A stripper at age fifteen, involved with majorleague gang members before she was twenty, and a madam raking in over $20,000 a day only a few years later, Ma-Ling Lee has a tale to tell about life.
The Education of a Very Young Madam is the compulsively readable, fast-paced story of how Ma-Ling Lee went from living in a comfortable Connecticut suburb to founding a lucrative but illegal "escort service."
Korean born and adopted by an American family, Ma-Ling began her career in the sex business at the age of thirteen. "Taken in" by strippers, pimps, and prostitutes, she soon became an expert at negotiating the hard-and-fast ways of life on the streets.
Ma-Ling's natural knack for marketing and managing a business led her to open her first brothel at the age of sixteen. After the police shut her down, she knew it was time to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the anonymity of the Internet. She bought her first Internet mailing list, set up an offshore server, and targeted a huge middleclass clientele.
And business thrived.
In her own frank and candid voice, Ma-Ling describes the difficulties -- and the economic advantages -- of running an illegal business. From clients' outrageous and often hilarious fetishes to the hardships of living off the grid to the heartbreak of watching friends get destroyed by drug addiction, Ma-Ling refuses to shy away from the truth of what the prostitution business has become. The madam explains how technology has not only revolutionized the sex industry but also regulated business by ensuring quality, safety, and efficiency.
The business has never been better.
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Read an Excerpt
It was summertime and I wanted to get out of New Jersey. A circuit seemed like the perfect way to do it. I'd thought about starting my own circuit for a long time, a sort of traveling ho show where I'd set up business in a city temporarily, advertise a few places, build up a local client list, and then move on to the next location before things got too hot. I'd never tried it before because it's too much work to handle on my own, but with my friend and new partner, Zoe, along to help book appointments and take most of the calls, I knew we could pull it off. And we did. We traveled all over the country, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with another girl or even two or three meeting us in places like D.C., New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Boston. And we made some serious cash that summer.
It was in Boston where my luck took a bad turn. Zoe and I had been riding high and managed to save more than $20,000 in cash, and that's after we went on a serious shopping spree. Newbury Street in Boston is one of my favorite places to shop in the whole world, and I have a serious designer shoe habit. Zoe, on the other hand, was not only a cheap and clueless ho when she started working for me, she dressed like one too. I had been slowly teaching her the difference between Prada and Payless, and the clients were beginning to notice the change.
We stayed in one upscale hotel while Zoe worked out of another one nearby. At the end of the week, however, I told Zoe to just use our room for her appointments since I wasn't going to be there. I planned to drive to New York to spend the weekend with a guy I had just started seeing. Scorpio, as he called himself, was a dancer -- my favorite type of man -- and I was really into him. Fully expecting to return a couple of days later, I packed up only a few clothes to bring with me. I left the rest of my belongings, including my computer, our stash of cash, and even my gun, behind with Zoe.
I got into New York Friday night and had a great time with Scorpio. On Saturday morning I woke up late and called Zoe's room just to check on her. A man answered the phone.
"Who's this?" I demanded, figuring Zoe had booked an early client who was cheeky enough to answer the phone. Either that or she'd gone out the night before with some friends and met someone.
"This is Officer Dan of the Boston Police Department. Who's this?" the man demanded right back.
I hung up the phone and freaked out.
Copyright © 2008 by John Boswell Management, Inc
Now's probably the time to tell you, I'm a madam. I run an upscale escort agency that caters to professional clientele in suburban New Jersey. In fact, by most small business standards, I've been very successful. With up to ten girls working for me at a time, my agency generates up to $40,000 in income each week, mostly in cash.
When people ask, I tell them I'm in the service industry or in marketing, and that's really pretty close to the truth. Girlfriend Experience (GFE for short), which is one of the names my agency goes by, is about more than just sex. It's about customer satisfaction, about creating a pleasurable experience for our clients.
We are no wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am kind of organization. My girls treat clients as if they are on the best date of their lives. They use videos and mood lighting, they wear lingerie, they ask about your fantasies. In the employee handbook that I give to all of my "entertainers," I offer a dozen different suggestions on ways they can personalize each encounter. That's right, we have an employee handbook, just like any other business, which should indicate to you that I am serious about the way I do things. It lays out what my girls are responsible for (paying for their own travel arrangements, being on time for appointments) and what's expected of them (treating customers with respect, cleaning up their hotel rooms before the next client arrives). It also offers some hints and tips about how to deliver truly exceptional service, from what to wear, to what kinds of background music are appropriate, to how to create a seductive atmosphere that will please any client.
