Loli-chan is a modern-day Rapunzel locked inside a South Miami fortress of rust and weeds on a dead-end street. She rarely leaves a guest house that sits in a jungle-like yard overrun with six peacocks and half as many junked cars. Ten paces away is her parents' place. Wooden boards and strips of tin foil cover its windows.
This damsel in distress is a chubby-cheeked, blue-haired, five-foot-and-a-quarter-inch, 20-year-old womanchild in a push-up bra and jeans with stylish zippers that zigzag across her curvaceous frame. She doesn't drive and has never lived apart from her folks, except for an ill-fated year at a private university in North Florida.
Loli and I are chatting on a quiet Friday afternoon when, suddenly, her Razr phone lights up blue. Her half-moon eyes turn to dinner plates when she pulls it to her dainty ear.
"We don't have guests in our house, and you can't either!" her mom shouts in Colombian-accented Spanish so loud I can hear it. Then she tells her daughter this place is no "putería" — whorehouse.
Loli gulps a glass of Smirnoff Ice Green Apple Bite and tries to calm herself. Her full lips swallow the tears as she translates: "I was told to end my social engagement and that I wasn't allowed to have people over."
Standing nearby is her boyfriend, who cooks a mean eggplant Parmesan and tidies their shared space. Lucien has short, strawberry-blond hair, wears a "Don't Tread on Me" tank top over his slender frame, and punctuates almost every sentence with "bro." The 22-year-old explains that Loli's dad is probably paranoid because the last time she invited a friend over, it ended badly. After taking a particularly nasty brand of hallucinogenic known as 2-CE, Loli ended up in the hospital, he says.
Now visitors are infrequent and unwelcome. "They have a lot of handguns, bro," Lucien says of Loli's mom and dad. "You should probably leave."
The real reason for the parental paranoia is this: Loli is a pedophile celebrity who began cultivating a following when she posted photos of herself online at age 13. She made her name on 4chan, the famously anarchic bulletin board that turned 10 years old this past September. She befriended hundreds of men who would correspond with her daily over Instant Messenger. A few tricked her into taking her clothes off, which increased her popularity. At one point, a handful of fansites existed solely to share her images.
She is what's known online as a Chan — one of maybe 20 girls who became famous in the mid-'00s for posting photos of themselves on image boards. Many men developed a lifelong obsession with the youngest Chan, whom they named after the book Lolita. Although some of these young women have gone on to achieve mainstream or cult fame, Loli now spends her days living a cloistered and fearful existence, stripping for dimes in front of her webcam.
When her parents gave her an HP computer at age 11, no one could have predicted she would end up suspended from her Catholic school, committed to Jackson Memorial Hospital's psych ward, and resorting to sex work as an adult.
Loli isn't a big drinker — and rarely imbibes anything with an alcohol content above 5 percent — but now she's uncharacteristically downing her third beverage in 15 minutes. She's doing it for courage.
Slumped over on a cream-colored couch, she admits how the whole mess began: "I used to make friends over the internet because I couldn't have friends in real life."
As I head to my car, an aged beagle with a Ping-Pong-ball-size tumor behind its right ear follows me down the meandering driveway. Even the peacocks jut their heads threateningly. Although I've agreed to return, the message is clear: Stay away from Loli-chan.
Before there were sexpots, there were coffee pots. The first internet celebrity was a first-come/first-served coffee machine shared by computer scientists at Cambridge University in England. The faculty members who sat next to the machine could smell a new pot as soon as it was prepared, which allowed them to bogart the brew.
In 1991, the faculty set up a camera that would allow people sitting in other rooms to view the coffee pot remotely. They aimed to level the playing field. But after they posted a link to the Trojan Room Coffee Cam online, it received 2 million hits.
It was proof that people will watch anything, even boiling water.
The first legitimate camgirl came five years later. Jennifer Ringley was a pretty blond Pennsylvanian who set up a live stream from her dorm room at Dickinson College. The 20-year-old broadcast herself 24/7, chatted with fans on message boards, and kept publicly viewable diaries. Ringley told the BBC that 100 million people would log on each week to watch her muse about romance and perform mundane tasks. She would have sex on camera, but Jennicam wasn't explicitly pornographic; it was a documentation of her life.
