IN 2016, WHEN he was 22 years old, Clément Castelli was cast in Les Marseillais, “the most famous TV show” in France, he tells me. The reality dating series drops a group of attractive young people in various cities, where they participate in an opulent pleasure riot once advertised as “pool parties, beaches, evenings in the hippest clubs in the city but also work!” Castelli, who had earned a modicum of renown as a standout teen soccer player, was in season 5, set in Capetown, South Africa.
The following year, he briefly appeared on another show, Les Vacances des Anges, in which contestants were lured to a Greek vacation fixer-upper and told to fend for themselves, sometimes to embarrassing effect. In one episode, Castelli and his castmates worked as butchers for a local meat trader, tasked with chopping off the heads of chickens and pigs; the scene takes a surprising turn when Castelli vomits. Castelli considers his stint in reality TV the “best experience of my life,” adding, “I did some crazy things like swimming with white sharks” and a “photo shoot with a big lion.” He texts me an image as proof. The lion is indeed very big.
A blogger and model, Castelli is a content creator skilled in the multihyphenate arts of cross-platform production. Today he has an Instagram following just north of 387,000. He relocated to London last year—“The life I led in France did not suit me anymore,” he wrote in a blog post about wanting a new start—and his feed presents the kind of manicured, jet-set existence the photo-sharing app typically rewards: posts full of bright, chunky colors, stylish shots from trendy travel hubs like Mykonos and Saint-Tropez, the occasional inspirational quote. It’s all very polished, controlled, and slightly envy-inducing. Castelli, in other words, is an influencer. He belongs to a now-established class of shrewd millennials and Gen Z-ers who leverage their social currency on Instagram and YouTube into brand partnerships and one-off promotional deals. In the past few years, he’s cashed in with ABC Nice, luxury watch retailer Daniel Wellington, and weight loss supplements.
Then, he pivoted. In March some of his Instagram followers encouraged him, via DM, to join OnlyFans, a subscription website where influencers are known to upload revealing and risky content. On the site, you’ll see topless bathroom selfies and videos of influencers masturbating or engaging in sexual intercourse. Occasionally, they might upload clips of themselves cooking or exercising in the buff. Castelli had never heard of the platform. “I thought ‘WTF!’” he says. “And then I thought, ‘But why not?’”
Castelli knew how much his followers enjoyed his bare-chested beach shots—his comments are a near-endless stream of heart-eye emoji—and that he could capitalize on their desires. In this, he represents a shift quietly underway in some corners of influencerdom. Partnerships and #sponcon can lead to considerable paydays, but there now exists an additional source of revenue with the rise of bare-all subscription fandom. In front of a camera, and sometimes with multiple partners, they are no longer just influencers but digital sex deities.
My fascination with this community began last year, when a friend made a casual reference to Only-Fans over dinner. Intrigued, I inquired among other friends. Had they also heard of the site? Were there other platforms like it? Around then I saw another reference, this time a meme on Instagram Stories that poked fun at the complicated, sometimes twisted, tech-puppeteered evolution of modern relationships: how, as we matured, we went from “Friend me on Facebook” to “Like my Instagram post” to “Subscribe to my OnlyFans for $12 a month.” Eventually, my curiosity took a turn of its own. I signed up for a few accounts in the name of research; soon they became gateways to private fulfillment. I was, I realized, getting addicted. But the reason I couldn’t look away was not just about being turned on. The more I watched these influencers, the more I felt drawn to them as people. They were opening up; I was reaching toward. There was a hypnotic pull, a thrill even, to what was unfolding on my laptop screen. The parameters of intimacy and fame were being gradually redrawn in front of my eyes.
CLÉMENT CASTELLI KNEW HOW MUCH HIS FOLLOWERS ENJOYED HIS BARE-CHESTED BEACH SHOTS—HIS COMMENTS ARE A NEAR-ENDLESS STREAM OF HEART-EYE EMOJI—AND THAT HE COULD CAPITALIZE ON THEIR DESIRES.
IN THE MID - TO LATE aughts, the porn industry was undergoing rapid change as sites like Pornhub and XVideos hosted user-pirated content from major studios on their platforms, where anyone could watch it for free. One outcome that emerged from this shift was webcamming, which offered a moderately profitable alternative for adult entertainers and a barrierless point of entry for amateur performers. The genre has persisted through the years largely because of its focus on personalized intimacy.
