OF SEX, SOULS AND SHAMANISM

Leslie Kenton is the high priestess of New Age health and beauty: champion of every fad from chanting to ivy juice. Is she ahead of her time? Or just batty?
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IF YOU ever felt that your poor sagging body was about to be transformed by a previously unheard of cure-all - wild yam, tea tree oil, royal jelly and so forth - the chances are that it would at some time or other have been endorsed by Leslie Kenton, the queen of weird alternative remedies, and one of the most influential health gurus of the past two decades. During her reign as a writer at Harpers & Queen, and in her bestselling books on fitness, diet and beauty (which have gung-ho titles like Ageless Ageing and Endless Energy), she has exhorted her readers to drink raw vegetable juice; to eat blackstrap molasses; to listen to their inner voices; and to practise creative imagery in order to get thin. A wacky new age superstar long before Lynne Franks ever came on the scene, Leslie Kenton has become a journalistic legend, swathed in a legion of stories concerning her famous eccentricities. People talk of the years when she dressed in nothing but white; of the time she lived in a convent in Wimbledon while working for a glossy magazine; of her refusal to move to another magazine until she had satisfied herself as to the quality of its psychic energy; of her four children, each fathered by a different man; of her subsequent lovers, including a black revolutionary Buddhist.

But more eccentric than her life, perhaps, is the extraordinary range of her enthusiasms. Ms Kenton has advocated Tibetan medicine, Chinese medicine, Indian medicine; she has also recommended any number of strange- sounding herbs as the key to longevity (skull cap, catnip, squaw vine, among others). Apparently tireless in her search for the latest sensation, she has always been the first to try the most peculiar regimes on her readers' behalf: the apple diet, the seaweed diet, the three-week fast; clay therapy, hydrotherapy, thalassotherapy; cold baths, vinegar baths, air baths. In the course of these and other investigations, she has travelled to the ends of the earth: to Himalayan monasteries and to Bavarian sanatoria; to Ayurvedic hospitals and Buddhist retreats.

Far from being alarmed by these arcane explorations, Kenton's readers appear to adore her. At least half a million of them have bought her books, and many more follow her advice in newspapers and magazines. (This week, for instance, the Daily Mail published extracts from her new book, Passage to Power, on the meno-pause.) This is not as surprising as you might assume, for Leslie Kenton is remarkably persuasive. Not only is her writing packed with scientific and medical references (if she's quoting half a dozen professors of dermatology, it's easy to assume that she knows what she's talking about), but she also offers hope to the hopeless, addressing mundane yet pressing problems - fat, wrinkles, spots - with a curious blend of practicality and magical thinking. The practical stuff is fairly obvious (eat properly, exercise regularly, breathe deeply); the magical bits encourage readers to concoct their own miraculous potions: carrot, watercress and cabbage juice to drink, freshly squeezed ivy juice to rub on the skin (one can only hope that readers do not confuse the two).

And if her readers' physical blemishes are not improved by Kenton's prescription of fresh air, herbal baths and salad three times a day, she will suggest other, more esoteric pathways. For as far as Leslie Kenton is concerned, beauty is not only skin deep: the state of our minds governs the state of our bodies. Thus in her new book, alongside reasonable advice on the subject of diet and natural alternatives to hormone replacement therapy, Kenton reveals details of her latest passion - shamanic healing. ("In the hands of a developed and highly-trained shaman, the process of soul retrieval can be a tremendously important part of a woman's journey at menopause. It can often do in a couple of hours what years of psychotherapy have been unable to accomplish.")

It remains to be seen whether shamanic healing will catch on in quite the same way as, say, daily doses of Vitamin C: but with Leslie Ken-ton as its champion, you never know. Her talent for convincing people that she knows best may be due to the fact that she is, in the words of one of her former colleagues, "completely bewitching". ("She could have been a cult leader," says another, darkly.) But I think that her odd charm has just as much to do with her untrammelled enthusiasm: a legacy of her American upbringing, perhaps, undimmed by almost 30 years of living amidst British scepticism. Armed with this rare commodity, Leslie Kenton - 54 years old, blonde, blue-eyed, and bursting with energy - first turned the pursuit of health into a religion, and has now transformed herself into a priestess, promising beauty and radiance to all those who search for it: a New Age dream come true, a Holy Grail for the nineties in an increasingly ugly world. Those of a more sceptical nature, however, are bound to ask the question: is it wise to put our faith in this woman?

MOST OF the time, Kenton is to be found in her cottage in West Wales, where she has lived for the past 17 years. It is called "Blue Dol-phins", and overlooks the sea and the cliff-tops, along which Kenton runs every morning. Her children have left home, but she has two dogs, Sunshine and Moonbeam. Sunshine is slightly mad, and hurls herself prostrate to the ground when I arrive. "I think she had a traumatic birth experience," remarks Kenton, seriously. She is making lunch in the bright blue and yellow kitchen (salad with organic vegetables grown in her garden, and home-made soya milk ice-cream), and then we go upstairs to her studio to eat. "We'll have a picnic," she says gaily, as if to a child, spreading a cloth on the floor. Huge terracotta pots planted with flowers hang from the ceiling, and the room is decorated with driftwood, feathers, and yards of very white muslin.

