When you meet Cecil Suwal, you’d never guess that the 27-year-old Harrison native was a felon. She’s pretty, well-spoken, and graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University; she plans to get a PhD. But she and her then-boyfriend, now husband, Mark Brener, 65, were both sent to prison for running the Emperors Club VIP, the escort service that brought down Eliot Spitzer.
Suwal pleaded guilty in 2009 to money laundering, conspiracy, and conspiring to promote prostitution and served six months in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. (Brener was sentenced to 30 months.) “Prison was extremely difficult,” she says. “We lost everything. But I can’t necessarily say I regret it, as it has helped us grow up in ways that we wouldn’t have had if we were still living the life we were living before.”
After a brief return to Westchester post-prison, Suwal and Brener are reunited, married, and together have written a self-help book, The Science of Activating Your Supreme Power, and founded a website theoneworld initiative.com, They’ll also be teaching a personal-growth class at The Learning Annex in Manhattan. We asked Suwal about her experiences.
How did you meet Mark Brener? When I was younger, I used to watch Desperately Seeking Susan all the time. The heroine communicated through personal ads. I found that really romantic. That’s what made me respond to an ad I saw when I was eighteen years old. At first, Mark didn’t pay much attention to me because I was much younger. Then I went back to the University of Miami, and we started dating when I got back the next summer, when I was nineteen.
What was your reaction when Mark told you he was running an escort service? Did you have any reservations about working there yourself? Conceptually, for me, an escort service is okay—a prostitution ring is not. An escort service is designed to fulfill needs like having a date on the town, traveling together, and going to dinners and shows. That idea seemed perfectly legitimate and fun in my eyes.
Were you worried that Mark was also a patron? Not in the least. He was always the most caring, accepting, sweetest boyfriend I’ve ever had, which is why we ultimately married.
What did you do for the Emperors Club VIP? I, along with Mark, oversaw all aspects of the business. This means marketing the Emperors Club, assessing the women who wanted to work with us, and overseeing the bookers. Many of the escorts were fashion models that you’d see in Vogue in Italy, France, or Japan, or university students going to top-rated universities, and the clients had an average asset value of more than one billion dollars, so it didn’t seem sleazy or wrong. We were trying to help them, in our own way.
How did you believe you were helping them? Some of the women were PhD candidates. A lot of them were fashion models. What they did may not have paid much. So they came to us. For the most part, we served upscale gentlemen who were harmless, so they knew they were safe.
The girls who worked with the service sound very impressive—how did you find them? Was there a screening process? We marketed and advertised Emperors Club primarily online. Many actively sought us out online. Everyone met with a representative of our company in person. They also signed agreements stating that they would not engage in any illegal behavior while working—but the whole thing evidently spun out of control, as it did with the scandal.
How did you feel when the Eliot Spitzer scandal came to light and you were arrested? I have never been more afraid in my life. I did anything I could to keep my mind off of the case, which was looming above my head like a cloud.
What can you tell us about Spitzer? Pretty much all of our other customers openly worked with us. The fact that he didn’t do this differentiated him from the others.
Are you angry that Spitzer didn’t have to go to prison and you did? While I don’t think I experienced overt anger, I do think that the way that the events panned out are a reflection of our society.
What was prison like? Prison was the absolute most difficult time period in my life. I was isolated from the rest of the world, isolated from my family. I had to leave my school, leave my entire life and everyone I loved.
And now you’re married? Mark wanted to marry me before. I wasn’t ready. Being separated from him made me realize I was ready to marry him. Being away from him meant that I experienced life without him, and I could say that I preferred life with him to life without him.
How did your previous experiences inform the book you’ve written? We wanted to write a personal-growth book. Mark and I were always trying to help people, though, clearly, the vehicle we were using wasn’t a good idea.