After more than a year of conflict, the United Talent Agency and the WGA reached a settlement Wednesday. The standoff began in April 2019, when more 7,000 members of the Writers Guild of America fired their agents under Guild orders; it intensified when three of the country’s “Big Four” talent agencies retaliated by suing the union for restraint of trade.
“After many long discussions and significant work by both sides, we’ve successfully found middle ground that sets asides our core differences,” UTA co-president Jay Sures wrote in a statement, Deadline reports.
As part of the agreement, UTA will drop its federal antitrust suit against WGA, although Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor have not indicated that they will walk away from their own legal battle with the union.
At the heart of the issue was the decades-old use of lucrative “packaging” deals, in which agents are paid directly by studios for attaching talent to a writer’s pitch, rather than earning a percentage of the income they negotiate for their clients. In a major win for the WGA, UTA has agreed to wean itself off that practice in two years.
In a score for UTA, however, the agency has stuck to its guns and won a concession from the Guild that it doesn’t have to abide by the WGA’s stringent “Code of Conduct,” which even some writers find to restricting.
“To be clear, we did not sign the Guild’s Code of Conduct, which was unacceptable to us from the start,” Sures pointed out. “But we were able to find a path forward that works for both UTA and the WGA.”
UTA also refused to concede to Guild demands that the agency share writers’ contract or financial details without the client’s approval.
“This is information the Guild had insisted we hand over to them whether you consented or not, and it was a core sticking point,” Sures writes. “We expressed willingness to provide contract information but only if you do not object. Our agreement is that if you tell us not to provide your contract information to the Guild, we will not do so. Without this, UTA would not have made this agreement.”
There is, however, at least one thorn in this otherwise rosy truce. The end of packaging will only take place if “the Guild reaches a similar arrangement with one of the other major talent agencies.”
So the core of the agreement circles the drain unless WME, CAA, or ICM Partners—which is not party to the lawsuits—can also stomach abandoning the trusted money-printing technique. Hopeful sources tell Deadline that another agency deal is currently percolating.
» Despite nearly avoiding a runoff in March, District Attorney Jackie Lacey could lose to progressive challenger George Gascón in November. Looking at a map of primary results, the Los Angeles Times determined that Gascón could forge a path to victory if he’s able to rally enough support in densely populated neighborhoods in the middle of the county. [Los Angeles Times]
» Rapper Megan Thee Stallion was reportedly shot while in Los Angeles on Sunday. TMZ initially reported that Megan had cut her foot during an incident outside a home in the Hollywood Hills, but she clarified on Instagram that, “On Sunday morning, I suffered gunshot wounds, as a result of a crime that was committed against me and done with the intention to physically harm me. I was never arrested, the police officers drove me to the hospital where I underwent surgery to remove the bullets.” [Billboard]
» According to prosecutors, alleged Jeffrey Epstein accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell has a husband, but won’t reveal who it is. Maxwell was seeking release on a $5 million bond, but the U.S. Attorney opposed that idea, citing the accused sex trafficker’s refusal to reveal who would co-sign the bond. (Prosecutors reportedly wouldn’t say if they believe she is, in fact, married to anyone.) [New York Daily News]
» On Wednesday, Senator Kamala Harris introduced the COVID-19 Bias and Anti-Racism Training Act, which aims to ensure that patients of color are receiving equal care and to hold medical professionals responsible for biases. According to statistics, Black Americans die from COVID-19 at 2.3 times the rate of white Americans. [The Grio]
Below is the current breakdown of coronavirus cases as of 8 p.m. on July 14. There are now 140,307 total confirmed cases (+2,758 from prior day). Of the cases, 10,394 have been hospitalized and there have been 3,936 deaths (+44 from prior day). The regions with the highest rate of infections per capita are Sagus, Castaic, and Vernon. The most deaths have been recorded in Glendale (120), Westlake (112), Pico-Union (71), and El Monte (69).
Novel Coronavirus Cases in Los Angeles County, by Neighborhood
Agoura Hills 81
Agua Dulce 15
Angeles National Forest 5
Angelino Heights 33
Athens Village 109
Atwater Village 125
Avocado Heights 116
Baldwin Hills 353
Baldwin Park 1429
Bel Air 53
Bell Gardens 1019
Beverly Crest 64
Beverly Hills 425
Bouquet Canyon 1
Boyle Heights 2402
Canoga Park 956
Canyon Country 58
Century City 75
Century Palms/Cove 849
Cheviot Hills 41
Country Club Park 194
Covina (Charter Oak) 162
Crenshaw District 168
Culver City 266
Del Aire 36
Del Rey 192
Del Rey 1
Del Sur 3
Desert View Highlands 11
Diamond Bar 289
Eagle Rock 402
East Covina 1
East Hollywood 403
East La Mirada 61
East Los Angeles 3388
East Pasadena 18
East Rancho Dominguez 309
East Whittier 49
Echo Park 112
El Camino Village 91
El Monte 2300
El Segundo 82
El Sereno 599
Elizabeth Lake 5
Elysian Park 50
Elysian Valley 147
Exposition Park 689
Faircrest Heights 20
Figueroa Park Square 158
Glassell Park 365
Gramercy Place 132
Granada Hills 654
Green Meadows 492
Hacienda Heights 562
Hancock Park 150
Harbor City 288
Harbor Gateway 462
Harbor Pines 10
Harvard Heights 317
Harvard Park 843
Hawaiian Gardens 271
Hermosa Beach 124
Hi Vista 1
Hidden Hills 5
Highland Park 608
Historic Filipinotown 259
Hollywood Hills 174
Huntington Park 1598
Hyde Park 411
Jefferson Park 155
Kagel/Lopez Canyons 12
La Canada Flintridge 95
La Crescenta-Montrose 75
La Habra Heights 19
La Mirada 487
La Puente 740
La Rambla 69
La Verne 212
Ladera Heights 43
Lafayette Square 47
Lake Balboa 453
Lake Hughes 1
Lake Los Angeles 93
Lake Manor 12
Lakeview Terrace 331
Leimert Park 165
Leona Valley 14
Lincoln Heights 655
Little Armenia 277
Little Bangladesh 289
Little Tokyo 42
Littlerock/Juniper Hills 4
Long Beach 5849
Los Feliz 112
Manchester Square 72
Mandeville Canyon 5
Manhattan Beach 213
Mar Vista 181
Marina del Rey 39
Marina Peninsula 22
Miracle Mile 98
Mission Hills 377
Monterey Park 460
Mt. Washington 251
North Hills 943
North Hollywood 1690
North Lancaster 7
North Whittier 100
Northeast San Gabriel 171
Pacific Palisades 88
Padua Hills 1
Palisades Highlands 15
Palos Verdes Estates 62
Palos Verdes Peninsula 1
Panorama City 1464
Park La Brea 59
Pellissier Village 10
Pico Rivera 1379
Playa Del Rey 16
Playa Vista 71
Porter Ranch 179
Quartz Hill 92
Rancho Dominguez 44
Rancho Palos Verdes 185
Rancho Park 46
Redondo Beach 318
Regent Square 18
Reseda Ranch 43
Reynier Village 24
Rolling Hills 4
Rolling Hills Estates 30
Rosewood/East Gardena 11
Rosewood/West Rancho Dominguez 47
Rowland Heights 374
San Dimas 264
San Fernando 413
San Gabriel 323
San Jose Hills 323
San Marino 36
San Pasqual 5
San Pedro 1363
Sand Canyon 2
Santa Catalina Island 6
Santa Clarita 1676
Santa Fe Springs 282
Santa Monica 535
Santa Monica Mountains 65
Saugus/Canyon Country 1
Shadow Hills 26
Sherman Oaks 529
Sierra Madre 44
Signal Hill 138
Silver Lake 382
South Antelope Valley 1
South Carthay 63
South El Monte 438
South Gate 2476
South Park 1151
South Pasadena 192
South San Gabriel 108
South Whittier 869
Southeast Antelope Valley 8
St Elmo Village 80
Stevenson Ranch 87
Studio City 150
Sun Valley 733
Sun Village 74
Sunrise Village 22
Sycamore Square 1
Temple City 325
Thai Town 81
Toluca Lake 51
Toluca Terrace 13
Toluca Woods 9
Twin Lakes/Oat Mountain 8
University Hills 33
University Park 457
Val Verde 33
Valley Glen 294
Valley Village 339
Van Nuys 1510
Vermont Knolls 440
Vermont Square 197
Vermont Vista 1043
Vernon Central 1725
Victoria Park 109
View Heights 21
View Park/Windsor Hills 88
Walnut Park 402
Wellington Square 65
West Adams 529
West Antelope Valley 3
West Carson 214
West Covina 1577
West Hills 279
West Hollywood 354
West LA 30
West Los Angeles 296
West Puente Valley 217
West Rancho Dominguez 16
West Vernon 1253
West Whittier/Los Nietos 491
Westfield/Academy Hills 3
Westlake Village 14
White Fence Farms 25
Wholesale District 1670
Wilshire Center 613
Woodland Hills 437
Under Investigation: 3875
Mikel Jollett was five years old when he was rousted from bed one night by a virtual stranger, shoved into a waiting car, and driven to a safe house in Oregon, hundreds of miles away. It was the early 1980s, and Jollett and his seven-year-old brother were living at Synanon, a Venice Beach drug and alcohol rehab center that had gradually devolved into a notorious cult. He’d been separated from his parents early on, and raised by random adults. The middle-of-the-night stranger turned out to be Mikel’s mother, a drug addict who’d basically dropped her kids off at Synanon when they were babies, and returned some years later, after she’d gotten clean, to ferry them to safety.
