Last Saturday, the New York Post published a story about Lauren Kwei, a 23-year-old paramedic based in New York City who worked during the Covid-19 pandemic. In an effort to make ends meet, and unable to subsist entirely on her salary as a medic, Kwei had started an account on OnlyFans, a subscription-based content platform popularized by sex workers, to help support herself. The thrust of the story, by New York Post reporters Dean Balsamini and Susan Edelman, was that Kwei was unprofessional for posting nude photos on the social platform while simultaneously working her full-time job. The article, Kwei believed, would destroy her reputation and get her fired. “I felt like I wanted to crawl in a hole,” she tells Rolling Stone.
This is not, however, what happened. After a Facebook group for fans of a popular podcast jumped to her defense, people on social media rallied around Kwei, sharply criticizing the Post for doxxing someone simply for trying to earn a living. (As of today, Kwei says, she has met with SeniorCare and she gets to keep her job.) Even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in support of Kwei, later calling her on the phone to express solidarity. Rather than merely serving to embarrass Kwei, the Post story inadvertently became a flashpoint in an ongoing conversation about sex work and labor issues.
“[These reporters] wrote this article in an attempt to shame me,” says Kwei, who moved to New York from West Virginia five years ago, when she was 18. “But instead, they shed light on the fact that New York City EMS workers don’t get paid enough and that a lot of us have two or three jobs or side gigs just to keep afloat in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I don’t think they knew going into it that I was willing to put up a fight. I don’t think they knew that I had a lot to say. I don’t think they knew who they were dealing with.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
So how did you become a medic?
I had a lifelong dream of being on Broadway. I always wanted to be a Cheetah Girl. I wanted to sing and dance and act. So I moved to New York City and I went to school at American Musical and Dramatic Academy, which was a two year program. I finished the program for musical theater and I started auditioning in 2017 and I just decided that it really wasn’t for me. It’s very demanding for very little payback. You get up at 4:00 a.m. to audition with 600 people that look exactly like you, that sound exactly like you, to be seen for 20 seconds, for somebody to say we’ll get in touch with you and then they never do. And then all the while, you’re not getting paid for that audition time. And then if you’re lucky, you get a gig that pays maybe just enough to help with dinner that week. But it’s all about who you know and it’s all about ass kissing, and I just really didn’t feel like I was set up for that. But most importantly, I felt like I wasn’t giving back to the community enough. My dad’s a health care worker. My mom was a health care worker. So I grew up around the health care profession and this just felt comfortable to me. I started EMT school in 2017 and I started practicing as an EMT in 2018. I was happy for a year before I heard that paramedics get paid more and they get to do a lot cooler stuff. So I decided I wanted to go to paramedic school.
You graduated in February 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. What do people need to know about what it’s like to be a paramedic at the height of the pandemic in New York City?
Well, mental health is not spoken a lot about in EMS. I wouldn’t say it’s looked down upon, it just is kind of not spoken of. And there were three, at least three, New York City EMS workers that died by suicide this year, and we think it’s the effects of the pandemic. There was a 24-year-old, brand-new EMT who worked for the fire department and he shot himself after only two or three months on the job. He had reached out to people saying how helpless he felt, and he just didn’t get the help that he needed and he ended up dying. And there are so many stories like that that we don’t know about, because of the death and despair that we saw as paramedics. And we are just expected to go on to the next job and work 30-40 hours a week doing the same thing every day where we would have several patients in one day dying on you. And you just were expected to just let it roll off your back and keep on going.
Do you remember the first patient that died while you were on the job?
I can’t recall where a patient has died on me personally, but I do recall taking people from their homes, and their families weren’t permitted to come with us in the ambulance or allowed in the hospitals. And I remember seeing how these people, these families would look at each other, not knowing if it was going to be the last time that they saw each other. And it’s quite an experience to be the person that has to tell your patient, “No, you can’t have visitors,” to be the one to tell your patient’s family, “I’m sorry, you can’t come with us.” I don’t know where they’re going to go from here. I don’t know what kind of treatment they’re going to get at the hospital. I just know that I did my best to make them comfortable and help them any way I could, as long as they were in my care and on my on my stretcher in my ambulance.
What kind of impact did that have on your mental health?
