Phoning It In

Late night in a London office block, Lacey and Lily are waiting for your call. Esquire goes behind the scenes at Babestation, the softcore TV phenomenon that clearly no respectable modern man would ever watch. Which might explain why it is in such rude health.

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Eight o’clock on a balmy August night and five men are gathered around a table on an office rooftop terrace in London talking about girls. The men are producers on Babestation, and so they’re not just shooting the breeze here. This is business. Broadcast live from the studios below, Babestation is the UK’s best-known TV sex line, the premium-rate phone-in show where models in various states of undress invite late-night viewers to call in or text them.

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The producers discuss which girls are fielding the most calls, and how they might persuade the 95 per cent of the men who, at any one time, are watching but not dialling their phone. A shower scene is suggested. Perhaps some girl-on-girl action? Occasionally, they actually get a girl calling in, and this is always good for business. “GIRL CALLER!” flashes up on screen and viewers are encouraged to eavesdrop on the conversation, at the rate of £1.50 per minute.

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Babestation is softcore. Though the girls go topless, mime masturbation and generally jiggle about for all they’re worth, Ofcom rules state they must always wear a thong. (Furthermore no girl can thrust her crotch at the camera “for more than five unbroken seconds”.)

But Babestation has come up with a novel way to circumnavigate this. In this regard, it may be considered something of an innovator in a field it now finds stuffed with imitators: Red Hot Amateur, Red Hot Mums, Red Hot 18s, Cheeky Chat, Dirty Tube, Blue Kiss TV, Essex Babes, GirlGirl, Filth and any number of other adult channels nestled in the higher numbers of your Freeview or Sky Box.

Anyone after a pants-off shot of a particular girl is invited to text a number, and a more revealing photo will be sent to their phone by SMS. Yours to keep, for £3 a pop. Last night, Babestation sent more than 2,000 of these photos.

“It’s that intimate connection,” one of the producers tells me. “They see these girls on TV and in some instances have had phone sex with them. The idea of then having a private photo, a memento, is a thrill.”

After 20 minutes, the producers are done with their meeting and they drift down to the lower floors, where three channels (Babestation, Babestation Xtra and Babestation Blue — indistinguishable, content-wise) are being filmed.

By 9pm, the night-shift girls are ready on what passes for their “stage”, a firm mattress upon which they perch in bra and knickers, smiling with teeth and tongue. Each is armed with a cordless telephone that they jiggle as deftly as they do their buttocks to a tinny soundtrack of constant dance music. “Call me,” they mouth (while everyone at home can see them, only those that call can hear them).

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Though the girls are free to view 24 hours a day, the temperature  only gets ratcheted up between 10pm and 5.30am. During daytime – Ofcom again – it’s friendly chat, and nothing stronger. But from 10pm, the pouting becomes more concerted, and before long models’ breasts are revealed, usually one by one. So long as the conversations remain legal (“no incest talk, nothing animal-based,” a producer clarifies), it’s pretty much a free-for-all: real rude talk with a real live girl.

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Babestation celebrates its 12th anniversary next year, during which time it has become something of an institution. Though so-called “babe channels” have existed since 1995 when the US’s Playboy TV started Night Calls, a phone-in show where callers could “direct” the action being played out by the models, Babestation was the first of its kind in the UK. What started as a two-hour experiment in a dead slot (11pm–1am) on the Game Network, a now-defunct video games channel, has held its own channel on Sky since 2006. It can now boast “some of the UK’s hottest models, glamour girls, porn stars” and “just simply hot girls”.

Last year, the photographer Bronia Stewart spent nine months behind the scenes for a series of photos that “challenged ideas about adult TV” and were exhibited at London’s Photographer’s Gallery. Babestation has gone from indiscussible to part of the broader cultural conversation, a way for men outside pubs and inside offices to rib each other over late-night viewing habits.

“I’ve recently invented a show called Show Us Your Bum for Ten Pence,” the TV critic Charlie Brooker wrote in a Babestation review. “A four-hour broadcast in which viewers nationwide are encouraged to send in phone snaps of their backsides in exchange for a 10p discount on their next mobile phone bill.”

