A businesswoman turns to a documentarian to reveal the truth of her all too stigmatized profession….
by: Alan Swyer
After what felt like forever, though in truth it was barely six weeks, Steve Ross sensed the possibility of a breakthrough when an attorney friend arranged for him to meet a stylish Chinese woman named Crystal.
“Why do you want help?” Crystal asked in lightly-accented English as Steve joined her in a quiet booth at an Italian restaurant in Pasadena.
“I make documentaries,” Steve replied, mentioning that his recent efforts dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the diabetes epidemic, baseball, and the judicial system.
“But why my kind of business?”
“Because like other subjects I’ve tackled, I bet there’s a world of difference between what people think and what’s actually true. But since you agreed to meet, can I ask why?”
“I hate misconceptions,” Crystal stated after taking a sip of Pellegrino. Just because they all serve food, she asserted, it makes no sense to group a McDonald’s together with a Sichuan restaurant and one serving French cuisine. Or, because they all have wheels, to lump a motorbike with a Porsche, and a tractor-trailer. “There’s prostitution,” Crystal emphasized, “and then there’s what I prefer to call sex work.”
“Still,” interjected Steve, “that doesn’t explain why you agreed to meet.”
“The best way to eliminate what’s bad about prostitution — the physical danger, disease, pimps, addiction, sexual slavery — is to legalize, or at least decriminalize, all sex work.”
“And you’re hoping I can help?”
“Can you?” asked Crystal.
“If you’re looking to spread awareness, nothing better than a film. But tell me, how do you refer to yourself? As a madam?”
Crystal shook her head. “As a businesswoman.”
As Steve explained to Crystal in two subsequent conversations — both face-to-face so as to avoid wiretaps or digital trails — there were several reasons why certain subjects attracted him. First was curiosity, since making a documentary provides an opportunity for an insider’s look at worlds that are otherwise off-limits. No less important was his history of activism. Dealing with diabetes enabled him to slam TV commercials that hook kids on junk food. Exploring the judicial system in San Diego, he emphasized rehabilitation over punishment. With baseball, at a time when immigrants were being demonized, he highlighted the achievements, on and off the field, of players from Panama, Venezuela, and the Dominican. In examining Eastern spirituality, he stressed meditation as an alternative to medication for certain psychological or emotional problems.
That explained why, Steve told Crystal, he was pleased that she distinguished sex work from prostitution.
Initially Steve had contemplated doing an exploration of local vice. Recognizing that a 90-minute or 2-hour documentary would be far too insufficient for such a broad topic, he considered focusing on after-hours gambling dens in L.A,’s ethnic communities. That changed, however, when a cameraman he worked with mentioned in passing the myriad websites advertising “escorts,” from places such as Russia, Korea, China, and Thailand. Immediately, Steve started making inquiries.
Not surprisingly, not a single call or text was returned. Undaunted, Steve began putting out feelers to people who might open doors: a couple of journalists he knew, a cameraman who moonlighted shooting porn, and a handful of lawyers.
It was an attorney named Mike Nash, who played in Steve’s weekly Saturday morning basketball game, who came through by serving as the conduit to Crystal.
To prep for his first meeting with Crystal, Steve spent several days reading about prostitution, plus its place in the broader realm of sex work. His research included arguments for and against both decriminalization and legalization, plus the schism between feminists who viewed all sex work as violence against women, and those who believed that sex workers, like all workers, deserve employment protections and equality.
Still cautious, Crystal agreed to another get-together. “No holds barred,” said Steve at a quiet tea house. “Tell me anything and everything you want or need to know.”
“Describe the film — what will be on-screen, and what won’t.”
“First and foremost, no bedroom footage,” Steve emphasized, eliminating one of Crystal’s main misgivings. He went on to explain that in addition to getting to know some of what Crystal called “her girls” — their backgrounds, hopes and dreams, and reasons for choosing that line of work — he would also like to include some clients. “Given what you’ve told me, I’m assuming they’re not slimeballs or leches.”
“Not if they get past my screening process,” Crystal declared. “Most are professionals: doctors, dentists, accountants, teachers. And many are married.” But how, Crystal wanted to know, did Steve plan on protecting them, and her girls, from embarrassment and, more importantly from the law?
Every woman including Crystal herself, Steve explained, would be filmed from behind so that no faces will be seen, while the men would have their faces pixelated during post-production. Additionally, voices will be distorted so as not to be recognizable.
