For the past 10 years, Annie Lobert has worked to save women from the unrelenting grip of sex trafficking. That’s because, as a former prostitute and professional escort, Lobert learned firsthand about the dangers underlying the illegal sex trade in the United States. Now, it’s Lobert’s mission to help young victims through her Las Vegas-based organization, “Hookers For Jesus,” a non-profit dedicated to helping women leave the sex industry. MSNBC caught up with Lobert to find out more about Hookers For Jesus, as well as what recovery looks like in her own life today. Catch the all-new “Sex Slaves: Vegas Escorts” episode on Sunday, June 28th at 10 p.m. E.T.
How did you first come up with the name of “Hookers For Jesus”? And what kind of message do you think it sends to young women looking to get out of the life?
Annie Lobert: Honestly, I had been out of sex trafficking and prostitution for about a year. I was driving in my car and I was passing out my cards to the ladies that were on the strip looking for help. I would give them my card with my number and it would say, "Annie - call me if you need help." I didn't have a name for what I was doing. And I'm a girl that's from Minnesota and Wisconsin. As you know, Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes and I love fishing. So, I was in my car having a spiritual epiphany because I believe in God and that was what really changed my life - crying out to Jesus and surrendering my life to His will. There's a scripture in Matthew 4:19. The first four disciples were fishing on the shores of Galilee and Jesus was walking along the beach. He said to these men that he had just met, "Come follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people." And I thought about that and it stuck with me. I thought to myself, "You mean, Jesus can walk up to someone and say, 'Hey, I know that's what you're doing for a living, but if you come follow me, I can help you catch people instead of fish.'" To me, people's lives matter a lot more than fish, so that's how I came up with the name “Hookers For Jesus.” What it means is we fish for people that need help. Not everyone is gonna tell you they need help. Sex trafficking victims don't always tell you and a lot of us lie. For years, we lie. We say we love our lifestyle, we say our boyfriend is not a pimp, we lie and say he lets us keep all the money and the thing is is that if you don't go looking for the victim, you're not going to find her. She's not just gonna drop in your lap. So that's my whole idea behind the fishing for souls that are in need of help. They are drowning in the system of the sex industry.
Within Hookers For Jesus, there’s a place called “Destiny House,” which serves as a kind of safe house for women coming out of sex trafficking. When did you first come up with the idea?
I came up with the idea in 2007, because I had nowhere to bring the girls at the time. Often, girls were coming to my house and sleeping on my couch, since I started the Hookers For Jesus outreach to the sex trafficking victims on the Las Vegas strip in 2005. I was continually putting the girls in hotels. I was giving them gift cards. I was making sure they had their rent paid. Whatever was happening in their lives to get them out of the lifestyle, I was there for them. I thought to myself, "A lot of the help I'm giving is really hard to monitor without a full-fledged team," and I, of course, could not afford to hire a bunch of people. That’s when I thought of having a home that could be opened to watch over each lady for a year to help get her life on track. That way she could be sober and monitored. She could go through intense spiritual, emotional, mental and physical healing. We do all of those aspects at Destiny House.
The entire mission behind Hookers For Jesus and Destiny House is just to hook ladies out of sex trafficking. Help them transition out of their lifestyle and heal [them] with the love of God and our services. Helping them, showing them we care and giving them a new hope for their future. They can look back and not regret what's happened to them and decide to take what they've been through and make it into something that they use to help other people. Aside from Destiny House, we have many different services. One is K.I.S.S., which stands for “Keeping Innocent Sisters Safe.” That is a preventative program. Letting people know this is what's happening to us and how to prevent it. We also have Saturday Night Love, which is our outreach on the Las Vegas strip with gift bags. And then we have Ladies of Destiny, which is our self-help classes and a support group that we have for women that are currently in the sex industry and being trafficked.
Let’s go back a bit to your time working as a professional escort and prostitute for 16 years. How did you first get into the life? And what kind of influences do you think were at play?
