Pandering for Fun and Profit
Monday. A work day. Sonya is up at 6:00 as usual, strolling toward the pool. Her toes curl on a cool, pebbly patio as she strips down to a black bikini. Her belly is flat and the cut of her swimsuit shows off her youthful legs. The single mother swims 50 laps, also as usual, then wraps a white towel around her frosted blond hair and goes inside. In the kitchen she consumes two cups of espresso, some toast, and the daily paper. She may be the Miami Herald's most ardent reader, scrutinizing every section: "Local," where her clients sometimes appear in news stories; "Real Estate," where she's invested much of her cash; "Classified," where her money-generating advertisement has appeared for the past two years.
She skims down the "Announcement" section to the category situated between Tickets and Legal Services. There, in Entertainment/Adult, lies her competition: Tina, and Lili & Vivian, and Heavenly Bodies. Yes * Yes * Yes, moans one ad; "Barely Legal" teases the next. Another listing, pushing the boundaries of taste at the conservative Herald, advertises "Cuntry Girls." Sonya's ad is there, along with the phone number she's currently using. (She changes the number regularly for security reasons.) "Babe-A-Licious," it reads, "#1 in Kendall and C. Gables."
She leaves the paper on the counter and glides into the living room. Carrying her coffee and some work papers, she sets up shop on a carpeted staircase. A pile of stat sheets rests before her, each containing information about her employees: every girl's real name and age, real address, working name, and contact numbers.
Physiques are detailed: eye color, height, weight, measurements. The sheets also note special attributes about the girls, such as celebrities they resemble or services they are willing or unwilling to perform. If a girl is able to meet a client at his home or office, how far is she willing to drive? The most reliable girls' sheets are on the top of the pile; they'll get the most work.
A legal pad becomes Sonya's ledger for the day. On the top of the first page she scribbles time and date, followed by a list of all the girls who are on call. She says she has supervised as many as 100 girls at a time. Today, however, she's listed just ten. When a client calls, she will write down his name and note the time of the appointment as well as the girl with whom she will pair him.
At 7:00 she turns on her cellular phone. It rings immediately. "Hello," she coos to her first caller. "How can I help you?"
"Yes," says the confident voice of a mature man. He's an occasional client she knows to be a divorce lawyer. "I'm interested in seeing a young lady this afternoon. Do you have anyone available in the Coral Gables area?"
"Yes, we do." Sonya's voice is sweetly seductive. "Who is it you're interested in meeting?"
"Someone who is intelligent," he says, "and someone who isn't Latin. I need this to be confidential because I'm married."
"It's strictly confidential," she says. "Not a problem." Then she thumbs through her stack of girls. The phone rings again. Caller ID shows the number of another client. She puts the first man on hold and takes the call. A third call comes in from the mechanic who's working on her BMW. "Oh, shit," she mutters, putting both clients on hold, "I've got to pick that up today." When she returns to her initial client, she has selected for him a strawberry-blonde who works out of a hotel on South Dixie Highway. A rendezvous is set for the early afternoon. She presses the "flash" button on her phone and returns to the second client.
As the proprietor of a successful escort service, Sonya will spend the next several hours taking phone calls. She says she has worked her telephone like this seven days a week, ten hours a day, for the past two years. The long hours, she explains, are necessary to keep up with the volume of calls generated largely by her tiny five-word, one-phone-number classified ad.
Escort services usually make the news only indirectly. For instance when federal prosecutors charged jury foreman Miguel D. Moya with pocketing $500,000 to fix the 1996 trial of drug kingpins Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, they alleged he spent some of the bribe money on escort services. Last year's phone-sex scandal at the State Attorney's Office included the accusation that one secretary discussed the possibility of opening her own escort service. In 1991 former FIU provost Steven Altman resigned as the president of the University of Central Florida after it was revealed he patronized escort services in Orlando and (while on university business trips) five other cities, including Miami. Later that same year self-help guru Dr. Wayne Dyer was named in records seized by police during a raid on a Fort Lauderdale escort service that was -- surprise -- a front for prostitution.
Although escort services traditionally maintain a low profile, the industry is thriving. Escort advertisements appear in the BellSouth Yellow Pages and in most local daily and weekly newspapers. Their presence in the Yellow Pages is jarring. Printed in the same format as ads for plumbers and tire warehouses, the escort advertisements shout their services in sterile black type: "Open 24 hours!" and "VIP for South Beach." Victoria's Connections is "Always Open." A AAchen is "sophisticated" and "trusted."