Furthermore, Steve noted, he also planned to interview experts — sociologists, members of law enforcement, journalists, politicians, and above all feminists from both pro and con camps — so as to include their views and insights.
“So the film is pretty much set in your mind’s eye?” wondered Crystal, who was surprised when Steve began to chuckle. “What’s so funny?”
“During every Q&A, I’m invariably asked, How do I start a film? My response is I have to have a very firm sense of what the film will be, then hope to find a better one.”
Crystal studied Steve for several moments before asking whether objectivity was his goal.
“There’s no such thing,” Steve clarified, pointing out that every question he asks in an interview is subjective, as is each camera angle, each editing decision, plus his choices about who should, or shouldn’t, be included. In his film about the judicial system, he allowed a blowhard to rail about how lawbreakers should be punished, then had experts explain the far greater benefits of rehabilitation: ex-cons becoming taxpayers instead of pillagers, streets becoming safer, police costs diminishing, courts and emergency rooms not getting overloaded, as well as the public being spared nearly $100,000 annually for each prisoner behind bars.
“How much of a disruption will this be?”
“I’ll work around your schedule,” Steve answered. “And with a small crew.”
“Camera, sound, one production assistant, and yours truly.”
“And where is the money this film coming from?” asked Crystal.
“Which means you’re rich?”
“Far from it. I’ve got a policy of putting aside money from each commission to subsidize a labor of love.”
Crystal took a moment to reflect. “If I say yes, then what?”
“Including –?” asked Crystal suggestively.
“Don’t tempt me,” Steve responded with a chuckle.
“Even on the house?”
Steve shook his head.
Without explaining why he was there, Crystal had Steve join her and “her girls” — all of whom had taken names like Ruby, Candy, Lola, and Nikki — several times for lunch in the security building in Pasadena where she rented three different two-bedroom apartments. That enabled the women, all of whom looked like the Luoyang or Kaifeng version of the girl-next-door, to grow comfortable in Steve’s presence, while he in turn got a sense, despite their limited command of English, of what they were like as people.
Crystal, Steve came to understand, served as a combination boss, den mother, and big sister, providing meals with dishes from Sichuan, Shanghai, and Shandong, along with advice about life, work, and just about every other topic imaginable.
In contrast to other women seen online, those Steve met were temporary rather than “lifers.” Unlike most other nationalities, Crystal expressed, Chinese women rarely squandered their earnings on shoes, purses, cigarettes, or trips to Las Vegas. Their time in Pasadena was an opportunity to earn enough for their families back home to start a business, or perhaps even buy a house.
Being in an upscale environment, and receiving proper medical care, they were shielded from disease, plus the dangers of street encounters.
Crystal’s own journey, Steve learned in the days that followed, was a spin on the classic American tale of making it. Raised in poverty in a village in Northern China, she dropped out of school at fourteen to help with her family’s small plot of land. Determined to find a better life for both her parents and herself, at seventeen she made her way to Xi’an. Then, a year later, she headed to Beijing.
While scraping by on odd jobs, she came across an ad offering what seemed like a fortune in the U.S. With no real sense of what being an “escort” meant, she was helped in obtaining a passport and a tourist visa, then put on a plane to Los Angeles.
Driven by van to the predominantly Chinese community of San Gabriel, she learned immediately what she had gotten herself into. Working for a Triad, speaking very little English, and still known as Li Ming, she quickly set her sights on a better life.
Scrimping and saving while using every spare moment to study both a new language and a different culture, in less than two years she was able to buy her freedom, with the proviso that she vacate the San Gabriel area and keep her mouth shut.
“Or?” asked Steve.
Crystal grimaced. “You don’t want to know.”
Crystal took a deep breath. “Worse,” she said, waiting a couple of moments before continuing.
Still known as Li Ming, she took the name Crystal and relocated to Pasadena, then slowly started building a business. Offering a far better deal than what she received, she recruited two girls from Hunan Province. As she attracted a more affluent — and largely Anglo — clientele than the Chinese workers she had been obligated to service, soon she was able to rent a second apartment, which enabled her to bring on two more girls. That led to yet a third apartment, plus additional young women from Chinese villages.
Over time a system was in place that allowed new recruits, armed with student or tourist visas, to spend three to six months before being replaced by other newcomers.
“Let’s talk about the men,” said Steve on a Tuesday afternoon when he and Crystal were taking a stroll. “Aside from the obvious, why, especially the ones who are married, do they reach out to you?”
