Beneath the gaze of a Hindu goddess statue, a room full of beautiful young women took a deep breath as the instructor at Russell Simmons’ yoga studio asked the students to focus on November's theme: "Karmic duty."
“We have to recognize our actions have consequences," the instructor said. Karmic duty, she said, means taking responsibility for those actions.
On this day — less than two weeks after Simmons, 60, was accused by a former fashion model of sexual assault in a story by The Times — the businessman, a regular at his West Hollywood studio Tantris, was nowhere to be seen.
Over the last decade, Simmons, the co-founder of record label Def Jam Recordings, has transformed himself into a wellness impresario, releasing instructional yoga videos, publishing books about meditation and veganism, and founding Tantris.
"The practice of yoga has changed my life," he wrote in his 2001 autobiography. "While my first forty years were about consumption and money and power, I am hopeful that the years to come will be about service."
Since The Times’ Nov. 19 report detailing model Keri Claussen Khalighi’s allegations, five additional women have disclosed new stories about Simmons, including an alleged rape. Some of the women questioned Simmons’ personal metamorphosis and suggested that it was just another opportunity to expand his business ventures.
Simmons, in a statement to The Times, denied the claims of the women in this story.
“These new stories range from the patently untrue to frivolous and hurtful claims,” he said. “I want to restate categorically what I have said previously: I have never been violent or abusive to any women in any way at any time in my entire life.”
Actress Natashia Williams-Blach, who appeared in a Simmons-produced film, “How to Be a Player,” said that in 1996, after taking her to a yoga class, he attempted to force her to perform oral sex. Williams-Blach, who was 18 at the time, said she extricated herself from the situation by telling Simmons that she needed to go to study hall at UCLA, where she was a freshman.
Massage therapist Erin Beattie alleged that while giving Simmons a massage at a Seattle hotel in 2005, the mogul exposed himself and asked her to touch his penis. She said he also made lewd sexual comments and boasted of the ease with which he could sell yoga DVDs to the masses, whom he called “sheep.”
Two former Tantris employees described a sexually charged and tense atmosphere at the studio, where Simmons frequently attended class and oversaw programs. One of those women, former general manager Karen Russell, who left in February, believed Simmons was taking advantage of his position to pursue women at the studio.
“Not only are you a multimillionaire, now you claim to be a teacher for yoga, you create and open up a sacred space. That’s a whole ’nother level,” she said. “I witnessed this type of behavior condoned by staff.”
Simmons announced on Nov. 30 that he would “step aside” from his businesses after Khalighi and screenwriter Jenny Lumet accused him of sexual assault. Simmons denied their claims. Instead of running his companies, he said he would commit himself to continuing his “personal growth, spiritual learning and above all listening.”
As for Tantris — which opened last year in the same building as the Soho House private club and also has a clothing brand that sells $128 yoga pants — Simmons said he would “convert the studio for yogic science into a not-for-profit center of learning and healing.”
In the statement for this story, Simmons said: “While there are many women with whom I have shared extraordinary relationships, whether through work or love, I regret with my whole heart any conduct that has led anyone to say or think of me in the ways that are currently being written.”
‘I go to the classes, but I’m still looking at asses’
Simmons has long been viewed as an elder statesman of hip-hop, a transformational figure who in the 1980s helped push the music into the mainstream and turn it into a lucrative business.
His Def Jam label put out records by LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, making him a tastemaker and a New York power player. He eventually cashed in on the record company, selling his stake for $100 million in 1999.
“I’ve taken the entrepreneurial energy I was putting into drugs and created a business that didn’t even exist a generation ago,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God.”
As with music, Simmons’ timing would prove keen with yoga, veganism and the wellness industry. He tapped into a budding culture of self-improvement, making it into a lucrative enterprise — and also one that burnished his rough-around-the-edges reputation.
Simmons has often said he was first pulled into yoga in the mid-1990s because of the women, but said he stuck with the practice because it calmed his mind.
Still, he has acknowledged he is a work in progress. In a 2012 Forbes profile, Simmons said of his enduring interest in women: “It was the last problem for Lord Buddha before enlightenment. I go to the classes, but I’m still looking at asses.”