But life outside Synanon was hardly an improvement. Jollett’s mother proved to be as selfish and distant in sobriety as she was in addiction, and for several years Jollett’s childhood was marred by poverty, violence, and more addiction. Ultimately, Jollett’s life turned out all right—he ended up in the care of his dad and his dad’s second wife, Bonnie, a maternal figure who, oddly enough, had been one of the people who helped raise him at Synanon.
Eventually Jollett graduated from Stanford, spent a few years as a magazine a journalist, and became the lead singer of the Airborne Toxic Event, a wildly popular indie-rock band that regularly sells out venues across the country. He’s now 45 years old, married, and living with his wife in a house in Silver Lake, where they’re raising a toddler and a four-month-old baby.
Several years ago, Jollett began writing Hollywood Park, the gripping and brutally honest memoir of his life. Published in the middle of the pandemic, it has gone on to become one of the summer’s most celebrated books—a New York Times best seller that is reportedly being optioned by a major studio. Since Los Angeles magazine published an excerpt of the book in May, Jollett has been featured in an eclectic array of publications, from the Poetry Journal to People to NPR. Los Angeles editor-in-chief Maer Roshan spoke with him shortly before the book’s launch.
You’ve said that you started writing your memoir after your father’s death because you needed answers to some things. What kind of answers were you seeking?
I don’t know. My dad had been sick for a while and I knew that he was going to die. I expected to be sad when it happened, but I didn’t know my life would fall apart. After his death, it felt like the universe was completely transformed; the laws of physics suddenly stopped working. My dad was absent for my early life, but over time he became the first person I ever trusted. I didn’t understand a world that didn’t have him in it. I spent a lot of time just walking around in a fog, trying to make sense of all this. And when I finally got my head together I decided to write a book. I thought that examining my past would help me make sense of the pain I was feeling.
Your book starts off with your escape from Synanon, the rehab-turned-cult where you lived with your brother. You left there when you were five, but the experience seems to have shadowed your life for much longer.
Synanon was a troubled place, as you know. It started out as a movement for people who were seeking help for really debilitating addictions, but over time it devolved into a dangerous and depraved kind of cult. There were lots of desperate people there looking for help, and obviously the program worked for some people. It was certainly not a good place for a child. You’re pretty much separated from your parents and raised by strangers—kind of orphaned, really—and everything seems hazy and fragile. You have no one to protect you. When you’re in a cult, all your information is controlled, you’re constantly pressed to justify the actions of some bat-shit leader, and lots of bad things happen. That’s how it went with Synanon. I’ve been in touch with other Synanon kids, and most of them had the same experience. I felt like it was an important story to tell.
The book portrays your father as a damaged but loving heroand your mother as an icy narcissist who basically ignored you and your brother. Your dad is gone now but your mom is still alive. Did you worry about how she’d feel about being portrayed that way?
This may sound selfish, but no, I didn’t think about that. If you want to tell an authentic story, you need to take risks. You have to confront things that are really uncomfortable about yourself and about your relationships and the people around you. You try to tell it as it happened,
What kind of responses have you gotten from other people you wrote about?
Well, after my Bonnie read the book, she cried—she was very supportive and very proud. I wasn’t sure how she’d react to the Synanon stuff. She thinks of it as a better place than I do. Some of the people who went through Synanon early on believed it had some redeeming characters. That’s her perspective, and I’m fine with that. I think there’s a generational divide between kids and their parents about Synanon.
I was most nervous about how my brother would react. He knew he’d be in my book, but I don’t think he realized how big a role he would play in it. After I gave him the manuscript I was on pins and needles. I went over to the house and he sat me down and he was like, “This book . . . I don’t always look good, but neither do you.” He was generous and OK with the uncomfortable parts of our story being told.
When we were growing up we both felt like we’d survived a plane crash that nobody else had witnessed. We always used to tell each other, “Nobody understands what happened with you.” It’s a hard to explain, but for most of our childhood no adult really bothered to talk to us; no one sat us down and asked us about the violence and loneliness we suffered. We never saw a therapist. We were treated as accessories. But when we both became very, very angry kids, people wondered why.
One of the most poignant scenes for me was your description of taking your brother to Brotman Hospital, a rehab in Culver City, to get help for his alcoholism. It was incredibly vivid.
Oh, do you know the room?
Yeah, because I’ve been there myself. A couple of times. A very sad and scary place.
You might have known my brother and me. My brother was part of the Brotman group for seven, eight years. He kept going to it while he was getting sober. I gave him four different cakes at that meeting.
Both your mom and your dad were addicts. Your brother, too. How did you escape that fate?
Well, I think there’s definitely a genetic component to alcoholism, but it plays out differently in people. There are type-A and type-B alcoholics—AA doesn’t make that distinction, but that’s been my experience. And what I’ve heard from type-A—the genetic alcoholics—doesn’t jibe with my own experience. My brother was like, “The first time I had a drink, that was it. It was the greatest feeling ever, and I didn’t want to ever stop.” He was 13 when he had his first drink, and he continued to drink every night from then on. It was different for me. I drank a lot but if I had a drink I got really drunk. I fell straight down to the ground. I had a different physical and emotional reaction to booze than he did.
But you know, people also react differently to their circumstances. If you would’ve asked me ten years ago, “What was your brother like as a kid?” I would have said, “He’s a jerk. He was a jerk to me. He was a bully. He beat me up all the time. He broke my shit.” Writing this book gave me a lot more empathy for him. He was traumatized. He was abandoned. He was abused. He was left in this place where no one took care of him, and suddenly he’s living on the run and people are wondering why he’s so angry. If he was pissed off, he was pissed off for a good reason. And I’m almost mad at myself, just a little bit: for a long time I was trying to please everybody. My brother was exhibiting a more honest reaction.
Did you also come to empathize with your own situation as you grew up? Did you realize that you were also a vulnerable kid?
