The tale of a 21-year-old sex worker named “Kelly” racked up more than 3 million views in about two weeks on YouTube, evoking pleas from people wanting to know how they could support her and others resenting her sudden popularity.

Shifting from side to side on a stool in a green T-shirt and gray sweatpants, the braces-wearing young woman with a high Afro puff and a baby face dispassionately told a horrific story of being physically and sexually abused as a child. She had cut herself in the past, tried to kill herself the day before with Xanax pills and considered suicide on Christmas Day, she said.

She unfurled a devastatingly brutal tale of abuse at the hands of her mother as a toddler, two rapes that happened at ages 5 and 7 by two foster dads. She said one would hammer nails in her ears. Kelly said she dabbled in drugs at the prompting of a pimp she met on Myspace and listed the pains of being a young sex worker.

“I started doing cocaine at 11, too. [The pimp] showed me cocaine. I stopped doing cocaine, though,” she said in the video, quickly contradicting herself and confessing that she had recently used the drug. “I’ve been raped on the blade, I’ve had a gun put up to my head on the blade.”

Kelly’s interview was among many that Los Angeles-based photographer Mark Laita, 60, has filmed for his passion-project YouTube channel, Soft White Underbelly, over the past three years. Laita’s subscriber count grew from just under 3,000 to nearly half a million after uploading the video featuring Kelly on Christmas Day with her real name, deleting it and reposting it in late January with her prostitution name. The channel now has more than 500,000 subscribers.

Laita’s warmly lit videos are portraits of addicts who recount childhood sexual abuse with detachment, sex workers who shed tears while telling of betrayal that led them to be trafficked as children, and gang members who talk about missing out on having their parents’ affection.

Commenters saturate each story, lamenting society’s failures, offering rudimentary psychological analysis and asking how they can help the person whose story moved them.

People who commented on Kelly’s video asked for ways to get in contact with her. Some offered a couch for her to find respite, a spare room for housing and hugs for the love she said she didn’t receive. The flow of compassion was overwhelming, inspiring Laita to create a GoFundMe page with an initial goal to raise $5,000 to help her. Viewers kept giving to the fundraiser, which Kelly didn’t know about until it reached about $9,000, he said. Laita’s growing audience raised more than $28,000.

Kelly, who was drug-free and employed about a month after filming with Laita, had seemingly transformed by the time an update video posted in late January.

But the happiness took a turn when Internet sleuths began poking holes in her story and questioned Laita’s project, which might lead to the money to be refunded to donors.

‘I did it for me’

Laita’s motives and interview techniques have faced criticism. He’s often skewered in the comments for some of the questions he asks sex workers, especially black ones, and accused of exploiting people who appear in his videos.

Laita admitted that he’s laughed or asked questions that appear inappropriate, and conceded that he’s “not perfect.”

He routinely scours the 50-block part of downtown Los Angeles known as Skid Row, where homelessness, drug addiction and criminal activity permeate the streets. Nearly 3,000 people live there, many in tents, according to 2019 data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

That’s where Laita found Kelly on Christmas Eve. Her boyfriend, a former gang member whom Laita interviewed twice but didn’t publish to his channel, introduced him to Kelly.

Laita is known around Skid Row for talking to people and giving them money, Kelly said in an interview with The Washington Post. Her boyfriend told her it would be like a therapy session she got paid for, she said.

The Post is withholding Kelly’s last name and her given name because it does not publish the names of sexual assault survivors or victims of alleged child abuse.

Kelly signed a release waiver Laita gives to all his subjects that states they acknowledge he has the right to publish their pictures and videos on his platforms, according to a review of the document by The Post. She said she didn’t even read it.

“I really needed to get out how I was feeling,” she said. “[The video] helped me a little bit.”

She cried after being filmed, settled into numbness again and didn’t expect anything after, she said.

“I did [the video] for me, and it stabbed me in the back,” she said.

Internet ‘evidence’

Kelly’s real name had been posted across social media, and critics proclaimed the “Kelly” she had created finessed Laita and the people who bought her story. Amateur Internet sleuths made videos proclaiming her story a lie, created false Instagram and GoFundMe pages, and located family photos and a high school identification card.

The Post couldn’t verify every claim Kelly made in the interview. However, inmate records for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department returned arrests for misdemeanor crimes in 2017, 2018 and 2019. She was arrested on Jan. 2 this year for another misdemeanor but released on a citation, according to public records.

Court records show Kelly was sentenced in 2018 to eight days in a Los Angeles County jail on shoplifting charges. There’s also a pending case that was filed in September for charges of prostitution. The violation happened in June, and an arraignment for the prostitution charges is scheduled for Friday, according to records.

The Post also confirmed she last attended Sierra High School in San Bernardino, Calif. in February 2015 when she was a junior, according to a San Bernardino City Unified School District representative. She never earned a high school diploma from that district, the representative said in a statement to The Post.

Kelly didn’t have recollection of what the arrests were for but speculated that some could be domestic-violence charges for fighting with her former pimp. She expressed surprise about the January arrest and her pending case.

She affirmed her enrollment in school but said she barely attended class. She was registered at many schools as she bounced between foster homes, she said.

