The morning that I left New York for a story assignment in Tampa, a scruffy guy with a guitar case ran up to me on the street. “I just wanted to say thank you for wearing a thong on that beautiful ass today,” he said, grinning like the idiot he was and pointing at my white skirt, which was, admittedly, a little thin. “Fuck you,” I said under my breath, hailing a taxi. “Hey, bitch,” he snarled, “you’re the one who wore it!”
So there I was in the cab, hurt, humiliated and burning up as I reflected on the irony of it all. I’d been all fired up about this assignment to cover the latest advancement in web civilization, VoyeurDorm.com, a website that rigs a so-called dorm with forty cameras and then films the supposed co-eds who live there twenty-four hours a day. I’d been brushing up on my feminist theory, thinking lofty thoughts about the new low for womankind that’s hit when 6,000 people pay thirty-four dollars a month to subscribe to a website that films seven young women’s every snack, shit and shower. And even still, with one outrageously invasive comment, this guy had brought me down.Iwas the idiot for thinking that anyone cared what I think.
I am: long hair, dark skin, big eyes, big lips, big butt, big breasts.
The first thing I do upon arrival at the house that hosts Voyeur Dorm is sign a model release. For the next day, I will be appearing on the Net as I do whatever it is that I’m going to do, here, in this nondescript ranch house a couple blocks off the freeway in a middle-class Tampa suburb. At night I’ll sleep in a bed with a night-cam pointed at it, but I can shower in the stall with a removable cam — “unless, of course, you want to leave it in there,” says Hammil, the Voyeur Dorm founder and House Dad who goes by just one name. I’ll go pretty far to get the story, but I draw the line at getting naked for the masses.
I’m ready to meet “the girls,” as I’ll learn they unfailingly refer to themselves, but they’re almost all still sleeping when I arrive at around 2 p.m. Instead, Hammil shows me the chat set-up, which is a big draw on the site: for an extra sixteen dollars per month, members can chat live, twenty-four hours a day, with the co-eds. The girls do most of that socializing in the appropriately-named Chat Room, essentially a walk-in closet with two leather swivel chairs set up in front of two PCs, with a Sony handcam pointing at each. The computers’ screens are split in half, just as they are for the subscribers at the other end: the top half shows video, without sound, of the woman at the chat cam; the bottom half is the chat text, which scrolls almost faster than one can read. The men subscribing to chat can choose from any one of forty camera locations throughout the house, and often comment in their postings on what’s occuring elsewhere. Already sitting in one of the chairs is Trixie, a bottle-blond with a septum ring. She no longer lives in the house, but drops by every once in a while to do laundry and check in with her old friends on chat.
With Hammil leaning over my shoulder, I sit down in the chair that’s facing Chat Cam #2. I peer in at the screen.
Dhmn: Holy shit! Who’s that?
rexx: Show us your tits, you fucking whore
Jagg: She’s a reporter, guys look she’s writing things down
FatBastard: The reporter girl is incredibly hot
George: what color panties is the reporter girl wearing
“Jesus,” I say out loud. The immediacy takes me by surprise. So does the pack mentality of the postings, the adrenaline-fuelled camaraderie among men killing time looking for skin: Show us your tits, guys look.
“Hot damn! They love you,” exclaims Hammil. “Can I get you to move in here for a few months?”
I stand up abruptly and scoot out of the Chat Cam’s line of vision, making the short step down to the dorm’s sunken living room. It has the feel, not surprisingly, of a cheap set. The lighting is fluorescent, the walls need a paint job, and the dark green carpet looks plush but is coarse to the touch. Milla, wearing only a blue bra and a black skirt from Express, has materialized on the couch. Her face is angular and pretty, like Maria Callas’s, and she’s eating carrot salad with her sunglasses on.
“God, I’m so bored,” she says, in a high, babyish voice. “And I’ve got the worst cramps! Living in a house with six girls, you know how everyone is on the rag at once. Thank God you weren’t here last week when we all had PMS.”
Alex, a 19-year-old blond who’s made it her business to impose a little order on the place, sticks her head in the room. “Hammil! It stinks in here!” she complains. The dishwasher broke about eight months ago. No one could be bothered to take the dirty dishes out of it, and now they seem to have turned.
“Relax, ladies, I’ll take care of it this afternoon,” says Hammil.
Milla’s long tan legs are curled underneath her as she stares at the television and watches Entertainment Tonight. It’s musty and warm in here despite the A/C, and I’ve got this old red check collared shirt buttoned all the way up. I’m tired from the flight. It would feel good to take my shoes off and put my legs up the way Milla has. I do it.
“Hey, Reporter Girl, you’re driving the guys on chat crazy sitting that way,” Trixie calls from the Chat Room over the tap-tap-tap of her keyboard.
Milla laughs as I slip my shoes back on and cross my legs self-consciously.
sept87: hi reporter girl
hurrah: is the reporter girl going to eat a snack?