Well, the first 10 years that I was in it, I had two different pimps. I came into the sex industry as a very happy person excited for life. I was a go-getter. I wanted to go to college. But that idea quickly changed after I started strip dancing in Minneapolis. I was struggling to make more money, because I did start working as an escort first. I was actually a streetwalker in Hawaii for the first part of me working, because my girlfriend and I had met these two pimps in a club and they showed us the trade. Basically, we didn't know they were pimps. They showed her the trade and she called me up and said that she wanted me to come to Hawaii. That's how I learned to do this. So I came back to Minnesota after working on the street in Hawaii, and we're not talking about $50-$100 tricks. We're talking $500-$2,000 a person. It was very high-end and I wouldn't have done it any other way…I came back to Minnesota completely corrupted in my mind, because now I had figured out how to make really good money. I had three jobs. I was working at a pizza parlor, a Japanese restaurant and I was also working full-time at IDS Financial… I quit all of my jobs and I started working the escort services in Minnesota. I had a couple close calls of men trying to kill me. I didn't have a pimp yet, by the way. I quit and I started working at the strip club. I thought to myself, "If I work at the strip club, I don't need to prostitute myself. I can make enough money." But the money's not as good when you sell yourself, even though it's the same thing almost. A man is paying to watch you dance and you're taking your clothes off. This man walked into the strip club and he was a debonair, dashing beautiful man. He swept me off my feet and the rest is history. They call this the grooming period. He made me feel like I was the only girl in the world. I loved him with all my heart. I had the idea to come to Las Vegas because my girlfriend had moved from Hawaii to Las Vegas and said, "Hey, the money is really good here." So I moved to Las Vegas with him. It was just supposed to be for a couple months. The first night that I worked, I found out that my boyfriend was actually a sex trafficker. He beat the living daylights out of me.
It's all written about in my book. It's called "Fallen: Out Of the Sex Industry and Into the Arms of A Savior." So basically that was my working name. I picked that name because that's the name from the show, Dynasty. It was the character Fallen York. That character was high class. She had an Irish or English accent. She was very sophisticated and wealthy and I admired her. I wanted the men I was seeing in the different rooms in the hotels to believe that I was worth every dime that I was asking for and demanding. If I walked into a room and they said, "I want you here for an hour." I'd get my agency fee which is $250 and I would tell them, "Okay, you want a full hour? It's $2,000." That's if the man had nice loafers on and a Rolex watch. I would quote as high as I could. I would check out the food he ordered me, if he ordered Dom Perignon or Cristal - I could tell how much money he had. If there was any random chips lying around the bed table, I would say, "Hey, it's $5,000 for a couple hours, you wanna go?" Some men would talk us down to $500 an hour or $1000 an hour. That's above and beyond the agency fee. So that was my cut. Unfortunately, I didn't get anything because when I got home, my pimp beat every single dollar out of me. That happened on a routine basis - every night I had to break myself to him and if I got out of line, I got beat. He brought home underage girls. Girls that were 13, 14, 15 years old that he had taken from different parts of the U.S. and once I found out how old they were I would freak out, and then I would get beat up and I would run them off and help them escape. Even back then, back in the 80s and 90s, I had some sort of moral code going on in my heart.
You touched on the physical dangers of being in the life, but can you elaborate on the emotional and mental repercussions?
That lifestyle was horrendously abusive. I had severe PTSD. I didn't eat very much. I was anorexic when I was with my pimp. I probably ate every couple of days because of the fear inside of me. I always feared being fat as well. I had a lot of problems with my self-image. I never thought I was pretty enough. I had daddy issues… I never felt loved and that's how easy I was prey to this man, because I craved a man's attention so I gave it to him. I gave him whatever he wanted. I was his slave. I wanted to escape so many times, and I did actually, but then he kidnapped me back. I laugh right now, but it was utter hell.
Do you think one can ever truly heal from something like this? Have you healed?
I would say, from my past, I have healed to the extent that I can help others out of this. Is there some residual? Of course. There's always a little bit left over to remind me that I could never forget where I come from. I could never be above anyone else. I always need to remain teachable and understand the women and be relatable to them. I think the most important piece of healing is knowing that you're absolutely forgiven. That you are absolutely loved my God. By others. And it doesn't matter where you've been, but that now you're here and now you're moving forward. I think the pinnacle moment in my healing was forgiving myself for what I had done with my life. That in itself changed me more than anything else was to love myself. When we don't love ourselves, we sell ourselves. We give ourselves away even cheaply to people. To our jobs, romantic partners and our families… So have I healed 100 percent? I don't think anyone will, but I have a very strong heart that I know I'm gonna be helping others for the rest of my life. This is my calling. I love these women… I know that they can get out of this just like I did and help others just like me. It takes a huge heart and person to turn a trick. It takes a lot of guts. It's horrific. If someone can do that, they can get out of the darkness and come into the light, and see the stuff they've been through will never be wasted.
Looking into the future, what more can we expect to see from you and Hookers For Jesus? Is there a next step for the organization?
I would love to write a second book of daily devotionals for people that are coming out of this. So when they wake up, they can say, "I can make it. I can do this." That's one of the projects. I'm also working on getting a second Destiny House. What I'm doing right now is duplicable. I've gotten this program to a place where we can teach other people. We can find people in other cities that would like to open up a office of Hookers For Jesus and Destiny House. Start small and get the office going, get the outreach going, and then scout for homes in other cities because I truly believe that the girls trust our name. They know that this is a survivor-led non-profit. And that's the strength in itself to see a woman that's already been there, coming out of this and leading others out of the darkness.
“Sex Slaves: Vegas Escorts” airs Sunday, June 28th at 10 p.m. E.T.