Sydney Leathers might not be here if not for a 13-year-old cat named Oliver. The black, short-haired feline has borne witness to it all — the scandal, the aftermath, the porn years, the newfound stability, even the batches of foster kittens Leathers has mothered in between. When she found him, he was just a sick baby roughing it alone in an alley. And so, for the first few weeks she had him, she woke up every three hours to feed him with a bottle.
“This is going to sound nuts, but he’s the reason I didn’t kill myself,” Leathers tells me. “To be a young woman and go through a sex scandal like that… I felt I had to survive. I had to take care of him.”
Leathers, tan and plush-featured with delicate pink streaks running through her brunette hair, now has a second cat, a six-year-old named Seymour, whom she’s had for a year. Together, the trio live a relatively quiet, relaxed life somewhere in the Midwest, where Leathers is working remotely as a community manager for adult industry-focused blockchain company SpankChain. She feels somewhat guilty saying it, but despite the pandemic and the state of the world, life’s been good lately. “I’d say the past two years have been the best time of my life,” she says. “I feel very happy, stable and settled.”
This is a stark contrast to what she endured in her early 20s. If the name Sydney Leathers sounds familiar, it’s because it was repeatedly dragged through the tabloids in 2013 after it was revealed she’d been sexting with Anthony Weiner, then the front-runner of New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary. Feeling that outing him was the right thing to do — Weiner was married and on the precipice of heading up the country’s largest city — she anonymously leaked the sexts to the now-defunct gossip site The Dirty. But a team of reporters at BuzzFeed got ahold of her name and published it, thrusting her into the public eye before she had a chance to prepare.
By that point, people had already been ravenously consuming stories of Weiner’s many misbehaviors, and they were hungry for a new character to fixate upon. Thus, the media flurry came on hard and fast, and overnight, the whole country learned her name, her face and the fact that she was bold enough to sext with a married politician. Her profile on sugar baby dating site Seeking Arrangement was uncovered as well, and she was publicly branded as a homewrecking whore.
TMZ published every salacious detail of the story, writing that Leathers took pictures “showing her ass off in a thong, “picking apart the wording of her Seeking Arrangement profile and accusing her of “targeting” and “juggling” multiple sugar daddies at the same time. Meanwhile, former classmates told reporters that her actions weren’t a “big surprise.” As the rumor went, she “always liked attention.”
Leathers was working as an administrative assistant at a law firm when the story broke, but she was immediately asked to resign. Coming from a rough childhood, she had neither the financial nor emotional support from her family to help her cope. She didn’t have a lot of people in her corner, either. The BuzzFeed leak had presumably come from someone in politics, but now even casual acquaintances were spilling contrived gossip about her to the press. As she told The Cut in 2016, her first thought as things went public was, “I hope I have enough Klonopin to OD, because I cannot deal with this.”
But out of the sheer strength and will to care for Oliver, Leathers endured. It’s been nearly a decade since she was unwillingly thrust into the public eye, and without much of a choice, she’s remained there since. She’s learned a lot in the time between now and then. Most significantly, she’s learned how to just be Sydney.
To that end, Leathers is big on Twitter, with just shy of 50,000 followers to her name. Given what she’s already gone through, she feels rather free to say whatever the hell she wants.
Most of the time, her opinions are well-received. But every now and then, someone capitalizes on her past to attack her. “The only times I’ve really had bad flare-ups of crazy people is when I go viral talking about or joking about sex work,” she tells me. Case in point: Back in late August, she went viral with a tweet that said if OnlyFans’ threat to remove explicit content (which they later retracted) lost her money, she’d go back to fucking the husbands of the Evangelical women who push (and root) for such bans. The expected deluge of rape and death threats came rolling in as a result, but they don’t scare her anymore. “I’m pretty desensitized,” she says. “I don’t really believe anybody wants to come murder me. I think they want to scare me and ruin my day. Overall, most people are actually pretty nice.”
After being publicly shamed for so long, Leathers decided to lean into the “whore” persona, and she hasn’t looked back (her Twitter banner photo is a mashup of Joaquin Phoenix in The Joker looking into a mirror that has “whore” written on it in lipstick, an image that originates from Black Swan). “I oscillated between survival mode and ‘I have to laugh about this to get a little relief,’” she says of the immediate aftermath of the Weiner scandal. Ever since, she’s primed herself to look at the way the public perceives her with humor.
Leathers has continued to be forthright about having done sex work as well — in particular, she accepted offers to star in porn from big studios like Vivid and Naughty America. Many took this as more evidence of her quest for fame, with one op-ed from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency using it as an example of how much “better” Monica Lewinsky handled herself in the face of scandal. But the reality was that Leathers had few other alternatives. Unlike Lewinsky, who grew up in affluence in Beverly Hills, Leathers had no safety net to fall back upon.
“I was 23 and living paycheck to paycheck,” she tells me. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to have normal income again. It seemed like porn was a good fit because it was like, Seriously, what else am I gonna do? I had the scarlet letter just from sexting, and then they outed me as a sex worker on top of it, so I just figured I was screwed (pun intended). I felt like I needed to take the money [from porn] because I didn’t know when my next gig was going to be.”