Though Babestation is now a global concern – with a presence in Brazil, Germany, Ukraine and South Africa – it perhaps remains a curiously British confection, another example of our steadfast refusal to take sex seriously that runs from saucy seaside postcards to Confessions of a Window Cleaner to Page 3 to Viz. For anyone who came of age during the pre-cable Eighties or Nineties, it’s also perpetuation of the thrill that, if we stay up late enough, our TV set will reward us with a little raunch. It’s certainly a point of difference with some of our European neighbours, where boobs on telly are famously used to sell virtually any product you can think of, morning, noon and night.

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But the single most remarkable thing about Babestation’s continued success is that it has flourished during a decade where the availability of hardcore porn has rocketed, accessible today on laptop, smartphone, tablet or any number of other internet-connected devices. Not least, it must be said, smart TVs.

YouTube-style porn sites like RedTube, YouPorn and the rest offer a constantly updating compendium of hardcore, for free. As such, the relatively chaste pants-on titillations over on Babestation would scarcely seem worth bothering to scroll down the remote for. The pay-per-view porn movie business has been wiped out by the compilation clips sites. But Babestation continues to thrive. How come?

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Perhaps, according to its makers, because it is so low-key. The adult business has come to realise that for all the high-budget sex scenes you can shoot on 35mm film with big-name porn stars involved in superhuman acts, what punters actually enjoy watching most are “amateur” couples — those who look like they’re having sex for fun, not money.

Right now, the biggest growth area in adult entertainment is in webcam performers. These models seldom try to disguise the fact they’re working from home. That’s what makes them “real”. One of the biggest adult sites, and the 61st most popular site on the whole internet, is LiveJasmin.com: a live video service with 900,000 performers worldwide.

And it’s this interactive element that really accounts for Babestation’s success. See a model you like? For a price (and a maximum of 20 minutes), she can be, in inverted commas, “yours”. Hardcore rarely offers one-to-one connection with a friendly voice. And Babestation’s girls are certainly friendly, having been trained accordingly in the almost tantric art of sex talk.

“The aim is to let the guy talk,” a Babestation employee tells me, “but if he doesn’t, the girl knows just how to fill the dead air. With storytelling.”

Not everyone who calls has to have a private conversation, because not everyone wants to. Those that don’t can instead listen in to the so-called “private” chats of others as they unfold. Yes, it’s essentially the aural equivalent of dogging, but it is, I am reliably informed, a popular option — anywhere from 500 to 1,500 call up to eavesdrop each night.

The average caller is aged between 25 and 40, but not everyone is a lonesome bloke coming home after the late shift to an empty home and looking for a little female conversation. According to Babestation, the viewer is often married, and is perhaps seeking something on the sexual menu that isn’t offered on the prix fixe at home. Or too shy or embarrassed to ask their partners for it in the first place.

“I think Babestation has probably saved a few marriages,” Amanda Rendall, one of the channel’s performers, said last year. “You do get a lot of married guys who call you. It’s funny because you often get a guy who’s on the phone saying all sorts and then their wife walks in. You just hear a woman screaming and then they hang up saying, ‘Oh fuck, I need to go’. But they’ll call you back once she’s back in bed.”

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“Ultimately, what we’re offering here is a little interactive fun,” says Justin Lynch, Babestation’s production manager. In a modern world where porn seems increasingly hell-bent on pushing all sorts of boundaries, Babestation is pretty tame; it’s Page 3 with knobs on. And it knows its audience well, and just how to cater to it. All the models have busy Twitter accounts and an active fanbase, which explains the presents that arrive daily: clothes, Xboxes, jewellery. One fan recently sent his favourite model a Persian cat, because she happened to mention during a premium-rate conversation that she liked them. Others send photos of themselves, along with letters that are curiously heartfelt.

“A lot of the guys aren’t as dirty as you might think,” Lynch says. “They don’t call up for sex so much as they do for friendship. You know, maybe things aren’t going well in their relationships, their marriage. They’re lonely. They just want to chat, to connect.”

