‘White Trash’ author opens self to raw truth about racist, hedonistic, traumatic past
The first impression of the erudite, cheerful, and expertly-coiffed middle-aged blonde woman, clad in a leopard print scarf and matching skirt, speaking to me from her home in Durban, most likely won't elicit “former call-girl”.
But yes: this married mother-of-three's recently published memoir, White Trash: My year as a high-class call girl, recounts 12 months of her life as a hedonistic, adventure seeking, risk-taking escort during the heady days of 1980s London.
Born in then-Rhodesia to racially biased parents who left the country for SA when Ian Smith's regime came to end, Terry Angelos candidly writes about her entrenched racism, her days as a jolling fine arts student in Pietermaritzburg, and the year she spent as a high-class call girl.
From intimate, underground clubs frequented by London's elite, to being embroiled with the Chinese mafia, and a regular client of a shady, disgustingly wealthy American, Angelos's tenure as escort saw her experiencing it all: Cocaine and champagne; lavish parties and flashy flats; lingerie and barely-there dresses; an equally libertine fellow escort as her best friend.
Yet her daily reality left her broken, depleted, and homeless with Angelos eventually finding solace in a church group, moving back to SA, marrying a good man (they do exist!), and pursuing her career as an artist.
Overtly describing herself, and fellow sex workers in seedier clubs, as “white trash”, I'm curious as to whether Angelos had any working titles for her memoir ...
“That’s such a good question!” Angelos smiles, responding that she had “a couple”, one being Mangoes, Machetes and My Morality.
Angelos adds that the initial title was “obscure” and that she “had to put on a kind of marketing and business hat”.
“It just came to me, it was a lightbulb moment. When it popped into my mind I got goosebumps: I thought 'this is a zinging title'. It was so loaded and because the hook is my year as a high-class call girl, it was layered and I loved the intersections. I love the play on words, the multiple meanings, how uncomfortable it is. Even to the point that it makes me feel uncomfortable. I was pushing those buttons”.
Throughout the memoir Angelos discusses, and dissects, her deeply embedded racism and racial bias.
“I didn’t want to sanitise issues around race,” she says of this observation.
While writing the book Angelos read memoirs written by (white) people growing up in Africa who never acknowledged personally that they were perpetuating racial bias, as she refers to the “white saviour” complex so often prevalent in works of this nature.
“There was something a little bit fake about it, I wanted to be really gut-wrenchingly honest.
“That’s where the risk has resided in this book. Not so much about revealing my life, but actually writing very frankly about race. This parallel unhinging of my own barriers and boundaries as sex worker, I was also unhinging and unlayering my own racial identity.”
Angelos refers to her recounting the first time she slept with a black man: “I was paid money for it.”
When writing with such candour about being raised in a tangibly racist society, and making a (highly lucrative) living as sex worker, I ask Angelos how she decided on what to include, and exclude, in her life story.
“I have never written a book before,” she says, adding that she relied on research around memoirs.
“A lot of it came down to theme and story structure. Once I understood the theme and arch of the story it became a little bit easier.
“The danger with memoir is you end up writing a concoction of anecdotes. I wanted to write a gripping story with a story arch, which I set up in the premise of the introduction. It was always my own query and quest: 'What happened?' 'How did I spiral down and get to that point?'”
“That was where a lot of my shame resided,” Angelos continues in relation to “stereotypes” attached to “falling back on sex work”, citing daddy issues and growing up in a foster care system as two assumptions people tend to attribute to a woman's decision to get involved with sex work.
“In spite of the war setting, I had a safe and loving environment. I went to private schools. I wasn’t the stereotypical call-girl case.”
She adds that she didn’t “encounter other people like myself” in the environment she worked.
Angelos concedes that she questioned whether she had a screw loose or some kind of genetic profiling which attracted her to danger.
“There’s some kind of alchemy, a recipe for disaster, and factors that collided to bring about this trajectory.
“Where were the moments when something shifted?” she questions. “What made me so immune or indifferent to danger?
“When I figured those out it was very easy to plot the points.”
Angelos furthers that she had multiple stories to tell, and selected the ones that answered that question and contextualised her social trauma.