Timothy Stokely came from that world. The 35-year-old Londoner started soft-core cam sites through his entertainment company, Fenix. At first, the sites provided fairly conventional camming services, with mostly women selling videos. Stokely’s next project, OnlyFans, launched in July 2016 and took camming to a new realm, melding the internet’s earlier obsession with camming to its current fixation on influencer culture. For Stokely, the move was obvious. “Social media influencers are the new celebrities,” he says.
About a year in, the site started to gain traction among influencers. Stokely can’t pinpoint the exact spark, but OnlyFans is “a far simpler and more lucrative way to monetize influence” than negotiating promotional agreements, he tells me. The site’s unofficial motto is “Make your influence pay,” and it currently has 70,000 creators uploading content for some 7.5 million registered users; 25,000 new users sign up daily.
When you log on, you’re met with photos and videos from influencers of all stripes. Travel bloggers. Porn stars. Popular #fitspo-grammers like Badass Cass have accounts, as do reality TV personalities like Malcom Drummer, from MTV’s Are You the One? The creators make up a mixed-bag utopia of desire: lingerie models, bodybuilders, bears, self-described socialites, couples into fetish experiences, and anyone else trying to make an extra buck. Fans pay a fee to view content, which is posted to their feed; they can interact with creators via direct message. Subscriptions typically range from $5 to $25 a month, of which creators take an 80 percent cut. As Stokely puts it, “Uber is a bolt-on to your car just as OnlyFans is a bolt-on to your existing social media.” For some, that can mean a fair bit of money.
The draw for fans is “exclusive” content they wouldn’t come across on other platforms, the majority of which ban nudity. But the material is not always explicit. One popular personality on the site is Vinny Watson, an interior designer with an Instagram following of 121,000. Early on, his OnlyFans page was a bacchanal of foot fetishism. “People kept talking about his feet,” said a friend of mine and a fan of Watson’s, “so Vinny said, ‘I’ll make people pay to look at them and me.’” Watson has since diversified his subject matter to include racier content.
Dominic Ford has been a producer of gay pornographic films for 11 years and became a creator on OnlyFans not long after its inception. Last year, he decided to develop his own platform, JustFor. Fans, which includes features like a store where creators can hawk merchandise, personalized phone numbers to text with followers, and the ability to sell videos (which OnlyFans now offers too). “I’d seen what was out there and, frankly, wasn’t impressed,” says Ford, who is 44 years old. “I’m a tech person. I just decided to build my own version.”
The site launched on Valentine’s Day 2018 and now has more than 400,000 registered users and 6,000 models—including women, gay and straight couples, trans performers, and men, who make up the largest portion of the site. Leveraging his connections, Ford reached out to adult entertainers he had previously worked with, including popular performers François Sagat and Billy Santoro, who he says were instrumental in spreading the word about the site. “Thirty thousand followers may not seem like a lot if you’re Cher,” Ford says, “but if half of those pay $10 a month, then they can make an amazing living not doing a boring 9-to-5 job.” (For now, JustFor. Fans and OnlyFans exist solely on mobile and desktop browsers, as the App Store prohibits pornography.)
“We have this need to have an authentic connection with people we admire or who we deem as famous,” Ford says. “With sex specifically, the industry has largely focused on studio porn, and studio porn is very manufactured. As long as I’ve been in the industry, people have always looked to amateur stuff as more authentic and interesting. The thing now, it’s combined with social media, where you can actually connect with these people.” It is a particular breed of contemporary relationship that thrives on codependency, as social symbiosis.
This very specific migration of influencers onto X-rated social media sites is having a curious impact on digital alchemy—that is, how we continue to make and build ourselves on the internet. Who an influencer is, even in moments of performance, is becoming even more muddied. As OnlyFans and JustFor. Fans demonstrate, people can remake their identities, or be remade by them, in often surprising and unforeseeable ways.
ON INSTAGRAM, AN INFLUENCER IS HELPING SELL PRODUCTS. ON ONLYFANS, INFLUENCERS ARE THEMSELVES THE PRODUCT.