And the others? He shrugs. The others, he says, just want to get their rocks off. “And what’s wrong with that?”

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It has gone 10pm now, which means the phone lines will remain intermittently busy for the rest of the night. On Babestation Blue, a young woman called Lacey Lorenzo is lying on her back and gazing into the camera. The bra she was wearing before the watershed is now on the mattress beside her, discarded.

In the production office, another model is running naked into the dressing room, trailing a producer in her wake. The producer is carrying a camera to record her for the text photos. She positions herself on the sofa.

“Justin?” the producer calls out. “Did you want oil on Savannah’s arse?”

Over on Babestation Xtra, Lily Pink has removed her body stocking and is pushing her breasts together while conversing with her first caller. I’m offered a phone, and encouraged to listen. It feels completely wrong. But then I’m reminded I’m hardly alone; loads of other men are currently doing the same.

It is a dispiriting experience, listening to men trying to talk dirty. We don’t seem to be particularly gifted in this department. The first one can’t quite untie his tongue. While Lily smiles provocatively down the camera lens at him, he is only able to focus on the mundane. He is wearing a Slazenger T-shirt, he tells her, and sweatpants.

“I’ve lost a bit of weight recently,” he notes.

When Lily coughs at one point, he asks, tenderly, if she is OK, and for a while it looks like his 20 minutes will max out anti-climactically. But Lily’s a pro, and gently steers him in the right direction. She asks if he likes what he sees, if he likes her breasts, whether his cock is hard.

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Slazenger giggles. “Ooh, you’re embarrassing me,” he mumbles.

The next caller is more blunt. He has clearly done this before. In his broad Yorkshire accent as he starts in on his tale, he sounds unsettlingly like John Shuttleworth, the fictional Northern comedy character.

“I’ve had a right strange day today,” he begins, relating that he woke up this morning feeling horny, “and so I fucked my wife, but from behind, like, because we’ve been married eight years, ha ha.”

After he was done, his wife had a shower. Her phone chimed; she’d received a text. He opened it to see a picture of a man displaying his erection. Instead of challenging his wife about this, he got dressed and went out to demand answers from her best friend, a woman who lives locally. The best friend was still in her dressing gown when he arrived. The dressing gown happened to fall open – the perils of a halfhearted knot – and revealed stockings, suspenders and garter belt. Moments later, “there she was, sucking on me cock and balls.”

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To her credit, Lily pouts and purrs throughout this story. (She doesn’t always. “I’ll sometimes tell them to fuck off, but I try not to,” she later says. “They don’t call up to hear a whingeing woman, do they?”)

As Yorkshire man huffs and he puffs, and finally hangs up, Lily realises she is due her break. She looks relieved. “I’m starving,” she says.

While she goes off to prepare her food, I follow Lacey up onto the roof terrace. She is only wearing her underwear. “I don’t feel the cold,” she giggles.

On-screen, Lacey is languorous and elegant; in the flesh she is tiny, skittish, excitable. She’s 19 years old and pop-star pretty.

She speaks rapidly and every half-sentence ends in, “Do you know what I mean?” Her story is perhaps typical of the sort of young woman that might find herself in this world. She comes from an unstable background in south-east London, “and I was on a bad path, arrogant. I needed to be put on the lowdown, yeah?”

At first, she didn’t know what to do with her life, but then she realised there was money to be made out of the internet, first on webcams before graduating to Babestation.

Justin Lynch tells me that the models make good money here – anywhere, he claims, from £4,000 to £10,000 a month; one reason Lacey now considers herself so lucky.

“Babestation’s changed my life. It’s made me independent, everyone wants that.” As a result, she says, “I’ve had my tits done, my teeth. I’m doing my nose next.” Her nose is perfect. “I hate my nose,” she says, wrinkling it. Her popularity on-screen has fuelled her ambitions, and she’d love to become a model or even a brand, “like Kim Kardashian, but I do realise the longer I’m here, the more doors are closing for me.”

