They're online and underage. And they'll trade you a peek if you fulfill their Wish Lists
Like many 17-year-olds, Millie* has her own Web site, where she keeps an online diary and scrapbook. There's an artistic photo of ice-covered trees she shot after a snowstorm hit her Mississippi town in February, there's a section dedicated to the band 'N Sync, and, of course, there's the obligatory list of her favorite links (backstreetboys.com, nellyfurtado.com, rickymartin.com). She says she built the site in part to show off her Web-designing skills, which are pretty good. But that doesn't explain why she gets about 6,000 hits a month. That popularity makes more sense once you follow the link to her fan club on Yahoo!, where some 1,000 registered members log on to gawk at the photographs she's taken of herself.
They don't just look, they also post their deep opinions: "MILLIE IS A HONEY AND DAMN SEXXIE." "You're really pretty, Millie. Ever thought about being a model?" "Has anyone ever told u u kinda look like leelee sobieski?" Apparently someone has.
Most of Millie's gallery photos are tame by anyone's standards. Unless you happen to stumble upon the shots in the folder labeled "Sexy." You don't have to be a prude to notice that the images of Millie with her pants hiked dangerously low, or the close-up of her thinly clothed torso, are pretty dicey for a minor.
Why would a young girl with so much going for her want to show off her body to the Net's swarming hordes? Because Millie is what's known on the Net as a cam girl. That is, she's a young girl who, with the aid of a Web cam, a computer, and a high-speed connection, beams her (often scantily clad) image out to people (okay, men) around the Net. You can't exactly call it soft porn, but you can't exactly call it something else, either. On the one hand, she doesn't collect money from her "friends." On the other, the best way to become her friend is to buy her something she wants.
And what does a high school junior in Mississippi want? No need to guess—it's all there in black and white on her Wish List, the fantasy shopping tool popularized by Amazon and other online retailers. Think of it as a wedding registry, but without the wedding. If you're kind enough to send her a little something—be it the lip balm, the CD-burning software, or the novel about a stripper who becomes a junkie—she might publish a photo of herself posing with the swag along with a personal thank-you note. In one picture, Millie is holding up a belly dancing video a fan bought her. Across the photo she scribbles, "Now I can be Shakira and Britney Spears. Haha."
Ahhh, Shakira and Britney. And Christina. And let's not forget Madonna, the grande dame of the liberation-through-sexy-underwear movement. Are these familiar targets of the Christian Right's ire also to blame for this latest corruption of our innocent young? Yes and no, at least according to Millie: "I do think pop culture has an effect on teens," she says in a telephone interview. "Britney and Christina are doing their own thing, and I think that's great. If they feel the need to show off their body to get somewhere, then so be it."
"Then so be it" may very well be the mantra of Millie and the growing legion of cam girls. Eighteen-year-old Leslie has a link to a $350 camera and writes on her site: "Who's going to be my forever sweetheart and get this for me? I need it a lot, I'll even snail mail you piccies or something lame like that. Come on. PLEASE?!" So far, nobody has taken Leslie up on her offer, but she did get a copy of the Lords of Acid album Farstuckers from a fan. "I love it, thank you so much," she posts. "You made my day!" She was even happier when another fan sent her a live pet tarantula in the mail.
Who are these "fans," these patrons of online teen sirens? They're men who are attracted by the idea that the girls are the real deal—that they can't fake who they are. The old adage "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" is just dead wrong here. "The Web cam makes me more realistic, I think," says Pamela, a 17-year-old cam girl. "It's obvious I'm not some crazy 50-year-old guy getting his jollies off pretending to be a cute little girl."
For obvious reasons, few men are inclined to chat with a reporter about their gifts to teen girls. So I decided to fulfill a few Wish List requests myself. Posing as a fan, I bought a My Little Pony T-shirt for one cam girl and a video of Big for another. Neither girl replied to my e-mails asking if they liked their gifts, but the Big recipient did post a picture of herself holding up the video. In sum: a nice clean transaction.