Julia Roberts spent time with sex workers to research her Pretty Woman role

Posted by
Sarah Shaffi
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The actress was only supposed to talk to the sex workers, but ended up going to their place of work as well.

Pretty Woman is often held up as one of the greatest rom coms of our time, and one of the films that made Julia Roberts a star.

Roberts plays the vivacious free spirit Vivian, who gets stoic businessman Edward (Richard Gere) to fall in love with her during a week spent staying at a posh hotel.

Oh, and it’s also a film about sex work.

It can be easy to forget, in amongst the classic rom com tropes of the makeover scene and the dramatic declaration of love, that its protagonist is a sex worker.

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman
Julia Roberts' new campaign photoshoot for Italian fashion brand, Calzedonia, sought to pay homage to her role in Pretty Woman.

While Vivian speaks up for herself - including in a pivotal moment which Roxane Gay has called feminist - and has to fend off unwanted advances during a particularly harrowing attempted rape scene, the film still largely romanticises sex work, with the idea that every client will look like Gere and treat a woman with respect.

But one person who didn’t forget that her character’s background is Roberts herself, who spent time with sex workers in Hollywood as part of her research.

According to Barbara Marshall, widow of the film’s director Garry Marshall, Roberts met with two sex workers, and even went with them to their place of work.

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Barbara, a former nurse, was volunteering at a free clinic in Los Angeles at the time of Roberts’ casting in 1989, and among her patients were sex workers.

Garry asked his wife is Roberts could talk to some of her patients, reported Page Six. Barbara recruited two young women who she regularly saw at the clinic, paying than $35 each to meet with Roberts.

“I went back to work, and about 20 minutes later, Julia yelled from the hall, ‘Bye, Barbara. We’re going to take a drive. We’ll be back later.’”

Despite the romance, Pretty Woman is still a film about prostitution

Barbara panicked and called her husband, telling him she thought the women were taking Roberts to Hollywood Boulevard. Despite Barbara’s worry, Roberts turned up later, completely safe. Barbara described the actress as “one tough lady who can take care of herself on and off camera”.

Sex work is not a romantic career choice, however much Pretty Woman tries to sell that impression. Many women are forced into selling sex, either because of their circumstances or because they are a victim of modern slavery.

The idea that sex workers can find love, respect and security with a client is unrealistic. Even Garry Marshall knew this - instead of living happily ever after with Edward, Vivian was originally meant to die of a drug overdose.

By spending time with sex workers and listening to their stories, Roberts showed that she was aware of the responsibility she was taking in playing Vivian, even if what we see on screen is a prettified version of sex work.

Images: Rex Pictures


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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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