Alternating between frequently referring to herself as a “prostitute” and seldomly a “sex worker”, I ask Angelos what connotations she attaches to these terms.
“Sex worker is a more current term, which didn’t exist when I was working,” she says.
“Prostitute was a very difficult label to give to myself because it’s so blunt. ‘Sex worker’ legitimises what you’re doing and I think ...” Angelos trails off, a pensive look on her face.
“High-class call girl sounds better, but the realisation that it’s not me that’s viewed as high-class, it’s the clients,” is something she came to terms with while writing the book .
“I wrestled with that in the book. What does it mean to decide you’re a high-class call girl as opposed to a prostitute?”
Angelos refers to the dictionary definition of “escort” – someone paying for “the girlfriend experience” – reiterating that that term wasn’t around when she did it.
“Whether you are kind of on the streets as a street walker, or under the banner of some kind of club or brothel, or working for the most exclusive clients, the bottom-line is it’s transaction,” she firmly states.
Initially Angelos found the glamour, the sense of power, and having agency as “quite intoxicating”, yet she “despised” some of her clients, citing their need for validation and needing their egos to be stroked as factors which contributed to her disgust. “I looked down at that, and ultimately it was very dehumanising for me. I found a point where I was so broken.”
The dehumanisation and trauma she was subjected to includes a coked-up client threatening to murder her, sleeping with repugnant men, and rape.
How did she cope with writing these harrowing memories?
“I’ve got an incredibly amazing support structure of friends, families, my husband,” she fondly acknowledges. “I lot of it felt like I had processed and healed from it.”
Angelos concedes that the difficulty with writing trauma memories is that she remembered some in “unbelievable detail”, whereas others were “just a blur”.
“I disassociated a lot,” she softly says, referring to “lost days”.
She adds that she found music to be a great way to access memory.
“Growing up it was ABBA and Queen and 70s folk rock.”
Rodrigues’ tunes aided in her recounting her memory of her virginity loss with “my then up-and-down” boyfriend, specifically referring to the immortal lyrics of “I wonder how many times you had sex” of this reclusive singer’s hit song, I Wonder.
Angelos recalls travelling through Scotland with her good friend and fellow escort, Sally, where she was listening to America’s A Horse With No Name.
“I just cried myself to sleep,” she says of this memory.
“A lot of emotions came out in funny ways,” she says referring to her husband coming home one day to find her sobbing because she was reliving a break-up with an ex-boyfriend.
Angelos describes her decision to write in the present/now and going “right into the story” as “overwhelming”.
It was tough to relive her situations, yet as difficult as it was, she kept on enquiring how to “actually make it as raw and real as possible”.
As for whether she considered writing a fictionalised version of her life story?
“I didn’t feel confident that I could pull it off,” she says. “It would just create distance between me and the actual experience; it would create a third person.
“My family would have preferred that,” she says with a slight smile, adding that they suggested using pseudonyms.
“I think I just wanted to take ownership of it,” she pensively nods. “To say, 'this is me'.”
“It’s been surprisingly liberating” she says of penning one year in her life which recounts experiences which took place more than 30 years ago.
“I’ve done the therapy, I’ve done the healing, my spirituality has been a huge part of my recovery,” she continues in relation to reliving traumatic memories.
“I didn’t expect it to be cathartic, but I did find it liberating,” she reiterates. “Because I wrote it in the now, I was able to go back and be that 11-year-old girl again, be that 17-year-old girl again, be that 20-year-old girl again. By doing that I was able to look at myself with a lot more compassion and kindness.”
Nonetheless, her realisation of “all the circumstance” that surrounded her at that time did add to a sense of cathexis.
And yes, she did attend one of the doyenne of memoir writing, and publisher of her book, Melinda Ferguson’s memoir writing courses.
“That was about three years ago,” she says of Ferguson’s Joburg based workshop, adding that her husband paid for it as a wedding anniversary present. “He knew that I was writing and wanted to write.”
She herself also knew that if one is interested in penning a memoir “Melinda is the person you need to get in touch with”.
The material she was grappling with most at the stage was the sexual content, and the racial content. “That was a huge one.”
