Mia Lee is an escort who lives and works in New York City. Mia worked in the finance industry for over a decade and delved into escorting after an episode of clinical depression, which made her re-evaluate her 80-hour weeks in the office. These days, in addition to her escort work, Mia is Chief Financial Officer of Petit Mort, a magazine for sex workers, allies and our admirers. Mia has an absolutely fascinating story which she graciously shared with me for the blog.
We touch on loads of topics, including:
Where to find Mia Lee:
Amelia: Hi Mia! I’ll get you to introduce yourself so that readers can understand where you’re coming from and what your experience is.
Mia Lee: Sure. So, I’m Mia Lee. I’m an escort based in New York City. I’m Chinese by birth, American by naturalisation, Spanish by marriage. I came to the United States from China as a political refugee when I was a child. I grew up in the foster care system. I was kind of a rags-to-riches story. I finished high school at 16, and then I finished college in three years because my scholarship ran out, and I didn’t want student loans. Then I entered the workforce at 19 and worked in finance for over a decade.
The year I was up for partner, I developed clinical depression. By that point in my life, I had money and privilege. So, I was able to take paid medical leave to recover from depression. But I realised that I couldn’t go back to working the same hours. Finance isn’t an industry where you can do a part-time schedule.
I did very well in finance as an openly queer, non-white woman. I was able to lift myself up out of poverty and get a corner office and a seat at the table, so to speak. But I just wasn’t sure that going back was the best choice given my new mental health condition. And I was always curious about sex work.
I started dabbling on Seeking Arrangements. After my first sugar date, I was like, “Oh, I think I really like this – I want to go pro.” I learned later on that a lot of the guys on Seeking Arrangements are like blacklisted escorting clients, and that makes so much sense to me. I thought that going pro would be a better work environment for me and that my professionalism would be more appreciated. And that was absolutely right. So about two months after I started sugaring, I became a full-service escort.
That was about two years ago, and I’ve never looked back. I’ve become quite happy in my new career choice.
Amelia: I can imagine that escorting would be a hell of a lot easier to do while managing mental health difficulties, rather than full-on 80-hour weeks – or whatever – in finance.
Mia: I think 80 hours resembles the ‘work’ hours, right? But then there’s all the non-work hours – networking, events, answering emails at one o’clock in the morning, taking clients out for scotch and cigars, whatever it may be. A lot of my friends focused on the 80 hours of work without the extra hours of networking and found it really challenging to make partner. No firm wants to give you equity if you don’t have a book of business, and how are you supposed to build your book of business while you’re working 80 hours a week? Well, you’re going to sleep four hours a night. Right? So, that was my old life.
Amelia: Yeah, it’s definitely not conducive to good mental health.
Mia: It’s funny that so many people talk about sex workers and drugs and mental health. None of this is unique to sex work. I could tell you stories of people I knew in college who were healthy and happy. And I saw them four years later, and they were either morbidly obese or had a coke addiction. I’m sure that this happens in sex work. But I can tell you, I’m 100% sure that it also happens in finance. And it probably also happens in law and medicine. None of these problems are unique to any profession.
Amelia: Yeah, I feel as though any profession that is very high stress or requires a lot of hours lends itself to that. It’s inevitable.
Mia: I think it’s more a function of being a survival fill-in-the-blank worker. The reason my experience as a sex worker has been so positive is because finance bought me privilege. I have plenty of friends who, regardless of their price point, are still survival sex workers because they take bookings that they don’t really want to take because they need to make a certain amount of money to pay their rent, or whatever it might be. And simply by virtue of no longer being in that situation, my experience as a sex worker is not comparable to my experience of being a junior associate, right? Because when I was in my early 20s, even if I didn’t like my client or my boss or my job, I went to work, and I was sometimes absolutely miserable. And that’s not because finance is miserable. It’s just because I was a survival worker.
Amelia: That makes a lot of sense. And being able to have that flexibility of choosing the kind of work you want to do or clients you want to see is such a privilege. It makes it a lot easier to be a sex worker. Do you see yourself staying in sex work long term? Do you have a plan at this point?
