These days, Saturday nights feel like any other night; a never-ending parade of Netflix, TikTok dances, and celebrity DJ sets has come to define our locked-down lives. But on this particular Saturday night — at 1:25 a.m., to be exact — a brand-new sort of experience is heating up on Instagram Live.
“Welcome to Club Covid!”
Kevin James, known around Toronto as DJ Snoopy, stands behind turntables, a surgical mask over his mug. Next to him, his MC for the evening, BadBreed, yells into a mic, his mask off, scrunched around his neck.
The colorless space redefines the word “nondescript”; with its utter lack of ambience, it could be an event space, a garage, or a spare room in someone’s home. The one thing it does have is a pole, and that pole is currently occupied by three women. On the right, Alana Cakes grips the pole in one hand, her back to the camera as she twerks, her blue and cream one-piece clinging tight. She skips the standard-issue heels, instead opting for all-white Air Max — and a mask.
At the top of the pole, a dancer is wearing a pink bikini and clear stilettos, spinning slow. When her momentum fades, the thickest of the trio stops clapping her backside to give the spinning dancer a supportive push. Both spinner and clapper are unmasked. Then a fourth girl, also in a pink bathing suit, sashays into view. Canadian bills fall from outside the frame, showering the women. The dead presidents (prime ministers) are props, but they parallel an actual windfall: Alana, Tatty, Mia, and Kiana are getting paid for real via cash apps, thanks to the more than 1,300 people watching at home.
This is IG after dark.
While grounded by a pandemic, the world is consuming online content like never before — in-home data usage in March was up nearly 20% over the year before. All that growth isn’t just Netflix and Facebook, though; nimble thinkers with active minds in idle times are engineering new virtual experiences. Over the last month, platforms like TikTok and Instagram Live have seen a massive spike in activity. Historic moments seemingly are being made weekly. D-Nice started a virtual party that on one epic night counted Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Rihanna, and Oprah among its attendees. Superproducers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland launched Verzuz, a virtual battle series that pits legends like DJ Premier and RZA against each other in a catalogue-based soundclash.
Beyond the money and labor, though, is another benefit to the virtual approach: safety.
All good clean fun. But once the late hours approach, the freaks come out to populate an entirely different side of Instagram, a burgeoning subculture in the tradition of cam sites and OnlyFans. Strippers, urban models, or anyone feeling sexy and cash-hungry can perform for a payday — and in the process help create a home for sex work on the ostensibly buttoned-down Facebook-owned platform.
“I was never on Instagram as much as I am now,” says Alana Cakes, a 22-year-old Ontario native who has appeared on Club Covid. Before the pandemic, Alana danced four nights a week at Toronto clubs like Diamonds Cabaret and House of Lancaster. “Normally, I would post a flyer — and you’d either come to the club or you’d just never see me.”
When you’re watching Club Covid, the dancer’s email address is pinned to the bottom of the comment section; viewers send cash tips to the lady’s e-commerce accounts. (Canada doesn’t do Cash App.) “I have a pole at home that I practice on, so why not utilize it?” she says. Dancing in Toronto, Alana made an average of $1,000 a night. Her biggest night at Club Covid, she says, brought in double that — for less time and effort.
Beyond the money and labor, though, is another benefit to the virtual approach: safety. The customers are hungrier and more attentive, but they’re also on the other side of a screen that might be thousands of miles away. Whether in a space like DJ Snoopy’s or their own homes, performing on their half of an event host’s split-screen, dancers never have to touch — or be touched.
And the dancers aren’t the only ones seeing the benefits. “I think I’m making more money [during quarantine],” says DJ Snoopy. Before Covid-19 hit, when the 28-year-old Toronto native wasn’t spinning at urban clubs like Forty2, he was upstaging his city’s stodgy strip club scene: In 2014, Snoopy began renting banquet halls and poles and promoting underground cabaret experiences to in-person crowds. Snoopy claims his earnings at these private affairs, which include a fully stocked bar and can attract as many as 1,000 patrons and range from $20,000 to $60,000 in profits. “The clubs in my city won’t even let you touch the girls,” he says. “So the girls see more money with me.”
The genesis of Club Covid began with Snoopy DJing alone to his 35,000 Instagram followers. One night in March, he saw 1,000 guests join, far more than normal. On a whim, he decided to add his email address for tips. He racked up $800 that first night — and immediately saw an opportunity for his dancer friends to make money as well. (And for him to get a cut.)
Since the quarantine started, Snoopy has hosted about 15 Club Covid nights. Not all have featured a pole and half-naked women — just the best attended, and thus most lucrative, ones. He won’t give exact money numbers, but says his peak night saw a total of more than 10,000 visitors. Once a Club Covid night ends, Snoopy checks each dancer’s e-commerce account activity and takes a 30% fee of their total earnings. The way he sees it, it’s no different from what the house takes at a strip club. “I’ve got the platform, plus the location,” he says.
There are other Lives out there. Up until now, they’ve all been hosted by men, generally Insta-celebs or DJs whose healthy followings trust them to deliver sporty women. Diddy’s son Justin Combs hosts one with former basketball player Justin LaBoy. Artists like The Weeknd and Meek Mill have been spotted in the room, along with current and retired professional sports figures like Shaquille O’Neal.
But Eric “Fendi” Moore takes IG after dark a step further.
Fendi is known in various circles for various reasons. Mike Tyson refers to him as his oldest friend still living. (They lived in the same building back in Brownsville, Brooklyn.) Today, the 47-year-old Brooklynite manages rapper Fabolous, but grew a name in the late 2000s after introducing Nicki Minaj to underground hip-hop via his mixtape DVD series The Come Up. He knows the skin game too, having co-owned a Greensboro, North Carolina, strip club with rapper Jadakiss for a few years.
