For those who don't know, SUGAR is a blog, a platform, a brand, and forthecoming scripted television programme for and by sex workers, which was started in November 2018. The production is comprised of four characters, Sydney, Palmar, Kika and Mandy, which are played by Erika Flynn, Palmar Kelly, Amanda Geilingand Sydney Benjamin, and written by Flynn and Kelly. Below, photographer Shaya Scott and stylist Lauren Ferreira share a new photo series, capturing the stars of the show - and SUGAR’s founder Erika Flynn discusses their ‘mission to help break the stigma that sex workers face every day, solely because of how they make a living.’ Having previously worked for Opening Ceremony as well as pursuing a career in writing, she wholeheartedly speaks about her empowering and entrepreneurial work, ‘strength in vulnerability’, inclusivity, and feminism in the strip club.
Your slogan is Sex (Workers) In the City. What’s something you want people to know about y’all?
SUGAR the show is more of a short-form vignette series, centering around a Manhattan strip club, so it’s comprised of a hugevariety of people of all different backgrounds and circumstances. While the four of us have our own stories and experiences that we’ll be telling through the script, our characters are only a small chunk of the entire story of SUGAR. We’re by no means the main cast. I guess what I would want people to know about us is that we’re all full-service sex workers that all got into the industry for different reasons. We’re all very different people that would only have ever bonded through sex work. And we became even closer when we built SUGAR - when we decided to make it our mission to help break the stigma that sex workers face every day, solely because of how they make a living.
I read Sydney had said sex workers are couples counselors, entertainers, and‘understand the escape that people need’. I really loved that description of the profession. I also read that sex work has made you all more business-minded and entrepreneurial. What other incredible skills do you feel like you’ve gained from your work?
I think I understand the psychology of people a lot more. It made me really think about why people do the things that they do - and made me much less judgemental. It helps me harness my sexuality a lot more, and not only use it to my advantage, but for my own empowerment. It truly made me realize my worth, as strange as it sounds to people who think you’re putting a price on your body. It made me realize I am truly priceless and invaluable. It made me realize, time is money.
Can you tell me a bit more about this photo series specifically? It was shot by Shaya Scott and styled by Lauren Ferrerira, who are both so incredibly talented. I love both of their work as well.
This was sort of a spur of the moment thing we decided to do with Shaya - who has been my friend for over four years now. We’ve known each other since we both lived in LA, and we’ve always wanted to be able to collaborate on something, but never had the chance. Obviously his work is incredible - he’s probably my most talented friend. Arguably the most talented person I know honestly, haha. Shaya, Palmar, and I randomly came up with the idea for this insane, hyper-glamorized shoot for SUGAR over ramen one night, and shot it literally 2 days later. I knew I had to call Lauren in to style it - if she wasn’t busy traveling the world. I trust her with anything style related. She was so down for us - with zero hesitation. She’s a boss ass bitch. The whole vibe is kind of‘Bitch Better Have My Money’meets‘Government Hooker’.I have a stripper savings of all singles, because I save my singles from all my stage sets, so I had over $1.5K in ones, and we decided to use that as our main prop, and just showered them everywhere. My favorite shot is all the money on the table - like ‘The Last Supper’. Eat, sleep and breathe money baby.
You hope your work gives people confidence, comedic relief, and a support system for other sex workers while telling real stories that de-stigmatize sex work and establish it as ‘real work.’
Yes. The funniest thing people say about stripping, or sex work, is that it’s not a ‘real job’. My response to that is always, ‘how do you think I get paid? In Monopoly money? In Trident Layers?’I don’t know why the idea of selling sex, or even intimacy is frowned upon, or makes your work any less valid. For any other need, or want, you can purchase something to fulfill that. You’re thirsty? Buy a water. You’re horny, or lonely? Purchase a sex worker’s services. It’s pretty simple.
You had a successful Indiegogo campaign this past spring. Can you tell me more about it? I saw it'll help build SUGAR as a platform and business, and also help y’all prepare for your full-length pilot through acting and production preparation.
We shot a 1 ½ minute trailer of a compilation of scenes that we felt best encompassed our voice at the time - that we funded ourselves and shot in one day. We launched that as our big crowd-funder, and we were literally in shock at how many people really supported us and believed in SUGAR. Indiegogo was an amazing platform for us, but the crowd funding was very specifically for all the production costs for our pilot we’re shooting in September, and has been locked away until the date gets closer. We fund all of the other projects and shit we do out of our own pockets, so we did Indiegogo to help with the huge financial demand that is independently shooting a full-length episode.
Tell me more about your acting preparation. You’ve been taking acting classes. Can you talk more about your experiences with that? What has it been like taking professional classes? Aside from helping you learn the skill of acting, is there anything outside of that - about life or emotions - that acting has taught you?