There are introductions all around as more of the women roll out of bed. In addition to Trixie, Milla and Alex, there’s Amber, 19, Tamra, 20, J.J., 22, and Nikki, 20, who fell for Hammill over a recruitment meal at Bennigan’s several months ago and has been dating him ever since. All use fake names on screen; all are high school graduates from blue-collar families in the Tampa area; and nearly all say they broke up with their first serious boyfriends immediately before moving into the dorm. Each has her own reasons for earning her living this way: for Nikki, the only one who’s stripped before, it’s just a job like any other; for Alex and Amber, who say they’ve always wanted to be famous, it’s good publicity; for Milla, “it’s another chapter, a juicy one, in the story of my life”; for Tamra, it’s on-the-job training — she and her boyfriend have discussed the possibility of starting their own for-profit web-cam site. Most of the women plan on taking theater classes or voice lessons at Hillsboro Community College in the fall. Tamra already has a degree in criminology from a community college but says she wants to be a pilot; Milla, who claims to be 24 years old, but is in fact 28 according to her friends, has a real estate license but is counting on Voyeur Dorm to pay for the classes she needs to get her Series 7. On top of rent and the couple of hundred bucks the girls earn each week, Voyeur Dorm will pay up to $1500 a semester for classes.
It’s hard to see how they can possibly afford the time for coursework: each girl is only allowed two nights off a week, and three girls are required to be in the house at all times. The girls make the schedule themselves at a weekly Monday night meeting, but Hammil has set down other rules: no drugs, no penetration on camera (illegal in the state of Florida), no more than three guys in the house at once (the viewers don’t like it), no drinking alcohol on camera (illegal for minors), no giving out phone numbers or meeting chat members in real life (considered a liability), no covering cams (for obvious reasons). Hammil has just added “no laziness” — now every girl must do three activities a day. That’s both more and less onerous than it sounds: swimming in the pool, working out in the dorm gym, and even reading a book count; catching up with family on the phone, watching television, and napping to get through the interminably long day don’t. Everyone generally abides by all of the rules except the one regarding phone numbers — each girl has a “favorite” whom she talks to on the house phone. That’s no small token of affection to bestow: although to the world at large, these girls have forfeited any kind of privacy as it’s commonly defined, to them, the difference between being seen and being seen and heard is a dramatic one.
The 6,000 people on the other end of the cams peering passively at their images rarely enter the girls’ minds — that’s “too deep, too abstract” — but they do think a lot about the guys on chat. “I don’t have any of the friends I used to have,” says Tamra, a petite woman who wears her strawberry blond hair slicked behind her ears. Last night she’d had her nipple pierced, and she spends most of this afternoon with one breast exposed because it hurts too much to have cloth touch it. “My parents are kind of weird about it, so we don’t talk much anymore. Now the guys on chat are my friends. Like Jagg. He’s a really cool guy. Or Fatbastard. I love him.”
“I like Jot,” says Nikki, a brunette with frizzy hair. “I always write, ‘Jot, will you be my husband?'” says Nikki. “And Hahn is cool too.”
“Hahn is okay,” continues Tamra. “But he’s a little bit of a wuss — he’s always like, ‘C’mon, guys, leave the girls alone.’ He’s a kiss ass. Jagg is the best — he doesn’t just sit there and tell you how beautiful you are, though that’s nice to hear. Jagg jokes around with you like you’re a real person. And he doesn’t attack you either. I hate it when guys talk about my fat stomach like, ‘Nice stomach, when are you due?’ Or ‘Nice roll,'” she says. “Sometimes I’m ready to cry.”
“When I was first here, they’d always call me ‘fatass,'” says Nikki. “It really bothered me. But you know how if you can laugh at yourself then no one will laugh at you?” she asks. “Now I log on under ‘chunkygirl,’ and they never call me ‘fatass’ anymore.”
I’m Seen, Therefore I Am by Vanessa Grigoriadis — page 2
“What I really hate is that every guy demands that you take your top off, all the time,” says Tamra. “It’s like, I will take my top off when and if I want to. I used to say: Guys, go look up the definition of ‘voyeur.’ Of course, in the Webster 1999 dictionary the definition of voyeur has changed. It used to mean just watching people in their everyday lives. Now it says something about watching people perform sexual activities.”
If Tamra thinks there’s something empowering about deciding when and when not to take her top off on camera, it’s because she’s been schooled in the Voyeur Dorm party line. The site, Hammill maintains earnestly, is not a porn site, but a celebration of freedom of expression and sexual pride, a zone that merely records these young women in their natural and unashamed state. Excessive nudity, like lounging around buck-naked, is not encouraged by Hammil and there are no bonuses for it. The girls spend most of their waking hours in baby-Ts and miniskirts, typical mall-going regalia, or maybe the occasional sports bra. That said, they don’t shy from exhibitionism: when they swim, it’s usually topless, and often on chat they’ll strip down at the insistence of the hundreds of rabid men on the other end of the modem, who then duly offer praise about the girls’ beauty. Also, whether it speaks to their boredom, their “Gen Y” bi-curiousness, a sense of showmanship or a genuine desire for female affection, the girls do fool around with each other on camera in ever-shifting pairs. “Each of us stays at our own comfort level,” explains honey-blond Amber, carefully setting down a plastic bowl of soup on a glass coffee table in the middle of the living room. “I showed my crotch once and someone printed out an image of it and mailed it to me. So now I don’t do that anymore.” She blows on a plastic spoonful of soup. “We used to have real plates and cutlery but no one would clean so Hammil took them away.” She takes a sip and makes a face. “This is gross. Are you hungry?” she asks me. “Do you want my soup?”
