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April 19, 2010

My Life in a Harem

Six-figure shopping sprees? Check! Catfights? Check! One of the Prince of Brunei's 40 girlfriends? You bet. Jillian Lauren on her 18-month adventure in a modern-day harem.

woman in a bra and underwear peeking through red curtains

Photo Credit: PBNJ Productions/Getty Images

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Jillian Lauren quit New York University her freshman year to become a "party guest" for a "wealthy businessman in Singapore," and ended up spending a year-and-a-half in the harem of the Prince of Brunei. A lifelong nonconformist who chafed against her upper-middle-class upbringing, Lauren was living in the Southeast Asian sultanate by age 18, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts as one of the prince's 40 girlfriends. With the release of her memoir, Some Girls, Lauren — now 36 and living in Los Angeles with her husband, Weezer bassist Scott Shriner, and their young son — talks prostitution, empowerment, and how, even when money is exchanged, feelings are always a factor.

MC: How'd a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs end up in a harem?

JL: I'd had a bad relationship with my parents. They were overly concerned with appearances, and I knew I wanted something different. I was doing theater and supporting myself as an exotic dancer and, briefly, as an escort — which I'd resorted to since waiting tables wasn't covering the bills. A friend took me to an audition to be a party guest in Singapore — $20,000 for two weeks of work! Then I was told the real job was to entertain Prince Jefri, the Sultan of Brunei's younger brother. My curiosity and sense of adventure made me pull the trigger.

MC: Weren't you afraid that something awful might happen?

JL: I wasn't. Part of it was being young and wild, and part of it was just really poor judgment.

MC: And you stayed for 18 months. How did that work, legally?

JL: There were no contracts. I was a guest at the prince's house, and he chose to give me gifts — jewelry, duffel bags full of cash. But I wasn't an employee.

MC: What were the living arrangements?

JL: It was like a parallel-universe sorority. Forty of us lived in eight guest houses surrounding the main palace. The decor was so over the top, with rugs and fabric and silk flowers and mirrors everywhere, my roommate said it looked like the home of a Persian rug salesman. I grew very close with some of the women, but with others, there was a competition and cruelty that I'd never experienced before.

MC: How often did you see the prince?

JL: He threw frequent parties in this disco room in the palace, where he'd sit in the corner with one or two of his favorite women. He was probably sleeping with between two and four a day, so at times I'd be foremost in his mind and I'd see him daily; at others it could be once a week. When I traveled with him, it meant staying overnight together, which felt more intimate. But actual sexual encounters were fast and furious, and you never knew when they were going to happen.

MC: You write in the book that you developed feelings for him, even though you were paid to be there and he was married to three women and dating 40 more. How can that be?

JL: It was complicated. I was so naive, and he tested me, showing me attention and then ignoring me. One day I found myself sitting next to him in the big room where we partied every night, and I realized I'd climbed to the top of the pecking order without really knowing what I was doing.

MC: Tell us about the shopping trips.

JL: There was an insane spree in Singapore — I was running through an incredibly chic mall, throwing $10,000 Dior and Chanel dresses on the counter without even trying them on. In a single day I'd bought enough clothes, bags, and shoes to fill 15 suitcases. Part of me was disgusted. But at the same time, it was thrilling. I felt drunk.

MC: Why did you decide to leave?

JL: I was going a little crazy with the prince's mind games, so I told the woman in charge that my father was having surgery and I needed to be there. She made the arrangements. I walked out of there with a fat envelope of cash and the kind of jewels that should have their own bodyguard.

MC: Do you feel any shame about your experience?

JL: Society tells me I should be ashamed, but I'm not. My experience was damaging to me, but for many women, this is a way of survival, and they get the short end of the stick because of people's hypocrisy. I believe we should decriminalize prostitution, take the shame out of it. And I want to inspire other women who may have been sexualized at a young age, or taught to hate their bodies, to value their own stories.

MC: So, no regrets?

JL: Not really. I made a reckless choice, and I'm lucky that I made it out with my health and relative sanity intact. But I also had a great adventure, and I learned a lot.

MC: How do your husband and parents feel about the book?

JL: My husband is incredible. It takes a strong man to be able to stand by his wife as she tells this story. There are chapters that he can't force himself to read, but no one's been a bigger champion for me. My parents — my dad's a retired stockbroker, my mom's a homemaker — are very hurt by it. But I hope that we can work through it.

MC: Is it a letdown, after your "adventure," to be married with a kid now?

JL: It's a livable, balanced life. But it doesn't have the adrenaline rush that a dangerous fantasy world does. When I go to the grocery store for the 95,000th time in a week, do I sometimes wish I could be 18 again and get on a plane and go on a crazy adventure? Sure. Who doesn't?

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