The Great Read
Clever marketers have figured out how easy it is to simulate online intimacy at scale, ventriloquizing alluring models with cheap, offshore labor.
Credit…Illustration by Patricia Doria
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On a warm January afternoon in Miami, Jayson Rosero sat by the pool and stared at his phone. He was spending his day as he often does: trying to grow his business, Think Expansion, which is a marketing agency — sort of. Rosero has called his line of work “e-pimping,” and it’s a pretty apt name. Think Expansion manages OnlyFans pages on behalf of more than 30 women, and as a full-service agency, Rosero and his employees handle every aspect of running the accounts. They market them on social media; they write all of their daily posts; they even handle direct messaging sales, impersonating the women in conversations with their subscribers in order to sell erotic videos. That afternoon, Rosero was looking to expand his roster. Wearing a snug short-sleeve hoodie, he scrolled through numerous Instagram messages he’d sent to women that day. All of them said essentially the same thing: I know you’d make a lot of money with me; I want to work with you.
Spend enough time on social media, and you’ll encounter young people engaged in all sorts of schemes: running drop-shipping companies, minting NFTs, pumping crypto, selling real estate in the metaverse. Many are based in Miami. It’s a place where young marketing types have embraced a vision of what the internet is actually for that is at odds with Silicon Valley’s: less a utopian escape from reality than an infinite expansion of its strip malls. Rosero, 27, is an exemplary member of this burgeoning class. He pregames his daily gym session with a smoothie made from egg whites and whey protein, then spends his day bouncing between OnlyFans and WhatsApp, where he manages his employees. He likes working from his downtown apartment building’s 27th-floor pool deck, looking out over the blue-gray expanse of Biscayne Bay.
Rosero has a long and colorful résumé. Born in Florida to parents from Colombia, he served in the military, worked as a stripper and imported ponchos from South America. He started Think Expansion in 2017, employing a mix of friends and salespeople he found on forums. They helped generate leads and build social media accounts for any company that came calling: yacht merchants, medical billers, insurance companies, lawyers, influencers, even multilevel-marketing firms. He’s a born hustler whose personal hero is Jordan Belfort; his speech is peppered with a mix of marketing jargon (“lowering the action threshold”) and impressions of film and cartoon characters, sometimes in the same sentence. “My mission is to stop Dr. Evil at all costs!” he said in 2019 in an interview with a local news site. “Haha, something like that — I’m a digital entrepreneur.”
He started working on OnlyFans near the beginning of the pandemic, after Think Expansion was hired by an OnlyFans creator looking to grow her social media following. Rosero noticed a strong correlation between her social reach and her profits on OnlyFans. “No business really benefits from growing on Instagram as directly as someone working in the sex industry,” he told me. It’s pretty intuitive: Instagram doesn’t allow full nudity, but provocative photos posted there can drive sales on other platforms that do. He began reaching out to models and creating pages on their behalf. In November 2020, he posted on Instagram recruiting people to work for him managing OnlyFans pages. “OnlyFans is a true opportunity for not just sexy girls, but also guys as well,” he wrote. “What I’m proposing here is ‘e-pimping.’”
Two years later, Rosero has the OnlyFans operation more or less routinized. When he starts managing a new client, he asks for a bank of nude photos and videos. Rosero’s ghostwriters — known in the industry as chatters — will act as the model in private messages with the customers who pay to talk to her. These chatters work in shifts, responding to incoming messages and reaching out to new subscribers, trying to coax them into buying expensive pay-per-view videos. They tell particular subscribers that a video was recorded just for them; in fact, the same clip might be sold to dozens of people. The chatters earn a small percentage on most sales, and the rest is split between the agency and the model. The subscribers presumably think they’re talking directly to the woman in the videos, and it is the job of the chatter to convincingly manifest that illusion. Their clientele — typically horny, lonely men — make it pretty easy. “Our best customers come to us not so much to buy content as they come to us to just feel a connection,” reads a post on Think Expansion’s website. This desire, the post explains, is a pimp’s bread and butter, “e-” or otherwise: “Hustling simps has been an art since the beginning of time!”
It’s both a little awkward and entirely inevitable that businesses like Think Expansion would emerge on OnlyFans. Awkward because OnlyFans markets itself as providing the infrastructure for authentic, personal connections between creators and their fans. Inevitable because platforms like OnlyFans naturally encourage businesses to scale up, maximizing profits through growth however they can find it. And when the product is intimacy — or at least a persuasive facsimile — scale can turn the seemingly simple exchange of dollars for sexts into a Rube Goldbergian transaction across layers of third-party intermediaries. In these situations, just a fraction of the sum paid to a model will actually end up in her bank account: a small cut goes to the chatter whose labor manifests her online existence; a larger one enriches the schemers who made the connection; and the app on which it all takes place collects its own 20 percent fee.
