True Tales from a Former Harem Girl
If you were offered $20,000 to go to an exotic resort for two weeks and party, wouldn't you be just a little suspicious? Jillian Lauren was, but decided to go for it anyway.
"I was young, had low self-esteem and was looking for adventure -- for the extreme," she says. And that's how this Jewish girl, at age 18, ended up in the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei.
Lauren has just published a book called Some Girls -- My Life in a Harem, in which she elaborates on her experience in a South East Asian palatial estate, where she lived -- never in harmony -- with more than 100 other girls from all over the world, for about 18 months.
On the outset, it doesn't sound so bad: Stay in posh surroundings with tennis courts, swimming pools, and fabulous gym and movie theater; walk on carpets woven with real gold and be surrounded by priceless art; eat delicious food provided for you every day; and every night go to a luxurious private disco where there's a DJ, karaoke, dancing and all the champagne you can swill.
Of course there's the off chance that the prince might cast his eyes on you and want to take you to his chamber; but wouldn't it be possible to fly just under his radar, so to speak?
Not with cameras in every room, even the bathrooms. Someone was watching your every move, making the show Big Brother look like extreme privacy. Plus, the other girls -- Americans, Europeans, Thai, Malaysian, Filipino -- were extremely competitive and vicious. According to Lauren, it was almost impossible not to get caught up in that, and to see it as the ultimate victory when the prince took you in.
Caught Up in the Madness
"I wasn't a victim," says Lauren, although she admits she was not told the truth about the experience when she embarked on it. "But I don't want to glamorize the lifestyle. There was emptiness, sadness, laziness, meanness, manipulation; and I got sidetracked from all the dreams I'd ever had."
True, Lauren certainly didn't come upon the experience from a position of naivete. "I started stripping when I was 17," she says. It was a fellow escort at an agency that convinced her to go in for the interview in the first place. "I was looking for validation everywhere except inside," she says of her early involvement in the sex trade.
In one chilling paragraph from her book, she explains: "What makes us take that initial plunge? What makes one financially strapped girl into a stripper and another into a Denny's waitress and another into a med student? You want to connect the dots. You all want reassurance that it won't be your daughter up there on the pole. Sh---y relationship with my father, low self-esteem, astrologically inevitable craving for adventure, dreams of stardom, history of depression and anxiety, tendency toward substance abuse -- put it all in the cauldron and cook and the ideal sex worker emerges, dripping and gleaming and whole."
Extreme 'Bachelor' Experience
Lauren's time in the "harem" was complicated by extreme competition -- sort of an uber Bachelor situation, where, even if the prince wasn't exactly your knight in shining armor, all eyes were directed toward the prize. Once you became favored by the prince, it wasn't so easy to leave. You were lavished with expensive clothes, jewelry and money, but no promises of commitment or expressions of true love. There was no getting around the fact that you were nothing more than a high-priced hooker.
When Lauren finally realized that she was going nowhere fast and that she had lost all control of her emotions -- shutting them off when presented with a challenging situation -- she made a graceful exit. Sure, she returned to the United States with watches, designer clothes, jewelry and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, but she had no idea of what to do with it, or what to do with herself.
"I had a hard time of it. I returned to the sex industry (it was all she knew) and I had problems with substance abuse," she relates. It took her more than seven years before she became clean and sober, and started on the path to being the woman she is today.
Not Quite Happily Ever After
And who would that be? She's a yoga-loving, farmers market-going wife, mother and author. She studied to receive her bachelor's and her master's in writing, and is happily married to Weezer bassist Scott Shriner. She admits that explaining her lurid past to him when they first met was more than a little difficult.
"I was in beauty school at the time, and not very good at that," she confesses. "He'd heard that I'd been mentioned in an E! True Hollywood story, and he asked me about it on the first date. After I explained everything to him, he asked me, "Are you still doing anything like that?"
I told him I wasn't, and he said, "OK then, moving on ..." She says he appreciated how hard she was working to put it all behind her, how far she'd come, and how difficult it was for her. When she was writing the book, she had a falling out with her family, because she was brutally honest about the way things happened as she saw them; but her husband supported her and encouraged her to tell her tale every step of the way.
She's still not quite sure how she'll handle it when her adopted son, who is only two now, starts asking her questions and understanding her well-publicized past. "That's a very hard question, and I don't know how to answer it yet," she says. "I do know that I want to be an example to him of someone who lives honestly."
On a Mission
"My mission in writing this book," she concludes, "is to invite women into a conversation about the struggle to love yourself." She wants to encourage women to consider their relationships with their fathers and the other men they become involved with -- why women chose to do the things they do, and to ask themselves whether they're acting out of desire for the approval and love of others, or the approval and love of themselves.
"I still have contact with some of the girls who were with me back then," Lauren adds. "And others have contacted me since the book came out. One is now a doctor. Did she use the money she made over there for medical school?"
As more and more tales come out of women gravitating toward the stripper pole to support their families and put themselves through school, Lauren cautions them to "meditate the consequences that may not be immediately evident. I know women in the sex industry who do it with joy and to enrich their souls; but more often I see people who become very damaged. I am filled with gratitude every day that I was able to get out."