A New York City Escort's Impression of "The Secret Diary of a Call Girl"

Seeing one’s vocation depicted onscreen is always an odd experience — and it’s even more odd when that vocation is stigmatized, demonized and misunderstood.

At the suggestion of some of my social media followers, I recently watched seasons 1-4 of Showtime’s “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” staring Billie Piper, based on the blog and books by Belle de Jour, AKA Brooke Magnanti.

Naturally, I have thoughts.

The series aired from 2007 to 2011, but I watched it for the first time recently (it’s streaming on Amazon). It’s aged well.

I was familiar with the source material, as I devoured the Belle de Jour blog contemporaneously, in the early aughts. (However, the series is only lightly based on this source material.) 

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Secret Diary of a Call Girl is essentially a workplace comedy. It shares some DNA with, say, The Office or Parks and Recreation. Or even a cult British series I love — The IT Crowd (memo to fellow lovers of The IT Crowd: book me for a date, stat).

It even shares archetypes with other workplace comedies and dramas: The Demanding and Greedy Boss (Belle’s manager Stephanie); the Rube (the naïve escort Bambi); and the Rival Colleague (Charlotte, an ice queen BDSM provider).

Seeing the story of GFE provider treated comedically was jarring at first, but it gives the series heart. After all, intimacy, vulnerability, sexuality — and yes, the pursuit of money — can be screamingly absurd and hilarious. We’re all big weird social animals with bizarre desires, in the final analysis, and what better lens to view human foibles through, besides a professional companion?

Another refreshing engine for the series is that Belle/Hannah relishes the job, at least most of the time. She brings a zesty, open-minded attitude to her appointments and clients, and never gets world-weary, even though she encounters clients and situations that don’t work for her (like a bad client, and her foray into being a “courtesan,” which she finds stultifying). 

The series shows Belle/Hannah muddling through a freelance career with no roadmap, no real mentors, and colleagues who — like any set of colleagues — have various levels of competence. True to life, no? Seeing a sexy girl cavort through London is fun. Seeing her fuck up from time to time, then get right back up again? Hell yes. I smiled with recognition at many of the fuck-ups — and I like to think I share Belle’s ebullient, get-on-with-it attitude, and ability to laugh at myself.

Throughout the series, Belle/Hannah is depicted as a woman with her own agency, professional and financial goals and erotic preferences and fantasies. She buys a London flat. She is invited to a sex party with a client — commenting, in voiceover, that this professional gig overlaps with her own fantasies (Yahtzee!). She gleefully walks us through the ritual of getting ready for a date — the delicious dolling-up, anticipation, and delightful work of choosing an outfit and lingerie. She fires her manager, strikes out on her own, and has a friend take photos of her in her flat (an experience I am all too familiar with).

The main quibble I have with the series is this: beyond a certain level, being an escort isn’t really about sex, yet creative treatments invariably focus on this aspect. I can’t blame them, really. A sex scene is compelling; bonus points if it’s kinky or offbeat in some respect. Other peoples’ fantasies are invariably titillating, even if they’re really quite pedestrian.

On the other hand, a scene of a long lunch date where we talk about our favorite books, movies and travel destinations, smile at each other a lot, and make a lot of significant eye contact — that would bore viewers to tears. And yet, the latter is closer to what GFE providers offer, at least in public. Emotional intimacy, and especially the way a professional nurtures it over time, drawing out a client who is shy or busy or insecure — that’s our bread and butter. Is it visual? Not particularly. Well, maybe if you are riveted by two people holding hands under a table and discussing the best pizza in the city (are you?).

Also, this series — and similar series — are, in my view, unfair to the clients. With the exception of a few regulars who get a slightly more nuanced treatment, clients are mere props in the series — depicted primarily as vehicles for a offbeat sexual fantasies (barnyard animal role-play; cake-smashing; an elaborate James Bond fantasy). It’s this stereotyping and caricaturing of clients that is a bit disappointing — and unfair, and unrealistic — as the vast majority of clients who book a GFE provider are thoroughly, blissfully vanilla. Again, that wouldn’t work on screen, unfortunately for the legions of clients (hi!) who simply like the company of beautiful women and seek out companions for all that we have to offer, not just as an outlet for an out-there fantasy.

Plus, I want to know more about these men and couples — their pasts and their presents. What series of events and decisions drove them to Belle? How do they view her? How do they leave their interactions with her? Who are they as individuals?

Of course, that’s merely a product of the source material: the series is told from Belle’s perspective, not the clients’. 

We live in an era where certain escorts, including yours truly, feel free enough to tell our stories. That’s vitally important. 

The next frontier is clients speaking up and telling their (your?) stories. Done well, it could help de-stigmatize the men who seek the services of companions, as well as add some much-needed nuance to male sexuality. And, indeed, men’s complex emotional landscapes, men’s need for touch (both sexual and platonic), men’s loneliness, men’s pain, men’s pleasure (surprise! It’s not as simple as porn would lead you to believe). 

In my lifetime, I’d love to see a TV series that tells stories of professional companionship from clients’ perspectives. These stories deserve to be told, too. 

Shae Ashbury