Who IS Belle de Jour?

by Paul Bracchi (originally published by the Daily Mail)

SHE ARRIVED at his flat in Chelsea Harbour in her trademark stockings and stilettos. Her client was ex-public school – the kind of young man, she thought to herself, who ‘says chin-chin before a drink’ and was a ‘fan of Boris Johnson’.

‘So what do you want to do?’ she asked seductively. ‘I want to make love to you,’ came the reply. ‘Like the full-on Barry White kind?’ she said, teasingly raising her eyebrows. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said, smiling.

Over the past months there have been dozens of such illicit assignations, including the investment banker who paid for a hotel room near Bond Street, the psychoanalyst from Mayfair, the Chardonnay-drinking gent from Waterloo, the engineer, and the senior law-enforcement officer.

How do we know? Because the high-class call-girl in question has been chronicling her sexual exploits in a diary on the internet, using the name Belle de Jour after the acclaimed Sixties film in which Catherine Deneuve played a bored housewife who became a prostitute. The modern Belle claims to be an English Jewish girl in her 20s who studied arts at university and now lives in Islington, North London. She is well read and enjoys French and Italian classics. She admires Shakespearean actors such as Antony Sher. She wears Chanel nail varnish. She shops at Harvey Nichols. She has a dazzling array of lingerie.

Naturally, she is something of a connoisseur in this department. For example, ‘there are Work Knickers’ (which tend to be ‘big and lacy . . . call it the logic of the hourly rate. The more there is to take off, the better value they think they’ve had’) and ‘Boyfriend Knickers’ (which tend to be ‘Small. Thongs. Take it off with your teethtype stuff.’)

Her experiences – one might call her a top-shelf Bridget Jones – have been read avidly by thousands of people all over the world. Predictably, Belle has now signed lucrative book deals in Britain and the U.S.

Indeed, we know rather a lot about Belle. Except, of course, her true identity, which has been the subject of frenzied speculation in publishing circles. Rumours abound. There are even those who even insist Belle is a he, not a she.

THE LIST of possible contenders is long and eclectic, and has included author Isabel Wolff (‘It’s hilarious that people think it’s me, but it’s not), journalist Toby Young (‘I’m extremely flattered that people think anyone would pay to have sex with me but, alas, I’m not her’), Rowan Pelling, editor of the Erotic Review magazine (‘It’s true, I have never been seen in the same place at the same time as Belle, but it’s not me’), even Alastair Campbell, who in his younger days wrote the sex diary of a Riviera Gigolo in Forum magazine. In fact, the hunt for Belle, which shows no sign of abating, is worthy of a book in itself. Among the other possible suspects are a streetwise literary agent with an eye for the main chance, a distinguished professor who helped convict the American ‘Unabomber’ and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, the daughter of church-going parents living in Manchester who emerged last week as the ‘prime suspect’. The first chapter, if we may put it like that, begins last October when the anonymous daily scribblings of a ‘working prostitute’ started to be posted on the internet.

The author, apparently, lives somewhere in the capital, has a boyfriend who sends her loving text messages (her Jewish parents are oblivious to her profession) and is put in touch with clients by an Eastern European madam who muddles the names of hotels, leaving Belle scrambling to reach customers before their desire ebbs.

Her diary is littered with literary and cultural references – like her visits to the Royal Academy and the V&A – as well as the titillating (a few days after introducing herself she informs us that she bought £60 worth of underwear at Selfridges), salacious and, the frankly unprintable. Very little, in fact, of what happens behind the doors of plush penthouse apartments and posh hotel rooms is left to the imagination.

Like the time ‘I rang the bell of a building in Mayfair; no answer from the speaker – he buzzed me up. He opened the door of the flat and disappeared into the kitchen for a drink. Inside it was clean, almost sterile. Smoky glass mirrors everywhere…’ It quickly became a cult hit. Two things, however, transformed the diary into a phenomenon. First, Belle won a Guardian newspaper award for her ‘blog’ (as in web-log). Second, she began seeking a publishing deal. Enter literary agent Patrick Walsh, who now represents her. Walsh is a master of clever marketing. He once struck a deal for an unknown sci-fi writer, claiming it was worth £1 million, and was the agent for Anna Pasternak’s controversial and widely derided Princess In Love, about James Hewitt’s affair with Princess Diana. He introduced his protégé to Helen Garnons-Williams, an editor at publishing house Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The meeting, so the story goes, took place at his office in Soho and he made Ms Garnons-Williams sign a confidentiality agreement. Belle’s bank account details were also said to have been changed to ‘make sure she can’t be tracked down’. Nor was there any auction for the book because, according to Walsh, it made it easier to keep her identity under wraps. It sounds like just clever hype. Walsh, of course, says it’s not. ‘She really is a call-girl,’ he said. Whatever the truth, he has now secured a five-figure book deal for Belle in the UK and a six-figure one with Warner Books in the U.S. So Belle, it seems, has become very wealthy, indeed – before her diary has even gone on sale. In different circumstances, that is where the tale of the internet call-girl might have ended- at least for the moment. Except that a few days ago Belle de Jour was ‘identified’ by renowned literary detective Don Foster, who had been approached by The Times to try to track her down.