Although Ringley and other early camgirls of the era were in their 20s, camgirls slowly began getting younger. "It [became] about this fey little girl, Hello Kitty kind of thing," says Theresa Senft, author of a book on the subculture called Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks. "They all seem[ed] to have those big eyes and pale skin and to fit the bill in a much more cartoony way than a pinup way."
The story of Loli begins with a 15-year-old girl named Olivia, who became known as Cracky-chan online. At 2:17 in the afternoon on January 6, 2005, an image appeared on 4chan of an unconventionally beautiful girl with a red-painted nose. Looking coyly into her webcam, she flashed a simple message written on her upturned palm: "Sup 4chan."
Originally intended as a site to share anime and manga images when it was launched in 2003, 4chan is now known for its affiliation with the hacktivist group Anonymous (whose members somehow got 4chan's founder, Christopher Poole, voted Time's Most Influential Person of 2008 by manipulating the poll), its memes (pretty much anything that's ever gone viral began there), and its offensive content (as Senft, the academic, said: "For adults, 4chan is sort of the ninth circle of Hell.")
Cracky would post photos that were, in a word, dark. First, there was a series in which she smeared her face with menstrual blood. In others, she would take on personas, like that of a gothic nurse. Often, Cracky seemed lonely and sad, which made her instantly endearing to anime nerds. The fact that her costumes made her look like a character also bred an obsession.
Stalkers then tracked down the girl's online journal, which was filled with more photos that were shared among collectors like priceless treasures or rare trading cards.
Cracky appeared on 4chan only a few times before the stalker-like mob forced her self-imposed exile from the web. Today, she has pretty much disappeared, so it's impossible to know her motivation for posting. But generally, it's clear that 4chan's camgirls were experimenting with their burgeoning sexuality and competing with one another for male approval.
Although every camgirl has both fans and mockers, none has received as much attention as Cracky. She hasn't posted any images since 2007 and is now in her mid-20s, but her fansites are updated regularly. Old photos are posted with comments such as "how do i not be obsessed with cracky" and "She must be at least twenty now. Probably living a nice life. Friends, etc. I want to die."
"I think a big part of [the Cracky phenomenon] was misogyny," says one of Loli's friends, who goes by the name Camel online. She explains many of Cracky's fans were otaku, those who become obsessed with anime to the point of becoming shut-ins. These fans treat camgirls as cartoon protagonists, trade their pictures like playing cards, and develop elaborate backstories for their "characters," the pale New Jersey native says. "It was extremely rapey."
Just as Ringley inspired a legion of "livestreamers" who would spend years of their lives on cam, Cracky encouraged a new generation of artsy and insecure millennials to become live-action cartoon characters on the internet. She became the de facto figurehead of a splinter subculture. Today, a handful of fansites are dedicated to bringing her out of hiding. The homepage of one site, Dear Olivia, reads like an open letter: "This page is to show you how much you have impacted our lives. We want you to know that we care about you. We hope you care about yourself! From having fun imitating your great sense of style, to becoming obsessed with various perceptions of you... we have met friends and people with similar interests because of you."
Young girls, too, became obsessed with Cracky. Instead of plastering teen heartthrobs or boy bands across her childhood room, a 13-year-old Loli would Scotch-tape images of Cracky on the walls. She says that as an adolescent, she had sexual fantasies about the mysterious girl but also dreamed that one day she'd garner as much adulation. Most of the friends she has today are fellow "Cracky-fags" whom she Skypes and sometimes visits. "There's a whole religion around her," Loli explains. "People call her the Sky Queen."
Why did the Cracky phenomenon take off? "Because her photos weren't slutty, these guys elevated her to some sort of holy figure," offers Camel, who posted nude pictures of herself as a preteen after suffering sexual abuse and now studies business at a Canadian university.
Camel explains that a Chan name is given by the online community to only the most beloved camgirls and that hundreds strove for that designation between 2005 and 2007. She didn't make the cut. "In the end, I wasn't cute enough and didn't put enough presentation into my photos [to earn a Chan name]," Camel says. "And thank goodness for that."
