R.I.P. Lisa Lopes aka Left Eye Of TLC, check out some of her last footage ever seen. Be sure to tune in tonight for the World Premier of Crazy se*y Cool on VH1 at 9PM.
In the four years before she was tragically killed in a car accident, TLC’s Lisa Lopes repeatedly jetted to Honduras to visit a “healer” who says he can cure everything from AIDS to maladies of the soul. Rachael Combe goes in search of what she discovered.
Three weeks after rapper Lisa Lopes’s death, the Usha Healing Village near La Ceiba, Honduras, where Lopes and twelve friends were staying, is a ghost town. The retreat, owned and operated by Honduran herbal “healer” Alfredo Bowman, a.k.a. Dr. Sebi, and his wife, Maä, has become more eerie than peaceful—a David Lynch movie set in Central America. The fifteen pink-and-white tile-roofed shacks that make up the village’s guest quarters sit jaunty and quaint as ever under the unfailingly azure sky. A hammock still sways invitingly in one of the shady thatched pavilions used for exercise and relaxation.
But there are no guests to speak of. Open cabin after cabin, and all you find is evidence of hasty departures: a yoga mat left in a dusty heap; a discarded CD player; big suitcases that were perhaps just too unwieldy to deal with in a moment of panic and grief. In Cabin 11, the entire room has been left intact. It’s more luxuriously decorated than the other shacks, with a firm double mattress on a carved wooden bedstead rather than insti*utional twin beds. Someone has dangled mobiles of shells and beads from the ceiling, placed scented candles around the room, brought in a fancifully painted wooden chair. A plastic bag holds a new box of shoes. While the walls elsewhere are white, here they’re bubble-gum pink. And in gold paint over the bed, there is a stencil of a huge, stylized eye. A left eye.
On April 25, Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes and nine others, including her younger sister, Raina, the four members of a new musical group Lopes was mentoring called Egypt, and a video team, were in her rented Mitsubishi Montero, headed to visit some children in a nearby village. Lisa was driving, and sped up into the left-hand lane to pass a car, only to see a truck barreling directly toward them. She slammed on the brakes, swerved farther to the left, and the SUV toppled into a ditch, hitting two trees and flipping several times. Miraculously, all her passengers escaped with only minor injuries. Lisa, however, was killed instantly by a massive blow to the head.
When the news hit the United States, it carried with it testimonies from Hondurans about Lisa’s good works in the country and references to her guru, Dr. Sebi, and the simple, healthy lifestyle he espoused. While it was shocking and saddening to hear about a young, talented life snuffed out so randomly, there was also an intriguing stranger-than-fiction element to the story: What in the world was a notoriously high-flying, fast-living hip-hop artist doing playing Lady Bountiful in a custom-outfitted hut in nowheresville Honduras?
A HEALER WHO CAN REGENERATE LOST LIMBS? Early in the morning following Dr. Sebi’s arrival in Honduras a few weeks after the accident (he was in Los Angeles when Lopes was killed), he is talking so loudly, so vehemently—so angrily?—to his wife that you can hear him from almost any point on Usha’s several acres. But when they emerge from their cottage for breakfast, there are no signs of discord. And as he tucks into the morning meal—watermelon, grapes, a cup of “bitters,” and a sea-moss, almond, and mineral-water smoothie (a recipe for which can be found on Lopes’s official Web site, www.eyenetics.com, although, be warned, it did not look or smell very inviting)—Sebi begins to expound on his theories with the same preacher’s cadence and to-the-back-pews voice he used with Maä. But now, somehow, the shouting sounds good-natured. Perhaps it’s because every few seconds the sixty-eight-year-old’s face crinkles up with merriment at one of his own jokes and he giggles a “tee-hee-hee,” his long, spidery fingers flying up over his eyes like a mischievous little boy’s. Perhaps it’s because of his astonishing candor—within an hour of meeting me, he’s given a detailed account of his commitment to a mental insti*ution for paranoid schizophrenia in 1962 and of the murder and incest accusations recently brought against him in Honduras by the mother of a child he fathered out of wedlock (he says he was exonerated, and the woman only did it as a ploy to get him to leave Maä). Or perhaps it’s just because he’s so complimentary and solicitous—telling me, repeatedly, that I am beautiful, brave, and a host of all the other Katharine Hepburn*esque attributes I’d love to believe I possess. The man has charisma.
