Heidi Fleiss became known as the “Hollywood Madam” when she was arrested for running a high end escort agency in the 1990’s that catered to some of the biggest names in entertainment. After her arrest she became a celebrity sensation herself, speaking out against the criminalization of prostitution.
Heidi Fleiss’s interest in the sex industry began at a young age. She started reading books about prostitution and visiting strip clubs with her friends. She dropped out of high school at sixteen and moved to Las Vegas, where she started working as a sex worker. Quickly rising through the ranks, Heidi Fleiss became a madam herself, eventually returning to Los Angeles to start her own business.
She quickly became known for her business acumen and ability to attract high-profile clients. The business was highly profitable, and Heidi Fleiss became one of the wealthiest people in the sex industry. Her clients included Hollywood celebrities, politicians, and wealthy businessmen. She also had a reputation for attracting escorts who were well-educated and well-mannered.
Unlike most escort agencies Heidi Fleiss catered to the rich and famous. She employed a team of women who commanded thousands of dollars for their services. Heidi Fleiss herself became something of a celebrity, appearing on talk shows, in magazines, and eventually inspiring a made-for-TV movie about her life (Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss, 2004).
However, Heidi Fleiss’s entrepreneurial success was short-lived. In 1993, she was arrested and charged with multiple counts of pandering and money laundering. She was eventually sentenced to three years in prison, although she only served 20 months. After her release, Heidi Fleiss tried to rebuild her life, but she struggled with addiction and was arrested multiple times for drug-related offenses.
Prostitution has long been criminalized in most parts of the country, but that hasn’t stopped it from existing. In fact, the history of sex work in the U.S. is a history of women who have found ways to make a living despite the legal and social barriers they face.
Heidi Fleiss’s story also sheds light on the way that sex work has changed over time. In the past, prostitution was often a more visible and accepted part of society. Brothels and red-light districts were common, and many people saw prostitution as a necessary evil. However, as society became more conservative and moralistic, prostitution was pushed underground, and sex workers were forced to operate in more dangerous and less visible ways. This was especially true during the “tough on crime” campaign in the 1980’s and 90’s. And these trends persist today with the more recent SESTA/FOSTA Act signed into law in 2018.
In 1993, Fleiss was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for her involvement in prostitution. She was charged with multiple counts of pandering and tax evasion. Her trial was highly publicized, and her celebrity clients were exposed to the public.
During the trial, Fleiss was offered a plea bargain that would have reduced her charges to one count of money laundering if she was willing to expose her book of clients. However, she refused the offer and was subsequently convicted of three counts of pandering. She is part of a long legacy of madams who understood that discretion was the most important part of her job.
Fleiss was sentenced to three years in prison and was fined $1.3 million. She served 20 months in prison and was released in 1998. After her release, she tried to rebuild her life and started a clothing store in Los Angeles.
However, Fleiss’s troubles were not over. In 2008, she was arrested for drug possession after police found drugs in her home. She pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to three years of probation. She tried, but failed, to open a legal brothel in Nevada.
Despite her troubled past, Fleiss has become a popular figure in the media. She has appeared on numerous television shows and has been the subject of several documentaries. In 2021, she participated in the VH1 reality series “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.”