By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Her business card reads "Cole Taylor," a name chosen for its sexual ambiguity.
Underneath, it says "Photographer," or, sometimes, "Internet Design Consultant," and then a phone number. The number listed is disconnected. You must reverse the last two digits when dialing, the escort says, to reach her cell phone.
Potential clients put the card in their wallets, grateful. The disinformation provides protection from snooping spouses.
At the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort, Taylor sips Grand Marnier, waiting to be approached. The business cards in her purse tonight are borrowed from a friend, with Taylor's number written on the back in pen.
Taylor quit printing her own cards weeks ago as a gesture of quitter's faith. She has promoted her services so successfully on the Internet that she's become something of an online celebrity. She's been interviewed by Online Tonight, ZDTV and Wired News ("Net Escorts Nail Their Niche," smirked the Wired headline).
Taylor thinks her newfound fame is a chance to escape the escort business and become an Internet star. Her first step is performing in online video porn shows at a new, Phoenix-based Internet studio owned by a fellow escort. Eventually she wants to become the "Martha Stewart of the sex industry" -- doing online product demonstrations, book reviews and lending sex advice.
A 28-year-old divorcée and mother of two who's engaged to be married again, Taylor swears tonight's lounge foray will be one of her last attempts at "direct marketing" -- an escort euphemism for going to a bar and waiting to be hit on.
Waiting, like now.
The Hyatt's wealthy alpha males keep an eye on Taylor, but haven't approached. They circulate through the cocktail lounge and expansive patio. They wander past the delicate fingers of resort landscaping. They glance up at the palm trees, then down at the potted flowers . . . and their eyes return to Taylor, a Barbie doll come to life in a shiny red dress.
You can almost hear them thinking: She's alone, looking like that -- and no ring. There must be a catch.
And the catch is this: A minute or two into their flirty conversation, Taylor will trump a man's prepared pickup lines and career brags by saying: "I'm actually here doing a little PR for myself. I'm an escort, would you like my card?"
The reactions, Taylor says, vary greatly.
Many are intrigued, some are bemused and others are insulted. "Why would I need to pay for something like that?" is a common indignant response.
If the man is willing, however, a deal is negotiated right at the bar. Starting price is $300 per hour. "The assholes in Scottsdale bars will always try to impress you by pointing out how much money they make," Taylor says. "They don't realize my price just went up."
Though Taylor has only been an escort for a little more than a year, she knows all the best local venues for direct marketing. Bars such as the Famous Door and the Cajun House. Resorts like the Hyatt Regency. And just about any lounge at a golf course. The most important requirement is that the hot spot is within the City of Scottsdale -- where escorting is a seller's market and, escort-service insiders add, police stings are nearly nonexistent.
"All the best clients are here in Scottsdale," she says. "There isn't a need to go anywhere else because there's so much business here."
It's a resort community, after all. And resort living means never having to dine, or sleep, alone.
In 1996, Scottsdale was ranked the 103rd most populous city in the country. A year later, it was ranked 29th in volume of escort phone book listings, according to a Scripps-Howard News Service survey (Phoenix was seventh in population, fourth in escort listings). One Scottsdale limo service manager, Jerry Goraj of Starlite Limousines, estimates that 20 percent of his clients express interest in hiring an escort, though many back out when they discover the cost. Those who go through with the transaction are sometimes robbed and beaten in an unscrupulous form of escorting called "cash 'n' dash." (See accompanying story)
The men at the Gainey Ranch Hyatt sneak glances at Taylor and probably do not imagine her as a potential threat, only potentially threatening to their self-esteem. When one finally works up the nerve to approach, everybody watches.
Taylor looks up at him, shakes his hand and laughs at his jokes. Not devouring him alive, after all.
With the ice successfully broken, the whole room seems to shift. One by one, men wade over to Taylor, attempting to appear casual, but lining up as obvious as incoming air traffic at Sky Harbor.
Taylor smiles broadly, opens her purse, and gets out her borrowed business cards.
Essence's owner and operator is John Lemonis, who looks the part. He's got the shirt unbuttoned a bit too far. He's got the gold chain around his neck. He's got the blown-dry hair styled straight back.
"Prostitution goes back to Adam and Eve," Lemonis says between puffs on a Benson & Hedges. "You know Moses didn't go up to the mountain alone, he probably had a couple 12-year-old slave girls with him. And our friend Jesus -- if there was a Jesus, and I hope there was -- his best friend was Mary Magdalene. And according to the Bible, she was -- a what? A prostitute."