These buzzwords are the heart of escort services' appeal. Just ask Joe Gersten, Miami's most notorious john. In April 1992, police say, he got naked with streetwalker Tracy Sheehan in a Biscayne Boulevard crackhouse. The ensuing scandal drove him into exile. If he had instead employed a "discreet" or "trusted" escort service, Gersten might still be a local blowhard instead of a "political prisoner," as he calls himself, in Australia.
Discretion aside, escort services attract a certain type of man. "It's the complete lack of responsibility," asserts Ann Brittain, director of women's studies at the University of Miami. "You don't have to send flowers afterward. You don't have to send cards or wash behind your ears or even be nice. The complete lack of responsibility allows men to enjoy whatever their fantasies may be. To them there is a near-complete lack of consequences."
Apparently the demand for irresponsible fantasies is strong enough to draw many ambitious entrepreneurs to the field. It's also an easy vocation to join. All a person needs is a cell phone, a modicum of salesmanship, a bit of start-up cash, and a willingness to endure some risk. "I think it's as easy as getting BellSouth to put a phone line in your house and getting your sister to go on a date," says Jamie Benjamin, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents several escort services.
In return the business can quietly generate thousands of dollars each week as part of a lucrative and largely illegal underground economy. The Beacon Council, Miami's economic development organization, compiles no research on the industry, even though millions of dollars are spent on escort services each year in the business community the council represents.
"Miami -- much more so than a city like, say, Cleveland -- is a popular place for escort services," reports Jeffrey Douglas, the California-based executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, an adult-entertainment-industry trade organization. "It's a tourist city, and it has an international airport. Any time you get those two variables together, you are going to get escort services trying to meet the demand."
The services are ostensibly legal. Everyone has the right to pay another person for "companionship," which is the technical term for the service provided. Of course companionship is often a thinly veiled euphemism for prostitution. So blatantly sexual are the services advertised in newspapers and the phone book that BellSouth's Midwestern sister, Ameritech, no longer accepts escort ads in its Yellow Pages. For that matter, neither does New Times, a recent policy change enacted independent of this story.
Prostitution, of course, is illegal, and has been for a long time. Yet enforcement of prostitution laws is a low priority in South Florida. Police in Broward County raid an escort service about once a year. Raids are even less frequent in Miami-Dade County, where no major arrests have been reported since 1994. "That department is kind of in disarray right now," a Miami-Dade Police spokesman notes. "Try the City of Miami Police instead."
As the largest city in Florida, Miami deals with its share of prostitution. City police direct most of their resources toward street-level hookers, though, rather than prostitution shielded behind escort services. "We used to have a specific vice unit, but because of the need to send our limited manpower out on patrol, we had to stop doing that," says Ofcr. Willy Moreno. "We would handle it if we were getting complaints, but to be really honest, I haven't heard a lot of complaints on that matter. Then again, there is plenty of crime going on out there on a daily basis that we're not aware of, so it doesn't surprise me."
Sonya's daughter is a twelve-year-old who enjoys the benefits of a mother with flexible hours. This flexibility manifests itself in rides back and forth to school every weekday. "'My mommy's a madam,' she tells her friends," Sonya says. "She thinks it's like a musician or an actor or something. She's too young to know better."
Although Sonya notes she is careful never to conduct business when her daughter is at home, she says she actually got into escort services for the sake of her child's financial security. She is quick to add that she entered the field with the intention of leaving after two years. "I figured that by then I'd have made enough money to set up myself and my daughter for life," she recalls. "After that, why take the risk?"
That was two years ago, and she insists she quit the business completely with the new year. Largely because of her decision to quit, late last year she invited New Times to meet with her at her bordello (actually a condominium unit) to observe her operation. It was an invitation loaded with caveats. She blocked interviews with any of her clients. All but one of her escorts were off-limits for even a conversation. Her family and her friends could not be contacted, including all four of her ex-husbands. Much of the information gleaned for use in this story, therefore, comes from only one source: Sonya herself.
"I am a dating service," she maintains. "I fill a need. I listen to a client on the phone and get as much information out of him as I can as far as what he's looking for. Then I get him from point A to point B. What goes on after that I don't know."
Sonya folds herself into an overstuffed white chair and begins puffing an endless chain of Marlboro Light cigarettes, smoking each as fast as she talks, which is very fast. Her jeans are tight and black, her crop top is stretchy black Lycra. The look, coupled with her streaked hair, might be called refined biker-chick. People tell her she resembles Heather Locklear. She is 39 years old.
