By Alex Gonzalez
On a fateful weekend in 2015, A’Ziah “Zola” King embarked on a journey that would change her life. What was meant to be a quick trip from Detroit to Tampa, Florida to make some extra cash turned into a downward spiral of visits from strange men, pimping, stripping, and fallouts. In October of that year, King shared the story in a series of 148 tweets, pioneering the Twitter thread storytelling format and receiving international attention.
This Wednesday (June 30), the iconic #ZolaStory comes to life on the big screen as Zola, a film almost six years in the making. While King herself has admitted that some parts of the original Twitter story are embellished, she says writer-director Janicza Bravo managed to capture the story King wanted to tell.
“Every tweet is in there,” King tells MTV News of the film co-written by Bravo and Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris. “Janizca and I got close throughout the process. There’s actually a scene that isn’t in the tweets. So I’d say it’s about 110 percent accurate.”
Before King decided to share the tweets, she debated revealing the dirty details of the road trip gone wrong for months. But “about six months later,” she found herself scrolling through her phone and came across pictures of her and Jessica, the fellow stripper with whom she went on the trek. The pictures brought back painful memories, and so she decided to spill all the tea.
But a part of the story presented in the film that didn’t make the original tweet thread takes place in a hotel room, after Jessica’s on-screen counterpart Stefani (Riley Keough), takes an outcall and encounters a group of men. King says Bravo made the scene look “so pretty,” with better lighting in a cleaner home setting, but in real life, King says this part of the trip was “fucking traumatizing.”
“It was horrible,” King says. “But in the film, it's very aesthetically pleasing, not like what I actually experienced. In real life, when they made a call, we set the price, we talked to them, everything was good. When we got there, everyone acted like they couldn't speak English, like all of a sudden, whoever we were on the phone with doesn't exist. And no one gave us any money.”
Today, King is a mother of a 3-year-old daughter. She enjoys making art, writing, singing, rapping, modeling, and creating “wherever I feel inspired.” She occasionally makes posts on her OnlyFans page and still maintains the same confidence she possessed during her dancing days.
When she first shared the Twitter story, she received attention from the likes of Missy Elliott, Solange, and Ava Duvernay; the latter responded to the story, saying there’s “so much untapped talent in the hood.” But King reiterates that sex work is a job like any other.
“I don’t know where [Duvernay] got that from,” King says. “I keep saying that sex work isn't black and white. It's not like one way or this way. Most sex workers I know are doing what they are doing by choice and because they're just confident in their sexuality and it's a way to make money.”
Although Taylour Paige, who plays King in the Zola film, had never stripped before landing the titular role, she has built quite an impressive resume as a dancer. The actress has taken classes at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. and worked under celebrity choreographer Debbie Allen. She has also appeared in music videos for Usher and was a backup dancer in High School Musical 3.
But the role posed new challenges for Paige, who prepared by working undercover at a strip club for four weeks before the film began production.
Riley Keough, left, as Stefani, and Taylour Paige in Zola.
“I think like a dancer,” Paige says. “Sometimes, my job is to undo the unhealthy perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive placement and technicality. I can see with my own eyes, like, ‘That looks too placed,’ or ‘It looks too privileged on the pole,’ and that's not the story we're telling. It's more loose in the movement. It's a Black girl shaking her ass, going around the pole. It's different from me at the ballet bar.”
While Keough remembers reading the whole story in one sitting shortly after King tweeted it, Paige wasn’t active on Twitter at the time. Still, she was drawn to the role because she wanted to do something outside her comfort zone.
During production, Paige chatted with King via FaceTime and text, getting to know her throughout every step of the way. Keeping in constant communication with King and her family helped Paige channel the internet icon. “Her mom would message me, like, ‘We're so happy and we've been praying for you to [get] the part,’ and I just felt so supported,” Paige says.
Keough didn’t get to meet Jessica, the inspiration for Stefani, but she worked with a dialect coach to perfect Stefani’s exaggerated accent. Prior to production, Keough recorded herself speaking her lines as Stefani and sent voice notes to Bravo, who instructed Keough to crank it up “to 100.” As production drew near, Keough practiced the Stefani voice in large public settings.
“My coach wanted me to go to the swap meet and talk in my accent,” Keough says. “I was really uncomfortable doing that, but she was like, ‘You know what, this is what you're going to do.’ And so I just followed her lead, and we went to the swap meet.”
Keough previously played a stripper in Magic Mike and an escort in the Starz anthology series The Girlfriend Experience. With these roles, along with Zola’s Stefani, she learned that sex work is nuanced and hopes the audience takes away the same message.
“You want to humanize people, get rid of judgment and bring empathy and understanding,” Keough says, “and just get a little bit of insight into lives that are very different from yours and walk away from it with more information.”
After years of communicating with King and her family from afar, Paige finally met King in person at Zola’s Sundance premiere in January 2020. Over the years, King assured Paige she was right for the title role, but Paige’s nerves were in overdrive up until the end credits.
“When [King] saw the movie, she literally texted me, like, ‘Bitch, you did that,’” Paige says. “And Jeremy was with her, and he was like, ‘She full-on cried,’ and I was like, ‘Huh, OK, I can relax my butthole now.’”
Zola was filmed almost three years ago and originally slated for release last year, but it was pushed back due to COVID-19. At the time the interviews for this story were completed, Mercury was in retrograde, and while many astrologers recommend not going through any major life events, King — a self-described curator of “conscious content,” according to her Twitter page — feels the premiere could not be more timely.
“This moment has been anticipated for so long,” King says. “Now, I can finally take a deep breath. It just makes sense. Divine timing and intervention is here.”