From Cam Girl to CEO: How Bella French Is Creating a Better Future for Online Sex Workers
Bella French is the CEO and co-founder of ManyVids, an adult entertainment platform that puts the control in creators’ hands and aims to remove the stigma from online sex work.
She’s also a former cam girl herself.
“If you want to be the best in the world at anything, you have to be very smart. That’s the same reality in the adult space.”
It wasn’t a future Bella French could have ever planned. Having studied fashion design and marketing, she entered her working years with hopes of having a successful career in the fashion industry. With her entrepreneurial spirit, French—along with her friends and family—invested in opening a retail store filled with her designs in Montreal.
Eight months after opening, a leak from the apartments above her store completely flooded the space. The damage? Worth $250,000. Even with her insurance, French was left with $200,000 in debt.
She was devastated.
In the weeks that followed, she searched high and low for a job within the fashion industry, but no one was getting back to her. During a phone call with her best friend (and now boyfriend and co-founder of ManyVids), he asked if she had ever considered webcamming—he had heard that it could be pretty lucrative.
“Quite frankly, I was very insulted that he thought I would ever consider doing something like that,” said French. “I was judging sex workers and I felt like I was too smart—I was never going to do something like that.”
After her search for a new job proved fruitless and with the pressure of her substantial debt weighing on her, French said she turned to the online sex industry out of pure desperation. She figured she could do it secretly. No one had to know how she was paying off her debt.
And though she was ashamed at first, her attitude toward the industry quickly shifted.
“It didn’t take long to realize that I was wrong. I was judging these people in a really wrong way and was falling in love with what I was doing,” said French.
After paying off her debts, French realized the business opportunity within the industry. Cam models needed a better platform. One that put their needs first. Who better to create it than someone who has been in their shoes? And so, ManyVids was born.
The site, which hosts and sells content from its creators, has a model-centric purpose. In addition to helping foster a community that pushes for the normalization of online sex work, every piece of content belongs to the content creator. If someone wants to leave the industry, all of the creator’s content is swiftly removed from the site.
It’s a practice that French said isn’t always followed due to how other websites and platforms function, “once it’s out there, it can be quite difficult to retrieve the content.” Just as much as French believes in the normalization of sex work, she knows it can be hard to leave the industry and enter a new profession if your name and content are still floating around on the internet. She wants to make sure ManyVids creators can easily leave the industry, should they choose to.
Through its model-centric approach, French hopes ManyVids will lead the push for a more positive outlook on the millions of sex workers around the world.
“We’re creating independence for online content creators,” said French. “That’s very important for us—to have them be viewed as entrepreneurs, which is really what they are.”
For this week’s Entrepreneur of the Week spotlight, Bay Street Bull spoke with Bella French, co-founder and CEO of ManyVids, about her unique position in the industry, normalizing online sex work, and creating a platform that puts creators first.
Throughout your experience with webcamming, at what point did you realize that there was a chance for a bigger business—that you could create your own website?
It took a while. To give you perspective, I was making good money. I had never experienced that [kind of money] in my life. Before, as a fashion entrepreneur, I was working extremely hard, but never making any profits. So, I was starting to make money for the first time in my life. The last thing I had in mind was to start a business because I was still paying back debts.
It took a couple of years before I said, “You know what? I think I’m ready to take a risk again and start a new business.”
What sparked the interest in owning a business within the industry?
I have an entrepreneurial mindset where I identify things and I see where there are opportunities. At the time, selling videos was a big way to generate tips and generate income online, but it was not efficient and often really complicated. It was also not secure because it didn’t take long before I figured out that when I was sending a link, anyone could access it.
I told myself, “There’s no way that I’m the only one dealing with this and having a hard time managing all of it.” So, I decided to test the idea by creating my own website on wix.com. I made it myself because I had lost so much money with the previous business venture, so, I was not about to invest more money to get things going. I uploaded videos to my website and I started to sell a lot of videos very quickly.
I thought, “Hey, it’s working for me. Imagine if it was a platform for all of the models within the adult space where they could get access to generate extra income easily.” At the time, my best friend, Sed (who is now French’s boyfriend), was studying coding and his friend was also a coder. That friend’s girlfriend used to do webcamming, and that’s how Sed found out about it in the first place. So, we all came together and we started to work on the website.
How does ManyVids differ from other webcamming sites or other hosting platforms for online sex workers?
Being a model for all those years, I know how it feels. And I know the struggles a performer that’s in front of the camera goes through. ManyVids was created with a model-centric perspective. Everything we do is to help the models. There are a lot of things we do that are not “good business decisions” in the sense that it’s expensive for the company, but because we feel it helps our content creators, we do it anyway.
That’s the vision and the mission of the company: to always help our content creators first. And then also what’s great about ManyVids is it’s unique in the sense that it’s a one-stop-shop for everything you need online. We have an integrated fashion website within the platform. We have an integrated live platform within your profile. We have videos, memberships, store items, and tips. We also integrated a social aspect of the platform because sex workers are being banned and shadow-banned from all social media platforms around the world right now. We felt a responsibility to offer them an opportunity to still have a voice and not be completely removed from the internet.
We’re hoping that things are going to evolve and that online sex work is going to be recognized as a regular job that is okay and that is respected.
