LAUSANNE — The ritual is as deliberate as it is important. Every evening of the week, Sandy (not her real name) opens her eyes wide and, in front of her bathroom mirror, applies one thick layer of mascara after another. She's getting ready for her fans.

Sandy is a "cam-girl," meaning she uses her computer's webcam to offer live, online performances. In exchange, she receives money from viewers who pay to admire her curves, her smile, her show. "My style is this naive, falsely innocent thing," she says. "It's what works for me. I always earn more when I wear braids."

The 29-year-old has blues eyes set in a porcelain face and a slender, delicate body. Today Sandy's wearing jeans and a white tank top. In her kitchen, she talks to us about her daily life. Despite the late summer heat, all of the windows and doors are shut. "It's just to be sure the neighbors can't hear me," she says.

Looking at the raspberry bushes and the heavy tomato plants outside her house, nobody would think for a second that behind these thick walls lives an erotic performer. But every night, in her bedroom, Sandy takes her place in front of her MacBook, on her bed. "Nowhere else," she explains. "It's your intimacy they want."

Floral pillowcases, sheepskins, white wood: The decoration looks more like that of a New England cottage than an online sex temple. Behind her webcam's indifferent eye, fans all over the world are connecting to her chatroom for a show she describes as "sexy, sensual, funny and teasing." She often appears in her underwear, sometimes in her pajamas, but never naked, and never without makeup. "Otherwise I look dead on the screen," she explains.

I used to want to be an actress

Sandy is not just any cam-girl; she's an international star, one of the 20 best-paid professionals in her field. "I'm actually in the top five if you consider just my category, non-nude." Non-nude, the art of not being dressed while not showing everything.

Sandy began her cam-girl career exactly two years ago by opening an account on MyFreeCams, one of the biggest platforms of its kind, on which more than 100,000 models are registered. "When I introduce myself, I sometimes say I'm a burlesque dancer to make things easier," Sandy explains. "I'm scared that this kind of business will marginalize me in such a small town. But when I think about it, it's saved my life."

A single mother, Sandy was unemployed at the time and started to panic. "I used to want to be an actress. I love theater," she explains. "After earning a bachelor's degree in cinema history and sociology, I did internship after internship in the production field. I wrote film reviews. I worked as a press officer for cultural events. I even thought about becoming a journalist. But none of what I was doing was paid, or if so, not very much. It got to a point where I was scared financially. In Switzerland, single mothers quickly end up in very difficult situations."

One evening, after watching a documentary about cam-girls, a large number of hyperlinks and a good amount of fascination led her the chatroom of one of these women. It was a forum that combined live video and messages from the viewers. They were ready to pay in tokens (a virtual currency used on the website) for the woman to hum a song, to casually remove a piece of clothing, to whisper a few words in English, or just for the pleasure of being there, without asking for anything. The price and content of the "tip menu" are entirely up to the cam-girl.

At first, Sandy didn't think she'd ever dare to do it. But on an impulse, she took the leap. "I created an account in five minutes the following day. You need a picture and a passport. It isn't any more complicated than renting out your flat on Airbnb."

She spent her very first hour as a cam-girl fully dressed, untying her hair intolerably slowly. She earned 40 Swiss francs (35 euros) for it and turned her computer off, still skeptical. "It was a sunny afternoon. I went to pick up my son at school and we went to the beach. But after I'd gone to bed, I couldn't stop thinking about it," she recalls. "I realized I loved doing it. I liked the creativity of these shows: You can do absolutely whatever you want. The format gives you incredible freedom."

"Cam-girls" use their computer's webcam to offer live, online performances — Photo: Miss Olivia Black

She started experimenting by singing in front of the camera, for example, and by revealing herself with humor. And in just a few weeks, she became one of the most popular models. On her "tip menu," the performances vary in price — from 4 Swiss francs (3.5 euros) to choose the music to 500 Swiss francs (430 euros) to initiate a private show.

We control everything

Two years later, her fan club is 99% male. Most are from Canada and the US. "They're my target. They spend more than the Europeans," she says. "As for the Asians, they've already got their own local websites." Sandy also has a few women among her admirers. "Some see me as an object of fantasy, others as a friend," she says. "I also get to have some unlikely encounters. There's an autistic girl I like a lot who often writes me from a hospital. I talk to her, calm her down. This job can also be a kind of therapy, though nobody speaks about that."

On a good month, Sandy earns between 20,000 and 50,000 Swiss francs (17,000-43,000 euros), working between two and 10 hours a day, six days a week. Webcamming platforms take a share of between 20% and 60%. But don't cam-girls feel exploited? "No, because none of us has the feeling of working for a boss," she says. "The company owns the servers, but we're our own bosses. Our schedules, the geographic areas where our stream is visible, our performances, our prices... We control everything."

Or almost everything. Cam-girls can sometimes be victims of harassment. "We can block viewers, but there will always be trolls that come to insult us, make fun of us. Some develop obsessions and try to track us down. Sometimes they succeed. You really need to have a strong stomach," she says.

Sandy doesn't agree that the job is degrading. She looks at it instead from "a very feminist perspective," she explains. "On the one hand, it allows women to show their body however they want and to earn (good) money for it. It also breaks the image of sex and pleasure as something shameful."

But what about being sexually objectified? "For me, sexual objectification is an issue when the body is used to promote something other than itself, a car or a can of beer, for example. Here it's completely different," Sandy insists. "I put on a show. It's entertainment. It's socially acceptable to pay for a dancing show, so why should it be different for a cam-girl? We need to stop seeing sex as something sacred and taboo and start having a positive image of it."

And yet, behind her big, calm eyes, there are hints of anxiety. Scratching her neck, Sandy admits that she worries about being judged and misunderstood. She doesn't want "to be taken for an idiot, a whore." Her family knows, but the news was hard on them, especially Sandy's mother. "When I told her, she began to cry," the cam-girl explains. "Now she understands why I feel drawn to it. What's more, I can also help her financially. She only gets a tiny pension, even though she worked her whole life as a nurse."

Time also brings another source of worry. "I'm 29. Soon 30. There are so many younger girls on the platform. I'm scared I won't be able to keep the job in the future, even though there's room for everybody," she says. "Still, it's less stressful than in modeling."

With that in mind, Sandy is planning ahead, leaving nothing to chance. "I invested all my savings in real estate in Dublin," she explains. "If I'm lucky, in a few years, I can start studying again without worrying about whether there are any good job prospects. Or I can entirely dedicate myself to painting, acting."

Soon it will be time for her to go and pick up her son, who is now eight. That means it's time to wrap up our interview. Just one last question. Does your child know what you do? No. She doesn't want anyone bothering him because of it, so she tells him for now that she's a "producer." And when he does find out? "I hope he'll be open-minded enough to accept and love me the way I am, that he too will be a feminist," she says.


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