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As 'La Madame Anglaise' faces a trial in France for running a multi-million-pound vice network, a classy escort girl in London tells how she runs her lucrative career and charges £550 for the pleasure of dining with her.
John Lennon's Woman is playing in the lobby of the £300-a-night central London hotel. It is 8.45pm on a weekday. I have £550 cash in an envelope in my pocket and I am looking for "Sofia".
A 6ft 2in woman in black patent-leather heels click-clacks through a crowd of American business executives and sits on a leather sofa. She reaches inside her Miu Miu bag, dabs some Marc Jacobs perfume on her neck and makes a call on her top-of-the-range mobile. "Sofia?" I ask. She smiles, stands up, and holds out a perfectly manicured hand.
I don't usually pick up women in hotel lobbies and take them to my room but I've come to find out about the world of £1,000-a-night escorts exposed in the Paris trial of Margaret MacDonald, the former convent school girl from Windsor who faces six years in prison for running a multi-million-pound vice network.
The scale of MacDonald's £50,000-aweek, 600-prostitute empire has sparked a political scandal in Paris - a city where prostitution was once treated with a shrug and an "Eh alors?". French politicians, galvanised by the rise of the far-Right, want to make an example of her and clamp down on the world's oldest profession.
It begs a question. Has criticism of "La Madame Anglaise" hit London's high-class sex industry or is it continuing discreetly as it always has done? What does "high-class" mean and how does the industry work?
Spend five minutes on the internet and it's clear that in London - unlike Paris - the high-end escort business has never been healthier. There is a bewildering variety of agencies whose websites groan with catalogues of models, air stewardesses, housewives, students and bored-looking aerobics instructors.
For a monthly subscription one website, imaginatively entitled Captain69, even offers reviews of thousands of girls written by their regular clients, as if the women were restaurants or a West End play.
I pick one agency at random and dial the west London number. "How can I help?" asks a male voice. I tell him I'd like a dinner companion. "What are you looking for?" Someone who is good to talk to and we can sort of take it from there. He ignores the hint. One word that is never mentioned over the phone is sex.
"I can highly recommend Sofia, an English lady. She is attractive, very well-spoken and charming. She is available tonight. A dinner date is £550. Usually ladies meet the clients in the room first to sort things out financially."
Five minutes after we meet, Sofia is standing by the bed in my hotel room. I hand her the envelope in my pocket. She counts the cash and we head out. In the hotel restaurant she settles into her banquette seat and adjusts her off-the-shoulder top to reveal the red strap of a La Perla bra. But she's not flirting, she's getting comfortable.
She wants to talk - about herself. She is 24 and comes from York, where she took three A-levels, followed by a one-year art course. She moved to London to go to Chelsea Art School to study textile design. She'd like to set up her own business or go into visual merchandising in a big store, such as Liberty's, but she is "doing this" now.
Sofia tells me she is interested in riding and skiing, and wants to learn a foreign language "to get more overseas work". What is she up to this week? I ask. "I'm house hunting in Knightsbridge, with my friend Emma, who used to work for Lehman Brothers in the City but does what I do now." Horses, Louis Vuitton bags, west London, City banks, foreign trips - her list of passions goes on.
DOES her life story sound convincing, I ask myself ? As she tells me more about her family, her school life and her friends, it is clear she is the child of a respectable, professional couple who would be horrified if they knew how she was using her education. But with her love of shopping, Knightsbridge flats and overseas travel - not to mention envelopes of cash - she shares the aspirations celebrated in the pages of Hello! magazine rather than middleclass Yorkshire values.
We've been talking for two hours now, the wine is flowing and Sofia begins to reveal another side to her character. "I have to move house to Knightsbridge because it's central. I want to do more day appointments." Day? I thought escorts only did dinner dates? "I make most of my money at lunchtimes and in the afternoon. With most men it's just a quick hour." A quick hour of what? Silence. Then she smiles. "Sex. Don't tell me you didn't know?"
I begin to ask how the high-class business works. Sofia gives a startling, and remarkably frank, account of how one of the most secretive industries in London operates and how thousands of educated women like her see it as a legitimate - and highly lucrative - way of making a living.