I had never considered acting before, and when Palmar and I started co-writing together, she was the one that kind of put the idea out there for me to play myself. She always intended on acting in SUGAR because that was her passion - it’s what she went to school for. Then when we decided to shoot our own pilot, we realized we all needed to act in it in order to really sell our story and who we are - so we started taking professional classes. We also thought it would be awesome to have a cast of actual sex workers. Acting has taught mesomuch, and I’ve grown to actually love doing it. It’s something I look forward to now, where I used to be terrified of it before every class. I still get nervous - but I think that’s my favorite thing about it. Acting is something where you can never really get comfortable. You have to constantly stay vulnerable, and outside your comfort zone. I like that. It helps me realize there is strength in vulnerability.
You’re the founder of SUGAR, and you play Kika on the show. When did this idea very first come to you?
I had just started as a sugar baby in NYC and was working my day job, and was struggling to still pursue my writing. A friend told me to watch‘The Girlfriend Experience’on Starz, about an escort in Chicago, and I was disappointed that I was watching a show where this person was in pretty much the exact same line of work as me, and I didn’t relate to this person at all. I started writing a script about my experiences as a sugar baby, because I thought the work was so unique, and I wanted other woman who were doing sex work, maybe not as openly as I was, to be able to watch something like this and feel connected to it - so they wouldn’t feel so alone. Then I started stripping and I was so inspired by the community of empowered, entrepreneurial women working together in a strip club - I knew Ihadto write about this. Everyone has their idea and predispositions about strippers until they really know them, and I was no different. I had believed the stereotypes until I became one. I wanted to be apart of breaking that. SUGAR really came to life when I met my best friends at the strip club - Palmar, Mandy, and Sydney. To know the stories of other women so personally, aside from my own, made me want to write SUGAR all the more. It wasn’t about me anymore.
I saw a headline for a previous interview that said ‘finding friendship and feminism in the strip club’. Can you tell me more about your own personal experience finding friendship and feminism through your work?
When I started working in a strip club, I realized how femenist the environment really was - between the women, that is. Unfortunately, the club is still a result of a very patriarchal society, and management is extremely male dominated. But aside from all the club politics, these women are powerhouses. They’re entrepreneurs, small-business owners, lawyers, med students, psychologists, performers, mothers, providers - they are breadwinners. They’re single-handedly filling the wage gap and flipping gender norms on their heads. They are superheroes. And all of these women come from different worlds, to work together under one roof and use their sexuality - something that has always been used against us, to their advantage. That’s fucking powerful. I’m not saying there isn’t fights, or catiness, or pettiness, or that working in a strip club is like skipping through a daisy field - because it’s not. It’s hard as fuck. But I will say it is the one place you will find such a diverse group of empowered women working their asses off for what they want - and if that ain’t feminist, I don’t know what is.
You’ve said before 'Whenever there’s a show or a movie about a stripper, there’s usually no emotional depth.’Can you talk a little more about the emotional depth you’ll be sharing in the show?
Like I said, when I watched‘The Girlfriend Experience,’I felt that emotional depth was the big missing piece in this lead character - and that’s why I couldn’t connect or relate to her. It didn’t feel real. SUGAR has to be real - that is the most important thing with the whole project. I don’t care if people feel sad, happy, nervous or uncomfortable when they watch it - I want them to feel that because they connect to it in a real way. I think SUGAR will have much more depth because it also doesn’t center around just one person and their experiences. It focuses around an entire group of people that make up the skeleton of a strip club, and what their outside worlds look like. Whether they are a sex worker, the loyal client to a sex worker, the employer of a sex worker, a closet sex worker, an aspiring sex worker, a trans sex worker, a retired sex worker, an incarcerated sex worker - I want them to see a bit of themselves in SUGAR.
You also have shared that you want all walks of life to get involved in SUGAR, and that you want it to be collaborative. How do you see that manifesting?
Our writing style is super collaborative, so while Palmar and I co-write the series, we will be having guest co-writers, that are fellow sex workers of varying backgrounds and experiences, working on nearly every single episode with us. Our goal is inclusivity, and we can’t do that by writing it all on our own. We can truly only speak for our own experiences - we can’t speak on the experiences of trans sex workers, retired sex workers, incarcerated sex workers, POC sex workers. That is why we’ll be collaborating with these people to tell their stories with authenticity, so we can accurately portray their experiences. Right now, we have a small network of people we know, but the ultimate goal is that as SUGAR grows as a platform, so will our network, and we will get to collaborate with people that maybe aren’t reachable to us now, and our community will only grow to be more diverse and inclusive. That’s the dream.
words AUDRY HIAOUI
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