In the summer of 2021, Vanniall was adapting to a new reality. At 25, she’d tested positive for HIV. A caseworker and doctor assured her the diagnosis was far from a death sentence. Medicine kept her healthy and symptom-free. Still, she was terrified of losing her career. As a sex worker and porn performer, she worried her HIV-positive status would eliminate her from the running for clients and casting.
Luckily, she had the security of OnlyFans, the U.K.-based subscription platform for content creators that has become the go-to site for the adult content industry. From her East Village, Manhattan, apartment, Vanniall (whom Fortune is identifying by her first name) staged videos and photo shoots for her OnlyFans account on her own terms, without always needing to incorporate another performer. By August 2021, she had been on the platform for almost three years, and OnlyFans earnings accounted for 60% of her income. “It felt like a saving grace for me in that moment,” says Vanniall.
But that month, OnlyFans announced a new policy that she and her industry peers had long feared. The platform was banning the sexually explicit content that helped it earn nearly $1 billion and reach almost 200 million users in 2021, making it one of the U.K.’s fastest-growing tech firms. Founder and then-CEO Tim Stokely blamed financial institutions, including Bank of New York Mellon, JPMorgan Chase, and the U.K.’s Metro Bank, for blocking the platform’s payments to its creators and closing accounts belonging to sex workers or businesses they rely on. “When that happened, I genuinely feared my OnlyFans career would be over too,” Vanniall says.
A week later, Vanniall and her peers got a reprieve: OnlyFans reversed the decision before it went into effect, saying it had “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community.” The episode was brief, but OnlyFans’ flip-flop had cost it the trust of the sex workers whose content fueled its rapid rise. And on the other side of the webcam, the company began a business shake-up. In December 2021, Stokely stepped down as CEO, making way for an unlikely successor: Amrapali “Ami” Gan, the company’s 37-year-old chief marketing and communications officer.
OnlyFans was already a business many outside the adult industry looked at with suspicion, seeing it as a platform that enabled the sexual exploitation of women (and the smaller share of OnlyFans creators who are men). Gan inherited the task of quelling those concerns while at the same time winning back the favor of OnlyFans’ creators of explicit content. Early on, the site had endeared itself to the community by letting adult performers and sex workers showcase their content with more safety and control than outlets like free porn site Pornhub. Even before the payments scare, it lured mainstream creators and celebrities by offering them a direct channel to fans and an 80% cut of revenue—more than most other platforms, notably YouTube. For the sake of OnlyFans’ user growth, Gan had to maintain the site’s friendliness toward creators. But to preserve its access to financial institutions—and perhaps lure future investors—she needed to ensure creators didn’t cross any legal redlines.
To pull off the juggling act, Gan is leaning on her unusual background in communications to rebrand OnlyFans as a site that empowers sex workers but also offers a safe-for-work outlet for creators of all kinds, from personal trainers to chefs.
OnlyFans is cagey about Gan’s progress; it declined multiple requests from Fortune to share its 2022 revenue or break down how much of its content is sexually explicit versus not. The company hasn’t detailed how it resolved banks’ refusal to process payments in 2021, and it won’t disclose which institutions it works with now.
OnlyFans’ ongoing support of adult content suggests Gan is keeping creators and bankers somewhat satisfied. But the current cultural zeitgeist, in which OnlyFans is still shorthand for pay-per-view nudes, indicates Gan has a long way to go before the mainstream business and entertainment communities embrace her company.
Gan was still getting used to the attention heaped on the CEO of a buzzed-about company when we first spoke over Zoom in August. She had been in the job for more than six months, but old habits die hard; she’s a comms person at heart. Ask a question—any question—and she stays on message. OnlyFans is a “creator-first platform.” The site’s about-face on sexually explicit content in 2021 was a “massive learning experience.”
Gan joined OnlyFans in September 2020, when the company was four years old. Stokely, a British entrepreneur, founded OnlyFans in 2016. The subscription-based platform with unusually liberal content policies quickly grew into a go-to site for adult content. Initially OnlyFans was a family business, but the Stokelys in 2018 sold a majority stake in parent Fenix International Limited to Leonid Radvinsky, a Florida-based online pornography baron who got rich on turn-of-the-millennium referral sites that advertised passwords to porn sites. Some of the referral sites featured terms like “preteen” and “bestiality”; there’s no evidence that those sites linked users to actual child pornography. Radvinsky currently owns at least 75% of OnlyFans, according to U.K. government filings. Radvinsky did not respond to an interview request; an OnlyFans spokesperson said that he “isn’t involved in the day-to-day running of the business.”
