In 1991, when she was 18, suburban New Jersey girl Jillian Lauren left New York to become a member of the Sultan of Brunei’s harem. She was recruited by a “casting director” who promised her $20,000 to stay for 2 weeks. She’d be expected to attend nightly parties and be at Prince Jefri’s beck and call. Jillian stayed for a year and a half. During that time she jockeyed for position with the other Harem girls, flew to Singapore for six figure shopping sprees and began the process of finding herself. She tells about it all in her riveting memoir Some Girls: My Life in The Harem, which is due out April 27th.
So, among other perks (major shopping sprees, extravagant jewels, days spent yachting) you got to order anything in the world you wanted for breakfast. What did you order? Oh, gosh! It really depended on whether we were eating or starving ourselves that day! But we would always order an incredible platter of fruit. Sometime eggs. Sometimes tapas. Sometimes pastries. Sometimes it was just grilled chicken and fruit and steamed asparagus. Which is such a shame! I wish I could go back now and order anything I wanted for breakfast.
There is a lot of concern with body image and staying skinny in the book – did the Prince have a preference for very slim women? Or any particular type of women?: It was mostly Southeast Asian girls in the harem. And American girls. There was one actress was from Hong Kong and one actress from Holland. There was such a range of body types and looks, but actually, Prince Jefri liked a woman with something to hold onto. The girls who stuck around, and who were really in his favour, were zaftig.
Does Prince Jefri or the rest of the Royal Family of Brunei know about the book?: I don’t know. They’re very worldly people, though. People are working for them all over the place I don’t imagine it will escape their notice.
Does that worry you? It seems like you delve into some topics that they might like to keep private: Well, there are a couple of things that make less worried. First, the story [about the existence of the harem] was already broken in the press. There was an E! True Hollywood Story about it. I’m not exposing anything no one knows about. I don’t feel like I’m telling secrets. I’m really telling my experience. And the other thing – and I could be really naive about this – is that I think the Prince would like it. I think he’d really agree with my portrayal of him. I think he enjoys thinking of himself as a playboy and a charismatic bad boy, and someone who is narcissistic and troubled. He’s a smart guy, he knows how he’s perceived.
You actually sounded as though you got along very well with Prince Jefri. And there are some aspects of your time in Brunei that make it sound like a really awesome vacation. Did it feel that way at the time? Part of the reason I wrote this book was to really portray the complexity of the experience. I wanted to humanize something that, on paper, seems very surreal or like a fantasy fulfillment. And there were elements that were exciting and extreme and unexpected and I’m someone who really craves that. I’ve always been that way. But there were things about it that were also really damaging in ways that I wasn’t able to see then. Even at the time it was often boring and numbing. And that time was certainly not enriching to my spirit.
Did you ever have the option to say no to anything? Sex? Sex without a condom? Or, scariest of all, singing in the nightly rounds of karaoke? Yes. I felt like I could say “no.” Depending upon what I said “no” to I would accept repercussions. If I said “no” to karaoke I don’t think the Prince would have sent me home. But I might have dropped a few pegs in his esteem for not doing something that would have made him happy. If I said “no” to sex I imagine I would be sent home very quickly. If you want to remain there and stay in their good graces and keep making the money then you had to comply with certain wishes of his.
Was being sent home the worst thing that happened if the girls displeased the Prince? After all, this is a really powerful family, and a lot of the girls hadn’t even told their family or friends what country they were in: As far as I know, yes, it was. I was always treated incredibly well there. I mean, I’m sure there were plenty of things that went on that I knew nothing about, but my experience was that we were treated very respectfully. I never saw anyone even forced to do anything they didn’t want to there.
If you wanted to leave, was it as easy as saying “well, thanks, but I’m audi?” Once again, yes, if you never wanted to come back. But, if you wanted to come back someday, then there wasn’t as much freedom.
Do you think the situation has changed for girls who go over to Brunei now? I very much doubt that many Americans go over now. First of all, the parties are definitely more decadent. It was very hush-hush, small and discreet when I was there. As they got more decadent one of the women filed a lawsuit. She accused the Prince of drugging and raping her. That’s when the story really broke. And I think that probably put at least a damper on it, if not an end. And he was recently accused of embezzling billions of dollars. Many of his homes and cars and luxury items were auctioned off. And he refused to show up at the High Court of England. I think he’s reconciling with his brother now, and he might be back in the country but it’s not what it used to be.
You’re currently married to Weezer bassist Scott Shriner. How did you tell him about your past? I was so lucky because my husband already knew. Someone had gossiped about me and told him about an E! True Hollywood Story I was in. They were like “yeah, her eyes were blacked out, but it’s definitely her.” And Scott is a very straightforward guy and you’ll always know what he’s thinking and in the first few minutes of our date he said, “so were you a slave in Asia?” And it was like “Well! That’s not the word I would use, but since you mention it…” and I told him the whole story. And he said, “are you doing it anymore?” And I said, “no.” And he was actually impressed that I was changing my life. I don’t recommend keeping your past a secret from your mate. Whatever you keep secret just becomes corrosive inside of you and I’m living proof that you can find someone who can love you for exactly who you are.
How has the rest of your family responded to the book? My family is very upset about the book. I mean, certain members of my family have been very supportive, but with the rest, I understand where they’re coming from. Although it makes me sad. I had hoped they would see if differently. But I have this crazy feeling that they’ll be proud of me eventually, once they figure out how they’ll deal with their friends and community.
Have you heard from any of the girls you were in the harem with? I know you mentioned that harem politics often made it hard to be friends with them. Oh, it wasn’t true that none of them were my friends. There were a few who I was genuinely friendly with, and who I’ve kept in touch with over the years. And there are a couple of others who have contacted me. I was of two minds about that. Part of me was happy to hear from them and get their perceptions of it all, but then, on the other hand, turning people into characters is essentially a reductive thing. And then to have to look them in the eye! There was no way I could have give these characters all that these people were. You look them in the eye and say “I did my best.” I’ve sent them all the book.
Do you ever miss Brunei? I miss, sometimes, the moment standing on the balcony in Singapore before I ever went to Brunei. This moment when I started this crazy adventure. And now I love my life, I’m exponentially happier than I ever was then. But, I’m a mom, I have a 2 year old son. I do wake up and think, well… I guess anything could happen, but probably it’ll be Cheerios and a trip to the grocery store and maybe Gymboree, and then me writing five pages and weeping with exhaustion. But who doesn’t miss that? That’s about being young. And having your freedom, and hope, and so much in front of you. But I wouldn’t go back in a million years.
Did you keep the clothes? Yes, I did keep the clothing! You know, I saved a few of the really remarkable pieces. One day maybe I’ll have a granddaughter and she’ll look at it the way I used to look at my Grandmother’s clothing. She can wear it to the prom. Maybe she’ll wear this canary yellow sequined Chanel gown to the prom! Well, if she has really retro taste. I recently gave my very trendy babysitter the last of my quilted chanel bags – I can’t pull that off anymore. I have some of the clothes and costumes. They’re mostly in my parents’ basement. Hopefully by the time my granddaughter wants to wear it to prom my Mom and Dad will be speaking to me again.