Shopaholic Kelli is a proud and open catfish. They’ve built their own phantom social media persona around images of Vicki Li — a beauty model — who almost certainly doesn’t know her visage is being pirated by an internet hustler. The game they’re running is classic financial domination, or “findom”: sex workers on the internet who’ve translated the classic dungeon principles of power and submission to more substantial capital, like credit card numbers and Venmo accounts. Participants, usually men, get off on the humiliation of handing over hard-earned wages to a stern mistress. In return, they receive a cruel, emasculating blessing. Or in other words, a fix.
Shopaholic Kelli, then, is doing something interesting. They’re part of a kink community that’s most commonly described as Catfish Findom, Ripoff Fetish or Scam Kink. Together, that community has flipped one of the worst fears of modern human horniness — that the person seducing you is out to leave you high-and-dry — into a brand new forbidden fantasy. For Kelli, that means tweeting screenshots of their rapidly expanding CashApp bottom-line, under the warm flame of Li’s photos.
“Which subbie is going to be a good boy, and round my balance up to $1,000?” they tweet.
Jon, one of their most dedicated customers, is always first in line. He knows who Vicki Li is, and therefore, he knows that Shopaholic Kelli isn’t who she claims to be. But somehow, that doesn’t matter. “The perfect catfish, mindfuck goddess,” reads Kelli’s Twitter bio. I suppose the spell is working.
“The pictures of ‘her’ that Kelli uses now have so much emotional resonance for me,” says Jon. “Not because of Vicki Li, but because I associate them with all the wild and wonderful experiences I’ve had with [Kelli].”
“There are parts of my relationship with Kelli that are very ‘catfish,’” he continues. “I don’t know the city she lives in or what she actually looks like. Beyond that, we never talk about the fact that she’s a catfish.” (That said, Jon tells me that if Shopaholic Kelli ever reveals themselves to be a man, that would potentially be a dealbreaker; still, he explains, “If I don’t know either way, it’s fine by me. In my world, they are who they say they are.”)
Shopaholic Kelli won’t get personal with me. That’s the common thread through every catfish domme I speak to for this story. It simply isn’t good business to reveal your age, nationality or real name, which is true in the traditional BDSM scene, but especially so when your professional livelihood relies, fundamentally, on becoming someone else. (One catfish referred to the last piece of information I asked for, their gender identity, as a “professional secret.”)
But Kelli was willing to teach me some of the dark arts of catfish kink. They tell me that the best, most profitable philosophy for any successful catfish domme is to let your own personality shine through the counterfeited aesthetics of whatever model you’ve plundered. In that sense, there’s little difference between a professional, consensual catfish and the devious actors lurking on Tinder and Bumble. Kelli transmutes their spirit into a softer, more Instagram-ready shell; there’s no lie about who they are, only what they look like. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun if it was the other way around.
“I’m appearing to play a character because of all the fake pictures,” they explain. “But I’m very much myself in all my interactions.”
For clients, the appeal is in the shame. Another catfish domme, who asks me not to disclose their Twitter name but uses pictures of the bikini model Annelese Milton to construct their avatar, says that their customers tend to find an elevated sense of humiliation by getting scammed by a fake girl on the internet, rather than a real one. That dynamic animates the client in two distinct ways: servitude to a woman and their aura, and the more sinister, more ultimate dominion that’s earned by warping their own inner thoughts. “I like to make guys slowly forget that I’m fake,” says the catfish domme. “I understand the psychological strategy to get to that goal. I prefer to use obsessive repetition of some keywords and ideas: ‘Worship me,’ ‘You’ll have no way back,’ ‘You’re addicted’ and so on, while sending my pictures.”
Within that framework, there’s no limit to what the domme can do, or what fantasies they can empower. They can be too good to be true. Literally. “I give consistently to a typically male desire: attention from a supermodel,” they add.
That particular catfish has been active for five weeks, and in that time, they’ve amassed $700 in tributes from willing disciples and fetishists. Another catfish domme, who goes by Evil Brat and uses repurposed photos of the ubiquitous gamer-girl lorelei Belle Delphine, explains that often men prefer catfish dommes because they charge less compared to their more material competitors. Sure enough, most people in this scene tell me they’re not scamming full-time. After all, there are natural economic boundaries to embodying a phony. Kelli explains that they’re unable to leverage their corporeal self, which means some of the more basic ingredients to a profitable sex work career — OnlyFans, Clips4Sale, a premium Snapchat account — are out of reach.
When I ask if they’re ever nervous about Vicki Li discovering that Kelli uses her photos for profit (which could potentially lead to Twitter shuttering their account), they demur. “I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m not claiming to be Vicki Li,” they respond. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite: I’m openly announcing that I’m pretending.”
Ironically, this is one of the things Jon likes best about Kelli. There are plenty of genuine catfish in the online BDSM ecosystem, but within a more open, equitable deception, he knows that his domme will never be worried about getting “found out.” Plus, as he sees it, a relationship with a real findom would constitute the same trickle of text messages and images he gets from Kelli. “There’s much more creativity and interesting people in the catfish scene,” he says. “There’s no limits to what Kelli can use to control me; she’s a far better person than I think I’d ever meet in the ‘real’ scene, and far cheaper than anyone who was as ‘good’ as her at controlling me would be.”
I suppose that’s the paradox of catfish kink. The scam is what builds the masochism; it subverts the male id, diminishes a client’s resolve and ensures that the domme is the one holding all the cards. If feminine domination is about making men feel weak or helpless, I can understand why the act of getting catfished is a perfect accessory to the cause. But for as deeply rooted as BDSM is in escapist fantasy, it remains difficult for me to understand how anyone could artificially achieve the profound cognitive chaos necessary to create the delirium vital to the true catfish experience. How is it possible to hit the same high when the domme you’re tributing has “catfish” emblazoned right in their Twitter bio?
The answer seemed out of reach until one of the catfish dommes I interviewed asked if I’d be curious to sample some of their services. “Maybe you should try out the kink,” they wrote with a winking emoji. “Maybe you could find out if you like it.” Attached was a photo of an outrageously buxom, outrageously fake girl, whose mystery could be shattered with a single reverse Google Images search. I knew immediately that I was in stage one of the catfish hustle — the beginning of the indoctrination process — and yet, I felt a few synapses fire off in the darkest recesses of my lizard brain. Typical and disappointing.
No matter the context, no matter what rules of reality, logic or self-preservation they’re breaking, straight men have a chemical imbalance that skips right past their cortex and shoots directly into their nervous system whenever a woman, or an alleged woman, gives them attention.
I declined the offer, but in that moment, I finally understood how men can get catfished even when they know they’re being catfished. I guess we really are that weak.