me and be on my social media channels. I don’t feel unsafe.”
As is the case with most forms of sex work, the dynamic between fans and creators is more than just a sultry exchange. Porchia Watson, a 32-year-old creator who joined the platform a year ago and now makes around £10,000 a month on it, feels that she provides companionship as much as provoking lust. “People think that everyone who follows a girl on OnlyFans is being filthy, when in actual fact it’s just a lot of people who are lonely or unhappy in their marriages or who haven’t got a lot of friends,” she says. “I have quite a few guys who have social anxiety and would love a girlfriend but can’t speak to girls.”
This illusion of proximity is critical to OnlyFans’ appeal. “Hardcore porn is easy to come by, but a relationship with a girl is hard to get,” explains Andrew, a 42-year-old engineer from Sheffield. “But with OnlyFans you get it.” He’s been following Brooks since September 2018 and estimates he spends around £300 a month on her page. He believes that Brooks does care for him. “If I go quiet and don’t take part in things for a few days, she notices and will start messaging me and asking me how I am.” I ask Andrew if it feels like he and Brooks are in a relationship. He pauses. “It's difficult to define,” he says finally. “There are times when it feels like we almost are a couple.”
Brooks knows she is in the business of digital intimacy. Through a constant stream of content and messages she indulges the fantasy that her customers could go out with a woman just like her. (Tellingly, followers prefer it when Brooks posts make-up free selfies, because they feel more like the sort of image a girlfriend would send.)
As I prepare to leave the Brooks’ home, she is contorting her feet, clad in festive Christmas-tree socks, into just the right angle for a foot photo. Many fetishes are catered to on her page. I ask Brooks if she thinks her followers crave intimacy. “A million percent,” she responds swiftly. “Porn is all over the internet. This isn’t the same. My fans aren’t paying for porn. They’re paying to have a personal experience, one-on-one, with a girl.”