In her late teens, Jillian Lauren was snapping up luxurious evening gowns and lingerie on shopping sprees at Chanel and Louis Vuitton. She was driven to shops by private chauffeurs and escorted inside by hired security guards; the shop girls scrambled to get her whatever she desired. Her evenings involved wildly elaborate parties, complete with bottomless bottles of expensive champagne and endless heaps of caviar.
What sounds like an episode of MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” was Lauren’s life at age 18, only she wasn’t so much the guest of honour as she was the high-priced entertainment. Back in the early ‘90s, the young New York University drop-out was a harem girl of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Lauren, now a wife and mother, is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, about her experience as a high-class prostitute.
So how did a young girl from Jersey end up half-way around the world in a palace vying for the attention of a playboy Prince with two-dozen other call girls? A series of rebellious choices, most likely fueled in part by a troubled childhood, saw Lauren go from college student to part-time stripper to live-in working girl within a year. At first she thought she was going to Singapore for a two-week stint as company to a wealthy businessman, but when the plane landed in Brunei she was told otherwise. While she admits she was taken by surprise she also says she had the choice to leave. Lauren stayed six months before going back to New York City only to return for another six month period a short time later.
While some may hear her story and think Lauren was misled by those who brought her to Brunei, she takes full responsibility for her decision to stay.
“I was never hoodwinked by anyone and I walked into the situation in Brunei with my eyes wide open. In fact, I think that the people who led me into that line of work were pretty forthright and respectful. Probably more so than most women who enter the sex industry at a young age,” says Lauren. “At the same time, I sometimes look back and bemoan my lack of role models. However, I was so headstrong and independent that even if someone had been around to talk sense to me, I probably would have done exactly the opposite.”
What attracted her to Brunei at first was the promise of something better, a fantasy life beyond her wildest comprehension. The willful teen was all about taking chances and seeing where life would take her. She’d had enough of the mundane, often suffocating suburban life of her childhood and was struggling to find her place at university in New York. The unknown, with all its possibilities, was more appealing at the time.
“I had absolutely no idea where I was heading. I was running entirely on the boldness of youth and my utter ignorance of consequences. If you had told me where my life would lead when I was first traveling to my dorm at New York University at the age of 16, I wouldn’t have believed you in a million years,” says the author.
Where Lauren found herself after arriving in the desert country was a richly appointed palace with a large house staff and a constant party atmosphere. The girls slept in their own private rooms, ordered whatever they desired from the palace kitchen and had full access to a state-of-the-art gym. In the evenings they’d dress up for parties – the guest list was always comprised of the Prince’s well-heeled friends – that started at 11 p.m. and didn’t wind down until dawn. The sex part didn’t even come into play until two weeks into her journey when the Prince, who selected whatever girl he wanted for an hour or for the night, chose her. This open selection process encouraged an often bloodthirsty nature among the girls; there was a sense of power that came with being the Prince’s favorite, though once attained keeping that intangible title was an entirely different effort. Not exactly Pretty Woman, not that prostitution ever is, says Lauren.
“In Some Girls, I’m pretty clear about where I stand on [that movie]. I say that the part about not kissing tricks is true and the rest is an insulting crock. It’s the absolute worst manifestation of the Cinderella story – presented with no sense of consciousness or irony,” says Lauren. “There is no attempt at all made to deconstruct the myth, to make it relevant in some way to the complexity of modern relationships and power dynamics. What is the message, really? That we’re whores until we’re validated by a rich man, at which point we transform magically into princesses?”
The experience eventually led Lauren to a better understanding of herself, and while she says she would never go back to that life she’s clear that she doesn’t regret what it did for her emotional and spiritual growth. After leaving Brunei she went to college, struggled with drug addiction and worked a series of odd jobs before working her way through the past (a process that started only after she started “loving and trusting” herself) into the life she knows today. Lauren is now a successful author and journalist living in Los Angeles with musician husband Scott Shriner (bassist for Weezer). They are doting parents to son Tariku, who they adopted two-and-a-half years ago in Ethiopia. She credits her experience in part to helping her be a better wife and mother.
“The real lessons for me were learned as I looked back and reflected. I was able to discover a different level of compassion for both myself and for the other people who shared my story. I looked at pictures of myself from that time and I said, What was so wrong with me? Why did I hate myself so much? I was beautiful. I was hopeful. I was brave. I was adorable. I can see it now clear as day, but I couldn’t see it then. The story is about struggling to love yourself and learning to forgive yourself. I can’t think of a lesson that I use more as a mother, wife and friend than forgiveness.”