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Call Her Daddy’s Alexandra Cooper Made Her Name Talking About Sex. With Her Massive Spotify Deal, She’s Pushing Beyond That

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Alexandra Cooper has the power to fell dozens of relationships. Just 26 years old, Cooper is arguably the most successful woman in podcasting, drawing on her own experiences with men to dole out sex advice to millions of listeners on her weekly podcast, Call Her Daddy. “In one episode, I was jokingly like, ‘If he does this, break up with him,’” she says. “Then I got hundreds of girls DMing me being like, ‘O.K., I did it,’ and I’m like, ‘Wait, hold on, let’s make sure that’s the right choice for you specifically.’”

Cooper and I are sitting in the lounge of the Greenwich Hotel in New York City. She leans in conspiratorially as she tells the story, while keeping one wary but eager eye on a group of girls in the lobby who have either spotted her by happenstance or tracked her down based on clues from her frequent Instagram Stories. Though she’s the youngest of three, Cooper exudes a big-sister energy that attracts young women—mostly ages 18 to 26, according to her agent—and she cultivates these relationships: between recording sessions in her Los Angeles home, she’s often direct-messaging one of her 2.2 million Instagram followers, who call themselves the Daddy Gang, about their sexual quandaries and romantic woes. Recently, after a listener found out her boyfriend had cheated on her, Cooper advised her what to do in real time: “I’m like, get your stuff, call an Uber, get out of there, go to a friend’s place. I would have loved to have someone do that for me in high school or college.”

It’s that sway with a coveted demographic that recently earned her a $60 million three-year deal with Spotify, according to Variety. A Spotify spokesperson said the streaming service does not confirm contract figures but indicated the deal was part of a larger strategy to recruit big names, including the Obamas, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Dax Shepard and Joe Rogan. Unlike those other podcasters, however, Cooper was a relative unknown when she started her show. “If you look at the charts, there’s not a lot of people that have become big from a podcast that didn’t already have platforms,” she says. “Everyone was an actor, a singer, a comedian. So I take great pride in that.” The Interactive Advertising Bureau predicts that ad revenue for podcasting will exceed $1 billion this year and $2 billion by 2023, and Spotify has been expanding aggressively into this space. Call Her Daddy is airing there exclusively starting July 21, and Cooper is developing future projects with the company.

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Now, as she moves into this rarified circle of podcasting elite, she’s trying to figure out how to advance a show that has, by her admission, sold itself with sex. “I’m a different person than I was when I started the show,” she says. “And I’m O.K. with that.” These days she’s still cracking jokes about oral sex and masturbation but also speaking more about mental health and inviting guests on the show to talk about sexual experiences that are different from her own as a straight white cisgender woman. She talks a lot about female empowerment, which she says has always been an undercurrent of the show, even if the salacious stories were what drew people in. But in recent episodes, Cooper has also given women pointers on how to ensure you arrive fresh-faced to to meet a guy after a plane ride and what to post on social media to make a man jealous, advice that’s often positioned as a way to boost women’s confidence—and to give them the answers they’re seeking—but which also suggests that a man’s approval or attention is the end goal.

As she tries to evolve and expand the brand, Cooper seems sure she can thread the needle and bring her fans along with her. “I want to be the biggest podcaster in the world,” she says. “I’ve got this great big deal now. I want to prove to the world that I am worth this.”

Alexandra Cooper photographer in New York City on July 8th, 2021.
Cooper is arguably the most successful woman in podcasting with millions of listeners tuning in each weekCaroline Tompkins for TIME

Call Her Daddy began in 2018 as a two-woman show: Cooper and her then roommate Sofia Franklyn would swap raunchy stories and offer up judgment-free counsel to both men and women. They’d advise someone on how to catch a cheater and advise a cheater on how to get away with an affair. The podcast shot from 12,000 downloads to 2 million in just the first two months.

