“It reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj.”
That’s how veteran American magazine journalist David Kushner described the wildest Tweetstorm ride he’s ever taken – one that led him all the way to Detroit to uncover the true story behind the greatest Twitter saga ever tweeted.
In October 2015, A’Ziah Wells – better known by her dancer alias Zola – found herself catapulted into a seedy underworld of sex trafficking. It was all there: Hooters, strip clubs and an epic drive south that landed her in a cheap Florida motel with a pimp named Rudy.
The 20-year-old lived to tell #TheStory – something she did in an extraordinarily entertaining 148-tweet splurge. It was an immediate viral sensation, one that made Kushner’s “spidey senses” tingle. As he knew from his previous reporting on digital culture for the likes of The Atlantic and Wired, this had the potential to be big. Really big.
But there was a deeper truth behind this remarkable, almost too-bad-to-be-true odyssey.
Armed with a commission from Rolling Stone, he tracked Zola down. Within a matter of days, Kushner had flown from New York to spend time with her and her family in Detroit.
He grilled Zola on the details of her trip, all the while locating the seeming villains of the story (namely “white bitch” Jessica and her boyfriend Jarrett).
Even as Zola was insisting to Kushner that “it could happen to anyone”, he knew he had to debunk some of the saga’s most mind-blowing elements.
This was a tale for the ages, one that was as powerful and humorous as it was dark. Readers-slash-fans – amongst them director Ava DuVernay and rapper Missy Elliott – were unanimous in their praise for Zola’s tale, for her fire, defiance and wit. It felt as though people were ready for a voice like Zola’s (even if she did take some artistic license), and the unknown dancer from the Midwest delivered it.
All of which begs the question: how far can a series of viral tweets get you? In this case, as far as a movie deal.
Kushner’s story, published by Rolling Stone only three weeks after the tweetstorm, went viral in its own way, attracting Hollywood attention. Four years on, Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo and co-written by playwright Jeremy O. Harris, was warmly welcomed at Sundance in January. Taylour Paige, who plays Zola (and whose interview with The Face you can read in Issue 003), stripped for a month in Los Angeles to prepare for the role. “You’re so me it hurts,” the real Zola told Paige over Instagram.
Zola’s tweets, amplified by Kushner’s article, served as the backbone for a fiercely funny and pioneering film adaptation of, basically, a bunch of tweets. Still, it might have taken a very different turn: James Franco was initially supposed to direct the film before being accused of sexual misconduct (allegations he denies). After a period of limbo, in 2018 Bravo was tapped to direct Zola.
Ultimately, this story is a portal into the brutal world of sex trafficking. Yes, it’s a road movie that occasionally reads like a black comedy. But ingeniously, Zola sheds light on the violence to which sex workers can be exposed – a harsh reality which often boils down to the stigma surrounding their work.
Most importantly, this is a narrative about an aspect of female sexuality unknown to most. Soon, we’ll be lucky enough to also watch a film about it.
David Kushner chats to The Face about his deep-dive into the Zola story, and his hunger to know more about the “Queen of hoeism”.
What initially drew you to Zola’s story?
I’ve been writing about “digital culture”, for lack of a better phrase, for a long time – these sorts of moments where someone goes viral and captures the imagination of the internet. Certainly Zola, with her thread, achieved that to such a huge degree that I was immediately compelled by it. Also on a personal level, I grew up in Tampa. I had very strong feelings and a very strong connection to that city, so that made it doubly compelling to me.
Was it hard work persuading her to talk to you?
She was being managed by her mother, who still manages her. It did take some conversations, because I don’t think anyone is prepared to become internet famous. It’s a very weird contemporary phenomenon. So I think they were trying to navigate that, and I was certainly one of God knows how many journalists who was trying to talk to them.
How did you perceive Zola before/after writing this story?
I looked at A’Ziah as a writer. Fundamentally, that’s really how I saw her. I was like, “Wow, this is a young woman who has figured out a way to tell this incredible story in this new medium.” That’s pretty much what I tried to convey: I was interested in how.
