"You wanna hear a story about how me and this b*tch fell out? It's kind of long, but it's full of suspense." That's the captivating line that kicks off Zola: the raunchy, sad misadventure of two strippers in Tampa, as inspired by a real string of viral tweets. The thriller made its Sundance premiere pre-pandemic and is now out in theaters nationwide. True to Zola's internet origins, the story is bursting with twerking, strip club sets, messy deceit, and even murder. At the heart of it all is Stefani: a manipulative sex worker played by Elvis Presley's granddaughter Riley Keough. Keough co-stars alongside the excellent Taylour Paige.
Zola is adapted, quite literally, from a viral Twitter thread that engrossed the internet in 2015. A'ziah "Zola" King posted her full, unvarnished account of a "hoe trip" gone wrong on the social media site, broken into 148 separate tweets.
King had been a waitress at Detroit Hooters when she met an eager, friendly patron named Jessica Swiatkowski. Both women were strippers on the side and bonded quickly. Before long, Swiatkowski invited King on a road trip to dance in Tampa, Florida. Under the impression she'd be performing exclusively at clubs, King went along. Accompanying the two women was Jarrett Scott, Swiatkowski's unintelligible boyfriend, and "Z," a "friend" who quickly revealed himself to be a violent pimp. In Tampa, King found herself thrown directly into the terrifying underbelly of dangerous sex work. You can read the original tweet thread, in full, here.
Though King's graphic and colorful tweets might sound dramatized, the facts were rooted in real life. Swiatkowski, for her part, denied all the details. But following the events in Tampa, "Z" (who also went by Rudy and his real name, Akporode Uwedjojevwe) was indeed arrested on multiple charges including sex trafficking. And although it took a few years, the juicy "Zola" saga has finally received its Hollywood treatment! Transformed for the screen by the esteemed screenwriter Jeremy O. Harris and director Janicza Bravo, the Zola movie retains the delightful, edgy character of King's original words. Their madcap production is out now from A24 Films.
With certain names changed from King's original tweets, Zola stars Taylour Paige as Zola, Riley Keough as Stefani, Nicholas Braun as Derrek, and Colman Domingo as the terrifying "X." Both Paige and Keough stun as gorgeous dancers donning an extensive wardrobe of vibrant, stringy ensembles. They dominate the screen, eye makeup sparkling. Performance-wise, Paige's delivery is subtle: the yin to Keough's overblown yang. As Stefani, the white Keough stretches every last syllable into a performative "blaccent," handily characterizing the cheeky troublemaker. ("She was offensive in every way," Keough told Variety.)
"The appropriation was on the page. How offensive [Stefani] is, was on the page," Keough told Refinery 29. "She was a demon. And so, I knew what I was signing up for... I've met women like this. I've met white men and white women who talk like this. So, I definitely had that in my memory bank. [The hardest part] was figuring out a way to make it not silly. To make it feel authentic, and not like she was [overtly] mocking Zola."
It's a breakout film for both players, though Keough may already look familiar to music fans. She is, after all, the granddaughter of the King: Elvis Presley.
Keough was born in 1989 to Lisa Marie Presley and the musician Danny Keough. Her parents divorced soon after, and Keough was raised mainly in Hawaii and Los Angeles, though she spent ample time at the Presleys' Graceland Estate in Memphis, Tennessee. Keough's mother, of course, had some high-profile husbands during Keough's youth: Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage. So it was not your average childhood. But Keough maintains that time spent with her father introduced her to a more modest lifestyle. Keough has two half-siblings through her mother's marriage to Jackson: twins Harper and Finley. Tragically, Keough's full biological brother Benjamin Storm Keough died by suicide last July.
Growing up in the shadow of celebrity, Keough began modeling at the age of 15 and appeared on film for the first time in 2010, portraying Marie Currie in The Runaways. She's also acted in Mad Max: Fury Road, American Honey and The Girlfriend Experience, in which she played a grad-student-turned-escort. Each project has earned Keough further acclaim, but her amusingly risqué turn in Zola showcases the up-and-comer's true talent.
And country bonus: Keough sings back-up for Orville Peck's popular cover of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." Listen below. (And no, it's not just you. Peck totally sounds like Elvis... especially on this track.)
"There's something about country, folk music that's definitely in my blood. It makes me feel so happy... I could listen to that music all day, it's in my actual DNA." --Riley Keough
Orville Peck's "Born This Way"