Gan recently moved to Miami from Los Angeles, but when we speak she’s in London. She’s the first to admit she’s an unlikely CEO. She grew up in Virginia as an only child; her father emigrated from Nagpur, India. Her career has spanned marketing and communications gigs at protein bar brand Quest Nutrition, energy-drink maker Red Bull, and a West Hollywood cannabis café. The typical jobs that prepare an executive for the corner office—operational roles with profit and loss responsibility—don’t appear on her résumé beyond a stint running her own consulting firm. Her rise reflects the new weight companies are placing on communication skills, says Jane Stevenson, global leader for the CEO succession practice at consulting firm Korn Ferry. The pandemic blurred boundaries between work and home, personal and professional, making “the ability to tell the story of the company” more valuable, Stevenson says.
Ashley Lake—Courtesy of Vanniall
Gan’s unorthodox background shapes how she operates as CEO. Her leadership isn’t hierarchical; she’s as happy to speak with an entry-level staffer as a celebrity considering joining the platform. At major events like Web Summit, a tech conference, or an evening gala, she pairs stage-ready outfits with sneakers. When she wears an OnlyFans beanie into Dishoom, a hip Indian restaurant in London, the host asks if she has an account. She doesn’t clarify that she’s the CEO. Instead she smiles and replies, “Yes, it’s an awesome platform.”
So how did Gan get to the CEO seat? As CMO and CCO, she was involved in parts of the business, like company strategy, that wouldn’t typically fall under her job description. That’s a habit she picked up in earlier career stops. “All roads came back to her,” remembers Mike Curtis, a former colleague from Quest. “She had her hands in every project.”
Gan was close to Stokely; she says they’re still friends, though a company spokesperson declined to make him available for an interview and says he is “no longer involved with the business in any capacity.” (Stokely did not respond to interview requests.)
Colleagues describe Gan as levelheaded in a crisis, a useful trait at a startup that’s faced moments of turmoil since its founding in 2016. “She often stops and says, ‘Let’s just take a beat,’ ” says Keily Blair, who worked as OnlyFans’ outside counsel under its prior leadership and now serves as Gan’s chief strategy and operations officer.
The pandemic took OnlyFans from adult industry side project to household name. With in-person sex work and live adult entertainment off the table, more adult performers joined the platform, creating content ranging from light nudity to more explicit pornography. Meanwhile, stuck-at-home users flocked to the site, subscribing directly to their favorite creators. “The word ‘influencer’ shifted to ‘creator,’ ” says Gan. “That’s when everyone was able to become a creator and develop a community.”
OnlyFans’ COVID-era growth was impressive; it earned $932 million in revenue in 2021, up 160% from 2020. Of that revenue, $324.7 million was after-tax profit, a 575% leap.
OnlyFans’ income comes from the 20% cut it takes from creators. Just over 2 million creators took in nearly $4 billion in earnings from 188 million users in 2021. The company says that during Gan’s tenure, it hit the milestones of 220 million users and 3 million creators who have earned a total of $10 billion from the platform over the course of its six-year existence.
But as OnlyFans approached the billion-dollar revenue mark in 2021, the institutions handling the company’s cash balked, threatening creators’ livelihoods and thrusting the site into an identity crisis.
It’s hard to run a mainstream, sex-positive, paid platform. Just ask Cindy Gallop, a well-known advocate for destigmatizing the business of sex and the founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, a social sharing platform for sex videos.
She launched her site more than 10 years ago and has kept it operational on $3 million of investor funding. MakeLoveNotPorn is tiny compared with OnlyFans with 1 million users and $3 million in revenue over its lifetime. For such a small site, Gallop has spent an inordinate amount of time on payment processing. About 25% of transactions on MakeLoveNotPorn are declined, she says. After years of rejection by the mainstream players, she resorted to relying on services that charge processing fees as high as 12%, far higher than the payments industry standard of below 3%.
Financial institutions’ opposition to allowing porn-related charges isn’t entirely puritanical, Gallop explains. The firms view such charges as risky—worried a customer will later claim fraud “when the wife asks, ‘What’s this funny charge on our credit card?’ ” as Gallop puts it. Another concern is unintentionally supporting the purchase of sexual content that is illegal—because it’s nonconsensual, depicts minors, or is connected to in-person sex work in places that outlaw it. Those fears are grounded in reality: Last year, a woman sued Visa for knowingly facilitating the spread of child pornography. (Visa has said it does not “permit the use of our network for illegal activity.”) To major financial institutions, the risks simply aren’t worth it, says Argus Research analyst Stephen Biggar. Adult industry payments generally account for less than 1% of a firm’s revenue base.
In April 2021, Mastercard made it even harder for adult industry merchants to use its services by requiring that vendors provide extra identity verification and content review. Stokely didn’t blame Mastercard for OnlyFans’ brief plan to ban sexually explicit content, but the timing was conspicuous. OnlyFans unveiled its proposed new rules four months after Mastercard announced its policy.