Angelos adds that this was around the time of Penny Sparrow’s racially charged slurs and she realised that she couldn’t remove herself from her own experiences.
“I can’t write a true story without writing about it being set in a racist, white supremacist culture.”
When asked to read their work out loud, she opted for a section on her leaving Rhodesia – where they openly referred to black people as “munts” with “takkie lips”.
“I just wanted help on how to navigate such a difficult question and Melinda just laid into me!” she exclaims.
“Don’t even look at me! This is the most revolting, fascist diatribe! I don’t like you! I won’t every publish anything you write!” were some of the comments aimed at her, she remembers.
The reading led to “an explosive discussion”.
Angelos recalls a “mature black woman” – a professor – and her daughter who also happened to be in attendance, who described her work as “the most refreshing thing they’ve ever heard.
“When these topics are raised we tend to say what we think is expected of us to say,” Angelos acknowledges in relation to white people discussing black people.
“It took every ounce of courage to go back the next day,” she concedes.
“We workshopped those issues, I got great feedback,” Angelos relays in relation to her admitting that “this is really difficult, and I don’t know how to approach or write about it”.
Angelos states that one should avoid sounding “too woke” and ended up thinking “if I’m going to write about this, I’m going to have to be gut-wrenchingly honest, I’m not going to sanitise it”.
She adds that the church she belongs to has a workshop called “Cultural Humility”, which offers “a bunch of women from all different backgrounds the opportunity to wrestle with these topics”.
Of finishing the book, she had given herself a cut-off date: once her youngest son had completed high school. “I didn’t want any of my kids to be in a school environment, I wanted them to be independent,” she says of this decision.
“I contacted Melinda in the beginning of the year and said 'I want to do this book'. We were just about on the same page: to tackle this stuff heads-on.
“Hopefully people will be more receptive to writing about this ...” she trails off, adding that conversations she’s had with her black friends around the topic made her realise that “my black friends were so hungry for someone white to write about this.
“I can’t speak for how black people will respond to the book,” she acknowledges. “I think for me, at the end of the day, it’s just about honesty. Talking about the white elephant.”
Angelos draws on the contemporary understanding and origins of the term “white trash”, describing it as “loaded and a racial slur against white people”, adding that the slur initially was aimed at white, “low-class” people who associated with “low-class” black people.
“It’s quite a muddled history,” she nods. “It’s like this idea that we’re so comfortable with slurs towards black people but when it’s a slur towards a white person it’s taboo.”
Angelos admits that although she has adopted a black daughter, it doesn’t absolve her from racism: “It’s the inside work, the changing of your mind, and the biases that have to be addressed.”
Being conscious of having a natural bias, and not being defensive “when something happens” but to see it as an opportunity to “have a better conversation” about race is crucial, she adds.
As for whether the happily married mom ever misses a part of her carefree, sybaritic lifestyle?
Angelos chuckles, before responding with a resolute “No”.
She adds that what she found so liberating was that’s “it’s more internal than just doing wild things. You can be hedonistic and not really be free at all,” she muses.
Feeling “unshackled” and acknowledging those parts of her personality that involve risk-taking played out in her writing the book.
“That’s risk-taking. Being free to say 'this is who I am, this is what I’ve done, this is what I’ve learnt. Take it or leave it.'”
Angelos concedes that she would like more (demure) adventures in her life, including travelling, citing that she would love to go back to those places and be in a happy relationship with the locales.
“Not to be so lost,” she adds as an afterthought.
“I think I’m definitely embracing risk-taking by putting myself out there, finding my voice and going on another journey by talking about this book.”
Where she once was at her happiest in the frenzied London underground scene, Angelos’s idea of perfect happiness currently entails lying on the couch with her dog, a glass of wine in hand, her hubby by her side, and with a great movie.
“You want adventure, but you also just want to be in your little nest of comfort.”
Angelos diverts the conversation by asking me what I thought about the cover.
I like it!
Pardon the pretentious former English grad inside me, but I found her exposing her body while simultaneously covering her face to be an interesting dichotomy.
“Dichotomy! That's a good word!”