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Zola - summer 2021
TAYLOUR wears jersey knitted cardigan and top MARYAM NASSIR ZADEH, satin skirt SANDY LIANG, knee-high socks FALKE, satin bag BLUMARINE, leather pumps JIMMY CHOO. RILEY wears all clothes BLUMARINE, enamel and Swarovski earrings ACCHITTO, embellished cotton mules MANOLO BLAHNIKPhotography Cameron McCool, styling Stella Greenspan

Zola: All-American odyssey

The stars of Janicza Bravo and A24’s summer 2021 film let us in on becoming the bad bitches of the viral thread, intimacy on the set, and sex work on screen

Taken from the summer 2021 issue of Dazed

Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out?

So goes the first in a thread of 148 tweets by Aziah ‘Zola’ King, a rollercoaster ride of a story involving strippers, sex trafficking, extortion, and guns that went viral in 2015. King, who tweets as @_Zolarmoon, was a 20-year-old waitress working at Hooters. The thread caught fire on Black Twitter and her follower count ballooned. Within three days, Solange had shared it. A line of t-shirts emblazoned with Zola’s catchphrase, #HOEISM, was launched. The film rights were optioned. Bizarre, thrilling, and darkly funny, Zola’s hyperlocal experience was seen for its global potential. The rapper Missy Elliott described reading the thread as like “watching a movie on Twitter”.

The story was turned into a longform profile in Rolling Stone, and is now a feature film directed by Janicza Bravo, co-written by Jeremy O Harris, and distributed by A24. In the movie, Riley Keough plays Stefani (based on the character Jessica from the thread), a tricksy blonde sex worker who befriends Taylour Paige’s Zola, taking her on an ill-advised road trip to Tampa, Florida. An opportunity to make some fast cash at a strip club quickly takes a dangerous turn.

Y’all wanna hear a story about how Taylour Paige and Riley Keough ended up in bed together?

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, and the Zola co-stars are curled up in Keough’s bed. The pair have different energies: Keough is softly spoken and the shyer of the two, while Paige bounces around and cracks jokes. Yet they appear to be on the same frequency, often finishing each other’s sentences. “I definitely read the Twitter thread the week it came out,” says Keough. “At the time it just made me laugh a lot, it was just so wild. I was like, ‘Is this real?’” Paige came to it later, after reading the script in 2017. Her immediate response to the screenplay? No.

“I was like, this is really sexist and racist,” Paige says of an early version of the script that was self-consciously gritty and grounded in cultural stereotypes. “It wasn’t written with a woman’s voice, and it definitely wasn’t a Black woman’s voice.” When Bravo, a Black woman and writer-director of 2017’s Lemon was drafted in, she turned the project on its head, re-envisioning Zola’s journey into Tampa’s seedy underbelly as an arch, dreamlike odyssey. Keough is outrageous as Stefani, who sports an Iggy Azalea-esque accent. The patois is on the page, but Keough, who says the character is “gnarly and crazy and demonic”, had her reservations. Keough developed Stefani’s voice with Aris Mendoza, a Black actress and dialect coach. “We were assuming that Stefani had grown up around Black people and was basing it on them.”

Paige wanted to match the frantic energy of Keough’s performance, but Bravo expressly forbade her from going big, explaining that the film was supposed to be “a critique about what you expect from the Black woman, and the voice you projected on to her because of some tweets, ignorant of the fact that, like all of us, Black women have 40 different voices in their head and their heart, depending on who they’re with”. As Keough points out, Zola tweeted that she isn’t from ‘the hood’, she’s from the suburbs. “I don’t remember who she was tweeting when she said that,” she says. “It was Ava (DuVernay),” replies Paige, not missing a beat. “Still luh you, giiiirl,” she winks, dropping into character.

In order to become Zola, Paige spent a month-long stint working at Crazy Girls, a legendary strip club off Sunset Boulevard in LA. She went by the alias Lola, and later, Zo. In between jobs and “really broke”, Paige describes herself as “in the mentality one would be in to go strip”. She needed the money, so a friend of a friend introduced her to the owner, Tony. “He was like, ‘Turn around? All right, we’ll try you tomorrow’. I looked like a hot mess. I looked like Bambi on ice.” She pulls up a picture from that first day, holding her phone up to the laptop’s camera. In the photo, she’s wearing a g-string one piece in Baywatch red. “I had these heels from (LA flea market) Slauson Swap Meet, and they were, like, LA Gears – not cool. One of the other girls was like, ‘Those are not bad bitch shoes. Everyone knows that those are cheap stripper heels’.”

“Janicza wanted me to train with someone who trained FKA twigs. She’s stunning on the pole, no shade, but I wanted to look like a stripper bitch” – Taylour Paige

Paige trained as a ballerina, and later starred in the VH1 TV cheerleading drama Hit the Floor. A natural athlete, she had to work hard to undo the discipline she’d had drilled into her since childhood. “I did ballet, I did flamenco, I did all these things that were very technical,” she says. “That’s part of dance – getting the right line, pointing your feet, (keeping) the leg up, the hips open. I carry that. With stripping, it’s not so placed. The music’s playing, you feel a vibe, your head moves, you grab the pole.”

“I mean, being able to hold yourself up on a pole?!” Keough interjects. “I can’t, I’ve tried. To hold yourself up for one second is hard! Janicza wanted me to train with someone who trained FKA twigs. She’s stunning on the pole, no shade, but I wanted to look like a stripper bitch,” adds Paige.

In its portrayals of both stripping and sex work, the film is fair, neither glamourising the threat of violence that hovers around the edges of the job, nor passing moral judgment on those who pursue the profession. Keough, who has played a variety of sex workers, including a high-end escort in Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s TV series The Girlfriend Experience, emphasises that experience of sex work is different for each woman: “Of course there are some that are empowered, there are some that are oppressed – there’s just a million different experiences within sex work.” Paige chimes in, underlining the “fine line between those who have a choice, and (those who feel) like they’re stuck or they have no other option, or they’re at the mercy of a man.”

Both Paige and Keough describe feeling differently about their bodies after inhabiting these characters. “Every time I’ve played a sex worker who’s not being abused, I’ve felt very liberated,” says Keough. “There’s something about playing a woman who’s just owning it – you do take something from that. Embodying that is very therapeutic for women, because we’re oppressed with our sexuality.” Paige also found herself shedding a layer of insecurity. “I felt like a lot of my sexual experiences were very performative and very much for the man’s pleasure,” she admits. “I was self-conscious. I know that when I wrapped, I definitely walked way more confidently.”

So we vibing over our hoeism or whatever.

The other thing that blossomed for Paige and Keough during filming was their friendship, which perhaps explains why they’re snuggled up in bed today. Zola’s original Twitter thread remembers her and Jessica “vibing over our hoeism”. For the actors who play them, the vibe is more wholesome. They refer to each other as sisters; Paige describes their rehearsals as “sleepovers”, where they’d eat cheeseburgers, watch the Home & Garden television channel (“it’s therapeutic”), and mull over their earthly existence. “I mean, we were in Tampa,” says Paige, “so there wasn’t shit else to do.” Keough lets out a giggle. “We’d order hot wings and sit in bed,” she says, “get sauce everywhere, and be like, ‘So anyway, why are we on this planet?’”