Then, last year, their friendship and business partnership went up in flames during a contract renegotiation with Barstool Sports, the media company that previously hosted Call Her Daddy. The details, even for diehard members of the Daddy Gang, are murky. Both women believed they weren’t being paid enough. Both believed that was at least in part because they were women. Negotiations deteriorated. Who was to blame for what is hard to parse. Cooper decided to helm Call Her Daddy alone and Franklyn started her own show a few months later. Each woman has shared her perspective on her own podcast. But both have said that certain men wanted cuts of what they, as two women, had created together. “We were huge, but that drama just blew it the f-ck up in a way that I can’t even explain,” Franklyn said in a recent interview on the YouTube channel No Jumper. The disagreement became so filled with vitriol that Cooper had to ask her fans to stop bullying Franklyn. “I still have things that are lingering from that, and it happened a year ago,” Franklyn went on. For her part, Cooper felt so distrustful of men in the business world after her experience that she now says she wants to hire only women for her Spotify team.

It wasn’t just the falling-out with a friend that upset Cooper but the coverage of their breakup. “We were being deemed bitchy. We were having a ‘catfight.’ And I’m like, This is not a catfight. We’re talking about a multimillion-dollar brand that is on the line,” says Cooper. “If this were two men, that would not be the conversation.”

During the negotiation, Cooper posted a video on YouTube wearing relatively little makeup and explained the business behind the podcast. It went viral. “That YouTube video changed my life,” she says. “Before, people were like, ‘She’s the blond girl who talks about sex.’ When I put out the video, everyone was like, ‘Wait, this girl’s smart. She knows what she’s talking about with IP and trademarks and conversion rates.’”

Anyone who believed Cooper was all sex tales and mirror selfies had failed to recognize that she had, in a sense, been preparing for this job her whole life. She grew up in Pennsylvania with a psychologist mother who often emphasized EQ over IQ and a sports-TV producer father. She was encouraged to voice her feelings and spent much of her childhood with a camera in her hand. She’d type out the lines of The Devil Wears Prada as she watched, then hand out scripts to friends to playact in the basement.

Her love of media actually hampered her sex education. Her private school offered health class as an elective at the same time that it offered a video-production class, and Cooper lobbied the school to let her take the latter. “I never had a sex-ed class ever in my life,” she says. Instead of getting clinical instruction on things like human anatomy and reproduction, she turned to reality shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills to better understand women’s sex lives. It wasn’t until college, when Cooper took her first gender-studies course, that she realized “the thread between all those shows was that the women were the drama, that the women were so emotional.”

This is not a catfight. We’re talking about a multimillion-dollar brand that is on the line.

She played Division I soccer at Boston University, where she was a film-and-television major. One day, she recalls, a professor pulled her aside. “He said, ‘I just want to be very honest with you: You’re not going to be taken seriously in this industry because of the way you look. So you’re actually going to have to work a little bit harder,’” she says. “It was the first moment in my life where I was like, Should I dye my hair? Should I wear baggy clothes?” But when the same professor asked students to submit silent films anonymously for a class competition, he unwittingly chose hers as the winner.

It was during her sophomore year that Cooper met a Red Sox player she would prefer remain nameless. It was her first serious relationship. He was more than a decade older than her, had just won the World Series, drove a fancy car and had what she describes as “f-ck you money.” “I’m in his penthouse after my last class of the day before [soccer] practice, and all I knew was, ‘I don’t want to lose this.’ It was intoxicating,” she said in a recent episode of the podcast.

That mindset served as the germ of the idea for Call Her Daddy, though the podcast wouldn’t come until years later. Cooper found herself in a relationship with a drastic power imbalance, and she wanted to figure out how to be in control of the situation. “He opened my eyes to truly some of the most psychotic, intense games to be played in a relationship,” she told her listeners. “I think having that be my first experience so young in college f-cking with this dude who was way ahead of me in terms of dating and girls … it was like he put me through training camp, and I came out not really alive.” She would mimic the manipulation she had experienced in future relationships, and on the podcast describes a time in her life when she was flying across the country to meet up with famous athletes in hotel rooms. She pursued these relationships, she says, because the men were emotionally unavailable—and often literally unavailable because of travel.

When she was laid off from an ad-sales job in New York City shortly after graduating, and surviving on unemployment checks, she signed up for Seeking Arrangements, a service that allowed men to pay her for dates. “The goal was I never wanted to do anything with these men, it was just to go get drinks and dinner, and by the end of the night have enough money for rent,” she explained on the podcast. She always brought a friend to sit in the back of the bar to make sure nothing went awry. “We did crazy fun sh-t like that, though in retrospect, I want everyone to be careful. I don’t even know if you should be on that site.”