Of course, what we're offering is a sure-thing date, which adds to the appeal. But my "sure things" are not always as sure as you might think. I book all the appointments, but every one of my girls has absolute veto power. If someone shows up at the door and turns a girl off in any way, for any reason -- she gets a bad vibe or the guy scares her or he's too old or too drunk or even too black (I have one girl who is half black herself but will only do white guys...go figure) -- then I let her off the hook without any questions. It's her life and her body, and she should be able to say no whenever she wants to.
When that kind of thing happens, I have to scramble to make the rejected guy feel better. We're a customer-service-oriented organization after all. I've found that the best thing to do in situations like these is to humble myself. I call the guy up and say, "I'm so sorry, honey, the girl just has some issues," which is not too hard to believe since most girls in this business have some issues. Then I say, "I should have known better. Let me make it up to you. Your next appointment is on me." (Or possibly just half price, depending on how mad he is.)
That always works. I've never had a guy say no to a freebie.
Girls in this business come in all sorts -- different races, ages, economic backgrounds, religious affiliations, even education levels. Some are married; some aren't. Some have kids; some don't. Some have been married multiple times and have kids with multiple guys. They do this work for all sorts of reasons too -- for money, for drugs, to get back at someone in their lives, to assert their independence, because they like it, because they don't like themselves -- but one thing they seem to have in common is that they are all a little (or sometimes a lot) fucked up in the head.
One of my girls, for example, got stuck in Manhattan once and was looking for a way back to New Jersey. My driver was in the city and I didn't need him, so I called her up and said, "Why don't you just go back with my assistant?" She was really appreciative on the phone, but the next time I talked to her, she was furious with me.
"Why would you recommend that guy to me?" she screamed. "He was such a lousy lay. It was one of the worst nights of my life!"
"You slept with him?" I asked her. I was stunned. He was only nineteen, a reliable driver but kind of a tool, so I didn't understand why she'd do that.
"Of course I did. You told me to."
"I was only suggesting you get a ride with the guy, not that you actually ride him!" I said. "What were you thinking?"
"Oh," she replied, much more calmly now, "that makes more sense. I couldn't understand why you'd give me such bad advice about something like that. I thought maybe you were mad at me."
Who else but a ho would think I was offering her anything other than transportation? The girls I work with are even more likely to be nuts than your average hooker because I hire only professionals, which means they've been doing this for a while -- no first-timers or girls who just want to see what it's like. Maybe it's not their exclusive profession -- I've had housewives, students, artists...lots of women who do it only part-time -- but none of the women who work for me are new to this. If they were, I wouldn't hire them, because I want only girls who know how to give good service.
A business like mine that offers high-end service didn't even exist in this corner of the world until I got here. When I first came to New Jersey, the highest price anyone paid for a girl was around $175 an hour. Nobody charged anything close to what I do now -- typically $300 to $350 for an hour or less -- because they never would have gotten away with it. The agencies were all using untrained girls and booking them into seedy motels in bad neighborhoods. It wasn't that hard for me to get customers when I moved here, especially the kinds of regular, stable, upscale customers I wanted.
There is plenty of money in New Jersey, so that was never the problem. I can only assume that the kind of agency I run didn't exist then because no one knew how to run one. (Of course, now that I've had a successful agency for several years, copycats have begun to pop up all over the place.) I did very simple things to distinguish myself, like hire professionals who are experienced and know how to give quality care. I use only three-star or higher hotels, which, ironically, are often cheaper than those seedy motels when booked through discount Internet sites. It wasn't brain surgery, but still, customer service, discretion, and reliability are all qualities that can be difficult to come by in this business, and clients appreciate them. They also happily pay more for them. In fact, if you devalue your girls by offering discounted rates, it can take some of the thrill out of the whole experience for the client (not to mention the fact that girls, just like employees of any kind of business, won't work as hard if they're being paid subpar wages). A guy wants to feel like he's paying for something special, and, obviously, lessening the thrill is the last thing I want to do.
Price points are always a balancing act, and it's certainly possible to charge too much as well. Right across the water from us in New York City, there are a number of agencies that regularly charge $1,500 an hour or more. I've done my homework on the subject and have basically come to the realization that, as alluring as they may be for both the entertainer and the agency, prices like that are just a mistake.