“You can’t win,” she says of those who thought the whole ordeal was part of some grand scheme she had concocted. “People think that if you go through a scandal like that, the only way you’re redeemable in society’s eyes is if you hide away for 10 years and say you’re so sorry. I did the opposite of that because I had no choice. I had to make a living.”
After getting over the immediate hump of tabloid drama, Leathers also did a stint in rehab at the end of 2013 to recover from an addiction to Klonopin, which she’d been prescribed from a doctor prior to the scandal to help ease the anxiety and PTSD she already suffered from due to childhood trauma. “I wasn’t taking any more than what my doctor was giving me, but it was definitely too much and it was definitely taking over my life,” she says. Once that was managed, she decided to go to college to study broadcast journalism in Illinois.
“It was funny because I was in a long-term relationship at the time and had the most normal, boring life. Then I’d go shoot porn on the weekends [in Las Vegas],” she says. “That was my life for a couple of years, but it was good.” She stopped doing studio porn around 2017, and pivoted to OnlyFans as one of its early adopters. Online sex work was her main source of income for several years until early 2021 when she took on her role at SpankChain.
Right now, there’s been quite a bit of revisiting of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, aided in part by American Crime Story: Impeachment, which tells the story through Lewinsky’s eyes. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency op-ed suggests, Leathers was compared to Lewinsky from the start. And while people tend to look at Lewinsky through a more sympathetic lens, Leathers isn’t holding out for the same generosity. “I think that society views her in a redeeming light,” she says. “That’s great, and I’m happy for her, but I don’t expect the same for myself. I grew up poor and I’m a sex worker. That’s the difference. I’m okay with that, though.”
After all, these are things Leathers has consistently worked through in therapy. “I’ve had so much trauma therapy to deal with [the scandal] and put it in its place,” she tells me. “What got me through that horrible time was my cats and my sense of humor and nothing else. It’s easy to fall into a trap of always feeling self-pitying about that situation — it was fucking horrible and traumatic, and I do talk about it in therapy, but at the same time, you have to be able to laugh about shit like this. I don’t know how else to get through things.”
In June, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith published an article interviewing Weiner, mentioning Leathers and his own role in publishing her identity. In the column, he mentions calling Weiner directly to inform him that they would be revealing Leathers’ name, though Leathers’ received no such call herself. “I played my own small part in Mr. Weiner’s demise,” Smith wrote. “After calling to tell him we’d identified Sydney Leathers, I edited the story that named her and helped end his mayoral campaign. Three weeks later, I interviewed Mr. Weiner onstage at a raucous bar in Chelsea. I asked him mischievously why he hadn’t used Snapchat for his sexting, so the messages would have disappeared. He winced; the audience laughed. In retrospect, I wince a little, too. The guy was obviously suffering, as the judge would later say at his sentencing, from ‘a very strong compulsion.’”
Nowhere in the article did he offer such sympathy and acknowledgement of responsibility for Leathers. Angered by this, she reached out to Smith and another reporter responsible for the original exposé. Smith responded by saying that he wasn’t sure if he would have made the same decision again, and that he feels differently about the practice of leaking anonymous sources’ identities now. But he also said that he felt as though she had made herself a figure in the story by sharing information about the sexts with The Dirty anonymously. (Smith reiterates to MEL what he messaged Leathers this summer: “I think I thought at the time it was okay because you’d chosen to share the texts with The Dirty and to generate the story, making yourself a figure in it. I think differently about making people’s identities public now and probably wouldn’t do it that way again.”)
“I told him that when you leak something anonymously you’re doing the opposite of making yourself part of the story,” she tells me. “They didn’t even give me time to respond [when the article was first published]. They had one person DM me on Twitter, and one person messaged me on Facebook, but they outed me before I even saw the messages. It was very shady and unethical. It was weird and kind of infuriating to feel like he’s still blaming me for that. I do feel like it’s because there are certain people in the media that think women like me deserve whatever treatment we get.”
She’s also reached out to Andrew Kaczynski, one of the reporters on the BuzzFeed piece. “I’ve been mad at him for years because I kind of thought he was of the same mindset of like, ‘She’s a slut, so she deserved it.’ But he was much nicer. He was actually apologetic. Once I got an apology that felt genuine, I was able to let it go,” she tells me. “I think if we’d talked even two years ago, I don’t think I would have had the capacity for forgiveness. I feel like I’ve done enough work around it to be able to kind of let that grudge go.”
For the most part, what Leathers seeks now is normalcy. She has a job that she loves. She helps out with local organizations that neuter stray cats. She smokes weed. She tweets. “I feel like I’m such a normal person,” she says. “I don’t think of myself as a public figure. I enjoy tweeting and making jokes and stuff, but I don’t do it thinking about it as a public persona.”
There’s no denying, though, that she has a bold voice — as the “whore” Twitter banner suggests, she doesn’t care how people label her. Besides, when she applies that label to herself, she views it as a term of endearment. “I was a very self-hating person pre-scandal,” she says. “I was deeply traumatized and hadn’t worked on my shit at all. I was miserable and negative. But to be in a situation where I felt like I was getting so much negativity from everybody else, I felt like if everybody else was gonna hate me, I needed to be a little nice to me.”