I ask her whether she feels any responsibility toward young fans who want to mimic her trajectory and seek out romances with celebrities, especially since she now realizes some of those relationships were toxic. “I would not change any of the things that happened to me,” she says. “Those hotel moments, or whatever, they all taught me something. And yes, of course, the caliber I was doing it, people maybe think of that as aspirational. But we all go through our sh-t. But you’re going to be able to figure it out.”

Alexandra Cooper photographer in New York City on July 8th, 2021.
Cooper cut a reported $60 million deal with Spotify for exclusive rights to her podcast, Call Her DaddyCaroline Tompkins for TIME

Cooper is hardly the first woman to talk candidly about sex—mainstream shows like Sex and the City and Girls have tackled taboo topics, as have Amy Schumer, Iliza Shlesinger, Ali Wong and Chelsea Handler in their comedy acts. (Handler was the first guest Cooper had on the show when Call Your Daddy became a Spotify exclusive.) Yet Cooper has built a direct relationship with fans like few others have. Podcasting is an intimate format. Listeners seek out the same voice every week, and the best shows can feel like you’re eavesdropping on a group of friends. That’s particularly true in Cooper’s case: she reveals explicit anecdotes that most people would share with only their closest confidants. “She’s so honest,” says Heaven Palffy, a 19-year-old student at Georgia State University who first bonded with her now roommate over Call Her Daddy and who is an active member of the fan Subreddit. “She doesn’t sugarcoat anything.”

Encouraging frank conversation among women may build a much needed community, but when Cooper’s agent, Oren Rosenbaum, head of emerging platforms at United Talent Agency, was shopping the show last year, it was sometimes hard to get her a meeting. “You see the title, you make an assumption about the show, you write her off as a super salacious good-looking girl who talks about sex, and say, ‘That’s not my thing,’ without spending one minute looking at the content,” he says. “But when they would take the meeting, they would immediately realize Alex is incredibly savvy and knows exactly what she’s doing.”

Instead of running from the problems, I stayed. I fought until I could say one of the biggest shows on Barstool was led by a woman.

If society puts a woman like Cooper in a box, is she better off confounding assumptions about her or playing into them in order to succeed? The gender politics of Call Her Daddy is complicated. Browse her Instagram feed of bikini photos and it becomes difficult to disentangle how much those photos promote women’s body confidence and how much they capitalize on the male gaze. On a recent podcast, she talked about hiding her face from her boyfriend because she had not penciled in her eyebrows. Implicit is that idea that women have to look a certain way for their partners, even in the most intimate moments. “I was thinking about that even when I was saying it,” she admits. But she says she would have done the same thing if she were in a room of women. “That’s still an insecurity of mine. It really had nothing to do with men,” she says—an idea that’s debatable depending on who you think defines the standards of American beauty.

Then there’s the fact that Cooper grew her following with Barstool Sports, which has a reputation as a hotbed of toxic masculinity. Barstool’s founder Dave Portnoy said on the Call Her Daddy podcast that he realized in his first meeting with Cooper that “this is not just some blond bimbo.” (Barstool did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. The company is still handling Call Her Daddy’s merchandising.) Cooper says she does not agree with everything Portnoy says but has never personally had an issue with him. “People are always like, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ Where did you want me to go?” she says. “Instead of running from the problems, I stayed. I fought until I could say one of the biggest shows on Barstool was led by a woman.”

On the podcast, Cooper executes a women’s version of locker-room talk, something she started thinking about in actual locker rooms during her soccer-playing days. “I would always see a divide,” she says. There were the girls who were comfortable with getting personal, and those who weren’t. “In one-on-one convos, they wanted to talk about it,” she says of the less forthcoming group. “They just didn’t know how—maybe because they didn’t have the experience I had as a child where my parents were like, Say whatever you want to say.”

Given that we engaged in a nationwide conversation about locker-room talk not long ago, when a tape surfaced of Donald Trump casting women as objects to be grabbed, I ask her if there isn’t an argument to be made that the locker-room talk she engages in gives men permission to do their own misogynist version of it? “I don’t think we should stray away from something just because men have historically been the ones to own it,” she says. “I want to own it and do it better.” She characterizes her approach as “respectful” and “elevated,” but those are not the first words that come to mind when you hear the crass language she uses in recounting her sexual encounters. To her credit, she doesn’t identify her partners, instead assigning them code names, but she says just enough that at times her fans scramble to Reddit to try to figure out who she is referring to.

