Secret Lives

This Dominatrix Will Whip Your Relationship Into Shape

Lia Holmgren is using everything she’s learned in the world of BDSM to dominate in a new career: as a couples counselor.

This Dominatrix Will Whip Your Relationship Into Shape

In a glamorous living room overlooking Manhattan’s Financial District, a straight couple in their late 20s holds hands and discloses that they “definitely want to have more sex.” The pair has been dating for a year and a half, and they plan to move in together soon. But their unforgiving schedules often clash: David Piccolomini, a comedian and podcaster, works nights, while his girlfriend, who we’ll call “Melissa” because she does not want to publish her real name, has a 9-to-5 in tech. Still, there have been other reasons for their recent sexual discord.

“Since the beginning of our relationship, I’ve been like, ‘Oh, it’d be really fun to watch porn together,’” Melissa says. “But Dave has these weird hang-ups about it.”

“I don’t know what it is,” David interjects, confused because he’s been watching porn since the age of 13. Eventually, he comes around to: “I think it might be, like, latent Christianity stuff.”

David and Melissa were both raised in very religious households, and both say their upbringings stunted their sexual growth. They love each other, but they don’t want to put a moratorium on new sexual experiences. So their relationship status is “open,” allowing for external partners, with the stipulation that they must notify each other of an encounter within three days of its occurrence.

Books about sex and relationships found at Lia Holmgren’s apartment in Manhattan where she receives clients.

Such revelations did not require much prodding from their host for the evening, Lia Holmgren, a longtime dominatrix who recently branched out on a new career path: relationship coach. On her website, Holmgren advertises that she can help couples “with mismatched sex drives” or those “in a sexless marriage” to “learn how to be a better communicator, value each other’s fantasies and desires, and rekindle your sex life.”

Sometimes this calls for tutorials in her specialty, BDSM. Holmgren teaches couples about bondage, how to use paddles and whips, and the verbal skills required for safe and sexy play.

But this is David and Melissa’s first session, and they’re easing into things.

Referring to David’s teenage porn consumption, Holmgren says, “I think it was just your thing you were doing, and you knew you were not supposed to be doing it, and you still have this subconscious feeling about it when you do it with someone.”

“The best way to get rid of this is having a practice,” she advises, in her noticeable Eastern European accent. She adds that, once a week, “You guys can have like a porn evening.”

David laughs a little at such a prospect, though he appears to be considering it. Next to him, Melissa smiles.

Holmgren, 35, was born in Communist Czechoslovakia and raised, along with her brother, in a drab, blocky housing complex in Považská Bystrica, a town of 40,000 people in the northwest of what is now Slovakia. Her father was a manager at a motorcycle factory; her mother was an accountant.

“Everywhere you went, everyone has the same thing,” Holmgren says. “It was a cookie-cutter existence. Sex is the last thing that was openly discussed.”

Holmgren recalls steadfastly challenging her mother as a child. “I was very expressive,” she says, recounting a story about her mother struggling to get her into her school uniform, a gray getup with a red scarf that Holmgren thought was “so ugly.” (These days she’s more comfortable in a colorful variety of styles — dresses, activewear, big hats and lacy lingerie — which she models for her more than 24,000 Instagram followers.)

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Growing up, she stood out in a country that remained culturally conservative even after the end of the Cold War. She says she’s always been a hypersexual person, and her early life was full of critical judgments by family and friends. She started masturbating at around age 5 — not an uncommon behavior — after experiencing pleasure when, while playing, she happened to rub the right way against the side of her mattress.

“I remember telling this to kids in kindergarten … and they looked at me like a deer in headlights,” she says. “I tried to show them, and they had no idea.”

One day, when she was about 6 or 7, Holmgren brought a 3-year-old neighbor from an apartment down the hall home with her — without telling the girl’s mother. Holmgren tied the girl, naked, to a chair. “I was having a lot of fun,” Holmgren says, laughing. Once the neighbor rescued her daughter, she didn’t scold Holmgren much, writing the incident off as a relatively innocent game of doctor, since Holmgren had some toy physicians’ tools with her.

At age 14 she was dating a boy, who, in propositioning her for sex, asked, “Are we going to do the worst thing?”

Holmgren remembers thinking: “This should be the best thing, no?”

She continued to explore her sexuality throughout her teenage years, having sex with boys and, sometimes, girls. When word got out, in her community and at school, “I was really punished for that,” Holmgren says. “Shamed and punished and called names, [including] slut.”

Seeking anonymity, by 18 she had moved to Prague, earning more than enough to live on her own by working as a stripper and erotic webcam girl. “I’m young, I’m hot, I don’t mind being naked, why not?” she thought to herself.

She soon graduated to organizing sex parties, but she became fearful when the local mafia, who controlled the city’s sex-work underworld, threatened her. She moved to Switzerland for a year, then to Düsseldorf, Germany. At that point, worried that no viable partner would want to settle down with a sex worker, she “tried to have a normal life.” She co-founded a business flipping houses, living for a while with her business and romantic partner — a man she says became abusive. She got pregnant, but she believes the stress of the relationship led to a miscarriage, and when her boyfriend was arrested for other crimes, she left him.

She traveled with some friends to Miami, and the beaches and warm temperatures lured her into moving there. Then 23, she struggled in the city’s real estate field, so she turned back to stripping. Later, she made her way to Los Angeles, where she got some modeling gigs, but she soon became fed up with the low pay and predatory guys looking to exploit her at every turn. So she began working as a dominatrix: Sex work where she was in control.