No, for a long time I thought of myself as the one who had to take care of everyone. When you’re a smart kid growing up in awful circumstances, there’s a part of you that believes you’re smarter than everybody, and invincible. You can take care of everyone. You can handle things other people can’t. It’s your job just to holds things together. That was me as a kid.
A few years after Synanon we lived with my mom on a farm in Oregon , and I spent all my time in school or taking care of the rabbits that we were raising. I was always changing the water thing, where you have to take the hot water in a pitcher and unfreeze every single bowl in 50 cages—it takes forever. And then you go pack your lunch and make yourself breakfast and go to school. Then you come home from school at 3 o‘clock to do another two hours of rabbits and chores. You hope your mom isn’t crying and that your brother isn’t trying to break stuff. You hope your stepfather isn’t out drinking or passing out. You just try to hold everything together. I soldiered on. I didn’t allow my own feelings to get in the way.
When did that change for you?
It first started to dawn on me when I was in my late teens that my life was not normal. By the time I entered college, I was full of rage. So that’s when I became estranged from my mother. We stopped talking. I went through therapy and tried to empathize with that kid I had ignored. I wrote the book in part to give a voice to this kid that never really had one.
You once said that you spent most of your life in L.A. occupying the negative space in the background of the city—the random freeways and places that most people never discover. Is that the part of L.A. where you still feel most at home?
Oh, 100 percent. I think outsiders have this very specific idea of the city—Disneyland, Staples Center, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, maybe Compton and South Central. Those are the neighborhoods that define L.A. to the world at large, right? But that’s just a tiny slice of a diverse and sprawling world. Most Angelenos—ten million of them—live outside those borders, in places like La Habra, Culver City, Pacoima, Saugus. They’re the working-class of people who are going about the business of living and dying, working, having children. Even now, as the American experiment seems to be failing, I think the California experiment is mostly working. It’s a far more authentic and cohesive city than most outsiders imagine.
Have you ever thought of living somewhere else?
Not seriously. Mostly because my father was sick for a lot of years, and I wasn’t going to live in a different city if I thought he was going to die.
You named your book Hollywood Park, after a now-shuttered racetrack in Inglewood, so obviously it loomed large in your life. Why was it so important to you?
Oh, man, it was hugely important! Hollywood Park was where my dad went just about every Saturday. We’d go there with him and hang with all his shady buddies. “Hey, Jimmy, got the boys? Teaching them the family business?” And he’d sit out there with a racing form and a little pair of glasses in the sun, and we’d sit there and watch. We’d be like, “Why are you picking this one, Dad?” He’d bring up all the stuff about who ran what, and what the time trials were, which horses were better closers and which are frontrunners, which horse runs better on grass. So those weekends were family time for me. My brother and I were sons of a single mom and lived on the run for years, and there was this sense we were finally safe there. And it was something about being out with the men. Because at the time we didn’t really know the world of men very well. But we really knew the world of women.
At Synanon you were raised mostly by women, right?
Yeah, mostly women there. And after that we were mostly surrounded by my mom and her friends. So men came to seem like these magical creatures to us—these mysterious, oversized beasts. Obviously, we knew that we’d one day become men ourselves, but we weren’t sure what that entailed. I think that’s what drew us so close to our dad. He was so warm and affectionate and funny. He loved us but he also liked us. Growing up in Oregon, there wasn’t a lot of empathy for us; it was an emotional desert. We weren’t used to it.
When we first went to live with him and Bonnie, they were like, “You can eat all our food.” We were puzzled by that. We’d be like, “We can have string cheese any time we want?” And they looked at us funny and said yeah. But that wasn’t our experience before then. So we went to Hollywood Park, and through the years, that’s where my dad and I had a lot of talks.
In my experience, the racetrack doesn’t usually lend itself to deep conversation.
[laughs] Trust me, it wasn’t always deep. Usually we’d just bet on the horses, screw around, and then we’d be home. But whenever he wanted to have a serious talk with me, that’s where we’d go. He’d say, “Hey, you want to go to the track?” And I knew what that meant. We continued that tradition even as I grew older. And then soon after my dad died, they tore it down. It became this big, blazing metaphor for me. I was so outraged that they demolished it! This is where I discovered family, you know? This is where I learned to . . . I don’t know…be loved.
Early in your career you were offered a chance to go to Yaddo—a rare opportunity for an aspiring writer. But you turned that down to start your band instead. Is your music more integral to your life than writing is?
At that point in my life, in my twenties, I just wanted to be out on the road, out at night. I felt really housebound by writing.
Are there different muscles involved in writing music and writing prose? Parts of your brain that you use differently?
Oh, yeah. Songwriting almost feels like a party trick to me. I don’t know what the exact rules are, but I’ve just done it so many times that when it comes to performing, that muscle is pretty well-developed. Music is more intuitive and physical than writing. It’s very emotional. It’s the kind of thing that you get better at with practice, like juggling or dunking a basketball.
Why do you think people tend to identify more with musicians than other kinds of artists?
That’s a good question. I think because there’s something transcendent and universal about the sound of the human voice, the rhythm of a drum, the rhythm of a melody. The rhythm of the feet dancing is ingrained into us from way back.
But it’s also a more economical artform. In four minutes you can listen to, like, Hello by Adele, and you’ll know everything about her emotional world. To capture that complexity in a novel would take at least 150 to 200 pages. If you’re a really great writer, maybe 50 pages. But Adele gets it done in four minutes.
I imagine having your book come out in the middle of a plague isn’t easy. How much has the pandemic altered the rollout of your book?
God, a whole lot! We had an entire national book tour set up. We seriously thought about canceling it, then we realized that if we did that then all these independent book stores that sponsored all the events would lose out. So we ended up just moving everything online. We tried to figure out a way it could still feel special. I’d given this talk in Baltimore a while ago that was a one-man-show kind of thing. So I thought, what if I take that and try to find a way to broadcast it. I could give this talk, and sing some songs, and people could ask questions. We sold a lot more tickets when we moved the tour into a virtual space, and people really seemed to like it. Instead of viewing you as a speck on a stage in some big hall, they could see every little expression, and the sound was balanced and whatnot, whatever. Did you see it?
Yeah, there was something weirdly intimate about the whole thing. People got up to ask you questions, and it was fascinating to watch their expressions close-up, and to see into their living rooms. You don’t get that close in a bookstore.
Did it seem bizarre that I was just rambling into a camera for an hour?
[laughs] You’re obviously very gifted at rambling into a camera. It can’t be easy to get up and just talk with all these strangers and sound smart and speak in complete sentences. And then to sing on top of that.
The singing is easy. The harder part for me is just summoning the energy it takes to connect with all these people remotely. You have to imagine an audience, then you also have to imagine their collective reactions so that you can respond to that reaction and keep going.
What’s your life like now in quarantine? What do you do every day?
Not much. I’m a dad with two kids under three. One’s just four months old. So it’s been really good to have family time, even though the first month or so we were really struggling. Some days you feel almost normal, and then other days you’re just so bummed out. But I know I’m much more fortunate than others. There are people who are dying, and people who have lost loved ones. Luckily, we haven’t done either yet.
You talk in your book about feeling like a stranger in most of the worlds you’ve inhabited—from Synanon to Oregon to Stanford. Has the success you’ve enjoyed also made you a stranger to your old friends? Do they treat you differently because of it?
No, not at all. It’s not something we ever talk about. I have a tight group of old friends who are all like brothers to me. We have lots of shared experiences that bond us. I’d lay down in traffic for those guys and they would for me, too. It’s good to have people like that in your life.
But there is something about being an outsider that’s not necessarily a shared experience. You feel the same way, right? I have read up a little about you, and It sounds like you’ve been through some of the same things that I have. You feel like, “OK, I’m not having the same collective experience as 90 percent of the people in this room,” right? Inside your brain there’s a smart person who’s processing everything in real time, and having an emotional reaction as well. There’s something about that feeling of apartness that fuels creativity. You learn to thrive on your own thoughts and your own story, which is a good habit for creative people.
