Sepi Shyne was having her big moment. On January 9, the 46-year-old lawyer, Reiki master, and self-described spirit medium basked in elaborate praise from family, friends, politicians—and, somehow, members of the clergy—before she was sworn into the unelected role of mayor of West Hollywood.
Shyne was riding into her new role from a position of strength. Elected to the West Hollywood City Council in 2020, the Iranian-born lesbian and civil-rights activist raked in over 8,000 votes, more than any other candidate in West Hollywood history. Her landslide victory, at a time of profound racial unrest and awareness in L.A. and nationwide, appeared to have ushered in a new era for the overwhelmingly white governing body. Alongside fellow Councilmember John Erickson’s win, Shyne’s victory also decisively shifted the ethos of the Council, which became, as Los Angeles magazine described, “younger, woker, and sexually and ethnically more diverse.” Shyne herself told me her candidacy was fueled by a desire to create more equity and representation and “bring the people’s voices to City Hall and create more progressive policies.”
At Shyne’s swearing-in in January, Pastor Josh Jonson—founder of InVision, an organization that bills itself as the “only INCLUSIVE Christian house of worship in West Hollywood”—gushed about WeHo’s new mayor. “God is so proud of you,” he said, before quoting from the Book of Esther: “Maybe you were made queen for such a time as this.” Gazing approvingly at the municipal leader, he then offered this: “Mayor Sepi Shyne, make no mistake: God has positioned you for such a time as this.”
Displaying no discomfort with being compared to Queen Esther, or with the idea that it was God to which she owed her power, Shyne offered a restrained smile and nodded silently along. She would also be blessed that night by three other religious leaders she’d personally invited: a rabbi, a member of the Baháʼí Faith, and a Muslim writer, who offered a rather ingenious mash-up of Islamic piety and LA-flavored self-empowerment: “I ask Allah that He remind you in your journey to always stand in your truth, no matter the cost.”
As George W. Bush observed after Donald Trump’s inauguration, it was some weird shit.
I was at this tribute at the invitation of the new mayor herself. It was an unexpected invitation; she’d called me up after I criticized her in an op-ed about a city ordinance. At first, I figured she was calling to complain, but in fact, she was inviting me to Shyne Fest.
Typically, these ceremonies involve this or that dignitary swearing in the new mayor, who then delivers some remarks about how wonderful, accepting, and enlightened the city is; they then receive plaudits and well wishes from fellow councilmembers and regional politicians. It’s all a bit silly, given that the mayorship of WeHo is a largely ceremonial role that rotates regularly among the five members of its City Council. (The mayor’s chief responsibility is leading biweekly meetings.)
I expected some pomp and circumstance. I did not anticipate an emcee, four sets of prayers, three musical numbers, or the incoming mayor of a 1.9-square-mile city in Southern California to promise to liberate the people of Iran.
Sepideh Shyne (née Ghafouri, she has held on to her ex-wife’s last name) describes herself as an “LGBTQ+ and civil rights leader for more than 20 years” and made much of the fact that she is “the first out LGBTQ Iranian elected anywhere globally,” a claim that may or may not be true but is certainly difficult to fact check (can someone find me a gay Persian immigrant on a school board somewhere?). Shyne’s leadership, she tells the public on her website, “has helped secure equal rights for all,” and her bio lists her (LGBTQ+) board and advisory council bona fides, but curiously, no concrete examples of her helping to secure rights for the oppressed. [Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, SepiShyne.com has been revised to reflect Shyne’s run for U.S. Congress.] A graduate of the Golden Gate School of Law, Shyne told me she decided to become a lawyer to protect people from civil rights abuses; her Century City–based practice specializes in business and trademark law. (Before founding her own firm she worked as a civil litigator in Northern California for the Law Office of Linda Ross, and at Paul, Hanley & Harley, where she represented plaintiffs in asbestos-related cases.)
Soulillume, Shyne’s “energy healing” practice, which she has owned since 2009, offers a range of services. According to her website, which plays fast and loose with capitalization, if you are “in Pain” or “suffering from Anxiety or another illness,” Shyne will “dissolve the energy clogs in your body and spirit” ($225). If you are “looking for more Joy” or “transformation” or “serenity,” Shyne offers “guidance sessions” (three for $1,000). She has also created “a special triple layer protection utilizing a sacred Golden Light, the Violet Flame and an Ancient Protection Symbol.” This service is performed only long-distance, presumably because the Light, Flame, and Symbol are too powerful for an ordinary mortal to behold in person ($75 per human, $50 per pet, $75 per car, and $100 if you want your entire house remotely zapped by these devices).
