She Takes a Hard Line With Dieters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wizened pixie of diet wisdom called me over, past the Laughing Cow light cheese and the jar of de-oiled peanut butter lined up like offerings on her desk.

She jabbed her finger into my thigh. Reached around and grabbed my haunches. "You could lose a little here," she said, poking into me through my business suit.

"Feel this," she said, gesturing toward her own leg. A rod of steel. She lifted my blouse and peered intently at my belly. "No rolls. Not bad. But you could lose some of this," she said, tweaking my midriff. "You are a cross between a mezomorph and an ectomorph," she pronounced. "Too many carbohydrates. Not enough protein."

We were standing high above Los Angeles in the office of Hermien Lee, dietitian to the undisciplined, nutritionist to the food-obsessed and counselor to the carbohydrate-fixated, sugar-loving masses. At 84, this 4-foot-11 1/2 Jewish matriarch with the life force of a shaman on speed counsels about 100 Angelenos weekly on how to "change their weigh of life."

Available six days a week, from 6:30 a.m. until midnight, she works with celebrities, businessmen, housewives and children--the obese, the cholesterol-blocked and the nutritionally challenged.

I wasn't here to take her $600 14-week course-- too intimidating!-- but I wanted to get a taste of Lee's magic. Hundreds of specialists offer advice on how to be svelte in this city, but Lee stands out for her spunk, her rigid methods and, some would argue, her effectiveness.

Her tiny office on the fifth floor of the Flynt Publications building on Wilshire Boulevard with a to-die-for view of the hills is jammed with diet knickknacks, nutrition articles clipped from newspapers and a doctor's scale. Food aphorisms--some her own, some gleaned from a lifetime of comic-strip clipping--pepper her speech like spices.

"Food is a fair-weather lover--sweet to your face, kicks you where you shouldn't be kicked, if you know what I mean," she declares. "Vegetables are like the kind of a suitor every mother wants her kids to marry: stable, not bad-looking, always there for you, but deadly dull."

Her manner is feisty, her blue eyes penetrating. Her handshake is bone-crunching. Her petite body is compact, stripped of excess. Maybe this is what we would all be like if our fat were burned away and we were reduced to our essence.

She defines important moments in her life by an uncanny recall of what was eaten that day. "I remember he ate two eggs sunny side up, a hot biscuit with butter and honey, orange juice, ham and bacon," she says of the day her husband suffered a coronary.

In a star-struck city where ads for miracle diets hang from every telephone pole, Lee tries to offer a sane, healthy way to take off weight.

"Most people want magic," she says. "I tell people, there ain't no magic. Life isn't fair. The fair is in Pomona."

Her military-style discipline has earned her articles even in foreign magazines, like the clip from a Swedish magazine from the mid-'80s that hangs framed in her waiting room: "The diet-terrorist gives the stars trembling knees," says one passage, about a wayward client who dared to order a burger and fries, and got a salad with a reprimanding note instead. "None of that is true," she laughs. "They never even talked to me."

But those who have say she is unforgettable. "She's completely a trip, all the way around," says Steven Roffer, 41, a 6-foot-tall TV brand strategist who dropped from 186 pounds to 158 in three months of working with her. "The experience is like none other that you can even remotely imagine. Everyone who goes impersonates her, because she has such a unique way of communicating."

Lee is not just a trim woman, preaching to the fatties. She was a fatso herself.

She was so huge, she says, that when Gen. MacArthur saw her standing in uniform before a military vehicle on a trip to Australia during World War II, he said, "Which one is the truck?"

That's when she started worrying about her weight. She has gone from 170 pounds, and a size 20, to a wispy 104 pounds (size 4). She has been a vegetarian. She has done high carbs, low protein; high protein, low carbs. She exercises five times a week, slipping on her walking shoes and striding down Wilshire Boulevard for a two-hour stroll. A self-proclaimed former sugar addict, she allows herself sugar once a year, for 12 hours on her birthday.

The key, she says, is BMV. "Balance, moderation and variety."

You could probably read the books yourself, if you wanted to invest the time. But Lee will discipline you, work with you, give you lists of foods to eat and foods not to. She will coach you on what to say to waiters so they bring you what you want (tell them you have a serious health problem) and show you how to get what you need off a restaurant menu (order lots of sides). She will force you to keep a food journal. She will weigh you and look at your skin to see if you are eating enough vegetables (they make you glow). She prescribes snacks for her clients, which they consume religiously (light cheese, hollowed-out bagels, heaping bowls of frozen berries).

