When “Hustlers” hit the big screen, all eyes were on Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez. Audiences flocked to cinemas to see the film about the famed crew of female sex workers who devised the notorious scheme to drug and swindle Wall Street big shots out of hundreds of thousands. It’s a story that centers on sisterhood united by a criminal enterprise. The “modern Robin Hood story,” as dubbed by the Cut, appears far too wild to be true, and yet, it was.
Roselyn Keo lived the life of Constance Wu’s on-screen character. She was also among the real-life group of New York City strippers who resorted to scamming men out of hundreds of thousands of dollars when business ran dry during the 2008 Financial Crisis.
“I enjoyed the film. I think Constance, Jennifer, and Lorene [Scafaria, director] did a great job,” Roselyn told me. As the real-life source material for the film, she rubbed shoulders with Hollywood A-listers involved in the project.
“The movie did a good job of highlighting aspects of the strip club business that aren’t typically explored in the film, from teamwork and sisterhood to deeper themes that reveal the humanity of the women who take these jobs. This includes the struggles of a single mom, and what kind of behaviors greed and desperation can lead to,” she said.
However, as “Hustlers” was inspired by her life, not directly based on it, filmmakers certainly took some liberties to ensure the film’s popularity in Hollywood — a consequence Roselyn was fully aware of.
“That’s why I wrote the book,” she told me, referring to her own retelling of the events that led to her 2014 arrest. “I saw it as an opportunity to tell my truth.”
“It was a cathartic experience, bringing back feelings and memories I realized I had buried.”
“The Sophisticated Hustler”
was Roselyn’s chance to take over the narrative and address certain elements the film failed to explore — including her identity as an Asian American sex worker.
“Being an Asian woman in this industry definitely had its advantages — in some ways, it put the ‘exotic’ in exotic dancer, which gave me an edge at times and helped me build confidence in my job. But it also created distance between me and other Asians and Asian Americans.”
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“This is an important notion and something the movie didn’t really explore at all,” she commented. “So many of us seek out success in white-collar fields like medicine and law. My path was less conventional, and the pressure of defying those stereotypes is something I still deal with to this day.”
As for the overarching storyline regarding the scam she helped to devise, it played out similarly in real life to how it was portrayed on screen.
The scheme was relatively simple — the women developed a “drug cocktail” made up of MDMA and Ketamine; a mixture that kept the clients happy while also, conveniently, blurring their memories.
After adding just a sprinkle of this concoction to their victims’ drinks, the women were on their way to luring these unsuspecting men back to the strip club where the group would run up an immense bill on their credit cards.
The plan seemed foolproof as Roselyn and the other women targeted a known list of wealthy, high-profile, and often married men who were likely to keep silent over fears of their families or colleagues discovering where they had been.
Until, of course, it all fell apart. Dr. Zyad Kivarkis Younan went public with his story after being charged $135,000 to his credit card and as he would later discover, he was not alone.
While Roselyn was more careful in choosing her catch of the night and the way she operated, some of the other women were reckless. After some time, the police were able to piece the puzzle together.
Soon, the charges piled up — forgery, conspiracy, grand larceny, assault. All of the women pleaded guilty, with two of them serving weekends in jail, and the ringleader of the scheme, Samantha Barbash, receiving five years probation. Roselyn, who pleaded guilty to attempted assault and grand larceny, managed to avoid spending any time behind bars.
“I’ve had very little contact with anyone involved in a long time,” she admitted.
“It’s unfortunate that Samantha isn’t happy about [the movie], but everyone is entitled to feel how they feel,”
she said referring to the alleged mastermind behind the real “Hustlers” scheme. Samantha Barbash has been in the spotlight once more after recently stepping forward to publicly accuse the film of defamation and to sue Jennifer Lopez over her portrayal of the character Ramona.
Over a decade has passed since Roselyn’s days of hustling as a single mother and exotic dancer. The Roselyn Keo today is a completely different woman to what we see in “Hustlers.”
“Dancing is not as glamorous as it seems, it can be a smokescreen,” she said. “For many years, I was lacking self-love, relying on money, cars and designer clothes to make me feel special. Even when I had it all, it was never enough, because I didn’t truly love myself.”
By all means, Roselyn has had a complicated introduction to life which she believes set her on the path of becoming an exotic dancer. She was the child of Cambodian refugees, and while she was still young, her parents took off, leaving her and her brother to be raised by their elderly grandparents.
She later dropped out of school at age 17, working at a diner to help support her family. When her meager salary proved to be inadequate, Roselyn lied about her age and began stripping at a gentlemen’s club next door.
“I also felt completely taken advantage of by men,” she explained. “I was fed up. Little by little, I lost myself, and eventually started doing things I thought I’d never do.”
“When I got in trouble and left the business, the people who I thought would be there for me disappeared. It took time, but I realized all I needed were my fiancé, my daughter and myself. I hope that the lessons I learned can help others lacking self-love to find it.”
Today she’s hoping to use her experiences as a cautionary tale for women who are vulnerable of falling prey to the allure of material possessions while also focusing on the things that bring her the most personal joy, “The four Fs: family, fitness, food, and football, in that order,” she told me.
“My biggest focus is on being the best mother possible for my daughter and giving her the upbringing I would have wanted. For everything unfortunate I went through as a child, I learned from it. It’s made me into the strong woman I am today. I just keep looking forward and staying positive.”
With the launch of her book and being a full-time mother, Roselyn has plenty of things to keep her busy these days.
“In 2020, I’ll have the chance to spread my message further and help other women with stories similar to mine, from being their voice to guiding them to finding their own,” she said.
“Whether they’re sex workers or not, this is a platform everyone needs.”