“Yeah, the reporter really wants your nasty-ass soup,” jokes Milla. They’ve all been introduced to me as Vanessa, but no one calls me that once during my stay. To the guys on chat and the girls in the dorm, I’m the reporter, or sometimes Reporter Girl, some underpaid, undersized super hero. The girls mostly address each other by their screen names and, as if to maintain a consistent artificiality, everyone else goes by a handle, too: the gold-necklaced guy who is tech support on the dorm computers — and used to date Alex — is introduced to me as “Romeo.” “Hey, Alex,” calls out Tamra. “Robyn wants to switch chat with you today ’cause she needs to get her hair cut.” The girls must chat for two hours per day — most say that they chat more than that, if only because there isn’t much else to do.
Trixie walks in. Without a word, she turns the living room cam on me.
“Hey, guys, what are we doing for an activity tonight?” asks Milla. Every night, they do a special show online, like body painting or playing naked cardgames; if they do a striptease, Hammil will give each of them a sixty-dollar gift certificate to Victoria’s Secret. It’s empowerment at its most suspect — like when a mother promises her daughter a car if she loses fifteen pounds.
“We’re doing ‘sleeping with the boys,’ like a striptease where we’re dressed up as guys. Or else Jello wrestling,” says Amber enthusiastically, lighting a cigarette. “Alex and I are going to Donatella’s for dinner with the reporter, so I’ll pick stuff up at Walmart.”
“Of course you two get to go out to Donatella’s,” says Milla, rolling her eyes. “Was I consulted on these activities? I still have my period.”
“I vote for Jello wrestling,” says Tamra. “But let’s use pudding. Or whipped cream. That’s easiest.”
“Why dontcha use whatever’s in the dishwasher?” calls out Hammil, putting an arm around Nikki.
“Ewww!” yell the girls, in unison.
Hurrah: Is the reporter girl going to eat Alex out?
Rexx: Tell Alex to suck on the reporter girl’s nipples
Topless yet elaborately made-up, Alex motions for me to come into her room. It’s big, with a walk-in closet and a private bathroom. There are four cams in there alone, including the “booty cam,” so named because it’s trained ass-height in her shower stall. From the lilac towel wrapped around her waist, it’s easy to deduce that she’s just given the guys on-line that special treat. “Is that all you have to wear to dinner?” she whispers, looking me up and down. Unlike the guy with the guitar I met yesterday on the street, she doesn’t seem to find my white skirt flattering. “It’s a really nice restaurant.” It’s unclear if she’s concerned that what I’m wearing is not dressy enough or not provocative enough. Maybe at Voyeur Dorm there isn’t much distinction between the two. “Um, I have a black skirt, but it’s kind of long,” I mumble, confused. “I guess I could wear my black tank top with it.”
“Okay,” she says skeptically. “Well, do you want to borrow something?”
I say thanks but no thanks. The lines of chat directed my way are already making me feel unnervingly close to her experience; walking a mile in her shoes or, literally, her skirt, isn’t going to help.
“My deal is that anyone can borrow anything they want as long as they just tell me first,” explains Alex, as Amber walks in and plops on her bed. “But all the girls — not Amber, but the rest of them — just take my towels, my shoes, my curling iron, whatever they want. At every Monday meeting I say the same thing: If it’s my shit don’t touch it. Robyn’s all, ‘Well, Hammil buys you all your clothes. And it’s like, ‘yeah, he buys me clothes, but these are the clothes I need to go on TV.'” Alex, as the most photogenic, if not the prettiest, girl in the house, has been picked to “represent the dorm” in the media. Because of her VIP status, she’s the only girl who actually makes the $500-a-week salary that Hammil has told the press he pays the women; in fact, it’s more like $200 for everyone else. “I had a $70 thing of nice, nice Estee Lauder makeup and it’s gone,” whines Alex. “Fifteen-buck thing of concealer and in two weeks — ”
“Gone!” says Amber. “It’s fucked up. Once, Hammil bought me this nice strapless dress from the mall, and Robyn’s all telling the guys on chat, ‘Amber sucked her boss’s dick for that dress.’ That’s just wrong.” She looks angry. “Plus I did not do that.”
“Yeah, if I was fucking and sucking I’d have a mansion in Clearwater,” says Alex, selecting a tube top from her crammed closet. “Mercedes outside. Drinks by the pool.”
Alex slips a top over her head and I realize that it still has a pricetag; in fact, a lot of stuff in her room does. “Some of the guys on chat are so cool — they send me stuff all the time,” she says. Amber holds up a dogeared copy of Charles Bukowski’s Run with the Hunters. The girls are allowed to accept gifts, but no cash. “This guy who’s totally in love with me sent me a cordless phone ’cause he said he doesn’t want me to get a crick in my neck,” says Alex. “Lookit these two pairs of underwear this awesome guy sent me too.” She shows me two nude-colored thongs. “They’re CK. Damn! Nice, right?”