Mia: I do. I don’t want to say this is my rest-of-life career – I felt that way about finance until my mental health situation. So, I guess what that’s taught me is that your circumstances can change, and it’s hard to predict the unknown. For now, I see myself staying for the foreseeable future. I think if I only did escorting and I didn’t have any side projects, I might not feel particularly intellectually fulfilled after a few years. I think that in the beginning, setting up your business and finding what works and what doesn’t is intellectually interesting. But I think that if escorting was the only thing I ever did, after three or four years, I would maybe not find it so intellectually interesting. But I’ve had opportunities within and tangential to the industry, like being CFO [Chief Financial Officer] of Petit Mort and running my pro-bono tax seminar for sex workers. That has been really fulfilling and interesting to me. So, I think between that and also enjoying being Mia, I probably will be in this industry for the foreseeable future.
Amelia: Yeah, I relate to that. I escorted full-time for a couple of years, and I just got so bored by the end of it. I needed something extra to do. For me, just seeing clients day-in-day-out gets a bit mundane.
Mia: My experience with my clients is actually very intellectually stimulating. I genuinely learn something from most clients. There are providers where more of their time is filled with physical intimacy, but it’s not really how I run my business. It’s not really where I excel. I provide much more companionship. One of the biggest justifications of my price point – for lack of a better way to express that – is that I have clients that followed me from my finance career into this career. I’m very honoured that they trust me in that way. One of the selling points for them from a discretion perspective is that they can bring me to events and conferences with their clients and colleagues because I am a colleague.
Amelia: Wow, I love that.
Mia: Thank you. I love those bookings. And I love those clients. I love that we’re able to have that relationship. I enjoy my time with them, and I also just enjoy being a part of my old world. From my clients’ perspective, it’s very appealing to them. These people already know my legal name and everything because they were clients when I was in finance. Most of them are married, and it’s very easy for them to bring me to a conference or certain social events. I’m very comfortable with socialising with their clients, especially if their clients are international. They’re always interested in my language skills.
I have a client who has a relatively new joint venture with a Spanish company. I socialise quite a bit with him and his colleagues, which helps break the ice and whatnot. And I think it’s good for his business – he tells me it’s good for his business. He just introduces me as his consultant. And obviously, it’s lucrative for me to have these longer bookings. It’s kind of a win for everybody.
And so, I don’t show my face. Not because I’m not out as a sex worker or anything like that. I think that it’d be better for my social media exposure to be face-out. But I would lose that segment of my business. So, I chose to go partially face-out so that people could kind of get a sense of what I look like without losing that segment of my business that I truly, truly love.
Amelia: That’s such an amazing and unique position to be in. It’s like the ultimate discretion, right? I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of that before.
Mia: I’ve spoken to other providers who have been in the business for a decade-plus, and they’re like, “I’ve never heard of that before.” And frankly, I’ve never heard of another provider doing it. And when I do this, they’re shocked. I hope that in our lifetimes, we will see escorts become respected and normalised as a career so that people can come from professions, like my former profession, and see this as a viable career opportunity for them. But I don’t know when that will happen.
Amelia: So, did you tell clients from your finance work that you were moving into escorting? Or did they just find you organically? How did that work, practically?
Mia: Both ways. I can give you three examples that kind cover all of the clients who followed me from finance. I would like to think that I did my job in finance fairly well. So, I had clients that followed me from firm to firm, and I had a book of business when I left. Some of my clients continued to reach out to me after I had left the industry. There were like, “I have this matter, I would love to pick your brain,” and I’m like, “Well, I’ve actually left the industry. I’ve made a career change. But I’m happy to recommend someone.” Often the response is, “Well, let’s have a drink. I’m really curious what you’re doing.” So, I would meet up with my clients, and they’re like, “Oh, what do you do now?” And I don’t feel any shame around my new career – I think it’s great and I’m really proud of it. So, I’m like, “I built a business. I left finance, and now I’m an escort.” And generally, the response has been intrigued. Often, they will ask if I’m taking new clients or if I have a website. Some were interested in seeing me.
I have one client that ran into me on an ad site. He reached out to me, and I saw his name in my assistant’s emails. So, I jumped ahead of my assistant, and I was like, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I’m happy to see you, but we have met professionally. If that makes you uncomfortable, it’s not an issue at all. I just wanted to let you know so you’re not surprised when you meet me.” I essentially outed myself, but I felt like it was only fair because he would see my face and remember that we worked together!