In a 2005 Times story that covered the release of the DVD series “Russell Simmons Presents Yoga Live,” the mogul explained that yoga also transformed his business pursuits. "It's made me more conscious of what's harmful, and what's not, in all aspects of my life," he said.
However, some women said that his reformation appeared to be less than genuine, providing a profitable arena for his alleged misbehavior.
"There's a part of his psyche that proclaims and believes that there is something very righteous about how he lives his life, and it's almost like the truest form of delusion," said Williams-Blach.
Simmons’ yoga and meditation habits — as well as his treatment of women — were on full display in “Running Russell Simmons,” a reality show he starred in for the Oxygen Network in 2010 that documented his office life.
Throughout the six-episode run, Simmons, who had divorced Kimora Lee in 2009, flirted with women who stopped by the New York offices of Rush Communications, the holding company for his various ventures. In one episode, Simmons made out with model Heidy Allende in his office while two of his interns were stuck inside his office bathroom, which they had been told to clean. When Simmons discovered them, he kicked them out, asking his assistants: "Who are these bitches in my bathroom?"
Later in the season, Simmons took Allende out on a date — but not before he told his assistants to make sure she dressed provocatively for their evening. "She should look like the girl — the Latino she was with the boobs out, where you could see through the top?” Simmons said. “The Latino was sexy."
In a voiceover, assistant Christine Paljusaj said: "Don't think this is the first time that Russell has had me call one of his dates to tell them that they haven't been dressing sexy enough for him. I've just learned how to make these calls as tactful as possible."
Neither Paljusaj nor Allende responded to requests for comment. Simmons’ attorney, Brad D. Rose, said “Running Russell Simmons” was a “scripted” reality show that included “controversial or aggressive situations and formats in order to make for interesting television.” Oxygen, however, told The Times that the show was not scripted, describing it as a docu-series.
I have never been violent or abusive to any women in any way at any time in my entire life.
Williams-Blach, the “How to Be a Player” actress, said that she was emboldened to come forward about her experience with Simmons after reading his denial of Khalighi’s claims in a Nov. 22 essay published by the Hollywood Reporter.
“I remain an activist for women's rights and all things unjust,” he wrote.
When Williams-Blach met Simmons during production of the Bill Bellamy movie, she was newly enrolled at UCLA and filmed her scenes in the evening after classes. After production wrapped, Simmons invited her to a hot yoga class, where participants sweat in a temperature-controlled room.
During the session, she found Simmons to be “a funny guy and really charming.” In part because Simmons was more than twice her age, she “felt very easy with him. It was like an uncle,” recalled Williams-Blach.
But after the class, when they dropped by Simmons’ house to check out promotional videos for “How to Be a Player,” Simmons tried to kiss her, she said. She told Simmons she wasn’t interested, she said, but he kept going.
“He pushes the crown of my head swiftly down while he’s got his hand on his zipper. It was just a few seconds,” Williams-Blach said. She told Simmons that she had to get back to UCLA, and he agreed to take her, she said.
Simmons, via Rose, said he recalled taking a yoga class with Williams-Blach but “vehemently denies the rest of her allegations.”
Williams-Blach’s best friend confirmed that she told her about the incident not long after it occurred. Her husband, Brevin Blach, said she told him about it when they began dating in the mid-2000s.
Williams-Blach said that when she reflected on the alleged run-in over the years, she considered herself “this little fledgling deer that was kind of caught up.”
“There was this component of accepting unnecessary darkness because of the power and influence of someone,” she said.
Massages in Seattle
Beattie, the massage therapist, was 24 when she was booked for an in-room massage at the Alexis Hotel in 2005 with Simmons.
About halfway through the hourlong session, Simmons removed the sheet and exposed his penis, she said.
“He was like, ‘Do you want to work this out?’” she recalled.
Beattie said she emphatically denied his request to touch his penis. “He just expected that that was what was going to happen,” she said. “He couldn’t believe I would say no.”