There’s a lot of whooping from the living room as a guy in a black shirt and metallic gold tie spins Tamra around the room.
“Ugh. That’s Tamra’s boyfriend,” says Alex, rolling her eyes. “He’s a magician.”
“Can’t make himself disappear, unfortunately,” says Amber, rolling hers too. “Total dork.”
“Major. Major,” agrees Alex.
Hammil bursts into Alex’s room. “Ladies and gentlemen, we now have a dishwasher in our front yard!” he shouts. “We are now officially white trash.”
Joeblow: Where are the three of you going? To have an orgy?
Rexx: are amber and alex and reporter girl going to blow the ugly guy with the shaved head
George: The reporter girl is making my dick hard in that black dress
At 6 p.m., Amber, Alex, Hammil and I leave for Donatella’s, a stucco Italian restaurant on Tampa’s main drag which serves twenty-dollar pastas but is located next to Circuit City. “God, I feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman,” says Alex, unfolding a peach-colored napkin. “Eating mussels and shit at a nice restaurant. I’m all, which fork is which?” All around us, middle-aged men in suits are having business dinners. So are we, but when we walked in they all looked up and stared.
“See, I’m a big fish in a small town here in Tampa,” explains Hammil, sipping a glass of Perrier. A college dropout brought up in Falwell’s Church of God, Hammil made his name in Tampa as sidekick to morning DJ Bubba the Love Sponge at “Power Pig 92.3,” authoring such gag songs as “Just Another Redneck Monday” (Clean my gun day/Beating up my son day). The girls at the dorm have nicknamed him Dr. Evil, and while his head is shaved, his demeanor is pretty harmless. The only truly creepy thing I learned about Hammil was that all the girls’ screen names are the names of his ex-girlfriends.
“You know, I preach to these girls hard,” says Hammil. “I say, ‘Listen, I worked hard my whole life — I cleaned toilets at McDonald’s for four years, for chrissakes — and I will get paid from this. I deserve it. And you need to figure out what you’re going to get from it.’ It’s a great opportunity for them to improve themselves, to work on their body and their minds.”
“It’s a good time to just concentrate on me,” agrees Alex.
Hammil and a friend got together the $375,000 in start-up costs for Voyeur Dorm but had a hard time raising the $60,000 it took to keep it going each month. Last year, he sold 50 percent of the company to Internet Entertainment Group’s Seth Warshawsky, the 25-year-old cybersex mogul responsible for distributing the Pamela Andersen-Tommy Lee video and nude images of Dr. Laura Schlessinger. The dorm’s net hit $250,000 per month, and it’s only going up. Press releases started rolling out of I.E.G.’s Manhattan offices; the dorm did Hard Copy, Inside Edition, Extra, Rivera Live and Jenny Jones. When the city of Tampa tried to close them down, claiming that Voyeur Dorm was an adult business in a residentially zoned neighborhood, they got on Court TV and made the local papers every week (the case has been appealed to state court). In August, the dorm was on Howard Stern twice.
“Howard made me bob for tampons in an aquarium with red dye in it,” says Amber, picking at her pasta. “Milla tried to pee in a box with kitty litter but she couldn’t.”
“Howard was yelling at us on the phone that he’d hang up if we didn’t,” says Alex. “The whole thing was pretty degrading.”
I’m Seen, Therefore I Am by Vanessa Grigoriadis — page 3
“But we got four million unique hits to the site in two hours,” says Hammil. “And that’s just the beginning. Something really big is going to happen to us soon.” The girls nod.
“I want to be a famous actress,” says Alex.
“Me too,” says Amber. “But I also want to lead a deep, exciting life. I want to change the world.”
“We are changing the world, right now,” insists Alex. “We believe that our society is repressed, and of course — just look at who founded us, Pilgrims and Puritans, buttoned up to their necks.”
“We believe that our society confuses sex and nudity,” says Amber.
“See, these two get it,” says Hammil, beaming at them. “There’s this nude club called Mons Venus here, where guys get jacked off at tables. That’s okay with the city of Tampa, but we’re not.”
The waiter, who’s given the table remarkably attentive service, starts clearing it off, using a crumber to sweep the mess off the tablecloth. “Hammil, you know that Robyn was out all day yesterday, and then she asked me to switch chat with her cause she wanted to get her hair cut, and then she didn’t come home on time,” complains Alex. “That’s fucked up. If she hadn’t come back, I couldn’t have gone out to dinner.”
“And you know that Seth called again to complain about the girls opening that medicine cabinet door in the front bathroom,” says Alex. “See, if they open it the whole way, it blocks the cam from catching them on the toilet. You know who does it,” she says meanly. “It’s Milla.” Everyone except Alex hates using the toilet on camera: in addition to relying on the old medicine cabinet door trick, the girls string towels strategically across their bathrooms to obscure the toilet.
The waiter hands Hammil the check, and he sets down his credit card with a flourish.
Can we also have five slices of cheesecake, two salmon entrees, and the grilled swordfish?” he asks. “To go?”