Loli-chan was born in March 1993. Her first memory is of dressing up in a blue and yellow Snow White costume when she was 2 years old and posing for pictures. Her father, Jaime, would often build forts with Loli, ensconcing her in a comforter that, he said, would protect her from the outside world. Mother Ilene was a legal assistant, and the two ran their business in an off-white house they shared with five cats and a dog. (Because exploitative images of Loli still circulate on the web, her name and those of her family have been changed.)
Grandfather Jaime Sr. was a day laborer turned literature professor turned lawyer. He lived in a home on the same street and inspired Loli with a love of learning, but he passed away when she was only 8. Loli was an excellent student according to her 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher, Maria Ruiz-Legg, who remembers a brilliant writer enamored with the book Grendel and its protagonist, "a misunderstood monster kind of guy."
Loli and her older brother, Todd, were always kept on a short leash. Although they lived in an idyllic neighborhood lined with bougainvillea, Loli was never allowed to ride her pink Barbie bike without an adult around. She was also taught not to associate with neighborhood kids.
As a quiet child in elementary school, Loli enjoyed drawing with her best friend, a tanned girl who always wore her dark-brown hair in a single braid. All of that ended just before middle school, though. One day the friend said she was only using Loli for her collection of how-to-draw-manga books. "I always thought she drew better than me, so that was weird," Loli says.
Jaime and Ilene never enrolled Loli in activities or sports, which suited her just fine — she preferred to stay indoors and play videogames anyway. So she retreated into the world of Gaia Online, an anime-themed message board that caters to children. She was 13 years old. Her parents placed no restrictions on the time she was allowed to spend in the family's computer room, and she was left to her own devices. Loli would post on Gaia for hours, trying to make her avatar perfect.
"I wanted little digital clothes for my little digital person," she remembers. "So I sent someone pictures of my boobs and vagina."
She had experimented with sex on Yahoo Chat the year before, when she was 12, having sexually themed conversations with strangers. So, she reasoned, it wouldn't be that much weirder to take the next step. The whip-smart Loli also realized it could be lucrative.
One day, she went into her parents' bathroom and took close-up photos of her anatomy, which she then traded for a green Mandarin gown worth 12,000 "Gaia Gold" pieces that she used to dress up her avatar. "Honestly, I felt nothing," she says.
Loli says she became a social outcast in her Catholic middle school after admitting she was an atheist. She found it easier to make friends online, where her social awkwardness was mediated by distance and the barrier of a computer monitor. It wasn't long before another e-friend, Josh, introduced her to 4chan.
The lanky and pale-faced boy told Loli that 4chan was more fun than Gaia, but explicitly warned against posting pictures because the forums there were filled with pedophiles.
There were lots of jokes about such men on the boards, but Loli didn't take the rumors seriously. She began posting photos of herself a year later, thinking the older guys would be amused that "an actual 12-year-old" was reading their vulgar posts.
The first shot she uploaded to 4chan was benign; Loli had the same cherubic face she has today, but with long, light-brown hair and bangs. She looked even younger than her age, and that fact was exaggerated by a backdrop of dolls and teddy bears. The message written on her upraised hand was "Sup /b/" — a reference to the site's board for random, non-anime postings and an homage to Cracky's "Sup 4chan" introduction. Soon people began referring to her as a Chan, which both empowered her and fueled her desire to post. She says she became addicted to the attention, like a drug, and would check comments on her photos as soon as she got home from school every day.
She hadn't yet read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita but understood the implication.
"I got given the name Loli because I looked even younger than I actually was," she says. "And while I initially thought it would be funny, it turned out I was the punch line."
She posted her screen name on the board and was courted by hundreds of men per day. She would chat with them for hours in the family computer room, where she had arranged the tower so it would block her parents' view of the monitor.
Loli-chan's images weren't pornographic; many were even innocent, such as a video in which she rapped the theme song from the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In fact, that was part of the appeal for many of the fans who found her endearing.
But for some people, those images were just a precursor to something awful waiting to happen. One day, Jacqueline Singh, a private military contractor in Iraq who frequented 4chan, decided enough was enough.
