'Choose yourself': former prostitute and Edmonton radio host makes film festival debut

Radio host Valécia Pépin's short film Illusion: The Fear debuts Saturday at the Edmonton Short Film Festival, a free online four-day event.

Valécia Pépin's Illusion: The Fear debuts Saturday at the Edmonton Short Film Festival

Edmontonian Valécia Pépin's film Illusion: The Fear, is based on her own experience working as a prostitute in Quebec. (Valécia Pépin)

Valécia Pépin recalls jumping into a taxi in Quebec City trying to escape her pimp — so paralyzed by fear she couldn't tell the driver her address.

"He finally left because he realized I was in danger when he saw a group of men running after the taxi," said the morning host for Radio Cité 97.9 FM in Edmonton.

Twelve years later, Pépin's experience as a stripper and prostitute at 18 has inspired her first film, Illusion: The Fear, debuting this weekend at the Edmonton Short Film Festival.

Pepin's film is one of array of short films by independent Alberta filmmakers being screened at a free, virtual gala Saturday evening to kick off the festival's four-day event.

Illusion: The Fear is the story of a young woman struggling to free herself from the grip of her pimp, who attempts to reassert control.

"Because that's what happened," Pépin, 31, recalled in an interview Thursday. "It's like at some point you belong to them."

Valécia Pépin (right) with the cast and crew of Illusion the Fear. (Valécia Pépin)

The first time a pimp approached Pépin at a friend's place, she was 17.

"He said, 'You know, there's a lot of girls like you who make a lot of money,' and I understood what he meant," Pépin remembers.

"I said, 'I respect myself way too much to go show my ass in front of everybody,' but he put a seed in my head."

The seed sprouted a year later after Pépin watched a film about a runaway-turned-stripper and felt drawn to the experience. Only later would she realize as someone who was adopted, she was looking for love in the wrong places.

Best pole dancer in Quebec

Pépin trained hard to be the best at what she was doing, even winning the title of No. 1 pole dancer in Quebec in a televised competition in 2009.

She used the stage name Dice. Using a "star name" gave her confidence, she explained. "You become someone else, so I wouldn't be, you know, the little afraid girl.'"

That's also where Pépin met a boyfriend who invited her on a free trip to the Dominican Republic.

Short on cash, she offered to subsidize the trip by dancing. When it wasn't enough, he sent her to another club where she felt glamorous climbing the stairs in spiky see-through heels to twirl and dangle from two poles on a massive stage.

But a conversation with another stripper made her realize more was expected of her.

'Do you have any condoms?'

"She felt really sorry for me because obviously I didn't know it was a bar with extra — so, prostitution," Pépin said. "One of the ladies said, 'Do you have any condoms?' and this is when I understood."

For the next few months, Pépin was sent to work in clubs in other cities, only to return and be left for several days without food or money.

Menacing johns and biker gang members in the network warned that if she looked for work elsewhere they knew where her parents lived. When her pimp hit her at the club, no one stepped in, she said.

"And that's why I wanted to do a movie like this, because people don't do anything," Pépin said.

Pépin finally decided she could no longer be afraid. She confronted the man who was exploiting her and eventually broke free of sex work altogether.

She's been on a healing journey ever since that includes her advocacy and journalism working previously as a video director at Radio-Canada and now, radio host at Radio Cité.

"At some point — and this is what I'm trying to teach people — you need to choose life," Pépin said. "You need to choose yourself." 

At some point — and this is what I'm trying to teach people — you need to choose life. You need to choose yourself.

While Pépin's experience took place in clubs, working within her budget required creative modifications.

Rather than the costly production of staging the story in a club, Illusion: The Fear takes place on the street.

For a scene involving a taxi, she put a taxi sign purchased on Amazon for $12 on the roof of her Toyota Corolla.
Valécia Pépin produced her film Illusion The Fear through the newly-launched Justice 4 Reel Free Media School. (Valécia Pépin)

The story first came to life in front of an audience at Edmonton's L'UniThéâtre in 2018.

But for Pépin it was only the beginning in her mission to create awareness and dissolve the shame preventing candid conversations around sex work.

Last year she secured a spot in the newly-launched Justice 4 Reel Free Media School — a partnership between John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, MacEwan University, Telus Storyhive, the Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta, and the Edmonton Short Film Festival.

Committed to amplifying under-reported issues in diverse communities, the school provides do-it-yourself Edmonton filmmakers with the technical skills, networks and mentorship to produce video art for change.

The result is films such as Illusion: The Fear, which are being screened at the festival with the potential for national and international exposure.

Other films include Quarantinis, in which three women discover the power of martinis and quarantine, and Accidental Beach, a music video.