Today, Bree is a licensed paralegal with a new aesthetician business — but now that she’s unable to come in contact with clients, she’s returned to an old hustle. “When I got on,” she says, “Fendi was like ‘Don’t move until we see some money flowing in.’” Once the pot reached $500, Bree began performing — and within minutes made $2,700.
Fendi frequently posted videos of attractive women to his 305,000 Instagram followers, or included them in IG livestreams, but his content always stayed on the good side of the platform’s terms-and-services guidelines — at least before the quarantine hit and he saw how rapper Boosie BadAzz entertained himself during a pandemic. “I was like, okay, no rules,” he says. “Gloves off.”
It was Saturday night, March 21, when Fendi broadcast his inaugural maverick Live. The top half of the split-screen filled with Fendi’s broad face, jewelry, and tank top-adorned shoulders. On the bottom half of the screen was Symba, a curvy 30-year-old Trinidadian woman who boasts 160,000 Instagram followers in her own right. “Take that off,” Fendi said, as Symba, wearing a black dominatrix mask, wrestled with her too-small bikini top. That night, Symba was just one of several women — from the Bronx to Maryland to Los Angeles — to ask for a chance to allow the 30,000 people watching to tip their Cash App accounts.
“That was the night that changed the ’gram,” says Fendi. “I was the first guy ever to make sure girls made money off of Instagram.” (Unlike DJ Snoopy, Fendi insists he never takes a piece of his dancers’ earnings — though Instagram makes it impossible to confirm actual money amounts or which hosts are compensated.)
Symba says she only began stripping two years ago, and that her night with Fendi was the first time she performed on someone else’s Live. She rarely stripped pre-pandemic, and when she did it was never out of necessity. (The self-described “money girl” is often, as the City Girls say, “flewed out.”) But since quarantine began, the jet-setter has been grounded in Brooklyn. “People kept telling me, ‘You really need to go on Fendi’s Live,’” she says. “I can dance and have this ass out? It was perfect. I made $1,800 in four minutes.”
She wasn’t even the highest grosser that night. That achievement went to Bree, aka Standing Ovation, an Orlando native who started dancing seven years ago in Palm Beach, eventually making her way to Miami institutions like The Office and King of Diamonds. Today, Bree is a licensed paralegal with a new aesthetician business — but now that she’s unable to come in contact with clients, she’s returned to an old hustle.
“One of my followers knew Fendi and kept saying, ‘You should go on his page because you’re the [ass] clap queen,’” says Bree. “When I got on, Fendi was like, ‘What’s your Cash App? Don’t move until we see some money flowing in.’” Once the pot reached $500, Bree began performing her specialty move — and within minutes made $2,700.
What she didn’t expect was her exhibition on Fendi’s page to get picked up by WorldStarHipHop and go viral. Of course, not all exposure is good: Instagram started shutting down Fendi’s Lives, and ultimately his entire account.
With his Instagram account still suspended — he’s started a new one, though he has yet to host any Lives — Fendi’s next move is to use the moment to launch a podcast called That’s A Fendi Morning Show on YouTube. His first guest is Nicki Minaj, whom he hadn’t spoken to in 12 years before last year’s recorded conversation. “Everybody on quarantine,” he says. “People ain’t got shit else to do.”
While it’s easier for a dancer to make money online when connected to a host, there are options to produce X-rated content completely independently — like OnlyFans, a social media service where subscribers pay as much as $25 a month to watch their favorites have sex, masturbate, or simply paint their toes. The platform has already become popular with adult performers and influencers alike; given the potential for a million-dollar revenue stream, it’s no surprise that IG Live has become a marketing tool of sorts for sex workers, helping them funnel new admirers to their more lucrative OnlyFans page.
Bree hadn’t been on her OnlyFans page in a year. “But after Fendi, my followers were booming,” she says, claiming she’s up to 9,000 subscribers on the service. “So I said, let me take this opportunity to go back on OnlyFans. That’s where the money is.”
Alana Cakes started her OnlyFans page less than a month ago — so far, she has just 15 subscribers — yet is excited about its potential. She gives Covid-19 full credit for her joining the service. “There were a lot of people asking me to make an OnlyFans page, but I never had time,” she says. “I was in college, I had my daughter, and I was dancing, so I was more focused on my hustle in the clubs. But being quarantined has enlightened me to expand my social media.”
Symba claims 400 OnlyFans subscribers. After fees, that would land her monthly net around $8,000. Bree’s own monthly projections are paced to fly past $10,000 this month — “especially once my toys get here,” she adds. “I just gotta keep the content fresh.”
There’s no question that Club Covid as a concept can raise questions. It may be virtual, but Snoopy’s seven-person production (a second DJ came later) clearly violates social distancing guidelines. Every night flirts with the potential for viral transmission. And considering there are 3,546 cases and 173 deaths in Toronto, with many more forecasted in current projections, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of danger participants are courting.
“That was definitely something I was concerned about,” says Alana. “I inquired who was going to be there and how did they travel. However, knowing the characters of the individuals that were there and it being a very small group, I thought, let’s give it a try.”
Snoopy’s own rationale: “I believe in God,” he says. “God is real. I know this corona thing is real, but I do ask my [dancers] questions like, ‘How you feeling?’ We don’t know who’s gonna make it — might as well do something historic while we’re still here.”
Never in this ADHD age have attention spans been more available. It’s a prime time for upgrades and reinvention. That could mean broadcasting a DJ set from your living room, or setting a virtual stage for music icons to pit their discographies against one another. And if you’ve always thought that your body could be a moneymaker, there are several ways to be certain.
“We have nothing but time right now,” says Symba. “This is why monks meditate — you get your deepest thoughts in silence and self-reflection. If you’re not giving yourself that right now, you’re going to be a worker for the rest of your life.”