Loli had posted a photo of herself wearing a uniform bearing her school's logo. Singh called the school and told administrators about what their young pupil was doing online.
Just after Loli began eighth grade, her parents were called into a meeting with the principal and head priest.
The conversation at home afterward was awkward, Loli recalls. Her mom and brother sat there silently as her father told Loli all of her internet privileges were being revoked.
"It was basically super-embarrassing, and he framed it in terms of me posting pictures for pedophiles, which wasn't the way I looked at it," she says. "Unfortunately, I saw my parents as my enemies and thought they would never understand, and I had the attitude that I was gonna keep taking pictures and save them and post them all when I was 18."
But Loli didn't wait that long — she just moved her internet presence deeper underground, where her parents didn't know to look, and posted when they weren't around. She would upload images on places such as ChanSluts and check up on what she thought of as her "fan club," which then numbered in the hundreds. (Even today, thousands of her photos are plastered across the internet on image boards.)
Her first online boyfriend was upfront about the fact that he was 30 years old, even though she was only 14 at the time. The two dated for eight months after chatting for a year. Loli never knew what her beau looked like until one day she received a picture of a fat, nerdy guy with curly dark hair. It disgusted her, and she ended the relationship.
The second boyfriend called himself George Peard and claimed to be only a few months older than Loli. He sounded young the one time they spoke on the phone, but his sexual interests proved otherwise. He would constantly describe sexual fantasies he had about his 11-year-old girl cousin. "George" would pressure Loli into sending special photos, such as her in a skirt or wearing pigtails.
Way before sexting became the topic of national conversation, girls like Loli were setting the prototype for self-exploitation. And because they did so in the nascent days of the internet, no one could have anticipated the consequences. Today, entire academic journals exist to study the effect of the web on attention-seeking kids, but nothing like that existed even a few years ago. The Chans provide pretty much the only longitudinal study on the fallout of oversharing.
And though parents today are at least a little internet-savvy, their counterparts in the mid-'00s weren't clear on how seedy the web could be. With no one watching, girls like Loli used the internet to explore their sexual curiosities. Chans posted pictures of themselves in a liminal period between the invention of the web and the time when adults became as knowledgeable as their offspring. To Catch a Predator — a TV show in which host Chris Hansen entraps would-be rapists — is pretty much a pop-culture trope these days. However, the kids of the previous generation received little to no warning about such men.
Even though the mounting evidence against Loli's boyfriend George was overwhelming, the 14-year-old still felt a certain amount of inertia. "I felt obligated every month on the same day that we started dating to send him a set of pics," she says. "He never explicitly asked, but I thought I was doing it in gratitude for him dating me."
After George persuaded Loli to send nude pictures, he posted them on 4chan. Other posters quickly derided her as a slut. She never dated anyone online again.
One day when she was 16 years old, Loli met a scrawny boy named Lucien in a cemetery near her house. She had to sneak out to see him at first. But after a year, her parents agreed to meet him over some turkey clubs at a local Denny's. Loli was enamored with his good looks, his jokes, and the fact that he knew nothing about 4chan. Soon she made him her first real-life boyfriend and began calling him by the pet name Lucien-chan.
"I want my relationship with Lucien to have been my first, but I had these pseudo-relationships first," she says. "It wasn't them I was in love with — it was the idea of them they tried to represent."
Zach is drunk enough on good Scotch that he has switched to swigging Old Grand-Dad whiskey straight from a plastic-capped bottle. It's an economical decision, says the pudgy 38-year-old, because it all tastes the same after a certain point. He's wearing an old East German officer's hat. At 1:30 in the morning on a Tuesday — a school night for the University of Rhode Island senior — he pulls up a video he's seen hundreds of times.
Zach puts down the antique C96 Mauser he's brandishing to click Play on a YouTube video of a preteen Loli spinning around in a plush computer chair. As she squeals with delight, a smile creeps across Zach's face, and he pushes his ratty shoulder-length brown hair away from his eyes for a better look. His bloodshot eyes begin to gloss over.
"Isn't she cute?" he muses, although it's not clear whom he's asking.
