The VICE Guide to Self Improvement

Vulnerable Celebrities and the Managers Who Tried to Destroy Them

There's a long history of attorneys, managers, and so-called shrinks preying on cashed up stars who are out of their depth.

by Issy Beech
15 September 2017, 6:42am

Issy Beech

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In the winter of 1976, journalist David Felton travelled to southern California to meet Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. He was writing a piece for Rolling Stone on the band's comeback in the wake of Wilson's mysterious and highly publicised break from writing and recording. According to friends and family, Wilson had become a recluse—living in the chauffeur's quarters of his Bel Air mansion, overeating, abusing cocaine, and heroin. Reports had surfaced of suicide attempts, of Wilson inviting people over and ignoring them for days on end. There was even a rumour he'd dug a grave in the yard and asked a friend to bury him alive.

By the time Felton met Wilson, the Beach Boys' frontman had already hired Eugene Landy, a popular "new age shrink" to the rich and famous. Landy's strange and sometimes terrifying "rehabilitation" methods for Wilson—which included being constantly medicated and watched, being rewarded with food for working on his music, and being spoken for by Landy—became the focal point of Felton's 1976 Rolling Stone cover story "The Healing of Brother Brian."

Landy exhibited all the calling cards of a skilful manipulator—persuasive, charismatic, and weird as all fuck. A character profile eerily similar to a small-time cult figure. With his aptitude for manipulation—and luck of choosing the right victim at the right time—Landy became one of the most famously dangerous right hand men in celebrity history.

Wilson's first wife Marilyn introduced him to Landy in 1975, during his reclusive period. What followed was a yearlong relationship labelled "unusual" by the media but was, more accurately, an abusive one. In his Rolling Stone article, the Healing of Brother Brian, Felton writes with disbelief of witnessing Landy's controlling regime: At its most basic, the unconventional therapist would monitor and regiment Wilson's eating, sleeping, working, and socialising habits. Around-the-clock therapy designed to rehabilitate the tortured artist.

But Landy also misdiagnosed and treated Wilson for paranoid schizophrenia, and—according to family and friends—was dosing Wilson daily with dangerous levels of conflicting medications. Uppers when Landy wanted Wilson to be productive, and downers when he wanted him subdued. In one TV interview from 1983, Landy speaks for Wilson like a father speaks for their kid, while practically sitting on top of him. Wilson stares off into space and fidgets with his hands, childlike in his dependency.

Wilson's family fired Landy in 1977. But just five years later, in a moment of apparent desperation after Wilson had retreated into paranoia and reclusiveness—and overdosed on a cocktail of drugs—they rehired him.

For the next five years, the abusive cycle continued unchecked: Landy moved into Wilson's home, wrestling for control of his assets, copyrights, and profits. He was present at all writing and recording sessions for the Beach Boys—at times taking up creative control, being credited as co-writer and producer on albums and singles.

In 1986, Wilson met Miranda Ledbetter at a car dealership, while in the company of Landy and the bodyguards the therapist had hired to enforce his regime. As the story goes, Wilson secretly slipped her a note, which read: "Lonely, scared, frightened." The pair started dating and, six months later, Ledbetter was reporting Landy to the state of California for ethical misconduct. But not only did he continue to practice—the state said Ledbetter would need the cooperation of Wilson's family in the matter—but he also insisted Wilson stop seeing her, for his health and the progress of the "therapy." And Wilson did.

By 1988, Landy was Wilson's legal guardian.

Prying the musician away from his guru would take years. Landy was only fired once and for all after the family took legal action against him in 1992. After years of psychological abuse and misconduct, California revoked Landy's medical licence, and he was served with a restraining order. Free from Landy, Wilson could reunite with Ledbetter—who he's now been married to for 22 years.

Landy died of lung cancer complications in 2006. In hindsight, Wilson tends to speak of him with a kind of relieved fondness: "I try to overlook the bad stuff," he said in an interview with the New York Post back in 2015, "and be thankful for what he taught me."

There's an irony in the fact the scrutiny of media can not only drive a star into the arms of someone like Landy, but also be the only warning signal that something has gone terribly wrong. The impact of Felton's reporting on Wilson and Landy's relationship as huge: humanising an icon like Wilson during his most alienating years; and showing the world just what it took to manipulate a powerless star. The question is: Is it possible that it lay the foundations for those who came after him?

When Britney Spears met Osama "Sam" Lufti in a club in late 2007—she apparently approached him to ask for his hat—the singer was in the middle of the most publicly difficult time in her life. It'd been just months since she'd shaved off her extensions in a barbershop in Tarzana, California.

Mere days after that first meeting, Lufti presented Britney with a management contract that entitled him to 15 percent of her earnings, which at the time were around $800,000 a month. Enamoured by Lufti, Britney fired her manager Larry Rudolph, agent, bodyguards, and her publicist in quick succession. According to Spears' family, just one month after the pair met, Lufti had moved into Britney's home.

