Katie Naylon on Phone Sex and Screenwriting (About Phone Sex)

Katie Naylon ran a phone sex line from her dorm room in college, and then, with Lauren Miller, wrote a screenpay based on the experience. The script got made in to the movie For a Good Time, Call…, startting Ari Graynor and Miller. Naylon, while plotting her next project for the screen, works in LA as a long-term advertising freelancer. We spoke about running a phone sex line, how to make money in Hollywood (slowly), and keeping a day job.

Kase Wickman: Let’s start from the beginning: How did this phone sex hotline get started?

Katie Anne Naylon: I don’t come from an affluent family, so I was in state college on student loans ,and they didn’t cover everything. I was babysitting to make a little extra money and I donated plasma a few times, just so I could have cash. I wanted a job on campus, and I decided the best way to do it would be to do something on the phone.

My roommate and I went online—this was 2000, I had a giant Gateway computer—and we were looking for some kind of telemarketing thing. That was the original plan. We stumbled across an ad for a phone sex operator for a hotline, and kind of called and did a phone interview as a joke. And I got it. 

KW: What does a phone sex interview even consist of?

KAN: They sent us a script and asked us to repeat it back to them and we had a simulated call with them. I just tried not to laugh. And I had never even had sex, so all of this sounded pretty crazy to me, and I felt pretty removed from it. I said whatever they needed me to say, and tried to say it in a sexy way. Mind you, I was probably 18 or 17, so I probably did sound really cute.

I got the job and it seemed like a lot of money at the time, like a quarter a minute. But the calls were kind of infrequent. We’d call in and tell them we were working, and they would forward calls to your phone, but it wasn’t one after another, it was kind of intermittent from their call center. And you wouldn’t get paid right away, you would have to wait until the end of the month. It wasn’t that much money at all when it came.

KW: How would you get paid?

KAN: They mailed me a check. We never met anyone from this place. They mailed me this little thing for independent contractors, and we had to fax them back. It all felt really weird, it was all so very shady. When we got paid, it was $150 or something. It didn’t feel like it matched the amount of work that had been done. And then we were looking at the fees, it seemed like if you were buying phone sex, at the time it was $2.99 a minute or something, or more. Why were we only seeing a quarter out of that $3, when it seemed like we were the ones doing most of the work? A quarter seemed like the smallest percentage humanly possible, and that seemed wrong. So we wondered, “What if there’s a way to cut out the middleman?” So I found other girls that did this, or women that have their own private phone sex lines.

KW: How did you even find those other girls?

KAN: I went on phone sex websites! And it would be like, “Tammi!” And she would have like a site or whatever, and I emailed said Tammi or whichever girl I had found, and was like “Hey, how did you do this?” I thought about getting a 900 number, but you have to pay up front for that, and I didn’t get paid until the end of the month, and that also seemed like a lot of work. But it was also the beginning of eBay and PayPal, so there was a way that money could change hands over the internet with a relatively low fee.

So I got an 800 number, what it means to have an 800 number is that you’re really only paying the toll, the long distance fee, so you’re paying 10 cents on the minute. That meant that we could charge $2.99 a minute, and the overhead was only 10 cents, so we’d be making $2.89, less a 50 cent fee on the entire transaction. So I got a 3,000 percent raise from what I did before.

Then all we had to do was make a website. Instead of putting one girl on the website, I put like 10 girls, so there was a whole slew of them on there, when really it was only my roommate and I. It didn’t matter who you asked for, you got one of us. So there was like, black girls, white girls, blah blah blah, whatever you need there to be! I had taken intro to advertising at that point, so I knew we needed a hook for why our site was better. We put that we were college girls, which was actually true! It was like, “Sorority girls want to bone on the phone!” And we made these little fliers, which, that was actually a bad move, because they all just got taken down, and a lot of college kids called us and they didn’t pay quick enough and they would screw around or give us fake credit cards.

