The Real Zola
New York magazine|June 7 - 20, 2021
Five years after she lit up Twitter with her tale of a strip-club road trip gone awry, A’Ziah King’s story has become a big buzzy movie. Now she’s ready to make it her own again.
By Allison P. Davis. Photographs by Ashley Pena

Zola maybe notices her because of the neon-green rhinestoned leotard she’s wearing, or maybe it has something to do with the campy, USO-lite theme that permeates her stage persona, or it could be her beret, a quirky choice even here at the Clermont Lounge, where dollar-throwers come more for the kitsch than the sex appeal of the dancer. Or it’s possible that she’s adhering to that subclause of the laws of attraction, the one dictating that on any given night in any strip club in America, someone will fall a little bit in love. But tonight, at this dive bar–cum–strip club where Zola is sipping a gin-and-tonic, waiting for the room to fill and the energy to surge, she has just noticed a dancer, Amira, the woman who will temporarily become the object of our collective affection.

It’s Zola’s first night out in a while. She has been living in the suburbs just 30 minutes outside Atlanta with her mother, her younger sisters, and her daughter for more than a year now, writing, painting, recording music, birthing and taking care of a second daughter, and posting Instagram Stories and OnlyFans content. But mostly, she has been waiting for the movie based on her life—well, a specific incident in her life, one she originally relayed in 148 viral tweets—to come out.

She wrote the Twitter thread in 2015, chronicling a true-enough story about a trip to Florida with a fellow exotic dancer named Jessica. It started in a rosy flush of friendship, turned into a wild, careering two-day nightmare, and ended (maybe) with a gunfight. The tale spread fast and far enough to earn a place in the internet canon as “the greatest saga ever tweeted.” Those tweets became the basis for a lengthy, detailed Rolling Stone article that was adapted into a much-belabored screenplay that became a buzzy, A24-produced, long-delayed movie, Zola, about her and named for her—or at least for the name she gave herself and prefers to her legal one, A’Ziah King. After a five-year wait, the movie will premiere at the end of this month. So for her, this night isn’t just a foray back into her old life but a celebration of things finally, finally coming to fruition. An occasion for which she put on an Easter Sunday lilac wig, selected a going-out top that pushed her titties up to high heaven, slid her feet into heels that wouldn’t force an early end to the night, posted a callout on Instagram (“if ur in ATL&wanna come out tn, DM me”), and got ready to rage.

The plan, she shouts to me and her mother, NiChelle, over steaks at one of those restaurants where a DJ plays music at a conversation-annihilating volume and a waitress delivers chilled tequila shots to you with a sparkler, is to eventually end up at a queer dance party at a favorite bar, Friends. Along the way, maybe we’ll stop at a strip club where her friends work, or maybe we’ll swing by Magic City because you can’t not go to Magic City. Is a stripclub tour a little too thematically consistent? Maybe. But Zola, a 26-year-old with the nightlife stamina of a 26-year-old, could start at a club with a stack of a thousand $1 bills and end anywhere. She wants to show me that no story about her life is a match for the real thing.

She dips her head toward her mother, and they whisper into each other’s ears about which cut of meat to order. They’re best friends, NiChelle, 46, tells me with a big, beaming smile.

“I’m her best friend,” Zola jokes. “She’s not mine!”

NiChelle laughs and drapes her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and pulls her close. “You see how she do me?” she shouts. They agree to share a filet mignon.

Something about this night feels exceptional. For starters, A24, the studio behind the movie, is giving Zola perks usually reserved for a film’s stars, including both a car—a big black Escalade with a driver who will idle outside while we do whatever—and a PR ambassador: a white woman in a J.Crew shirt who spends dinner fretting that she won’t be able to get into Magic City because she’s a white woman in a J.Crew shirt. (Two spicy margaritas and one shot later, she isn’t worried and instructs me to refer to her as “everyone’s friend” in print.) Early on, NiChelle, an energetic participant who loves a night out just as much as Zola does, suggests we veer into uncharted territory and make a pit stop at the Clermont to kill time because nobody gets to Magic City this early.

“What’s Clermont Lounge?” Zola asks on the car ride over. Her questions are met with “Oh no, just wait and sees” and “You’re in for the time of your lifes” from both mother and publicist, who are giggling conspiratorially.

“Uh-huh. Y’all too extra,” Zola says, frowning skeptically. Once inside, she remains skeptical while a blonde dancer slowly peels off her bottoms to “Misery Business” to reveal a tattooed word right above her labia. Zola is squinting, trying to make out what it says, when her gaze accidentally lands on Amira, and Amira’s lands on Zola, and she approaches.

