Out of the shadows: Montreal porn exec Bella French is changing the industry from within

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Bella French has a flood to thank for her career. Well, a flood and a very expensive insurance mistake. It was in 2009, and French had just opened a vintage clothing store in downtown Montreal. It was her second crack at retailing, her first being a T-shirt shop that she shuttered two years earlier to study business full-time at HEC Montreal. Not on the curriculum, unfortunately, was anything about the dangers of decaying water tanks. Or the fact that a little shoplifting isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a clothing store.

ManyVids CEO Bella French (Supplied)

You can guess the rest. The floor above her flooded, the water cascaded down, causing nearly $250,000 worth of damage, which was four times the amount of insurance coverage she had bought. “When you’re an entrepreneur you will be hit with bad news literally every hour of the days,” says French. “You need to know how to deal with bad situations… and this was a bad situation.”

It would get worse. The money lost came from a credit line co-signed by her dad, who she had promised from the start would not get stuck with the debt. Defaulting was not going to be an option. “I could not make that phone call… I could not call him and say ‘thank you for trusting me with that credit line, but I can’t pay it anymore.’”

French needed a Plan B… and C… and D. With jobs in retail and fashion either elusive or completely insufficient given the extent of her debts, a degree of desperation set in. That’s when a close friend suggested she consider becoming a ‘Camgirl;’ a person who strips and performs simulated sex acts on camera. He told her she could earn up to US$5,000 per month.

For French, that was an unfathomable fortune, and a hugely enticing opportunity until she discovered what camgirls did. “I was shocked. I was insulted. I said ‘Are you crazy? Why would you ever think I’d do that?”

With her debt piling up, however, French make a hard decision: she would do it, pay her loans, and never speak a word of it to friends or family.

What unfolded from there was a revelation. The money proved every bit as good as promised and the experience, far from being mortifying, was mostly enjoyable, insists French. “It was the first time in my life that I’m actually making money and really enjoying life. I didn’t have to work 16-hour-days anymore. I could actually have fun.”

After six months, French’s entrepreneurial instincts kicked in and she wanted more opportunities. In pornography, more means Los Angeles, the centre of the online sex industry.

Bella French in ManyVid’s Montreal HQ (Supplied)

It wasn’t what she expected. “I wanted to be a famous porn star. But I realized that it was not what I thought it was going to be. I thought I would go to L.A., stop being a camgirl, go on set and do movies.” Except the economics of the business had changed, with the demands ever increasing, the rewards not what they used to be, and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases absolutely rampant. “I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I’m like a hermit… though in this industry, it’s a lot of networking, it’s a lot of parties, there are all these events and you just have to go, or you won’t have a career.”

Within six months, French was back in Montreal, determined to make it on her own terms. That meant being a camgirl, but not simply performing on camera; she would start a company that could serve as a platform for other sex-trade workers. From there ManyVids was born. Growth has been steady and constant. Four years in, ManyVids now has 2 million paid subscribers, says French, and over 17,000 on-camera performers, around the world, who pay ManyVids to host their content.

Today, the company employs some 85 people out of their Montreal headquarters – where no filming takes place – and French has expanded her focus to functioning in an advocacy role for the talent. “I was almost banned from my family. When you’re a sex worker and you go to open a bank account, you can’t say you’re a sex worker, and that makes you ashamed…. You feel this look on you, you feel this disgust. It’s really hard to walk in the shoes of an adult performer. We need change the mentality, to remove the shame and start to empower people.”

ManyVids HQ in Montreal (Supplied)

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