Joeblow: Thank fucking god the hot girls are back all the other girls in this house are fat pigs that need to shove a broken beer bottle up their asses so we can get off
Hurrah: Did I miss the reporter girl eating Alex’s wet pussy
Tree: Where did you go, sweet beautiful Amber? I missed you
When we come back from dinner, Amber gets online to let the guys know where we’ve been. “They always want to know everything,” she says to me. “What did we have as an appetizer again?”
Alex stalks into the living room, where Robyn is putting on her makeup. “Are you going out tonight?” she asks. Robyn nods as she applies her lipliner.
“That’s what you think,” says Alex angrily. “Everyone! Meeting!”
With all the girls gathered in a circle, Alex runs through Robyn’s offenses one more time. “And I know that other people feel this way too,” she says. Everyone hangs their heads, picking at the cheesecake. “Thanks, guys, now I look like the asshole again,” huffs Alex, stomping out of the room.
“You can go out, Robyn,” says J.J., putting a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t care.”
“Whatever! I don’t even want to anymore,” says Robyn, stomping out as well.
“No one ever listens to J.J.,” says J.J. mournfully. Everyone starts getting ready for the evening activity. “Not like I really feel like doing this anymore,” says Amber, putting on a bowler hat and knee-high men’s socks. Hammil tapes her as she makes a little intro for the site: “Since all y’all are always treating us like dogs, we’re going to be the men tonight. Watch us play poker, drink martinis,” she takes off her top, slowly, and her nipples become erect, “smoke cigars, bitch about ho’s not being in the kitchen, making our, um, pies.” Hammil turns off the cam and all the girls burst into laughter. “Pies?” The tension of the earlier emergency huddle has been forgotten.
The girls, giggling and in various states of undress, move the black formica table to one side of the dining room and set up two cams “on stage.” Alex and the wayward Robyn reappear.
“Did you get me a tie?” asks J.J., pouring some Gallo into McDonald’s mugs.
“No,” says Amber. “‘Cause they only had clip-ons, and we’re not going to have our shirts closed.”
“Hey, look, I’m the best hung white girl I know,” says Tamra, showing us her profusely stuffed tighty whiteys.
“I want a shit stain for the back of my underwear,” says Nikki. “Let’s make some beans.”
At moments like this it seems possible that the site is free of sound not so much to protect the girls’ privacy but to protect the site’s appeal.
Shit stains, it’s universally agreed, would be way too much trouble, so they simply light cigars, slip an appropriate single into the CD player — TLC’s “I Don’t Want No Scrub” — and start to strip.
“Ooh, my tampon’s falling out,” says Milla as she pulls down her panties.
In an attempt to stay out of the way, I sit in the chat room. The guys are excited about the show, but I’m the only one they can talk to while my girlfriends are performing.
George: Talk to us, reporter girl. We won’t bite…..HARD..
snapper182: If that dark haired fox is the reporter, ask her if she ever made so many cocks hard at once
Herbert: Reporter girl, are you a pervert?
George: Talk to us. We won’t bite….HARD..
harddick: tell reporter girl i want to eat her pussy all night
Herbert: I know that william safire always takes his top off
hurrah: the reporter girl is nippy and wet
snapper182: If that dark haired fox is the reporter, ask her if she ever made so many guys cum at once
harddick: hey rept girl your tits could use a good fondling
Herbert: Are you really doing a story on this? That is so lame.
rexx: do you think the reporter wants to write a story on the color of her nipples?
Jesus. Why am I taking this shit? I’m not getting paid to sit in this chair. I go hide in Hammil’s bedroom, the only room off camera. It’s not like I haven’t heard this crap, or some version of it before. Every day of my life in New York City, anywhere between one and ten men say something unsolicited to me about what I look like. Usually they like my breasts, my smile or my eyes. They ask for my phone number or if I’ll come to a party in Queens. When I was 16, a man approached me as I made a call in a phone booth on the Upper West Side and offered me a wad of twenties to blow him. I walked down a street in SoHo last week eating a popsicle and some guy yelled out of a convertible: “I know a couple other holes I’d like to put that in!”
I think about what Tamra said when I asked her about street harassment. “It used to really piss me off. You’re just walking in a store, in your car, wherever, and all kinds of guys are saying shit to you. It’s like, ‘How can you say something so gross to someone you’ve never even met?’ It blows my mind that they can be so crude. You know, ‘What would your mom say?'” I point out that she’s chosen a job that requires her to hear guys tell her the same kinds of thing online.
“But my quote of the day is if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” she says. “I used to get so pissed off at my boyfriend for having porn mags or talking about other chicks in front of me. Now working here kinda gives me a chance to say, If the guys are out there, why not? ‘Cause this is what they want. ‘Cause I’m going to be fighting a losing battle, you know? ‘Cause there’s no way to make them act different.”
hurrah: I guess I wasn’t breast fed because I am starved for the reporter girl’s titties
kellog: nice tits im guessing 36C
fatbastard: i like the reporter girl’s and tamra’s tits equally well
Once I’ve composed myself, I join Tamra in her bedroom. I’ll be sleeping in her bed tonight since she’s taking a “stay out” night with her boyfriend. Right now she’s changing her sheets for me — “It’s no problem, really,” she insists. Along with Nikki, I keep Tamra company as she searches for a clean set of sheets.