And, like most gurus, Sebi—which means “ever-changing traveler” in, he says, “some language I don’t know about”—has his own story of trial and redemption: At thirty, after a stint in the merchant marines, where he was trained as a steam engineer (Sebi grew up near Usha, and has no formal education), he was carrying 290 pounds on his now lanky, six-foot-two-inch frame. Along with the schizophrenia, he’d been diagnosed with diabetes, he says. He was impotent, his eyesight was failing, and he was suffering from asthma. He was doing too many drugs, mostly cocaine and marijuana. So, in a last-ditch attempt to clean up his act, he visited a Mexican healer, and ate nothing but water, herbs, and orange juice for ninety days. By the end, he says, he was cured of all of his maladies, schizophrenia included—and an idea was born: He knew from his experience with steam engines that blockages were the enemy. What if the food he’d been ingesting had been harming his body the way impure water might an engine?
He began to research folk healing and herbs, traveling, he says, all over the world: Africa, Europe, and Asia. He concluded that we are all ruining our mental and physical health, creating “mucus blockages” by eating domesticated crops (as opposed to naturally occurring plants), sugar, alcohol, and other acidic foods. He came to believe that people who aren’t of European descent should avoid dairy products, and that almost no one should eat meat. He decided that we don’t really need protein, vitamins, and all the other claptrap the U.S. government’s nutrition experts are always going on about; just minerals, and he cooked up his own line of “plant food supplements” to supply them. Soon, he began to treat patients in Los Angeles, and opened centers in Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Miami, New York, Atlanta, and, of course, Honduras. The more diseases he cured with the diet, he says, the more certain he became that he’d found the silver bullet for psoriasis, AIDS, cancer, Parkinson’s, sickle-cell anemia, alcoholism, mental illness, and so on. Sebi says that African dignitaries and African-American celebrities such as Denzel Washington, Cicely Tyson, and members of Eddie Murphy’s family came calling, though Murphy’s publicist wouldn’t talk about the star’s family, and neither Washington nor Tyson responded to a request for comment. In all seriousness, Sebi says that the Middle East conflict could be resolved if only the combatants would stop eating so much baklava and lamb kabobs. Just about the only condition he can’t improve, he says, is a lost limb. “But I don’t know if that’s true, either. How many years has it been since we’ve been eating acid foods? At least 6,000,” he says, musing that perhaps people back then could regenerate arms and legs. And pointing out that anthropologists think humans led short, brutish, undernourished lives thousands of years ago does nothing to shake his conviction: He’ll only smirk and tell you, conspiratorially, “That’s what they say.”
THE “CRAZY” IN CRAZYse*YCOOL The first time Sebi met Lopes in person was in Honduras, after she’d consulted with him over the phone at an acquaintance’s suggestion. Sebi says that the two clicked immediately: “Sebi was out of balance forty years ago. Lisa Lopes was out of balance four years ago.” Indeed, in the decades since TLC’s first release, Ooooooohhh . . . on the TLC Tip, in 1992, Lopes, who would have been thirty-one on Memorial Day, had established a reputation as the “crazy” part of Crazyse*yCool (TLC’s Grammy-winning 1994 release), as she very publicly battled alcoholism; the other members of TLC (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas); her on-again, off-again lover, former Atlanta Falcon Andre Rison; bankruptcy; and her record labels. In the most famous incident from her boozing-and-brawling days, she was arrested for burning down Rison’s $1.3 million Atlanta home when she set fire to sneakers he’d just bought (it was reported she was furious that he hadn’t bought a pair for her, too). Rison declined to press criminal charges, and Lopes was fined and sentenced to a month-long alcohol treatment program.