Beattie offered to leave — or finish the massage without any sexual contact. He agreed and the remainder of the massage passed without incident. “This is how young I [was]. Now, I would’ve just walked out,” said Beattie, 36.
The next day, Beattie agreed to another massage, setting ground rules that it would be a nonsexual experience. Simmons did not proposition her; however, Beattie said that Simmons laced their conversation with sexual and racial innuendos.
Beattie told her then-boyfriend about what had transpired as soon as she got home from work after the first massage — a conversation he confirmed to The Times. A friend, David Wayne, said that Beattie told him about the massages a few days later and “was weirded out” by the experience.
According to his attorney Rose, Simmons recalled both he and Beattie joking about “racial and sexual things,” and remembered “jokingly” asking Beattie for a “happy ending.”
“Mr. Simmons regrets any offense that Ms. Beattie took to that remark either back then or now,” Rose wrote.
Beattie said that she did not make any racial jokes with Simmons, adding that in all her time as a massage therapist, he has been the only client to expose himself to her and solicit a sex act. “It was not a joke,” she said.
Before he changed
Two of the new allegations against Simmons center on incidents that occurred in the 1980s in New York, just before the period when Khalighi and Lumet alleged he was inappropriate with them.
Sherri Hines, who was in the all-female hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies and used the stage name Sheri Sher, alleged that Simmons raped her in his office around 1983.
Hines knew Simmons before the encounter, she said: They’d both come of age in the same New York music scene, where Simmons was promoting a mutual acquaintance, the rapper Kurtis Blow.
She ran into Simmons at a New York nightclub one night when she was 17 or 18. He invited her to check out his nearby offices. She recalled that he had just moved into the offices, which were sparsely furnished, but she could not remember the building’s exact location. Once inside, they sat down on a couch. “The next thing I knew, he was pinning me down and I was trying to fight him and he had his way,” she said. “I left crying.”
Hines told a friend who went with her to the club about the alleged incident that same day. She also told one of her sisters about the encounter the year it occurred. Both women confirmed those conversations to The Times.
Hines based a chapter in her 2008 novel, “Mercedes Ladies,” on the alleged incident. In the book, she wrote that the main character, Shelly Shel, was sexually assaulted by a powerful businessman named “Ron.” She told The Times she was too scared to identify Simmons by name in the book, which is billed on Amazon as fiction “based on a true story.” “He was high in the industry, and I didn’t want my book to be blackballed,” she said.
Simmons’ attorney Rose said the businessman “vigorously denies” the incident ever occurred. He questioned her credibility given the “patent inconsistency of accusing Mr. Simmons while at the same time praising him in the foreword of her book.” Hines said she was using “sarcasm” by putting his name in the acknowledgments.
A few years later, around 1988, Simmons allegedly attempted to assault Lisa Kirk in a nightclub in New York.
Kirk, then in her early 20s, had previously dated one of Simmons’ close friends, she said, and wound up partying at Carmelita's Reception House near Union Square with the businessman and others one night.
At one point, Simmons followed her into the women’s restroom, moved aggressively toward her, she said, and pushed her into a stall. “I smashed into the wall,” said Kirk, now 50. “It tore my clothes.”
Then he began to take his penis out of his pants, Kirk said, and she caught his eye. “He looked mortified and literally ran out of the bathroom,” she said.
Her underwear showing, Kirk left the club, she said. “It was not something you could just kind of dance away.”
In recent years, Kirk told two friends about her alleged encounter with Simmons. Justine Modek said Kirk told her about the run-in around 2012 and Todd Hutcheson said she told him in 2015.
Despite what she said occurred, Kirk reached out to Simmons years later, to ask him to help fund a film she and a business partner were trying to make. He declined, Kirk said.
Rose called Kirk’s allegations “outrageous, unverifiable claims,” pointing out that she never discussed them with two people who both she and Simmons knew well.
Kirk, however, said that for years she had blocked out the incident at the nightclub, and didn’t tell people about it — including her former boyfriend who was close with Simmons — in part because she was scared, and hoped to “make it go away, to keep on trucking.”