Think Expansion is just one example of a broader phenomenon. Over the course of two dozen interviews spanning six countries, I’ve discovered a thriving warren of companies employing a similar business model, using ghostwriters on OnlyFans to provide digital intimacy at scale. These agencies operate, out of necessity, a little below the radar. They collectively represent hundreds of models, and some claim to bring in profits that can range into the seven figures annually.
As the sun set beyond the pool deck, Rosero laid out his enterprise for me. He logged into the OnlyFans page of a model who appeared to be in her mid-40s, pictured reclining nude on a bed. “This girl we literally just started yesterday,” he said. “She started with eight subscribers. OK, now she’s got 108 subscribers. You know, an older lady. But the thing is that, look, since she’s blond and white skin, bro, it’s easier to market her, because all over the world, they like blond girls with white skin.” Rosero tries to position OnlyFans pages in line with archetypes familiar to habitual porn viewers. A model this age could be marketed as a “MILF”; someone younger, a “barely legal” teenager, or a relatable girl-next-door type. These categories inform how his chatters talk to the subscribers.
“An 18-year-old girl, she texts different than a 25-year-old girl, you know, or an older lady,” he explained. “An older lady won’t use emojis; she’ll use, like, a semicolon and parentheses for a winky face, when a younger girl will actually use a winky emoji.”
He pulled up a page with a young model wearing pink-striped thigh-high socks, opened a chat with a subscriber and typed out: “Heyy daddy !”
“You see how there’s a space before the exclamation mark?” he said. “Yeah, that’s how 18-year-olds type.” When it comes to sales, Rosero said, those details make all the difference.
OnlyFans started in 2016, and has since emerged as the top platform worldwide for creators to sell monthly subscriptions for self-produced erotic content. The platform has become synonymous with this sort of business, though some use it for other purposes. It served as a financial lifeline for many in the pandemic, allowing people to monetize time spent indoors. In 2019, there were reportedly 120,000 content creators using the platform; by December 2020, that number had risen to more than a million. Many creators on the site aren’t just posting nudes. The real product is relationships. Money from subscriptions can be trivial compared with the profits earned by selling custom videos, sexting sessions and other forms of fan interaction that require more concerted engagement than simply posting to a feed.
This can be extremely time-consuming: In an interview with this magazine last year, an OnlyFans creator said she spends six hours a day just sexting with subscribers. But these relationships are important to cultivate. In a blog post on its website, OnlyFans encourages creators to cater to their “superfans,” who pay for custom content and will “give more if they feel they’re getting something special.”
Last year, I was given a 40-page instruction manual used to train newly hired chatters at an agency called Ekko DM. According to someone with knowledge of its operations, Ekko — which is based in Florida and has practically no public internet presence — built a stable of lucrative pages by reaching out to women overseas (especially in Russia and Eastern Europe) on cam sites like Chaturbate, and offering to spin up OnlyFans accounts on their behalf. The company takes as much as 70 percent of the gross — a steep cut, but some find the offer appealing, since the company’s pages can make tens of thousands of dollars each month. The manual explained in granular detail how that money is earned.
“Every page needs to have an established back story to make the person seem more believable,” it stated. OnlyFans works because people pay for a connection that feels deeper than porn. The document encouraged Ekko’s employees, called page managers, to identify “big spenders” who would part ways with more than $200 in short order, and cultivate a deep rapport by asking about their life and what they do for a living. (This would have the added benefit, the document notes, of assessing how much more they might spend.) If someone spent over $1,000, managers ought to “text them as if they were your significant other.” It even included a list of diminutive nicknames managers might use for their customers: “babes, baby boy, bb, cutie, honey, good boy, bad boy, boo, sexy.”
Above all, the manual emphasized efficiency. Managers were told to answer DMs in less than five minutes, since users were coming to OnlyFans for immediate gratification and would go elsewhere if ignored. It encouraged the creation of keyboard shortcuts, so that managers could deploy an arsenal of rote sexual phrases with a few keystrokes, steering conversations toward the hard sell. It also outlined a series of strategies to boost engagement on the pages, including a gambit in which models would offer to rate a picture of a subscriber’s penis for a fee. The models, however, would do no such thing; their page managers would, and the document instructed them to be honest in these situations, sending the highest ratings only to the truly well endowed, while reserving low ratings for those with either a humiliation fetish or “clearly a very small penis.” (Ekko DM did not respond to requests for comment.)
