The girl is young and pretty, of course. They all are, the women in the sultan's harem. But this one is different. She is a rebellious punk rocker raised in suburban New Jersey. Simultaneously following her bliss and escaping her pain, the girl winds up in a palace far away from home. In a bedroom suite as big as a house, she takes off her clothes. The sultan gazes at her naked body. She is 18 years old. He has purchased her. He is the richest man in the world.
Years later that girl, Jillian Lauren, is 36, ensconced in a three-bedroom Southern California life. She has a husband (Scott Shriner, bassist in the nerd-rock band Weezer) and a child, now. She has a house that smells like cookies, a driveway with leaves crunching underfoot. But once, she was the girl who always said yes. Dominatrix? Girl-on-girl? Nurse fantasy? Private dance? Yes, yes, yes and yes. A palace where a king can get everything he wants yet never sate his monstrous hunger is a dangerous place for a girl like this.
She is not going to be ashamed, she says now, sitting in the living room of her cozy Craftsman house in Eagle Rock. She does not want to glamorize. In her new memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem (out later this month from Plume Books), she has tried to present the story in its full complexity.
"What's a nice girl like you doing on her way to a harem like this?"
—Some Girls, Chapter 2
She was nice at heart but naughty in deed.
When you find yourself doing things you never imagined, it happens in stages, she says. At 16 she was accepted early admission to New York University's theater program. But New York is expensive, Lauren had some issues and a wild streak, and by 17 she was stripping. By 18 she was auditioning for a topless role in a straight-to-video vampire movie. On set, she met another girl, who turned her on first to escort work, then to an "audition" for a gig with a rich, Asian businessman. He was looking for a few girls to be his party guests for a couple weeks. Each girl got a $20,000 cash "gift" presented to her upon leaving. The "businessman" turned out to be a prince. The gig turned out to be a spot in his harem.
Lauren took the job. In December of 1991, her plane landed not in Singapore, as she'd originally been told, but in Brunei, a tiny oil-rich country on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo. She wasn't trapped per se, even though her passport was taken away and armed guards patrolled the royal compound.
"It's complicated," she says, snuggling deeper into her chair. "I did feel that I could leave. But I didn't feel like I could come and go freely. If I were to put my foot down, I would have had a ticket in my hand. But I wouldn't have been able to come back."
Sometimes you live in a prison of your own making.
It is like a female Lord of the Flies, she believes, when you cloister women and make them compete for one man's attention. She ticks off the names in Prince Jefri Bolkiah's fleshly menagerie. There was her nemesis, Serena, the evil blonde. There was Fiona, the clever one, the sophisticated Filipina actress who took the prince's $1 million gift but declined his offer of marriage. There was Ari, the homely white woman who recruited the girls.
"I wasn't really told anything in terms of the expectations. Was I going to be expected to sleep with him?" she asks. "I was there for two weeks, and nothing happened. And I thought it probably wouldn't, when suddenly I was called. To his office. In the middle of the afternoon. And something did happen. And then something happened a whole lot more!" She laughs, like she's dishing about a night of debauchery with a girlfriend.
Prince Jefri took a liking to her, passed her along to his eldest brother, the sultan. Young Prince Jefri "demanded that you love him." The sultan "just wanted you to suck his dick." She did exactly that. He complimented her. Decreed that his brother had good taste.
Afterward, she chuckled to see the sultan's face on the Brunei dollar bill. Been there. Done that.
It's tough to say why one girl becomes a prostitute and another a doctor. Why you can grow up in conservative suburbia with a housewife mom and stockbroker dad and all the advantages in the world yet choose to be a hooker. Why you can be the apple of your father's eye, yet he hits you — as was the case with Lauren. The memoir is her attempt to reconcile those dichotomies. It covers her year and a half as a harem girl and how she got there. She spent six months in Brunei, got depressed, left for a six-month respite back in New York, spent most of the money she made, then, having decided that she missed the lifestyle, returned for another six months in Brunei.