I’ve actually struggled with depression almost all my life, and recently anxiety as well. And I know that I can’t take care of my patients if I’m not well myself, so I did struggle a lot. I really did. And I’m a very empathetic person. And it was really, really difficult for me to see people dying, maybe not in my ambulance, but there were numbers just shooting up and people dying when nobody could save them. At the time I had roommates, but I didn’t know them. And so I would come home to an apartment, a lonely apartment, and after a long day’s work and just cry, you know, I felt so lonely. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to speak out about what I was seeing. I felt helpless. I felt like there was nothing I could do except watch these people die.
I think it’s a blessing and a curse to have started my career during the pandemic. But I think personally, it’s made me stronger. I do recognize that it was really hard for me. I mean, I struggled with suicidal ideations a lot of this year because of the loneliness, because of the helplessness. I found myself thinking, why would I want to be in a world with so much pain and despair? It felt like people had forgotten about New York City. It felt like our government had forgotten about us and we were just left to fend for ourselves.
You started your OnlyFans account in November 2019. How did you hear about it?
Maybe from some of my girlfriends? It was just getting popular and I saw it as a good way to make extra money. Originally I started off with a fake name and all of that, but it was harder for me to get people to to buy the content, because I didn’t really have a following. And then I felt like I was hiding something and I don’t really like to hide things. So there came a point where I was just like, I don’t really care. I came to terms with the fact that there could be consequences to this. I always knew that could happen, but I never thought it would be to this extent. But I believed that one didn’t have any effect on the other, and I was making good pocket change on the side. Often it helped me when I really needed it.
Did you have to get over any hurdle in terms of posting nude photos of yourself? What was your view of sex work prior to joining OnlyFans?
My thought on pretty much everything is, as long as you’re not hurting anybody or hurting yourself, do what you want. Mind your business. I am in full support of anybody who wants to do sex work consensually. I guess it was very nerve-racking at first — I mean, honestly, it was always nerve-racking to know that I’m risking basically my safety and my body for money. And sure, I guess I was always a little iffy about it or cautious, perhaps, but I needed money and this was a really easy way to capitalize off of men who were going to be looking at porn anyways.
Was it helpful in terms of supplementing your income? How much were you actually making?
Absolutely. I don’t really feel comfortable disclosing how much I made, but I will say that it definitely helped. And in times when I needed money for food, or rent, and I had no more money in my bank account because I paid rent or my bills and now I don’t have money for groceries, well, now I have money for groceries because of the nude pics that I sold online.
Did your family know about it?
I had told my mother a little bit about it. My mom and I are very close and I told her because I didn’t want anybody else to find out and tell her.
How did you tell her?
I think I texted her and I said, “Hey. I just want you to know that I’m selling my nudes online,” and she said, “OK.” And I said, “Are you disappointed in me?” And she said, “No, I love you.” And that’s pretty much the extent of it. She just asked me to be safe about it. And, you know, she loves me regardless.
Do you know other people in the health care field who have OnlyFans?
I do, yeah. I mean, I think it says more about our country and our health care system that more and more health care workers are having to turn to OnlyFans or other means of sex work or other means of getting extra cash, the fact that they’re not getting what they need to make ends meet from the job that they’re dedicating their lives to. I think that says more about our country than any health care worker individually.
It sounds like you had mixed feelings about being on OnlyFans, though.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I struggled a lot with empowerment and wanting to post when I wanted to post rather than posting when I felt like I needed to. I wanted to make content on my own free will, rather than doing whatever these people are demanding. But eventually I did start feeling like, you know, I had this requirement to post on OnlyFans and I didn’t like that. And before this happened, I had been thinking about shutting down my page anyways because it’s a lot to keep up with. It wasn’t my main source of income, it’s not what I wanted to be doing. I want to be a paramedic. So it’s not what I put all my energy into. And I guess this really was like the nail in the coffin.
How did you find out that the Post was doing a story about you?
Dean [Balsamini, the reporter for the New York Post] messaged me on Instagram and asked to speak with me. I asked him what it was regarding and he said, well, let me call you. I’ll give you the rundown. And he called me and just started firing off questions about my history, my background. And, you know, in my naiveté, I thought that maybe he was questioning me about if I was making an article about paramedics in the pandemic. After I gave him a brief history of myself, only then did he disclose that somebody had given a tip to the New York Post that I was a New York City paramedic that had an OnlyFans. I actually began crying on the phone with them because I was just so stunned. I asked him if he was allowed to use all of this information without my permission. And he said yes. And he basically told me, like, we’re going to run the story with or without your say. And so the quotes in the article are me defending myself to him, not me necessarily taking part in the interview.