"Mr Lutfi has drugged Britney," Spears' father Jamie said of the relationship while pleading to the court for intervention in 2008. "He has cut Britney's home phone line and removed her cell phone chargers… He yells at her. He claims to control everything—Britney's business manager, her attorneys, and the security guards at the gate."

As with Wilson and Landy, the control and abuse of drugs played a central role in the relationship between Britney and Lufti. Stories surfaced of controlled substance abuse and psychological manipulation. Lufti was accused of medicating Britney and monitoring her finances, of organising for paparazzi to tail her, and even inviting them into her home and bizarrely greeting them like friends.

In May of 2008, Lufti was served with a restraining order. In the almost-decade since, he has continued to take Britney to court, claiming damages and compensation.

Despite their best efforts, neither Landy nor Lufti were able to get away with their dominance. They weren't able to smother their employers into total submission. Perhaps because both Wilson and Spears were such well-loved cultural icons, people who had meant so much to the lives of so many, they wouldn't go quietly. Rolling Stone would write about Landy's abuse of Wilson, and the world would care. Britney's fan base and family would bring the pop star back from the brink.

Anna Nicole Smith, a former playmate and global tabloid casualty, wouldn't be so lucky.

Attorney Howard K Stern met model and actress Smith in 1996. He was one of many attorneys in her orbit—fighting for the millions of dollars she believed she was owed from the estate of her late husband, oil tycoon Howard Marshall II. By the late 1990s, Stern was her sole counsel, soon to become her manager.

During its two-year run, The Anna Nicole Show—the reality show that Stern allegedly pitched, oversaw, and appeared in constantly—was a catalogue of the pair's bizarre relationship. In it, Stern refers to himself as Smith's "friend, manager, and attorney," and follows her around incessantly. He speaks over her and for her, and becomes easily agitated and aggressive when confronted about basically anything, apart from when talking to Smith.

Smith herself appears almost always inebriated, stumbling over the simplest of sentences and finding menial tasks exhausting. In a trailer for the show, Smith says "I hate my life… I just wanna go to sleep and wake up next week."

By 2000, Stern had publicly commented on their relationship, saying the two were "lovers." He claimed that Smith was not paying him a salary, but was paying his rent, living expenses, and occasional cash handouts. Friends of Smith's—including the man who dated her from 2004 to 2006, Larry Birkhead—said that the attraction wasn't mutual, that Stern's love of Smith was met with friendship.

Birkhead once testified that Stern was an unwelcome third party during his relationship with Smith—sleeping on the couch while they were in bed together, and supplying her "with a duffel bag of prescription drugs when she was pregnant and in a hospital trying to detox." His presence created constant tension and drama in her life.

When Smith became pregnant in 2006, Stern claimed paternity. Birkhead, Smith's actual boyfriend, also claimed he was the father. Things took a turn for the worst when, after an apparent disagreement with Birkhead, Smith moved to the Bahamas on a whim with Stern. Although, during an appearance on Larry King Live, Stern later claimed he and Smith had been together for "a very long time."

Three months after the birth of her daughter, Dannielynn, Smith's 20-year-old son Daniel died mysteriously in the hospital room Smith was recovering in from the birth. Just days later, on September 28, 2006, Stern and Smith wed in a commitment ceremony in the Bahamas. By February 2007, she was dead—overdosing on a cocktail of prescription drugs at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida. Of the 11 drugs found in Smith's system, eight were prescribed to Howard K Stern. While pursuing a case claiming custody of Smith's body post-mortem, Stern testified that Smith "physically died last week... But in a lot of ways, emotionally she died when Daniel died." Why Stern might have married a close friend who was "emotionally dead" remains something of an ethical mystery.

In 2009, Stern and two doctors were charged with a number of felony counts, due to conspiracy and fraudulent prescriptions. Between the three of them, they had reportedly supplied Smith with thousands of medications between 2003 and 2007.

Now, a decade since Smith's death, Birkhead is recognised as Dannielynn's biological father and legal guardian after a court ordered paternity test was done. Stern is still very much involved in Dannielynn's life, continuing to pursue the case for Smith's share in the billion dollar inheritance from her ex-husband Marshall's estate. In an interview in 2007, Birkhead said of Stern: "It seems unlikely, but he's been a great help."

In the years since Smith's death, both Wilson and Spears have been vindicated, appearing healthy and independent and back in the world. Changed a little bit, though, which is to be expected.

And we haven't heard much in the way of controversial life coaches and new age doctors to the stars... Is it possible that they've retreated into the darkness? That their time is over? Or perhaps they've just gotten better at subtlety.

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