Amelia: Yeah, he’s going to know at some point.
Mia: Right. He’s going to know, and I didn’t want to blindside him. I think that’s bad business. And he was like, “No, I don’t find that weird. I appreciate you telling me.” He actually said that it made him feel more comfortable because he’d had a few bad experiences in the past, but he wasn’t concerned about my professionalism. He brought me to D.C. for a few days, and it was just really easy for us to, you know, come up with a cover story without much of a cover story.
Amelia: It’s just the actual story.
Mia: Yeah, it was like, 90% truth. So, I guess the last way that I’ve found clients like this is that I have used personal professional network from my old career. I have pretty openly offered some of my very close friends and former colleagues a 20% referral fee to refer business to me. And I’ve gotten some of my favourite clients that way.
Amelia: That’s so cool. I think one of the barriers in doing more companionship bookings is if being seen in public with the person and having to come up with an excuse as to why you’re there and what you’re doing. So, it’s kind of like the perfect scenario.
Mia: Right. And this is a situation that’s not easily replicable for other providers, right? I’ve had other providers ask me, “I want more companionship bookings. How do you do it?” And I’m like, “I’ll tell you how I do it, but it’s not exactly replicable.”
Amelia: “Just start a career in finance!” [laughs]
Mia: [laughs] And then learn the market, build a book of business-
Amelia: –it’s a simple three-step process!
Mia: [laughs] It is a three-step process, but it takes ten years, you know? I mean, that’s how I did it. But I know that providers do vacations with clients where they’re a little bit more secluded. That works. I am just fortunate to be able to access the rest of their world. And a lot of providers have asked me, “Could I just learn about it so that I could blend in?” And really, you’d have to study hard for a long time, right? You know, I speak like someone who very obviously worked in finance for ten years.
Amelia: Yeah, I can imagine there’s a massive difference. And I think the difference as well is that they can really trust you. They’ve seen you in a professional role as well.
Mia: Exactly. It’s then easy to put that trust in you.
Amelia: That’s just so cool. Can you talk a little bit about what the industry is like in New York? I’m so interested in what the industry is like there.
Mia: Yeah. The reality is, it’s vastly unequal. And it’s probably not surprising to you that criminalisation makes an already atrociously unequal industry even more unequal. The U.S. has, as far as I know, the highest rates of any jurisdiction and a lot of that is hazard pay. So basically, I’m getting hazard pay, but I’m not adversely affected by the hazard in the same way that people who are not getting that hazard pay are adversely affected. So even though I am a non-white queer woman who grew up in poverty, I haven’t been poor for a very long time. And, because of the financial privilege that I’ve built and the intellectual privilege I have, I can get the kind of bookings that I want. Criminalisation doesn’t really affect me directly.
I mean, I had legal fees when I first started. I sought legal advice to protect myself because I wasn’t really sure what the risk was. But other than it being a little bit less convenient and a little bit more expensive for me, criminalisation hasn’t really affected me, per se. It certainly affects survival sex workers, lower-income sex workers and street-based sex workers disproportionately. But for me, not really.
I worked pretty intimately with the legal system in my previous career. I’ve been to court a ton of times, and I’ve worked with many lawyers, judges and law enforcement. What I gleaned from all of that as is that there’s absolutely no prosecutorial appetite to go after independent providers like me. They’re not going to issue an arrest warrant for someone like me because that’s a difficult case for them to win, and they’ll probably lose. People like me have expensive lawyers, and we’ve protected ourselves from the start, right? And my attorney can absolutely make an argument that I sell my time because I absolutely do sell my time, right? I’m not having sex for the entirety of a 48-hour booking. I mean, my clients don’t even want that. I’ve had bookings where there has been no physical intimacy. It’s not common, but it has happened.
So, no one’s ever going to issue an arrest warrant for me. It’s just the way our police system works. Cops need to hit their arrest quotas, but the amount of resources they would take to arrest me – like, just the cost of man-hours – is a very, very poor return. Or they can go to where street-based workers are working and just arrest a bunch of people who don’t really know their rights. Whereas arresting me is very unappealing. They’d have to pony up the deposit, and they’d have to like spring for a nice hotel room.