Cooper says she wants her brand to be one of female empowerment, but she is also, at least for now, careful about how she talks about the topic. When I tell her the bio her representatives sent me marketed her new Spotify era as “feminist,” she looked at me skeptically. “Have I promoted it like that?” While she seems genuine in her desire to help women navigate power dynamics in relationships with men, she resists exploring why that power structure exists. She talks about the emergency contraception Plan B—with segments on who should pay for it or stories about men who insist on watching women take it after sex—but not about how difficult it is to acquire in some places. She insists her listeners don’t want her to talk politics. Beg her not to, in fact. “I’m a comedy podcast,” she says.

Her hesitancy extends beyond questions of women’s empowerment. I ask why she didn’t post a vaccine selfie and if she felt like she had an obligation to do so given her platform. “I don’t want to talk about my political beliefs,” she says. “And I actually haven’t seen a lot of people asking me to share that because I think my listeners know that’s not Alex’s lane.” The one exception has been Black Lives Matter, which she felt she couldn’t stay silent about last year, and so she used a segment of her podcast to point listeners to places to donate, books to read and documentaries to watch. As a white woman of privilege, she says, she wants to educate herself and be fully informed on any topic before she speaks about it. “But will I eventually maybe take more of a stance? Maybe. Maybe.”

Alexandra Cooper photographer in New York City on July 8th, 2021.
Cooper says that she’s been underestimated her whole life, but her success "did not happen by mistake."Caroline Tompkins for TIME

The day I meet Cooper, she has just returned from the Hamptons. While other celebrities cloistered on Long Island, posting nary a selfie, Cooper celebrated the Fourth of July at the vacation hotspot by documenting every bar hop and hangover on social media. The gossip Instagram account Deux Moi posted about Cooper getting kicked out of a bar, only for her to drop a podcast episode days later, full of voice memos taken on the evening in question, to reveal her side of the story. It wound up an undramatic tale: the bouncer forgot to give Cooper and her friends the wristbands needed for the bar. Still, Page Six ran a piece heavily quoting from the podcast.

I check Reddit the morning of our meeting, and see that her followers have sleuthed out her hotel. So it’s no surprise when a 19-year-old fan approaches to request a selfie. I ask her why she likes the podcast. “It just gets me excited for the big, wide world,” she says.

The demographics of Call Her Daddy’s listenership have shifted over time: Cooper says the audience split was about 60-40 women-men back in 2018. Now, she estimates, nearly 90% of its listeners are women. Cooper has filled the podcast with merchandisable slogans, and women post pictures of themselves in hats, sweatshirts and crop tops with “I Am Unwell” and “Block Him” and “Daddy” to Instagram with the #DaddyGang hashtag, vying for the attention of Cooper, who calls herself Father Cooper and, since the split with Franklyn, a Single Father.

Kiyah Bryant, 27, and Memory Gamino, 25, roommates who live in Chicago, started listening to Call Her Daddy after the dissolution of Cooper and Franklyn’s relationship made news. Gamino says Cooper’s “a great storyteller,” but both women agree it’s sometimes hard to tell when she is joking and when she’s offering real advice. “She says the show is about women’s empowerment and mental health. Not that it’s not doing that, but I see it as girl talk,” Bryant says. “I hope the younger listeners aren’t too self-serious about it.” Cooper’s influence, she says, is clear: “Whatever she says, a million people are going to hear it.”

To Spotify, Cooper’s audience was exactly her appeal. “They’re devoted in a way that’s hard to find,” says Dawn Ostroff, chief content officer at Spotify. “They feel personally connected to her and they feel personally connected to one another.”

Read More: Why Are We All Having So Little Sex?

They’re also an important demographic. Keith Jopling, consulting director at entertainment analytics group MIDiA Research and a former Spotify employee, says that advertisers are interested in targeting young women because they’re outperforming their male counterparts academically and closing the gap financially in the U.S. Plus, they are more social media savvy than other demographics. “They’re curious and highly engaged,” he says. “And for Alex Cooper’s podcast, the sexuality, the openness and especially the talk of mental health is all super on-trend right now.”

