Earlier this week, former Disney-star-turned-porn-director Bella Thorne announced that she would be working with the pornography-sharing site, Pornhub, to keep it free of “revenge porn”. This is the story behind that announcement.
Bella Thorne starts crying.
One of her dogs, Ma, an Australian Shepherd, scampers around her ankles to show her concern.
We’ve talked about slut-shaming, depression, bullying on social media, and how she has become one of the most deepfaked actresses, appearing now in thousands of faked pornographic videos.
“Just talking about the world in this way makes me so sad,” she says, “It makes me hate it.”
But none of this is what triggers her tears.
We’re sitting on the deck of her rented waterfront home in Sudbury, Ontario. It’s a quiet, maple-leaf-strewn town on the cusp of autumn, and Thorne has been here for three months filming Girl, with Mickey Rourke, in which she plays a young woman who has returned to her sleepy home town to kill her abusive father.
It’s been a year in which the 22-year-old has bared her soul to the world.
She released her first book, The Life Of A Wannabe Mogul: Mental Disarray – a series of darkly personal poems that centre around despair, isolation and sexual assault.
She touches on the raw grief of losing her father in a motorbike accident at the age of nine and her career as a child model, growing up under a dazzling spotlight, and then being propelled into a Disney Channel sitcom (Shake It Up, where Zendaya was her co-star). And she contemplates her need for romantic attention and her much-written-about pansexual lifestyle.
“Was it because I was molested my whole life? / exposed to sex at such a young age that feels the most natural to offer the world?”
The anthology, in which she consciously leaves words misspelt, stayed on the Amazon best-seller list for weeks after publication.
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It was during the emotionally draining press tour for the book, in June of this year, that Bella received a slew of text messages from a number she didn’t recognise.
“I’m getting out of an interview and I’m already crying, talking about the book, and I look at my phone and then I just see a few nudes of me,” she recalls.
Staring at the intimate photos that she had once sent a former lover, Bella was stunned. She called her manager and agent seeking advice.
Then her phone pinged again.
More topless photos. This time of some of her famous friends.
It was early in the morning and she was in bed.
In her book Bella had detailed the sexual abuse she had endured as a child – omitting the identity of her perpetrator – and explained how her fear of not being believed stopped her from reporting the crime. Looking at the topless pictures, a familiar feeling of violation washed over her.
“Here it is again,” she thought. “Someone else that has my life right in their hands and is able to make these decisions for me. Here it is again. Someone again forcing my hand to do something I don’t want to do when it involves sexual stuff.”
So she made a decision. Using her social media platforms – seven million followers on Twitter, 22 million on Instagram and nine million on Facebook – she released the topless pictures herself, along with screenshots of the threatening text message from the hacker, and her own message.
“I’m putting this out because it’s MY DECISION NOW U DON’T GET TO TAKE YET ANOTHER THING FROM ME.”
It was a polarising choice.
Whoopi Goldberg, who appears on American chat show The View, reprimanded Thorne, not for for releasing the pictures but taking them in the first place.
“If you’re famous, I don’t care how old you are. You don’t take nude pictures of yourself,” Goldberg said, during a panel discussion on her programme, “Once you take that picture, it goes into the cloud and it’s available to any hacker who wants it, and if you don’t know that in 2019 that this is an issue, I’m sorry.”
Thorne responded to Goldberg on Instagram, tearfully calling her comments, “sick and honestly disgusting”.
“It hurt more coming from a woman I admire,” says Thorne.
“People say, ‘No no my kids never do that. Oh no.'”
Her message for these people is this: “You never choose to really look inside your own home… Every single person shares some kind of affection online.”
She adds that publicly shaming young people for behaving in this way, when they are already feeling humiliated and vulnerable, could push them further towards a mental health crisis.
“If a photo had been released of a young girl or guy and it was going round their school, and they felt suicidal, they’d watch an interview like that and think, ‘Oh, ok, I do deserve this,'” she says.
These photographs that she released herself were the first genuine topless pictures of Bella Thorne to appear online.
However, there are many, many sexually explicit Bella Thorne videos – none of which are actually of her. They are deepfakes, made by expertly superimposing her face on to the body of an actor engaging in sex, and manipulating the image to make Thorne appear to say whatever the creators want her to.
One particular video disturbingly takes audio from a recording of Thorne crying about her dead father, whom she misses deeply, and edits her face on to a video of a woman masturbating.
“This video is going around and everyone really is thinking that it is actually me,” she tells the BBC. “And then they put the subtitles, ‘Daddy, Daddy!'”
Software developers have told the BBC that the technology to make deepfake videos from just a single photograph will be available to the general public in less than a year. This worries Bella.
“It’s not going to just be used on your favourite celebrity,” she says. “That is a breeding ground for underage pornography.”
She adds that such videos could be used as a form of revenge, blackmail or extortion against young women who, unlike her, do not have the digital platforms to expose them as fakes.
It’s at this point that we start talking about Thorne’s debut as a director, the award-winning adult film Him and Her – and something unexpected happens.
She says she decided to make the film because she thinks the industry needs more female directors, in order to change the type of stories told about female sexuality.
I then ask her to comment on the recent BBC investigation which found that Pornhub, the site where she released the film, has been profiting from so-called revenge porn videos.
It’s evident that this is the first Thorne has heard of the BBC story and she is visibly shaken.
“I didn’t know that,” she says, tears suddenly falling. “You attach yourself to things and you think you’re making things better. I try and help and then somewhere along the line…”
Her voice breaks off. I ask her if she wants to add anything more about Pornhub later when she’s had time to research.
“I don’t want to be fake, so I’d rather you keep my first answer.”
This interview is over.
Mindgeek, the company that owns Pornhub, told the BBC: “We seek to provide users with a safe space to share and consume content. The last thing we want is to undermine this by allowing revenge porn on our sites.”
Back at the hotel a text comes through from Thorne’s assistant inviting me to an event she is attending called Make Sure Your Friends are OK to destigmatise depression. It’s a cause that is particularly important to her, and one she wants her fans – particularly the vulnerable ones – to know about.
Three days later, I am at the event, a garden party in Beverly Hills.
“When I was first growing up there were only a few people you knew that were depressed, or like struggled with depression,” she says. “Now it’s almost every single person you know. There has to be some reasoning behind it, and my reasoning is growing up in social media.”
As I’m leaving the party, a friend of Thorne’s tells us that she got straight on the phone to Pornhub after our interview, and says we should look out for an announcement.
Later that week, Thorne picked up an award for her debut directorial adult film, Her & Him, at the Pornhub awards.
She thanked the adult film industry for embracing her creative vision for more women directors in pornography, and then added a pointed message condemning revenge porn videos.
“I am working with Pornhub to implement a change in their flagging system algorithm, to ensure safety for everyone and everyone in our community.”
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