Pet healing and animal communication are also offered for those looking to promote their furry friends’ “physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.” And then there’s the medium stuff—“I channel life guidance from divine guidance,” she explains. Shyne can communicate with the “Guardians and the Ascended Master” for 50 minutes ($250), but she doesn’t take requests for specific dead people. Could she if she wanted to? “Yes,” she tells me. But evidently, “spirits can be very intrusive.”
“I have other things I need to focus on in life other than, you know, speaking to people that have passed,” she says.
Before becoming a lawyer and channel of divine guidance, Shyne had what she describes as a difficult upbringing. In yet another self-written bio that had appeared on her political website, she outlines her family’s flight from Iran in 1982, and an American youth defined by what she recalls was a constant barrage of injustices and mistreatment. “I was made fun of and beaten up by other kids in kindergarten because I looked different and did not speak English well,” she writes. I asked her what her dream was as a child. She told me, “My dream was just to survive and adjust. That was it.”
In high school, “I was bullied by other students and repeatedly called a dyke.” She decided to go to law school after she and her college girlfriend were expelled from a San Jose coffee shop for being gay, leaving them “shocked and frankly terrified.”
Shyne tells this story in person as well: “The manager and a police officer are standing above us. The police officer looks down at us and says, ‘You two need to get up and leave; the manager doesn’t want your kind in this establishment.’ And then he blew a kiss and winked at me.”
She paused, seeming to expect a reaction. I was thinking, “your kind”?
Who knows if this happened or not, or if it happened with the cartoonishly diabolical dialogue and behavior the mayor describes. Like most, I would be much more inclined to believe her account of her past if she weren’t selling light rays for people’s cats by phone.
After two years on West Hollywood’s City Council, Shyne has largely made good on her promises to bring forward and pass some of the most progressive city-wide legislation in the country. In 2021, the city raised the minimum hourly wage (in July it will rise to $18.86, the highest in the nation) and more than tripled the required hours of paid time off for private-sector hourly employees. In 2022, the Council cut two Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputies from the city’s payroll (Shyne says they are exploring the idea of creating an independent police force) and hired 30 additional unarmed “security ambassadors” to handle nonviolent misbehavior and offer assistance to the homeless. And one of Shyne’s first actions in office was to call for the establishment of a Social Justice Task Force, whose job would be to “root out systemic racism in our city codes, business practices, contracts, and training and other ways.”
What systemic racism she sees in West Hollywood’s city codes, business practices, contracts, and training came up when LAMag interviewed Shyne at her City Hall office.
“Well, it was a lot of inequities,” she said. “People of color, Black people, indigenous people and other people of color, by and large, did not feel safe and included in our city. And I kept hearing that and hearing that.”
It’s a platform that clearly resonates. Luckie Alexander, a Black West Hollywood resident, echoed Shyne’s position that the city does not feel racially inclusive. He cited being expelled from the iconic neighborhood gay bar The Abbey while having an epileptic seizure. “You don’t even call the ambulance? You don’t do nothing but…drag me outside of the club?”
Jonathan Wilson, chair of the West Hollywood Social Justice Task Force, also spoke of regular mistreatment of Black nightlife patrons: “I’ve seen people sitting or standing, having a great time at like 12:30 at night, and they get ushered out by the bouncers….just for no reason.” Now, Wilson says that while these incidents are in decline, he feels the city ought to be focused more on cultivating a friendlier environment for Black-owned businesses—an aim Shyne appears to share, as she’s endorsed all of the Task Force’s proposed interventions.
“My core values are making sure that we respect and preserve our history, but then we start trying different and more innovative systems that focus on more equity. I haven’t seen the City Council address systemic racism in West Hollywood in the way we are doing so now.”
Shyne has also been a vocal advocate for the transgender community. Alexander, who is transgender, says he “couldn’t be happier” with his choice to support Shyne and spoke primarily about her “really showing up on behalf of transmasculine folks.” He gave an example of a trans man, Shane Nash, who alleged that his sexual assault case was mishandled by the Sheriff’s Department. Better training for sheriffs, particularly regarding how they interact with transgender citizens and reforming how officers handle sexual-assault cases, are both parts of Shyne’s agenda.
