The Guardian: ‘Where else can I make a month’s rent in two days?’: the unlikely stars of OnlyFans
Clarita needed to put herself through nursing school; Lex wanted to boost his income as a labourer – now they are erotic influencers on the subscriber site
In many ways, Lex Lederman, 28, is a classic American family man. He owns a farm in New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife and three children (plus a sizable company of chickens, pigs and geese). He’s teaching himself home renovation (plumbing, electrics, how to lay floors) and regularly helps out with homeless food charities, refugee relief, and the local high school football team. But this lifestyle has only become possible since he quit his construction job for a full-time career on OnlyFans – the content subscription service where he uploads erotic pictures and videos for his predominantly gay male fanbase.
One of the biggest tech success stories of the last few years, OnlyFans was founded by British entrepreneur Tim Stokely in September 2016. “You could see the explosion of influencer marketing, but the influencers were getting paid via ad campaigns and product endorsements,” he explained in an interview earlier this year. “Our thinking was always, OK, what if you could build a platform where it’s similar to existing on social media, but with the key difference being the payment button?” Stokely is now worth an estimated $120m (£86m).
OnlyFans gained some popularity among YouTubers, fitness influencers and musicians (offering exclusive, non-sexual content), but the vast majority of accounts are run by adult entertainers. Arriving at a time when social media policies were becoming increasingly censorious and free porn sites had eviscerated incomes, OnlyFans offered a chance for them to take back the reins, in return for a 20% commission. The social-media-like interface (features include direct messaging, pay-per-view and a tip button) and DIY nature of the platform (much of the content is produced by creators themselves on their phones) also attracted thousands of newcomers, like Lederman, from outside the world of adult entertainment.
“I’ve been a day labourer my whole life,” Lederman tells me over Zoom. “I dropped out of college, then worked in youth gang rehabilitation, but got injured on the job. I had short-term memory loss, PTSD, and I had to find work in construction. I ended up hanging cell phone antennae 300ft in the air and working 15 to 16 hours a day – not eating, not being able to go to the bathroom – and then coming home exhausted. I thought, ‘All right, dude, how do we supplement income here?’”
For some creators, OnlyFans has become a new home for glamour modelling since the decline of lads’ mags, where they post mostly bikini or underwear shots taken by professional photographers. For others, it’s more akin to cam sites, where the content is more explicit, personalised, and involves direct interaction with clients. For Lederman, who had also been modelling alongside his day job, it was a gradual transition from one to the other. He initially joined OnlyFans after someone tipped him off that uploading unused edits from his photoshoots would be a good way to earn extra money.
Towering at 6ft 3in and shredded like a Marvel hero, Lederman has always had a social media presence with big Dilf energy. On Instagram (his biography reads “husband, father, goofball”), he shares photos of his family, documents his bodybuilding gains, and uploads videos of himself chopping wood in overalls. Those aspects of his real life feed into his OnlyFans persona, fuelling an erotic fantasy of the “unattainable family man” that keeps him sitting comfortably in the top 1% of creators.
Initially, Lederman avoided anything pornographic. “I thought, ‘I can’t show my genitals. I enjoy porn, but I don’t do that.’ Then it was, ‘Why does it matter?’” So he started off with underwear photos, shower photos, photos of him in the woods wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and covering his crotch with a denim shirt. “Then my wife said, ‘Why don’t you step it up a bit, let’s see what happens?’” he says.
Now, Lederman’s material ranges from editorialised underwear shots to homemade masturbation videos. Once he realised that he was earning more doing three hours of OnlyFans than he was doing 60 hours of construction, he quit his day job. “It was a no-brainer. Why risk dying every day at work when we can make triple the amount of money at home?”
This is a question more people are asking themselves – especially those in their 20s and 30s, who will now have borne the brunt of two economic recessions in the space of a decade. OnlyFans was enjoying steady growth long before coronavirus, but the number of sign-ups skyrocketed during the pandemic as many found themselves suddenly unemployed. In spring 2020, OnlyFans had 30 million registered users and 450,000 creators. By March 2021, that number jumped to 120 million registered users and 1 million creators. In 2020 alone, the site paid out more than $2bn to its creators.
