NSFW: 'Tis Pity She's A Success – Belle de Jour and the Impossibility of Anonymous Blogging

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belleSo Belle de Jour was real after all. The Internet’s most famous anonymous sex blogger – turned best-selling author – turned internationally successful TV series – has finally outed herself in the UK’s Sunday Times. And it turns out she’s a character straight from the pages of XKCD.

From her interview with the Times’ India Knight, we learn that Belle is in fact Dr Brooke Magnanti a specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology who ran out of money during the final stages of her PhD thesis and decided to become an escort to make ends meet. So to speak. Add in the fact that Magnanti was already a reasonably well known science blogger and ‘The Secret Diary of a London Call Girl‘ was born.

Despite Belle’s growing fame, and the determined efforts of journalists around the world to out her, Belle’s anonymity remained intact – mainly thanks to a complex series of agents and shell companies that allowed her to receive payment for her work without compromising her identity. Even her agent didn’t know her real name until this week when Belle herself chose to out herself, granting an interview to Knight, one of her harshest critics.

A better example of someone operating on her own terms it’s hard to imagine. Anonymous bloggers everywhere can read Belle’s story and take heart in the fact that it really is possible to be both successful and anonymous in the Internet age.

There’s just one problem: it isn’t.

Let’s give Belle and the Sunday Times the benefit of the doubt and assume that Magnanti really did approach them, and not the other way around. There’s no reason to doubt Magnanti’s version of events, but it’s worth remembering that the Sunday Times has a particularly grubby history when it comes to anonymous bloggers.

As readers of my Emmy-award-winning book will know, back in 2006 my friend Zoe Margolis opened the door of her London home at an ungodly hour of the morning to accept a flower delivery from an anonymous admirer. What she didn’t know was that the delivery man had actually been sent by the Sunday Times who had positioned a photographer across the road ready to snap her when she came to the door. Two days later she learned the horrible truth: an email arrived from the paper’s ‘acting news editor'; a scumbag called Nicholas Hellen. In the email, Hellen announced that the paper was preparing to out Zoe as the author of the anonymous sex blog ‘Girl With A One Track Mind‘, which – like Belle de Jour’s blog – had just been turned into a book.

Hellen proposed a deal: either Zoe could agree to give her story to the Times, illustrated with a photoshoot in “glamourous evening wear” taken by their resident fashion photographer – or the paper would run its own hit-job expose, written by fellow-scum-bag Anna Mikhailova and complete with the (in Hellen’s words) “not particularly flattering” paparazzi shot.

Zoe told the Times to go fuck themselves, and the rest is a painful outing, a hideously uncomfortable conversation with her parents and a week of press-camped-out-on-her-doorstep hell (stories she tells in a follow-up book to be published in March 2010)

But, despite the fact that the print version of Magnanti’s Times’ interview is illustrated with a photograph of her wearing glamourous evening-wear, let’s assume this was an entirely consensual encounter. Knight also mentions in the interview that Magnanti has an ‘ex-boyfriend with a big mouth’ and that she had decided to go public before the decision was forced on her. Again, let’s assume that the ex-boyfriend hadn’t already contacted the Sunday Times.

Even assuming all of that, the existence of the big-mouthed boyfriend neatly illustrates the biggest problem with becoming a successful anonymous blogger. As your hidden life takes over more and more of your normal life, there comes a point where you have to share your secret with someone you trust. Batman had Alfred the butler, Deep Throat had Bob Woodward and, as any child of the 80s will tell you, three people shared He Man’s secret – his friends the Sorceress, Man-at Arms, and Orko. In Belle’s case, there came a point in forming serious relationships where she had to confess her lucrative hobby to her lover. From that point on she was just one bad breakup away from being exposed.

(The break-up didn’t even have to be her own; when screenwriter Nora Ephron divorced Carl Bernstein, she took pleasure in sharing the real identity of Deep Throat – her husband’s biggest secret – with anyone who would listen. Fortunately for Deep Throat, not many people would listen.)

And Belle’s secret was known to more people than just her boyfriends. Since the Times published its story a few hours ago, various friends of Magnanti have admitted to being in on the secret. Most were bloggers who knew her from her science blogging days and who pieced together various clues to stumble upon the truth, but who considered themselves part of a ‘bloggers code’ of silence. That kind of code of honour amongst bloggers sounds great in theory – not least because they make the blogosphere sound noble – but, as the financial rewards of Belle’s blogging became greater and greater, so did the financial incentives for her friends to cash in themselves. Once Belle hit a certain level of fame – or infamy – the question went from being “will she be outed?” to “when will she be outed?”

The only way to absolutely guarantee that no-one can out you, then, is to tell absolutely no-one about your secret. Trust no close friends, take no lovers – and keep your signature a million miles away from a book deal. And yet that’s where we bump into the biggest irony of all: the fewer people who are in a position to out your secret identity, the more fierce the compulsion to out yourself. The only thing worse than enjoying huge success with a blog and only being able to tell close friends and lovers, is enjoying huge success with a blog and not being able to tell anyone.

At the risk of hopping back on an old hobby horse, blogging is is, by nature, an egotistical activity. If Belle didn’t have an ego, she would simply fuck people for money, rather than feeling the need to put herself at risk by writing about her adventures. Sure enough, in the Sunday Times interview, Magnanti admits her frustration about not being able to attend her own book launch parties or to otherwise fully enjoy the rewards that success brings. Meanwhile, a Google search for Brooke Magnanti reveals that earlier this year she invited friends on a local web forum to come and support her debut as a stand-up comedian. It doesn’t take a genius to see how someone with Magnanti’s exhibitionist tenancies would be driven mad at not being able to openly showcase her real literary talents.

The truth is, once your work achieves a certain degree of adulation for doing something (especially something as egotistical as blogging), it is basic human nature to want to shout “THAT WAS ME! I DID THAT”. And as the adulation builds, so too does the desire until you simply can’t contain it any longer – and you either become deliberately sloppy in protecting your identity or you go the whole hog and pick up the phone to India Knight at the Sunday Times.

It’s like the scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where Judge Doom taps out the rhythm ‘a shave and a haircut’ on the wall of Roger’s secret hiding place. Roger knows that he’ll be killed if he’s caught and yet his frustration at not being able to complete the couplet doubles with each repetition. A shave and a haircut… a shave and a haircut… A SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT… until, eyes bulging, body shaking, he just can’t take it anymore and bursts through the wall….

TWO BIIIITTTTTS!

In Doom’s case, the lesson was “Toons can’t resist the old shave and a haircut trick”; in the case of successful anonymous writers, it’s the “I DID THAT” urge that’s utterly irresistible. Hell, even Mark Felt couldn’t resist outing himself as Deep Throat in his old age. The idea of dying before having the chance to say “I did that” was simply too much to bear and so he picked up the phone to Vanity Fair.

And so, inevitably, ends the story Belle de Jour. She had a good run, and now it’s time for Dr Brooke Magnanti to take centre stage and to finally enjoy all of the fame and adulation her considerable literary talents have earned her.

And like all good stories, hers ends with a wonderful lesson… That the only way to truly remain a successfully anonymous blogger is not to have any success whatsoever. Because the moment people start to pay attention to you, it’s inevitable you’re going to get screwed.

And if someone else won’t screw you, you have no choice but to do it yourself.

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