A PLUME OF HAIR spills across Clément Castelli’s forehead as he points his iPhone camera at the bathroom mirror. He’s lean and chiseled, and save for an iridescent time stamp that covers his crotch in the mirror’s reflection, you can see just about every inch of his body. There’s a natural sensuality to his pose. Atop the photo, a caption reads: “Welcome guys to my OnlyFans! I hope you’ll enjoy it.” This was Castelli’s first post to his page, “a teasing,” as he calls it. “They didn’t see my dick but almost,” he says via WhatsApp, which was the only way he would speak to me.
In the beginning, Castelli was uneasy about joining OnlyFans; it was hard to say whether the platform would boost his image or sully it. Since joining the site, he’s received a range of requests from his mostly male following. (Castelli identifies as straight: “1,000% heterosexual,” he clarifies.) The first time he got a private request to show his feet, he hesitated but ultimately gave in. There was also that one fan who wanted to buy his underwear. When Castelli was asked to have sex with a follower’s girlfriend, he didn’t know how to respond. This was a paying customer, but there was a line he would not cross. “I don’t do porn,” he says, meaning videos of sexual intercourse. What if someone offered a lot of money, I ask—is anything actually too far? “Haha,” he texts back, “idk.”
Today, he says, he feels good about joining the site. Most of his posts are teases, a jumble of soft erotica—an image of him lying in bed, his butt visible; a short clip shot from behind as he walks fully nude onto a sun-soaked balcony in Rome; a Boomerang-style video of a morning boner visible through his underwear. There’s no specific strategy to what he uploads. “I don’t know what I’ll post 5 min before,” Castelli texts. Still, he’s careful to never give too much away in his feed. Only in private communication, and for an additional fee above the subscription price, does he offer truly explicit content. They want to see the “hard show,” he tells me of what people desire the most—videos of him masturbating or images of his erect penis.
On Instagram, an influencer is helping sell products, essentially to add a degree of cool to, say, sunglasses or dietary supplements. On OnlyFans, influencers are themselves the product. Castelli has no qualms about that. In his best-performing month so far, he estimates that he netted about $8,000. Even as he is set to appear on another French reality show this fall, W9’s Les Princes et les Princesses de l’Amour, he doesn’t plan to quit. “It will be the best period to make money,” he says.
“So is the Clément Castelli on Instagram the real you and the Clément Castelli on OnlyFans the fantasy you?” I ask him. Within seconds, a gray chat bubble fills my screen. “Exactly,” he says.
In some cases, how influencers present themselves on OnlyFans is a kind of reversal of their online identities elsewhere, trading the high gloss of Instagram for the low-grade aesthetic of amateur porn. In other cases, there’s not much distance between Instagram personas (shirtless selfies, full-body bikini shots, angled butt portraits) and OnlyFans personas (shirtless selfies, full-body bikini shots, angled butt portraits). Either way, many influencers who upload erotic content or “perform”—as it’s often referred to—on sites like OnlyFans don’t see themselves as participating in sex work. The association makes them uncomfortable. Even as they promote their OnlyFans connection (discreetly) on Instagram and reveal much more to subscribers, they are reluctant to discuss the work in more open forums.
Many of my emails to influencers went unanswered. Some who did respond quickly ghosted, even with the guarantee of anonymity. One source, a trainer who’s done promotional work for an energy drink company, told me he’d speak only if the focus was on his “background with social media, modeling, and the fitness industry,” noting, “I’m not sure a story on cam sites would align with my vision for the future.” Another influencer I began speaking to via text, an athlete from the South with more than 350,000 Instagram followers, insisted on keeping his identities separate. Before he abruptly ended communication in May, he told me he was going to delete his OnlyFans account in a few weeks and didn’t want to be remembered for what he’d done on the site. It wasn’t who he was. (His account remains active.)
But these warring selves, if in fact we interpret them that way, can also be an expansion of who one can be. The internet has become a place to treat identity and anonymity like a stack of cards in perpetual shuffle, whether on Second Life or in the quarrelsome forums of Reddit. Social media platforms function as digital canvases of endless self-creation and branding. Media theorist danah boyd describes how we have multiple online selves. Think of it as the collective singular, an I made up of we. Because these selves exist within the same hyperlinked highway of limitless information, they at times have a tendency to reach audiences for whom they were not intended—a phenomenon she calls context collapse. The assorted selves we perform on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and elsewhere synthesize.