Her childhood had been no less tumultuous. Lopes’s father, Ronald, an Army officer and amateur musician, was also an alcoholic and abusive toward his family. Once, when her mother left her father, Lisa told a newspaper reporter, her father terrorized her and her two siblings into staying behind, then spent the night with a knife on his chest. On August 16, 1991, the day TLC signed their first deal with the record label LaFace, her father was shot and killed in an argument.
Lopes and her group suffered the typical growing pains of sudden stardom. Their original contract with LaFace was so unfavorable, they said, they had to file for bankruptcy in 1995, even as Crazyse*yCool went platinum. The band had squabbled about creative control, but Lopes’s first solo album, Supernova, recorded for Arista, was released in Europe last year to disappointing sales. The U.S. debut was delayed indefinitely, leading Lopes to work with Marion “Suge” Knight’s Tha Row Records on her second solo effort, after she had a dream telling her to contact Knight.
But, despite all the drama, Sebi says Lisa’s only real problem was alcohol and the psychopharmaceuticals prescribed for her. “But what did she do? She cut it short,” he says. “How many people could do that?” According to Sebi, Lopes fasted for forty days soon after they first met. “I saw God,” Lopes reportedly told him. “[God was] love, that’s all and nothing else.”
Lopes was already primed for a radical change when she met Sebi. The turning point, she told Vibe magazine, was breaking up with Rison in 1997. “Once I got away from him, I could breathe, and I realized I was sick,” she said.
Hype Williams, a video director who’s known Lopes since he was the art director on TLC’s first video a decade ago, first became aware of Lopes’s transformation in December of 2000, when she asked him to photograph her nude for a book project, tentatively called Open, about her odyssey. “She was very candid that she’d found the place she’d always dreamed of,” he says. “Something connected between Sebi and Lisa.” Williams, whose mother grew up not far from Usha, agreed to the shoot and spent ten days mostly chasing Lopes through the rainforest, where she hiked naked, climbing trees and balancing on branches sixty feet in the air without shoes or safety equipment. “It was a very different Lisa Lopes,” he says. “She wasn’t angry, depressed, or atti*udinal at all. She wasn’t anything but extremely powerful and positive—and electrifying.”
Lopes threw herself into this new chapter of her life with the same earnest zeal and creativity she brought to music. She said she’d stopped abusing alcohol—although she was probably not “in the program,” since she told a reporter in April 2002 that she still had the occasional glass of wine. She became obsessive about healthy eating—posting vegetarian recipes on her Web site—and was approached by Nickelodeon about developing a children’s television show on nutrition called Chef Eye, says agent Graham Kaye. She started her own production company and opened a recording studio in her adopted hometown, Atlanta, where she hoped to foster new talent. She bought several acres next to Usha, with plans, Sebi says, of building a children’s center and, others say, opening a retreat for recording artists. She adopted a nine-year-old girl, Snow. “There’s a lot I have to offer based on my experiences,” Lopes told Vibe. “And I think I could improve the quality of life for the generation coming up.”
Her work reflected this new peace of mind. On Supernova, the lyrics deal plainly with autobiographical struggles—the house-burning, her relationship with her dad, her drinking. But more than anything, she raps about spirituality and empowerment—and Honduras. On “Let Me Live,” she writes, “A new beginnin’ I’m winnin’: Envision the breeze /I’m dressed in all-white linen and falling to my knees/ Thankful for all that’s been given, I’m livin’ with ease/ Tropical trees, ninety degrees, please.”