I think that may be creatively useful, but not always personally fun.
No, no, it’s definitely not personally fun. Feeling like an outsider all the time is not a ticket to mental health. But a lot of horrible experiences make for good writing. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said, “An early experience with death is always a good thing.” It was one of his rules for writing: An early experience with death. A problematic relationship with your mother. Awful stuff like that.
Your book is also a lot about parenting, both good and bad. Have your early experiences made you a different kind of parent to your own kids?
The most damaging experiences I had with parents happened before I was ten, and they were really bad. They left a mark. It’s safe to say that my birth mom was not suited to motherhood. But after that, my life became much better. My dad took real joy in our existence. He was thrilled that we were alive. My mom, Bonnie, has always been on our side. That’s the relationship I want to have with my kids. I want to make sure they’re safe and get a good education and love the hell out of them. Try not to cause them pain.
When you’re writing a memoir, you have to sift through a lifetime of material. Is it difficult to decide what to keep and what to cut?
I wrote about three times as much as is in the book. It eventually became this massive project. But then, about a year and a half into it, I cut the entire second half of my book— 60,000 words. I deleted them all. Life is a big, messy thing. After 45 years, you’ve got to pick and choose the proper thread for your narrative. You have to edit it.
What do you see yourself doing in the next 20 years? Are you going to write more books? Are you going to concentrate on music? What would be the ideal trajectory for you?
I just want to . . . I don’t know, we’ll see. I think there will certainly be another record, at least, I’ll continue to make music. Ideally, I’d like this book to be my first foray into a literary career that also includes novels. I’m currently working on a very long outline for what’s essentially a science-fiction novel, though calling it science-fiction doesn’t seem quite right. I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll be around long enough to raise my kids.
I first got to know you through Twitter, where you’ve built an impressive presence— 266,000 followers the last time I checked. How much time do you spend to become a Twitter influencer? What do you like about it?
Nothing. [laughs] Nothing. I hate Twitter! I fucking hate it.
Really? It seems more like a love-hate relationship.
No. I hate it! I think social media is making everyone smaller and meaner. It turns everyone into weird, tiny caricatures. At its best, Twitter can seem like a newspaper lunchroom—lots of smart people sitting around bullshitting, making jokes, being ironic and gossipy. Sometimes it’s useful and enlightening, but often it’s just cruel and stupid. And in the end, I don’t think Twitter matters much to the real world. Have you ever been to one of those old casinos where you win chips that are only good in the casino? Every chip you get on Twitter is only good on Twitter—it’s not worth much to anybody else. For me, Twitter has been a political thing—an outlet for all the rage and frustration I feel in the age of Trump. We’ve all been watching helplessly as this sexist, racist, homophobic, shitty man uproots everything that’s good about this country. It feels good to speak out.
At the moment, Trump is down in the polls. How do you think this election will end up?
I don’t know. I’d say there’s a 30 percent chance he’ll be re-elected, which is shockingly high, considering what a horrible and incompetent person he is. You hear lots of pundits saying “Oh, he’s definitely going to lose.” And a handful who‘re certain he’s going to win. I don’t believe either of them. Events keep changing day by day, and how this turns out depends, to some extent, how on how we act in the next [four] months. The right wing in America has proved that it’s capable of all sorts of abuses. We have to be vigilant and fight like hell. This is our country too.
In your book you talk about meeting Robert Smith of the Cure who told you to ignore everyone’s expectations and forge your own path in life. What other people have inspired you?
My own personal Mount Rushmore would have to include Leonard Cohen. “Suzanne” is my favorite song in the world. I love Bruce Springsteen, like everyone else. Also Maya Angelou—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is such a masterpiece. Every time I read it I’m like, “You think you wrote a good book? Go read that again.” It’s so breathtaking and real and honest. Everything I want to be.
Before I started writing my book, I read a ton of memoirs, mostly classics but also some cheesy ones. Most of them were not very memorable, but a few of them blew my mind. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carry. Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club.This Boy’s Life, Angela’s Ashes. I really loved both of Obama’s books: Dreams of My Father and Audacity of Hope. After I was done reading them, I’d write about their techniques and the details they’d captured, just for me, not for publication. What was their style? What voices did they introduce? What made their books so fucking good? By the time I finally sat down to write, these other books loomed so large. It was like this chorus of voices that I kept hearing in my head. Whenever writing seemed most impossible, they kept encouraging me to go on.
The Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association has announced today that there will be no Rose Parade in 2021. This will be the first time that the parade has been canceled since World War II, and only the fourth skipped parade since the tradition began in 1891.
“The health and well-being of our parade participants and guests, as well as that of our volunteer members, professional staff and partners, is our number one priority,” Bob Miller, 2021 President of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association, wrote in a statement. “Obviously this is not what any of us wanted, and we held off on announcing until we were absolutely sure that safety restrictions would prevent us from continuing with planning for 132nd Rose Parade.”
According to the Association’s statement, it commissioned a feasibly and safety study conducted by public health experts at the USC Keck School of Medicine. That report showed that, given our current understanding of the pandemic, even with the best efforts to enforce distancing and mask guidelines, there was still great potential for events related to the Rose Parade to become breeding grounds for the spread of COVID-19.
While there will be no physical Rose Parade 2021, organizers say plans are underway for “a new kind of New Year celebration,” perhaps online only.
“We may not be able to host our traditional five-mile march down Colorado Boulevard, but we are exploring new and safe ways we can collectively share in the celebration,” wrote Association CEO David Eads. “We look forward to announcing further details about our exciting new plans in the coming weeks.”
The Rose Bowl college football game itself is expected to still take place, though that’s subject to change.
L.A. Pride will be back post-pandemic—but it won’t be in West Hollywood. After more than 40 years of celebrations in the neighborhood, parade and festival organizers Christopher Street West have decided it is time to take the event to other parts of Los Angeles.
The Board of Directors decided to take this approach for several reasons,” reads a letter sent by Christopher Street West to the West Hollywood City Council. “These include construction in West Hollywood Park, the changing demographics of Greater Los Angeles, our commitment to being responsive to the LGBTQIA+ community’s needs, and our allyship and collaboration with other movements for social change.”
Neither a new location nor plans for L.A. Pride have been announced, though there has been speculation that Christopher Street West may attempt to move their events to downtown Los Angeles, either for 2021 or at some point in the future.
Even without the official L.A. Pride-branded celebration, West Hollywood will still have celebrations of LGBTQ+ Pride.
“We remain the heart of the LGBT community in Southern California and will continue to do so,” West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times. “West Hollywood Pride will continue uninterrupted as it always has on Santa Monica Boulevard and San Vicente.”
For decades, the city of West Hollywood has partnered with Christopher Street West on the festival, but even before the non-profit’s letter saying they would be moving out of the neighborhood for next year, Duran and fellow Councilmember John D’Amico raised the issue of seeking bids from new event producers in June.
West Hollywood puts in a significant amount of money to support L.A. Pride. The Times reports that the contribution of public funds has risen from $500,000 in 2015 to an estimate of $3 million had the 2020 event taken place as originally planned.
Upon learning that Christopher Street West would not be submitting a plan for a 2021 event on the usual site, D’Amico told the Los Angeles Times that he was “excited that we’re given a clean slate” and that the organizers moving along would free up local leaders to create their own celebrations that are “more reflective of the times.”
CSW’s L.A. Pride has been criticized in recent years on several fronts. An online campaign in 2016 labeling the event “Gay Coachella” and “#NotOurPride” called out the organizers for turning the L.A. Pride festival into an exclusive, expensive space. That campaign ultimately lead to CSW reframing the 2017 parade as a “protest march,” attempting to reconnect with Pride’s roots.
