Call Girls, Updated
By ANDREW JACOBShttp://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/12/nyregion/12madam.html?oref=login&pagewanted=1&8hpib&oref=login
It was Monday morning and Mae Lee was already having a meltdown. Over the weekend Amber, one of her "best girls," was stopped at the Canadian border for an outstanding arrest warrant. Suzy was out of commission with a yeast infection and now Rachel was missing.
"I'm worried sick," said Mae Lee, the owner of a busy escort agency with a buttoned-up clientele that demands punctuality. "It's not like Rachel to disappear. She's got a packed schedule today."
Mae Lee was already unhinged and hung over from a weekend topped by a $4,500 loss at an illegal gambling parlor in Chinatown. To compound the chaos, Tyson, her 5-month-old pug, was frantically tearing up her Jersey City apartment.
Mae Lee lit up another cigarette, drew hard and grimaced. "Stomach ulcers," she said, tossing back some antacid tablets. One of her cellphones rang - a few bars of the Police song "Roxanne" - and Mae Lee placed her anxiety on hold. "Hi sweetie," she said, dropping her voice a languid octave. "Oh yes, Howard. Liza? She's beautiful, sweet, very enthusiastic. All natural." There was a pause. "Yes, she has a 4 o'clock available. At the Hilton."
In the highly competitive world of paid companionship, Mae Lee knows that a string of disappointed clients can hobble an enterprise that thrives on reliability, discretion and customer satisfaction. The disappearance of Rachel meant that seven men that day would have their hourlong sessions canceled, turning their putative business meetings into aching voids of unrequited need.
"I hate to disappoint," said Mae Lee, who agreed to open up her business to a reporter on the condition that her real name and those of her employees be replaced by their workaday identities. She also insisted that the name of the escort service be kept out of print.
There are no official gauges of the sex industry, but if the Manhattan Yellow Pages is any guide, it is thriving, with more than 30 pages under the heading "escorts." (By comparison, there are fewer than half as many pages devoted to psychologists, plumbers or real estate brokers.) Even publications like New York magazine carry advertisements hawking "Hot Asian Sweeties" and "Busty Blondes."
The realm of the dingy bordello and the vengeful pimp is increasingly giving way to professionally run enterprises, many of them headed by women, that have seized on the anonymity and marketing power of the Internet. Credit cards? No problem. His place or hers? Have it your way, although home visits cost $50 more.
"My credo is the customer is always right," said Mae Lee, who, like many business owners, runs a Christmas toy drive for needy children, tapping the generosity of her regulars.
Although the police rarely go after upscale operations like hers, Mae Lee employs a battery of procedures to keep prying vice officers at bay. To start with, she sticks to a steady roster of 2,200 customers, most from suburban New Jersey, whose bona fides have been thoroughly checked out. New customers often come via existing ones, and then they must provide personal information: a business name, a work telephone, sometimes a home number and an address. Before the initial conversation can proceed, Mae Lee puts the prospective client on hold, verifies the information on Google and dials the numbers, pretending to be a telemarketer when a wife or secretary answers.
A police investigator, she says, would never give up his home phone and address. Just to be doubly safe, she never writes down clients' personal information. "For some reason I can remember anyone by their e-mail address and phone number," she said.
Her agency exists in a netherworld created by cellphones, off-shore Web servers and invented names. The cellphone bills go to her lawyer, and the Jersey City apartment she operates from is rented in the name of a former boyfriend. Each rendezvous is clinched in a discreet, desexualized patter. Clients are assured that protected sex is the rule. Most encounters take place in hotel rooms she books by the week, reserved online at a discount, of course.
Her employees specialize in what is known as "the girlfriend experience," a slower-paced, affection-filled encounter that closely resembles a date. Her 10-page employment contract, signed by each woman, instructs them to cuddle, sprinkle flower petals on the pillow and "never rush or make anyone feel rushed."
Before booking a "date," customers can check out reviews on an independently run Web site. To weed out those she calls the "druggies, drunks and freaks," she stops answering the phone by 9 p.m. Most of the women are asleep by 11 so they can be ready for their 9 a.m. appointments.
After a decade working as a madam, Mae Lee, 30, believes she has come up with an ideal business model. Her motto, "don't get greedy," means keeping operations small, with no more than eight women working at a time. Most weeks, she says, she takes in $20,000, tax-free. Her workers, all of them freelance operators ranging from their early 20's to early 40's, get two-thirds of the $300 hourly fee. They also get two-thirds of the price of an overnight stay, which is $3,200 for 24 hours. Frequent clients enjoy a slight discount.
Another business rule is to avoid using local women. Most live in Florida, California or Canada and fly into New York for five-day stints. The constant rotation, Mae Lee says, keeps customer boredom at bay and also prevents workers from making private deals with johns.
