For years, Annie Lobert lived in Satan’s fiery fast lane, making up to $500 an hour turning tricks. Now she’s changed teams with her own mission impossible: bringing salvation to prostitutes in the heart of Las Vegas.
By Harmon Leon
The church service is Vegas-style. Purple lights spin in retro seventies circles. Videos. A rock band on the pulpit. Everyone’s on their feet and clapping. Starr*—a 19-year-old ex-prostitute with her hands in the air—sings her heart out with the choir. It’s a Saturday night and the spiritual joint is packed. Things are going down. It’s plain rowdy. Maybe in Sin City there are so many wrong paths to take that more souls need to be saved.
“Are you scared yet?” Annie Lobert whispers.
“No. Why?” I ask.
“You’re sitting in church with a row of hookers,” she jokes.
Some have arrived late. (“Sex workers are independent and are used to keeping their own schedules.”) Others don’t show up at all because they’re working the street. Leaning over, Annie fills me in on Houston—the gorgeous blonde sitting next to me. “We used to work together,” she says. “Our pimps were friends.” A red-haired woman dressed in black passes by and says a warm hello. Annie whispers, “She used to be a sex worker, too. Now she has a good job with a hotel.”
For the past three years Hookers for Jesus has been a part of the Church at South Las Vegas. Annie tried to launch her ex-prostitute ministry at several other churches, but they weren’t the right fit—in fact, some were downright shocked.
“This church really embraced the ministry,” Annie declares as the congregation is engaged in song. “Pastor Benny and his wife, Wendy, have a huge heart for prostitutes.”
Raised in Minnesota as a churchgoing Goody Two-shoes, Annie’s life changed when she was “turned out” into the sex industry at the age of 18 after a chance encounter with a pimp. (“He was the only person who said he loved me,” she says.) For 11 years, Annie worked as a high-priced escort living in Satan’s fiery fast lane. She made up to $500 an hour turning tricks, cavorting with celebrities, and hobnobbing with shady drug dealers. A lethal combination of the lifestyle and addiction to every vice known to humanity proved her downfall.
By 2004, Annie was a drug addict living in her car. Her moment of clarity came with a shocking jolt: She overdosed on cocaine and suffered a massive heart attack. As everything turned black, Annie looked again toward Jesus for guidance. (“During the time I was a prostitute I thought God hated me.”) As she began turning her life around, she formed Hookers for Jesus to bring salvation to others.
*All names except Annie Lobert, Oz Fox, and Pastor Benny and Wendy Perez have been changed.
“People in my past said I’d be nothing but a hooker for the rest of my life, ” she says, regarding the name. Her mission is to prove them wrong—about herself and others—by getting prostitutes off the streets and hooked on church. Resurrected as a woman of faith, Annie not only found God, but also Oz Fox—the guitarist from the spandex-clad eighties Christian metal band Stryper. The two were married in June and now happily abide by the biblical injunction of one man, one woman.
In the Church at South Las Vegas, live sheep (symbolizing those who have gone astray) are now on the pulpit in cages. “The hired hand runs away from the sheep ’cause he’s only in it for the money,” preaches Pastor Benny Perez—the amiable church leader with an offbeat sense of humor. The sheep proceed to heckle Pastor Benny.
Pintsize Destiny, who is very pregnant with her pimp’s baby, listens intently to his words. Roxy—a big-boned woman with angular, penciled-in eyebrows—keeps checking her text messages during the sermon.
“How many people here are involved in the sex industry?” Pastor Benny asks the congregation. All hands in my vicinity go up. He directs his attention toward us: “Annie Lobert, one of the top call girls in the valley—her name in the industry was ‘Fallen.’ If I can save Annie Lobert I can save anyone!” He challenges the congregation: “Don’t clean up first. No, come to Christ and he changes your nature from the inside!”
“Look at Janice wearing those hooker shoes,” Annie jokes with churchgoers after the service. I’m only a little uncomfortable as she introduces me: “This is Harmon from Penthouse.”
Houston looks as if she was inspired by the service. “I used to think, When I get myself together I’ll come. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. But it was killing me. I had to be whacked-out drunk to work.” Houston recalls lap dancing and giving “extras” on the side. “I’d be making $3,000 a weekend—now I’m broke as a joke but I’m happy. And I’m peaceful. Now I just want to find a good guy.”
As the spiritually charged begin to thin out into the warm Vegas night, Pastor Benny says, “As far as we know, we’re the only church in the valley to have a house for ex-prostitutes. ‘Hookers for Jesus’—that would scare a lot of pastors.”
True. Some Christian fire-and-brimstoners relish slamming Annie. One website trumpets such comments as: “They don’t believe in the Bible about hell, God’s wrath, judgment, and repentance, they believe in a false God of their own making to suit themselves. Looks like a hooker, talks like a hooker, walks like a hooker, umm? That is NOT GOOD work, Hookers for Jesus.”