It took off pretty quickly. The problem was, an 800 number isn’t a real phone line. You know how your dorm comes with a phone number already, that’s just the phone in there? Well, every time the phone rang, I had no idea if it was someone calling the hotline or someone calling the regular number. It could be my dad, or my friend’s dad, or a friend. So we couldn’t necessarily be like, “FSU Tits, hello!” And the phone, we couldn’t turn it off. We could turn the ringer off, but it would ring all night long. And sometimes we didn’t want to be working, we wanted to sleep, like humans. We got in a little over our heads, and we shut it down a semester later.

It was a really great story that we told people at parties and they always loved it and thought it was hysterical. By then I knew that it would be a story that I would use later in a creative way that I would want to tell. So that was that.

KW: If it was really ringing off the hook, you must’ve made pretty good money.

KAN: We did. I want to say—I’m not exactly sure, though I do have a lot of the phone bills saved — that it was something like six grand and we split it. That was a lot of money! It was 2000, and that only took a semester—it was a lot of money. I wish I knew where that money went. At the time, I probably paid for my friends a lot to do stuff and have fun, so I felt like a regular kid. I also didn’t play too much, and school was hard, since I was taking 18 hours of credits and I was on the phone all the time and not sleeping well. But a lot of nights I’d be doing my homework while I was on the phone.

So that was that, and I put it behind me after freshman year. And then sophomore year is when I met Lauren Miller, my writing partner, the star of the film, and because of her sweetness, her inherent sweetness, I remember sort of wanting to hold back when I told her about it. Like here’s this sweet girl that probably wouldn’t think that it was hysterical and funny, who would actually think that it was disgusting. I was like, “I might start doing it again, for another company,” because I was running low on cash. She just said, “Keep it in your room, I don’t want to know about any of it.” And I didn’t end up doing it again, actually. But Lauren was in film school and I was in the creative writing program, and then three years ago, we wrote this script together, which was inspired by that time and our friendship, and what different girls we are to become BFFs.

KW: Did you enjoy the job and phone sex itself, or did you more enjoy the money? Were you ever like, “oh, I could go work at the Gap?”

KAN: Well, no, I mean, it really felt like a whirlwind. It was happening, and then it was over. At first it was fun, because it was a lark, which was cool. And looking back on it now I can say much more articulately that there was something more meaningful in it at the time for me, because I was a freshman at a giant college, and I came from a relatively small high school and my roommate at the time was one of my friends from my high school. It sort of bonded us further and it helped me adjust to college, in a weird way. I had something that I was good at and was my own thing, that had nothing to do with school. It felt like a really big school, and freshman year felt really weird at the time, so it felt really good and powerful to have my own thing and feel like I was good at something that was separate from that part of my life. Whenever you’re on the phone there’s a buffer between you and reality. So now I can say that it gave me a confidence that I didn’t have strutting across the quad with 4,000 kids coming in my direction and not knowing where my English class was, wandering for an hour trying to find it.

It’s such a weird time. I like being good at things and knowing everyone, and I didn’t. But then on the phone, I was good at things, and when I was at parties, I would be the girl who ran the phone sex line, which even then was funny, and everyone thought it was awesome. A friend of ours worked for us briefly, so we had this miniature empire out of our dorm. It meant we were cool.

KW: Speaking of empires: Did you have to register as a contractor and really set it up as a business?

KAN: That was all under the table. I think the statute of limitations has passed, hopefully. We weren’t taxed on the money, that was one of the reasons that we stopped. I remember we paid to go see a lawyer, she was this shady lawyer with this weird strip mall office. We had incorporated as an LLC, but we had done it online and they mailed us this envelope with like, cardboard stocks in it. It was very strange. You could do everything over the internet at this point, so we did that. Then we met with this lawyer who said we definitely needed to pay taxes, and it would cost a lot of money. Coincidentally, we also had FSU in the phone number and in the name. It’s just letters in a row, but it’s a trademark, it was our college, where we went to school, so we would have lost that one. So she told us that we needed to change the number and we needed to change the name and we would have to pay taxes and all of that seemed really intense. Between that and the fatigue, we just called it a day.

KW: Are you still in touch with the roommate you ran the hotline with?