When I first saw the document, I had never heard of OnlyFans agencies. I figured Ekko must be an aggressive outlier exploring the margins of possibility in an unregulated industry. In fact, there are a variety of OnlyFans-oriented companies in the field, which employ a spectrum of techniques to maximize profits from the accounts they manage. But all of them take advantage of the same raw materials: the endless reproducibility of digital images; the widespread global availability of cheap English-speaking labor; and the world’s unquenchable desire for companionship.
One of the world’s most famous porn stars, who goes by Riley Reid, started her own agency in 2021 called A.S.H., short for All Star Hustle. She told me she started the agency to spare her clients from the more exploitative models of other agencies, which often charge 30 percent or more. (A.S.H. charges between 10 and 15 percent.) It doesn’t use chatters or rely on aggressive sales of paid content through “girlfriend experience” relationships. Rather, Reid’s agency tracks which types of content perform best for any given page, and then provides creative direction and sales strategies. Reid’s clout helps her arrange media appearances for her clients. It’s not unlike the sorts of services provided by a traditional modeling agency or porn studio.
Other agencies take a far more active hand in managing accounts, and a much bigger slice of the profits. Marc Schultheiss, 19, and Oliver Dreyer, 20, were working boring desk jobs until two years ago, when they started a company called the Bunny Agency. Today, Schultheiss claims the agency grosses between $150,000 and $200,000 every month from 12 OnlyFans pages. The agency takes as much as half; a small percentage goes to the chatters and the rest goes to the models. The models are asked to promote the pages on their social channels — otherwise, everything is handled in-house, with hired chatters in the Philippines and the United States impersonating the models in conversations with subscribers. The chatters are sometimes told to make their clients feel as if they have “an online girlfriend” so that they’ll tip more. Sure, this business model is “a bit tricky” as far as the subscribers are concerned, Schultheiss acknowledged. But when it comes to OnlyFans’ strategies, he said, using chatters makes “the most money.”
The key to this business model is the ready availability of cheap English-speaking labor around the globe. Job postings for OnlyFans chatters are widespread on freelance sites like Upwork, many offering as little as $3 an hour. Agency heads told me they’ve hired workers from Eastern Europe, Africa and all across Southeast Asia. “At the end of the day, it is a geo-arbitrage business,” wrote Justin Dallas, the founder and chief executive of Cam Model Agency, in an email.
This phenomenon is part of a broader boom in homespun online businesses that connect cheap developing-world labor with American consumers, allowing the proprietor to step back and reap the profits. A well-known example is drop-shipping, in which retailers advertise consumer goods shipped from suppliers (often in Shenzhen) directly to buyers. This can be more or less automated so that the nominal sellers don’t need to do much other than post digital ads for watches or vibrators and let their business run itself. OnlyFans marketing, though perhaps more time-consuming, brings together an even more geographically dispersed labor pool. Some of the models come from poorer countries in Europe and South America, and may not have the English skills to reach American customers; a chatter in, say, the Philippines completes the circle.
Chatters aren’t necessarily better at extracting money from subscribers than a creator who handles her own inbox; in fact, they can be worse. “You should do your homework very well about who you hire,” a 29-year-old OnlyFans creator, who goes by Sonia LeBeau, told me. She has worked with agencies in the past and had negative experiences with them. At one point, chatters hired to impersonate her did such a poor job that her most loyal subscribers realized they were being fooled. She apologized to all her subscribers and resumed answering their messages herself. Still, she said, agencies can provide significant benefits, especially for large accounts. Multiple chatters can work simultaneously, and they can clock in for consecutive shifts, making sure no message goes unanswered. Popular accounts often receive so many messages that answering them all would be nearly impossible for one person; unanswered messages mean money left on the table. Then there’s all the other tasks required of an OnlyFans creator, like actually creating content and external marketing on social media, all of which take away time from answering DMs. Chatters relieve the burden.
Chatters also offer creators a buffer from their subscribers, who can be rude, stingy or worse. “Are you constantly glued to your phone negotiating pricing for custom videos with hundreds of broke, lonely creeps? Sounds fun!” reads a post on Think Expansion’s website, touting its services to models. Dallas believes that most OnlyFans models with large followings have some kind of team in their corner. “It becomes overwhelming consistently creating content, promoting and maintaining 20, 30, 50+ conversations daily,” he wrote.