And she is available for late-night food confessions, if that is what is called for. "I had a man call me at 4 in the morning to tell me he ate a piece of carrot cake," she recalls. "I told him to skip a bread portion the next day."

She came to her current calling in a roundabout way, taking a crazy detour through the Pacific in World War II. A hospital-trained dietitian, she graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in chemistry and nutrition and did her hospital training in Chicago. She worked for two years at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, before shipping off to the Pacific on a medical convoy in 1942.

She ended up on the front lines in the Dutch East Indies, with 12 other women and 50,000 men. "We lived in thatched huts and had to hide out in foxholes. We had air raids every night. I had a pet monkey named Mabel."

The Americans couldn't get food through, so the general of the hospital gave her two armed guards and a jeep and sent her with a cook into the villages to find food. "We made really delicious food out of ingredients I'd never even heard of," she recalls.

During her three years in the Pacific, she began corresponding with one of Dwight Eisenhower's senior aides, Ernest Lee. After a year of letters, he proposed. "I met him one Saturday, married him the next. It was the best thing I ever did."

She had four children, and lived the life of a happy housewife until he died at age 52 in 1965. Black-and-white World War II photos of Ike, inscribed to her husband "Tex Lee," still hang in her Wilshire Boulevard penthouse in Westwood.

She moved to California, and in the late '70s teamed up with a guy named Ron Fletcher, who ran an exercise gym for people in the movie industry. She advised his clients on how to eat right. When he retired in 1988, she went out on her own.

Lee is less nutrition magician or diet wizard than personal food trainer and eating therapist. "It's all in the head," she asserts, adding that she refers people with serious eating issues to psychologists.

In 1999, Ellen Gelson, 57, went on a cruise to Alaska. It was a sedentary vacation, punctuated by rich, delicious meals. She came home feeling bloated and ill. Her internist told her to lose 10 pounds. She had seen Lee speak years earlier at a UCLA Extension class. Gelson called her up.

"She was very direct and no-nonsense," says Gelson, who lost 25 pounds. "She said, 'This is what you have to do. If you are not prepared to do this, don't waste my time."'

For the first week Gelson had to write down everything she ate, what she was doing while she ate it and how she felt. "I would write, '4 p.m., I am swallowing half a bag of M&Ms;, I'm going crazy if I don't eat this bag of M&Ms.;"'

Lee discerned Gelson's patterns, her weaknesses. She had an almost-psychic ability to spot when Gelson cheated or snuck in her afternoon chocolate. "She misses nothing," Gelson says. "It's spooky."

Steven Roffer, who had been going to the gym for years with a private trainer, was stunned when he went to the doctor for a routine checkup and found he had high cholesterol. Enter Lee.

He stripped off his shirt. "I said, 'You see this. I want to get rid of this."'

"She gives you the diet, and it is shocking," he says. "She tells you how to order--if you order an omelet with cheese, you have to ask for it on top. You don't say you are on a diet. You say it is a health risk. You say you will die if you eat it."

The effects were transformative. His cholesterol count plummeted from 232 to 169 in three months. In two months he had to have his clothes altered. A month and a half later he had them altered again. "Then my suits just didn't fit anymore. They were altered so much I looked like David Byrne."

Roffer's praise of Lee verges on the fanatical. "There are two kinds of people in the world," he sums up. "Those who don't want to be told what to do, and those who love to be told what to do." Roffer is the second.

"The more of a taskmaster someone is, the more I like it," he says with masochistic fervor. "It's like going to your shrink. You want to go."

But there are those who don't like a taskmaster, and for them, Lee's "weigh of life" spells disaster. Some people cry, some people yell. Lots of people give up.

"I'm very rigid," she says unapologetically. "I can't fix people. They have to fix themselves. If you are big, something absolutely has to change forever."

Many people are not willing to do that.

But if they are, she is willing to give them the tools, equipping them with mental games tailored to their weaknesses, stuffing them with sayings, not snacks.

"He who indulges, bulges," she intones. "He who stuffeth, puffeth."

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