KAN: Yes, but she’s private. She’s just a regular lady. She does a lot of charity work. She’s just the opposite of what you would think we would have turned out to be.

KW: Did you tell her before you wrote the movie?

KAN: I wrote an article about it in the NY Press in 2006 called “No Experience Necessary.” After it was published I mailed the article to her and hoped that she wasn’t upset with me. When the movie was going to Sundance I spoke with her and made sure she was ok with it and she actually attended the premiere with me. The movie is in no way true to life, it’s just based on bits and pieces and the archetypes of what Lauren and I are and the fact that I was a virgin when I ran the phone sex hotline.

KW: What did your parents think of the hotline? Obviously they know now, but when did you tell them about it?

KAN: Well, at the time I didn’t say anything, obviously.

In my final year in college, I had a writing portfolio of all my writing of the entire year and it was mailed home to my permanent address before graduation, so my parents got it before I did. They brought it to graduation and they had read it and in there was a personal essay about the phone sex hotline. My dad asked me if it was fiction, and I knew that I was caught. It didn’t read like fiction and it was not fiction, so that was when that came out. They’re pretty open-minded, but I maybe wouldn’t have told them yet. I have a way of being honest with my mother, like, 10 years later. Like, “oh, you know that one time? That actually wasn’t true.” So they found out about it and they didn’t seem too mad about it, but they didn’t seem thrilled either.

At one point in time I tried to tell my dad about the business details, because I thought he’d be proud of how clever I was, and he used to run his own business and he like put a hand up and was like, “you know, I don’t want to know.” But then when the article came out in the NY Press, my mom was so torn because she was so proud, but also she didn’t necessarily want to hand it out to her friends because of the content, but then she did. Once the whole movie thing came to life, they were very supportive. They came out to Sundance and my brother came out, and everyone was definitely excited for Lauren and I to have this first movie we’d made on our own.

KW: You said that you’ve also worked in advertising. What are some other jobs you’ve had?

KAN: Oh my god, go get a pen. This is crazy. My first job was at a coffee shop, then I worked at a children’s museum and did like a snake spider scorpion show and then I was in like a dinosaur costume and had to hand out fliers for this museum, which was awful. And then I worked at a little hotel the summer before college, and then the summer after freshman year I worked at a cell phone store, and at that point I was making so much money that I almost didn’t want to go back to school and my parents told me I was retarded and that I had to go back to college. But I remember they offered me a full-time job at CallCo, and it was 40 grand a year and I was like “Wow, why do I even have to go to college!” They were like, “You’re not gonna sell cell phones for a living, go back to school!” And so I did. I went back.

And then I worked at Cracker Barrel as a waitress and hostess, and then in New York—I moved to New York after college—I worked as a litigation paralegal for a year. I worked at a donut shop and a bar; I was a nanny.

I did whatever needed to be done to make ends meet. I worked in stand-up comedy briefly, I worked at Harper’s Bazaar magazine as an assistant. I basically have worked everywhere. And then I landed in advertising, I wrote a campaign on spec, which means for free, for Dasani Water, which got me a freelance job at a small boutique ad agency, and then I worked at another ad agency, and then at a larger one, Grey, in digital advertising. I had no idea what I was doing, but no one seemed to notice. Then I worked at Euro RSCG. I worked there for almost two years. I worked on Volvo and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. I worked in SoHo and worked on Clearasil and Triscuit and really big brands.

Then I retired from advertising, supposedly. I had like a six-figure job at that point, and was doing very well, but I retired to move to LA to write the film with Lauren. I moved out here and promptly ran out of money and I worked at a summer camp for like 10 bucks an hour. I did that for three or four months and was very humbled again by how easy it is to come in and out of money. Then I got a job at Ogilvy and I worked on Cisco and NatureMade and other big brands out here and saved up more money, and finally quit Ogilvy to produce the film with Lauren. Again, it was sort of a roll of the dice because we had a million dollars together, and we didn’t know how it would work out, all that we knew was that we wanted to submit it to Sundance. It sold there for nearly $2.5 million. We were with the wonderful people at Focus. Now I’m actually back in advertising while I work on some television stuff and some film stuff on the side.