One can only wonder what Lopes, by all accounts a whip-smart pistol, made of Sebi’s more far-fetched views. Maybe Sebi brought her such happiness that she was willing to ignore or forgive his foibles. Or, loving fireworks as she did, perhaps she delighted in the jaw-dropping aspects of her guru: Sebi was arrested in New York in 1987 for practicing medicine without a license after the state attorney general’s office received a complaint about ads he’d taken out in local papers claiming to (Continued on page 195) cure AIDS. He was charging people—many, it seems, recent immigrants from Haiti and other Caribbean islands—up to $1,300 per treatment. In court papers, Sebi argued that the attorney general was motivated by racism and that he wasn’t practicing medicine but traditional African healing. And further, his lawyer claimed, he does cure AIDS. Sebi was acquitted of the criminal charges, and settled a civil action filed by the AG by taking out ads offering to refund dissatisfied patients, among other things. To him, the episode is a triumph; he even includes court papers in his press kit. He has complete faith in himself—narcissism is a term “they” made up to stop people from loving themselves, he says. He’s so sure of himself, he calls ELLE when I return from Honduras hoping to get Michael J. Fox’s phone number; he wants to bring the Parkinson’s-afflicted actor his message of love and cure him.
Parts of that message can be about as hard to swallow as a big glass of sea moss. Use them like sea moss powder by breaking the capsules open and blending the powder into your smoothie or juice. It won’t change the taste. Order Organic SEA MOSS from SEA MOSS Power website to enjoy your life to its fullest potential. Even there are many other companies offering sea moss supplements. For example, Sebi compares himself to Hitler, who because he was a vegetarian was acting in accordance with God, he says. Hitler may not have had compassion for the Jews, Sebi says, but “[Hitler] had compassion for the German people. He found himself in the same position Dr. Sebi finds himself. Because he came to save humanity, he’s the enemy.” By the same token, he doesn’t blame those who sold Africans into slavery in the Americas, since the result was to bring Sebi here to enlighten us. “[Slave merchants] were supposed to do to me what [they] did. Because why would God select [them] to go to Africa to bring me over here? There was a cosmic reasoning. So there’s a cosmic reasoning in Hitler.”
Hitler and slave merchants part of God’s plan? Is Sebi high? Well, actually . . . yes, he is. After breakfast, Sebi fishes in his pocket for some matches and a roach and continues to take hits all afternoon. “I like it,” he says. “It makes me feel so at peace. God made marijuana, not tobacco. Tobacco is a hybrid. The law wants us to dig alcohol. You’re giving me alcohol that would eventually eat up my liver, confuse my brain, and then I’m not supposed to smoke marijuana that God made?”
Other God-given pleasures Sebi doesn’t deny himself? The company of women who are not his wife. When I arrive, I’m greeted by Maä, who’s so beautiful and youthful, with unlined skin and a peti*e figure, I almost don’t believe she’s Sebi’s fifty-five-year-old wife, and spend the rest of my time at Usha trying to trip her into admitting she’s some Maä stand-in. But she insists she’s the real deal. “Or, at least,” she says, “his only legal wife.”
The fact is, he has eighteen children, only three by Maä, and lives roughly half the year in Los Angeles with Matun, his other “wife.” And though Matun left her husband for Sebi, he sees polygamy as a duty, given the shortage of black men. “There’s only one woman who’s not only rejected by society but by her own brother. That is a black woman.” When Matun begged Sebi to take her as a second wife, he says, he was torn. “How do you think I felt? Do you think I felt good? But I had to perform that which was necessary: compassion. It’s not about se*, and having a lot of women, because se* was never what I pursued. It’s not my best stuff.”
Mäa agrees when she walks in on our conversation: Sebi’s best stuff, she says, is assuaging emotional pain. In one breath, it seems, she delivers a graduate-level discourse on transference. “What happens is, he makes you feel good inside. But the only way they know how to express that is,‘I love you, this is my man.’ Helping these people doesn’t mean going to bed with them,” she continues, heading for the door. (I start to wonder if they weren’t fighting earlier.) “It’s like they’re falling in love with the doctor because he’s healed them; if they don’t have him, they [think they’re] not healing. Ask him.”