“Why do you think?” asked Crystal.
“Boredom? Variety? Loneliness? A need for adventure or excitement?”
“It’s much simpler,” corrected Crystal. “They’re treated like kings.”
The two of them walked in silence for half a block before Steve again spoke. “Think you can get some of them?”
“To speak on camera? A couple, yes. Maybe even three or four.”
“Tell ’em I’ll ask nothing personal, or anything that can get ’em in trouble.”
Crystal nodded. “What else do you need?”
Steve reflected momentarily. “An interpreter for your gals who speak less English.”
“Let’s save you for your own interview.”
With the project steadily moving from dream to reality, Steve started making overtures toward other people he hoped would appear on-screen. Knowing strangers in important positions would be reluctant to be the first ones in, he reached out initially to those with whom he had a shared history. His first overture was to a Professor of Sociology at UCLA named Emily Stavis. Then came District Court Judge Oscar Hernandez. Then retired Deputy Police Chief Elvin Washington.
Only once commitments had been obtained from them, plus a couple of others, did Steve spread his reach. At the top of the list was Annamarie Forestiere, author of a Harvard Law Review brief entitled “To Protect Women, Legalize Prostitution.” Next, Julie Bindel, who wrote an article for the Guardian called “Why Prostitution Should Never Be Legalized.” Then came calls to the ACLU and to Human Rights Watch. Finally, he sent requests to religious groups vehemently opposed to legalization or even decriminalization: the Christian Legal Society and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Stopping after work for takeout food at a Thai restaurant in East Hollywood, Steve found himself pondering the irony of his situation. How sad it was that while preparing a film about men who paid for female companionship — as well as the women who provided it — he had absolutely no women in his own life. His months with a comedy writer named Elaine had ended in the same way as his relationship with a dancer who called herself Gypsy, and a pediatrician named Joan.
The failure, Steve knew full well, owed to his obsession with work, about which, in Elaine’s words, he was monomaniacal. Would he, he often wondered, wind up spending much of his adult life alone? Would he, like the “clients” he hoped to interview, find himself patronizing businesses like Crystal’s because he was lonely? Or horny? Or would he be consigned to a lifetime of evening companionship provided only by Netflix and ESPN?
Yet there was no denying that he lived for his work, and loved it. And his new project was potentially the most exciting he’d embarked upon in ages
Climbing into bed after a last check of his email, Steve couldn’t help but think about Crystal, then women who worked for her, and finally the others he was hoping to interview.
As the night progressed, whatever glow Steve was feeling slowly gave way to uneasiness. Despite the progress he was making, something he couldn’t quite name, or put his finger on, seemed wrong. His growing queasiness inevitably led to relentless tossing and turning with sleep ultimately elusive.
Shortly after 3 AM, Steve grabbed his iPhone and sent a text to Mike Nash: Can I buy you coffee at 8 or so.
Mike Nash, looking anomalous sporting a suit and tie at a funky Echo Park coffee spot, peered quizzically at Steve. “If it’s going so well,” he began, “why so uneasy?”
“I buy that Crystal wants her line of work to be legalized, or at least decriminalized. I get why she wants it both philosophically and personally.”
“No way in hell that’s why she’s giving me privileged access. Right?”
Mike Nash sighed. “I’ve got to honor attorney-client privilege.”
“Which doesn’t stop you from nodding, or shaking your head, if I hit you with my suspicions.”
Nash responded with a shrug.
“I’m thinking,” said Steve, “that this goes back to the guys who brought her over.”
Reluctantly, Nash nodded.
“And she’s hoping that getting the film into festivals, then maybe PBS, Netflix, or Amazon Prime, will protect her, or at least make her off-limits.”
Nash frowned, then nodded again.
“But in the meantime,” Steve went on unhappily, “I gather that she’s potentially in danger. Which means, that if I continue, so am I.”
“Look at the bright side,” countered Nash. “Nothing’s happened yet.”
Blowing off work, Steve spent the rest of the morning pondering what in the world he’d gotten himself into. What had started as intriguing, then progressed to fascinating, suddenly seemed perilous.
If he needed to pull the plug, Steve realized, better to do it before actual filming got underway.
In the hope of clearing his head, Steve drove west to his favorite beach town, Venice, then parked on Windward, adjacent to a mural paying tribute to Orson Welles’ classic Touch Of Evil.
