If you spend a lot of time on TikTok, then you’ve probably come across ItsImperial on your For You page. An 18-year-old with high cheekbones, a septum piercing, and intense, dark eyebrows, Imperial has racked up an impressive 1.9 million followers in less than a year, typically posting at least once a day. Many of her videos are jokey TikToks, using trending audios and complaining about being single and showing off her studio apartment. But Imperial’s most popular videos recount wild stories about her stripping career. These have led her to go viral on StripperTok, shorthand for TikTok’s exotic-dancer community.
Often to the tune of “Dominique,” an upbeat 1960s Belgian pop song by Jeannine Deckers, Imperial has gone viral with her tales of, among other things, running into her father at a private party, being pelted with feces while performing onstage, being attacked by jealous wives and girlfriends, and getting caught in the middle of a club shooting. In some of her earlier videos, she’ll speak in an offbeat patois that sounds part American, part Australian, which disappears in her later work and which she has attributed to a speech impediment.
It’s easy to see why Imperial’s videos are so successful: Her content is funny, relatable, and more than a little outrageous, like Reddit’s infamous r/relationships forum come to life. It’s also, to some extent, lifting the veil on a profession that’s shrouded in stigma: By showing off her eight-inch platform heels or the pole in her living room to her followers, Imperial puts a human face on a career path that is often degraded and maligned by mainstream society.
There’s just one problem: Many on StripperTok don’t believe Imperial’s stories are actually true. And while Imperial’s followers tend to applaud her in the comments for demystifying sex work, many exotic dancers who Rolling Stone spoke with see her content as contributing to stigma, not detracting from it.
Jessica Kind, a dancer who says she has been in the industry for 11 years, says that Imperial’s florid accounts of life as a sex worker facing a litany of abusive or lascivious clients do real harm to an already-stigmatized community. “She was accruing this mass following using stories about violence against my community,” she says.
Kind, who goes by the handle @strippayoga, posted a TikTok calling out Imperial for, as she put it, “using super-stigmatizing stripper stories to gain clout.” Even though the video received a tremendous amount of backlash from many of Imperial’s followers, who accused Kind of being jealous of Imperial’s large following, it garnered almost 1 million views. “When we normalize these stories, people think that’s the type of treatment dancers should expect, and why would we do it in the first place,” Kind tells Rolling Stone. “It’s important that people recognize that this is not something that is normal in the club.”
Imperial did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment. But in response to the intense criticism, she has posted a handful of videos on TikTok denying that she has embellished or fabricated any of her stories. “I played out a scenario that makes the situation more dramatic than it actually is, but if you really think about it, the stories aren’t actually that dramatic,” she says, before adding, “I’m making these videos because I want people to feel — I just want to let you guys know what’s going on.”
One of the most glaring red flags, says Kind, was the fact that on her TikToks Imperial rarely makes references to the presence of security or a bouncer, which is standard to prevent dancers from being mistreated. (One exception is the TikTok where she discusses having a gun pulled on her, and she says security intervened.) “Most clubs have two priorities: making money from strippers and keeping the girls safe so they can make money from strippers,” Kind says. “Even in private parties that happen at people’s residences, maybe there’s not as much security, but even then there’s bouncers and systems in place to make sure randos don’t show up and attack the girls.” The presence of a bouncer or security guard would theoretically prevent many of the incidents Imperial describes in her videos, such as being pelted with feces or being attacked by a jealous wife who smells her perfume.
Imperial has said repeatedly in her TikToks that she works private parties, not at clubs; she also has an OnlyFans, where she largely sells censored nudes for $15 a month. Most of the dancers Rolling Stone spoke with said it’s fairly uncommon, though not unheard of, for dancers to exclusively work private parties, because most privates are booked through connections made at clubs. Imperial’s website also doesn’t allow potential patrons to book her, and her Instagram, where she has 181,000 followers, doesn’t promote upcoming appearances, as is the case for many dancers. She also doesn’t appear to follow the local clubs in her area, nor do they follow her, as is common in the industry. “I don’t see how it would be possible for her to advertise and make money off private parties during a pandemic,” says Bebe Gunn, a Minnesota-based dancer. “And if you are, that’s irresponsible to boot.”
Sex workers have also flagged some of the terminology Imperial uses in her videos. In one TikTok, for instance, Imperial refers to showing up center stage at a VIP room at a private party. A sex worker who says she went to high school with Imperial, who now goes by the name Luna, says there’s usually no stage in VIP rooms at clubs, and she has never heard of there being a stage at private parties, which are typically held in hotel rooms or private residences.
The biggest red flag, however, is the timing of Imperial’s dancing career. On TikTok, Imperial says she started stripping when she was 17, even though many state laws dictate that the legal age to dance at licensed establishments is 18 years old (at clubs that serve alcohol, dancers usually have to be 21). Most employers will require extensive documentation, including government identification, to confirm that a dancer is of age, for liability reasons if nothing else. While it’s not impossible she would have been employed by a private company while she was underage, it is unlikely, according to the dancers Rolling Stone spoke with.
Grace Zhao, who attended middle school with Imperial, used to follow Imperial on her (now-deleted) second Instagram account. On April 30th, when Imperial was still a senior in high school, she published a post on her stories that said, “Plans after high school: Become a stripper.” The Instagram story was posted the same month that Imperial started telling stories about her exotic dancing job on TikTok. “It wasn’t really adding up,” says Zhao, who provided a screen-grab of the post to Rolling Stone, as well as yearbook photos to corroborate their connection.