Babestation, she says, has not helped her private life. Her boyfriend broke up with her because he couldn’t handle her work, her fame. “Oh, I get a lot of recognisation (sic). My little sister, she’s 15, still at school, she tells me she can’t take it no more. All these boys come up to her telling her they wank over me, and that they want to meet me, like they’re convinced I’ll just lay down with them and open my legs. Don’t they realise this is just a job? That I’m not like that in real life?”

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It’s also left her with trust issues. “Oh my God, I don’t trust men at all now, do you know what I mean? These men, they phone up saying things like, ‘My girlfriend is on holiday’, ‘She’s gone out’, or ‘She’s upstairs in bed, sleeping’. And this is not just one or two, or five or 10; it’s the stereotype of all men. It just shows you how they work.”

Still shaking her head, she goes back to start her next shift, and I visit Lily Pink in the cramped kitchen space, where the microwave is heating up a bowl of rice.

Lily is 25 years old. She is smart and open, but it’s clear she still regards me as just another opportunistic john. She tells me she grew up on a council estate in Surrey and left school with few qualifications. Bored of her job in retail, she invented an alter ego and auditioned for Babestation. “Like a normal interview,” she notes, “only they wanted to know the size of my tits.”

“I understand men now,” she says, “and what I’ve realised is that they need to have sex. They need to masturbate. A lot. Women don’t really need it like that; they are happy with it once a month, and I suppose a lot of the guys calling up are in relationships like that. They’re frustrated. If anything, I feel sorry for them.”

Once, Lily wanted to become a teacher, “but I know I’m not going to be able to fulfil that now because I can’t be a role model anymore, can I? It’s frowned on, this sort of thing. People make all sorts of assumptions about the industry. They think everyone is on drugs, and it’s all bad.”

And is it?

“Actually, no, it’s not. It’s much more professional than I’d ever have imagined.”

What would she like to do with her life, if not teaching?

“This, probably. I can imagine being 60, and still here, on-screen.”

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There are plenty of people who would like to see Babestation taken off air, not least parents who have complained that since it is free for anyone with a SkyBox to view, it is easily accessible to children. Others suggest it is as harmful for the men who watch it as it is to the girls who perform on it.

“A lot of my patients no longer enjoy sex with their partners,” says Bernd Leygraf, a consultant psychotherapist specialising in sexual matters. “So instead, they visit these channels. But they don’t provide enjoyment, not really, and men don’t walk away particularly fulfilled. They need some light relief, sure – we all do, just not this kind.”

Ofcom has its eye on it, too. The regulator has previously revoked the licenses of other adult channels for repeatedly airing material too sexually explicit for pre-watershed hours. One was Tease Me. Its owners Bang Media were fined £157,250 for broadcasting “inappropriate explicit material” with “manifest recklessness”. The Ofcom website describes this in surreal detail. For example: “While in these positions the presenter repeatedly stroked and touched her body including her crotch area, legs, buttocks and breasts, moved and gyrated her hips sometimes high in the air in a sexually provocative way; pulled sexualised facial expressions and lightly spanked her buttocks.”

Babestation, however, is licensed in the Netherlands and European legislation stipulates that TV companies are moderated by the regulators from the home country, not the ones they air in. In short, Ofcom has no power to block or ban them, though last year it made a formal complaint to its Dutch counterpart, following a rash of viewer concerns. “If we feel they are out of step with other UK regulated services, we can work with our European counterparts to bring the broadcaster into compliance with our rules,” a spokesperson tells me. Though he adds, “We’ve had much more complaints about the last episode of Downton Abbey [a rape scene] than Babestation.”

Nevertheless it is heat that Babestation’s bosses are not unaware of. “There are so many regulations we have to adhere to now as a TV channel,” says executive manager Benjamin “Mo” Noorollahi. “And so our future is going to be increasingly on the web, where there are far fewer restrictions. Online is definitely where it’s at.”

Back at the studio, and long past midnight, Lily Pink has just finished a call, another one that ended abruptly. This happens a lot: the moment the caller has arrived at his desired destination, he hangs up. It goes with the territory.

“But occasionally they do stay on and actually say thank you.” She smiles now with something like genuine emotion.

“I always think it’s nice when they do that.”

Photographs by Chris Leah

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