Strolling toward Ocean Front Walk, Steve glanced periodically at the hawkers, peddlers, and buskers, all the while trying to determine what in the world he should, or shouldn’t, do. The rational side of him said back off, let it go, forget the whole project. But, he realized, had he listened to his rational side, he would have capitulated to his parents’ urging that he go to law school, which almost certainly would have led to a life of feeling he’d settled.
Instead of taking the safe, conventional route, Steve had followed his heart and pursued his dream. Though neither fortune nor fame had found him, there was no one on earth with whom he would have switched places. Instead of waking each workday and muttering “Oh shit!,” every dawn brought excitement, challenges, and the kind of opportunities that wouldn’t have seemed imaginable while he growing up in blue-collar New Jersey.
Danger be damned, Steve decided. There was no way in hell he’d be able to live with himself if he gave in to fear or intimidation.
Not a chance would he let a vague threat bully him or force him to give up his dream.
As Steve suspected, the first people to whom he reached out — Emily Stavis, Oscar Hernandez, Elvin Washington — quickly agreed to be interviewed on-camera. As Steve hoped, with them on-board, others followed, including representatives from NOW, the ACLU, and Human Rights Watch, plus the two evangelical church groups.
During the time Steve was assembling his small production crew, Crystal introduced him first to one, then another, then a third of her clients, two of whom were willing to be interviewed as long as their identities remained hidden, while the third, Steve sensed, needed coaxing and convincing, which he successfully supplied.
With production at one of Crystal’s apartments due to commence in a week, followed by the off-site interviews, Steve joined Mike Nash for a dinner at a Persian restaurant.
“So how’re you feeling?” Nash asked once they’d ordered.
“Grateful to you, grateful to Crystal –”
“Frankly, thrilled,” acknowledged Steve. “Though as is always the case until filming actually begins, also worried, nervous, and apprehensive.”
“Which only means you care. Do you know that the great Jerry West, even at the height of his stardom, still threw up before every Lakers game? Anyone who claims he doesn’t fret, or have butterflies, is either lying or a psychopath. How’re you sleeping these days?”
“Like a baby,” said Steve.
“I wake up every goddamn hour,” replied Steve with a laugh. “When a shoot is looming, I’m always thinking about what I might have missed, what I need to do, and everything in the world that could or might happen.”
“It’ll be great,” assured Nash.
As always on the night before the first day of filming, Steve’s mind was racing. Twice, while lying in bed, he ran through every bit of preparation. Next came an hour or so of going through the topics he hoped to cover in interviewing the women known professionally as Nikki, Ruby, and Lola.
Still unable to sleep, Steve marveled at the random thoughts running through his mind. First came visions of his first serious girlfriend, a high school cheerleader named Joy. Then he thought about his time in Paris, where while hitting revival houses and the cinematheques he was first smitten by the filmmaking bug.
Other flashes followed: Belting a game-winning home run in a high school baseball game, driving cross-country when he moved to LA, overcoming the doubts and misgivings that haunted him before beginning his first documentary.
Then came a memory that caused Steve to laugh out loud. Given his tendency while growing up for hanging with a wild crowd — the jocks, the bad boys, the tough girls — his parents badgered him relentlessly with a refrain: “You’re judged by the company you keep.” Now, after working on projects with people his parents would neither approve of nor understand — ex-cons for his film about the judicial system; swamis, gurus and rinpoches for the one about Eastern spirituality in the Western world; ballplayers from Panama, Cuba, Venezuela, and the Dominican — he had finally reached a pinnacle of sorts by focusing on sex workers. Ironically, because of the subject matter, the new one had the potential to attract more attention than all his others combined.
Cherishing that thought, Steve was finally able to get a couple of hours sleep.
The stillness before dawn was shattered when Steve’s cellphone rang. “Have you left yet?” he heard Mike Nash ask.
“I was just about to.”
“Don’t,” ordered Steve, explaining that in the wee small hours of the morning, Crystal had been arrested.
“Anything I can do?” Steve asked.
“Yeah,” replied Nash. “Lay low.”
Steve took a deep breath, worrying more about Crystal than about his own project. “The cops,” he said a moment later. “Tipped off by the guys from San Gabriel?”
“I don’t have proof,” stated Nash. “But –”
Despite all the time, effort, and thought Steve put into the project, he did nothing about his experience until several years later. To keep from hovering over his film editor on a documentary about the great Black music scene in Houston that disappeared after integration, he wrote a fictionalized version of what he thought of as his Crystal experience.
Steve was elated when a literary magazine chose to publish it.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.