The armchair is one of the few pieces of furniture left in this condo, which is one of several units in a pink-and-teal gated community south of The Falls shopping mall. There is also a small couch, an end table, and an armoire that used to house a television.
Just a month ago this two-bedroom residence was furnished like the sex factory it was: mattresses in both bedrooms and a bank of five phones lined up on a dresser. Sonya worked out of this locale during the day, answering all five phone lines with the help of an assistant. In the early evening, as she returned to her home, several of her working girls arrived at the condo and lounged in the living room while waiting for the dates that had been arranged for them. The men would be let in, pair off with their dates, proceed to one of the bedrooms, then leave about twenty minutes later.
But the beds and phones and food in the kitchen that were here a month ago have been moved to a new condominium/bordello at another address. "The neighbors here were starting to complain," Sonya explains. "They saw all the traffic and figured out what was going on."
Attention from neighbors is problematic because it can lead to interference by the police. Although Sonya claims to be running only a dating service, she is well aware that sex is the cornerstone of her business. She is careful never to mention sex while on the phone, even though her descriptions of the escorts dwell on bust size, hair color, and hard bodies. She knows she is providing sex for money. If busted for doing so, she could be charged with racketeering, deriving support from prostitution, and conducting unlawful business transactions. As a minimum punishment she would likely lose custody of her daughter. More than likely she would also serve time in jail.
Sonya claims she's "not afraid of the police. Not at all." Still, before allowing a New Times reporter into her place, she marched out to the parking lot to make sure no cops were watching. She frisked for tape recorders, and spoke cagily for nearly half an hour until she felt comfortable she wasn't about to be nailed in an undercover operation. During the two years she's been in business, Sonya has frequently changed the name and phone numbers of her service. She never lets her escorts see where she lives, and she drives a rental car when visiting her bordello to protect her privacy.
Despite the occasional relocation of her bordello, Sonya claims her client base has remained faithful. In fact she has carved out a niche. Most of her clients are men who live in Kendall or Coral Gables, and almost all of them, for some reason, are Jewish. "I don't really know why that is," she says, puffing on a cigarette. "It may be because I'm Jewish too, and they can relate to me. It may simply be where my business is located.
"I would say that a good 90 percent are married," she adds. "Definitely. The girls complain to me that they get tired of seeing wedding bands. And the guys tell me on the phones to make sure the girl is pretty because they have a beautiful wife at home." She takes a long drag. "My personal opinion is if you are married, you should not use an escort service. You should try to find out what the problem is at home. That's my personal opinion."
Not surprisingly it is a view she keeps strictly to herself. In pitching her service, Sonya gives little consideration to its morality. "I sit here and do this and don't even think about what my product is," she says. "I could be selling magazines; it doesn't mean anything to me." Her energies are concentrated on providing the best service possible. She wants satisfied customers who will become regulars and possibly generate referrals.
After two years she has a pretty good idea what it is these men want. Emotionally, it seems, they want a psychiatrist. "The girls tell me they'll often use up the whole hour just talking. A lot of men talk about their wives or their girlfriends. I know for most men it's emotional more than it is physical."
And when it is physical? "Number one is a redhead," she declares. "I think because they are rare. For the same reason the second thing they ask for are Orientals or Asian girls. Third is anyone who is not augmented: no breast implants. I can't book a girl with fake breasts. I think that most of their wives got breast implants; now they want real breasts. And it's really hard to book anyone over five-foot-seven. If a girl is five-eight, I'll always lie and say she's five-six or so and tell her not to wear heels. The fourth thing asked for is Latin girls. And then young girls. Another thing they ask for is body piercing. The last thing they ask for is a blonde. You would think that would be first, a blond, busty Pamela Anderson type, but it's absolutely not true."
The girls, as Sonya calls them, are not hard to find. When the business was operating at full tilt, she was always looking for new girls, recruiting most of them from an "always hiring" line she would sometimes append to her classified ads in the Herald and New Times.
A girl can remain with one escort service for only so long, though. Five visits is about the most a man will spend with a particular girl. Inevitably, according to Sonya, they grow restless and want to try someone new. Many girls know this and after a few months move on to another operation. Some come down from Broward for a weekend looking for a different market. Some have relocated from New York. Some are just making quick cash, then getting out of the business. Sonya says she refuses to hire drug addicts or anyone under the age of 21.