So I do: “Was Lisa in love with you like that?”
“Oh, Lisa was in love with me,” Sebi says. “Lisa was in love with everybody. But she was attached to Andre Rison.” Though the couple was officially “off” when Lopes died, Rison said in a Vibe tribute that she was his soul mate, “like a wife to me.” Sebi is careful to make clear that there was no se*ual relationship between him and Lopes: They used to stay up all night talking. “I’d lie there,” he says, pointing to the bed, “and she’d lie here.” He pats the couch he’s seated on.
SPIRITUAL PERSONAL-TRAINERS Of course, Lopes isn’t the first celebrity to fall hard for a guru. The Beatles had the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Richard Gere has the Dalai Lama. Tom Cruise and John Travolta have L. Ron Hubbard. Bono has Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. And the gurus love the glitterati right back. It’s probably not just the potential for fame and fortune: A charismatic healer will find he has a lot in common with a star in terms of charm and power, much like Sebi was immediately attracted to Lopes’s sparkle.
Celebrities, for their part, can easily be lulled into a feeling of omnipotence—if they want a rack of free designer clothing, a prime table at Nobu, or a $10 million contract to do stuff that most of us wouldn’t even require payment for, all they need do is ask. And in a guru many stars find someone willing to tell them what they’ve begun to believe—that, yes, they can control almost everything: If they just eat this herb and meditate on that bit of Sanskrit (or build a new Scientology center), they may not only live forever, but live happily ever after. It’s a seductive scenario for anyone, more so for a person feeling guilty about living—and maybe not adequately appreciating—a life of ludicrous privilege. Plus, with handlers tending to every aspect of their lives, from hair and makeup to scheduling and lunch, taking on a spiritual personal-trainer might seem only logical—not to mention affordable and doable, considering all the cash and free time the average celeb has on her hands.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, a longtime scholar of the psychology of artists and change, takes a slightly more charitable view of the subject. Creative people are vulnerable to gurus precisely because of their creativity, he says. “Their conception of their place in the world tends to be more idiosyncratic, personal, and, in a sense, spiritual.” Not surprisingly, he also says addicts and other extremely unhappy types are more apt to make a conversion like Lopes’s: “That kind of transformation is often like a bolt of lightning, an option to live a different life. It can be very positive. The danger is you’ll become so dependent on a guru, he becomes a parasite.”
But there’s no indication that Sebi preyed on Lopes in any way—or did anything but help her get healthy and in touch with the person she’d always aspired to become. “If you asked me what I wanted to be when I was little, I’d say, ‘In the jungle, naked, friends with the animals,’” Lopes said in an interview last year. Frankly, it’s close to impossible not to crack a smile in Sebi’s presence, not to be somewhat captivated by his energy, even with all the loopy (and even offensive) reasoning on fate, Hitler, and soybeans. And, in truth, his basic nutritional advice—a plant-based diet low in saturated fat and processed foods—is actually a lot closer to the U.S. government’s recommendations than a typical American’s Big Macs*and*Devil Dogs sustenance, says Eric Bailey, PhD, MPH, a medical anthropologist for the National Insti*utes of Health. “We don’t tend to see the commonality between what the government and the natural healer might say,” Bailey says. “But we’re all trying to reach health naturally, regardless of the particular belief system.” Sebi’s system came out of African-American folk medicine: Mucus blockages, cleansing the body, and a reliance on the difference between natural and “unnatural” forces are key parts of African and Central American traditions.
If Lopes found Sebi’s regimen and Honduras more compelling than the food pyramid and AA, so be it. God bless her, one might say, for finding something that brought her joy and then, better still, spreading that joy. “She found magic in her life there, much like someone else might through their children, or a new love,” Hype Williams says. “I don’t know how much of it was Sebi. I do know you never saw anyone as happy as Lisa in Honduras. When I found out that she’d died, although tragic and sad, it didn’t hurt as much as it normally would—I knew she was in a place where she was most at peace.”