While most girls her age were getting ready to graduate high school, Jillian Lauren was dancing at the Kit Kat Club in New York City—working both as an escort and a theater-company intern. In the early '90s, the 18-year-old Jewish Jersey girl boarded a plane to Brunei, a tiny nation on the island of Borneo, to be paid $20,000 as a two-week "party guest" of a "rich businessman." She ended up part of the harem of Prince Jefri, "No. 2 girlfriend" to the brother of the Sultan of Brunei, for two years—raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars, jewelry and clothing in the process. Now, the L.A.-based author has written Some Girls: My Life in a Harem (Plume, 352 pages, $15), an engaging and bizarre tale. Lauren glibly revisits a world where bored, gorgeous girls spend every day watching TV in locked bungalows, plotting how to capture the prince's eye during the parties he hosts until 4 am every night. That's only part of a story that includes anorexia, drugs, an abusive dad and a giant razor-toothed vagina tattoo. Back then, Lauren says she started chronicling her daily harem experience to stay sane. "Brunei was where I figured out what writing meant to me," she explains. "It gave me some control."
WW: What was the prince's favorite sexual position?
Robin [his nickname] was an ass man. He really liked to look at your ass, so any position that allowed him that visual he enjoyed. I only had one sexual encounter with the Sultan—oral sex.
What did you two talk about?
Music, his cars…or the other girls. He liked to gossip about his ministers, and their girlfriends…. How do people react when you tell them about the harem?
It's awkward. They look at me like I'm joking. Now my 85-year-old neighbor and my 13-year-old cousin knows about it…. My parents are very upset about the book. I have faith they'll come around...
You left the harem for a few months and then went back for a second tour of duty?
I went back for the money…and I felt safe in that environment. I was good at it.
What did living in an alternative universe teach you?
I learned that there is nothing material that is going to make me happy. I recognize that is a great cliché, but it was all there for me, and it was all there for the prince, and it didn't make him happy.
What's one thing immediately that jarred you and really surprised you? Was it the girls? Where you were living?
I was a Jewish teenager who had just recently left suburban New Jersey, so everything surprised me. When I walked into a room with 40 or so Southeast Asian women in it, that wasn't what I pictured when they said I was going to be a party guest. And I really marveled at the art. I didn't really expect to walk into the foyer of his playhouse—it wasn't even in the house that he lived in—and see Picassos on the walls and a Degas sculpture that I really loved when I was a little girl, you know?
What were your day jobs when you moved back to America?
I didn't stop stripping…sex work is very, very addictive. It's a line that, once you cross it, it stops meaning anything to you to sell yourself…it's really hard to do anything else, you know. I worked for a really fancy, leather, sort of fetish-clothing boutique for a while. I have finally transitioned out of the industry by doing hair and makeup, and then I went back to graduate school and started working full time as a writer.
When you look at yourself now what do you see?
I don't see a product anymore. I can't believe how "tired mom" I look these days, but I'm proud of my crow's feet and my exhaustion. And of my age, which sort of terrified me. The prince was probably younger than I am now when I met him, and I thought he was an old man. The prince stole several billions of dollars and got caught, got thrown out of the country. I guess he's back now [in Brunei now] but he fell on some hard times. So I doubt that [the party is] still going on—not on the scale it was.
Jillian Lauren appears at Backfence PDX on Wednesday, May 19.