Calling himself "the last real deal in America," Lemonis says that he hates alcoholics, but admits he's a recovering alcoholic himself. He says he hates cigarettes, yet smokes constantly. His office contains mouthwash, breath spray, a large Duracraft air purifier, a floor fan, two cans of air freshener, a container of potpourri, a vacuum and scented candles. Your clothes still smell like smoke when you leave.
"Those are my views on prostitution," he continues. "I go by the old book, not the new book. [The Valley] has one of the worst crack problems in the country, and we have our police force running around chasing escort services. They should crack down on the drug dealers, not these innocent girls working their way through college who are licensed and have had background checks."
The City of Phoenix revoked Lemonis' escort license in 1997, claiming that two of his escorts offered to perform oral sex on each other for an undercover officer at the Radisson Hotel. ("That's bullshit," says Lemonis. "There was only one girl, and all she did was touch herself.") Essence Entertainment has since relocated to Scottsdale, and Lemonis says he now operates exclusively within Scottsdale city limits.
His prostitution-came-with-creation bit is his second-favorite speech. The first is his boasting-about-the-girls speech, which is this:
"Three of my girls have been in Playboy, six have been in Penthouse and four have been adult-film stars. They're not crack whores from Van Buren."
In his office, Lemonis takes incoming calls from a row of phones. No computers, he notes, "no records that can be hacked." On a wall behind him are his escort licenses, framed and centered like Harvard diplomas.
"Now about Cole, I taught her everything she knows about escorting," he says. "I taught her how to dress, how to do her hair, how to act, everything. Let me guess: When you met her she was wearing a black mini and a boob-tube top, right?"
"See?" he says, "What'd I tell you!"
Lemonis laughs and crushes a cigarette.
"Well, you're probably here wondering what an escort is, right?" he asks. "Look at the Scottsdale escort guideline and that will tell you."
The definition of "Escorts" under Section 16-452 of the Scottsdale City Code reads: "Any person who is hired . . . for the purpose of accompanying another person or persons to or about social affairs, entertainments, places of amusement or at any place of public resort or within any private quarters for compensation of any kind."
But that's hardly definitive.
"Yes it is," Lemonis says. "We're not a brothel. I don't condone or promote prostitution in any shape or form because it's against the law. We're companions."
He tilts his head, weighing the words.
"Then again," he says, "what goes on behind closed doors between two consenting adults is between them."
The customer line buzzes and Lemonis takes the call.
"Yes?" he barks. "You want what? She-males?" Exasperated sigh. "No, get a copy of The Beat, that paper has ads for she-males. Sure . . . no problem . . . bye."
He hangs up.
"Anyway, this is a resort town. And we're in the resort business. Ninety-five percent of our business is at the resorts. We deliver, just like Domino's -- only tastier. We're a full-service entertainment company, and what I mean by 'full service' has nothing to do with sex. We can provide the gambit -- a bachelor party, a birthday party, high school reunions. We have access to limousines, town cars, boats, jet planes and helicopters. Even horse-drawn carriages and gondolas. Gondolas! You want a gondola? We'll put you in a fuckin' gondola.
"We can package a complete night on the town. There's no standing in line [for our clients], because I'll call general managers and make sure our client gets right in and up to the VIP sections. We're connected -- from the club owners, to the general managers, to the doormen, to the concierges, to the cooks in the kitchen to the dishwasher. That's how networked we are."
Lemonis leans back in his chair.
"Yes, Scottsdale has been good to us as long as we follow the law," he says. "They don't cause a problem, they don't cause a scene. Unlike Phoenix. Fuck Phoenix!"
The phone rings again. A potential new hire.
"You're friend of who?" he asks. "Is she a brunette, about a 36-natural with dolphins around her belly button? Yeah, I know her. What do you look like? . . . Jesus. What do you weigh? And how old are you? Okay, give me a call tomorrow afternoon and we'll set something up."
He hangs up.
"You'd be amazed how famous some of our clients are," he continues. "What I know about Arizona politicians and athletes would keep New Times publishing for years. But our average client is a businessman, middle-aged, in town for a convention or business trip. We also get quite a few snowbirds from October 15 through Easter."
Lemonis offers one of the business cards. (Cole Taylor says her former boss would give the cards to nightclub doormen along with a $100 bill.) The business cards are thick and gold.