Let's face it, despite what men would like to believe (and what I would like them to believe), for the most part pussy is just pussy. Trust me, I've dealt with enough of it to know. At $300 to $350 an hour, most of my entertainers -- who get two-thirds of that fee plus any tips they earn, and at this level, most guys tip -- are going to feel well paid for their work, and most of my clients are going to feel like it was money well spent. But at $1,500 an hour, it's difficult for the client to be anything but disappointed, unless he's the kind of guy who can throw $1,500 around without flinching. And there just aren't enough of those guys around to really make a business.
Getting caught is always a concern in my line of work, but the business is not as risky as some people might think, as long as you're smart about it. In order for me to get caught, someone who has witnessed illegal activity, usually a client or a girl, has to turn me in. Since I'm never there when the illegal activity takes place, finding a witness can be very difficult. And since both the clients and the girls have participated in some illegal doings themselves, they aren't, generally speaking, so anxious to talk to the authorities. On top of that, I'm extremely careful about who I do business with on both sides of the transaction.
Usually, if a girl has worked before, if she has already established a reputation in the business -- and these days every girl who has been around the block has her "reputation" posted on special peer review sites on the World Wide Web -- you know it's safe to hire her. After all, no undercover cop would actually do the deed just to bust someone.
Besides, let's face it, the cops know we're out there. Everyone knows were out there. Prostitution is the oldest business in the world, and it's no secret that it exists all around us -- in every state, in every city, in every country around the globe. When the cops arrest a girl for working, they usually just fill out a report, hold her for a bit, and then let her go. They have better things to do with their time than worry about who is screwing who.
Generally, as long as business stays low-key -- and I've mastered the art of low-key business -- people leave us alone, unless the cops are motivated to make a point. It happens every once in a while...they decide to make a show of how tough they are on crime, how they're working to clean up the streets and protect the children and all that. It happened to me several times in New York, where I used to run a brothel, and that's why I got out of the city. Giuliani had just become mayor, and he had promised during his campaign to clean up New York. Curbing all the conspicuous prostitution going on all over town became a top priority for the police department when he took office.
Of course, in the long run the effect was mostly cosmetic. The cops would make regular sweeps of businesses like my brothel, which was out in the open and easy to find, forcing them to shut down. Business calmed down for a while, but then it came back as strong as ever, just in a different way -- on the Internet instead of the street corner. Giuliani only succeeded in driving it underground so that the taxpayers could pretend it wasn't happening all around them. (I heard he did the same thing with the homeless.)
I don't do business like that anymore. I don't have a physical location that cops can bust whenever they feel like it. I'm mobile, which makes me harder to find, and much more careful and discreet. Having to go underground was actually better for me and for a lot of people in this business. It forced us to become smarter. Now I'm making more money and I feel safer.
Still, I know that I'm never entirely safe. When that cop answered Zoe's phone, I didn't know how much danger I was in, but I knew I couldn't take the risk. I shut down my business. I took down my Web site and Internet ads, which is something I would do only in extreme situations, because it means my clients don't know how to find me. I thought the police might be able to trace me through the SIMM card in my cell phone, so I threw it out, which meant I lost all of my phone numbers. Thank god I have a good memory, especially when it comes to client info. Then I put what was left of my things in storage so I could travel light and so I wouldn't have anything on me to be used as evidence if it came to that.
Without two very important things -- my cell, which was now in storage, and my computer, which I could only assume was in police custody -- I can't work. My business is built around the idea that my identity must be protected at all times, so almost nothing is done in person. My clients, most of my girls even, know me only as a voice on the phone or a message in their in-boxes. I use a pseudonym and I try never to show my face. When something does need to be done in person, like exchanging money, I have assistants who act as go-betweens, which is another reason why it would be hard for the cops to pin something on me.
If I couldn't work, then there would be no cash coming in. I didn't want to go to my safety deposit box, because I was afraid someone could be waiting there for me. Call me paranoid, but you just never know. So I had to live off what I had on me. I found a quiet hotel room back in New Jersey and stayed put, just me and my dog, Max. I didn't go out or talk to a soul.
It's times like these when I usually decide to pick up and start my life over. Drop me down in the middle of any large to midsize city, and within days, I will be self-supporting. Within weeks, I will be on my way to setting up a profitable business.
But this time, even though I was risking getting caught, I didn't leave town. I don't know why I decided to do things differently. It went against everything I had ever learned about this business. For better or worse, I found a place to hide and waited to see what would happen.
Copyright © 2008 by John Boswell Management, Inc.
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