"I keep my girls' schedules packed; that way they can't get into any trouble," she says, taking a breather between the cascade of telephone calls. "They're lucky if they get 30 minutes between appointments."
Although disciplined and hyperorganized in her work, Mae Lee lives fast and hard on weekends, making prodigious use of recreational drugs, gambling compulsively and sleeping little. A lavish spender who favors seductive outfits and head-turning boyfriends, Mae Lee claims she was born to be a madam.
It was in junior high that she first realized she wanted to run her own escort agency one day. "All the girls at school would talk about how they wanted to be like Duran Duran when they grew up," she says. "I wanted to be like Al Capone."
Until her adoption at age 6 by a wealthy American couple, home was an orphanage in South Korea. Although she tries to avoid thinking about the past, the ugliness of those early years still intrudes on her dreams.
Still, as she describes it, her childhood in Connecticut and, after her parents' divorce, in rural Maine with her mother, was idyllic and uncomplicated. There was a new tennis racket every Christmas, homemade apple pies in the kitchen and weekly psychotherapy sessions.
But material comfort and a doting mother were not enough to counteract the ennui and inner turmoil that turned her into a teenage hell-raiser. At 13 she began running away to Boston. At 16 she was selling LSD. At 19, she got her first chance to manage a group of Thai prostitutes who had been brought to this country illegally.
That was also the year she had a daughter. Her boyfriend, the father of her child, was a big-time drug dealer with a weakness for marquise diamonds and sweeping fur coats. The two made a dashing couple, and Mae Lee says he taught her everything she knows.
"He showed me the importance of getting respect," she said.
But he also inadvertently taught her the value of discretion. The boyfriend met a violent death, and the inevitable investigation drew the attention of child welfare officials, who gave custody of their daughter to Mae Lee's mother.
It is one of the few topics that leaves Mae Lee visibly unnerved; she has not seen her daughter in years, although she says the prospect of reunification is pushing her toward early retirement. "My mom is getting old," she said. "I need to save up money so I can quit and give her a really nice life."
But on this day, contemplativeness has been overtaken by the hunt for Rachel, one of her most popular escorts. Growing more agitated as she juggles two ringing cellphones - one plays the theme from "Sesame Street" - Mae Lee calms herself with inhalations of bottled amyl nitrate, commonly known as poppers. She calls Rachel's friends, even the police, but is forced to cancel $2,100 worth of appointments. "Honey, I'll make it up to you, I promise," she tells one john after another.
A day later, she finds out that Rachel had inexplicably decided to shirk her responsibilities. "She didn't even have the decency to call me," Mae Lee said, her fury rising. The betrayal spurs Mae Lee into action. In another era, a wayward employee might have found herself bruised and bloody in the gutter. But Mae Lee, who runs her business with only an assistant for errands, imposes her own code of conduct. She telephones Rachel's boyfriend, informing him that his longtime girlfriend is a prostitute, and prepares a CD-ROM of Rachel's promotional pictures that she plans to send to the woman's family.
"If she doesn't call me, she'll learn the meaning of respect," Mae Lee said contemptuously. "She'll want to commit suicide by the weekend."
For the most part, she keeps her employees in line with money: those who break the rules must pay fines; those who perform well can expect more work, especially the lucrative overnight jobs that often involve dinner or a Broadway show. "I'm not the kind of person who enforces the rules with a baseball bat," she said. "My girls know that I'm very, very fair."
Victoria, a 26-year-old Canadian and one of Mae Lee's most reliable workers, agrees. In an interview, she complained that her boss sometimes overloads her schedule, but acknowledged that she does look after her well-being. "Of course she cares a lot about money," she said. "But she won't put us in risky situations. She can be difficult and strong-headed, but then again, we all can be."
To most of her employees, Mae Lee is an empathetic but no-nonsense voice on the other end of the line. Few ever meet her in person.
"I like to maintain a certain mystique," she explained.
That distancing also keeps her boyfriends at arm's length. She often dates two or three men at once, partly because she enjoys being chased, but also because she fears getting burned. "I truly believe in karma," she said. "I've hurt so many guys, I'm afraid that I'm going to get hurt in a really big way."
Although her work is lucrative, she claims it is not just about the money. In a society with so many fraying marriages, Mae Lee says her services help keep families intact.
"Men have their needs," she said, adding that it is better for a husband to seek satisfaction through a no-strings-attached prostitute than through a marriage-wrecking mistress. That philosophy, she says, partly explains why she closes shop in the evening and on weekends.
"I want these guys to go home after work and spend time with their families," she said. "That way everyone is happy."