I think I’m on the right side up, but you never know. I’m always thankful when there’s money in my bank account and people want to work with me. That’s the dream.

KW: You must be really good at saving money. Do you make it a point to live frugally?

KAN: [laughing] No, I don’t. I always say that I will, like when I come into money again, I’m like okay, I’m going to be good this time. I know that’s kind of the point of the site, but um…

KW: No, it’s more just about how you deal with money.

KAN: Oh, so I’ll be completely truthful. I have learned a lot and I’m 30 now, so things are a little different. I realized at some point that I have a high earning potential, and I’m very lucky that way, because I have a degree and I have a certain skillset and because I’m very, you know, assertive and I know a lot of people at this point. I didn’t before, but I can make an impression and stay with people that I like and admire. So I always know that I can make more money soon, so I try to stay on top of it.

I’ve been in debt many times and I’ve come out of debt many times, so I know what that’s like. I’ve been on every side of it. Right now, yes, I’m saving. I’m working in advertising, doing a pretty long freelance job right now, so I can store away that money so I can sit and write full-time and have a nice life and a nice apartment and not worry about it. You can go a really long time in the film industry between projects, and before you get paid, also. It can be a year and a half before you see a dollar from a project, which is really hard, obviously, if you don’t have money saved.

So I’m getting better at saving, but no, I’m not the poster child for that.

KW: How long did it take you to see any money from For a Good Time, Call…?

We really did it in 2009 and we shopped it around for a year and had great reactions, but no takers. We made it, and then I didn’t see any real money from the film until a few months ago. That was another one of those times where I borrowed from everyone I knew. I have heard that Kevin Smith put all of the “Clerks” movies on his credit card. I didn’t actually put the movie on my credit card, but I put my entire life on credit cards so I could devote my time to the film. It was just recently, after the film came out, that I saw any real money. That’s just how long it takes, because everything has to be handled and delivered and contracts signed and everything. That’s just what it is. Completely typical. That was a lesson learned.

I’m in advertising right now because even if I sold a television show to HBO tomorrow, which I would hope to do, I don’t know that I would see that money for six months or something like that. No one could live like that, even if you were living very frugally.

KW: You said that you knew your were going to write about the phone sex thing even while you were doing it. Do you have any other strange personal stories that might pop up in your work?

KAN: I have so many of them, I don’t even know where to start. I’ve always been a really focused person on a weird thing, and in high school a friend of mine and I were really obsessed with the soap opera, General Hospital. We even went to the daytime Emmys in New York and we just bought tickets and wore evening gowns. It was so weird, and at the time it seemed completely normal. At the time it was just this thing we did.

I certainly had this time in high school where the town I lived in, their baseball team, the Devil Rays, we used to hang out at this hotel where all of the baseball teams stayed, and I would just hang out with all of these baseball players. I hung out with Derek Jeter when I was 15.

I’ve always been sort of seeking out fun stuff and wanting to have a good time and be the center of attention and that kind of thing.

KW: It seems like two trends in your working life are that you’re often self-employed, and that you like to collaborate. Are those things you specifically seek out?

KAN: Well, yeah. In advertising, you’re always partnered with an art director, which is great to have. I love to have a partner and I by no means wrote that film on my own. Also, you have to be able to take care of yourself, and you have to be able to fend for yourself. That’s where real confidence comes from. I’ve learned that. Finding those little places where you just can have that independence is important, because at the end of the day, partner partner partner, you’re the one who has to pay your bills and you’re the one who has to pat yourself on the back. You don’t want to be co-dependent or put that on another person in a relationship, any kind of relationship. It’s okay to be a little slower getting something done, or to be alone more often than you’d like to do things yourself. I think it’s really important for growth purposes.

KW: Do you worry about money?

KAN: I do. I do worry about money. I do. I guess I worry about money because I know how long it can take to get out of a debt situation, because I’ve been in them before. But also I have this strange, quiet belief that I know I’m going to be taken care of, and I really believe that. I have a high earning potential, and if I put my mind to something, it will happen. People say that to me, that I will succeed. I don’t take no for an answer. If something doesn’t go one way, I find another way to do it. I don’t get turned away easily, so I feel like in my work life, there is success to be had — and often success is money.