"You won't throw away a card like that," he says.
A knock at the door.
Tiffany is one of 31 escorts -- including five males -- who work for Lemonis, whose employees call him "Mack Daddy."
Tiffany drives a Jeep Wrangler with a bumper sticker reading "Naughty Girl." She's returning from a call and wears a low cut, red floral dress and fashionable glasses. She's here to pick up paychecks from client credit card purchases, which Lemonis processes at the office.
During the summer, Lemonis charges an up-front $75 fee to each client (it increases to $100-$150 in September) and claims to average 300 calls per month. The client is also charged whatever the escort costs per hour. Lemonis hands Tiffany her checks, but she insists on matching them to her records. Cole Taylor left Essence Entertainment in a dispute over credit card charges.
"Look at Tiffany, now look at these girls in The Beat," Lemonis says. "With me, you're not going to get ripped off. If you go down to Van Buren, you'll get mugged and probably catch a disease -- although we don't condone prostitution."
He opens The Beat, an adult-oriented local paper, to a random page and points to an ad. An attractive woman on all fours beckons. The caption reads: "College girl needs a Greek tutor."
"Look, that's not her! It's probably a Victoria's Secret model in the photo. They'll tell you on the phone that it's her, then you'll get a fucking biker.
"We call it cash 'n' dash. They're in the business to rip you off. Girl goes in there and, instead of the $99 that they told him over the phone, she immediately demands $500. And if he resists, she pepper-sprays him, the driver comes in and beats him up and robs him."
He shakes his head.
"Arizona has the worst reputation in the nation for escort services. [Essence Entertainment] has nothing in common with them. They can't shine my motherfucking shoes!"
Lemonis is agitated now, aghast at all these other companies who dare call themselves escort services. Dare compete with him for business and give his escorts a bad name.
"You know what we have?" he says, unable to resist one more boast. "We even have something called a Mile-High Club. That's where you take a plane, and a pretty girl and . . ."
He catches himself.
"But . . . I don't know what that term means."
Tiffany tries to help.
"I assume it means to have sex high up in a plane," she offers.
Lemonis glares at her.
"But as the owner of this company," he says steadily, "I have no clue what 'Mile-High Club' means."
He turns back.
"You are going to put in the story that I don't condone prostitution, right?"
"You fucking jealous cocksucker!" Cole Taylor yells into her cell phone, her usual soft and cautious voice replaced by full rage. "You know I'm an escort, that's what I do. So by acting like this, you're saying you're an idiot."
From the Nissan's passenger seat, Taylor's friend and sometimes co-worker, Skylor, gives her a silent high five.
"No, no!" Taylor says. "You don't trust me!"
Taylor and Skylor (real name: Cinda Hey) are en route to a Scottsdale resort to engage in some direct marketing. Taylor's fiancé has been repeatedly calling, arguing, then hanging up.
"Boyfriends have it the worst," Skylor explains, and she may be right. Escorts possess a maddening combination of beauty, sexual confidence and lack of ownership. Boyfriends must accept the fact that a man, just about any man with $500 and decent manners, can steal their girlfriend for an hour.
Taylor jams her cell phone into her purse. "Damn it," she says. "He hung up again. He was so good for such a long time, but lately . . ."
"He'll call back," Skylor says. "He depends on you for money. They get used to the money and are like, 'I want this and this and this.' Well, where do you think the money comes from?"
Skylor's business card is crimson. It reads, "The Professional." Once, at an Indian casino poker table, a man asked, "A professional what?"
"If you need to ask," Skylor said, "you're too young to be sitting at this table."
Bigdoggie.com, a popular escort-review service, has ranked Skylor the 43rd and Taylor the 17th best escorts in the country. Men fly in from all over the country to enjoy their services. But both escorts want out of the business, and look to the Internet as their escape route.
It's not that they loathe escorting. They have grown weary of escorting, have developed an aversion to it, to be sure. But people who loathe escorting cannot do it at all.
The truth is more complex. Direct marketing with Taylor and Skylor is not a somber, desperate activity for next month's rent. It's Saturday night club-hopping, only distorted -- suddenly every man becomes an ATM machine with a hard-on.
Out on the town, wealthy men will lavish drinks and compliments on them. And the escorts are not immune to their dizzying attention. Skylor brags that she charges for an hour, but can turn any man in 15 minutes. It's an addictive way to make money.