Instead, Stokely name-checked JPMorgan Chase, the U.K.’s Metro Bank, and the Bank of New York Mellon. The latter “flagged and rejected” every wire payment connected to the company, Stokely told the Financial Times. All three firms declined to comment.
OnlyFans has never officially disclosed how it overcame banks’ reluctance to process payments. But if some banks were the problem, others likely provided the solution. The episode convinced Gallop that OnlyFans had become too big to fail. “When you’re making that much money, it’s gobsmacking who will work with you,” she says. “And they won’t work with the rest of us.”
With her comms hat on, Gan won’t discuss the platform’s banking history. OnlyFans’ chief financial officer Lee Taylor offers only slightly more: “We’re optimizing now instead of solving for pain points, which was maybe the case in previous years,” he says, alluding to past shuttered accounts and blocked transactions. Taylor was hired as the company’s eighth employee in 2019 and serves as one of two directors of the company alongside Radvinsky.
The financial details Gan is eager to discuss are the earnings of OnlyFans creators. Much of the $4 billion creators pocketed in 2021 went to a top tier. Entertainment industry crossovers like rapper Cardi B, actor Bella Thorne, and Kardashian-adjacent reality TV personality Blac Chyna were among the platform’s highest earners in 2021, each making up to eight figures a month, according to outside estimates.
OnlyFans doesn’t promote adult content within the site’s ecosystem; instead creators advertise their profiles on traditional social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube to drive fans to their subscription-based pages.
Once they’re on OnlyFans, creators produce content ranging from still photos to videos. They can choose how to share their content: whether it’s free, accessible to subscribers who pay $5 to $50 per month, or available on a pay-per-view basis. Fans can message creators directly and send “tips” with their DMs that bump users’ messages to the top of a creator’s inbox.
Including existing celebrities, about 1,000 creators have earned seven figures on the platform, according to Gan. Kazumi, a 25-year-old former marketer who uses a stage name, began putting more energy into her OnlyFans profile as the pandemic hit. Today, she says, she makes about $300,000 a month as an OnlyFans model and porn performer, placing her in the top 0.01% of OnlyFans earners. She bought a penthouse in Los Angeles. “It’s completely changed my life,” she says. “My boyfriend and I—we’re pretty much good for life.”
Courtesy of Kazumi
Even creators who don’t bring in such eye-popping sums praise the platform. A creator who goes by TNT Annie says that, at 49, OnlyFans gave her a career beyond the exotic dancing she’s done for decades—with the added benefit of providing passive income; fans pay for her content while she’s offline. Because OnlyFans users seek out creators by name and must pay to unlock content—instead of discovering them via algorithm or feed—creators know they’re reaching fans who want their content, which reduces online abuse.
Beyond the world of adult content, the platform is winning over users. Democrat Alexandra Hunt embraced it during her unsuccessful 2022 run for Congress in Pennsylvania after opponents attempted to smear her by highlighting her past work in a strip club. She used OnlyFans as a way to “clap back,” she says, and to build her profile nationally. Lexy Panterra was one of the first musical artists to pivot to OnlyFans after realizing she could pocket more money from OnlyFans subscriptions than from YouTube ad-sharing.
OnlyFans won’t categorize what share of its creators or how much of its revenue comes from adult content. “That puts people in a box,” says Blair. “What happens if on Monday I want to do cooking content, but on Wednesday I want to do sexy content? What does that make me?”
It’s news when a celebrity joins OnlyFans—an easy headline since the platform still carries the stigma that it’s only for sexual content. If the brand can diversify away from porn, a new profile won’t be remarkable. “We’ll have succeeded as a company when it’s clear that you can join OnlyFans for whatever reason and there isn’t an assumption that you’re going to be taking your top off,” says Blair. “But equally—it’s fine if you want to, as long as you’re 18.”
The key to achieving that mission may be OnlyFans’ CEO herself. During Gan’s first year as CEO in 2022, unique visitors to OnlyFans’ site rose 34%, according to Comscore. Gan says her priority is to “clear up misconceptions” about the platform.
Republican lawmakers in the U.S. want the platform investigated for online prostitution. Child safety advocates claim the platform failed to prevent kids from viewing or creating OnlyFans content. A cottage industry of OnlyFans managers who run the pages of performers has raised alarm among those who see the dynamic mimicking the age-old relationship between pimp and sex worker. The December arrest of online misogynist Andrew Tate on human trafficking charges in Romania shone a light on the risk of online porn trafficking, in which victims are forced to film content against their will. (Tate unsuccessfully appealed his detention.) Within OnlyFans’ ecosystem, some creators complain that opaque rules about what is and isn’t allowed on the platform cause unclear bans and suspensions.