I do worry about money, though, and I think everyone does. And you should, because it’s scary.

KW: Do you go to coffee shops, or make your own? What do you consider an allowable luxury?

KAN: It’s a quality of life thing. It’s not that I don’t realize that saving $4 on coffee three mornings a week would save me money. I like to stop at the hipster coffee shop on my way to my office or a meeting, so that’s definitely a luxury I have, the vanilla soy latte. Coffee is an allowable luxury. I think going out to dinner with friends is important. I think it’s important to have a full life. The good thing about being in the movie industry and taking all these meetings is you get a lot of lunches for free and dinners for free, and drinks, so that’s a huge savings. I think I let that counteract the fact that I do go out and go to a nice dinner. Valet parking is also a nice treat that one deserves, I think.

KW: What the best advice you’ve gotten or best advice you can give?

KAN: I’ll give you both. Susan Shapiro, who is a writing teacher for New School and also for MediaBistro in New York and also has written many books, she became my writing mentor in New York many years ago and she’s always told me to spend time around the people you want to be. That was really helpful for me as a young person with dreams that felt kind of lofty. Personal time should be spent very wisely. So if I wanted to write books, I should go to readings. And I should spend my time with people I admire because those are people I need to know. Not because I’m a climber, but because those are people worth talking to and associating with and seeing how they operate. That was really helpful to me, and really inspiring.

As far as my own advice, this is lame maybe, but it’s don’t take no for an answer. There’s always another way. I feel like a good idea finds a way, it really does. Just keep at it. At any point, I could’ve given up, or Lauren could have given up on this project, and so many times. Not everyone was a fan of me moving to New York when I only knew one person, or moving to LA when I had a perfectly good job in New York that was someone else’s dream job. So many times, people have told me no, or discouraged me, but I knew what I wanted, even if it seemed really lofty, and I just kept at it. I think that that’s the key to many successes that I’ve had so far.

 

Kase Wickman lives in New York. 

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7 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#161)

I had a friend who was in grad school to be a psychologist and she did the phone sex thing (not starting her own line, just getting it forwaded to her at home by a service), and, at the same time, was manning the phones at a suicide hotline as an internship for her program. She said there was a lot more overlap than you’d think, as a significant portion of people who call the phone sex lines are pretty depressed and really just want someone to talk to, and also you sometimes get people calling the suicide hotline who want to talk dirty.

One thing she told me that I found surprising was that the phone sex line people were pretty strict about keeping things on the up and up. Like, my friend was in her mid-20s had a pretty young-sounding voice, and you were supposed to record brief promos of various personae that the callers would choose from the phone menu. And my friend tried to do a “naughty schoolgirl” thing and they were very firm that they couldn’t do it, because it might imply that she was underage.

jfruh (#161)

(Also no offense and I know you were in college, but why are so many people so surprised when they discover that they have to pay taxes on their income?)

sunflowernut (#1,638)

@jfruh She was probably used to paying the amount people pay as employees and hoping it wouldn’t be that big a deal if it was all under the table. If she was starting her own business she would have had to pay a much higher percentage, and that for sure can be a bit shocking.

oiseau (#1,830)

This was great!

I love the piece of advice at the end – as a fairly ambitious young it really applies to where I’m at right now in life.

Would love to read more about the strange career paths other now-successful people took.

muush (#521)

@oiseau Seconded!

” “Sorority girls want to bone on the phone!”

Best. Tagline. Ever.

Not surprised that she went on to make a killing in advertising!

Ignatius (#3,113)

I’m confused — how did the two writers/producers of the film end up with a million bucks to make it? It’s almost mentioned as an afterthought. “…it was sort of a roll of the dice because we had a million dollars together…” Did they finance this movie with their own money, or were there other investors? If there were no other investors, how is it possible for two people to save up one million dollars at such a young age? I’d be curious about the specifics there. Gracias…

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