Around the world, though, there is a vast pool of workers willing to have those conversations, often for wages lower than what Americans make flipping burgers. In February, I spoke on Zoom with Andre, a chatter in Manila who works for a Barcelona-based OnlyFans agency called K.C. Incorporation. He declined to provide his last name: Although he finds the job fulfilling, he doesn’t think his family would approve. Many Western companies rely on outsourced labor in the Philippines for customer service and data entry — before his current role, Andre worked in a T-Mobile call center. Now he works a daily four-hour shift messaging a model’s subscribers. When his shift is over, he signs out of the account and another chatter logs on, picking up conversations where he left off.
During his stint as a chatter, Andre has become intimately familiar with the quirks and desires of the subscribers. Over time, he’s learned something of a sex-work cliché: More than sexual gratification, he said, many of the guys just want someone to talk to. Facilitating those familiar conversations is good for business. “Seeing that ‘Oh, this person’s been messaging me for a couple of weeks straight,’” he said, “we take note of those people.” Andre said that most of the big spenders he talks to seem pretty normal, if a little depressed and isolated. A small minority, he said, clearly suffer from mental-health issues. He’s sympathetic: “The world’s a lonely place. And I guess these people are the loneliest ones.”
In fact, Andre sees a connection between his predicament and the customers’. Many people doing jobs like his, he said, are poor. They have “nowhere else to go” and “nothing left to do.” They’re desperate: “At the end of the day, if you got to eat, you gotta do what you gotta do.” The people he chats with, he said, display a similar desperation, if for different reasons. “If you’re lonely, you don’t want to be stuck being lonely, then you gotta do what you gotta do as well.” Several chatters in Asia who I talked to said they made pretty good money relative to other outsourced jobs. But their income is minuscule compared with the profits their work generates for the agencies, which have discovered a gold mine at the intersection of globalization and Western alienation.
Whether it’s legal or not is a separate question. In November of last year, two ex-employees of a company called Unruly Agency sued, claiming wage theft and wrongful termination. The agency manages OnlyFans accounts for a number of Gen-Z stars, including the rapper Lil Pump and social media creators like Tana Mongeau. In the lawsuit, first reported by Insider, the complainants said that managers were instructed to “lie to, dupe and mislead fans” by ghostwriting messages on behalf of popular models, with the goal of getting them to pay for locked content or leave tips. Their bosses, they claim, came up with a system in which account managers would keep track of which questions fans asked models most often. The managers would then ask the models to record a video answering each question, encouraging them to change outfits between videos to make the clips seem as if they were recorded on different days. The managers would send the videos to thousands of fans, each of whom would think they were receiving a personalized response to a question they had specifically asked. (Unruly has denied these claims.)
In the United States, fraud is typically defined as an instance in which an entity or individual knowingly deceives another in order to gain something of value. In other words, lies on their own are not actionable. You could certainly argue that a subscriber talking to a chatter is being induced to spend money he would not otherwise, based on false information. But you could just as easily argue the opposite: The photos and videos the subscribers receive are genuine depictions of nude women, even if the perceived intimacy around the sale is false. This is online sex chatting, after all — in a post-“Catfish” world, should anyone really expect that internet accounts truthfully represent who is running them?
In response to an email that described these business practices, a spokeswoman for OnlyFans directed me to a section of the platform’s Terms of Service that covers the legal responsibility of creators on the site. “Only individuals can be Creators,” it reads. But it also acknowledges that a creator might employ “an agent, agency, management company or other third party” to help run her account. Nothing in the rules explicitly requires that a creator disclose such an arrangement.
As we snacked on empanadas poolside, Rosero logged into the OnlyFans account of a young blond woman and scrolled through her inbox. He and his chatters typically respond as quickly as possible and try to get eager guys “warmed up,” he said, then “hit ’em with the left and the right” — the hard sell. Ideally, he’d let go of a video for $50, if the guy asked for it, or as little as $20, if Rosero was pushing it on him.
A subscriber had sent her a message just minutes before. Rosero eyed it, trying to determine his strategy. “I’m in New York,” it said. “French descent. I speak French, English and Spanish.” He started typing out a reply. “Voulez-vous coucher avec … ,” he trailed off with an ellipsis, inviting the man on the other end to finish the sentence.
Then Rosero pulled up an account where one of his chatters was on duty, talking to subscribers. Looking through the inbox, you could see that just a few minutes earlier, the chatter had logged on and sent a mass message to subscribers that just read, “Sup babe?” “Eating some lunch,” one replied. “Enjoy your lunch,” the chatter wrote back. “I’m just chilling naked.” The chatter then sent a nude video, several minutes long, which the subscriber would need to pay $30 to unlock. He didn’t bite. Rosero scrolled back in the conversation to the day before to discover that a previous exchange had ended similarly.
