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Subject of Showtime's 'Secret Diary of a Call Girl' grew up in Florida

Today, Brooke Magnanti is a research scientist, outed author and former call girl.

Special to the Times

Today, Brooke Magnanti is a research scientist, outed author and former call girl.

By Eric Deggans

Times TV/Media Critic

The idea of selling sex festered; it grew. But for a while, I buried my curiosity about prostitution . . . The festering whispered and itched with every job application rejection and failed interview. I couldn't stop thinking how it felt, swept away in the back of a black cab in the middle of the night. I could do it. I had to see.

Brooke Magnanti, writing under the pseudonym Belle de Jour for her first book, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl

The voice at the other end of a crackling phone line from Scotland sounds imported straight from a Jane Austen novel.

Even while discussing subjects as earthy as the first time she slept with a man as a professional escort, Dr. Brooke Magnanti sounds as proper as an English schoolteacher. And something in her tone still seems a bit perplexed by the furor over her triple life as a prostitute/research scientist/sex blogger and author in London.

Since revealing in 2009 that she was Belle de Jour, the woman who anonymously built an award-winning blog, wrote bestselling books and saw a hit British TV series develop from her 14-month stint as a prostitute, Magnanti has endured quite a lot:

Front page news stories. Death threats, reportedly from an ex-boyfriend. Salacious tabloid reports on her relatives. And hate mail from those who can't understand or sympathize with the choices she has made.

Still, few might guess that the woman known worldwide as Britain's most famous working girl was actually born in New Port Richey and spent most of the first two decades of her life growing up in Florida.

"I was so unbelievably straightlaced as a kid . . . but the one thing I would say (was) a direct result of growing up in Florida is, I've never been uncomfortable being naked around people," said Magnanti, 35, now married, living in Scotland and working on a book unrelated to her life as Belle.

"People in Florida do their shopping in a bikini," added the author, who resists grand theories about why she chose work as an escort in England eight years ago while completing her doctorate in forensic science. "I don't feel as self-conscious as I think a lot of women in England or elsewhere in Europe do."

Still, how does a Florida-raised, self-professed "glasses-wearing dork" become one of England's most famous call girls?

"I think probably my moral compass is aligned significantly differently from most people's," said Magnanti.

One example: Even if her American citizenship hadn't prevented her from going on welfare back in 2003, the author says she probably would have chosen sex work, which is legal when done through escort services in England, over the dole.

"I always remember my parents telling about how they had to go on food stamps for six months after I was born, as this horrible, shameful thing," Magnanti added, fully aware of the shame people attach to the world's oldest profession. "I guess I would prefer to be somebody who pays into the system."

• • •

The neighborhood where Magnanti once lived in Clearwater remains an unassuming collection of ranch-style bungalows with carefully cropped lawns, a place where a working man might buy a house after a few years of saving.

Her father, Paul Magnanti, owned a plumbing business while her mother, Susan, worked as a cardiology technician. When a grandfather died, leaving money earmarked for a Catholic education, young Brooke found herself enrolled at Clearwater Central Catholic, even though she wasn't particularly religious.

Magnanti remembers working two grades ahead of her age, a 12-year-old science nerd perplexed by the hormonal craziness of her fellow freshmen.

"I couldn't really relate to what was going on in a lot of (classmates') lives," Magnanti said. "I knew I was going to go to university, I wanted to study physics, I wanted a doctorate in science . . . that, coupled with having not yet hit that hormonal surge, made me look at everybody else as if they were a little bit strange."

Officials at the school and the Diocese of St. Petersburg declined to comment on Magnanti, citing a policy against speaking about alumni. There is just one picture of her in the school's 1990 yearbook: a class photo of an earnest, young student already planning a career as a scientist.

Classmate Lisa Smith, now a lawyer working in the 13th Judicial Circuit Court in Tampa, agreed to talk about her longtime friendship with Magnanti after getting an okay from the author. Smith remembered a social but focused friend, with a habit of retreating into her studies to escape a challenging home life.

"She was just driven to . . . make something of herself beyond what, I think, Florida even had to offer," said Smith, who couldn't cite specifics about why her friend's relationship with her parents seemed difficult. "Who she is today is exactly who she was then . . . a free thinker."

Magnanti graduated from Clearwater Central Catholic High School in 1992, earning a National Merit Scholarship to attend Florida State University. Four years later, she had a bachelor of science degree in anthropology from FSU — where she wrote a letter to the St. Petersburg Times that seemed to foreshadow her later choices.

"If prostitution were legal, I doubt I'd have a problem with family members entering the profession," Magnanti argued in the 1995 missive. Eventually, she developed a doctoral project that brought her to the University of Sheffield in England.

Still, Smith and Magnanti resist easy explanations, denying that her later life as Belle was inspired by her Florida upbringing, her time in a strict Catholic school or a troubled home.

