Real-Life ‘Zola’ Sex-Trafficking Victims Speak Out: ‘There’s Nothing Glamorous About This’
Jessica Forgie was 19 when she says she got mixed up in the viral Twitter tale that’s now become the movie “Zola”—duped into sex trafficking and assaulted by a violent pimp.
Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.
Six years after that meme-ready opening line—as well as a major script overhaul, a new director, and a delayed release due to the pandemic—the viral Twitter tale spun into the A24 movie Zola will finally make its way to the big screen on June 30.
Janicza Bravo’s film has been hotly anticipated since its Sundance premiere last January, with reviews hailing it as “wildly entertaining” and a “crazy-ass ride” thanks to committed turns by Taylour Paige as the titular Zola and Riley Keough as the aforementioned “bitch” Jessica Swiatkowski, renamed Stefani in the film.
The indie flick heavily leans into the comedic chaos of a friendly strip trip that went criminally south, its flashy trailer flush with women on poles, cash, and guns, but at its core, Zola is an unsettling account of how young women can quickly fall victim to the seedy underworld of sex trafficking.
Press has come fast and furious in the lead-up to its release, with Zola, real name A’Ziah King, given a glowing profile and accompanying photo shoot in New York Magazine, as well as a feature with director Janicza Bravo and screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris in The Hollywood Reporter. Meanwhile, Paige and Keough have been on an intense publicity run.
Despite all the hype and promo, news of Zola’s imminent release never made its way to Jessica Forgie, whose often overlooked story is tragically intertwined with the real-life Zola’s.
Forgie finds the saga no laughing matter. Just a few days after King made a clean break from Jessica and her “pimp” Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe (renamed X in the film), and safely hopped off a plane in Detroit, Forgie says she and her friend Breeonna Pellow were lured into a sex-trafficking situation by the two in early April of 2015.
Uwedjojevwe had tried to force the Michigan-natives to prostitute themselves alongside Jessica in Nevada, according to police. Forgie, then 19, managed to alert police after escaping from a hotel room where she says Uwedjojevwe had sexually assaulted her. The 41-year-old was arrested in the casino’s lobby and is still in prison in Nevada after pleading guilty to sex trafficking and coercion.
Zola fails to mention the stories of Forgie and Pellow, the latter of whom knew Jessica because they all lived relatively close to the Detroit metropolitan area, including King and Uwedjojevwe.
For Forgie, it was a shock to learn that the film had the backing of a high-profile film company, let alone it was set to be released at the end of the month. She last heard that James Franco had been tapped to direct it. After watching the twinkling trailer, Forgie takes issue with the film turning a deeply traumatizing event into a satirical film that trivializes the actions of Jessica, who essentially acted as a recruiter for Uwedjojevwe, who in turn attempted to force herself, King, and Pellow into sex trafficking.
“There’s nothing glamorous about this,” Forgie tells The Daily Beast. “It’s kind of mind-blowing that someone actually finds humor in that. This is entertaining and funny to you? What about the reason why he’s in prison? They’re leaving it out and they just make it look like it’s all fun and games. It wasn’t fun and games.”
“I didn’t know how many people knew my story, or cared about it,” she says. “Whatever they’re trying to portray in this Zola movie, it invalidates the whole situation.”
While some aspects of King’s story were admittedly fabricated for dramatic effect, much of her 148-tweet thread in Oct. 2015 appears to stand up, according to most of the people involved and various media reports.
King had met Jessica during a shift at their local Detroit Hooters in March 2015. The two women swapped numbers after learning they both stripped from time to time, with King telling Jessica that she’d be down to dance with her sometime. A few days later, Jessica wanted to cash in on that promise, inviting King on a trip down to Florida to hit up some strip clubs. Lured by the prospect of making trash bags full of cash in a matter of days, King agreed, packing up her highest heels and tiniest lingerie. Tagging along were Jessica’s boyfriend Jarrett Scott (played by Succession’s Nicholas Braun in the film) and Uwedjojevwe (played by Colman Domingo), who would supposedly act as their manager.
Things turned nefarious when King realized Uwedjojevwe sometimes acted as Jessica’s pimp, wanting her to “trap” because they weren’t making much money at the strip clubs.
Uwedjojevwe listed the young women on the classified ad site Backpage, which was commonly used by sex workers and escorts at the time. King claims she never prostituted herself, but because she felt protective over Jessica, she stayed in the room to make sure nothing went awry. But when King learned the low rate of $100 that Uwedjojevwe had set for Jessica, she took matters into her own hands, taking new photos of Jessica and creating new ads on Backpage, this time priced at $500. “New in town for your pleasure,” Jessica’s page reportedly advertised. “Give me a call, you will not be disappointed.” (Jessica has claimed that she never prostituted herself, only stripping, and it was actually King who was working that trip.)