I also have a more stringent screening process than most of my friends and colleagues. I don’t accept references as screening because I don’t know that a client will be fine with me just because they were fine with one of my colleagues or friends. Especially as an Asian provider. I require every client to give me employment and identity verification. And I can do that because my clients are all essentially white-collar and have these established online presences. I require either a LinkedIn profile with 500 plus connections or like SEC [Security and Exchange Commission] filings with your name and photo. If you’re a successful executive, you’re going to have one of those things. So, for a law enforcement body entity or person to fake a LinkedIn profile with 500 connections or medical license or SEC filing? That’s a lot of work to bust little me.
Amelia: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, and it’s actually quite similar to here. Where I work, sex work is legalised but not decriminalised. So, you can do sex work, but you have to do things in a certain way. For example, street work is illegal, and there are other random rules about where you can work and who with. But those rules really only affect the most marginalised workers, right? Because if you’re privileged, and you can make deposits and screen to some extent. Nobody is really coming after you if you’re privileged. They are charging workers who are more marginalised and vulnerable, which is messed up.
Mia: It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality.
Amelia: Yes. And how have you found working with COVID? Did you start escorting pre-COVID?
Mia: I started working right before COVID, and it definitely impacted my business. I had a real hard time during the height of COVID, simply from the isolation and the idleness. I wasn’t financially struggling. I was fine. I had a cushion and savings from what felt like a lifetime working in finance. But even though I wasn’t struggling financially, I felt a lot of loss, you know? Everyone did, right? A loss of identity and purpose, and productivity. I really like sex work. But the types of clients that I would like to book me simply weren’t booking during COVID. They certainly weren’t going to conferences. They weren’t going to dinners. So, I had very few bookings during COVID, and the ones I had, I enjoyed less because they were all private time.
Amelia: Right, I mean, it’s not even like you just couldn’t go to a conference. You couldn’t go anywhere.
Mia: Right. And I’m pretty extroverted. I like socialising with my clients. And I’ve had clients tell me that part of their attraction is that they like to see me working a room. So, yeah, COVID was not enjoyable by any means. And it’s interesting because I have friends who are colleagues, who most of their bookings are private time, right? And their volume was not as affected by COVID in the way that mine was. But that was kind of my experience with COVID.
And it definitely gave me skewed work data, as a businesswoman who really loves data. It was challenging for me to figure out which marketing wasn’t working because it simply wasn’t working versus what marketing was not working because of COVID. And it turns out, I was definitely guilty of blaming COVID for many of my marketing failings.
I’m a businesswoman. I’m not an artist. A lot of people in our field have tremendous creative talent. And I know my clients pretty well. I actually am a client as well – my husband and I have booked providers together, and I have also booked by myself a couple times. So, I think I know my client base pretty well, but there’s still some aesthetic aspects of branding and imagery that I find difficult. I’m completely aesthetically blind. I was always more of a number person. I don’t really see beauty. Even when I book providers, I tend to book based on how intellectual I think they are, and I always do longer bookings. It’s not as important to me that someone has a certain look or body type. Even gender is not that important to me. Well, actually, I do think about gender because I have a husband, and all my clients are men. But I would book an AFAB [assigned female at birth] or non-binary provider for myself if I felt like that person was very intellectual. Anyway, I think it definitely took me more work to fine-tune the imagery of my marketing. The messaging of my marketing was easier for me because I’m a client, and I have a lot in common with my clients. I know what my clients are interested in. But the visual aspect was challenging for me, and then COVID definitely screwed with my data on that.
Amelia: I’ve got the sense that COVID has calmed down a little bit in New York, and things are getting back to normal a little bit. Is that the case?
Mia: Yeah, that’s definitely been my experience. The U.S. seems to have reopened quite a bit, and I think business travel is starting to resume. My husband and I have a home in New York and a home on the West Coast, and we’re bi-coastal. So, we shuttle back and forth quite frequently. And for a while, we had a home in Madrid. We acquired a residence in Madrid because it accelerated my citizenship process there. My husband hates it, but I married him for my citizenship. I probably would not have been so eager to get married if I didn’t want a passport. You don’t get a Spanish passport simply by marrying a Spanish citizen, but it accelerates your citizenship process. To be clear, I love my husband and am in this relationship because I love him. But I only got legally married for an EU passport.