“I want you to have a good time … but at the same time, make it accessible for everybody because this actually does mean something. You can’t marginalize communities, and you can’t compartmentalize the people who have money and those who don’t,” activist Jazzmun Nichala Crayton told the Los Angeles Times at the time.
But in 2020, Christopher Street West was back in hot water for what critics see as a lack of representation visible at L.A. Pride and among its organizers, as well as missteps in how the organization worked with other local groups working for social justice within the LGBTQ+ community and in Los Angeles at large.
Last month, Christopher Street West issued an apology, acknowledging some of the concerns. “We recognize systemic racism, implicit bias, and privilege permeates this county, and this includes the history of our organization,” it reads. “We hope to see progress and start with change from within.”
Karen and Frankie met at a dinner party over ten years ago. “I told my friend when she walked through the door, This is love at first sight,” recalls Frankie, a finance executive and political activist. “I remember thinking this is the woman I’m going to end up with.”
They immediately bonded over both growing up in Los Angeles and a mutual love of art (particularly graffiti and street art).
Today, they have an adorable two-year-old daughter named Sunny. ”Looking back, what really sealed the deal for me was Frankie’s work with community organizing,” says Karen, a model and mother. “We both shared a commitment to social justice.”
Fifteen years later, they still do. During the recent protests, they marched to show their support. But because of COVID-19 they took extra precautions. “We wore masks and practiced social distancing during the protests, but it was important to take to the streets,” Frankie says.
In 1968, Pamela Saharah Dyson, 25 and newly divorced, moved into a Beachwood Drive duplex. She sped through Hollywood in her black MG convertible to Burbank, where she worked as a secretary at Warner Bros. Records. In her free time she practiced hatha yoga, because the meditative states offered solace from her angst.
But she wanted a guru—someone who could give her a deeper understanding of Eastern philosophy. They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Later that year Dyson met Yogi Bhajan and began a journey that would transform her life. She wasn’t alone; in a very short time, the charismatic yogi gained a devoted following of mostly white middle-class seekers who gave up their birth names and embarked with him on a prescriptive lifestyle that combined Sikhism, Kundalini yoga, and new age philosophies. He called himself a Saturn teacher, characterized by his disciplinarian style.
Dyson became Premka Kaur Khalsa, and she would devote her life to her guru for 16 years. She was part of his inner circle, earned the title of secretary general, and helped him build the organization from a couple hundred hippies taking classes from him in an antique store on the corner of Melrose and Robertson into an international behemoth with businesses, ashrams, and yoga studios all over the world.
Earlier this year, Dyson self-published Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan, in which she revealed that her guru-student relationship had a dark side. Her tale of love, betrayal, and sexual misconduct has the considered perspective of a woman who is now 77. She worked on the memoir for 12 years but has processed the trauma that led her to write it for more than 30, well before the #MeToo movement. What was acceptable behavior decades ago, let alone a year, a month, or even a day ago, has changed so rapidly that Dyson could not have anticipated the reckoning her story has wrought for a spiritual community that relies on the reverence of Yogi Bhajan as a pillar of its existence.
Bhajan claimed to be married yet celibate and had three children with his wife, Bibi Inderjit Kaur Khalsa. But rumors of his sexual misconduct circulated for years, especially liaisons with his female staff, a kind of harem who dressed in all white and in turbans. The women traveled with him, attended to his personal and professional needs, and lived like nuns with no families of their own.
Philip Deslippe, a yoga historian who has written extensively about Yogi Bhajan, and is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wonders if Bhajan’s reputation can survive the onslaught. “I think the scandals that are coming out will leave his name and his legacy as toxic,” says Deslippe, who taught Kundalini yoga for a decade before he began scrutinizing Bhajan through an academic lens. “He will be remembered like a Harvey Weinstein or a Jerry Sandusky of yoga, and I believe his teachings will be tainted in a way that will make it very hard to rebrand or salvage them.”
Bhajan died in 2004 at the age of 75—by then he was stricken with heart disease, was diabetic, and confined to a wheelchair. He left behind a sprawling empire under the banner of the 3HO Foundation, which stands for healthy, happy, and holy. His New York Times obituary called him the “boss of worlds spiritual and capitalistic.” Over the years he met with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama, and gained political capital in Espanola, New Mexico, where many of his businesses were headquartered. He became friendly with the state’s politicians, including Governor Bill Richardson, who, upon Bhajan’s death, ordered that flags be flown at half-staff. Bhajan liked gems, and amassed a maharaja-worthy collection of jewelry, a fleet of luxury cars (he was partial to Rolls-Royce and Mercedes), a 20-plus-acre ranch in Espanola, and an additional 120 acres nearby in the high desert. When he was at his Los Angeles headquarters, he liked to shop in Beverly Hills and dine at La Scala, which wasn’t far from the 3HO headquarters, comprised of several buildings in addition to his modest home on Preuss Road. He split his time between New Mexico and Los Angeles, visiting India often. But Bhajan’s brand of yoga traveled all over the world, and today there are teachers and ashrams in South America, Europe, and Russia.
“He will be remembered like a Harvey Weinstein of yoga. I believe his teachings will be tainted.” —Yoga historian Philip Deslippe
His businesses flourished, too. In addition to the Kundalini yoga enterprise—teacher trainings and events geared toward the 500,000 students the 3HO Foundation claims practice his brand of yoga—there was the Yogi Tea brand and Akal Security, which over the years has been awarded $1 billion in federal contracts to guard courthouses, embassies, and military bases. Like many 3HO businesses, Akal Security was started by a community member who turned it over to the organization. It wasn’t as big a stretch as it might seem for a yogi like Bhajan to run a security business, as South Asian Sikhs have traditionally served in military and police forces. Not to mention, according to Dyson, that Bhajan’s business philosophy was “OPI and OPM,” or Other People’s Intelligence and Money. But the way most people know Bhajan in Los Angeles is through Kundalini yoga taught at studios like Yoga West and the RA MA Institute. Yoga is big business, too: tuition for a teacher training can cost as much as $3,500, not to mention the revenues generated by 3HO-related companies that produce new-age music favored by yoga enthusiasts and instructors.
It was against this backstory of spiritual piety and roaring capitalism that Dyson published her memoir earlier this year. At first the book was an outlier and might have stayed so had it not triggered an unexpected outpouring of testimony from other women revealing stories of abuse at the hands of their guru that had been festering for decades. The revelations stood in stark contrast to the inner-circle members of 3HO, who still abide by Bhajan’s prescriptive lifestyle, use the spiritual names he gave them, wear white, tuck their uncut hair into turbans, and start the day with an ice-cold shower and a session of Kundalini yoga, often in rooms adorned with portraits of their guru. Bhajan had arranged their marriages, and now some of their grown children, meant to pass his teachings on to a new generation, are claiming that they endured relentless sexual, emotional, and physical abuse at 3HO-sponsored schools in India and New Mexico. At the end of June, one of them filed a civil lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging Bhajan engaged in child sexual abuse and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and that members of 3HO not only knew of Bhajan’s predilections, but enabled and witnessed them on multiple occasions.
The Siri Singh Sahib Corp., a body that incorporates 3HO, deemed the allegations credible and hired An Olive Branch, a Philadelphia-based consultancy guided by Buddhist principles that helps spiritual communities navigate ethical misconduct. Its report is scheduled for public release in late July. Shanti Kaur Khalsa, a public-affairs specialist and a member of the team established to oversee the inquiry, says, “Just because the complaints are credible doesn’t mean they’re true. It’s a very complex situation. Honestly, in the 40 years I was around [Bhajan], I never had any indication that this was happening. So that’s hard to believe. I’m a very smart person, I’m intuitive, I’m a yogi, and I honestly didn’t see it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do the right thing.” Khalsa confirmed that An Olive Branch received upwards of 16 reports from individuals who claimed harm at the hands of Yogi Bhajan, and it interviewed more than 300 members who either corroborated the accusations or defended Bhajan. Hard-line 3HO members seek to discredit Dyson’s allegations and claim the investigation is a farce. They have requested that a 3HO representative be allowed to advocate for Bhajan by obtaining access to all the allegation details—including the identities of the accusers. “Yogi Bhajan had a couple of sayings that really have now come into view for us. One was ‘Don’t love me, love the teaching’,” Khalsa says.