Above us, there’s a green sign that says ABSOLUTELY NO FEEDING OF THE ANIMALS and a poster of Dali’s melting clocks. There’s also a cam directly above me, which I realize has a nice view of my cleavage. I move.
I’m Seen, Therefore I Am by Vanessa Grigoriadis — page 4
Nikki is explaining the legalities of the dorm to me. “The dorm lawyers are not very good,” she says, pushing her glasses up on her nose. “First they made the argument that people do work from home all the time. But we’re an adult establishment, and the law says that adult establishments can’t be in a residential neighborhood. So then they said, ‘Well, there’s no foot traffic here.’ But the law doesn’t say ‘an adult establishment that has people coming and going.’ That just is not how the law is stated.” She takes a last drag of her Marlboro Light. “The only way out that I can come up with is that these feeds are going to Hammil’s downtown office, so there’s really no business going on here.”
“Wow, maybe you should be the lawyer,” I say.
“Yeah, at least then you’d actually make some money,” says Tamra, pulling a set of light blue sheets out of her drawers.
There’s a pause. “Um, why don’t you guys ask for more money?” I ask.
“I guess, you know, supply and demand,” says Tamra. “There are always girls who will replace me.”
“But look, Zoe had a big following,” says Nikki. “And when she left, they all left with her.”
“So maybe we’re not expendable,” says Tamra. “That’s cool.”
“But,” says Nikki. “But, to take it one step further, even if Zoe’s guys left, there are always other guys who will replace them. So therefore, we are expendable.”
Tamra stops making neat hospital corners and cocks her head as she takes this in. “But I’m making a special impact on this place,” she says. “I have so many ideas.” It’s true: her ideas are what got her Voyeur Dorm Girl of the Month in August, an award worth a $300 gift certificate to Victoria’s Secret. “Hard-core sites in Russia, Los Angeles, Amsterdam. A Voyeur Dorm store, where you can buy things like bumper stickers and calendars. A Winnebago and a yacht with cams. A Voyeur Dorm hotel in Miami with thirty girls in little efficiencies. An auction site — Amber’s gonna sell her red bikini. I’ll sell whatever I have, but no DNA!”
She starts packing clothes for tomorrow in a little black knapsack. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” continues Tamra. “I love being so creative. This is just a really good opportunity for me to concentrate on myself for once. To improve my body and my mind. You know, I never had female friends before cause they were so catty. I was a total loner in high school.”
“All those things you said — I feel exactly the same way!” says Nikki.
Every woman in the dorm expresses those sentiments to me at one point or another over the course of my stay. It’s the kind of bonding that could be overheard in any women’s freshman dorm room at around 1:30 a.m. Except that in the chat room, Robyn has pulled her breasts out of her lacy bra and is massaging them with one hand while she slips another down her underwear. And in Alex’s room, Alex and Amber are topless, kissing passionately on her rumpled bed. Before Tamra leaves, she takes a tin of powder off of her vanity. “Do you like the way peach smells?” she asks me. I nod.
“Cool,” she says, sprinkling some of the powder on her pillows.
Rexx: Tamra you sure were moving around a lot last night honey
Herbert: No the reporter girl was staying in her bed
George: Why doesn’t the reporter show her cunt
I wake up at noon to total darkness, because there are no windows in Tamra’s bedroom. No one else is awake except for Milla. “They call me the Energizer Bunny when I get on chat,” she says. “I just can’t stop.” She shows me a digital photo that her “favorite,” a 32-year-old Australian with the alias Knobby, has sent her. He’s adorable and preppy, holding a piece of looseleaf paper that says I love you. “Isn’t he cute?” she asks me, touching his mouth on screen. “He wants me to move to Sydney. It’s so far, but I think I’m gonna go.”
Five minutes later, Milla has gone to sleep.
There’s nothing to do, and 6,000 people could be watching me. I sit on the couch and watch Wild Things on TBS. At 2:30 p.m. J.J. and Robyn, hung over and chain smoking, wake up in time for their chat slots. “I’m bored,” I announce. They look at me with bloodshot eyes and nod empathetically.
By four o’clock, I’m going nuts. Luckily, I don’t work here. I can leave.
It’s cloudy and humid outside. I meander along Farwell Street, a wide street with no sidewalk that ends in a cul-de-sac. It has about a dozen houses, all one story with two-car garages and little lawns. Near the end of the block, there’s a rundown mini-plaza with a laundromat, a Cuban restaurant, a barber shop and a Catholic gift shop. I devour a plate of rice and beans at the empty cafeteria-style restaurant.
What now? The only person in the house with a car is Hammil, and he’s gone. Where would I go anyway? To the mall?
I walk back down the street slowly. The only sign of life is an old man with a sailor’s cap hobbling along. “Walking is the best exercise!” he announces as I walk up. I decide to ask him how he feels about Voyeur Dorm. “I lived here fifty years. I don’t know these girls. They seem like very nice neighbors, very nice indeed.” He smiles.
“I walked every day with my wife for fifty years. Walking is the best exercise!”
tree: I saw down the reporter girl’s blouse last night
tsnapper182: Reporter girl, I saw your titties!
