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The Real Harem Girls of Brunei

New book dishes on a suburban girl's journey into a prince's palace of pleasure

Email icon  edward.ebbert@gmail.com

It could be the plot of a hit reality show: Forty beautiful women from all over the world living together in the lavish palace of a sultan, competing for the favor of a billionaire prince. The drama unfolds as these women work lavish, star-studded parties, charming their way into the hearts and wallets of some of the world’s richest men. The prince’s favorite girls get showered in jewelry, cash, and couture clothes. But how far will these women go to get chosen?

This isn’t the next season of The Bachelor, though. It’s the true story of a thrill-seeking New Jersey girl who found her way into the infamous harem of the younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei. She is Jillian Lauren, 36, who tells all in her new memoir: “Some Girls: My Life in a Harem” (Plume, 2010).

“I was seeking adventure, an extreme experience of life,” Lauren said in a recent interview, her wide smile glowing with red lipstick and impish charm. A brightly colored dragon tattoo winds up her left arm, and a scaly Pisces—her birth sign—swims on her right. They’re for protection, she said — but they also represent parts of herself you can’t see.

Lauren described her young self as a wanderer with a soft spot for romance. Today, she lives a less glitzy life, complete with a (famous) rocker husband, two-year-old son adopted from Ethiopia and a house in the suburbs of East Los Angeles.

She bit her lower lip and swung her legs playfully in her chair as she tried to explain how a girl from the suburbs found her way into the harem of a sultan. “I wanted to see extraordinary things,” she said simply.

And so she did. By the time she returned to the United States three years later, she reports, she’d scored upwards of $300,000 in cash and luxury goods.

From College Dropout to “Princess” Adventurer

Her tale began in 1992, when she was an 18-year-old New York University dropout, living in the East Village, stripping in Times Square and working occasionally for an escort service. Broke, bored, and looking for adventure, she accepted a mysterious offer to “audition” for a job entertaining an anonymous businessman from Singapore. She was told she would be very well compensated.

Before she knew it, she was on the South Asian island of Borneo, home of the tiny, oil-rich nation of Brunei and its playboy Prince Jefri Bolkiah.

Later, the prince’s lavish lifestyle would come under international scrutiny after his brother, the sultan, filed a lawsuit in 2000 alleging that the prince had mismanaged billions of dollars from the Brunei Treasury.

But in the ‘90s, as Lauren tells it, she was the prince’s second-favorite girlfriend, a position that came with lavish shopping sprees to Singapore and a seat beside his royal highness at palace parties.

Lauren writes in lucid, sometimes lurid detail about life in the cutthroat, often bizarre world of the palace harem. Ostensibly, the dozens of girls like her were paid to attend nightly dance parties as entertainment for the prince and his entourage of male hangers-on. In reality, the women were the merchandise in a high-class meat market catering to a single customer: Prince Jefri, a man with an appetite difficult to satisfy.

Lauren was seduced by the romantic fantasy of the royal lifestyle, but part of her knew it couldn’t last. “I knew I was a hooker, but somehow I felt like Cinderella,” she writes.

Other women, like Playboy centerfold Rebecca Ferratti and ex-Miss USA Shannon Marketic, returned from their visits to Brunei with stories of sexual assault and imprisonment. Ferratti’s juicy story broke on E! True Hollywood Stories in the fall of 1997. A few months later, Marketic sued Jefri and the sultan for $90 million, claiming she was held against her will as a sex slave. Marketic lost her lawsuit after Jefri claimed diplomatic immunity. A spokeswoman at Brunei’s consulate in New York had no comment.

The Backstory

Some Girls tells the story behind these headlines, and it’s beautifully written, with tight, rich prose and sharp, witty dialogue.

The memoir opens in Lauren’s adoptive childhood home in the upper-middle class suburb of West Orange, New Jersey. Lauren describes a contentious, emotionally and occasionally physically abusive relationship with her father, who joked about her weight and clumsiness. As a teenager, Lauren said she developed self-esteem and body image issues that still plague her. “I felt ugly, fat, not good enough, not smart enough,” she said.

After graduating from the private Newark High School in 1990 at 16, Lauren began her freshman year as a theater major at New York University. Within six months, she had dyed her hair purple, dropped out of school and started working for an escort service. In another year, she would be on her first of two trips to Brunei.

After returning to the United States in 1995, Lauren moved to San Francisco, but couldn’t escape her demons. She developed an on-and-off addiction to heroin that lasted eight years. In the early 2000s, Lauren checked herself into a rehab program and got clean.

Though her experience with sex work made it difficult to trust men, Lauren said her marriage has made her feel more stable. “I have a really good guy this time,” she said of husband Scott Shriner, bassist in the rock band Weezer. They met bowling. Now they live in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, where Lauren works as a writer.

Beyond telling a scintillating story, Lauren said she wrote her memoir to encourage women to have more compassion for each other, and themselves. She argued that her story reveals a “commonality of experience” for American women, in a society that judges them by strict standards of physical beauty.

“The self-punishment, and the self-hatred is our battle in this culture,” she said. “I hope to really forge connections between women, because I think that we are our own worst enemies and harshest critics.”

Edward Ebbert studies journalism at New York University.

Jillian Lauren

Photo by Andrea Ferrante

Jillian Lauren

Photo by Austin Young

With husband, the rocker Scott Shriner, and son Tariku, 2, whom the couple adopted from Ethiopia.

Photo by Karin Calde