Taylor left the Valley strip-club circuit to escort about a year ago. The biggest surprise, she says, was the wide variety of men willing to hire her. "It's definitely been a real eye-opening experience for me," she says. "Men's wives will be gone, and they'll sneak home from work and call an escort."
When she's not in "escort mode" -- without high heels, the wig, makeup and form-fitting clothes emphasizing her Russ Meyer breasts -- she looks very different. Smaller.
Taylor says she has no friends aside from fellow escorts -- and those friends are not allowed to come to her home, or even know where she lives. So Taylor spends her free time with her fiancé, her kids or promoting her services on the Internet. She typically sees about four clients per week.
Only once, she says, did her after-hours life slip into the daylight. She was in a parking lot with her fiancé, loading up the car, when she spotted one of her clients.
"I didn't know how to deal with it," she says. "It caught me totally by surprise. I didn't even want to look at the guy. And my fiancé was like glaring him down, and said to me, 'Oh, my God, I feel sorry for you.'"
Taylor says she doesn't care what a client looks like, only how he treats her. (Later at Axis/Radius she gets angry and rejects a potential client who asked, "So are you, like, a prostitute?")
In the car, Taylor and Skylor joke about past clients.
For example, remember the guy in the leopard-skin underwear? He's this redheaded, overweight man who's gone through every escort in town. You go into his living room and he's got this mood music playing, and the walls are covered with mirrors. "Come in baby, come in, I want to dance for you," he says. "Do you think I'm sexy?" And he begins to dance. He fancies himself some sort of stripper, spreading his butt-cheeks and grinding against the mirrors, a tray of cocaine nearby.
And then there's the germ freak who insists on wearing two pairs of latex gloves.
Oh, and then there's the time Skylor was offered $400 to urinate on a guy. She drank a bunch of water beforehand, but, when it came time to do the deed, she got stage fright and couldn't go!
They laugh and share stories, but then the mood shifts. There are always back-of-the-mind concerns, nagging thoughts and responsibilities.
Skylor will think about the money. How it dries up and girls get trapped.
"These girls get used to the money. I never did," she says. "I stayed living on a waitress' salary. They get locked into a $1,200 leased condo and a $400 car payment, and they feel like they can't get out."
Taylor thinks about how the money provides for her children.
"I don't ever want to be broke again, I don't want to live in a bad part of town and worry about their safety," she says. "I want to provide a nice life for my children."
And they think about their plans to get out.
Taylor looks down at her cell phone.
"He'll call back," Skylor reassures. "They always call back. Jealousy has no part in a relationship. If you're a call girl, they need to deal with that."
Taylor looks at Skylor.
She'd used the term "call girl."
And, as her competitor, John Lemonis isn't very friendly, either. ("We don't send each other Christmas cards," he says.)
But Sara Anderson's Secret Service is, by most accounts, an honest, up-front, by-the-book escort service.
"We started the 'no-tipping' concept," Anderson says. "Basically, the girl comes out, stays the full and complete hour for the fee -- which is $225. She does a little strip tease and has adult conversation."
And that's it.
Other agencies are similarly ethical in practice, but most at least hint that the customer will receive sex, either in their advertisements or on the phone. In such a competitive market, honesty isn't always good for business.
"We struggle," she says. "Our customers are the guys who have done this before and have been ripped off. People who have never done this before go with these other companies that sound so much better on the phone."
Anderson is comforted by the fact that, unlike less scrupulous agencies, she has no fear of being shut down by police.
Despite the visible street prostitution in central Phoenix, the Phoenix Vice Enforcement Unit has a tough reputation among many Valley escorts. Lemonis' girls, as well as Taylor and Skylor, refuse to take calls from Phoenix addresses in fear of getting cited.
Taylor worked briefly at an agency in Phoenix, and says close calls were common. By comparison, Scottsdale is an escort paradise.
"Scottsdale cops have told [escorts] that they don't care what we do," Taylor says, "as long as we don't rob the clients."
Scottsdale police, of course, say otherwise.
"We actively investigate all types of prostitution activities going on, including escorts," says Sergeant Mark Clark of the Scottsdale Police Department. "We do the traditional and nontraditional stings, we just may not get the publicity."
Though their city is statistically popular with escort agencies, Scottsdale Police Department doesn't have a vice squad, per se. At the Phoenix Vice Enforcement Unit, Lieutenant Larry Jacobs puts Scottsdale's capabilities in a harsh light:
"Scottsdale and Tempe don't have Vice Enforcement Units doing [stings], they have to rely on patrol officers only," he says. "We're the only real Vice Enforcement Unit operating in the Valley. Every one of those cities usually call me to help them out."