With models and creators being shadowbanned or banned from other platforms right now, what do you wish society knew about the sex industry that they might currently be ignorant about?
I understand why big platforms do what they do. And I think it’s important that if sex workers are on Instagram or Facebook, they post content that respects the rules of those platforms because there are kids on those platforms.
Where I find that it becomes a little bit too strict, for example, is with myself. There’s no sexual content on my Instagram. I’m identified as an entrepreneur because that’s what I do. Yet, my account is still shadow-banned because my name is associated with an industry that is considered bad.
We need to help move this industry in the right direction. And a lot is going on right now that will help us go there. It’s an industry that’s filled with a lot of really beautiful, positive, uplifting people that are choosing to do what they do through online sex work. When we go to conventions and when we meet online sex workers, we get to see how smart and intelligent these people are. They’re extremely hardworking. They’re focused.
If you want to be the best in the world at anything, you have to be very smart. That’s the same reality in the adult space.
Having been a cam girl, you hid your identity as the co-founder of ManyVids for quite some time. Was it because you were worried about the stigma behind it?
Actually, not at all. When I started webcamming, it didn’t take much time for my family and friends to discover it. They were extremely ashamed and unhappy with it. When you lose friends and family members, you get to a point where you just don’t care [what other people will think]. I became a performer in front of the camera out of desperation and I ended up enjoying it—but that’s not what I liked the most to do. What I like to do is be behind my computer, coming up with ideas and working with my team. That’s what I love most.
I felt that if we told our community that I was one of the co-founders and the CEO of ManyVids, it would remove the attention from our content creators. And I didn’t want the platform to become “the Bella French website.” That’s why for the first three and a half years, we never mentioned it. However, it got to a point where my team and I realized that there was so much more we could do if we would start talking about it.
What do you hope for the future of ManyVids?
We want to be the leader on how to do things properly—which we’ve been since day one. We’ve never allowed anyone to upload any content on the platform without age verification. We have a high demand for our trust and safety policies. We hope to keep being the leaders in showing how adult content should be consumed online.
There are also a lot of things we’re working on right now. We’ve been working on ManyVids 2.0 for a little over a year, and we’re going to start launching this new platform in Q2 this year. We want to make things better, not only for the user experience but also for the technical aspects and security. So, those are all things that we’re excited to work on.
How does your day differ now as a CEO versus when you were a cam girl?
It changed a lot. When I was a cam girl, it was a lot of superficial tasks to always look good. Getting my hair and nails done, going to the gym, eating right, going to get new outfits. And it was an environment where I would work more at night. Since I’ve helped build ManyVids, it’s 10-hour workdays, working weekends, constantly trying to figure things out—a lot more stress and pressure. It was easier to be a cam girl than to be a CEO in the adult space, but I’m very, very happy to have experienced both. It’s different lives, but they’re both a lot of work.
What kind of effect do you hope that ManyVids has on the industry?
We’re creating independence for online content creators. That’s very important for us—to have them be viewed as entrepreneurs, which is really what they are. We’re hoping that with ManyVids, and other clip sites and cam sites, that there’s a shift [in how sex workers are viewed].
For example, you can’t go open a bank account and state that your main income comes from online sex work. That’s not possible. So, you have to lie. And you can’t open a business account—forget it. So, we’re hoping that things are going to evolve and that online sex work is going to be recognized as a regular job that is okay and that is respected. Those are long-term goals, but that’s what we’re hoping to achieve with the popularity of ManyVids.
Also, it’s quite difficult to hire engineers in this space. Not a lot of people want to dedicate their full-time job to helping sex work. So, we hope that we’re going to be able to convince a lot of fantastic engineers so that we can provide cutting edge tools and technology to this industry, which are very difficult to have access to right now because all the big companies in the world don’t want to touch it. So, it’s a challenge for us to create a platform that could eventually compete with Patreon and Twitch and stuff like that.
What would you say to someone who has a negative outlook on the industry like you previously did?
I guess I would say, “Have you ever had the chance to meet someone in the industry and have a conversation with them? Try to understand how it feels to walk in the shoes of an online sex worker and the stigma that they go through daily. Imagine if that was your daughter, your sister, your aunt, your brother? How would you feel if that hit home and how would your outlook change?”
There are between 40 to 42 million sex workers in the world and all of those people come from a family. Instead of an automatic repulsion [to the industry], have an understanding that they’re human beings. Have an open heart.
What is the greatest piece of advice that you heard along your entrepreneurial journey?
One of the great pieces of advice that I’ve heard is to always focus on the dream. And to always remember the fact that you’ve created something to change the world and help people live a better life—never remove your focus from that.
When you’re day in, day out at the business, and you look at the numbers and revenues, there is pressure coming from all sides. You have to keep that dream in mind. One day, hopefully, things are going to be better. In my case, better for future generations of online sex workers or sex workers in general. That’s really what helps me work as hard as I do and want to keep going, especially when times are difficult. So, keep dreaming.
Back at the beginning, when you were just out of school, what advice would you give to your younger self?
I think I would tell myself to not question what’s happening too much. Just go with the flow; do your best. Do what you think is the best thing to do. And don’t wonder, “Why is this happening? Have I done something bad for this to happen?” At the end of the day, you’re going to achieve your greatest goals through those difficult times.