At 7 p.m., I drive with Hammil to pick up a new candidate for the dorm — sixty women per day e-mail in applications — and Hammil has arranged to have her flown up from Gainesville. “This is the part I really like,” he says, slipping into his Jeep. “The great unknown. What’s she gonna be like? It’s her personality I care about. I don’t give a shit what she looks like.” Uh huh.
“What if she’s overweight?” I want to know.
“I’d welcome some really big girl into the house,” he says. “She’d take some abuse over chat, sure, but anyone who’d put themselves in that situation would be a fighter.”
We arrive at the airport ten minutes before Heather’s plane is supposed to land, at a gate which has a good view of passengers as they get off the local commuter planes. “Blue sundress, blue sundress, blue sundress,” Hamil chants as each plane disgorges a bunch of people, none of whom are in the apparel Heather’s supposed to be wearing. Finally, we see her. She’s around 300 pounds, maybe 35, with thicker glasses than the kid from Rushmore. “Oh, shit,” says Hammil. “Let’s go. Let’s make a run for it. Fuck.” As she passes by, he stage whispers, “Heather. Heather. Heather.” She doesn’t stop.
“Thank God, man,” he says.
The real Heather’s plane has apparently been delayed. “Let’s go get something to eat,” Hammil suggests, and as we’re walking towards the food court his cell phone rings. “You’re here?” he says. “Are you wearing a blue sundress?” He starts laughing and hangs up the phone. “Her plane arrived early. She goes, ‘Yes, I’m down here motherfucker and I am not that fat chick.’ I love it. She’s already fucking with me.”
We go back down to the gate, and there she is. Blue-black hair, big brown eyes, olive skin, wide smile, perfectly worked-out body. She’s wearing a strapless Lycra dress, more silver than blue, with a big slit up the side and no bra so that her nipples leave an outline on the dress. “Man, I saw you looking at that big girl,” she laughs, pointing at Hammil. “You had that scared look.”
Hammil grabs her bag and we start heading out. For the first time, I’m seeing him look a little aroused. He starts shooting questions. “How’d you hear about us?” he asks.
“Howard Stern,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “I just thought, those girls are having so much fun. And I’m the kinda person who’s open to lots of options. I always regret things I don’t do.”
“Do you drink?”
“No,” she says. “My dad’s an alcoholic and I refuse to become one myself.”
“What about school?”
“Well, I need to turn back the clock on those high school years,” she says confidently. “But after I get my GED I want to go to ITT for computer graphics and design. Put any computer program in front of me and in one hour, I can figure it out. My ultimate thing would be to do the graphics for the Kentucky Derby. I love horses.”
“Ever acted?” he asks.
“Nah,” she says. “Fear of failure.”
“Boyfriend?” he asks.
“Nah,” she says. “I just broke up with a guy in Dade County Recruiting. I don’t want a man right now. I need some time to improve myself. Right now, I need to concentrate on me.”
Herbert: Who’s that with the reporter girl?
Rexx: Get the reporter girl to give the new girl a kiss
Tamra’s on chat when we get back to the house. “Did you sleep well last night?” she asks. “The guys want to know.” I thank her for her hospitality and say yes, I did. I hear her type back a response. “Where do you work again?” she asks. “The guys want to know.”
Stupidly, I respond honestly. “New York magazine,” I say, which is where I’m on staff. Here’s what comes back:
Herbert: Tell her Caroline Miller says that if she doesn’t take her top off she’s fired
Caroline Miller is my boss. This fact, however, is not exactly common knowledge. I remember that HERBERT told me last night that the piece I’m writing is lame. He also wanted to know if I was a pervert. Who is he? Does he sit in the cubicle next to mine? Is he the circulation manager of Esquire? Is he Walter Isaacson? Until now, I’ve been able to maintain the fiction that the guys on chat exist in another dimension, in a separate universe from the men I know; they’re the men I don’t know who yell out to me in the street, not the guys who flip through New York magazine looking for cute East Village eateries.
That’s the power of chat in this setting, the terrifying honesty that makes the girls feel they actually have to reckon with what they read. Maybe if the guys on chat tell Nikki her stomach is fat, they’re only telling her what everyone else is thinking. Maybe what these guys say about women’s bodies with the safety of anonymity reveals something raw and honest about what most men think but don’t say. Maybe my story is lame, maybe I am a pervert, and maybe Caroline Miller would consider me a lame reporter if I didn’t go whole hog and strip down. These men colonize the girls’ minds, and the girls let them, although that’s not officially part of their job description. I understand what Voyeur Dorm is really selling with their display copy: The Girls in Voyeur Dorm Have No Secrets. Their Privacy Is Your Pleasure.
There are hoots from outside as Alex and Robyn splash around in the pool with a sad-looking pink inner tube. The pool is tiny, surrounded by a high fence, and screened in to keep out mosquitos — every bit as claustrophobic as the dorm itself. When Hammil appears on the porch with Heather, they cover their breasts with their arms and stare her up and down.
Kellogg: Nice tits, new girl. I’m guessing 34B.
“Hey, nice to meet you guys,” says Heather. “I’m so psyched to be here.”