Amelia: Yeah, that makes sense. Are you open with clients about being married? I’m guessing so, otherwise you wouldn’t be talking so openly about it.
Mia: Absolutely. I think a lot of people in this industry really, really sell the fantasy. And that works for a lot of people, but it doesn’t work for me. That’s not the business that I want. As a client, I don’t mix up my fantasy with reality. I don’t want to date providers that I see with my husband – we want a good experience, a smooth transaction, good service. And that’s what I’m selling my clients – a high degree of professionalism, a good time, a good service. But it is a service.
I had one client that I fired because our last night of a week-long FMTY, he kept asking me to date him outside of work. We were on an island in his remote vacation home, and it was the middle of the night. And this was a client that I started seeing when I first started in the industry. I kind of followed the industry norm where I didn’t want to ruin his fantasy, right? He’s paying money, and I thought he was owed his fantasy. And I will never do that again. Because it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable time for me. And it definitely led to a result that made me uncomfortable. I basically told him, “It is wildly inappropriate that you would ask me to see you off-work hours. Any service provider would be incredibly insulted to hear that they’re doing such a good job, that you want them to work for free.” And I truly do like my clients, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not my clients.
Amelia: That sounds hideously uncomfortable. I love that you are so open. I have always been very private – I don’t like to share my relationship status with clients. I keep it all very separate, and I uphold the fantasy of clients. I need to do that. It works better for me to keep it private. But I know lots of providers that are more open about their relationships, and I really love hearing the other perspective.
Mia: It’s great that you can uphold that boundary for yourself. I feel like, in some ways, we’re relationship experts. I’ve actually given marital and intimacy advice to some of my clients. They asked for it. I’ve never just offered it up. But I have found that being open with my clients about being married makes them more comfortable sharing aspects of their marriage. I have a client that actually stopped seeing me because I gave him some advice that allowed him to fix some of the intimacy issues with his wife. I’m not upset about the loss of business; I’m quite happy for him. I felt like he got really good value out of his time with me. And he made a pretty generous donation to the Sex Workers Outreach Project to thank me for that.
Amelia: That’s so lovely.
Mia: Yeah, it was absolutely lovely. And my husband was like, “I never get these nice emails from my clients.” And I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell you!” [laughs]
Amelia: The last thing I wanted to ask you was how you came up with your name. I love hearing people’s escort name origin stories.
Mia: I’m going to be honest about this. Like I said, I am not great with aesthetics. So, my husband loves porn, and he knew quite a bit about the industry. He actually had seen providers before meeting me. So, I was asking him, like, “I need help choosing a name.” And he put together a few from a couple of Asian porn stars that he liked. So, he’s like, “What about Mia Lee?” I’m like, “Sounds good. I don’t hate that.”
Amelia: I love that so much. “I don’t hate it.” [laughs]
Mia: When it comes to creative stuff, it’s funny because now I’m CFO [Chief Financial Offer] of this magazine [Petit Mort]. And like, I’m always really clear with people that “No, no, I’m the operations person. I have no part in the creative process. I write the finance column. I do the finances. It doesn’t mean I have any creative ability.”
Amelia: That’s hilarious. And I’ve been following the magazine you guys have been created. It’s such a cool project.
Mia: Thank you. I’ll pass the compliments along. I think we are very proud of the project. And we’re very proud that we pay people fairly. We pay honorariums to marginalised and disadvantaged sex workers so that we can have a more diverse representation of voices and faces in our magazine. And those are things that other big-name production houses don’t do to keep the margins where there are. Once in a while, people do ask me, “Why is the magazine $60?” And I’m like, “Well, it’s because we actually pay artists.”
Amelia: That’s so great. I’ll make sure to link the magazine [Petit Mort] so that readers can check it out. I’m so thankful for you taking the time to chat. I really, really appreciate it, and I’m sure the readers will too. I think your story is so cool and I’m sure people will enjoy it.
Where to find Mia Lee:
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