Perhaps more to the point, according to five people who went to school with Imperial whom Rolling Stone spoke with, she has a history of making outrageous or unfounded claims. One of the individuals, Daniela, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, was a year ahead of Imperial at a trade high school, where Imperial concentrated in cosmetology. (Daniela and her sister, who corroborated details of Daniela’s account, provided photos of themselves with Imperial to back up their connection.) Daniela recalled that during her junior year, in 2018, Imperial told people in high school that she was suffering from stage 5 cancer. “She said, ‘I can never have kids, I can never have tattoos,’” Daniela says. “Then I come to see all these pictures and she has a giant tattoo [on her arm]. It’s just weird to me, all these lies.”
Luna, 19, says that at the beginning of ninth grade, Imperial told her that she had lung cancer. At first, Luna says, she and her friends believed her: “I just didn’t think she’d lie about something like that,” Luna says. Then, months later, Imperial told her friends her cancer had progressed. Luna was suspicious. “I had a grandma who died from cancer, and she didn’t have any signs of that. She didn’t have signs of chemo or radiation. She didn’t miss school,” says Luna, who posted the allegation as a TikTok on her page. “There was really nothing.” (Luna and Imperial had a falling-out during Imperial’s freshman year over the cancer claims, Luna says: “She had asked me why I stopped being her friend. I told her it was because I didn’t like people who lied about things like that.”)
In the comments on Imperial’s page, at least two people who claim to have gone to high school with her, who have not spoken with Rolling Stone, have echoed this allegation, saying she lied about having had cancer. Imperial has not directly responded to this claim, and some of the commenters allege that Imperial has blocked them on TikTok and deleted many similar comments.
Luna also says that Imperial used to tell other, more minor mistruths, such as inviting her over to her house for her birthday when it wasn’t actually her birthday. Another former friend, who asked to have her name withheld for privacy, says that Imperial once told her that her house had been featured in a magazine and that she regularly had celebrities over. The friend says she brought it up with Imperial’s mother, who denied that the house had been featured in any magazine article. “[Imperial] just said she was kidding, but of course she had just gotten caught in a lie,” the friend says. (Zhao, who attended middle school with Imperial, says she actually remembered seeing the house in a magazine article once, though she couldn’t recall which publication it was.) As for Imperial’s accent, all five of the people Rolling Stone spoke with who knew her said they’d never heard anything about a speech impediment.
To an extent, it’s not exactly shocking that someone with a large internet following would embellish stories or create an exaggerated persona in order to solidify their brand. And many of Imperial’s alleged mistruths could likely be chalked up to a youthful indiscretion, or a young person’s desire to gain more clout online. But sex workers and former classmates who Rolling Stone spoke with feel Imperial truly crossed the line in her latest TikTok video, when she tried to explain the inconsistencies in her timeline with a disturbing account that, whether or not true, reinforces some of the most stigmatizing misconceptions about the adult industry.
In the video, Imperial alleges that she was “manipulated” into entering the adult industry when she was 17 years old. She claims that when she was 15 she met a person who eventually asked her to dance for him. He then started bringing her to his friends’ houses to dance for them for money, though she says she didn’t start working private parties until she was 17. “I was taken advantage of as a minor and I was manipulated into becoming a stripper,” she says in the video, adding that she remained in the industry because she loves her job and it was the only way she knew how to make good money. This is her last video in more than a week, and she has started restricting comments on her Instagram, though she has not turned off comments on TikTok.
Many of the sex workers Rolling Stone spoke with were highly conflicted about the veracity of this claim, which they say would fall under the category of sex trafficking. (Imperial herself does not explicitly use the term “trafficking” in her TikToks.) While anti-sex-work activists tend to inaccurately conflate sex trafficking with consensual sex work, it’s sadly not unheard of for young women to be drawn into sex work by an exploitative or abusive partner. But in the context of Imperial’s other videos, however, sex workers on TikTok who Rolling Stone spoke with expressed their concern that Imperial may be fabricating this account in order to deflect further probing into her credentials. Luna, who says she has a friend who was the victim of sex trafficking in Mexico and does not believe Imperial’s story, is particularly enraged that Imperial would make such a claim. “Sex trafficking happens every day. That’s not something you should lie about,” she says.
“If you’re being coerced into dancing or being trafficked, like she said, that’s a dangerous situation, and she needs help,” says Gunn. If untrue, however, “she’s bringing more stigmatizing harm against my community at a time when social media is in an active war against sex workers.”
Ultimately, this is at the crux of why many dancers are upset with Imperial: Though it is far from uncommon to fabricate or embellish stories about oneself on the internet, she has managed to carve out a wildly successful niche for herself in an ecosystem that is, to many sex workers, suppressive at best and hostile at worst.
In addition to social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, which have been accused of shadow-banning sex workers simply by virtue of their profession, TikTok has been accused of censoring content that contains references to sex work, even if the work in question is legal or does not otherwise violate community guidelines. Most of the sex workers Rolling Stone spoke with said that one of their videos had, at one point or another, been taken down by TikTok, for everything from using the word “stripper” to showing off their work shoes. To evade TikTok censorship, many sex workers will intentionally misspell words like “sex” or “stripper” in their videos or usernames. “It’s really frustrating to see someone who may potentially be lying about the industry have a giant platform with a ton of minors when we’re trying to normalize what we do and we get censored by TikTok and Instagram just for being sex workers,” says Gunn. (A representative for TikTok tells Rolling Stone that sex workers are not censored for using such terminology in their videos, though the app’s Community Guidelines prohibit “content that commits, promotes, or glorifies sexual solicitation.”)
Those who knew Imperial are confused and frustrated by the persona she’s built for herself on her page. Daniela and Imperial aren’t in touch anymore, but if they were, she says, the first thing she would ask her is: Why all the lies? “She’s such a beautiful person with amazing makeup skills,” says Daniela. “She could do so many other things with her life. She could be positive and do makeup videos, but instead you’re trying to be somebody who you’re not. You end up being trapped in this person you want to be, and it ends up consuming you.”