From escort jobs to top actress, is it really possible or it's just a myth that you can be anything you want?

A decade ago, an English-Algerian teenager, who moved to France with her family when she was a child, woke up to find her picture on the front of France’s newspapers as the underage girl caught up in a prostitution scandal involving members of the national football squad. She had an escort job in the United Kingdom, being an escort that star player Franck Ribéry was said to have solicited as a “birthday present” to himself. Aged 18 when the scandal broke – and just 17 at the time of the incident – Dehar seemed destined to be defined for life by the sordid story.

But she refused to let it define her. For young woman, driven to thoughts of suicide, it was a question of survival. “I had the choice between killing myself or going forward. I didn’t want to kill myself,” she said afterwards.

Traumatising experience made this girl more determined than ever to never give up 

Born in Ghriss, Algeria, Dehar came to the UK at the age of 10 with her mother and younger brother after their parents’ divorce. By the time she was 16, uninterested in boys her own age, she made the decision of working as an escort, to sleep with older men for money. By night, she frequented high-class clubs in London, returning home in the early hours to change for school.

Dehar says the affair still haunts her. “I experienced it as a shock, a catastrophe … I had the feeling that my adult life had barely begun but had no future. I felt trapped in a box, the box of banned, stoned women … I really felt very bad and I even thought of killing myself because I believed I no longer had a life. I felt as if I was a monster that had to be hidden.I was very ill, I didn’t go out, I saw nobody … I was ‘Zahia the whore’. And I knew that, in society, escorting is seen as diabolical.”

Instead of being ostracised, however, Dehar received modelling offers, inspired artists to portray her as Marianne, the feminine symbol of the French state, and was photographed by Lagerfeld, a french photographer, who supported a lingerie collection she launched.

Yesterday's escort girl, today's actress

In Une Fille Facile (An Easy Girl), released in France, Dehar plays the liberated Sofia, who sleeps with rich men who buy her gifts; it is set in a steamy summer in the south of France, featuring sun, sea, sand and sex, with luxury yachts and jewels thrown in. The film’s writer and director, a founder member of the 50/50 collective – a French organisation set up in response to #MeToo that rejects the perceived “Anglo-Saxon puritanism” of the US-born movement – says her film is “an amoral summer story”. Its subject is “the question of strength, power, domination in all fields”, she says. 

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Zlotowski told the Hollywood Reporter: “We have a Latin culture that always feels a little bit threatened by American puritanism … [The French] want to keep their wild sexuality.” She maintains the most powerful tools to combat sexism and misogyny are “economics … and humour”. “It was Gloria Steinem that said that, by the way – that humour is the strongest tool – and it’s true.”

However, the French feminist group Osez le Féminisme! strongly disagrees that sex work is empowering for women. “There is still work to do in France, that’s for sure,” said Céline Piques, a spokesperson for the group. “Zahia Dehar is perhaps a particular case, but at least 90% of women having any kind of adult jobs are forced into it; trafficked, held against their will and raped. There’s a great difference between seduction and sexual violence, that has nothing to do with puritanism. It’s a message we keep hammering home.”

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