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.
It is a book you want to hate. The literary landscape is overrun with sensitive young girl coming-of-age tales full of angst and hard-won insight. As a genre, the memoir's reputation took a beating after James Frey published his story of drug addiction. How could such a horror of a life be real? people asked. It wasn't. Frey had lied. Oprah Winfrey scolded him on national TV.
But Lauren is about "a radical honesty." Some girls' names have been changed to protect their privacy. The rest is true. Slowly, surely, she wins you over. She doesn't mince words. She calls herself on her own bullshit. Lauren is a natural storyteller as much as she was a natural stripper. She has a gift for metaphor, an eye for the odd detail. Brunei is green, a "sticky, overgrown, ancient green." The palace is tacky with Italian marble and windows "smothered" with peach drapery. It is a place where girls exercise naked on the StairMaster ("Ew," writes Lauren. "Why?"). Where men are "paid play fellows as much as the women are."
She sees three tissue boxes in every room, "each with a decorative gold cover." She sees girls lounging on the upholstery "like tigers draped over the rocks." They tally up one another's flaws and assets. Alliances shift. They are enemies, then best friends, then enemies again.
Some girls try to get pregnant. Some want to marry the prince — only a select few consider that goal to be within their sights. "Those who did were fighting pretty hard for it," Lauren says. "But there were also women who came and went, who were happy to take their cash and go home to L.A. and buy themselves a Mercedes."
Every little thing in the harem environment is treated like life or death. Boring and treacherous. Funny and tragic. "So now the Thai girls and the Indonesian girls were practically in a gang war," she writes. "Girls circumvent the corporeal and go straight for one another's souls. The bleeding is harder to stanch."
She spends long nights sitting on couches, drinking champagne, volleying gossip back and forth for hours and hours. You can only sing the same karaoke songs so many times. Sometimes they weren't allowed out of the houses, in which case they'd watch a laser disc, she adds, laughing at the ridiculousness of it.
The prince's harem girls are well-kept slaves. They are given expensive watches, diamond necklaces. They party from 10 at night to four in the morning, rising at dusk like vampires. Servants bring them breakfast. "We could order anything we wanted in the whole world," Lauren remembers. "Except for papaya. The prince hated papaya."
Snarfing caviar by the spoonful straight from the jar, drinking expensive wine, nothing to do but wait — it sounds like a vacation.
But it isn't. Not when the prince locks you in a freezing-cold room for four hours with no bathroom and you have to urinate so badly you consider peeing in the trash can.
"You have been here long?" Prince Jefri asks her, sounding pleased.
Not when you fall asleep and wake to him thrusting hard into you without a condom at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, this man who has slept with literally thousands of girls. "I couldn't find my voice to stop him," she writes.
Depression takes hold. She stops eating, stops caring. Everything is an illusion. The harem women are left to their own devices but are surveilled by cameras hidden behind mirrors. They never know who is listening to their phone calls or watching them in the shower.
"I began to think of these invisible watchers as ghosts," Lauren writes, "spirits, creatures from another world who lived in the house with us even though we couldn't see them . ... Some girls in Brunei came and went like weekend guests, and some became lady of the manor for a time. I started out the belle of the ball, but I became the crazy lady in the attic."
She begins to write, every day. In the end, it is her salvation. Boredom is replaced by a kind of graphomania.
The diaries she kept are partly how she remembers events in exquisite detail, as if she were there yesterday and not 17 years ago. The other part is the steel trap of memory itself. One thing connects to another, and suddenly she is remembering tissue boxes in locked rooms.
"I'm not sure I want to get rid of it."
—Some Girls, Chapter 21
"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 ..."
She wore the expensive watch once, the one she almost threw in the river shortly after returning from Brunei. "Did Prince Jefri buy you that Rolex?" asked her husband. "Where did you get that?"
The things she kept: a crazy, canary-yellow, sequined Chanel suit ("In case I needed a granddaughter to think I was really cool"). An Armani gown, a floor-sweeping affair in black silk, with a train ("It was beautiful, would still be beautiful right this minute"). In Brunei, she wore an evening gown every night. Now, she putters around in leggings and a T-shirt. She remains voluptuous and nubile. Raven dark hair, pale skin, striking still, despite the years. "Those gowns are still in my parents' house. If they haven't burned them."
"Hookers in bare feet and evening gowns playing badminton is a sight to see."
—Some Girls, Chapter 19
She kept memories, mostly. Both literally and figuratively. She hangs onto them in the form of photos she shows to almost nobody. She flips through them now. "Look, there we are. That," she says, "is Fiona. And that is me."
"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."
"Yeah," she said.
She told him the truth. He fell in love with her regardless.
She doesn't feel apart from other people anymore but still gets naked in public. She performs a burlesque show. It's theater, not sex work. She smiles and says, "I still hang out with a whole bunch of girls who run around in their panties in front of people."