The company has taken steps to try to address those concerns. It says human staffers confirm creators’ identities by requiring various government documents and facial photographs. The site rejects about half of new creator applications for failing to meet those standards, Gan says, and it conducts regular safety checks of those that are approved.
“Nothing takes that place of a human eye looking over someone’s ID to make sure that they are who they say they are,” says Gan.
The company also relies on employees—not A.I.—for what it calls “human-led and software-supported” content moderation. Staffers enforce its acceptable-use policy, which bans content like images of firearms or drugs; revenge porn; and material that promotes illegal activity, including sex trafficking and prostitution. In December 2022, that workforce took down 19,000 posts out of a total of 20.5 million.
OnlyFans says 80% of its 1,000 employees work on content moderation and safety. But there may be fewer people dedicated to those missions than before; OnlyFans says it laid off workers in July 2022 but declined to specify how many.
The site’s safeguards keep bots from joining the platform, and the site’s structure doesn’t allow posts to go viral, preventing some of the common challenges that come with scale. OnlyFans doesn’t sell ads and says it doesn’t collect user data.
“It’s demonstrated that you can be a very profitable company and know the identity of others using your services,” says Simon Bailey, an OnlyFans critic turned adviser who works for the U.K.’s Child Rescue Coalition. “So why shouldn’t other companies follow suit?”
Anthony Pasciuti/Courtesy of Alexandra Hunt
Gan is also trying to take more direct control of the narrative. She shepherded the launch of OFTV, an App Store–permitted app that encourages OnlyFans creators to produce safe-for-work content that can be featured on streaming services. OnlyFans’ creative fund awards money to creators in music and fashion. Reframing OnlyFans to the general public does more than secure the creators and subscribers who generate revenue for the platform; it positions the brand to, one day, be accepted by the public markets. “I really feel we’re just at the beginning of what OnlyFans will be,” says Gan.
Gan’s own identity is critical to this pivot. It would be easy to sound creepy or exploitative talking up adult performers, but Gan easily gabs with—and about—creators of all kinds. She says her experience in other vice industries, particularly cannabis, readied her for operating in a stigmatized space.
She invites creators out to dinner to hear their perspectives and exchanges DMs with them from her own OnlyFans profile. “I make so much money, but I go into rooms and people still don’t want to give me opportunities sometimes because of what I do,” says Kazumi. “Woman to woman, it feels like she understands where we come from.”
Gan is a friendly, bubbly presence who lights up when discussing her dog, Foxx, and meets up with friends for espresso martinis on a rooftop. In her own social life, she’s a connector, the one who convenes everyone for brunch. “You can come to her and you know your secrets are safe with her,” says Alexandra Lacson, a friend and former Quest Nutrition colleague.
Others in the adult industry are cautiously optimistic about OnlyFans’ direction under Gan. Whether they like it or not, to those outside their industry, OnlyFans is now setting a standard. “We need more female entrepreneurs in this area,” says Gallop. “She does seem to be ushering in a new era.”
But public perception only goes so far. The company is still majority-owned by Radvinsky, with his ties to the “bestiality” porn sites. Fenix in 2021 paid out $284 million in dividends, mainly to its majority shareholder, according to financial filings.
The pandemic turned “Subscribe to my OnlyFans” into a meme, often posted below a viral tweet. Gan and her executive team are fine with that—but they hope that one day the meaning of the phrase will change, its sexual connotations gone. “When we become just another link that people provide—another social media platform,” says Blair, “that’s when we’ll have achieved that ubiquity we’re aiming for.”
Creators get their cut
OnlyFans has lured creators of all walks—from porn performers to chefs to musicians—with its various means of monetization and a revenue-sharing scheme that’s more generous than most other platforms’. —Alexandra Sternlicht
OnlyFans creators keep 80% of money generated from subscriptions to their pages or direct payments for their content.
The membership platform that’s similar to OnlyFans—but without the sex—pays creators 88% to 95% of subscriber revenue.
YouTube’s top creators have agreements to split video ad revenue with the platform that can pay them between 45% and 55%. The Google-owned site is known as the most lucrative for vloggers, minting the world’s highest-paid creators.
Qualified creators earn 55% of revenue from ads that run on Facebook Live broadcasts and prerecorded videos.
The Meta-owned app hasn’t traditionally offered creators direct compensation. Instead, creators make money with brand deals and by hawking their own products.
The streaming platform known for e-sports pays its top creators 55% of revenue on in-stream ads and 50% of revenue from subscriptions to their channels.
The video giant excited creators in 2021 when it rolled out a fund to pay them based on engagement. But participants reported earnings as low as $1 per month. A new initiative intends to pay creators of the app’s top 4% of videos.
This article appears in the February/March 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Adult supervision at OnlyFans.”