Zach is one of the many fans with whom Loli regularly Skypes. There are also a handful of other hard-core obsessives who send expensive gifts such as DSLR cameras and oddities like dresses and maid outfits befitting a doll. (Zach sends mostly books.) One fan who lives in England even has a stick-and-poke tattoo of Loli's face on his forearm, she says.
But for all the men she keeps up with online, an untold number of others hoard her photos, a fact that haunts her every time she steps outside. A 44-year-old doctoral student at Temple University named Rod Vosburgh was one of them.
In October 2006, FBI Special Agent Wade Luders posted a link on the pedophile message board Ranchi under the alias "Bongzilla." Although it was advertised as a hard-core porn video featuring a 4-year-old, the URL really led to a computer program that would track the IP addresses of anyone who clicked it. Vosburgh, a Holocaust expert, was one of the people who tried to download the video.
The FBI obtained a warrant for Vosburgh in February 2007 by tracking his location and concluding he lived alone. The day of his arrest, agents were on guard for a reprisal, because they knew their target owned more than a dozen guns. Upon hearing the sound of scraping metal emanating from inside Vosburgh's home in Media, Pennsylvania, they positively freaked.
The agents knocked on his front door for more than 30 minutes, yelling that someone had vandalized the alleged pedophile's car. But the attempt to lure him outside didn't work. Finally, Vosburgh appeared and apologized, saying he'd been using the restroom.
He had, in fact, been in the bathroom. Court records show that smashed thumb drives were found floating in his toilet. Although Vosburgh was found with an AK-47, shotguns, assault rifles, semiautomatic handguns, revolvers, and cartridges, what officers thought to be a gun was really the sound of their target dismantling his computer tower.
The feds couldn't restore the thumb drives, but they were able to locate an external hard drive containing two illegal images of underage girls. The child porn almost seemed like a footnote, considering they also found nearly every other kind of smut imaginable. There was an overwhelming amount of "child erotica" — images that showed young kids posed in suggestive ways that aren't overtly sexual. Among them was a cache of more than 2,015 Loli-chan images.
According to the FBI: "Loli-chan is the name of a 13-year-old girl who posts pictures of herself on imageboards and enjoys hearing from her older male fans. In these images, Loli-chan is, for example, licking a lollipop; in the bathroom wearing a robe and making a kissing expression; in a swimsuit at a pool; in a Mini-Mouse [sic] outfit; in a school uniform sitting on the floor barefoot; and sitting clothed on a toilet. In many of these images, the girl is holding signs that say, 'I'm thirteen,' 'Google your own porn,' 'kock swerve is gay,' [and various other vulgar, nonsensical phrases.]"
Prosecutors said Vosburgh's possession of these images was proof he had a sexual interest in young girls and that his clicking the booby-trapped link wasn't an accident. A jury agreed, and Vosburgh was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison and three years of supervised release. He tried, unsuccessfully, to appeal in 2010.
Zach, the 38-year-old college student, also insisted he wasn't a pedophile when I spoke with him by Skype on a recent Wednesday evening. He merely feels protective of Loli, he says, and considers her a friend.
He first came across Loli-chan images while serving in the National Guard as a chemical warfare defense instructor. Immediately, he was captivated. Shortly thereafter, someone posted a photo of the then-13-year-old's house with the threat, "Here's where I'm gonna kidnap her."
So Zach started the site LoliChanArmy, which gathered dozens of computer-savvy fans who were dedicated to finding and erasing personal information about Loli's real-life identity before predators could find it.
Now he regularly sends her books and wishes she would put more "practical" items, such as lock picks, on her Amazon Wishlist. Most recently, he sent Loli an ax so she could defend herself against stalkers. ("He thinks I'm like a comic book character or something," Loli explains. "I'm like WTF do I need an ax for?")
"I have an overwhelming urge to protect her and make sure she's OK so nobody harms her," he explains. "My instruction to her was to put that ax into an attacker as fast as she can, as many times as she can, and as hard as possible."
Zach's primary interests are collecting Nazi paraphernalia and talking to Loli every day on Skype. When he has extra cash, he pays her to read aloud from Carl Sagan books and the Bible, $2.50 per page.