"I have good girls, like normal-type girls you would never expect to find in this business," she relates. "You might expect crackheads, trashy girls who are worn out. A lot of agencies have women like that, but I don't. I get girls who are as normal as they can possibly be in this business. They live in society, they have other jobs, mortgage payments, and cars. Several of them are living double lives as nurses and teachers. At one time I had four attorneys working for me."
In fact one of her former escorts, she says, used to work at New Times. When pressed for proof, Sonya provides the woman's cell-phone number. Reached on her cell phone, the woman (who shall remain nameless) denied knowing anyone named Sonya. When told that Sonya runs an escort service and that she had provided the cell phone number, the woman balked. "I don't want to say anything because that's none of your business," she replied.
Four minutes later Sonya calls. "I just got off the phone with [the woman]. She is maaaaad!" she says, cackling. "She wanted to know why I gave out her phone number. I told her I didn't. She wanted to know if I was having an article written about me. I said no, of course. I said I'd never spoken to you in my life.
"She's upset because she's living two lives. The thought that one life could be exposed scares her to death. As you would expect."
As should be apparent, Sonya lies with ease. When she books girls, for instance. "I have a girl named Holly," she says. "She's 28 but I book her for 21 and say she's a UM student. I'll also say she's from Seattle, because that sounds more intriguing. I concoct a whole little story about her, though none of it's true. I'll say she's 34C-24-34 and that she has a hard body because she works out every day. I have to make the sale. I'm just a normal person in business like anyone else."
Sonya, naturally, isn't her real name. It's not even the pseudonym she normally uses. A search of Florida corporations registered in both her birth and fake names turns up nothing. Even the names of her companies, the ones listed in the classified ads, are unregistered. "You won't find a thing in my name," she boasts. "Nothing. Nothing at all. I've hidden everything in shell corporations, which I use for the real estate I buy. The rest of my money I've deposited in offshore accounts." These practices have another benefit, one as illegal as prostitution: She claims to pay virtually no taxes. "They won't get anything from me. Nothing," she says proudly. "It's all completely protected."
What can be verified about her background is slight. Sonya was born in Miami and raised in an upper-middle-class, two-parent family. Her father is a retired medical professional. She has one brother. "My parents are totally cool with what I do," she says. "They know all about it." Maybe so, but she insisted that New Times not interview her parents, who still live in Miami-Dade County. She said her brother would be willing to talk, but only if she arranged the interview, which she never did despite repeated requests.
Sonya allows that she's been married twice, but Miami-Dade County marriage records reveal that she's actually been hitched four times. Her first marriage came at age sixteen to a boy not yet old enough to drink. They divorced within two months. The second marriage, at age nineteen, lasted less than a year. "I was young," she later admits, "and I thought I was in love. I was stupid."
Marriage number three, to a professional athlete, produced a daughter. When his career took off, they all moved out of Florida and up in economic status. That marriage lasted nearly seven years. "He hit me," is all she'll offer as an explanation for the divorce.
In 1992 she met a rich foreign gentleman. "A friend introduced him to me," she recalls. "He was married at the time but he fell crazy in love with me. I didn't like him at all at first, and I should have went on my gut instinct. He sent me something like four dozen roses and was calling me. Finally we went out to South Beach and dinner at Mezzanotte. He was Prince Charming on a white horse. I'll never forget it."
They married just four months after meeting, and along with her daughter moved to his native country, which she asked New Times not to identify.
"He was powerful and brilliant," Sonya continues, "and he had tons of money he had made as a developer. He opened up a whole other world to me. We ate in the finest restaurants and stayed in the finest hotels. I had a five-carat ring on my finger after knowing him for only three months. I had never even watched a porno movie until I met him. I was 32 years old then. I never knew anything about porno services. He opened up that world to me. His friend owned an escort service, and I got friendly with the wife who ran it. She really liked running it because it gave her independence."
Two years ago she divorced husband number four because of his infidelity. In an ironic twist, his familiarity with escort services provided her the means to establish her financial independence from him. At that time her resume qualified her for little more than an entry-level job in sales. Rather than take her place alongside twenty-year-olds, she chose to venture into the escort business. "I guarantee if I had never met [my fourth husband], I never would have gone into this business. At first it seemed natural because it was a part of my life at the time. It kind of still kept me attached to him in a sense, psychologically. Of course, now that I have gone through the healing process and that marriage is a distant memory, I hate this business with all my being."
Sonya started out answering phones for an established service. After a month she thought she knew the field well enough to strike out on her own, taking a number of escorts with her. (In gratitude, Sonya says, her old boss vandalized her car.)
