In all her artistic guises, Leah Schrager is a beautiful woman. In the tradition of feminist artists like Hannah Wilke, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Katharina Sieverding, and Andrea Fraser, Schrager knows her beauty’s impact when exploring its effects. Whether harnessing her beauty to create art as her Instagram cam-girl identity, Ona; as Sarah White (The Naked Therapist); or under her own name, Schrager confronts the power, privileges, pitfalls, and prejudices of being a sex-positive, confident woman in command of her own sexual pull.
Schrager launched Ona in 2015 as an active cam-worker and conceptual art-project pushing cam-girl aesthetics and the boundaries between sex work and the artists who sell postmodern self-objectification and creative intimacy. Ona nimbly straddles lines between aesthetic and sexual arousal. Her feed is a constantly creative and arousing blend of artful angles, witty captions, seductive expressions, and tantalizing near-nudity. Instagram, as the completely contemporary (not retro) itineration of classic burlesque, is where Ona (alongside other digital sex workers) performs a strip-tease through poses, edited-in digital pasties, and cheeky comments. Her work exists within and comments on the toxic irony of online culture’s relationship with pro-sex empowerment. As she said on Instagram last year, “Sure, it’s trendy to support female empowerment via ‘you go, girl’ and ‘be proud of your body,’ yet a digital ‘art world’ is being built on purified platforms like FB, IG, and Drip that censor out nudity and limit, to a huge degree, how some girls (and artists) wish to express pride, and, yes, even profit off their bodies.” In accordance with her designs, Schrager plans to retire Ona in 2020, having amassed 3 million Instagram followers, recognition in Artforum and Playboy, and insights into online culture’s values, priorities, and changing perspectives.
Ona hasn’t failed; as Schrager sees it, Ona’s audience failed her. Instead of exploring the discomfort she intended to place before them, viewers consumed her without digesting the deeper questions she was raising—notably, is it more unsettling to see Ona enjoying her work or to recognize that she is working via our enjoyment of her? As Eric Sprankle, associate professor of clinical psychology and sexuality studies at Minnesota State University, asks, “What if sex work wasn’t viewed as inherently exploitative work, but viewed as work within an inherently exploitative economic system?”
In October 2018, Schrager launched a different project on her own Instagram feed, which evolved into a captivating extended narrative informally titled Man Hands. Through her teasing, novelistic captions and evocative images, she told a bi-coastal story of working with an unseen powerful male patron. According to her narrative, “MH” committed a serious sum to helping her, Svengali-style, create a SFW/ “female friendly” artistic persona. Over time, in almost daily posts, their dynamic turned turbulent as the inherent power dynamics exposed their individual, and conjoined, vulnerabilities, investments, and aspirations.
While she prepared to show work in “Cam Life: An Introduction to Webcam Culture” at New York’s Museum of Sex (through May 31, 2020), Leah and I curled up on her studio floor to discuss Ona, art, the art world, beauty, and the spookiness of identically placed beauty marks on our cheeks.
Ana Finel Honigman: I know you’ve created Ona as a finite project. She’s set to be retired or reassessed in 2020. What are your thoughts about her future?
Leah Schrager: I’m concluding her as a project in 2020. My patron wants me to sell her website, and I’m considering it. When I started her I didn’t think I’d be able to let go of her in 2020. But given the lack of support she’s received from the art world and Instagram (which has recently shadow banned her), I’m honestly tired of fighting and ready to move on. My original goal was to have a big art show presenting her as the conceptual practice she was alongside her visual works, but that’s currently on hold as I wait for someone in the art world to help push it forward. I am, however, considering writing an essay or publishing a book on her and the state of female celebrity today.
How do you define the state of female celebrity today? Celebrity feels like a very different world than five years ago.
Yeah totally! That’s really cool! I’m curious to hear more about how you think celebrity is different from five years ago.
I like that we live in an era where Kim Kardashian is admirably focusing on social justice issues and posting about Congress affirming the Armenian Genocide alongside beauty and fashion advice. Having said that, it is troubling there isn’t more support for Ona on strictly freedom of speech grounds. The shadow ban itself, and the insidious application of FOSTA-SESTA to suppress and starve consensual sex workers, is something I’d think the art world would want to address.
I completely agree. FOSTA-SESTA has been terrible. And I’d think so too, but they don’t seem so interested in sex workers’ rights.
How do you feel responses and reception to your work have changed in recent years along with radically shifting cultural values around beauty, celebrity, inclusivity, sexuality, and authority? You started Ona in a fundamentally different world—or did you?
Honestly, I feel that the world has shifted in a much more sexually conservative way than I was expecting when I started Ona in 2015. Back then I thought there might be a space even for an Instagram celebrity who is sexy-sexy and does music. But what I learned is that no one in the music industry would touch her music because they were scared of how people would react to the sexy vibe. Many of them told me exactly that, saying things like “This won’t sell ‘cause the image is too sexual” and “What about the ladies?” I’ve also found the art world to be similar. If I had known the culture was moving in this direction, I wouldn’t have developed Ona as I did. It turns out her independence and Instagram success canceled her ability to be a mainstream or (at this point anyways) an artistic success.
How would you have developed her differently?
I would not have made her so sexy, which basically means I would have tried to walk the line between appealing to men and women a little more closely. Though that’s a very hard line to walk.