If you’re writing about someone who wrote a memoir, for example, you’re going to have these sorts of questions. What did other people have to say? Do they see it the same way? What was she trying to achieve? Has she tried to tell this story before? And it turned out she had. That’s something that’s kind of gotten lost in this – I think she made two or three different attempts before deciding she had to make it entertaining. So all of that, to me, is really fascinating.
Once I got them to agree and I arrived in Detroit, they were very warm and welcoming. I found A’Ziah to be almost shy. She’s got such a brash personality in her writing, but in reality she was a young woman who was dealing with a lot.
Why do you think it was so important for Zola to write the story in the first place?
She’s a writer who writes on Twitter and has a great personality. On another level – I never really spoke about this with her – it was probably a way for her to process this experience. I think she was also ambitious, and certainly had no idea what was going to come from it. There was no premeditation. I don’t know that anyone can say: “I want to become internet famous.” Obviously there are influencers, but as far as crazy lightning-in-a-bottle, I don’t think you can make that happen. Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.
“Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.” “Fundamentally, she was just a woman who wanted to share a story.”
What was the response to your Rolling Stone article?
The feature did well [and] it furthered the conversation. This story, which the film manages to convey really well, too, is fundamentally about sex trafficking. It’s about a young woman who got mixed up with a sex trafficker, and what happened next. The article is different from the movie in the sense that it goes deeper. There’s a whole other part to the story in what happened to Rudy. I was glad that there was a response to that aspect of the story, the horror of it. At the same time, it was an amazing odyssey that Zola went on.
How involved were you in adapting the article into the film?
I wasn’t. When Jeremy [O. Harris] and Janicza [Bravo] got together to draft it, I spoke with them at length and gave them all of my interviews, all of my notes. My role, I felt, was to support them however they needed me as someone who spent a lot of time with the story. It was interesting talking to Jeremy later. He said that listening to [Zola] in her own voice helped him to hear the music of it. I think one of the reasons the movie has connected and resonated is because there is real authenticity behind it, even if it’s not all on screen. I think everyone really did their homework, and they really cared about being true to the soul and spirit of the story.
Tonally, would you agree the film is equal parts humour and darkness?
Absolutely. I would say it’s a dark comedy: harrowing at times, very funny, incredibly artful and stylish. A’Ziah is involved with the film and has been talking to everyone. I was really impressed by all of them.
Do you think Taylour Paige is a good Zola?
Oh my God, all of them are amazing. Taylour was amazing. The shoot was down in Tampa, so I got to go down for a few days and check it out. Even the tiny moments of vulnerability… You’ve got this really brash, brassy voice in Zola, and she’s very funny. She can entertain you, but then she can be vulnerable, and the power of what’s happening really hits you. That’s not an easy thing to do, and I think that’s why everybody is so enthusiastic about Taylour’s performance. This wasn’t an easy comedy that she walked through; [she’s playing] a very three-dimensional character.
What was your process in writing this story?
For me, every story is the same in the sense that I’m trying to get as immersed in it as I possibly can, and keep myself invisible. Just tell the story. It was complex because there are different points of view on it. It’s kind of like a Rashomon story – it wasn’t up to me to say what did or didn’t happen because I wasn’t there. All I can tell you is that you just try to get as close to the truth as you can, and what that means is that you have to change points of view. This is what this person says, and this is what this one says. The truth is in all of that.
Have you seen a better viral tweet since?
Trump’s tweets have gone pretty viral! But I don’t know that they’re necessarily better… I think people have tried to imitate Zola, but you can’t do it. You cannot try to go viral, it won’t work, especially as a writer. This is the main thing I like to get across: Zola is a fantastic writer, period. That is who she is. She’s a woman who looked at the medium of Twitter and figured out a way to tell a story that got the attention of the world. That’s absolutely incredible. And it’s very rare.
How significant do you think the story is in terms of people’s attitude towards sex workers?
It has raised awareness for sure, and I think that anyone who sits through the movie is going to walk out feeling like they were inside that car with her, going to Florida. You’re really on that journey. Hopefully it has raised awareness by having a sympathetic character who is having to deal with such a harrowing situation.
How has Zola’s life changed in the last four-and-a-half years?
You gotta ask her. I don’t want to speak for her, but the reception at Sundance was just amazing. You could feel it. I think it’s just the beginning for her – and for Taylour.
Zola is scheduled for release this summer.