At Yoga West on Robertson Boulevard, the flagship Kundalini yoga studio where Bhajan often lectured, his portraits and sayings have been removed from the walls. Guru Singh Khalsa, a first-generation senior teacher, joined 3HO when Bhajan still taught classes at the antiques store owned by Bhajan student Jules Buccieri. (It’s now a John Varvatos store). Singh Khalsa describes his relationship with Bhajan as being akin to a father and son, and while he is aware of Dyson’s claims of sexual misconduct, he says that, back then, 3HO was a culture of denial. In March, he posted a public apology on social media, expressed contrition to the students in his teacher-training course, and promised to be an advocate for transparency and for the An Olive Branch investigation. “I believe the people that are telling their stories,” he says. “Does that mean I believe that Yogi Bhajan was a horrible person? Absolutely not. Does that mean I believe Yogi Bhajan had flaws? Absolutely yes, as do we all. And sometimes in some people those flaws are very big.” (Other Los Angeles–based senior Kundalini yoga teachers declined to comment for this story.)
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, who teaches classes online through Alo yoga clothing, and whose prenatal classes have attracted celebrity clientele including Cindy Crawford, Demi Moore, and Miranda Kerr, posted a statement on Facebook that said, “Between the flu and the allegations, from the center of my being I choose Joy. This is sincerely all that I can do. I stand for Joy. My platform is Joy. Joy is the opposite of fear. Fear breeds more fear. Joy breeds more Joy. In my choice I choose to teach Kundalini Yoga throughout the world, God willing, until my last breath.”
THE CUSTOMS INSPECTOR
Harbhajan Singh Puri, a former customs inspector at the New Delhi airport, came to Los Angeles and started teaching yoga under the name Yogi Bhajan in 1968. It was a year after the Summer of Love, and revolution was in the air. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis; Robert Kennedy Jr. was shot at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. The Vietnam War protests peaked as love-ins convened in places like Elysian Park.
Dyson learned about Yogi Bhajan when a friend prattled on about the sexy six-foot-two yogi with the coral-colored turban, long black beard, and velvet loafers. Bhajan taught at the East West Cultural Center on 9th Street, which was run by a Sanskrit scholar named Judith Tyberg. It was a serious place, with a library and lectures about Eastern spiritual traditions.
“We were turning away from our parental indoctrination and looking towards the East,” recalls Dyson. She read Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and lectures by Jiddu Krishnamurti, who lived in Ojai. “Yogi Bhajan prophetically spoke in front of us and told us that he would die and we would carry on. He presented himself like an Eastern Jesus who was uplifting humanity. He spoke to a desire to make our dreams come true and to guide humanity toward the god consciousness.” Though Dyson claims that Bhajan put his hand on her breast during her first yoga class, she continued to be his student. His charisma, his claim that he could read auras, kept her and other early devotees rapt. He encouraged them to quit smoking cigarettes and marijuana, to stop drinking alcohol and taking drugs, to stop eating meat, and to use food as medicine.
According to a 1977 Time magazine article that characterized Bhajan as a “womanizer,” within a few months of his arrival at the East West Cultural Center, Tyberg fired Bhajan for reasons she refused to reveal. Nevertheless his boisterous hippie following rapidly grew; he taught acolytes how to get “high on their breath” and sent them across the country to open ashrams and teach yoga. Students were mesmerized by his brand of yoga, which he characterized as a secret ancient technology that he was sharing for the first time, thus making followers part of a “golden chain” of teacher-to-student transmission.
In many ways, Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini yoga isn’t different from other modern yoga traditions with dubious ancient origins, and the story Bhajan told about Kundalini’s roots turned out to be more fiction than fact. Deslippe authored an academic paper that questions the legitimacy and origin of Bhajan’s style of yoga and concludes that it’s neither ancient nor secret; rather, it’s derived from a verifiable hatha yoga lineage that Bhajan interpreted and reconstructed into his own version of asana (yoga poses) and lifestyle. During his lifetime, Bhajan was a controversial figure among South Asian Sikhs, who noted that he picked up some aspects of their faith while abandoning others. For one, Sikhs aren’t vegetarian, their religion does not include yoga, they do not revere living gurus. And they don’t wear white.
“They [3HO] are literally selling Sikh spiritual names on an internet portal, like our religion is something they can take and make money with,” says Sheel Seidler, a Punjabi Sikh who took Kundalini teacher training as taught by Yogi Bhajan but amends her classes to honor her practice of Sikhism. “There’s a flippant disregard that feels like colonialism for the religion and the 30 million people around the world who it belongs to.”
THE SECOND GENERATION
“Pamela [Dyson] and the first generation made the choice to be Sikhs. We didn’t have that choice,” says Nadine Stellavato Brown, 48, who was born to Bhajan followers and sent away to school in India at the age of eight. For Stellavato Brown, her parents’ decision had grave emotional consequences. “As grateful as I am that Pam came out with the book, which finally gave us permission to tell our stories, the irony is that she and the whole first generation were perpetrators of this abuse. She helped build the system that abused us.”
In a series of Zoom calls in April and May with the Khalsa Council, a body of ministers within 3HO, more than 200 first-generation members listened as their children and their friends’ children recalled physical and sexual abuse, some from Yogi Bhajan himself. The second generation expressed the emotional toll of the social experiments they endured—child swapping, an emphasis on parental detachment that encouraged mothers to suppress their nurture instincts, and being sent to boarding schools in New Mexico and India where a cruel survivalist mentality prevailed, which they compared to Lord of the Flies. “When Pamela’s book came out, the focus was on all that grown-up stuff—the salacious sex stuff that’s so typical of cults. Instead of feeling like we were heard, once again we were getting talked over. I had to bring it back to our stories, which are not footnotes,” says Narangkar Glover, a Portland-based artist who attended the schools in India from eight to 16.
“We grew up in these boarding schools. We were whipped with sticks until we had big welts on our bodies. Some of us were tortured,” Glover adds. “The crux of our experience was first and foremost abject neglect, abject filth. There was head lice, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis. We didn’t have running water for days; there was feces on the floor, the walls; the electricity would go out. We’d see stray dogs getting killed right in front of us.” When the children tried to tell their parents about the conditions, “they would say it wasn’t easy for [them] either,” Glover adds. “But I say, ‘You had food; you had hot water, a comfortable bed; you drove around; you got to go to the movies and float around Los Angeles with celebrities, looking beautiful and radiant in your white perfection.’”
Shanti Kaur Khalsa says a team has been established to address the second generation’s allegations, and has offered $1,200 of therapy for anyone who asks for it. She declined to speak about her own son’s experience at a boarding school in India, but did say, “I know these kids. I’ve heard their stories, but they have always told it in a lighthearted way, couched in humor. Now it’s been exposed for what it really was. It was trauma, and I appreciate them and their courage.”
Another parent who listened in on the Zoom calls wept when he heard the accounts. “I felt like I was run over by a truck,” says Tej Steiner, who left 3HO in 1988. Steiner and his former wife from a Bhajan-arranged marriage sent their children to school in India. “Yogi Bhajan set up schools for our children and staffed them with sadistic, masochistic teachers,” he posted to a Facebook group. “They were profit centers for his business empire. He also knew that separating children from their parents would increase his control over both.”
