Beyond the comforting black and white of Anna Gristina's story, there is a vast terrain of greys
In these days of unceasing economic doom and gloom, what's needed is a fine story of British entrepreneurship. Bang on cue, along comes "McMadam" Anna Gristina.
I'm referring to the wee Scottish lassie who skedaddled off to the New World and allegedly made herself a cool $10m in 15 years, living the life of a suburban mother of four upstate while running a prostitution ring on New York's swanky Upper East Side from her computer. It's required a five-year surveillance operation to land Gristina and she is deemed enough of a flight risk that bail has been set at $2m. Yet as her lawyer has cynically pointed out, she is an embodiment of the American Dream. The adopted daughter of a gardener and a maid, she grew up with five siblings in a village outside Edinburgh, setting off for the promised land in her teens.
Nobody does a sex scandal quite like us Brits. This one is strung together from irresistible cliches. Gristina is cast as a "petite blonde" ? or should I say "curvy strawberry blonde"? ? who pluckily parlayed her way into a world of decadent glamour. It's alleged her hookers include Playboy models and her millionaires-only johns are all powerful figures in politics, finance and entertainment. Not only Manhattan royalty but actual royals, it's tantalisingly suggested.
Folks back home have obligingly provided comments that are by turn envy-tinged or rather sweet. "We thought she was doing OK but we had no idea she was earning so much," said one friend. "She just said it was a temping agency for secretaries and things like that."
But if nothing in the life of this suspected mum turned madam is quite what it seems, each layer of artifice reveals something only more gloriously in keeping with the genre. She is thrice-married, for instance. Need I add that husband number two, an engineering heir whose name she still carries, is currently running as a Republican candidate for public office? Then there's her alleged partner in crime, doe-eyed Jaynie Mae Baker, who once appeared in a pro-wrestling video called Raw Diva Search. Then there are the pet pot-bellied pigs that sleep on beds in Gristina's family home and dominate her Facebook page.
Yet this particular scandal is fast giving the lie to its own tropes. "High-class brothel more wham-bam than glam," declared the New York Post. The Manhattan apartment turns out to be a rent-controlled one-bed above an Indian restaurant. But really, how classy can a brothel ever be? The truly shocking details ? that in at least one instance, a prostitute is thought to have been underage ? hold no appeal whatsoever.
Beyond the comforting black-and-white contrasts of this familiar story ? the woman from nowhere who, it's said, made millions in the world's oldest profession ? there stretches a vast and vastly more disquieting terrain of grey, in which sex and commerce will always be more intimately entwined than we care to acknowledge.
Still, there's no doubting Gristina's pluck. When asked about surrendering her client list, she said from her Rikers Island cell: "I'd bite my tongue off before I'd tell them anything." We'd expect nothing less from a "McMadam".