Business time

​bon ton [archaic] Sophisticated manners; class. Stylish or fashionable society. French for ‘good tone’ or ‘good taste, stylish.’

“IT TURNS OUT THERE ARE MANY COUPLES WHO COME TO QUEENSTOWN FOR ADVENTURE IN EVERY SENSE. IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE HURTLING DOWN A MOUNTAIN IN THE AFTERNOON, IN THE EVENING YOU MIGHT WANT SOMETHING THAT MATCHES THAT IN TERMS OF THRILL SEEKING.” WELL, I’LL BE.

I am chatting with Jennifer Souness, the owner of Bon Ton, Tāhuna / Queenstown’s only high-end escort agency. We’re discussing the ins and outs of sex work. Or more specifically the ins and outs of sex work in a resort town, and the particularities thereof.

It’s hard running a business, any business, in a tourist resort. Goods are expensive, business levels fickle, and small towns are small. Jennifer had previously operated agencies in both Wellington and Auckland, but when she first looked into shifting south six years ago, there was only one block in Queenstown’s CBD where she would be able to set up shop under local bylaws. Then there was the problem of discretion. In close-knit communities everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows what everyone is up to on every given day.

​In the end, Jennifer ran with a business model that caters specifically to the transient nature of Queenstown’s population. “We don’t have premises, primarily because 70% of clients are visiting,” she explains. Bookings take place in hotels, or private homes. And she has found that booking patterns reflect the fact that people coming to Queenstown are usually on holiday. “In a city, the clients tend to pop in and out between meetings, but here they tend to book for longer. There are a lot of overnighters.”

Bon Ton is new(ish) to Queenstown, but the business has been in Aotearoa for a while. Jennifer opened the first Bon Ton in 2003, the same year sex work was decriminalised in New Zealand with the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). How she got to that point is kind of a long story.

Originally from Eastbourne, Jennifer moved to Italy after being scouted by an Italian modelling agency when she was about 19. (You are wondering, so I am going to say it: she is a stunning woman. Her light grey eyes pop and her sable-coloured hair drapes over her shoulders like silk. She has lovely age-appropriate skin. She has no time for Botox or the plastified trappings of Instagram beauty.)

Jennifer stayed in Europe for 16 years, working on the international scene just as the age of the Supermodel was kicking off. She walked the catwalk in Milan, worked with the likes of Gucci, Dior, Valentino and Yves Saint-Laurent, modelled with a young Naomi Campbell, and even took part in the first foreign fashion show in Russia during Gorbachev’s perestroika period.

After moving on from modelling, Jennifer founded a production company with her then-partner, managing everything from fashion events to music videos. But life took a turn, as it does, and she headed back to Aotearoa for a break. It was the early 2000s, pre-Lord of The Rings, pre-Lorde, pre-Taika Waititi-saves-The Avengers-franchise. The country’s cultural sector was under-valued, underfunded, and not performing at all as an export industry. “New Zealand didn’t have a clue,” she recalls.

On the strength of her overseas experience, Jennifer was offered a role promoting homegrown creative industries after the 2000 America’s Cup celebrations, at which Team New Zealand beat the Louis Vuitton Cup winner, Prada Challenge. Note the fashion connection. This led to contract work under Economic Development Minister Jim Anderton in Helen Clark’s government. Industry New Zealand, the country’s national economic development agency, was looking to grow the country’s creative sector, and Jennifer came on board as a consultant. She did it just long enough to know that government bureaucracy was not for her. “I needed a career change,” Jennifer says.

The Italian ambassador was a good friend at the time, and he had thoughts. Sex work was about to be decriminalised, and the skills associated with fashion work – good taste, familiarity with luxury markets and an eye for beauty – were just the thing for a successful start-up in this new industry.

New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act of 2003 was world leading. It decriminalised sex work and upheld the human rights of people undertaking it. While general occupational health and safety laws apply, New Zealand sex workers are also protected by specific guidelines about safe sex practices (legally required), age limits (it is illegal to pay someone under 18 for sex) and consent. Sex workers can decline a client or withdraw consent at any time, even if a customer has already paid. Tax factsheets (IR296, ‘Private operators – a tax guide for self-employed sex workers’) and the ability to claim wage subsidies over lockdown are two examples of how ‘The New Zealand Model’ is bringing sex work in line with other work.

But while our legislation is held up worldwide as exemplary, the system isn’t perfect, and there’s a long way to go still towards eroding the damaging, lazy tropes that waft around perceptions, depictions and judgements heaped on sex workers: the down on her luck woman with nowhere else to go, the sexy junkie, Richard Gere saving Julia Roberts through the roof of his limousine.