You haven’t been posting under your own name on Instagram recently. Why?
I had a fallout with my patron who was supporting a large part of the project. I decided to take some time off to reevaluate my goals and assess my situation. I am back on it, though.
How did your Man Hands project connect to Ona?
The instigation and message of Man Hands is the idea that men’s hands are around women’s art. Ona was getting a lot of hate from the art world for being pro-sex. If a woman wants to perform, you choose your audience. Ona picked a male audience and there is a lot of male energy. Male producers control and fund the star-making process. It’s not always a bad thing, but the men are mostly invisible. If you don’t want that, don’t consume media. I hoped Man Hands could have created a conversation about funding and producing. I wanted to raise awareness about the invisible benefactors and explore where money comes from. I want to question the notion of “use that patriarchy” and examine that power.
I feel like Man Hands really represented something profound about unspoken power dynamics, vulnerabilities, and routes to empowerment, secretly supporting many artists and women beyond the art world. Are you going to explore that situation further?
Yes, that is right on. I am going to. I’m planning to talk more about this in coming posts.
At its core, wasn’t there a question between you and Man Hands about defining and developing a “female-friendly image”? What did that mean for you and how did that evolve through the project?
Exactly. Basically he thought I should be more female-friendly. That means not sexual or sexy. Which to me also means, just don’t show skin and be more conservative in poses. So it means more clothes, less body, more stillness, less movement, more rules, less freedom. My early training was as a dancer and I quite literally didn’t realize that some things I was doing were inappropriate! I’d say I’ve learned a lot about style and I have a new appreciation for fine goods. I’m also creating images that could be more mainstream-friendly, which has been an interesting new direction and challenge for me. He picked his favorite image from the series because of the composition and clarity. Mine was me at MoMA, but you can’t tell that I’m in it. I love the aesthetics of it. It’s like a digital painting.
How has the history of artists’ relationship with sex work and sex workers influenced the work you create and your ideas about yourself as a woman?
My art is heavily influenced by my sex work, but as you know, art history is filled with women whose sexuality forms the basis of their work. However, in my experience the art world heavily stigmatizes artists who use arousal that can be seen as commercial in their work. And this stigmatization makes its way into the work, of course. But the experience of facing it has strengthened my belief that at the core of a strong, independent, artful woman is a mature, open, realized life of free sexuality, and I am happy to live that, to share that, and to transform it into an art practice. I will keep doing that no matter what because I think it’s an important message in these relatively sexless times, when “female empowerment” all too often has an anti-sex bent.
I think pro-sex advocacy is often viewed with greater skepticism and stigma coming from people who embody contemporary beauty standards.
Definitely, absolutely. I am not totally sure how the art world became so conservative. The process of beauty is very complicated. For a while, it had this one route and then we all smashed in to change it. It was seen as hurtful but even that becomes hegemonic. Why not enjoy these things, share these things, and enjoy the connection to other women?
Applying cosmetics is meditative for some women, and that subjective, tactical experience is often overlooked because women are still assumed to be insecure or neurotically obsessed with others’ impressions of us. The process of “beautifying” oneself isn’t necessarily superficial. It is also a very private pleasure.
I’ve just started practicing this. I’m so accustomed to rushing through everything and being constantly in a hurry, but I’ve started taking the time to really experience the process. I also find the whole focus is best when it’s totally subjective. I’ve always found the idea that having stubbly legs makes someone insecure very odd, but I know it does affect people. I was at a web conference and a woman who identified herself as a feminist confessed, with some self-deprecation, that she has hair on a mole and it makes her insecure. I then realized that I have a mole with hair and I never thought about it. It felt like a weird inversion of expectations and focus. I had no idea it was something I should be worried about!
A guy, or whomever you’re interested in, rarely cares about a hair on a mole. It’s about being interested and willing to have fun and make a connection.
I was very lucky that my mother raised me with that exact philosophy. A lot of beauty is the decision to be beautiful, and sexual allure can be inclusive. The French term jolie laide can be lifelong.
Where do you feel resentment and antagonism for your work—within and outside the art world—really comes from? Who is most critical and why?
Resentment and antagonism generally come from those who want to keep women demure and only performing appropriately, which is essentially in defiance of the male gaze. Many people hate the idea that a woman would be able to make a complete living off being a sex worker—and I think that’s evident by the stigmatization and complete division between mainstream opportunities and “darkstream” or sex work opportunities that are available to those who are comfortable indulging in attraction play.
The skills needed to survive and thrive as a sex worker—not just aesthetic marketability but aptitude at emotional labor, creativity, business savvy, and genuine empathy—are only marginalized because society refuses to accept that sex work is work. I don’t know if you’ve read Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith, but it’s a great portrait of how sex work is, and always has been, situated on the vanguard of counterculture politics because of its direct recognition of basic human needs and inequalities and its inherent societal critique. Ona, I think, is literally being punished for her success.
Breaking down your audience, where do you get the most support and the most censure?
I get the most support from my Instagram followers. I get the most censure from the mainstream and the art world. Within the art world I’d say the resentment and antagonism come mostly from women. Men aren’t so negative usually and often tell me privately that they like the work but are just too scared to show my art for fear of it destroying their careers. Of course there are exceptions and some women, such as yourself, understand the complexities of female performance and are non-judgmental. I really appreciate these people. They make it all worth it.