Podcasts are a growing market, and Spotify is betting that podcasters capturing the zeitgeist will help grow its subscriber base. Fifty-seven percent of Internet users in the U.S. now listen to podcasts, according to a June report from investment firm Evercore, and YouTube and Spotify surpassed Apple as the most popular podcast services for the first time this year. Now, 76% of Spotify’s subscribers listen to podcasts.

The flashy acquisitions also aim to satisfy Spotify’s investors. As Jopling points out, the margins in the music business, where labels take a sizable cut of the artists’ earnings, are small, so Spotify has a chance to earn more money from podcasts. A few hits like Serial have penetrated the mainstream, but it’s still a burgeoning business. “It’s the Netflix model,” he says, referring to the streaming network’s signing massive deals with A-list producers like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy. “They want original content, and they want splashy original content. Instead of trying to promote an indie band, they can go Hollywood with Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama and score with the tentpole hits.” And while Cooper may not have started as a celebrity, she’s certainly become one.

Alexandra Cooper photographer in New York City on July 8th, 2021.
Cooper plans to expand the conversations on the podcast beyond the bedroom and into the realm of female empowermentCaroline Tompkins for TIME

It’s been a year of change for Cooper. She ended her partnership with Franklyn, moved out of their shared New York apartment, became an L.A. resident, put a label on her first serious romantic relationship since Call Her Daddy began, left Barstool and joined Spotify. “I’m changing. I can still be funny. And I can still look this way. But I want people to understand there’s so much more behind the brand than crazy sex jokes,” she says.

While her comments on her podcasts may sound off the cuff, they’re carefully thought out and scripted. When Call Her Daddy launched, Cooper says, she outlined every episode, prewriting the intros and outros, rerecording single words she believed had been said in the wrong cadence or anything that might be taken out of context, editing the show and devising promotion strategies on social media. “This did not happen by mistake,” she says. “Or because I fell into it.”

Whatever comes next will continue an evolution that she has already begun. She acknowledges that the podcast, by virtue of centering on her own life, has offered a limited point of view, but she’s trying to make it a little less about her. She’s been inviting relationship therapists to give advice and celebrities like Miley Cyrus to talk about pansexuality and sexual fluidity. She evangelizes therapy. “I’m almost trying to rewrite the past a little bit. Not fully. I stand by a lot of the things I said, but the journey over the next few years is really cementing what I want the brand to be, which is female empowerment.”

I want people to understand there’s so much more behind the brand than crazy sex jokes.

As she’s in a moment of reflection, I ask her if there’s any advice she regrets giving. “Fashion-wise, I used to be like, ‘High-waisted bikinis—guys, I just don’t think they’re cute,’” she says. “I regret saying that because I understand that for some women that’s what makes them feel comfortable.” Coming from a podcast host who once advised women to compensate for being unattractive by having sex like a porn star, remorse over bikini critiques may seem trivial, but for her listeners (and, presumably, the swimsuit industry), it wasn’t. “I got so many women DMing me that were like, ‘Thank you so much. Now I’m going to buy it,’” she says. “It just gave me chills. I have to always remember that the words have an impact on these women.”

Both she and Spotify are vague about their plans, though Cooper suggests the potential to do something interactive was part of the draw to the company. She does mention, however, that she’s toying with the idea of a sex-crimes podcast that will—somehow—strike a lighter tone. “This is the athlete in me,” she says. “I’m looking at the charts and am well aware people are obsessed with true crime right now. So I want in. I want to be at the top of everything I do.”

In the meantime, she is slowly bringing Father Cooper a little closer to Alex Cooper. Her show still has a performance element to it, but she’s not, for instance, pitching her voice up like she did in those very early episodes. “It wasn’t a character,” she says. “It was more just like an elevated version of myself.” True to form, she used the show to fret about whether leaving single life behind would mean a dearth of hookup stories. “I’ve started to have an internal crisis of what’s best for me and what’s best for the show,” she said on the podcast episode in which she revealed she had a boyfriend. “Of course it ran through my head, ’Are people not going to love the narrative that I have a boyfriend? … Is it going to be boring?’” She hesitated to define her relationship in case it would be bad for her brand. Now Cooper’s committed to Mr. Sexy Zoom Man (yes, that’s how she refers to him on the podcast) and says she’s trying to live her life authentically—which she hopes will, in turn, make for better content. “Now I feel like I’m way more myself,” she tells me. “I can be like, ‘I didn’t have sex this week. Sorry.’”

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com