The girl who was once a sultan's sex toy becomes the woman who cringes at the sexual demands on young girls. Her son's teenage babysitter approached her one day, laid it out: Girls at parties make out with other girls to titillate boys. In a "hooking-up" culture, the pressure to please boys is intense. "I was like, that's really sad. Girls should be kissing each other who want to be kissing each other! It's not a porno movie! You're 14!" she says. Boys, she feels, were working harder for it in her day.
Now, she is the mom with an old, matched set of Louis Vuitton luggage — a gift from the prince. A friend discovered it one afternoon while helping Lauren clean out the garage. "Hey, I almost threw out all that cheap fake luggage you have," said the friend. "But I wanted to ask you first."
"No, that's real. Don't throw that out!" Lauren said, laughing.
The girl who vied to be top dog at the harem, who preferred having power to having friends, disappears into a life of dinner parties and barbecues. She becomes the woman who no longer assumes everyone has a price. "In Brunei certainly everyone did," she says. "Maybe it changed when I stopped having a price." A mischievous grin spreads across her face. "Though, I never thought everyone had a price. I didn't think Gandhi had a price. But normal people, you put them in the right situation, and they have a price."
"My mind empties out, my body grows balanced, and my heart opens."
—Some Girls, Chapter 24
She e-mails occasionally with surfer girl Delia, who was her friend in Brunei. Delia lives in Huntington Beach, just got remarried. They are always threatening to meet up, like any other busy modern-day women. Lauren is curious to see if Delia remembers the harem the same way.
Fiona, whose last name she doesn't know, she never saw again. Lauren has sold the memoir in 11 countries; it is being translated into nearly as many languages. Recently, she sold the rights to Thailand. "I had this little lurch in my stomach," she says. "I always assumed no one I knew in Thailand or the Philippines would ever see the book. But now it's looking like that isn't the case. Who knows who will come out of the woodwork and say hi one of these days."
She suspects Prince Jefri will like the book. He's been having a tough time of late. He lost a great deal of money, was kicked out of his country, then let back in.
"I think he'll be flattered," she says. "I think he likes to think of himself the way I portrayed him. As a handsome womanizer ... playboy ... lonely ... smart ... guy. I don't think he's under many illusions about himself."
People regard her with either repulsion or fascination, or both, once she starts telling her story. "You were where?" friends say, when they find out. "How come you never told me this?"
Usually, it just doesn't come up.
It's the folks closer to home she worries about the most. The religious family across the street, for instance. The families she shares a front-yard culture with, which is about to kick into high gear as winter melts into spring. In the late afternoons, the block comes alive with kids on bikes and moms and dads tending their gardens and nosing into one another's business. Everyone here knows everyone else. What would her 85-year-old neighbor, Helen, bless her heart, think when she finds out the mommy next door was once an international teen prostitute? Helen who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, to whom Lauren brings cookies, and to whom she brings her baby to play at her house, and who she feels looks at her with respect and love.
"You did what?" says Helen, craning her neck to hear. "You wrote a book? Well that is just really interesting."
"To be honest, I'm not 100 percent sure she completely understands," Lauren says.
Her parents do not completely understand, either. One afternoon not too long ago, she sat with her mother and father at a therapist's office in New York, a list of items covered in the memoir in her hand. They went over it point by point.
Mom and dad already knew she was in Brunei, had a sense of her activities there. "What did you think?" said her father, "I thought you were a diplomat?"
That she'd written a book about it, however, was news to them. Lauren grimaces now, grips her cup of tea and admits, "They are very sad and hurt about it. They are fearful of what will happen. They live in a very conservative community."
Her mother returned from New Years vacation to an article in the New York Post and 15 messages on her answering machine. Your daughter did what?
"I knew I was a hooker, but somehow I felt like Cinderella," the Post quotes from the book. Her mother was aghast. "Right now we're not really speaking," Lauren says. "I wish they were being more supportive. I think the portrayal of them in the book is ultimately compassionate and loving."
It is a parent's worst nightmare, the daughter who grows up to be a hooker. Or a memoir writer. They got both.
Curling up on the floor in front of the coffee table, Lauren turns the pages of the photo album, rewinding further into the past to a time before the prince, before nights spent lounging on sofas in evening gowns waiting to be picked. There are pictures of her at 16, leaving for college. Pictures at her junior prom, at her bat mitzvah. Pictures of summer camp with the pervy counselor she fooled around with. He was 21 and handsome. She was 13 and innocent. "And where am I?" she asks, searching the photo. "There! That's how old I am. No boobies, nothing. He was cute though. He really was. What can you do?"
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Who knows what her life would have looked like if she hadn't gone to Brunei. "I recognize that my story sounds surreal. But nothing is surreal that happens to you. For me, it's just my life," she says.
Soon her baby patters in, thick with sleep from a nap. Tariku is from Ethiopia, adopted, as Lauren was. He sidles up to the sofa, smiles. He cannot get enough of her.
"He loves the ladies," she says, smiling back.
Jillian Lauren will read from and sign Some Girls: My Life in a Harem at Book Soup on Friday, April 30, at 7 p.m. Party afterward at Ghettogloss.