A'ziah King Hopes 'Zola' Will Inspire More Authentic Sex Work Stories in Hollywood

"I think the film industry has a responsibility to help normalize [sex work]," says Zola
A'ziah King Hopes 'Zola' Will Inspire More Authentic Sex Work Stories in Hollywood
Photo: Taylour Paige in 'Zola'
"Sex work is work. It's a job, it's a lifestyle. It can be negative if that's what you make it, but for me, my sex work has always been positive," says A'ziah King (a.k.a. Zola). "I've always been sex positive. The work that I do, I've always wanted to be there. That's why this experience was so new for me. It was the first time I was in a situation that I really did not ask to be in."

The situation in question was a wild weekend in 2015 where King found herself tagging along on a road trip to Tampa, FL, for what she thought was a couple nights of dancing. In reality, this weekend would include rivalling pimps, guns, and King's road trip companion having sex with a client right in front of her.

Thankfully, King came out of the weekend unharmed, and in the hopes of processing what had happened, she reached out on Twitter to share her story. "I was so traumatized," she tells Exclaim! "[At first] I was just tweeting it as if I was making a Facebook status. I wasn't tweeting with the intent of tweeting anything more than a thread. I was really just tweeting my experience and hoping to find someone who related to my experience."

A 148-tweet thread and many mainstream media articles later, King's story has been immortalized on the big screen in Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo and starring Taylour Paige as Zola herself and Riley Keough as Stefani, the aforementioned road trip companion. Zola is faithful enough to the Twitter thread and places a spotlight on the dangers of the sex industry and the vulnerable situations sex workers can be put into.

Historically speaking, Hollywood doesn't have the best track record when it comes to portraying sex workers, a group usually silenced in society and forced into the background. And filmmakers can too often fail to recognize the nuances of sex work.

"I'd heard a lot of horror stories," laughs King. "I didn't want my story to be watered down. I didn't want my words to get lost in translation."

But in the same vein, King was aware of the other extreme of Hollywood showing sex work as the last resort for young women with less than desirable upbringings. "That's just one level of sex work," King explains. "We don't all come from a traumatic background. There are sex workers who are the girl next door. She's in school, she has children, she's someone's sister. It is an everyday situation. It's our lives, it's our job."

She continues, "I think the film industry has a responsibility to help normalize [sex work]. They're quick to take a story and tell [it] for entertainment, but they don't really understand the depths of what these people really go through. [Hollywood] knows how the industry itself plays a huge part in how normal something is or how shameful something is. So I think showing more of it the way that it actually happens is necessary."

And as is the case for all storytelling, authenticity is the key. "I think that sex work stories need to be told by sex workers, just like I think Black stories need to be told by Black creatives," King says. "I don't think anyone who has not had this experience could tell this experience."

One element King was adamant on having in Zola was the story's origin as a Twitter thread. This might seem odd given everything that happened that weekend, but the importance Twitter had, and continues to have for King, was not something she wanted to go unnoticed.

"My presence on Twitter, that's how it began for me," she says. "It began as me looking for a sense of community, and Twitter gave me that. People who don't always have a voice or are [not] listened to, we found each other through Twitter. That's how I got so comfortable to even share my sexuality — because I had developed this sense of community."

Zola is perhaps the first Hollywood movie to be based on a social media post, but it most likely won't be the last. For all the toxicity and negativity a platform like Twitter can promote, it has the ability to amplify those who we don't normally hear from, and King hopes her journey to Hollywood will encourage others out there like her.

"I hope this entire process — not just the film, but the entire process — will inspire other creatives in general to tell their stories [and] to use the internet as a tool," King says. "I'm hoping that this opens a new lane for that type of storytelling. [Zola] is being told from a point of honesty: by sex workers for sex workers. That's what I'm hoping will be the snowball effect from this experience."