Clarita, 21, joined in March 2020. When Covid-related staffing changes at her hospital left her jobless, OnlyFans became a way to continue putting herself through nursing school in Florida. Like Lederman, Clarita started out with underwear shots that weren’t far off the standard bikini selfie most of us would post on holiday. “But as time went on and the more comfortable I got with my account, my subscribers, and my own body, I started to post nude photos and videos.”
For $15 a month, Clarita’s subscribers can access a variety of content (ranging from lingerie try-ons, role-play videos, painting nude and sex toy reviews) that is often influenced by subscribers themselves. “When I started, I had a following of maybe only 56 subscribers, and they’re usually people from your home town who are curious about what you’re doing,” she laughs. Since then, her subscribers (mostly men between the ages of 18 and 50) have quadrupled in numbers, earning her about $2,500 a month before tips.
When 24-year-old Kaya Corbridge signed up to OnlyFans “on a whim” in 2017, she was a struggling student of international relations at Leeds Beckett University. Fast-forward four years, and Corbridge has one of the most liked pages (1.55m) on the platform. “This industry was a whole new world to me,” she tells me. “But I always knew I wouldn’t have a ‘normal’ job. I wanted to feel free, and I do feel free in this industry. It gives me a lifestyle I could’ve only ever imagined – and I can still be creative and also myself.”
After a month, Corbridge dropped out of university to focus on OnlyFans. Offering content ranging from explicit photos to custom videos, she says she has made more than $1m. She’s been able to take her mother on holidays, buy a house in Lancashire outright, and travel the world – Portugal, the Canary Islands, Rome, Malta, Bali. She produces most of her content on her phone while travelling, which feeds into the “wanderlust” vibe of her social media presence.
For Corbridge and Lederman, the decision to switch to sex work may have come before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has brought the issue of income inequality into sharp focus. Austerity, the rise of in-work poverty, and the rising cost of higher education have long been linked with an increase in sex work. The English Collective of Prostitutes reports that more than 70% of UK sex workers have previously worked in healthcare, education or the voluntary sector, while the number of student sex workers doubled between 2017 and 2019.
The difference between other forms of online sex work (such as live camera work) and OnlyFans is that the latter has the feel of social media – a NSFW version of Instagram. There are plenty of reality TV alumni on the platform (including Love Island’s Megan Barton-Hanson) who are still active as influencers.
The bigger draw, though, seems to come from wanting varied content from a particular creator – something not offered by traditional porn. “The content can be anything from a creator making cupcakes to group sex,” says Ruben (not his real name), 29, who subscribes to a handful of OnlyFans pages. “Creators will also ask what their subscribers want to see more or less of. The vibe is more casual, more real. It’s gratifying to see creators just having fun and being themselves.”
Fans can talk to creators directly, which means OnlyFans also offers a more intimate alternative to watching porn. Loneliness – compounded by the pandemic – plays into the demand for a more personalised experience (Clarita says that many of her fans are in the military and stationed overseas).
Mugen, 28, from Sacramento, California, has been creating adult content for seven years, alongside her job as a caregiver in a nursing home. She used to use Patreon, a site that allows creatives to receive money from their supporters, but it has restrictions on the type of content it allows – nudity is OK, but pornography is not. Last year she moved to OnlyFans. “Now I have way more freedom,” she says. Her content varies from nude photographs and videos (both in and out of cosplay) to body worship (any practice of reverencing a part of another person’s body, usually done as a submissive act in the context of BDSM). As with Clarita, Mugen’s plan is to stick with OnlyFans while working towards another career goal – in her case, getting a certified nursing assistant licence.
But it’s not just twentysomethings who are turning to OnlyFans. For 40-year-old Jessica from north-west England, the site was a way to get a better work/life balance. After two degrees, Jessica landed a dream job in social work. “I wanted to be able to help people,” she says. However, as a single mother of five, she found it increasingly difficult to balance work with parenting. “My management tried to make me put my job before my children,” she says. “There was no flexibility. I now work hours that suit me; I’m home for the school run.”