“I felt protected in the latex and with the whip,” Holmgren says. “I felt truly powerful.”

Holmgren posing as a dominatrix in a dungeon. (Photo courtesy Lia Holmgren)

Wanting to be closer to Europe, she began living in Manhattan, part-time at first, pulling in submissive clients on both coasts and making tons of cash.

“My phone never stopped ringing, in seven years since I’m working [in New York],” she says. “It’s [been] like a hundred phone calls a week, even now. It’s unreal.”

She says a relentless work ethic and superb organizational skills have carried her through the years. As a domme, “You have to prepare for every piece of the session,” she says. “Everything has to be super scripted, and you can’t forget anything, because if you forget, you’re going to ruin the session.”

Holmgren, a fit, blue-eyed blonde, also credits her “pretty, vanilla face” for allowing her to attract wealthy clientele. The money she pulled in helped her achieve a longtime goal: going to college. She earned a psychology degree from Touro College in Manhattan — and she says her studies have added to her domme skill set.

“Some men like psychological domination,” she explains, and many of her male, submissive clients would also vent about their relationships, discussing their reluctance to share their kinks, fetishes and darker desires with their significant others. In Holmgren they found a willing listener.

“The worst part is the judgment and fear,” Holmgren says. “They would say that their women were simply very judgmental about anything sexual, and they were hesitant to tell their wives or girlfriends about wanting to be dominated.”

That’s when Holmgren realized that her skills would be valuable in couples’ coaching, and she spent two years taking various training and certification courses before launching her new business. (She also counsels sexually frustrated individuals as well.)

One of the primary issues she addresses in her couples’ sessions is a lack of verbalized interest in sex on the part of women. “I feel women should initiate more,” Holmgren says. “They deserve pleasure, [but] many women don’t know this.” She also believes that practicing BDSM can be beneficial for couples, because communication is a key component. She teaches her clients how to safely use sex toys, and how to talk to each other about their kinks.

“I make them feel comfortable that what they are doing is normal,” Holmgren says. “If you truly can talk about your dirtiest secrets, it makes you a really good team. It makes you more powerful.”

“Mark,” a client who wished to keep his real name private, found Holmgren on Instagram. He has been in a committed relationship with his wife for more than 20 years.

“Even before we got married, things had kind of gotten a little bit lackluster. The romance phase wears off, you fall into a rut, in my case a kid comes along, and life just kind of gets boring,” Mark says. “So you start to live in your fantasies, you start to live in porn, you start to try and breathe life into your relationship, and it’s not easy.”

Dominatrix tools hung up in Holmgren’s closet.

He began booking secret coaching sessions with Holmgren a couple of years ago, confessing that he wanted to experiment with anal play, having his wife penetrate him with fingers or perhaps a dildo.

“That for me involves a little bit [of] exploring my feminine side,” Mark explains. “It was hard to know how to introduce it.”

Holmgren told Mark to build up to it in incremental steps.

“I think what Lia did was she gave me the courage and the points about how and when would be a right time, and to do it carefully,” Mark says. “Like you don’t just whip out a big black dildo and say, ‘Strap this on, honey, this is goin’ in deep.’”

At Holmgren’s behest, Mark waited for “an opportunity to discuss it that feels right.” Then, when he and his wife were in “a playful mood, while we were fooling around,” he reminded her of a time when they were dating that she lightly fingered him in their kitchen. “I really liked that,” she replied, and the pair began exploring Mark’s kink.

“At this point,” Mark says, “it’s advanced to the point where, when the mood is right, and my wife doesn’t mind strapping on,” she will penetrate him with a dildo — “pegging” him, as it’s called in the kink world.

“My wife actually enjoys it, occasionally,” he says. “She enjoys the feeling of masculinity; she enjoys being on top, or being behind. … She enjoys looking in the mirror, watching herself. So she’s somehow getting something out of it as well, which is great.”

Thanks to Holmgren, Mark says sex with his wife is now more frequent — and better than ever. “It lends itself to toys, some new outfits, some new exploration,” Mark says. “It just kind of snowballs, if you will.”

A portrait of Holmgren at her apartment in Manhattan.

After less than two years in her new line of work, Holmgren says she already makes about as much from coaching as she does from dominatrix work. She also runs an adventurous, experiential sex club for couples in Germany, and she is releasing a book this year. She finds the coaching “much more intense and deep” than being a domme. Her BDSM clients see Holmgren for a “release,” she says, but the couples are looking for something more.

“It’s much more satisfying to have a good [coaching] session where I’ve changed someone’s life, or I helped them to have a breakthrough,” Holmgren says.

This brings her back to the session with David and Melissa, where she addresses something Melissa wants.

“I suggested lingerie when we were first dating, and Dave showed no interest,” Melissa says.

“It’s just kind of pointless,” he retorts.

“Wait a second,” Holmgren interjects. Addressing Melissa, she says, “If it doesn’t work for him, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for you. When I see myself in lingerie, I’m turned on, and I love it. And I think if I’m turned on, much more than without the lingerie, it’s going to be good for him too.”

“That’s interesting,” Melissa says.

“Do lingerie for you!” David offers amiably.

“You have to be pushy sometimes,” Holmgren tells the couple as their initial meet-up nears its close. Over the course of the conversation, she has also suggested that they explore sex toys, role-playing and spontaneous lunchtime sex.

“If you feel like you want to have more sex, then you have to work for that,” she says. “I use the word ‘work,’ but I don’t want it to be work for you. I want it to be fun, but sometimes you have to plan the fun.”