“They’re weirdos who bash other Christians,” Annie says. “They say we’re false prophets.”
But that doesn’t faze her because, as she explains, “they don’t believe in Jesus in his true form, which is nonjudgmental, loving, and full of grace.”
Before we depart, Pastor Benny summarizes his mission: “If you can do it for those four girls, you can do it for another four. Our church can spark other churches to open up a home—little by little we’re seeing girls’ lives change.” He stresses, “It’s not like Pretty Woman.”
A short time later, we pull up to a “safe house” run by the church, located in a quiet, nondescript suburban neighborhood. It’s home to three exprostitutes and their kids—two women who’ve had their pimps’ babies, and a third who is going through rehab.
“When a girl leaves a pimp she loses everything,” Annie explains. She believes prostitution is the same as human sex trafficking because of the pimp’s powerful role. Sonja, who has two toddlers to support, went from a hooker’s income to minimum wage working at a coffee shop. Since these girls are coming out of intense situations, Annie wanted to create a safe community for them to go to for counseling and to find support once they escape the industry.
“She’s been there with all that. She’s one who can reach girls on the street,” Stryper hubby Oz Fox comments. He explains his role: “Annie and I are role models of what true love should be like, because all the girls have ever known are pimps.”
Inside the comfortable duplex are scattered baby toys, finger paintings hung on the refrigerator,
and playful little kids. Sonja’s daughter has a really bad cough. Everyone stands around eating pizza. “You’ll be there in the delivery room, right?” Destiny asks with childlike innocence while holding her bulging belly. Annie assures her she will.
While we’re on tonight’s outreach, Starr is going to babysit. She and Annie were recently on the “Sixteen and Stripping” episode of The Tyra Banks Show, explaining, “In some states you can be a stripper at 16 just as long as you are home by 11 P.M.” They took sides against a cocky 18-year-old stripper who told Tyra she enjoyed the lifestyle. “I do a lot better on a pole than in school,” the girl said.
On casino outreaches Annie likes to dress stylishly. She doesn’t want to put off girls by looking like a frumpy church lady. “It makes me realistic to the girls,” Annie says. “It’s who I am.” Making it an extra-special outreach night, today is also Annie’s 42nd birthday. “I want to spend my birthday giving back to the girls,” she says. “Jesus gave his time, and I want to do the same.” In the driveway, Annie opens the trunk of her black car. Inside are dozens of decorated gift bags they’ll hand out to the working girls in the casinos—colorful and neatly wrapped, filled with such niceties as lip moisturizer, vanilla body spray, lotion, a scented candle, perfumes, an invitation to church, and, of course, a Bible.
“Girlie stuff,” Annie says. “It’s everything they need so they can later take a bath and read the Bible!”
Before leaving, Starr leads a prayer for the girls by the kitchen table. As we pull out of the quiet suburban neighborhood, the women fall back into their tough-talking, street-smart personas.
“What are the girls up to?” Roxy asks, eyeing a prostitute working the quiet Henderson main road.
“This is the new track,” Annie explains. “Remember, we saw some hookers here the other night.”
There’s talk of going to a truck stop overrun by underage hookers. It’s vetoed due to pimps possessive of their commodities.
Roxy mentions a recent encounter with a 21-year-old pimp who ended up harassing them for more than an hour. “He was like, ‘What’s you all doing? What’s up? What’s up? You know what time it is? It’s pimp time!’ ”
That episode ended peacefully, maybe because of the pimp’s choice of drug: “We could tell he was rolling off ecstasy—his eyes were black.” Still, “It’s really not advisable to get mouthy to a pimp,” Roxy says. “They can pull out a gun or knife or throw you down to the floor.”
I fall silent. The flashing casino lights are nearing. HOT BABES CALL 24 HOURS. DIRECT TO YOU! reads the billboard pulled by a truck down Las Vegas Boulevard. The women talk about shoes—“What kind of heels are you wearing?”—and the money they once made inside these casinos.
“I’ve been eighty-sixed from every hotel on the Strip,” Annie proclaims. She recalls being kicked out by security in front of the Wizard of Oz shop while drunk and high on coke—breaking down at the sight of her favorite childhood movie.
“If security catches us, we’ll get kicked out for soliciting our gifts,” Annie says inside one casino’s parking garage. We unload gift bags into an inconspicuous sack as she plans our strategy: “We won’t stay in one place very long.”
Large, round-bellied tourists pull at levers like Pavlovian zombies questing biscuits of clanking gratification. Leering drunk men stare as we pass. “We got you, Harmon—you’re with three Hookers for Jesus!” Annie playfully declares as we troll the slot-machine area.