Not everyone is impressed.
Each Shyne critic LAMag interviewed was eager to recount examples of Shyne’s personal infractions against the WeHo community. Did I hear about her haughty email to a senior citizen regarding a conflict over e-scooters? Or when she lectured a public commenter who’d criticized L.A. County Supervisor Lindsay Horvath, then a fellow councilmember, at a City Council meeting? Or the time she boasted that “access to me is a privilege” on Facebook?
Meanwhile, Wehoville, the media outlet of WeHo’s older gay vanguard, has become a practical compendium of Shyne’s affronts; managing director Larry Block, who ran against Shyne in 2020, calls the mayor “a bully,” and the site’s comments sections reveal a readership practically foaming at the mouth in their antipathy. When asked what she thought of the Wehoville coverage, Shyne told LAMag that the publication “is not really run by true journalists.”
Legislatively, most of the anti-Shyne set cited her problematic allegiance to the hotel and restaurant workers’ union and political advocacy group Unite Here! Though Shyne claimed in a July 19, 2021, City Council meeting not to have taken “even a penny” in contributions from the organization, the union in fact donated nearly $30,000 to her campaign. That year, Shyne championed and passed (with the support of all councilmembers, aside from Lauren Meister) a bizarrely onerous hotel ordinance in the midst of the pandemic, requiring that hotels double employee pay—for an entire day—should they clean more than 4,000 square feet of space (with every hotel room after the seventh counting as 500 square feet, regardless of size). Keith Kaplan, former chair of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and founder of the advocacy group Weho for the People, told me it was “astounding…that when [hotels] had 6.2% occupancy at that time, down from 85%, they would be hitting hotels up with the ordinance.”
A number of small-business owners and managers who spoke with LAMag are furious about the law increasing the minimum wage and paid time off requirements—only Mark Kulkis of Chop Stop would go on record (at least one of the managers I spoke with was wary of being on the radar of Unite Here!). Kulkis cites this new law as the catalyst for the closing of the restaurant’s West Hollywood location; he has since opened a new outlet in Westwood. Shyne told LAMag that “not a single [business] that I know of has [left] because of the minimum wage law.”
And over Shyne’s first years in office, her adoption of racial language and advocacy for policy interventions favoring Black and indigenous residents have also brought scorn. When the Social Justice Task Force presented their recommendations at a Council meeting in October, Shyne suggested that the Task Force become a permanent advisory board “stewarded by a BIPOC group and not in whiteness.” Among other interventions, the Task Force suggested collecting ethnic data on businesses’ workforces, requiring that 20% of all applicants for government contracts be from businesses owned by Black or indigenous people, and creating a “business incubator program marketed primarily to BIPOC entrepreneurs.”
To Alan Strasburg, vice-chair of Weho for the People, Shyne’s “whiteness” comment is emblematic of a “toxic ideology.” The Social Justice Task Force, he told LAMag, “was a solution looking for a problem,” and “reverse discrimination is every bit as insipid as outright discrimination.” One of Shyne’s most vociferous critics, Strasburg believes her “imperious and divisive attitude” is “bad for West Hollywood.”
That attitude appeared to be in full view at a November 21 Council meeting when Shyne addressed Meister, who’d just been reelected: “I look forward to continuing to work with you… And I hope that we can meet in the middle in the areas that we may not—as long as they don’t collide with my core values.”
But what exactly are these conflicts?
“My core values are making sure that we respect and preserve our history, but then we start trying different and more innovative systems that focus on more equity,” she tells LAMag. “I haven’t seen the City Council address systemic racism in West Hollywood in the way we are doing so now.”
A month later, a clearly miffed Meister, referencing Shyne’s comment, retorted by listing what she said were her “core values.
“Listening to one another, respecting one another…working together to find solutions to make all of our lives not only more livable but also more enjoyable.” She added that “the ends-justify-the-means mentality clearly has no place in our city,” and that she hoped “we can recognize the value of having diverse opinions and working towards consensus versus a take-no-prisoners approach.”