Soon, things spiraled out of control. After Jessica had a violent confrontation with either a john or another pimp—the details are still unclear due to differing accounts—King was able to part ways with Jessica and Uwedjojevwe, marking the end of her story.
But that’s where the nightmare for Forgie and Pellow began.
Pellow declined to be interviewed when contacted by The Daily Beast but described her time with Jessica and Uwedjojevwe as “the most traumatic experience of my life.”
“I don’t take this as a joke or lightly, and everyone seems to think it’s just some nonchalant thing,” she said in a message.
The Daily Beast could not reach Jessica for comment.
Forgie explained that the two friends were on their way back to Michigan following a cross-country road trip to California when Pellow’s truck broke down in the deserted area of Battle Mountain, Nevada.
Out of cash, apart from gas money to get home, they called 911 for roadside assistance, and were dropped off at the nearest gas station. Broke and thousands of miles from home, they used the store’s Wi-Fi to try to get hold of someone who could help.
“I was gonna contact my mom,” Forgie explains. “But at that point, we were very financially unstable. I knew there was no way that she could get me home. I didn’t want to stress her out, knowing that I was all the way across the country and stuck.”
So Pellow allegedly told Forgie that she knew someone from back home who could help them out. That woman turned out to be Jessica.
“Apparently, [Pellow] had been talking to Jessica for a while,” Forgie says. “So, I believed my best friend. I believed that someone would help us. Maybe I was naive at that point.”
Sure enough, a limo sent by Jessica’s booking agent—who had helped her secure work at various strip clubs in Michigan—arrived to take the girls to the airport in Reno. Skeptical at first as to why a luxury car would be picking them up, Forgie says her nerves were eased by the pleasant driver, who offered to stop at a McDonald’s so they could get something to drink.
When they arrived at the airport, Forgie asked Pellow to tell her the details of their flight. That’s when Pellow allegedly informed her friend they weren’t the ones traveling—Jessica and Uwedjojevwe were coming to them. “That’s where my mind kind of clicked,” she says. “It all went way downhill after that. [Jessica] was not innocent, and neither was my friend.”
Forgie claims she was unaware at the time that Pellow had messaged Jessica a few days prior, intrigued by the buckets of cash that the mother-of-one appeared to be making from stripping—and she wanted in. “Girl I wanna know what you’re into,” Pellow wrote to Jessica, according to Rolling Stone. “Cause I’m a freak bitch that loves money and will do anything for it.”
“What [Pellow] told me was that she was gonna go strip,” recalls Forgie, after she had pressed her friend for clarification as to what exactly was going on. “I didn’t have to do anything. I was along for the ride since it wasn’t my fault. It was her truck, let her do it.”
Uwedjojevwe ended up taking Forgie, Pellow and Jessica to Reno’s Atlantis Casino Resort, where Forgie thought she was going to get some much-needed rest after the hellish events of that day. But when she went to change into her pajamas, Uwedjojevwe stopped her.
“He looks at me and he goes, ‘Those better be going-out clothes… and your ass is hopping in the shower,’” Forgie remembers. “I looked at him and I looked at my best friend and she just put her head down. At that point I knew, I’m fucked.”
“I was naive, I was scared,” she explains. “I was stuck all the way across the country. I did beat myself up, there were plenty of chances where I could have ran. People say that all the time, ‘Why didn’t you run?’ Well, where would I have went? I was on foot; I had no car. Where would I have gone? What would I have done, honestly?”
“No one can say what they would have done until they were in my situation. I remember being younger being like, man if I ever get kidnapped this is what I do. Did I do any of that? No, because I was trying to stay alive.”
Uwedjojevwe had been pushing both Forgie and Pellow to prostitute themselves along with Jessica, Forgie says. He went through their phones to find pictures of them to advertise them on Backpage—just like he’d done with King and Jessica in Tampa.
Forgie refused to participate. “I was like, ‘There’s no way in hell that I’ll do that,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘You’re gonna have to kill me first.’”
Uwedjojevwe ended up confiscating Forgie’s phone in order to make it the “pimp” phone, using her number to facilitate calls from men, she claims. He eventually took Forgie alone to the Peppermint Resort, leaving Jessica and Pellow behind to service clients. Pellow previously claimed that she had no idea that Uwedjojevwe had intended to pimp her out, and that she did not prostitute herself, instead hiding in the bathroom while Jessica performed on men.
