Fernie Warisa used to squeeze into a Hooters tank top and orange hotpants to serve buffalo wings and beer on Silom Road. For years, she took side jobs as an erotic model, posing nude for men mags. But that was it. No sex.
After the modeling money began to dwarf her Hooters salary, she dropped the job late last year to freelance full time. She became a familiar face in Kinaree Magazine and on erotic photo sites.
She was earning about THB60,000 (US$2,000) a month when COVID-19 wiped out all her jobs in nearly the blink of an eye, leaving her with nothing to fall back on. She gave up her rented condo in the city and moved back into her family home in the northwestern outskirts. It was there that she made a decision.
“When the outbreak got serious I had to go back to my hometown in Nonthaburi because I had no income,” Fernie, 32, said. “Then, since I had nothing to lose, I thought, ‘Fuck it, I have a child to look after.’”
Though she was stuck at home, she knew well her body’s earning power. She remembered an off-hand comment from a photographer about a site where other models were supplementing their incomes.
Unlike other models-for-hire who have seen their livelihoods collapse during the pandemic, Fernie is among a few who’ve seized opportunity from crisis at the cost of going further than she’d ever intended. Today, she is earning more than ever before – without leaving home – as a thriving online porn star.
Paving the way
Like many young women working in Bangkok’s nightlife scene, Fernie grew up poor. She started working at 15 as a waitress at a hotel and restaurant to help pay for her own education. Life in the service world wasn’t bad, so she aspired to become a Hooters girl after graduating from a food and beverage program. In 2018, she applied.
Auditioning for one of the coveted positions was “fierce” and “intense,” as girls looking to play the part – and earn the hefty tips – must have good faces and killer bodies to qualify as customer eye candy. From there, it’s not uncommon for Hooters girls like Ferinie to get side jobs as models to make more money.
It was in March, as those jobs evaporated and she sat in her mother’s home considering her options that Fernie remembered her long abandoned account on an adult content subscription site called Onlyfans.com. She went online and reactivated her account.
There, creators maintain a “timeline” much like Facebook or other social media, except every post is reliably NSFW. Nothing can be seen without a paid subscription – therefore creators like Fernie use other platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and even TikTok to market themselves and draw subscribers in.
It became clear that if she really wanted to make it and do more than just survive, she’d have to go further. She thought of the young daughter and parents she provides for.
“Many models choose to draw people in by posting sexy pics, but if I wanted to get it going, I had to go bigger than that,” she said, confident people weren’t going to pay only for sexy pics on the internet. “I wanted to become famous quickly, that’s why I went all the way to nudity.”
Thus began her journey from doing cheesecake photos as a pin-up girl to full-fledged adult performer.
Her initial plan was to only sell erotic and nude photos, but as often happens, one thing led to another.
And when the internet sees a woman posting sexy nudes, it usually assumes she does porn.
At first Fernie hated those insinuations. She felt insulted and would block anyone called her a “porn star.” But it eventually wore her down and, in the way of internet grooming, became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy as the messages kept pouring in.
“When I got them that frequently, I started to think of them as compliments,” she said with a giggle. “Then the thought of, ‘If I sell nude pics, I might as well sell porn,’ came to my mind, because they’re similar anyway.”
She started recording sex tapes as a treat for her subscribers and saw her income surge in response to nearly THB100,000 a month from OnlyFans alone.
Prostitution and pornography are both illegal and seen as taboo to many in the kingdom. This has led various officials over the years to make puzzling declarations that people don’t come to Thailand for sex and that places such as Pattaya, a global sex destination, is prostitution-free.
All that may seem ironic as Thailand’s sex industry accounts for 4% to 10% of its economy, according to the Empower Foundation, an NGO advocating for Thai sex workers.
But those social stigmas are strong. Without the English to gain access to the larger world of global internet sex exhibitionism, Fernie may not have had the nerve to do it. Going international took her into a world uninhibited by social restraints.
Although there are Thai platforms such as Mlive or secret Line chat groups she could have turned to, Fernie said that she knew Thailand wasn’t her targeted audience. In fact it was her fear of Thais that led her to choose OnlyFans. She recalled hurtful experiences of Thai photographers insulting her model friends.
“The insults, even though they weren’t shot at me, they hurt,” she said. “The photographers talked about my friends’ boobs and pussies behind their backs. It shows Thai society still cannot accept nudity and pornography much.”
When it comes to sex, she’s found much less toxicity online.
“But as I’m here [at OnlyFans] where most of my followers are farangs, there have been only compliments, saying they like what I do,” she said.
On the platform, she posts explicit nude photos of her in lewd poses and clips of her having sex, sometimes in steamy leather outfits and handcuffs. She also engages with her followers with dirty-talk chat and offers special services such as phone sex.
Being on an overseas platform makes it less likely her personal friends become aware of how she’s making her living – though she stresses that she doesn’t mean to conceal it. She just thinks they don’t need to know.
That fear of recognition is the main barrier stopping many of her friends, other models who found themselves in the same predicament, from cashing in on the online gold rush, despite bad economic times.
Some of Fernie’s friends working at bars and restaurants also do a side-trade in sex, but never tell acquaintances about that part. That desire to keep it secret – or at least plausibly deniable behind a normal job – means selling themselves on social media risks too much exposure.
Some of those friends have fallen back on the traditional route: going out and having sex with guys for money.
She could have done the same, but thought the threat of the deadly communicable disease gripping the world made it unwise. With curfews and other social controls in place, it just wasn’t worth it.
“Now that money from performing physical sex is harder to earn than ever, online is the easier way to go,” she said, noting that now she doesn’t have to pay rent, as she no longer needs to be downtown to earn. “Since I turned to doing this gig, I feel so safe. And now I have more time to look after my kid than ever before.”
Still, it’s a leap she thinks most sex workers aren’t ready to make.
Two Patpong go-go bar girls who spoke on condition of anonymity said their employers gave them survival kits of food, medicine and some money before their bar closed. Since then, they’ve come in to clean the bar to earn some wages. But both women said they are scraping by on their dwindling savings because they have children to look after, and their boyfriends are the only real breadwinners now.
They, like many other sex workers, are awaiting the day entertainment venues and bars are able to reopen, so that they can get back to business, too.
Today, as businesses are reopening and society steps back to life, Fernie’s prospects look only set to grow. New modeling offers have started pouring in, even more than before because her risque content has caught the attention of several magazines.
Though she is doing more than she originally bargained for, she does have a new limit: She hasn’t taken money for actual sex. At least not yet.
But along with the money it does bring, fame inevitably invites recognition. Fernie says she has prepared herself for that the day her personal friends find out what she’s been up to. She’s prepared for them to disown her.
“I’m proud of what I’m doing,” she said. “They don’t give me money or provide for my family, so I won’t be ashamed.”