YOU'VE LED AN INTERESTING LIFE when one of your least-interesting personal anecdotes involves Barbara Walters repeatedly calling you a hooker on The View. So it is for Jillian Lauren, whose incredibly engaging memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem compiles her most daring exploits as a suburban New Jersey teen who takes up stripping and eventually finds herself a concubine in a Brunei harem, where she spends nearly two years and walks away with duffel bags full of cash.
Lauren is a gifted writer—full of ease, humor, and grace. She's candid about her transition from a "nice girl," a musical theater geek with body issues, to a pretty exotic dancer at a New York City strip club whose personal mantra is "What would Patti Smith do?" Lauren eventually becomes a high-class escort, and at this point a friend invites her to an "audition," wherein girls are selected to be eye candy at lavish parties in Southeast Asia.
Lauren laughs when I ask if she had any idea what she was getting into. "I had never even heard of Brunei," she says. "I'd never even heard of that country when they gave me the job. But, of course, I [now know] that when somebody says, 'Would you like to audition to entertain some businessmen in Singapore?,' you should say no. But I certainly knew that something sketchy was going on."
At the age of 18, Lauren landed in Brunei, a tiny country on the island of Borneo, where she was shuttled to a prince's compound filled with carpets threaded with real gold, original Degas statues, expensive cars, and a room where "beautiful women lounged on every inch of the upholstery... a tableau of Asian girls decorated each area, themselves looking like tigers draped over the rocks in their cage at the zoo." Prince Jefri, the brother of one of the richest men in the world, the Sultan of Brunei, owned the pleasure palace, where he hosted parties that lasted until the wee hours of the morning filled with karaoke, dancing, and champagne. During the party, one girl was chosen by the prince to sit by his side, and later have sex with him somewhere in the palace. This party happened every single night.
Lauren stayed at the harem for over a year, caught in the Machiavellian prince's wheedling. "The prince, I was realizing, liked to put his people in bizarre situations just to see what they'd do. We were his little lab rats." It was a lonely place, full of backstabbing and waste, but Lauren returned to New York, only to return to the harem a year later. "I had severed the connection between my soul and my body so profoundly that I could barely feel my own skin anymore." Finally, she left the harem for good.
"Any set of circumstances can become the normal shape of your days if you let it," Lauren says in Some Girls. Today, that norm means being a thirtysomething author married to Weezer's Scott Shriner, having a New York Times bestseller, an adopted baby from Ethiopia, discussing Don and Betty Draper with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner... in other words, being one of the most together, sincere, and intelligent people you'll ever read about. I'm a little breathless, but Some Girls truly makes you want to befriend Jillian Lauren—to learn from her daring and adventurous choices, and from the strong and funny storyteller she's become.