Roxy eyes the casino crowd for possible targets. “Lately, everyone looks like they’re ho-ing,” she says about the fashion sense of the typical Vegas reveler.
“Is that one?” I ask, pointing to a casino worker dressed as a showgirl.
Annie mentions that 90 percent of prostitutes are undercover escorts who bypass the casinos and instead go directly to the hotel rooms. “Some nights we’ll see 40 girls. Some nights we’ll see only three,” she says.
“Have you ever approached the wrong person?” I ask, passing a flow of trashy tourists who my untrained eye would peg as prostitutes.
“Usually we’re dead-on,” Annie says, “but these outreaches are unpredictable. Sometimes the girls are very responsive. Sometimes nothing.” She gives me an example of a “nonresponsive” response: “ ‘F you, you f-ing bitch. I’m not working.’ That for sure means they are working. Some girls don’t want to admit it. It hurts their egos.” Example: “I’m not a hooker!” Annie states that definitely means she is a hooker.
Sonja announces she’s found a possible target.
“Which girl are you talking about?”
She indicates a curly-haired woman wearing a short, tight, pink dress sitting at a slot machine and raising her eyebrows every time a man passes. She looks beat.
“How can you be sure?” I ask.
“She’s waiting on her own with a sense of purpose,” Annie explains.
Yes, the Cinderella pump fits the foot. Without hesitation Annie approaches. Friendly conversation ensues. More conversation. Smiles. A gift bag is handed over. Moments later, the hooker disappears into the melee of drunken tourists, roulette wheels, and the world of tricks and johns.
“I just told her God loves her,” Annie tells me.
“And that’s good news. And he really does. And if God loves her, then she doesn’t have to do this.”
“Do you think she’ll come to church?”
“I think so. She looked worn out.”
A drunken bachelorette party passes. One woman sports a paper hat with the word WHORE blazed in marker with an arrow pointing down. Another hat proclaims I SWALLOW.
Annie is suddenly recognized by a clean-cut guy handing out promotional cards for a bar.
“Oh, my God, you’re the Hookers for Jesus girl!” he exclaims. “My wife was in jail and you guys gave her one of your cards. You said you’d pray for her.”
A prostitute who looks like an R. Crumb cartoon walks by and gets the reaction, “That’s old school. She has it all hanging out. She’s 1999.”
“Look at her, she’s totally working it,” Annie says, pointing out a young hooker sitting by the beer-pong tables with two guys—laughing uproariously at everything they say. “She’s green, too. Look how she’s acting.”
Another creature in his natural habitat: “There’s a pimp right there!” Annie exclaims. The shark circles the trick pool with a jacket over his shoulder. Mere moments later, another spotting: “Roxy said that’s a pimp she knows named Marvin.” Annie gestures to a black guy in a white suit and Kangol hat who casually chats to one of his ho’s. It’s beginning to feel like something out of the Book of Revelations. Nearby, more ho-spotting. A hooker flirts with an excited Asian guy on a bar stool. “She’s working it. She’s working that guy.”
“Are you going to move in with a gift bag?”
“If a girl is with a client you don’t want to wreck her game. She’ll just get pissed off and say, ‘Why are you trying to mess up my money?’ ”
“You don’t want to wreck what she’s doing,” Roxy adds. “Maybe she’s got a quota.”
A stunning blonde in a short, tight, purple dress with reddish-brown streaks in her hair struts toward the bar. I can firmly say she’s got all the classic hooker traits. Annie immediately engages her. They connect. They laugh. Hair tips seem to be traded. After a few minutes Annie brings her over. “She’s a police officer in Sweden!”
“I’m here for the body-building convention!” the woman says, still laughing. “In Sweden we arrest the johns to crack down on the demand,” she explains.
After the hooker cop leaves, Annie tells me the Swede had whispered to her: “Come and party with me tonight. I’ll make you smile!”
Though it seems pretty ho-packed to me, by one in the morning Sonja thinks we might as well leave. “It’s a slow night,” she says. As we go, Roxy points out a stocky undercover vice cop alone at the bar, nursing a drink. “They always look a little too clean-cut,” she says. “Or they try to look touristy but not touristy.”
Apparently he’s done his work. Outside, the Metro Police—sporting bright yellow jackets—have detained two very young prostitutes. They stand with their arms folded looking both pissed off and like they’re about to burst into little-girl tears.
“Why did they stop these two when the whole Strip is swarming with prostitutes?” I ask.
“They just rolled someone maybe?” Annie hypothesizes. “Or, possibly, security sees them every night for two weeks coming and going, riding up and down the elevator all night. They’re just harassing them.”
With a glint in her eye, Annie remembers her first outreaches. “When I used to do this by myself, it was crazy because I had no one to protect me.” She looks toward the young prostitutes, perhaps seeing a younger incarnation of herself. “I just wanted to save them.”