Someone asked me the other day, why have an escort as a protagonist? It struck me as an odd question. I mean, why the hell not?
But for the sake of argument, I’ll elaborate. One, escorting struck me as an inherently interesting profession – whatever your opinion of sex work, there’s no doubt, at the top end at least, it offers a great deal to fuel the imagination. That world has an undoubted edge of glamour – meals at pricey restaurants, designer lingerie, regular visits to London’s most exclusive hotels. And lots of, well, sex… What’s not to find interesting about that?
Secondly, it occurred to me a while back that high-end call girls have access to something denied most civilians – they get to see behind the façade of their wealthy and successful clients, who book girls for a little R&R. But it’s not all wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Some men actually like to talk. They confide in the women they hire, often revealing a side of themselves that usually remains hidden. You don’t just pay an escort to have sex, you pay them to be discreet; ask any successful hooker, and she’ll tell you that a large part of her job is to be a confidante, even a kind of therapist.
So this got me thinking. What if a top London escort, the sort of woman who counted elite men amongst her clients, stumbled across something significant in the course of her work? Something clandestine? Something criminal? The sort of thing that might put her life in danger if she were ever to reveal it. That’s how Untouchable started life.
But I wasn’t just in it for the intrigue. I wanted to get inside the head of someone who might turn to sex work. I wanted to understand her world, what her everyday life was like, what would motivate her. How do her friends and family react? What does escorting mean for her private life? Can someone who has sex for a living ever hope to have a meaningful romantic relationship?
Thus Grace was born – or Stella, as she prefers her clients to call her. And the more I thought about Grace, how she landed up in the beds of various men around London, the more I felt I should show another side of sex work. Escorts are more than the sum of their work, after all. When we dismiss them as whores or prostitutes, when we marginalise them or patronise them or titter at the very mention of their profession, we do these women a disservice. Escorts are people. Let me repeat that. They are people. Ordinary folk with feelings and relationships and a rich inner life. Living, breathing, thinking human beings.
Especially that last one. Because when we think of sex workers, we tend to picture only their bodies. We forget about their minds. But in the course of researching Untouchable, I discovered that many are very intelligent and well educated.
Take Dr Brooke Magnanti, the one-time escort who as Belle de Jour wrote the Diary of a London Call Girl novels – she has a doctorate in forensic science. Scratch the surface of high-end sex work and you’ll find a lot of extremely bright women, for many of whom escorting is only one part of their lives. I’ve come across university students and entrepreneurs, journalists and photographers, writers and artists, even a practising psychologist. And they’re not just in it for the money; many, like Grace, enjoy the work – or at least most of it, most of the time. And who can ask for more than that?