Professor Foster, who lecturers at Vassar College in New York, studied Belle’s use of collective nouns, hyphens, brackets, italics, compound verbs, and even her rather careless use of commas. Then there was her use of the word ‘cringeworthy’ rather than ‘cringeworthy’, and the phrase ‘suffice to say’ rather than ‘suffice it to say.’ He typed all these details into the internet and searched for anyone who used them in their writing. The linguistic fingerprint, it emerged, matched that of someone else apart from Belle de Jour. He claimed Belle wasn’t a London call-girl at all, but a 33-year-old previously published author from Manchester, called Sarah Champion. Could this really be true? Well, Professor Foster certainly has excellent credentials. He had unmasked Joe Klein as the author of the Bill Clinton satire Primary Colors, and has worked on a number of high-profile criminal investigations with the FBI.

FURTHERMORE, Ms Champion does share some characteristics with Belle. Both have a passion for obscure bands, have spent time in Manchester (Ms Champion was born there), are widely read in contemporary literature and show detailed knowledge of South London. In 2002, Ms Champion was living in West Norwood, less than a mile from the A23, which Belle describes as separating her from her boyfriend. Ms Champion, who was tracked down to San Francisco where she’s been living, denies she is Belle. Even so, she has been dragged into the plot.

How embarrassing for her retired parents, devout Methodists, who have been forced to deny that their daughter is a prostitute. They live in a two-bedroom, red-brick terrace in Manchester from where her mother, Elaine, 67, told the Mail: ‘It’s totally untrue. I am quite embarrassed about it because I don’t know if our friends and family might see it and think it is true.’ Those fears, it seems, are well founded. For Ms Champion, who became the youngest-yet contributor to the New Musical Express when she was 15, enjoyed a colourful reputation back in her native city after she left school a year later. Indeed, her entry on the Friends Reunited website reads: ‘You may remember me as a quiet swot, but be reassured, I went totally off the rails and never even finished my A-levels.’

In fact, she immersed herself in club culture and admits to experimenting with drugs. She was linked with comedian Steve Coogan, then a rising star on the Manchester comedy circuit, and in the Eighties she was a contributor to City Life magazine before publishing anthologies about the Manchester music scene.

One of the sub-editors who checked her copy on City Life was Mike Barnett. ‘I have probably read more of Sarah’s work than most,’ he said. ‘Her writing style is certainly similar to that of Belle de Jour. I would not be at all surprised if it was her.’ Another friend from those days was writer and broadcaster Terry Christian, who presented Channel 4’s cult show The Word. His verdict? ‘Sarah could be Belle de Jour. She does get a buzz out of shocking people.’ A week ago, however, Ms Champion penned an article for a Sunday broadsheet robustly denying she was Belle: ‘Ever since I found myself described as a wild child in a local newspaper as a teenager, I dreaded that one day I would wake up to find paparazzi outside my door. ‘I have published a book of ecstasy drug stories in the wake of Leah Betts’s death, briefly dated a well known TV comedian and shared a spliff with a former Beatle. But it never occurred to me that what would finally bring the paparazzi to my door would be something like an analysis of my use of commas.’

BUT there is yet another twist in the plot. Professor Foster, the literary detective, has now distanced himself from the recent report in The Times which carried the headline Internet ‘Call-Girl author unmasked’.

The article suggested Professor Foster had come up with Ms Champion’s name after entering examples of Belle’s writing style into an internet search engine and finding that it matched hers.

In other words, The Times implied it was Professor Foster who had come up with Miss Champion’s name in the first place, plucking it, as it were, from cyberspace.

Not so, he says. He now claims it was The Times reporter who supplied him with Miss Champion’s name. He was told that the paper had contacted her and she had, apparently, admitted being Belle. ‘Never have I said, either on or off the record, that Belle’s identity has been established by anything I have ever said or contributed.

‘I made it perfectly clear in a series of telephone conversations and email exchanges with The Times, of which I have a complete record, that Miss Champion is (only) a person of interest.’ But, intriguingly, he adds: ‘I do think Miss Champion knows who Belle de Jour is.’ Does he think Ms Champion might be collaborating with someone? He wouldn’t say. But the Mail has uncovered another possible ‘suspect’ who now lives in San Francisco.

His name: Andrew Orlowski. Mr Orlowski is also a writer from Britain. He has written about sex on the internet for The Independent newspaper. And he is a close friend of … Sarah Champion. Indeed, the two worked together on short-lived publications in Manchester in the early Nineties. Miss Champion, of course, is also based in San Francisco.

Officially, at least, Belle – and the publishing team behind ‘her’ – are adamant that their author has not been identified. Indeed, posted on her website is the following message: ‘The people who have been “outed” as me are not me, and to those for whom it attracted unwarranted attention, I apologise.’ No doubt, we will eventually find out if that is the truth.