Kirk said that when she read Simmons’ vociferous denial of Khalighi’s allegations, she decided to share her story.
‘The yoga king of Los Angeles’
Late last year, after more than 20 years of practicing yoga, Simmons opened Tantris, the posh studio on the Sunset Strip, saying he wanted to create a “popular, trendy, cool devotional yoga studio” on the West Coast to spread his brand of yoga to the masses. An article in the New York Times’ style section about the launch of Tantris dubbed him “the yoga king of Los Angeles.”
But just a few months ahead of Tantris’ highly touted launch, Simmons was allegedly misbehaving with another woman.
In September 2016, comedian Amanda Seales met with Simmons at the Los Angeles offices of his media company, All Def Digital, to talk about potentially working together. Seales said Simmons used vulgar language to ask if they had ever had sex. When she told him no, she said, Simmons responded: “Oh, right. 'Cause I would've remembered that, right?”
Seales, who stars on HBO's "Insecure," first spoke about the meeting in a video she posted to Instagram on Dec. 1. Shortly after the video went up, Seales said, she received a call from Hasaun Muhammad, an employee at Rush Communications, who had also been present during the meeting.
"He said he wanted to get my point of view on what happened," Seales recalled of the phone conversation. "I said, 'There isn't really anything else to say. You were sitting right next to me. What is the confusion?' He said he didn't feel that Russell had done anything wrong and was just being flirty."
Simmons denied he spoke inappropriately to Seales, providing two signed affidavits to The Times from witnesses Muhammad and Marissa Louie, CEO of Portola Plush Co., who both said Simmons did not ask a vulgar question. Muhammad said it was “clear” to everyone in the meeting that Simmons “didn’t know who [Seales] was” and “playfully” asked, “Who are you? Do I even know you?”
“I never witnessed anything inappropriate occurring in words or action between her and Mr. Simmons,” Muhammad said. He said when he saw Seales and Simmons in September at the Def Jam Comedy 25th anniversary gathering, they “gave each other a warm embrace.”
At Tantris, which offers valet parking, a blow-dry bar and pH-balanced showers, Simmons has been a regular presence, frequently lecturing on meditation and yoga sutras.
Russell, the former Tantris general manager, said Simmons used his position as the studio’s owner to pursue women. In one instance, she said, a female teacher came to her saying she was uncomfortable because Simmons was aggressively pursuing her even though she had a boyfriend.
The next thing I knew, he was pinning me down and I was trying to fight him and he had his way. I left crying.
Sherri Hines, member of hip-hop group Mercedes Ladies
Simmons asked the teacher to dinner and kept trying to set up one-on-one meetings, Russell said. When she reported Simmons’ alleged harassment to studio management, they said it was a common occurrence, she recalled.
“You have to understand, we go back to the Def Jam days. This is Russell, he loves young models,” she recalled her bosses telling her. They told her they’ve “always been able to handle it and clean up his mess.”
Not long after the studio opened, Simmons briefly began offering free classes for fashion models, Russell said. Simmons was always present for those sessions, in the middle of the room, she said.
Russell said she resigned her position in February after about nine months because Simmons was too demanding. He was calling her at all hours — as early as 6 a.m. and as late as midnight — screaming and yelling about why the studio wasn’t doing as well as he’d expected, Russell said.
Through his attorney, Simmons called Russell a “disgruntled former employee” and denied there were any complaints about his behavior from Tantris employees.
Another former Tantris instructor said she quit earlier this year because of an unpleasant work environment — one in which Simmons was controlling, and women and yoga were sexualized in the name of commerce. The instructor did not want to be named because she signed a nondisclosure agreement.
Rose, Simmons’ attorney, labeled unnamed people’s claims “vague and totally frivolous.”
In a video posted to Tantris’ Facebook page in November — a week before the Los Angeles Times’ original story on Simmons was published — the mogul delivered a lecture to a class of students.
Seated on the floor in purple pants with beaded bracelets on his wrist, Simmons told the attendees about learning “to smile through the struggles that come up.”