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Paycheck to Paycheck: She dreams of a normal life

A former streetwalker nearing 50 takes stock of her life and wants to fill the emptiness. She becomes tech savvy and now works online.

By John Pendygraft. Times Staff Writer
Published November 19, 2007


Forty-nine year old "Renee Holly" sits naked in front of her laptop, a Web cam broadcasting her every move to "Papi," a man somewhere in the world who is willing to pay $6 a minute to peep into the cramped St. Petersburg area studio apartment she uses as her brothel.

"Do you think I'm beautiful?" she asks. It's not a come-on. She really wants to know. An empty space inside her needs to hear the answer.

Papi writes back that he thinks she is absolutely gorgeous.

For a second, something flutters in her emptiness, but it's not the one thing she wants most.

Renee has made a living selling her body for most of her life. She describes her past as a working girl stereotype: hooked on drugs and addicted to the attention she gets from sex. About a year ago, she got clean and started taking stock of her life as she nears 50. About the same time, almost by accident, she tapped into the marketing power of the Internet.

She posted an ad in the erotic services section of Craigslist and e-mails started pouring in. Her phone rang off the hook. She learned the new technology quickly. Now all e-mails get an automatic reply from her BlackBerry. She has a Web site. She blogs. Recently, she signed on with the Web cam site, where she is engaged with Papi in a "private session."

Renee - that's her Internet name - is glad not to have to work the streets. Working independently online she feels safer and can make as much as $1,000-$3,000 a week, depending on how many "dates" she takes. She can average three a day, each at between $100-$200 an hour. But that money can't buy the one thing she really wants most.

"I've got nothing that's real. I can't buy anything with the money I make this way. If I get busted, they can take away anything I purchased with money I've made illegally. So you rent, rent, rent but you don't own anything," she says.

"I just want to buy a little shanty and to have a little equity, all the things that other 50-year-olds already have," she says. "I want to be a regular citizen, in my own way ... . I guess I'll never be a regular citizen, but I want to have legitimate money, pay taxes and just have the peace of mind from knowing I have the right to own things."

Enter the Web.

The money she makes in front of her Web cam is legal, and may be the step she needs in her quest to "go legit." On the site, Renee uses she gets $1.50 out of the $6 a minute customers pay. Every two weeks she'll get a paycheck, pay taxes and be able to save her money. She could get a loan for a car. Put a down payment on a house. Start a small business. She could begin to fill the empty place inside her with the one thing she wants most.

What she really wants is to be mainstream. To be accepted. To be somebody's boring next door neighbor.

"I'd like to be married and in love. Everyone would. But I'm too ... free ... or calloused ... . I don't know which ... ."

Last week, she opened a business bank account and put $1,500 in it to start building a future.

After 14 minutes, Papi logs off and Renee slumps her shoulders. Holding her dress in her lap she looks up at the ceiling loses herself for a few seconds as she does the math. Fourteen times $1.50.

"A little over $20," she says out loud.

It's a start.

About this feature

Seventy percent of families in the United States say they live paycheck to paycheck. American savings are in the negative, the lowest level since the Great Depression. In the Tampa Bay area, the financial pressure for many is acute: Average wages are lower than comparable Sun Belt cities, and median home prices have doubled in a decade. Add a related surge in property taxes and insurance bills (not to mention higher gas prices) and the challenge to make ends meet is quickly becoming pervasive. It's not a fringe problem. It's your neighbor; it's us. Times photographer John Pendygraft is seeking stories that put a face behind the phenomenon.

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