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Why ‘Zola’ might be ‘the ultimate Tampa movie’

A Twitter thread about a stripper’s trip to Tampa became a Tampa native’s article that became a movie made in Tampa.
Riley Keough and Taylour Paige star in the movie 'Zola' that was shot in the Tampa Bay area.
Riley Keough and Taylour Paige star in the movie 'Zola' that was shot in the Tampa Bay area. [ Courtesy of A24 ]
Published Jun. 17
Updated Jun. 18

TAMPA — This is a sometimes true and sometimes fabricated story about a stripper’s road trip to Tampa, which was shared with the world through 148 disturbing and comical tweets. Then it became a Tampa native’s Rolling Stone magazine expose, which was optioned for a movie made in the Tampa Bay area.

The movie, titled Zola, will release nationwide on June 30.

Zola “is the ultimate Tampa movie,” said David Kushner, the Tampa native who wrote the Rolling Stone article.

“It does a great job of capturing Tampa as a character through little moments like late night liquor stores and showing flying saucers where people strip. Tampa is not just an overworld. It is also an underworld. This story gets that. Tampa is a character in the movie.”

The story behind Zola begins in Detroit in March 2015, when Jessica Rae Swiatkowski invited Hooters waitress Aziah “Zola” Wells on a road trip to Tampa to earn extra money stripping. Going with them were Swiatkowski’s boyfriend, Jarrett Scott, and friend Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe.

“That’s Tampa,” said Kushner, now a New York resident and author whose books include Alligator Candy, about his brother’s childhood abduction and murder in Tampa. “Tampa has a reputation as a place to go for strip clubs and stripping.”

In October 2015, Wells tweeted out details of the adventure over a 48-hour period.

“Ya’ll wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense,” reads the first tweet, which included a photo of Wells and Swiatkowski.

Her next 147 tweets tell a Tampa tale that includes stripping, Swiatkowski being prostituted by Uwedjojevwe and kidnapped by another pimp who Uwedjojevwe shoots in the face, and Scott attempting suicide by jumping from a hotel balcony.

“Z goes to the closet and bust the door in & she in there,” reads part of a tweet about their rescue of Swiatkowski. “Z” is Uwedjojevwe.

“I’m cryin. I said, ‘wtf happened?!’ He goes ... ‘I shot him the face’ i was like OHHHMMAAAGAWDDD,” reads part of the tweet about the murder.

“RUNS TOWARDS THEIR BALCONY & JUMPS!! I swear to GOD,” reads part of a tweet about the suicide attempt. The next tweet continues, “jarrett was hanging” by the balcony. “He didn’t fall all the way. He was stuck by his pants.”

The tweets trended worldwide. It was hashtagged “TheStory” and shared by celebrities such as Missy Elliott, Keke Palmer and Solange Knowles.

David Kushner wrote a 'Rolling Stone' article on the Zola Twitter thread. His story was then optioned for the 'Zola' movie.
David Kushner wrote a 'Rolling Stone' article on the Zola Twitter thread. His story was then optioned for the 'Zola' movie. [ Courtesy of Courtesy of Simon & Schuster ]

“Nobody really had ever told a story over all these tweets and gotten an audience like that,” Kushner said. ”It really captured the imagination. It was harrowing. It was over the top. It was scary. And it was told in a way that read like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj.”

Kushner read the tweets as they were trending and, as a journalist, he said, wanted to learn the story behind #TheStory. He pitched it to Rolling Stone, was given the greenlight and, days after Wells’ Twitter storm, Kushner was interviewing her in a Detroit Hooters.

“But the story obviously went beyond her,” he said. “There were other players involved. So, I tried to get the fullest story” by also interviewing Wells’ family, Swiatkowski and Jarrett.

Kushner learned that the shooting and suicide attempt were made up.

Wells admitted to Kushner that the viral Twitter thread was her third attempt. She’d removed two previous versions because no one cared.

“She exaggerated some of it for dramatic effect,” Kushner said.

Swiatkowski denied prostituting herself.

“Jessica insists,” Kushner wrote in his article, “that Zola was the one who wanted to turn tricks in Florida.”

Asked which story he believes, Kushner said, “At the end of the day, only they know the truth about what happened.”

Related: Tampa strip clubs and the battle to bare it all: How the lap dance was outlawed 20 years ago

Uwedjojevwe was later arrested for sexual assault and trafficking in an unrelated incident in Reno, Nevada.

“The movie is fun,” Kushner said. “But, at the same time, the movie sheds an important light on another underworld, which is sex trafficking. And that is incredibly frightening and scary and awful, and the movie does portray how women can get caught up in it.”

His article published in November 2015 with the title “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted.”

The rights to Kushner’s article and Wells’ tweets were then optioned for the movie to be produced by A24, which made Spring Breakers in St. Petersburg.

Kushner also provided the screenwriters with tapes of his interviews.

“It’s always helpful to hear firsthand from the people,” Kushner said.

Janicza Bravo, whose breakout hit was the indie darling Lemon, directed. Taylour Paige was cast as Zola.

But Tampa Bay has seen other movies with stories based on this area film elsewhere in recent years due to Florida’s lack of a film incentive program.

Live by Night, which takes place in early 1900s Ybor City, and Gifted, set in modern St. Petersburg, each re-created those locales in Georgia, which offers up to 30 percent back on what is spent in the state.

But A24 decided authenticity was more important than dollars, St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer said, and filmed throughout the Tampa Bay area in late 2018.

“They shot at random places,” said Armer, who saw an advanced screening at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival in 2020. “They shot at a private home in Sunset Beach, at the Wyndham Hotel in Clearwater, they used shady motels and of course strip clubs.”

Armer added with a laugh, “I didn’t recognize the strip clubs because I don’t frequent those types of establishments. The movie is not family-friendly. But life is not always family-friendly.”

He predicts it will get “a lot of serious buzz come awards season.”

There is indeed anticipation for the movie.

Time magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications have called Zola one of the “most anticipated movies” of the year.

“It makes sense,” Kushner said. “Zola was already market tested on Twitter. She went viral around the world for a reason.”