Both Scottsdale and Phoenix do require escort licensing -- complete with background checks for prior prostitution charges, fingerprinting and photographs -- to help ensure escorts conform to city laws. It is illegal, for example, to advertise as an escort without including a license number in the ad. (New Times does not accept ads for escorts.)
In a typical police sting, an undercover officer in a hotel room calls an escort who is advertising without a license. Once inside the hotel room, the escort can be cited for violating at least one statute -- advertising without a license. Busting her for prostitution is an additional charge.
Licensing escorts is only effective if there's adequate enforcement. To legally accept a call in Scottsdale, an escort must be licensed. According to Scottsdale's licensing office, there are only 20 escorts licensed with the city -- a figure that doesn't even cover Lemonis' staff, let alone the hundreds of other escorts working there. Obviously, taking calls in Scottsdale without a license is not very difficult.
Taylor and Skylor are unlicensed, and say publicity is the one sure way of getting cited in Scottsdale. Speaking for this story is their way of burning the escort bridge.
"Once the vice squad decides to go after you, they'll keep calling until you fuck up," Skylor says. "They may bust you on something small, but they will find something."
"And it's a shame," Taylor interjects. "Cops make the kinkiest clients."
"Heeello boys," she says, fumbling with the headset, "do you have audio?"
Skylor's Internet video studio is in a four-room cinder-block office in central Phoenix. In one corner, there's a bare mattress. In another, Taylor sits on a ratty couch next to a blow-up doll named Molly Mouth. The camera and computer monitor stare at her while she attempts to entice online viewers with verbal, typewritten and visual acts of seduction.
For the moment, Taylor wears a white G-string and similarly stringy tank top. The clothes will be removed once Taylor goes from "free chat" -- the complementary bait -- to "pay chat" -- where viewers can watch Taylor, Skylor and friends masturbate or have sex with each other.
"Hi, how are you doing today Charlie?," she says to alias "Charlie Z." "We have body paint and Mr. Purple here. So, Charlie, are you interested in going into pay chat?"
Charlie Z types: "You're hot."
Taylor gets closer to the camera to show Charlie some cleavage.
"Do you like this better?" Taylor asks. "Do you, Charlie?"
Charlie Z: "Show nipple."
Skylor invested $30,000 of her escort earnings into this Internet venture, called Skybox Cabaret. It doesn't offer the high-class digs to which Scottsdale escorts have become accustomed, but the potential for enormous earnings combined with keeping clients at modem's length make online sex an intriguing proposition.
Skybox Cabaret girls work four-hour blocks. They can set their own schedule and take home half of the $.99-per-minute pay-chat charge. If there are, say, 30 viewers, an hour's work could, in theory, gross $1,800. Again, in theory.
In practice, employees at Skybox Cabaret are learning the frustrating realities of an Internet start-up business. Taylor has been online for two hours and has, thus far, been unable to get a single viewer to purchase credits for pay chat. There have been problems with the network, audio and video stuttering . . . the whole e-commerce rigmarole.
Sexual performances for one-handed typists doesn't quite meet her Martha Stewart-of-the-sex-industry goal, but Taylor says this is an ideal way to bring her Cole Taylor entirely into the Internet ether.
Taylor pours lubricant on the dildo.
"If we go into pay chat," she says, tugging at her G-string, "I can take these off and use Mr. Purple on myself."
Charlie Z: "Pant."
Suddenly, Skylor runs out of the monitoring room.
"Hey, everybody," she says. "A guy just bought credits!"
Skylor and a tech geek rush to a monitor and watch the credit card activity. One, no, two -- wait -- three men have purchased $14.99 credit packs. That's three clients ready to go into pay chat with Taylor.
Respecting her request for privacy, Taylor's co-workers leave her alone in the studio, then gather around a computer monitor to view her masturbation performance online.
Taylor gradually relaxes.
The viewers' brief, typed comments are positive.
Skybox Cabaret will soon be 24-hours-a-day, Skylor says. Nine Valley escorts and exotic dancers are currently on the schedule, with more added every week.
They see this as a moneymaking opportunity. They see this as an escape route from the Valley sex industry.
This, the world's newest profession.
Contact James Hibberd at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org