Cam-girls conjure up grainy images of trampy girls that broadcast from STD-ridden bedrooms exploited by cigar-puffing men, body sales in pixel-form. But cam-studios have been revamped, and they’re becoming one of Romania’s biggest industries.
It’s a big, open-armed welcome to the new generation of cam-studios. Arriving at Studio 20’s head office location on one of the bustling city streets of Bucharest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My host, PR manager Andra Chirnogeanu felt the same way on her first day. “I was expecting the Brazzers scene with the black couch,” she confides.
Reading as a girl you may be raising your feminist hackles already, as a boy you may be inundated with a hero complex. But sit back down, because these girls don’t need saving.
The elevator doors open to a typical office environment: computers, red desk chairs, and office workers. Chirnogeanu bounces into the conference room, wearing a shirt emblazoned with ‘PORNO’ on it – no joke. But this upfront nature is representative of Studio 20 as a whole – they know what they do, and they own it.
Join Me in the Bedroom
You could be forgiven for thinking the office is a kind of hotel. As we stroll the hallways we only enter rooms where the door is open – if it’s shut, a model is working.
Each bedroom is tastefully decorated within certain themes, and belongs to each girl. Inside a purple room, Chirnogeanu tells me it looks particularly good with blonde hair. There are ballet themed rooms, French colonial, red leather, or Victorian. The model’s belongings sit on the walls: teddy-bears, books, and souvenirs. In one room, the models perfume lingers.
Towards one wall, imposing on the rooms are looming bright stage lights, and wide-screen televisions face the bed. Almost unnoticed are the webcams on steroids, the eye of the room.
Chirnogeanu demonstrates for me, the camera panning and zooming at the bed using a remote control. She tells me proudly each camera is worth 2000 euros.
We pass models in the hallway, chatting and laughing, and making cute kissy sounds at each other as goodbyes. Chirnogeanu gestures to the bathrooms, chuckling “they’re like Ally McBeal, they’re unisex.” On the walls are inspirational quotes, iconic females, including Sarah Michelle Gellar. Two, very friendly Romanian cleaning ladies walk the halls, refreshing each room as required for the models.
US Dollar Dollar Bills
The Romanian papers are prolific with cam-girl advertising. Despite all the studios attempting to seduce potential cam-girls to studios by promising $5000USD in their first month, Chirnogeanu disagrees, stating $500-$1000 max.
“That means she’s unexperienced, she doesn’t know how to sit in front of the camera, she doesn’t know the tricks,” she says.
So what’s a realistic figure? Girls have two pay periods a month, of two weeks each. According to Studio 20, none of their girls have ever finished a period without at least $500USD – that’s after the studio commission of 50%. Given Romania’s low cost of living, their take-home pay is more than double the minimum wage in Romania of $230USD.
“That’s the lowest we’ve had, and that’s really, really low,” Chirnogeanu said.
The average, according to Studio 20 estimates, are between $5000-$6000USD for a two-week period, with some earning up to $11,000. The Romanian President, in comparison, earns just over $1800USD in the same amount of time.
But then there are other benefits, both for the models and the studio. Models can receive free English tutoring, even before being formally hired. They’re given make-up courses, psychologists, and even a massage therapist – the job isn’t immune of occupational hazards, with many experiencing back problems from laying in bed all day.
But not all cam studios in Romania are as upfront. Many are implicated in fraud and tax evasion, leading to continued ‘renovations’ each month, according to Chirnogeanu. Many studios close because of tax fraud.
The more legitimate studios offer formal contracts, pensions, and medical insurance, says Chirnogeanu. However, the profession is only considered semi-legal in Romania, because of the lack of a name for the profession. Studio 20 labels them “online artists.”
“It’s sort of like intellectual property. You give the studio the rights to use your image, we pay you for that, it’s totally legal,” says Chirnogeanu.
The cam industry has a bad name. When Chirnogeanu tells people she is going to the first floor of the office building, workers from other businesses give her dirty looks.
She often invites people to see the studio, to meet the girls, but is regularly rejected. “It’s easier for them to think that this is a brothel, and the girls are prostitutes. They don’t want to change anything, not their perception. That’s the reality of the cam industry”.