Meanwhile, Forgie says she was alone in a hotel room with Uwedjojevwe, pleading with him to let her go home. “He said, ‘I have an idea,’” Forgie remembers. “‘You can fuck your way home.’”
Speaking slowly, Forgie recalls how Uwedjojevwe allowed her to text her mother that she was all right, hovering behind her as she typed out her message. But he suddenly grabbed her. “He proceeded to hold me down,” she says. “He had both of his arms over my arms, and he assaulted me.”
Forgie says Uwedjojevwe then headed into the bathroom, turning on the faucet before making a phone call.
“I took that as my time to run,” she maintains. “I left the doors open; I ran for the elevator. He wasn’t behind me at that time, but he must have realized, ‘Oh my god, I just left her alone.’ I ran down to the front desk and said, ‘I need your guys’ help.’ I felt a hand on my shoulder and when I turned around, it was him. I said, ‘Get the fuck away from me. Do not touch me… you are going down.’ Well, he ran out the doors.”
Forgie was subsequently interviewed by police, who were called to the scene by hotel staff. They took photos of her injuries and brought her back up to the room to retrieve some of Uwedjojevwe’s belongings for DNA samples and evidence, she says. When Uwedjojevwe returned to the hotel a short while later, police tackled him to the ground.
Once Uwedjojevwe was in custody, Forgie was finally able to speak with her mom. “She thought I was in jail or something,” she says. “I didn’t tell her what happened. I said, ‘Listen, I can’t tell you what happened, but I’m fine. I’m safe.’”
Forgie says she wanted to wait to speak to her mom face-to-face about the disturbing circumstances because her mother had become pregnant with her after she’d been sexually assaulted. “My mom kept me,” she says through tears.
“That’s been a hard thing to live with in my life, and then I have to come home and tell her the same thing that happened to her happened to me. It was hard, very hard.”
It hasn’t been an easy road for Forgie, who in the aftermath of Nevada attempted suicide and spent time in a mental institution to receive treatment for the harrowing trauma she endured.
“I’ve been through it, I can talk about it,” she says. “I mean, it’s been shoved in my face. I feel like I got my closure with [Uwedjojevwe being in prison]. But this [movie] kind of reopens it.”
“I still cry about it because there are still negative people in the world that will only see or believe what they want to see, not the truth,” Forgie adds. “I know what happened. The trial lasted for years… and he’s in prison. That’s all that really matters. If there wasn’t enough evidence, then he wouldn’t be in prison.”
Uwedjojevwe was originally charged with sexual assault, battery, two counts of trafficking, and two counts of attempted pandering with threat of physical force. He later only pleaded guilty to two charges: sex trafficking and coercion.
He was given a 16-year sentence, and is currently behind bars at Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center, though according to his inmate information and court records, he has a probation hearing in July and is eligible for parole after serving only 5 years and 4 months for his crimes.
When I tell Forgie about the hearing, she begins to cry. She says she was told by detectives that she’d be alerted to any upcoming hearings regarding his potential release.
“He’s from here,” she says, her voice shaking, claiming that during the trial she learned that Uwedjojevwe had put a hit out on her. Police managed to arrest the alleged hitman before anything happened—but he was only three blocks away from her house when he was apprehended.
A spokesperson for the Nevada Department of Corrections confirmed to The Daily Beast that Uwedjojevwe had a parole hearing scheduled for July 12. “If granted parole, Parole and Probation will review possible parole residences for an eligibility date of 10-3-21,” the spokesperson said.
Forgie has received extensive therapy for what she suffered, and has learned to cope by sharing her story in order to raise awareness about the dangerous world of sex trafficking. She’s toyed with the idea of penning a memoir.
But the 25-year-old is still furious with Jessica for allegedly putting her in harm’s way. “I have hate towards her,” she admits. “I don’t use that word, but I do. She knew what was going on. She knew exactly what happened. She was looked at as a victim, and in my eyes she was not.”
Forgie is also upset with King, saying she failed to warn others about the alleged scheme Jessica and Uwedjojevwe were running, instead opting to turn the events into a humorous tale.
“All this happened—my story, Zola’s story—happened in like two weeks, there was no break,” Forgie says. “For her to [be involved with this movie] knowing that people got hurt…,” Forgie trails off.
“If the roles were reversed, I would definitely make it known that this is out there. It’s supposed to be a fun indie movie, but people need to know that sex trafficking is out there. Bad people are out there.”