Do you have any idea who tipped the Post?
I have no idea.
What was going through your head at the time that he told you they were going to run the story anyway?
I was really concerned that I was going to be fired, and that because my name was out there, that every New York City EMS company was going to blacklist me and never want to hire me again. And I had worked so hard to be where I am right now, and it felt like I was just another sex worker to this man, that it didn’t matter what I’ve done in my life or what I’ve succeeded at. All that mattered to this reporter was that I was a sex worker.
What did you do when you got off the phone with him?
I cried. I was in West Virginia at the time, so I told my mom what was going on. She stayed right beside me during all of it. I made all of my social media private. I deleted the OnlyFans as soon as I got off the phone. I emailed my company to tell them what was going on because I didn’t want them to think that I had started all of this. I wanted them to know that I had no intention of making the company look bad. I really tried to minimize the damage.
What did your company say when you emailed them?
They said they wanted to meet with me in person to discuss this. That’s all I ever got from them, an email. And I told them that I wasn’t sure when I would be home because my father was sick. And they pushed back and said that they wanted to meet with me in person. And I pushed back and said, I don’t know when I’m coming back. And I don’t understand why we can’t discuss this over the phone. But I actually just spoke with my company today, too, and this was the first time that I got to speak with them about everything that’s going on. And fortunately, with all the support and the love that I’ve been getting from everywhere, all from everyone all over, I am still employed with SeniorCare. But I do have to remind everybody that I’m not a representative of SeniorCare and that I do not speak on their behalf.
How many days was it in between when you got this call from Dean and when the story was published?
He contacted me the Friday after Thanksgiving and it published this past Saturday, so it was about two weeks and in between those two weeks was when my father went into cardiac arrest unexpectedly [after contracting Covid-19]. When that happened to my dad, immediately, none of it mattered to me because what mattered to me was my dad being alive and getting better.
How did it feel when you finally saw the story published? You spent two weeks in limbo, basically?
I didn’t even know about it until I saw I had 600 follow requests on Instagram and Twitter. I felt so helpless and I felt glued to my phone, reading the article, reading whatever anybody had to say. I truly wanted to crawl under a rock and just hide forever. Then my friends just started plastering my story everywhere and how disgusting it was. That’s when I first realized that this was turning around. I had reached out to a Facebook group for fans of a podcast called My Favorite Murder and a subgroup of the fanpage called First Responderinos, which are basically first responders that are fans of the podcast. And I said, “Please help me. I don’t know what to do. Do I have any legal standing here? I’m worried that I’m going to be without a job now.” And that community really lifted me up. And people that I’ve never met in real life, they were actually the ones to make the go fund to start the GoFundMe for me. I was so shocked that people were even donating. And then it just seems like I blinked and suddenly it was $10,000. $15,000. $20,000. I truly cannot believe how many people have gone to bat for me and spoken up on my behalf. But the real holy crap moment was when AOC tweeted about it. We actually spoke on the phone today after she DM’ed me and she just called me to send her encouragement and her support. She thanked me for my service and she thanked me for being brave. I told her I have a picture of her on my wall in my apartment, and I look up to her so much. And for her to be reaching out to to give me this encouragement means so much to me.
Why do you think you’ve become such a lightning rod?
I think they thought that I was just going to cry about it. But I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised to speak against people when I’m being discriminated against and when things are unfair, I’m going to speak up about it. And this was not fair. And now that I’ve been given a platform, I feel like I have this responsibility to my fellow EMS workers to speak out about issues that we’ve been struggling with for months about not having enough PPE, not having much federal assistance with that. It’s really the wages for me, is the biggest issue. We are putting our lives on the line. We are risking our lives. And we are the lowest paid first responders in New York City. EMTs get paid $15 an hour starting and then starting off as a paramedic, I am paid $25 an hour. Meanwhile, there are people who drive busses, who I’m so thankful for, that get paid more than we do. Not to say that they deserve less, but just to say that we deserve more payment.
A lot of people are telling me I should quit my day job and and make money on OnlyFans, and that would be the easy thing to do. I do recognize that there are people who want to do sex work, and I empower them to do whatever they want to do. But personally, it just wasn’t for me. It was something that I did to make some extra money. And if I don’t have to do it, I don’t want to. I don’t want to do it anymore. I have a responsibility to the citizens of New York. I made a promise to them that I would serve them. And that’s what I want to do. And I want to get back to my job. I want to be a paramedic. I want to take care of people.