He's doled out about a grand this year to Loli and has no obsessive feelings toward any other Chan.
"[Cracky] posts all this info on a place like 4chan trying to get popular and then freaks out when she accomplishes that goal," he says. "At least [Loli] isn't afraid to own the consequences of her own actions."
Loli lives with the consequences of her youthful folly every day. When most people see a small child with an older man, they likely assume it's a kid hanging out with her grandfather. Not Loli — she carries both pepper spray and pink polymer knuckles on her key chain in case such kids need a rescuer. She still cringes when she remembers classmates in high school who would confront her by saying, "Hey, don't I recognize you from online?"
Her paranoia peaked when she attended college in North Florida. She began hearing voices that alternately asked her to post more photos of herself and told her she was worthless.
Loli withdrew right before finals week of her freshman year, moved back home, and was involuntarily committed to Jackson Memorial Hospital's psych ward for nearly a month. After racking up a $31,000 bill, she was placed on a strict regimen of lithium, which she now takes three times a day.
To pay off her huge hospital bill, Loli began modeling on MyFreeCams from her messy home. On her computer desk sits a webcam and a letter opener inscribed with the saying, "When you're right, no one remembers, and when you're wrong, no one forgets." She's become a kind of internet welfare queen — subsisting on money and gifts sent by her former fan base. "I didn't think anybody would recognize me on there, but within a day, people were posting about it on 4chan," she says.
There's one fan who likes to tip her for making her bed and another who pays to see her unmake it. She doesn't mind those requests, but she freaked out when one anonymous viewer asked if she would pretend to be his 14-year-old daughter and cry. (She banked about $1,500 in her first two days on MyFreeCams, but business has slowed, and overall she has earned $4,000 in eight months.)
She also vacillates between fear and anger. Two months ago, she posted her learner's permit with her home address on a message board as if to say, "All right, fuckers, if you're going to get me, do it already!"
Perhaps most telling: For the past four years, she's been dating Lucien, who keeps a Glock in their bedroom and hopes to become a cop by December.
Still, it's difficult for Loli to accept her descent into relative obscurity. She wishes she could monetize her minor celebrity and become self-sufficient. That aspiration is complicated by the fact that her resumé is basically empty, excepting a seasonal job she held at a grocery store a couple of years ago. But while Loli is sort of stuck in a state of arrested development, other camgirls have successfully moved on.
There's Loli's friend Niki, a former wannabe Chan, who is working on a series of Cracky and Loli etchings as her art school thesis. The project will tell the story of the two camgirls' rise to fame and the ways technology can lead to psychological disorder. "I ultimately felt more comfortable being recognized for works on paper rather than photos featuring myself," Niki says.
Allison Harvard, also known as Creepy-chan, posted photos that circulated in 2005 — the same time as Loli's. In 2009, she finished second in the 12th cycle of America's Next Top Model. The judges never mentioned 4chan on the show, but they made frequent references to the 25-year-old's "massive social media following."
Today there are also girls like Catie Wayne, a teen who became widely known as Boxxy and received more than 25 million hits on her YouTube channel after her internet "career" launched on 4chan in 2009. She, too, monetizes her personality, by selling ads on her personal website. She even makes appearances at conventions and encourages interaction with fans, which harks back to the earliest camgirls.
Is Loli jealous of the more successful Chans? "I don't really think I deserve to be idolized, so I'm not mad or hurt that people don't like me anymore," she says. "I guess my dad is right, and people only liked me because I was a little kid and they were all pedophiles. So it's something I should never have done."
She recently contacted the administrators at ChanSluts and had them take down most of her posts. She's trying to erase her internet presence and hopes to enroll at Miami Dade College and study illustration. Although the thing she likes best about herself is her physical beauty, she wants to be known for something other than her looks.
"I've never really given myself a shot at life," she says.
But if Loli stops posting, she will be missed. As one anonymous poster recently lamented on ChanSluts: "Poor loli. did it to herself by being so loveable for all these years. take a puff and chill out loli. im sure everything will be fine. and if not. millions still love you."