The narrative that no one knew bad things happened in the schools angers second-generation members like Sunny Khalsa, who tried telling grown-ups and her peers that Bhajan was sexually inappropriate with her, but says they wouldn’t listen. “They said, ‘He’s just testing you.’ There was always an excuse for complete blindness. Or they’d react with rage because I was slandering our god,” Khalsa says. “We were raised to believe he was a god, that he was my spiritual father, that he could see my soul, but people refused to see him as the cruel, manipulative, divisive, scary man that he was.”
In a lawsuit filed in June, Khalsa, now 46, names as plaintiffs 3HO and 100 unnamed defendents, and charges that she was groomed from the age of eight to become one of Bhajan’s secretaries, and that he repeatedly groped, grabbed, and sexually harassed her. Bhajan and his associates, the suit alleges, used 3HO’s businesses as a cover for a “thinly veiled, covert second purpose” to “operate a cult to lure people in to take all of their money as well as place Bhajan in a place where he had unfettered access to women that he could abuse verbally, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually.” Bhajan, the suit alleges, “cultivated other people in his organization who assisted him in breaking down people to turn them into devotees. . . .”
When Khalsa was eight and living on the 3HO-operated Hacienda de Guru Ram Das Ranch outside Espanola with her mother, the suit alleges, she was summoned to Bhajan’s quarters. While his associates watched, he grabbed her vagina and verbally abused her, demanding to know if she wanted to be a prostitute. The suit also alleges that when Khalsa was ten, Shanti Kaur Khala, 3HO’s current spokesperson, took her on a $1,000 shopping spree in an attempt to endear her to Bhajan. In 1990, when she was 16 and had returned from school in India, she planned to earn her GED and attend college; instead, she was given some white Chanel dresses and sent to L.A.
Khalsa moved into one of the Preuss Road compounds. During the day she worked at the 3HO offices and at night prepared juices for Bhajan, who ordered her, in front of others, to massage his feet while he watched graphic pornography. “I was told I was going to have to start sleeping with him. That was my duty,” she says. As a precursor, she alleges, “he would grab my ass or my breasts, ask me about sex, and tell me he was going to fuck me.”
Khalsa finally ran away in 1992, after, she alleges, Bhajan called her into a meeting where all the secretaries sat quietly in a circle around her. He proclaimed she was in love with him and told her that “she needed to be fucked,” the suit charges. “He told her that he had the world’s biggest cock and he would fuck her with it.” She agreed to sleep with him to end the coercive meeting, but instead of going to a party he promised to host to celebrate her acquiescence, she went to the bus station and bought a ticket to New York. “It was like a suicide for me,” she says. “They excommunicated me and I disappeared into the world.” Later she discovered, people were told she was a drug-taking prostitute living on the street. (A spokesperson for 3HO said in an email that because the organization had yet to read the lawsuit, it could not comment.)
Meanwhile Bhajan’s popularity remained largely undiminished. “Over the years friends have come to me, excited to share that they’ve found Kundalini yoga,” says Khalsa. “They tell me he’s a saint. That’s like sticking a dagger in my heart. He was a lecherous, manipulative, creepy man, and he’s responsible for so much trauma and abuse. No one should be doing his yoga.”
Deslippe attributes Bhajan’s enduring appeal to 3HO’s Sikhism. “Sikh values align very easily with the conservative mainstream. They believe in family, in hard work. They run their own businesses. They do yoga. They don’t take drugs, so none of it sticks,” he explains. “All these things keep 3HO off the radar.”
While Bhajan was allegedly indulging in unfettered sexual abuse, some of his far-flung enterprises were attracting attention from authorities. In 1988, the DEA raided the home of a member of Bhajan’s inner circle in Great Falls, Virginia. Gurujot Singh Khalsa was apprehended as part of an undercover sting operation and convicted for participating in an international drug smuggling conspiracy that transported thousands of pounds of marijuana into the United States.
Ten years later, Hari Jiwan Khalsa, who holds the position of chief of protocol at 3HO and is another close associate of Bhajan, paid a $4 million judgment to settle FTC charges related to a company he owned that telemarketed gemstones and fraudulently represented that the purchases would reap huge profits. (Bhajan had claimed that there was no karma over the telephone, which emboldened other telemarketing businesses within 3HO.) Another Harijiwan Khalsa associated with 3HO spent nearly two years in prison for a Los Angeles-based “toner bandit” operation that invoiced medical offices for copy-machine toner never delivered. (The latter Harijiwan is now an L.A.-based Kundalini yoga teacher and a member of the band White Sun, which won Best New Wave Album at the 59th Grammy Awards in 2015.)
REASSESSING A LEGACY
In 1986, Dyson filed a civil lawsuit against 3HO and Bhajan. Another former Bhajan follower, Katherine Felt, alleged in a separate suit that he repeatedly raped her. Dyson’s complaint described sexual and psychological abuse, assault and battery, malnutrition due to forced fasting, and sleep deprivation. The suit stated that “Bhajan has no good faith belief that he is serving God or guru, but rather is devoted to serving himself by obtaining his followers’ money, talents, and sexual services.” The suit sought $25 million in damages but was settled out of court for much less. (Bhajan repeatedly claimed medical exemptions and was never deposed.)
“He was quite demeaning to women,” Dyson recalls. “They say he exalts women and the divine feminine, but then he teaches that men have the right to beat and rape their wives. It was all about power.” His lectures have been meticulously transcribed and are accessible on a 3HO website called the Library of Teachings. “Rape is always invited . . . a person who is raped is always providing subconsciously the environments and the arrangements,” Bhajan stated in a lecture in 1978. “If you do not provide the circumstances and arrangements, it is impossible.”
As for battering, he said in 1989, “But the funny part of it is there are some women who get stimulated by being beaten . . . 20 percent [of] women get abused and it stimulates them and 30 percent [of] women are those who provoke violence and like to enjoy it.”
Awtar Kaur Khalsa, director of the San Francisco Kundalini Yoga Center, thinks it’s time to take a critical look at Bhajan. She’s a lead teacher trainer whose been involved with 3HO since 1972. While she never personally witnessed sexual misconduct, in February she posted to Facebook a statement she’d written and revised for nearly five years. It began, “Over the decades reports of sexual abuse by my spiritual teacher, Yogi Bhajan, have spurred various responses. Some find the accusations unthinkable and traitorous. I have been one of them. Others minimize, ignore or compartmentalize the allegations. I have done this, too. But I can’t do it anymore.”
Speaking for herself and other women in thrall to Bhajan, she adds, “We always knew he was the master manipulator, but we assumed he was doing it for the greater good.” That Bhajan engaged in sexual relationships with his staff when he preached monogamy and claimed to be celibate seemed an especially corrosive betrayal to her. “At the time I assumed it was marginally consensual, so I rationalized it. I’m embarrassed to say it, I’m a very smart person in many parts of my life, but when it came to this stuff, I was willing to be uncritical. And, of course, nowadays we understand these power dynamics and it is not consent.”
Awtar has not taken off her turban, but she has stepped back from teaching to study cults and mind control. “My whole career I fought the label of cult—I rejected it,” she says. “It didn’t seem to fit the cult markers. But as I learn more about that combination of terror and love, I do feel like it’s a cult. I’m willing to be quoted as saying that. And with certain people, my social capital just went to zero.”
In Los Angeles and across the world, Yogi Bhajan’s most lasting legacy may be Kundalini yoga. This isn’t a discipline that requires acrobatic stunts or contortionist flexibility. Rather, it’s a remnant of yoga’s early hippie days when achieving an altered consciousness offered a counter-narrative to the pervasive drug culture: arm-waving, breathing that veers on hyperventilation called “breath of fire,” chanting mantras, meditation, and gong sound baths. Every class still ends with a blessing song, “May the Long Time Sun Shine Upon You.” Teachers and students tout the practice’s healing properties and its ability to shift consciousness in a way that other yoga does not. But studios that offer Kundalini yoga may now have to reevaluate whether they can separate the teacher from the teachings, and whether their students are willing to do the same.