"Most escorts, even the ones who charge £800 an hour and go to the opera or embassy parties or polo matches, will end up in bed with a client," she says. "In my entire career I've only ever had one date that did not involve sex, and that was because he couldn't manage it. Escorts are ..." She pauses. She can't say the word prostitute.
I ask her about the trial of Margaret MacDonald. Is it possible MacDonald had no idea her escorts were having sex? "No way. Does anyone think men pay £500 an hour just to talk?" Does she always go to five-star hotels? "No, most of my work is in-calls." What's an incall? "It's when the client comes to you.
The agency makes me rent a room in Earl's Court, so that the men can come there. When I get a place in Knightsbridge I'll use that."
I ask how much she earns. Sofia reaches into her bag and pulls out a notebook: her "little black book". She opens a page at random. The names of as many as four men a day - François, Tony, Ian, David - are listed in red with details of what they pay. An in-call is £250 an hour, an out-call £300, three-ways (lesbian sex with another escort) is £600 an hour, dinner dates start at £550 and foreign trips are £15,000 a week with first-class travel and five-star hotel accommodation.
At the bottom of the page she lists her net and gross earnings for each week with a pencil tick through the sums she has banked. That week she made more than £4,000. "My rates are pretty much the top regular working rates." What is the agencies' cut? (Sofia works for two).
"They get 30 per cent. I pay cash into their accounts almost every day." As she talks, it's clear she admires the people behind these services as successful business executives.
She makes her job sound like any other. There are regular working hours, commission to pay, expenses to claim and contracts to sign. "The contracts are very clever. They can't mention sex, so they say that girls will be paid £40 an hour for their company and anything after that is between two consenting adults." Upmarket escorts charge up to 10 times as much as the women who stick cards in telephone boxes across London. What, I ask, makes a highclass escort different?
She says: "You have to look good and dress well. My friend once turned up without her hair done and she was wearing pink stilettos and a white denim skirt. She looked like a boulevard hooker and the client turned her away. You have to be enthusiastic, too. Some of the street girls from eastern Europe don't make any effort, like they hate the client. I can't do that because the agency's reputation would suffer.
"Other rules are crude but if you want to know, they are: no unprotected sex, no sado-masochism or violence, no anal." Is kissing allowed? "Yes."
WHO knows what she does? Her family? Her friends? Her boyfriend? "No one," she replies, looking awkward for the first time. "My mum and dad would disown me if they found out and my boyfriend [who is older than her, lives in St John's Wood and works most nights] would kill me. I tell everyone I work in a designer shop."
So she's ashamed? "No," she says. "There are pluses to this work. Before I started I was a quivering wreck but I'm confident now. I've gone to places and done things that I would never have done if I had not met the men I've met. And I'm not the only one.
"I know a lot of girls - like Emma, who has a law degree and has worked in the City - who do this. They choose this. To us, it's as ordinary as going to work in an office or a big business. We have rights and we like our employers. The only difference between this and an office job is I'm much better paid."
But doesn't she feel degraded, or scared she will be attacked, raped or worse? Doesn't she feel contempt for the men she sees? "There are minuses. Your soul - you've got to protect that. If I have kids, I wouldn't want them knowing I was an escort. But I've never had a client I did not like.
"Thirty per cent are now regulars. I don't think they're sad, men have this need - they think with their dicks. I bet escort agencies have saved a lot of marriages. Overall, I'd say I'm 70 per cent happy. That's not bad, is it? I will do this until I am 32 or 33, which is the limit, then I'll either open a shop on Regent Street selling shoes or I'll set up my own agency."
It is past midnight now and dinner - £550 plus £100 for the food and wine - is over.
As we walk towards the lift doors, she turns to go upstairs but I carry on into the lobby. "Can I see you another night?" I ask. "Of course," she smiles, trying to hide her disappointment at missing out on turning £650 into a £1,000 night.
It's cold outside and I hail a cab for her. She kisses me once on the left cheek and once on the right before getting in. As the car moves off I wave but her eyes are fixed straight ahead. Discreet and booming it may be, but the escort business is a business like any other. And my time is up
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