Since the video was published, her mother’s Facebook page has been swamped with people sending prayers and others asking her if she abused her daughter. Pictures from her page have been used to discredit Kelly’s depiction of her childhood. Those pictures were often taken on holidays and during breaks from foster homes, Kelly said.

“This is all so emotionally overwhelming for me, but in the end I just want to see people healed, including my daughter,” Kelly’s mother told The Post in a text message. “What my daughter said was all based on a true story. I do not recall the events that she explained happening the way she explained them in the video.”

Court records indicate her mother was convicted on a child-abuse charge in 2002 and sentenced to a year in a Los Angeles County jail and five years of probation. Another child-abuse charge followed in 2004; that carried a sentence of six years, of which she served a year, according to records.

The dates of the convictions are about a year off from the ages at which she claimed to be sexually assaulted as a child.

Understanding or exploitation?

“I’m just one guy with a camera,” Laita said. He monetized his YouTube channels days ago.

Laita will give between $20 and $40 to people who are willing to tell their stories, he said. Those who are more at risk of being exposed, such as pimps, drug dealers or prostitutes, sometimes want more, costing him up to $100.

On any given day, up to eight people line up willing to share a personal history that Laita uses only his gut to check, he said.

“I am certain that not every dollar I’ve given to somebody on the street has been spent on a blanket or a tent or shoes. What I’m doing is not foolproof,” he said, considering his work to be a tool for awareness and education.

Compensating his subjects shows a sign of respect for their time and the intimate details they’re willing to share, said Amy Turk, chief executive for Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, the main service provider for women who live on Skid Row.

The line of exploitation can be a thin one to balance if not done well, and it can be “emotionally dangerous to have someone reveal so much deep complexity about their life and walk away,” she said.

Turk, a licensed clinical social worker, said the best way for someone to get involved is to find an organization that’s aligned with their desire to help and that matches their skills with a need.

“It’s about understanding that something has happened to them,” she said, adding that some people on her staff have heard of Laita’s channel and saw a video of a woman the organization has assisted in the past. “Sounds like [that’s] what Mark is tapping into.”

Stephany Powell, executive director for the Van Nuys, Calif.-based nonprofit Journey Out, which helps women who have survived sexual exploitation, watched Kelly’s story after the video popped up on her Facebook feed. She was instantly concerned for Kelly’s safety because of her identity being known and the amount of money raised for her.

“If she’s vulnerable enough to be trafficked, she might be vulnerable enough for a guy to befriend her,” she said.

People are growing more aware about human trafficking, and Kelly seemed like a likable person whom people perceived as undeserving of what had allegedly happened to her, Powell said, contemplating why Kelly’s story resonated with so many people compared with others on Laita’s channel.

The retired Los Angeles Police Department sergeant said she’s heard stories like Kelly’s too often in her years of service and now as leader of Journey Out.

“A lot of times it is not unusual for victims to not depict themselves as victims or how some people think victims should present themselves,” she said.

Money isn’t curative for the type of trauma someone like Kelly experienced, Powell said. She needs assistance with finding housing, securing employment and attending counseling to help her cope with pain. People like Kelly need a community that consists of professionals and former sex-trafficking survivors to pull her forward, she said.

“You can give her that $30,000. If she blows through it, then what?” Powell asked.

Was it worth it?

GoFundMe has received multiple complaints about fraud, which could result in the money being refunded.

Only about one-tenth of a percent of all campaigns are identified for misuse, said Melanie Yost, a spokeswoman for GoFundMe, in a statement to The Post.

“If a campaign is flagged as fraudulent by a user, the funds cannot be withdrawn until the issue is resolved,” she said. “That’s exactly what’s happened in this case. The funds are on hold until the organizer provides additional information about the fundraiser.”

Laita could face a personal loss of thousands of dollars after helping Kelly find an apartment and giving her money when she needs it, they both said. He thought he would be able to recoup his spending when the GoFundMe money was released. Donors started rescinding their donations, Laita said.

He still believes Kelly. His gut, the 25 other sex workers on Skid Row who vouch for her and photographs of her scars are enough for him.

The surprising growth of his channel has sparked conversations with television networks and propelled the monetization of his videos. It has also triggered an increase of leery subjects concerned about scrutiny similar to Kelly’s or broader exposure of their illicit activity, he said. His Patreon account, where people can pay to see his content, will feature the people preferring fewer eyes on them.

Laita wants to use the money from Patreon and YouTube to photograph and record people living in different underbellies of distress across the country.

Kelly, who says she stopped sex work around mid-November, is unemployed once again after allegedly being let go from Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based organization that helps people like Kelly reenter society through jobs and multiple services. They let her and her boyfriend go because of social media attention, she said. Homeboy Industries didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Kelly and her boyfriend are currently staying with one of his family members instead of in a tent on Skid Row, she said.

She sometimes regrets sharing her story with Laita because of the attention she’s received and the mobs of people calling her a liar.

“I just want to be successful, even with all the things I was going through,” she said. “I don’t have a plan, necessarily. My main concern is getting housing. I just know I want better for myself.”

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