The business is overridden with dodgy studios who hide behind closed doors and glossy advertising, and has been linked in the past with exploitation and human trafficking. But Chirnogeanu insists Studio 20 is perfectly legitimate.
“I can’t just take you by the hand and drag you into one of the rooms and log you on. Every girl who comes here wants to be here.”
At one stage, Chirnogeanu’s boss interrupts our interview, beckoning her from the room. On her return she announces “I love that guy”. She explains to me that if everyone went on strike today he would be able to run the whole place himself. “Except the camming,” I laugh, “Oh, no, he actually tried camming,” she says seriously.
Different strokes for different folks aside, a spectacled man in a business suit is not what I had in mind when I think of the cam industry. But, as an experiment in stepping inside the models high-heeled shoes all the employees spent two hours on camera.
“He said it was one of the hardest things he has ever had to do,” Chirnogeanu tells, “He never would have imagined that it is so hard to stay and be pleasant when no one talks to you.”
Rooms are kept well stocked with office supplies.
Stroking Members Egos
The regular members are not as concerned with getting their clothes off, as with having a companion. Chirnogeanu says that the girls do form emotional attachments to members, and even have had to cut it off when they become overly-attached.
“I can pull any girl out of her room right now and ask her about one of her members, anything about that person: like his wife, if he has a wife or not, if he has eaten that day, if he is okay, how is his health,” Chirnogeanu explained, “they talk to them, they have a real conversation, it’s more like their therapists.”
Of course, sex is a part of the job. The girls get naked two to three times a day max, and if the member wants to climax, they aim for happy customers.
The goal is to retain a client-base. Most girls aim for three to four regular members, and form a kind of relationship. Those clients know when the girls log on, when they go on break, and they aim to be on the websites during those times.
The models are encouraged to be creative, to dress up, wear wigs, or even have romantic candle-lit dinners across from their customer – or at least across from the camera. In one of the bedrooms Chirnogeanu shows me a lucky-dip full of paper. Pulling one out she and I both expected dares or compliments, only to find insults instead.
But everyone has bad days, cam girls included. Behind the scenes there is a support team watching every move. If a girl needs help with a fantasy, she can request it via Skype chat. “A lot of the fantasies that the support team have are from their own mind, we hire people with creativity,” said Chirnogeanu.
Studio 20 has to stay ahead of the grain. They were the first studio to try virtual-reality cams, tells Chirnogeanu, “We will be the first to try the hologram in a few years, I can assure you of that.”
An Explosion of Many Kinds
The cam-girl phenomenon in Romania is a big-bang of location and innovation. Romania’s position in Eastern Europe and its communist history led to internet being a comparatively late infrastructure – moving them straight to high-speed fibre networks. Today, Romania has the fastest internet in Europe, and the 10th fastest in the world, according to a 2015 report by technology service Akamai.
But Chirnogeanu believes there is more that lures their mainly US customer base to like Romanian girls – the appeal of exotic Romanians. “Romanian’s are beautiful, they are outgoing, they are cute, they are lovely, that’s the reason why lots of cam models are Romanian,” she tells me.
Romania currently possesses the largest cam industry in the world, with Columbia at its heels. Hungary and the Ukraine are also big suppliers, making Eastern Europe a cam-hub.
In Romania alone, Chirnogeanu estimates there are more than 2000 cam studios, and no shortage of girls. She states it’s the only job on Earth where a person from Romania can earn as much as a person from anywhere else. This couples with Romania’s low job offering, a youth unemployment rate of 20.1 percent compared to 15.1% average in the EU.
“If you want to have a decent life, and you want to live well, you need a job in IT or as a cam-girl,” Chirnogeanu says matter-of-factly, “Romanian’s are not used to getting things for free, so they strive and they work and they are more fun. They engage people, and talk to people on cam, and the way the look makes a big difference,”
Despite starting just four years ago, Studio 20 has expanded to LA and Columbia. The studio I was in hosted 30 girls, but 360 girls are employed worldwide.