The selves we portray on major platforms tend to meld into the most watered-down and palatable version of ourselves, adds Brooke Erin Duffy, a Cornell professor who studies social media and creative labor, “because you have so many different audiences—friends, family, church group members, colleagues, future bosses.” The we starts to fuse into a bland I. But sites like OnlyFans throw open the doors to more daring, less consistent self-branding. “What these more niche communities do—whether it’s a subscription site or it’s something like Twitch—is enable people to challenge context collapse and maintain more siloed identities.”
Duffy warns of how one’s rotating selves can cause friction. “There’s a need to keep a distinctive self, a persona, separate. If they collapse again, if they brush up against one another, influencers are vulnerable to critique and people saying things like, ‘You’re being inauthentic.’”
WE ARE A SOCIETY that fetishizes visibility. But “in hyping this ideal of visibility,” Duffy tells me later, “influencer culture fails to recognize that visibility entails a higher degree of vulnerability.” I think that’s partly why I followed influencers to OnlyFans and JustFor. Fans—and then subscribed, and then kept watching. I was curious: Just how far would they go? Just how vulnerable were they willing to get? How vulnerable was I willing to get? Even separated by computer screens, acts of self-pleasure force one into a state of defenselessness. And it’s there, on that plane of emotional volatility, where I began to question parts of who I was and what I coveted.
ONLYFANS DOES AWAY WITH PRETENSE. THE MANUFACTURED-AS-REAL PERFORMANCE OF INFLUENCERS WAS GONE.
I wanted to see myself. I wanted to know how far I would go too. For a stretch during the winter, obsessively following these influencers dangerously obstructed personal and professional obligations. I craved them more and more. I procrastinated by browsing OnlyFans, paying for yet another subscription. I was late to meetings or dinners or doctor’s appointments because I hungered for the satisfaction of one more video. Maybe there was a new influencer on the platform I could check out?
Influencers are now obtainable in a new sort of way. “This affords people a way to go deeper than just fantasizing,” one friend tells me. He’s a marketing executive at a major media company who originally signed up for OnlyFans because there were people on “Twitter and Instagram that I wanted to see with no clothes on,” both straight and “gayfamous.” For him, what’s happening is simple: It’s an innate evolution of influencer fame. “It’s an extension of what people really want,” he says. “Sex.”
The thrall of OnlyFans, then, does away with pretense. This was the allure for me. The manufactured-as-real performance of influencers, the occasional manicured artifice of their work, was gone. Even if what I watched was yet another performance, there was an air of vulnerability on both ends—the partitions felt less tangible. The avatar was shattered, its jagged pieces irreparable. The dynamics even seemed to tilt in my favor. We’d both sacrificed a form of power, but here, cloaked in anonymity, I held control. I knew who they were, but they didn’t know who I was.
Maybe the body was the final barrier. My identities had collapsed onto one another, too, in these moments of private ecstasy. I wasn’t just a book-loving taco obsessive from Los Angeles who listens to DJ Quik and Frank Ocean—the person my family and friends knew. I was someone who liked to watch women pleasure themselves, alone and together, someone who watched gay couples have sex, someone who, at times, found arousal through intercourse between a man and a transwoman. I was also someone who just liked to look, I found out, stimulated at the possibility of what might unfold, of not knowing what would happen next. These were things I never shared with others. Behind my I was also a chorus of wes.
Not long ago, I ran into an influencer from JustFor. Fans at the gym. He had ignored multiple email requests for an interview. Now, detached from the glow of my laptop screen, I momentarily lingered, stuck. I’d never seen him in person before, yet here he was; one of his many selves, one that I didn’t quite know. A distance seemed to stretch between us. He felt a world apart. We’ve crossed paths many times since, occasionally trading glances on the way to different workout machines. I’ve never introduced myself. I probably never will.
JASON PARHAM (@nonlinearnotes) is a senior writer at WIRED. He wrote about the Oprah Winfrey Network in issue 26.08. ■