“I’m so grateful for the practice, but as a woman and a feminist, I will never quote him or mention his name again.” —Libby Lydecker
Libby Lydecker has practiced Kundalini yoga for more than 20 years and became a certified teacher in 2007. When she first met Bhajan in 1998, he slapped her across the face and said, “You are too blessed to be unhappy.” At the time she thought that act prophetic and felt fortunate to receive his tough love; now she views it as a cover for misogyny. When she teaches, Lydecker uses the spiritual name Dya Kaur, but she doesn’t wear a turban and didn’t adopt 3HO Sikhism. “I’m so grateful for the practice. It’s been a beautiful experience that has helped me and my students immensely. But as a woman and a feminist, I will never quote him or mention his name again.”
Harijiwan Khalsa, the Grammy-winning toner bandit who went to jail on felony fraud charges, posted a video called The Futile Flow of Fate, with images of Bhajan surrounded by angelic women in white. In the video, he defends Bhajan and accuses her of writing her memoir solely for financial gain. His mentee, Guru Jagat, whose students include Alicia Keyes, Kate Hudson, and Moon Juice’s Amanda Chantal Bacon, and who presents herself as an advocate for women, shared Khalsa’s video. When critical comments were posted, they were deleted and the comment section was closed. (Khalsa and Guru Jagat did not respond to interview requests.)
Until Dyson published her book, she lived a quiet life in Hawaii and didn’t realize how popular Kundalini yoga had become. Nor did she imagine the explosion her book would ignite. Several times she considered abandoning the project because she didn’t want to cause harm. She finally decided she would withdraw the book, went to sleep, and woke feeling relieved. Then, she says, a light appeared, and in its center was an image of Yogi Bhajan. The energy emanating from the light was warm and grateful—a source of wonder. She recognized that Bhajan was trapped in what the Buddhists call the hell realm. She then understood that he would not be free until his followers were. “Take him down off the altar,” she says. “He’s not a master. He’s far from being a saint. Just take him off.”
Though nothing can compare to the rush of days spent roaming the San Diego Convention Center with 130,000 fellow pop culture geeks and evenings spent traipsing through hotel lounges with chubby Han Solos and tipsy River Tams, the folks behind San Diego Comic-Con are trying to ease the pain of 2020’s fest being canceled for the first time in 50 years with a five-day virtual event that they hope can capture some of the old magic.
As Variety reports, Comic-Con International threw together a modest series of videos that CCI chief communications officer David Glanzer called “kind of last minute,” when Anaheim’s WonderCon was canceled in March due to COVID-19. So when SDCC got the Kibosh in April, event organizers decided to create Comic-Con@Home, featuring the kinds of panels and parties that helped make San Diego Comic-Con one of the most important entertainment destinations of the year.
“We wanted to do something,” Glanzer says. “But then came the second half of that thought: Can we do it?”
They’ve certainly tried. Comic-Con@Home will take place when the original con was scheduled, from July 22 to 26, and will include panels with some fan-favorite actors and creators, plus a costume contest and masquerade ball. In another departure from previous years, CC@H will be spread across a number of platforms, including YouTube, Amazon, and IGN, rather than teaming up with one lone partner.
“We felt there were some platforms that lend themselves better to programming videos, some to exhibit tour stuff, some to community engagement and watching as a group,” Glanzer tells Variety.
Sadly, Universal, Sony, Paramount, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm will be no-shows, as they still don’t know when, where, or how their major releases will reach audiences. Still, there are plenty of much-watch events. Here are some highlights from the packed schedule (all times PST).
Charlize Theron: Evolution of a Badass. A Q&A with the star of Mad Max: Fury Road, Aeon Flux and Atomic Blonde (10:00 a.m.)
AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead panel with showrunners and executive producers Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, and cast members Lennie James, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Colman Domingo, Danay Garcia, Karen David, Jenna Elfman, and Rubén Blades (12:00 p.m.)
A Zoom with Joss Whedon. A one-on-one discussion with the Buffy/Firefly/Whedonverse creator (5:00 p.m.)
The Simpsons @ Home panel with Al Jean, Matt Selman, David Silverman, Carolyn Omine and Mike B. Anderson, moderated by Bart Simpson actor Yeardley Smith (11:00 a.m.)
Constantine 15th Anniversary Reunion with Keanu Reeves, director Francis Lawrence, and producer Akiva Goldsman (12:00 p.m.)
Family Guy cast members Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Mila Kunis, Seth Green, and executive producers Rich Appel, Alec Sulkin, and Kara Vallow celebrate 350 episodes with a virtual table read and discussion (2:00 p.m.)
The Stars and Executive Producer’s of ABC’s The Goldbergs features actors Wendi McLendon-Covey, George Segal, Sean Giambrone, Hayley Orrantia, Troy Gentile, Sam Lerner and executive producer Doug Robinson talking about the upcoming Season 8 of the 1980’s-based sitcom (1:00 p.m.)
A Conversation with Nathan Fillion. Buffy Season 7 villain “Caleb”—also the star of Firefly, Castle, and The Rookie—discusses his career with Rookie showrunner Alexi Hawley, plus special appearances by Joss Whedon, Alan Tudyk, Gina Torres, Mekia Cox, Molly Quinn, Seamus Dever, and Jon Huertas (2:00 p.m.)
» L.A. County set a new all-time high for new COVID-19 cases and for hospitalizations. A staggering 4,244 new confirmations and 73 deaths were reported on Tuesday. Indoor work settings are a key area of concern as the spread continues. [Los Angeles Times]
»Naya Rivera’s death has been ruled an accidental drowning by the Ventura County medical examiner. Her remains were found in Lake Piru on Monday and was identified by dental records. [Deadline]
» Trials of a coronavirus vaccine from Moderna are showing “promising results.” The Cambridge, MA-based company’s vaccine will enter a phase three of testing this month, making it the first U.S.-developed vaccine, and only fourth vaccine in the world, to reach that phase. [NBC News]
» Nick Cannon says he hopes people will “help educate him” after coming under fire for comments he and his guest, Professor Griff, made on a recent episode of his podcast. In the conversation, the pair offered praise for Louis Farrakhan; Cannon now suggests he may not have been aware of some portions of Farrakhan’s history or rhetoric. [Fast Company]
» Kanye West’s 2020 campaign may have run its course. The rapper appeared to be building a legitimate campaign infrastructure, even offering staff $5,000 a week to gather signatures, but it now seems he missed deadlines in too many key states to make a plausible go at the presidency. [Hypebeast]
» An LAPD officer who served as Eric Garcetti’s body guard alleges he was sexually harassed by one of the mayor’s advisors. The officer claims that ex-deputy chief of staff Rick Jacobs made inappropriate comments and physical contact with him over a span of several years. [Los Angeles Times]
» A $25 million proposed settlement in a lawsuit filed by a group of nearly women who say they were abused by Harvey Weinstein has been “upended” by a federal judge. The judge expressed skepticism of the women’s formation of a legal class action, rather than filing a series of individual suits, and took exception to an arrangement that would have paid out not from Weinstein’s personal coffers, but from insurance coverage, including using $12 million to cover legal fees for Weinstein and his associates. [The New York Times]
Researchers Say a Big SoCal Quake Has Gotten More Likely, but Don’t Panic Yet
According to a new study, the odds of a historic earthquake hitting Southern California have increased since last year’s Ridgecrest temblors and the result could be the worst quake the region has seen in 163 years. But seismologist Lucy Jones, who did not work on the study, doesn’t think the data is something to get too worked up over–at least not yet.