“Hmm,” says Alex. “How did you hear about us?”
“Well, my brother used to log on all the time,” says Heather. “And my old boyfriend is totally obsessed with you guys.”
I’m Seen, Therefore I Am by Vanessa Grigoriadis — page 5
Alex smiles proudly. “Really? What’s your boyfriend’s screen name?”
“George,” says Heather.
It rings a bell:
George: Talk to us, reporter girl. We won’t bite — HARD.
“Omigod!” exclaims Robyn. “That’s the guy who tattooed my real name on his ass!”
“What?” yells everyone in unison.
“Well, we started becoming friends, so I told him my real name,” says Robyn, sheepishly. “And a few weeks later, he sends me this picture — a tattoo of his butt with my name! I freaked! What a weirdo! So I totally stopped talking to him.”
“Excuse me,” screams Heather. “That’s the tattoo he got of my name when I was like 16 years old!”
The bonding has begun. The Girls in Voyeur Dorm Have No Secrets.
Tree: The reporter girl better eat pussy tonight
Rexx: The reporter girl does not look as hot as she did last night
The other women are left at home as Hammil, Nikki, Heather and I squish into the Jeep for the drive to Empire, a huge club downtown that plays Miami rap like 2LiveCrew. In the back, there’s a pretty impressive booty-shake contest going on. Nikki and I clink glasses of Moët and wander onto the street. It’s still 100 degrees outside, and the street is packed with drunk 18-year-olds.
“I’m going to be the reporter,” Nikki says playfully. We walk up to three cops who are leaning against the hood of their squad car. “Have you heard of Voyeur Dorm?” asks Nikki, pretending to hold a microphone and leaning into the fattest one. “Nah,” he says. “Why don’t you ladies come to my apartment tonight and give me an update on the issues?” Nikki laughs, prettily, and makes me take her picture with them.
Further down the street, she goes up to two guys eating pizza outside a club. “Have you heard of Voyeur Dorm?” she asks. “Yeah, yeah,” they nod. Both are grad students at USF. “What do you think of it?” she asks. “I think you girls should make like Menudo and change girls every time you hit twenty-one,” laughs one. “I think it’s freakin’ disgusting,” says the other. “Why don’t you go do something with your life? Why are you playing into the smut and oppression of females that’s so prevalent in Tampa? The whole world is out there, waiting for you.” Nikki shakes her head and starts walking away. “Don’t play into the exploitation of women!” he yells after her.
“Moron,” she says, turning to me. “Look at the way he was staring at you. He was totally looking you up and down and like drooling. Then he’s all upset about exploitation.”
She lifts the back of her short skirt. “Exploit this, motherfucker,” she shouts his way.
We’re on the way back to the dorm when Nikki decides that she wants to go to the relatively upscale Mons Venus. In the club, nude women — who are totally, utterly hairless — gyrate around the periphery of a dark-pink-lit stage. Others, some wearing just gloves or knee-high boots, move through the crowd, proffering lapdances or selling cigarettes and roses. Hammil buys three flowers for Nikki, Heather and me. Nikki gets a bottle of rum from one of the dancers and pours half of it into her coke.
Maybe the alcohol kicks in quickly, because now Nikki and Heather want to get on stage. I demur, which takes some persistence, and the two of them step nimbly up on a platform and start undressing. In their black mini skirts and chunky black sandals, they look out of place, their bodies uncomfortably natural next to those of the inflated working professionals. In one night, Nikki has play-acted as sex-positive activist, reporter and night-club stripper. As she turns around, bends over, and uses her hands to spread herself wide open, it occurs to me that maybe Nikki thinks regardless of what women do, what they’re valued for is some version of what she’s doing on stage right now.
Finally, I ask Hammil to drop me off at my hotel next to the airport. But Nikki has other plans for me. “Please come back to the dorm with me,” she begs, gripping my arm in the backseat of the Jeep. “Hammil can sleep in the living room and we can sleep in his bed together. It’ll be so fun.”
“But my plane leaves so early,” I protest. “Please? Please?” she begs, turning to Hammil. “Make Reporter Girl come back to the dorm!” He throws up his hands, seemingly embarrassed by her outburst.
Somehow I extricate myself from her embrace and check into my room. I’ve just fallen asleep when the phone rings.
“Hi,” says a soft voice. “It’s Nikki.” I gently tell her goodnight. I’m ready to leave.
I was on standby for a flight when I left Tampa, and when they called out my flight number I went to the wrong desk. “You need to go over there,” said the frazzled check-in clerk. I didn’t understand why and protested. “Little girl, don’t argue with me!” he shouted. “Over there!” I immediately burst into tears.
I am a little girl. I should live in a playpen with six other little girls, wondering who borrowed my curling iron without asking and taking my shirt off so the guys don’t get bored. I’m seen, therefore I am.
I am not a little girl. I will get on a plane and fly far from Tampa, back to the cam-free apartment I can pay for myself, because I have a good job, because I was lucky enough to get a good education. I’ll fly back to the office where the men I work with will ask me how my freelance gig went, and really want to know what I think.
Tell her Caroline Miller says if she doesn’t take her top off, she’s fired.
I still feel the cameras on me.