Their conversation starts with basic pleasantries, nothing special. Amira is friendly—maybe more cheerful than the other dancers we’ve spoken to. She tells us about herself (Lebanese, a student of chemical engineering). NiChelle asks if she has heard of Zola and introduces her daughter by proudly describing the movie and the tweets and Zola’s burgeoning fame. Just when we’re entranced, it’s time for her to walk away.

“Okay, ciao,” Amira chirps with a tip of her beret and a flirtatious waggle of her fingers. Then boom: Smitten switch flipped. Somehow Amira’s pheromones cut through the smell of decades-old bar-crowd sweat and booze and find their receptors in Zola.

“Oooooh!” Zola squeals as Amira swishes away to talk to another cluster of people who certainly couldn’t love her as much as we do. “Did you hear that? She goes, ‘Ciaaao!’” I loved that. ‘Ciaaao!’” She starts cackling. “‘Ciaaao!’ I liiiiiiiiked her.”

This is what Zola liked about dancing: being someone’s Amira. Being that girl. All eyes on her. She liked knowing she was “the prettiest girl in the club,” she says with a toss of the lilac hair. She would dance and leave it all on the floor, like it was therapy.

She started dancing when she was 18, when, during her “first job ever in the history of ever dom,” at Hooters, a co-worker noticed how personable she was and how she raked in the tips. They all had to adhere to the rule of “two bites, two minutes” (the Hooters method of talking to your table every two bites or every two minutes), and Zola excelled. She would leave with $500 a night and think, I’m good, until her coworker told her she could make $1,500 a night easy at the club she danced at, Penthouse, and told her to come audition.

“I couldn’t dance, I swear. At least not yet—and not in them shoes! I was just like, ‘Ooooooooooh’ and ‘Ahhhhhhhhh,’ ” Zola recalls, mimicking how she used to noncommittally shake her butt. “But the owner was like, ‘You’re cute,’” and hired her. When she was young, she had wanted to be Miss Michigan, but she realized it might not be her calling. “I’m a bit risqué,” she says with a laugh. So she sublimated her need for attention into dancing at clubs in Detroit. She didn’t know if it was because she was a new face or one of just three Black girls in the mostly white club, but her section was usually the most crowded.

Zola speaks in stories, and her club days gave her a million, she says, some she doesn’t want her mother to hear. NiChelle, always nearby, interjects, “When she started dancing, I just told her to be careful because it wasn’t like when I was younger.” When Zola danced, they would share locations on their phones so NiChelle could make sure Zola was safe. Even the dancing was different. NiChelle used to watch friends do this Detroit “jit,” she says, demonstrating with a little two-step in her four-inch heels. “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. Yes, honey! Nothing like what the girls do now.”

They tell me stories about Zola’s fellow dancers at that first club, such as the mother-daughter pair who performed together and a woman who could smoke cigarettes out of her hoo-ha. “Oh!” Zola interrupts herself and grabs her mother’s arm. “This is our song, this is our song!”

While Zola and NiChelle start shimmying in tandem, throwing their heads back to hit all the Christina Aguilera runs in “Lady Marmalade,” Amira appears onstage, giving her all in a split-heavy routine. Zola squeals anew. “Okay, choreography!”

After, Amira comes over to us. Amira isn’t her real name—she won’t give us that. We gush and fawn. She is happy to have women to talk to, she says, as she puts her number into my phone. “Men always promise to change your life, and they never do,” she adds mysteriously. We all stand there contemplating what that means.

It’s something Zola has been considering, the idea of someone or something being an agent of change. She has had half a decade to wonder what will happen once Zola is finally released in theaters. People keep asking her, she says, “Are you ready for your life to change?”—a question filled with a promise she’s sick of waiting for. So when, in a quiet moment between Drake songs, the A24 publicist, whose presence itself is proof of a new phase of life for Zola, asks her, again, “Are you ready for your life to change?,” the only thing she has to say is “You don’t understand. I’ve been ready.”

It’s late enough to hit Magic City, where, it turns out, not only can a publicist in a J.Crew shirt get in, she also has the plug that allows us to bypass the $60 cover and the line winding through the parking lot. Inside, she grabs drinks with NiChelle, who is telling anyone within earshot that Zola is a star and has a movie about her life coming out soon. From somewhere behind us, a man tosses a wad of dollar bills with the precision of an NBA player shooting a free throw. Singles shower down on two of the most beautiful, softest, least engaged women I’ve ever seen. They’re so beautiful and soft they barely have to do anything at all to get a deluge of money so dense they could drown in it. This is a perk of being hot enough to dance at Magic City: low participation, high reward. Zola estimates that $400 has accumulated on the floor in the few minutes we’ve been standing here. “I could never dance here,” Zola says. “It’s a whole different level, the way they inspect you.” She did make the cut at one Atlanta club, the Cheetah. She auditioned with a friend who wasn’t hired because her feet were too big. Zola doubles over laughing at her own story.

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