In fact, one quick way to earn the author's anger is to try to involve her family in a media story.

Magnanti frets that her father, who she said divorced her mother many years ago and has struggled with drug addiction, was manipulated by the British Daily Mail tabloid. The 2009 story quoted Paul Magnanti saying his post-divorce activities with prostitutes may have inspired his daughter's choices, which Brooke Magnanti denies. (Reached at his home in Holiday more recently, he declined to comment.)

When she heard that a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked Smith about the Daily Mail story and her father, Brooke Magnanti cut off contact.

Smith said that something similar happened when media queen Oprah Winfrey grew interested in Magnanti's story. The catch: Winfrey wanted to feature her parents and "turn it into a big, what-did-you-think-when-you-found-out kind of thing," Smith said.

Magnanti turned them down.

"The deep meaning here is there's no deep meaning," said Smith. "None of what has happened (to her) could have been predicted or set up. She happened to go through that experience, she happened to blog about it one night, and just happened to set up this thing which created this strange little ultimate career for her. So, for (anyone) to say 'I caused that.' . . . Well, no. You didn't."

• • •

The first time she met the woman who would play her on television for years, Magnanti swore she could see the letdown in her eyes.

It was a typical reaction, Magnanti said, before the British press splashed her name and face all over the media universe. The year was 2007, and she was meeting Billie Piper, a blond beauty fresh off the popular science fiction series Dr. Who. Piper was slated to play Belle in a TV version of her book called Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

"You could see the disappointment in people's faces," Magnanti said of meeting strangers back then who discovered she was Belle de Jour.

"I should be taller or prettier or have dark hair," she says, laughing. "Obviously, I couldn't tell (Piper) very much about my background then, so she's had to base her depiction on her talents as an actress rather than anything she got off me."

Magnanti had already seen the blog she began writing as an escort, Diary of a London Call Girl, become two bestselling books. Offline, she was working as a research scientist, hiding her identity with a pseudonym taken from a French film about a housewife turned prostitute.

Then, in 2009, a tabloid newspaper got close to her secret and Magnanti pre-empted the story by talking to the Sunday Times, revealing her name to a writer who had once doubted her existence.

She told the newspaper her onetime price: the current equivalent of about $480 an hour (300 British pounds), giving one-third to the escort service. Her estimate: she'd slept with "somewhere between dozens and hundreds" of men.

While some accused her of putting a too-pretty face on prostitution, Magnanti wondered why those who wouldn't object to consenting adults having a one-night stand seemed so upset by a woman getting paid to do the same thing.

Smith found out about it all in an e-mailed link from a friend; Magnanti had never told her before. Oddly, she was already a fan of Belle's, having bought the first Call Girl book for a trip to Europe years before.

"Every single person I know that went to school with us, none of us say, 'Oh what a s----- thing she did,' " added Smith, who once joked that her friend "got a case of the Madonnas" for the way her speech patterns changed after she moved to England.

"I didn't look at it as, 'Oh, my friend was a hooker.' I looked at it as, 'Wow, my friend was successful, and good for her, man.' "

The TV show — which has already begun airing its final season in Britain, debuting on Showtime Thursday — portrays Belle as an earnest and open-hearted British girl with a taste for high fashion living in London. Imagine Sex and the City hero Carrie Bradshaw as a sex worker rather than a sex columnist.

Through all the public tumult and controversy, Magnanti has kept Belle alive, posting on her website (belledejour-uk.blogspot.com), while maintaining a Twitter feed (@belledejour_uk) and a rarely used Facebook page.

"I think that's how people relate to me," she said. "It's nice to talk to people who have been following the story all along. And I'm not sure Secret Diary of a Child Health Scientist would be all that attractive to people."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

On TV

Secret Diary of a Call Girl begins airing its final season at 10:30 p.m. Thursday on Showtime. Grade: A-. Rating: TV-MA (Mature Audiences)

Quotes from 'The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl'

C is for Cash Only: I don't take cards. Where would I put the swipe machine?

Fact. In a world of 12-year-olds in sexy boots and grannies in sparkly minidresses, the surest way to tell the prostitute walking into a hotel at Heathrow is to look for the lady in the designer suit.

The last three seconds before entering the hotel are vital. Are the doors glass? If so, scan quickly for the lifts (elevators). Don't go in and just stop; don't ask the staff for directions . . . If you leave an impression at all, it should be of a well-dressed lady. You are a businesswoman.

Not strictly untrue.

Client: So why do you do this?

Me: I'm not sure I have an answer to that.

There must be something you at least tell yourself.

Well, perhaps I'm the sort of person apt to do something for no good reason other than I can't think of a reason not to.

So, if someone told you to jump off a bridge . . .

Depends on the bridge. Depends if they were paying.

Subject of Showtime's 'Secret Diary of a Call Girl' grew up in Florida 04/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 1, 2011 7:15pm]

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