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Been There. Done What?! 

Jillian Lauren opens up about her life as a teenage harem girl in Brunei

Thursday, Apr 15 2010

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"I'm not sure I want to get rid of it."

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"Would I go back? Into that world? No," she says now. But living a grown-up life, with a mortgage and laundry and a baby crying in the wee hours of the morning, even a privileged upper-middle-class life, feels very hard sometimes. "Sometimes I wish I had appreciated Brunei more when I was 18," she says. "I didn't really know how hard it was just to take care of yourself in the world. Even though it was boring and treacherous over there, it was pretty luxurious and easy."

She was spoiled, she concedes. She was a teenager. "It was like, whatever! Picassos, schmicassos!"

A year after she was recruited, Lauren left Brunei for good. Prince Jefri's decadence progressed, his hunger deepened. He ordered up more and more girls, commanded bigger and bigger parties. His spending spiraled out of control — $2.5 million on a badminton coach, a million on an exotic-bird collection. He spent $8 billion, more than Brunei's entire GDP, maintaining his extravagant lifestyle. Eventually, inevitably, the whole sordid scene snowballed, rolled right over him. Things fell apart. Jefri Bolkiah was Brunei's finance minister at the time, the mid-1990s. In 1998, Bruneian authorities accused him of embezzling $16 billion in state funds. His harem was disbanded that same year, when a former Miss USA returned from her tour of duty at the palace and sued the prince in U.S. court.

"She said he drugged and raped her. In my opinion it is probably not the truth," Lauren says. "I think she's probably an opportunist. I hate to say about any woman, 'No, I don't think you were raped.' How do I know? But my intuition after reading her account was that it was incorrect."

Lauren couldn't slip back into her former life. Nothing felt right. Not the aimless days that dissolved into weeks, then months. Not the stacks of hundred dollar bills she'd stashed in a filing cabinet in her tenement apartment on Ludlow Street. In a sick way, she missed Prince Jefri's way of saying "good girl" to her, as if she were a dog. It "felt like approval, almost love," which felt like "victory," she writes. "The girl I'd been in Brunei had been purposeful, at least. I had felt powerful . ... Even if the course was hazardous, the rules were so simple, the goals so obvious."

She fell out of love with New York and moved to San Francisco. She became a makeup artist, then a hairstylist, then a drug addict. She stripped every so often to make ends meet. Finally, she moved to L.A. The harem money — some $300,000 — lasted a long time, nearly six years. With it she bought an '86 Honda, rented a small apartment, went to college and squandered the rest on heroin. "That was the swan song of that money," she sighs.

That unglamorous, sad, pedestrian part is not covered in the memoir: the drugs, the rehab, the slow, torturous climb to sobriety.

A year and a half as a harem girl had changed her. She lost her focus. Like an agent gone deep undercover, Lauren had taken on the role and couldn't surface. "It affects how you interact with other people, and what you think of men. What men think of you," she says. "These choices you make when you're young, which you don't know what the ramifications will be until much later."

When you've gone on $200,000 shopping sprees, the worth of objects becomes meaningless. A private jet upholstered with white leather flew her to Singapore, where a driver shuttled her from store to store. Chanel, Hermes, Dior, Gucci, Versace. Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. A bodyguard paid for the items, pulling bills from a Louis Vuitton sack full of cash. Lauren had but to touch a dress, and a salesgirl pulled it off the rack and placed it on the counter. When the shops closed at 9 p.m., security guards opened doors for her. She stopped looking at price tags because they didn't matter.

The loot is largely gone now. Because how many early '90s designer goods can a girl keep? Recently, she unloaded the last of the purses onto her son's teenage babysitter. "God, I had drawers full of them. So I gave her these white Chanel quilted bags, and she was just beside herself with glee," she recalls. "I did keep those handbags forever."

The jewelry, she sold, "though I still have a few sentimental pieces." Her voice catches on "sentimental," and she laughs. The first necklace Jefri gave her still sits in a safe-deposit box. "I'll sometimes take it out and wear it. It's a little strange?" She wrinkles her nose, as if smelling something bad. "My husband's an extremely cool guy. He's very supportive. But ..."

  • Jillian Lauren opens up about her life as a teenage harem girl in Brunei

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