By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
"Can you believe this? I really wasn't that fat. Those sarongs are very fattening."
"There's another one of those nasty outfits. Nice vest!"
"Can you believe that shit? It's really something over there."
Lauren pauses. In a picture, a tiny girl in pink bouclé reclines on a bed. A classic odalisque pose by Jillian Lauren, age 18, harem girl. Today, she touches the picture, gently, caresses her younger self's neck. "I think I still have that necklace and earrings. It's this beautiful Tiffany set. Girls after us could never have taken pictures of the palace. But a lot of girls have these sort of inside pictures," she says, her voice growing soft. "Can you believe how young I was? Gosh. I was a just a tiny tot in a funny Chanel suit."
They're like vacation shots. Or shots from a college dorm. Except every single girl has slept with the same boyfriend.
She flips past photos taken after she began starving herself. The prince warned her she was too thin — he liked his women with curves.
She closes the album. She does not want the images warring with the words. But she also fears the images will be used against her.
It happened once. Six years after she came back, when she was working as a hairdresser in L.A., someone sold photos of her to E! True Hollywood Story, and she became THAT girl.
"We knew this thing was coming on TV," she explains. "It was called The Sultan and the Centerfold. And, we were watching it. And then all of sudden one of the women on TV starts talking. She said, 'There was one girl there who was very wicked. And she was a veteran. And she had slept with both the prince and the sultan. And she had her body tattooed in honor of the prince.' And I was, like, what? No, I did not! And then they had these pictures of me. And the pictures were the exact pictures that would be your nightmare. Which are the pictures taken at four in the morning, when you're really drunk, and you're back at your dorm room with your girlfriends jumping on the bed to Saturday Night Fever, doing that John Travolta move. With your finger in the air. Topless. Wearing a pair of panties."
And not just one picture like that. Five. Eyes and nipples were crossed out with a black bar, but it was Lauren, irrefutably.
She shakes her head. "Thank God I was still drinking then."
If she knew then what she knows now, would she do it again? Brunei, the harem? The person she is now would not, cannot imagine having to do the things she did then. She made the only choices that made sense at the time.
Her mission in life was to be absent from her body. To be floating five feet above it at all times, seeing everything but feeling nothing.
"That mechanism was already in place," she murmurs. "It wasn't like I learned how to dissociate by stripping. In order to make the decision at 17 years old, to get up on a stage and take my clothes off, I already had the capacity to be numb at a moment's notice. The tricky part is, I stopped being able to control it."
Harem girls aren't born. They are made. "My father abused us, and that is a fact," she says. He beat her. The physical and verbal abuse "did a lot of damage to my little heart," she adds.
In the first draft of her memoir, there was nothing about her parents. "It's not as easy as A plus B plus C, girl gets beaten, winds up stripping, winds up in a harem. I left it out initially because I didn't want people to be that reductive about it."
Her husband convinced her to tell the truth. How many women could she speak to by telling the truth?
"Even women who haven't been international prostitutes as teenagers, they have similar experiences as I had," she says.
She wants to feel her life now.
"I wondered where her parallel selves lived."
—Some Girls, Chapter 1
It took 17 years for her to tell the story and begin writing it in earnest. To squeeze past the boxes of Halloween decorations in the backyard shed — actual skeletons in the closet — and drag out the journals from their three dusty plastic bins. To draw the time line around the wall of her office and begin the process of remembering. To return to her former neighborhood, visit the old haunts. Her crappy tenement apartment is now a big glass condo taking over the Lower East Side, and "looks like it fell out of the sky and landed there."
It is only now that Lauren has been able to look back at that time in her life with compassion for herself, for her family, for the prince and the girls.
Her husband, Scott, walked into their first date knowing. He slid into a booth at Norms on La Cienega and said, "So, were you like a slave in Asia? My friend saw some crazy thing on TV."
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