Jessica joined OnlyFans after her daughter Brittany, 19, became a creator on the platform. “Openness is something that’s important to me as a parent. I want my child to be able to feel comfortable telling me anything,” she says; she has been supportive of Brittany throughout. They even pose together sometimes.
Jessica’s content varies between underwear shots and videos. “At the end of the day, I’m in control of what I’m prepared to do. The majority of my content is no different from what you may see on a beach. The misconception is that anyone who does OnlyFans is uneducated or dumb, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Despite its reputation, OnlyFans is not used exclusively for erotic entertainment. A handful of celebrities, including rapper Cardi B and singer Aaron Carter have signed up to the platform to promote their work with mostly clean content such as exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of music videos and photoshoots (some offer “riskier” shoots). But given its reputation as a home for sex work, some broadcasters (including ITV) are reportedly blocking celebrities who offer explicit material on subscription sites from appearing on their shows.
There are other issues for those signing up, too. While OnlyFans might be a swift cash injection for some, it doesn’t necessarily offer long-term stability. The platform takes 20% from creators and offers little support in return. Creators tell me the site often crashes or goes into maintenance without warning, that communication is largely automated, and (as with all forms of online sex work) there is a big issue with leaked content.
As with influencers, there is also a constant pressure to create in order to maintain subscribers, with long hours of admin. “It was normal for me to work 19-hour days constantly creating, replying to messages and networking,” Corbridge says. “I didn’t have a work-life balance, but I have since learned to set boundaries.” Lederman also adds that performers are “really underrated for their ability to be creative”, describing how, during a month-long period of depression, he ended up baking naked because he didn’t feel up to doing anything sexual.
In some cases, the downsides can be more serious. Rhiannon (not her real name), 24, left OnlyFans after five months due to an interaction with one of her subscribers. She joined OnlyFans in 2019, during her final year of university, after seeing lots of women on Twitter talking about the money they were making. “I would post mostly photos and videos with toys, but I got a subscriber who would pay me extra for personalised content,” she says. “He would send me about £60 a week, which I did rely on. He caught on pretty quick to this and started holding the money over me.
“I felt a bit uncomfortable, as he started contacting me via my personal Twitter,” Rhiannon adds. “He would ask to FaceTime me and masturbate together. Then, he offered me £350 for actual sex. I almost said yes because I was skint, and then changed my mind. He’s the reason I left.”
When asked for comment, OnlyFans said that user safety is “a priority” and added that “there is a zero tolerance for solicitation on the platform. Creators are able to block users and report them to support who can close the fan’s account.” They added that they take piracy seriously, and have a “takedown rate” of 75% for removing stolen images from other websites.
For those who rely on OnlyFans as their primary source of income, it functions similarly to delivery or ride apps in that the company profits from their labour, without offering any protections in return. Even those doing extremely well on the platform have concerns. “If Walmart was running the same working standards as OnlyFans, there would be a riot,” Lederman says. “I’m making some dude’s company six grand a month and he can’t shell out $800 to subsidise my health insurance?” (OnlyFans said that their creators are not employees; they run their own businesses on the platform).
Despite its downsides, OnlyFans has the benefit of being, as Lederman puts it, “whatever you want it to be”. For him and Corbridge and many others, it’s a means to a better quality of life. For Clarita and Mugen, it means a route to a qualification. For Jessica, it affords her more free time to spend with her children.
When asked if they consider OnlyFans a long-term career, almost all the creators I speak to respond the same way: if the money is there, they’ll take it. “I think it’s a great avenue for anybody who’s confident and happy with themselves,” Lederman says. Clarita’s plans go only as far as graduation. When the time comes, she’ll see how she feels. On the difference OnlyFans has made to her life, though, she replies instantly. “It’s made me really confident and sure of who I am,” she says. “I’m creating a better life for myself, and I’m really proud of that. People love to slut-shame, but where else can I make my month’s rent in two days?”