Does Shyne wish she’d expressed herself differently? “No, I don’t, I think it was just interpreted differently,” she tells me. “It wasn’t meant to be a jab at my colleague in any way. That was definitely not the intention.”
In a 2020 Wehoville op-ed, Shyne wrote that serving on the City Council “is a commitment to serve the people, not a bully pulpit for self-promotion.”
That was before she was running for Congress. Though she has not officially declared, her intentions are an open secret in West Hollywood. As her sister, Soodi Eshraghi, informed the crowd on January 9, Shyne’s ultimate goal is to bring about opportunities for “everyone in West Hollywood, and soon, we hope, for many more people in the United States.” [Note: since publication, Shyne has officially declared her candidacy for the 30th Congressional District of California]
These days, Shyne sounds more like a candidate for higher office than the humble mayor of a small, if cosmopolitan, city. “My purpose,” she told the crowd at her swearing-in, “is to illuminate, which means to bring light to the world by serving humanity, uplifting and elevating people, and eradicating the toxicity and darkness that has pervaded our social fabric, especially in politics.”
Between the illuminating and the eradicating, it’s hard to imagine Shyne will find the time to free the people of Iran. And yet, addressing L.A.’s Iranian community that night, Shyne promised, “to use every bit of power that I hold…to ensure that democracy is restored in Iran and the Iranian people are finally free of this darkness.”
To that end, Shyne has already introduced, and passed, a resolution condemning the regime’s murder of Iranian protesters. She has also taken to using the “Councilmember comments” section of every City Council meeting since September to update the West Hollywood citizenry on the latest brutalizations in her home country.
LAMag asked Shyne if she really thought anyone listening to her was on the side of the Ayatollah, and if the time and resources of the city government might be better spent. She told me her purpose is to educate those ignorant of exactly what’s going on: “They look at us as a source of education…The resolutions get sent to local, state, regional, and federal elected officials so they know where West Hollywood stands… It actually does make a difference.”
Not according to former Councilmember John Duran. “While the City Council resolutions may give the author a moment of satisfaction that something was done,” he told me, “it really amounts to meaningless performance. Time would be better spent on local issues like public safety, social services, and transit.”
There are also a number of human rights abuses occurring right now in many corners of the world. I asked Shyne what makes this issue more deserving of attention than, say, the plight of women in Afghanistan, or government corruption in Mexico, or the internment of undocumented immigrants in America for the good people of West Hollywood? “There is a deep personal connection and lived experience that I bring to the table,” she explains.
Following January’s installation, the crowd adjourned across the street to the Pacific Design Center, where we enjoyed some terrific Persian food. Shyne was surrounded by glad-handing well-wishers taking photographs and appeared to be having a ball.
I struck it up with a person calling herself Firestar, who told me she was the mayor’s best friend; they met at a Reiki circle. She was with another longtime friend of Shyne’s named Sofi Mamo, owner of the Sunset Strip store A Divine H2O, which sells water.
Water? “We program it to bring it down to earth. We put intention.” How? “We change the water molecules. We use sound frequency, light frequency, crystals, energy work.” Apparently, one can purchase water that has been energized for love, harmony, gratitude, and prosperity. “This is Gratitude,” she said to me, holding up a water bottle.
Shyne would later intercept me as I was interviewing her mother, Parvin Ghafouri. Before her daughter put an end to our conversation, I learned that she’d worked as a child psychologist and that when their family came to the U.S., Sepi learned English quickly; she was placed in second grade at six years old, Ghafouri says: “She was so smart.”
I asked her if Shyne had difficulty adjusting to life with other American children, recalling her saying her childhood dreams in America were no bigger than survival.
“It was so easy for her,” Ghafouri told me. “She was playing with all the kids; she didn’t have any problems.”
I asked if she was bullied at all for being different.
A mother only knows so much, of course, but more than her differing recollection here, I was struck by the fact that a person who’d experienced the trauma of fleeing her home country chose to say, “It wasn’t that hard for us.” She said her husband had worked for the oil companies, and before fleeing Iran, the family lived in Abadan, a wealthy, modern city back then. Now, in America, the children in the family have become engineers, doctors, and lawyers.
Shyne, for her part, knocked a softball question out of the park when asked what she loved about America. “[D]reams are possible in America. In Iran, I would have been killed. Living my most authentic life [I] would have been thrown in jail, raped and killed. So. God bless America.”
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