She charges $180 for an hour with one of her girls. (That price is at the high end for South Florida, but in New York City the same escorts could cost $600 an hour or more.) She takes $80 from each visit, using some of that to cover phone bills, electricity, and other expenses.
Those girls summoned to expensive South Beach hotels are the most attractive on her roster, and their price is higher: between $250 and $300 per hour. Fifty dollars of that money, Sonya claims, goes to the concierge. All transactions are in cash. There is no paper trail.
Sonya also employs five drivers, who work shifts dropping off her girls at private addresses and collecting Sonya's cut of the money afterward. "The $180 price is good. It helps me weed out the undesirables, because $180 is a phone bill or an electric bill. It can feed a family. And at that price, on a good day, when all my girls are working as much as they can, I can clear $20,000. In cash."
That may or may not be an accurate figure, according to the Free Speech Coalition's Jeffrey Douglas: "It's impossible to know exactly how much money an escort service makes in a year. These are largely cash-only businesses operating in an underground economy. Often business owners themselves aren't aware of how much they really make. When you factor in the continually high demand for the service, it's safe to say it's a profitable industry."
It's 7:30 on a Friday night. Sonya calls unsolicited, talking even faster than normal. She's just turned off her phones for the night, she says, ending a busy day. "I took more calls than you would ever believe!" she crows. "I seriously have been working without a break since noon. I don't know what it was today, but the calls were nonstop."
When she first began talking to New Times, Sonya declined to provide the names of any of her clients. She spoke only in general terms about athletes and musicians and actors, and about the suburban lawyers who constitute her core clientele. Revealing actual names was unthinkable. For whatever reason, however, she feels like talking about her customers tonight.
She reads an abbreviated list of about 50 names, offering first names as well, along with phone numbers and professions if she knows them. Most names are unremarkable. A few merit attention: the former head of a prominent civic organization and a man affiliated with a local professional sports team. There is the name of a fairly well-known, out-of-town rock musician (according to Sonya's notes, his escort reports he is "huge"). A couple of members of a popular local band use the service regularly and are allowed to pay by check. A television and film star used his bodyguard to facilitate a meeting at the Delano Hotel. Another actor instructed two escorts to gyrate atop an acrylic box while he lay underneath masturbating.
At least according to Sonya.
In every instance possible she provides corroboration. Usually that constitutes a phone number and some details about the client's life only she could know. A few of her clients are police officers, or "pig fuckers" as she calls them. One of them holds a very high rank. She claims to have videotaped this particular law enforcement officer as he demanded to use a candle as a sexual aide. Sonya declines to let New Times view the videotape. "It's up in Daytona," she notes, stashed in a safe-deposit box.
"We'll go to Daytona. No problem."
"No, never. I can't. Never. She [the escort] refuses to let anyone see the tape. No. Never. Never. Sorry. No."
Nevertheless, Sonya is insistent that the story is true. "Would it help if I said that the last time he used my service, I was sitting in a closet listening to him?" Later she hands over one of the high-ranking officer's business cards.
The information about the policeman and the others, if true, would be enough to obliterate a few careers. Or at least a few marriages. The explosive nature of the information underlines how much trust has been placed in Sonya, and in the proprietors of dozens of other escort services. They have been empowered to keep secrets about illicit sex. Quite obviously, Sonya doesn't.
When she first began speaking with New Times this past September, Sonya promised she would be out of the business by the new year. As the reporting of this story progressed, however, she advanced her departure date. "Oh, God, I swear I'm out by Thanksgiving now," she said a week before the holiday. "That's it. No more calls. No more anything. I am done. I have all the money I'll ever need and I'm sick of it."
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, she confirmed she had indeed pulled the plug on her business. "I am out. Absolutely," she said during a late-afternoon phone call. Her business -- the client list and roster of escorts -- had been sold to another provider for $20,000. "I am just sitting here now on the couch," she said casually, in a mood to talk. "You know what I'm doing? I'm watching Rosie. She has Bette Midler on. I love Bette Midler."
Is this what her future holds? Daytime television? How is she planning to fill her days? "I have no idea," she said as Midler warbled in the background. "I don't need money anymore. If I ever need to, I could just sell some of my jewelry; it's worth a fortune. I really have no idea."
As of the new year, Sonya had disappeared into the ether, just as she had planned. Her ad no longer appears in the Herald. The phone lines to the bordello have been disconnected. She changed the number on her cell phone. "You wouldn't believe how many people have asked to be my partner or to buy me out," she noted in parting. "The number of people interested in getting into this business is astounding.
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