On a recent night in Detroit, Aziah “Zola” Wells returned to where it all began: Hooters. As the petite 20-year-old beauty in a pink blouse and tight blue jeans clacked her high black heels past the hostess stand, a curvy bartender shouted, “Zola!” It was her first visit back since she quit her waitressing job three months earlier, not long after finding out she and her fiancé were pregnant, but that wasn’t the reason for the excitement. The week before, on October 27, Zola tweeted, “Okay listen up. This story long. So I met this white bitch at Hooters…” What followed was an epic 148-tweet tale about her harrowing road trip to Florida with said “white bitch,” Jessica; Jessica’s maudlin boyfriend, Jarrett; and Jessica’s violent Nigerian pimp, “Z”. Tricks get turned, a hustler gets murdered, Jarrett leaps from a four-story window. It reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj. “That nigga lost in the sauce,” Zola wrote in one of her more popular tweets, “& that bitch lost in the game.”
The saga got hashtagged #TheStory and trended worldwide. Missy Elliot, Keke Palmer, Solange Knowles joined the legions obsessing online. “Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development,” Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, tweeted. “There’s so much untapped talent in the hood.” (“I’m not from the hood tho Ava,” Zola replied. “Ima suburban bitch. Still love you tho”). There were Zola Halloween costumes, Zola feminist think pieces, Zola comics, and parody movie trailers for a rumored Hollywood project: In a world where stripper fingers turn to Twitter fingers… One of her 108,000 followers anointed her the “Queen of hoeism.” To which, Zola replied: “Title of my autobiography.”
But what really happened that weekend in Tampa? Here, for the first time, is Zola’s exclusive account. I went to Detroit to meet with her and her tight-knit family, and also spoke at length with the other main players, many of whom are eager to set Zola’s story straight. “She’s ruining my life,” Jessica tells me.
As outrageous as #TheStory seems, many of the details line up, though a few key points don’t. Jessica insists she has never prostituted herself, and says that Zola was the one who wanted to turn tricks in Florida. Zola admits to embellishing some of the more sensational details — Jarrett’s suicide attempt, Z shooting the pimp — for entertainment value, but denies the allegation that she sold sex for money on the trip. When she posted the story on Twitter, she was caught up in the moment, she explains, riffing on the reactions of her followers who were responding in real time. She had posted and removed the story twice before and no one cared. To garner more interest this time, she made it darkly funny while preserving the gist of what happened. And she has no regrets. “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it,” she says, “because it was entertaining.”
That’s the one thing each of the participants agree upon: the real story behind #TheStory, of how young girls and women are held against their will by sex traffickers, is more fucked up and unconscionable than any one person could invent. There are currently an estimated 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide. “It’s common and it happens,” Zola tells me, as she cracks open a crab leg at Hooters. “It could happen to anyone.”