Belle Delphine lives in a mock Tudor house in a gated community in Hove, England. It’s necrotic, and soothing. You could be anywhere, and this is apt. Belle lives on the internet, where she entertains her subscribers, who pay $35 a month through the website OnlyFans. She is 21, and she grew up on the internet. ‘It raised me,’ she says.
I watch one of her films before we meet. It shows her dressed as a Disney princess in a long pink wig and small clothes. She attacks herself with paint and rides a fluffy unicorn while shouting. Is the unicorn the internet? Is she the unicorn? I hate the film — the childishness makes me uncomfortable — but it isn’t for me. I make my husband watch it and demand he describes his emotional response. He makes a strangled noise. I make a male friend watch it too. He buries his head in his iPhone and vapes furiously.
Belle isn’t a garden-variety performer. She’s almost a performative artist and the joke is almost on the punters, who pay for a ‘girlfriend experience’, which means she delivers updates on the life she doesn’t have because she is faking one for them. But she plays with them. She promises a video of herself ‘stroking a big cock’. It is a chicken; a hen actually, because she can’t find a cock. She sold jars of her used bathwater for $30 (she looks very clean, though I doubt people who worry about hygiene order bath-water from women in Hove on the internet). They sold out in three days. Belle is an internet archetype because she is so open to it. Other vloggers (video bloggers) posted videos of themselves vaping the bathwater. A Spectator colleague drank some, but he’s young.
This interview is arranged by her partner, whom she asks me not to name. I knock on the wrong door, and a bewildered middle-aged man points me up the hill — though I wonder if he is really Belle Delphine, hoax upon hoax. The partner opens the door. He is young. He looks tired. The house is covered in tableaux: pink balloons arranged round a chair; Harry Potter artifacts. It’s a child’s bedroom spread across a comfortable suburban house. She looks nothing like the girl in the video and I’m glad, because I can’t interview someone half-nude on a unicorn faking a tantrum. Her hair is long and brown, and she is dressed in casual clothes. She is luminously pretty. She has a soft, squeaky voice. Her real name is Mary.
She grew up in Cape Town. Her parents divorced, and she was taken to Lymington in Hampshire by her mother. She doesn’t see her father, but I guessed that from a lyric in her film: ‘lil tits/big ass/no Dad.’ At school she wanted to be liked so much, ‘I would injure myself just to make them laugh. I had a swing in the garden, and I would fall off it to make them happy.’
Is she still doing that? She left at 14 after being bullied online. She was treated for depression and eventually made friends online. She met these new friends wearing extraordinary clothes. She dressed as Lolita: she likes pink because unhappy children find it hard to grow up. But she stopped, ‘because I had so much attention in public’. I imagine she did. But she continued to post her photographs, because she finds life easier as Belle than she does as Mary: ‘No one is going to speak to me if I am sat there not wearing anything to comment on, but if I’m wearing something crazy people will say “That’s crazy” and start a conversation. I can’t start a conversation with anyone.’ She soon reached 30,000 followers on Instagram.
Her break-out was simple: she made an orgasm face. ‘In hentai [animated Japanese pornography] if a girl is having intercourse and if she has an orgasm, they draw the orgasm in a very specific way. I made a video of me replicating this face.’ She does it for me. She rolls her eyes and sticks out her tongue.
She earned one million followers in a month and 4.5 million within a year. Six months after turning 18 she decided ‘the only real way to make money is to be sexual online’.
I’m not sure how she feels about it because she contradicts herself. She says she loves ‘boys’, but also says: ‘I hate that I am inspiring other people [women] to do it.’
She says it is ‘fun’ but then says: ‘I understand it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to hear that your daughter’s doing porn.’
‘But,’ she says, ‘I always get great satisfaction after posting it. Because it feels like I have accomplished something.’ Her subscribers expect 30 to 40 updates a day. She usually begins with cosplay. She asks me, kindly: do you know what that is? I reply: is it like when I asked my husband to dress up as an owl? ‘Not really.’
She is addicted to the attention, the affirmation and the fear. To explain this, she describes the day she wore new boots when she was younger: ‘Everyone was looking at me. Everyone was laughing at me. I was hyper conscious. I got that same feeling posting the [first] photo where I showed a bit of thigh. You look back and think — that’s nothing to me now.’ She sounds amazed.
After months of teasing, her first hardcore film will appear on Christmas Day. Her partner is in it, but without his face because she is prettier than him. ‘I am having that same scared feeling,’ she says. ‘After I take this leap, I suppose there will be no scared feeling anymore. Because that is the furthest you can go.’
I wonder if this desire to expose herself is a yearning for acceptance: when you have shown everything, you have nothing left to give. Those who love you will love you and those who hate you will hate you. In judgment there is peace.
She says that when she was thrown off Instagram — where she had 5.3 million followers — for sexual content, ‘I felt so irrelevant. All that weird fake power I’d built up in my head that I thought I had…I was left with nothing. I felt irrelevant and small and defeated.’ She stayed away from the internet for a year. What did you do? ‘Nothing. I had no reason to do anything anymore.’
She sounds animated now — far more so than when we are talking about sex, but that might because she is more interested in marketing than sex. ‘I’m good for a YouTube thumbnail because I’m pink-haired and bright-eyed,’ she says happily. ‘I thought my life was going to be,’ she pauses, looking for the word, ‘shit. I didn’t go to school, I was uneducated.’ She looked at photographs of the rich and imagined them ‘untouchable’. Now she can have that. Belle can give it to her.
She is searching for security, but the internet is a dangerous place to look. It’s morally neutral, like the sea. I ask when she will stop. She doesn’t know. She talks vaguely about a future life with a future family in which she will be a bourgeois mother at the school gates with a secret. I have to remind myself how young she is. I find her charming and touching, and I think of her as Rapunzel trapped in the tower wondering when to let herself out. It won’t be soon. She makes $1.2 million a month.