At just 20 years old, Kandie Monaee earns good money, works a few days a week from home and even gets gifts mailed to her by adoring clients.
She is a success in a Florida industry that is consistently on the cutting edge of technology, generates tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year and aspires to move into the mainstream.
Monaee's job: web cam model.
Her on-line sessions run up to six hours, mixing small talk and teasing with sex acts. Hundreds of viewers log onto a free website called Chaturbate and type her messages, awarding her virtual "tokens" as tips that she redeems for money. On a good day, Monaee — a Tampa mother of one who wanted to be identified only by her web cam name — says she will pull in about $300.
"I didn't want to work for anyone. I never had a vanilla job," she said. "I don't like the idea of someone telling me what to do."
She and hundreds of other cam models will be in South Beach this week as the fifth annual Cam Con, and rival XBIZ Miami, both kick off Tuesday in South Beach with an array of industry-only pool parties and soirees.
You're not likely to hear a Florida politician boast about these jobs or a Chamber of Commerce rep tout the web cam industry as one of the state's tech successes. But the convention underlines that selling live sex online has become a big and serious business in Florida. Many of the scheduled conference events may sound titillating — there is a panel, for instance, on the latest generation in adult toys — but the overriding theme is straight out of Biz 101: Profit and how to increase it in a competitive trade that requires more than just a willingness to expose flesh.
In the digital age, many sex performers increasingly operate as private entrepreneurs, and business, marketing and tech savvy can make big differences to the bottom line.
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"In all of the internet, there is a sea of content. How do you stand out? Maybe it's color schemes. Maybe it's graphics. Maybe it's video length. People share their little tricks," said Clinton Cox, a veteran industry videographer who started Cam Con with former Playboy TV star Stacey Havoc.
"We created this show because there was no community. We like that we are one of the reasons the community is evolving and building."
How many people work as web cam models in South Florida or the state? In truth, there's no telling, although hundreds likely work at least part time. It's not a category that shows up in labor statistics, and streaming companies don't make their stats public, although at any given time on numerous internet sites, hundreds of models appear live. But the industry trend line clearly points up.
Last week, two cam sites ranked among the top 50 most visited in the United States: LiveJasmin at No. 40, ahead of sites such as Zillow, Apple and Bank of America, and Chaturbate at No. 47. That's according to the Amazon-owned website Alexa, which tracks web traffic.
About 2,000 people signed up to attend Cam Con, a 40 percent increase from the previous year, according to organizers.
At the SLS Hotel on South Beach, Cam Con has rented out the entire property, and is being joined for the first time by Inked Con and Cannabis Con, which promote tattoos and weed — two other industries that have been in the process of burnishing once-seedy reputations. Adult star Stormy Daniels — yes, the one embroiling a certain president in scandal — is scheduled to appear at the Neon Night Swim Soiree at Hyde Beach.
At XBiz Miami at the Mondrian South Beach hotel, scheduled events include a "Booze-n-Buns" poolside mixer, models-only "speed networking" sessions, and panels about crypto currency, tackling cyber bullies, video editing techniques and lessons on organizing business records and finances. All of it topped off by a "Cam Model Olympics" competition and an awards night at the swank Liv nightclub at the Fontainebleau Hotel.
While old-school downloads and video clips still dominate the internet sex business, the social media age is also reshaping porn — allowing customers to more directly interact with performers.
With reality stars and celebrities interacting with fans endlessly on social media, cam clients also want to build relationships, if even virtual ones, with their adult entertainers.
"Cam girls are the new porn stars," said Tiffany Star, 28, an X-rated actress from Fort Lauderdale who has moved on to work full-time as a cam girl. "Of course, people come for the porn, but for the most part, it's people who want to actually get to know you."
Offering more personal interaction in the sex business can raise risks for some models — bullying is common, but some customers also can be downright scary.
This month, Miami prosecutors charged a wannabe rapper named Michael Belanger, 39, with stalking after he allegedly terrorized a cam model he met through Chatstar, a service that allows adult entertainers to exchange messages and calls with fans without revealing their real contact info.
Even though the unidentified cam girl blocked Belanger, he continued emailing her daily and even showed up at her condo, police said. Even after a court issued a restraining order, he assumed the identity "George Costanza" on Camsoda and OnlyFans.com to keep contacting and professing his love for her.
"The only problem with me is I'm depressed and lonely. At one point, I was in shape sexy and but I'm a little overweight and sexy," he wrote in one email to her, cited in an arrest warrant. "I'm a cool loser not a lame loser but there's nothing wrong with a lame loser."
Belanger, of Plantation, has pleaded not guilty.
Webcams have been around since the mid-1990s. But in the early years, the adult entertainment industry was dominated by large production companies like Vivid Entertainment and Wicked Pictures that signed up stars, shot their films and promoted them at industry events and strip clubs. But the same economic downtown that shrank the 401Ks of America's office workers a decade ago also gutted large porn production companies.
In the aftermath, many performers had no choice except to go independent and into web cam work, said Stephen Yagielowicz, of the adult-industry trade magazine XBiz.
"Performers had to learn to rely on themselves, " Yagielowicz said. "It really democratized access to fan bases. Camming was the perfect vehicle."
And with that came the rise of websites such as YouPorn and Pornhub, which generally earn money from advertising while letting people watch X-rated video clips for free. Couple that with cheaper everything — internet connections, smart phones, web camera equipment — and a proliferation of streaming websites, and many web cam "stars" were born.
One model might even be your neighbor, though you wouldn't know it unless you were trolling for sex services online. Most models, like 25-year-old Lisa Klark, work from home.
Originally from Russia, Klark began camming two years ago to supplement her job as a ballroom dance teacher in South Florida (she occasionally shows off her steps for viewers). Klark works for a few hours every night, after her classes. Her niche: online fetishes, sometimes dressing in rubber and latex outfits, armed with gloves, whips, handcuffs, chains and masks.
"I am also a high heels maniac, I have a lot of them. I am tall — 5-foot-9 barefoot, 6-foot-3 in my high heels," she said. "So with my long blonde hair I look like a fetish-dressed Barbie doll, and my visitors love it."
Other performers work at large professional studios that rent space — there is one in West Miami-Dade, and even one in the heart of Los Angeles' Hollywood district, billed as the world's largest cam studio.
Day or night, at any hour and across a dizzying array of sites, models of every shape, age and ethnicity perform all sorts of acts for group audiences, most of them unprintable in a newspaper. Private, one-on-one chats cost extra. The tactics to maximize profits might even include raffles — one model recently offered tickets for 99 tokens (about $10), with the winner getting a dinner date via Skype.
But for all the strange fetish fixations that can be found in the digital world, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the live cam trade is the large share of viewers who say they want to watch models just doing everyday things: folding laundry, sun tanning, maybe some homework. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in sociology to guess what's going on.
"There's a lot of lonely people out there and camming provides a safe outlet for them to be able to interact," said Yagielowicz of XBiz.
If you toss out the pay-to-play sex acts, some exchanges almost seem sweet. Like this one: During one session on a site called MyFreeCams, a model named Brielle sat next to still unopened gifts, describing her mundane weekend plans.
"I have to do yard work on Saturday!" she told viewers. "I don't want to do yard work."
One chat guest offered to send her electric hedge trimmers. She laughed. "Do they even allow trimmers in the mail?"