Jennifer has never done sex work herself. She describes her role as that of an agent. “I take the bookings, and I screen the clients. They will ring up or email, and it’s my job to read or listen between the lines.” She means this in both a customer service sense, and with regards to safety. Bon Ton only takes bookings before 9pm, which eliminates the last-minute liquid-courage-fuelled calls and potential alcohol-associated harm. “The number of drunken louts on the street in Queenstown – there’s no way I would subject anyone to that environment. We don’t cater to that kind of thing. The biggest problem down here is alcohol. Eliminate that, and most of the issues go away.”

With this in mind, there are rules. If you are drunk, don’t bother calling. If you show up drunk, you can go home, even if you’ve already paid. No, you won’t get a refund. If the escort you have hired doesn’t like the look of you, or if you are making her uncomfortable, the deal is off. This is the law, and the law is there to keep everyone safe. Which begs the question, why are clients potentially dangerous to sex workers in a way they are not to, say, accountants? That’s too big a topic to address here. If you don’t know, please go away and read, and listen, and learn.

Having said that, Jennifer still rolls her eyes at the fact that many of the issues people associate with the “immoral” sex industry – gangs, drugs, the abuse and exploitation of women – are pervasive in the modelling world. While she loved a lot about working in fashion, she says there was a hefty dark side to it. As she has pointed out in the past, “in the sex industry, when a man touches a woman’s breast, he has paid for the right to do so and both parties are in agreement. In the modelling industry, when a man touches your breast, it’s called a casting.”

Bon Ton’s sex workers are all female, which according to Jennifer reflects supply and demand more than anything else. She makes the point to contract escorts who are not supermodels, as in “airbrushed constructions of unobtainable perfection”. The women are gorgeous, yes, but real. They all have day jobs, and their bios, beyond the saucy stuff, kind of read like the staff profiles on any other adventure business’ website. Cleo (28) is all about yoga and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Ellie (21) enjoys craft beers and Saskia (26) loves snowboarding. Anna (mid-50s) is an “ex-farm gal” who is into fishing and trekking. Speaking of supply and demand, Bon Ton is on the lookout for women in the 30 to 50 age bracket, if anyone’s looking for a side hustle.

Bon Ton was high end from the start, and that was the point of difference. Starting with her premises in Wellington, and later when she expanded into Auckland, Jennifer always had luxurious linens and fresh flowers as part of the setup, taking her cues from the kind of luxury hotels potential clients might stay at. When Bon Ton first opened, a visit started at $350. The next priciest on the market was $180. “The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective would send journalists to us as the face of the new industry,” she remembers. Bon Ton even got a nod from the United Kingdom’s Women’s Institute (WI) when the Hampshire WI’s Jean Johnson (62) and her friend Shirley Landells (73) embarked on an international brothel tour as part of a campaign promoting the legalisation of prostitution. They voted the Wellington Bon Ton best in the world.

It’s an intriguing business, and that’s a lot of what keeps Jennifer going. “I never expected to be doing it this long. It has been one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.” So who are the customers? People with money. A Bon Ton booking is pricey. Appointments these days start at more than $600 an hour, and if it’s an overnighter you’re after, you will pay upwards of six grand.

The majority of Bon Ton’s clients are married men. There are volumes to be written about what this says about the sexual dynamic in heterosexual relationships, but in this context, we’ll stick with Jennifer’s observation that “the ever-growing options for extra-marital sex strongly suggest that the human struggle with monogamy continues.”

(She wrote this as part of a stint writing an advice column called ‘Dear Jennifer’ for Stuff. In that case, she was addressing the query: ‘Dear Jennifer: Can I see an escort and still respect my wife?’ Other topics included ‘Dear Jennifer: I’m in love with a chronic flirt’, ‘Dear Jennifer: My colleague is making my life hell’ and ‘Dear Jennifer: I want to watch my man with another man’. Harper Collins has also asked her to write a book about her life, which is currently a work in progress.)

As Jennifer sees it, much of our ideal of lifelong love-based marriages is just something that’s been sold to us by an enormous global industry based more on fantasy than fact. She prefers to leave it at that, and I will too.

Anyhow, the many reasons for hiring an escort – loneliness, a sex drive or preferences that differ from one’s partner, the desire to experiment safely – are not exclusive to men. Bon Ton also caters to women and couples. One feisty young pair even treated themselves to an evening with a Bon Ton companion for their honeymoon. Kids these days. And there’s a lot more to the time clients spend with the escorts than just the main event. Prior to that, “a lot of times, they want someone to go on an adventure with, a five-hour hike or some mountain biking,” Jennifer explains.

How very Queenstown!

LAURA WILLIAMSON