The Real-Life Stripper Story Behind “Zola”

The Real-Life Stripper Story Behind “Zola”

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“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

That is how A’Ziah “Zola” King, a blogger and former exotic dancer, began her epic Twitter tale back on October 27, 2015. Zola had just survived a frightening road trip with a woman she called Jessica—another exotic dancer or, as Zola ID’d her, “this bitch”—and proceeded to recap said weekend in a 148-tweet thread involving sex work, guns, and violence. The Twitter tale went viral, was praised by Ava DuVernay (“Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development. She can write!”), written up in Rolling Stone, and six years later, adapted into a film by Hollywood. On Wednesday, Zola’s story finally makes its way to the big screen—in a film directed by Janicza Bravo (Lemon), cowritten by Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris, and starring Taylour Paige as the title character.

But how does the film—costarring Riley Keough as Stefani, a character seemingly based on Jessica—stack up to Zola’s version of events? (“Jessica insists she has never prostituted herself,” Rolling Stone reported in 2015, “and says that Zola was the one who wanted to turn tricks in Florida.”) In a conversation with Vanity Fair, Zola takes us back through the story—separating her fact from fiction.

The Meet-Cute

One afternoon in March 2015, Zola was waiting tables at a Hooters in Detroit when Jessica, the 21-year-old blonde who would change her life, walked in.

“All of us have had that friend experience where you meet someone and you just, like, fall in love with them,” Zola remembers, explaining that the two bonded instantly over their exploits from exotic dancing. “All of a sudden you guys are best friends hanging out every day.”

So when Jessica asked Zola to join her on a trip to Florida, for a potentially lucrative exotic-dancing gig, Zola was in. “I was like, ‘This is my home girl…. Yeah, we’re going to Florida.’”

Zola packed a bag and got in a black SUV with Jessica; Jessica’s boyfriend; and “Z,” a man Jessica identified as her roommate. (The Zola character X, played by Colman Domingo, seems to be inspired by Z.)

By Anna Kooris/A24 Films.

Real-Life Women vs. Characters

According to Zola, Paige nails her portrayal of her as a woman who lets her facial expressions do the talking. But it was Keough’s performance as Stefani, the louder character—a profane and nonstop talker—that blew her away. Zola spent time talking to Bravo during preproduction—filling the director in on details she had left out of the Twitter rant, including Jessica’s bubbly, not-P.C. personality.

“She was very animated in the way she spoke,” says Zola. “Dropping N-bombs and just very problematic. Bravo told Riley, just go for it. And Riley took it there. She’s probably my favorite character in the film. She cracked me up…especially since I know the girl in real life. That is exactly how she acted.”

Sneaking Suspicions

It wasn’t long before Zola began thinking something was not as it seemed. “There were certain things that [Jessica] was leaving me out of the loop on,” she remembers. The first night in Tampa, Z drove Jessica and Zola to the Tampa Gold Club and dropped them off. The pair took selfies, worked, and after collecting their cash, called Z to pick them up. That night, Zola says that Jessica told her to tell Z how much money she made.



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