“So,” he said, “this guy is kind of hard.”
The model had almost 6,000 subscribers paying a monthly fee for access to her pictures, and for the opportunity to chat with her; Rosero estimated that 80 or 90 of them might speak with his chatters over the course of a day. He opened another conversation in which a subscriber had just tipped $12 and asked the model for nudes. “Let me go ahead and send him some stuff,” Rosero said, and uploaded a video of the model masturbating. It was cheaper than what a subscriber might typically have to pay for such a clip. “Being a new subscriber, if they tip instantly, bro, then yeah, we’ll reward them with something like that,” he said. “That’s a one-time-offer type thing.”
Rosero said subscribers sometimes become suspicious that they’re not really chatting with the model. But resolving these situations is easy: His team will just ask the model to record a video in which she says the subscriber’s handle. The most lucrative model Rosero works with earns around $40,000 per month, he estimated, across multiple subscription platforms. He built her account from the ground up, and he’s not sure why it grew so fast. The model was young and blond, with a cheerful face that wouldn’t look out of place on a college-campus brochure. Rosero’s theory is that the more relatable a model looks, the better her account tends to do. Unusually attractive models don’t always sell well. “When people are watching porn, they want something that’s, like, attainable, or that they can see themselves with,” he said. He pulled up her OnlyFans inbox and opened a random conversation.
“Hi there,” the subscriber had written. “Any update on my burp custom?”
“Oh, yeah,” Rosero said. “He wanted her to burp.”
On my last night in Miami, I rode with Rosero in his new-model Alfa Romeo to a club in Fort Lauderdale. On the way, we picked up Brandon and Dani, 26 and 24, an engaged couple who are his friends and clients. (They withheld their last names because they did not want their families to read about their line of work.) Dani is the face of an OnlyFans page managed by Think Expansion; Brandon sometimes helps photograph her content, and they shoot adult videos together. Rosero drove us all to the Angeles, a former church in the middle of a suburban block that had recently been converted into an upscale club. Lasers flashed through the stained-glass windows. Men in tight button-ups and women in skirts and heels tumbled out of Corvettes and Teslas in the parking lot and lined up in front of earpiece-wearing security guards.
“They turned la iglesia into a place of sin,” said Rosero, beaming ear to ear, when we stepped inside. “The music is bussin!” The club was almost comically torqued up. A D.J. spun E.D.M. remixes of Top 40 hits as sheets of fog blasted down from cannons on the ceiling, momentarily reducing visibility to a matter of inches. Waitresses in short skirts cut through the mist, ferrying Champagne and liquor bottles adorned with LED sparklers from the bar to the V.I.P. section. Young people ground their bodies together. You could practically feel the mercenary energy coursing through the city, a bonfire of unalloyed market optimism in an otherwise bearish nation.
Brandon and Dani moved to Miami from Los Angeles in early 2020, so that Dani could try out as a dancer for the Miami Heat. But their plans were soon upended by the pandemic, and Brandon then discovered he had a serious back injury, a result of years spent practicing parkour. With bills to pay, they thought they’d give OnlyFans a try. The couple eventually connected with Rosero on Instagram and handed over the keys to their account.
When they started working together, they sent him a Google Drive filled with a year’s worth of content. Rosero runs their page, and Dani periodically adds new material to the Drive. The only time he ever has to ask the couple for anything is when a subscriber refuses to pay for content without receiving video confirmation that he’s really talking to Dani. Rosero’s agency “runs all the funnels, from the base-level content promotion side all the way through writing the messages on the account,” Brandon explained. The couple love the arrangement — they’ve manifested the elusive dream of passive online income, enough of it to live alone in a spacious high-rise apartment with a commanding view of the Miami skyline. Over the past two years, they’ve experienced firsthand the great destigmatization of online sex work, to the extent that friends now understand and applaud their success. “This is, like, respected,” Brandon said. “This is a career path. We can pursue it and it’s fine.”
At one point Rosero looked over at Brandon and Dani, lost in each other’s eyes on the dance floor. Dani was doing well, he explained, but he had yet to figure out exactly how to position her on OnlyFans. “She’s too beautiful,” he said. “Not common enough.” Impossible looks are for magazines and runways. What people really want, in the end, is someone they can imagine talking to in real life.
Ezra Marcus is a writer who has reported on everything from a cult at Sarah Lawrence College for New York magazine to the international trade in secondhand clothing for The New York Times. He was part of the 2020-21 New York Times fellowship class.
The Great Read