She is a big-boned, strong woman who eats heartily and laughs a lot - swooping, trilling, gushing - but her conversation is never anything but intense. "I've always been interested in beauty," she says, sitting gracefully with the folds of her long blue dress arranged around her. "Not just women's beauty, but beauty. I love beauty. I eat it. I feed off it. I can't live in a place that's not beautiful. It wounds me. I could live in a room with nothing in it, but I would whitewash the walls, and I would put a wildflower there; and it would be beautiful.

"It's my nature," she continues. "Both my parents were very artistic. My mother was a painter, my father a musician. Each of them was so unique." The story of her life, as she tells it, is tremendously dramatic. When her father, the American jazz musician Stan Kenton, married her mother, Violet, they were so poor that "they had to live on 25 cents a day for food." He started his own band the same month that Leslie, their only child, was born, and "within four years, he had been phenomenally successful, and we had a lovely house. It sits on top of the mountain that overlooks all of Los Angeles, and behind it is the Hollywood sign."

But before she lived in the house on the hill, the new-born Kenton was handed over by her parents and sent to stay with her grandmother. "My mother didn't know what to do with a child," she says, "and my grandmother was the most confident woman in the world, and I think my mother felt incompetent as a result, and so she left me. Then after a year, my grandmother handed me back - so my experience of people who love you is that they always leave you."

She appears to have been an irritatingly precocious child. "In 1948, when I was seven, Laurence Olivier's Hamlet came out. I fell in love with it, and went to see it seven times. And I would lie on my belly and listen to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring over and over and over again. When I began to read, I would read Dostoevesky, and it was real to me. I saw in it everything that I didn't see around me. It fed my soul. It was that which kept me alive."

Her parents divorced, and at the age of 11 she tried to kill herself by taking all the pills she could find in the medicine cabinet. Her relationship with her father, she says by way of explanation, was a troubled one. "It was very passionate and very complex." She also had her father's mother to deal with. "She was a witch who practised black magic," says Kenton, somewhat alarmingly. I want to hear more, but she refuses to elaborate. "If you wrote about it, nobody would believe it. But she had a coven. Edward G Robinson was part of the coven."

Leslie Kenton, on the other hand, became interested in what might be termed white magic: in healing people. "When I was 12, my mother had a baby by my stepfather. This baby was born with all her intestines in a sac outside of her, and I was determined that she was not going to die. She underwent surgery at five hours old, and then spent six weeks in an incubator." Leslie, meanwhile, read everything she could find in the local library about nutrition. "When my sister came home, I mixed her formulas. And I said we mustn't eat any white bread, and we can't have any sugars.'

Her sister grew up healthy, and Kenton became ever more firm in her unconventional convictions. By the time she was 17, she was at college, studying philosophy at Stanford. At 18, she became pregnant with her son Branton, and married his father, an American neurologist. The relationship was short-lived, and she soon got pregnant again after a brief affair with a friend. The product of this union was her daughter Susannah. "After Susannah was born, I discovered that I'd developed a very large tumour, which had to be removed, on my right ovary," she says rapidly - for there is still much to be covered in her epic tale. "I was very frightened, and I had no money." She was therefore persuaded to marry another old friend, an American journalist. "I didn't love him, but I was fond of him," she explains. "And within two months I got pregnant, and a year later Jesse was born." They moved to London, where her husband worked for the Economist, but although her health improved, the marriage deteriorated. At 28, she told her husband that she wanted a divorce, and then spent three weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Scotland in order to work out what to do with her life. "I went for a walk up in the hills, took off all my clothes, lay down in the grass all day. And I came back down the mountain, and I saw this abbot, and he gave me some dutzi, which is Tibetan herbal medicine that has been blessed by the Lama's mantras. It's amazing stuff, Justine. It just opens up your mind."

In fact, Kenton's mind had already been opened a few years previously, when she took part in a medical experiment on the effects of LSD, conducted by a London doctor. "I'm not the kind of person who will take drugs," she says, "but it was wonderful. It brought back all these memories, and changed my life."

So there she was, in the early Seventies, spiritually enlightened, but penniless, husbandless, and with three young children to support. She decided to become a business journalist, be-cause that would allow her to work from home, "and I rather naively believed that business was about the use of human potential, which always intrigued me." Despite her total lack of experience, she talked various magazine editors into giving her work. "I wrote about the heavy lifting gear industry, the aluminium industry, the airline industry. After about a year, I realised that business was not as interesting as I thought it might be."

She switched to writing for women's magazines, and in 1974 became health and beauty editor for Harpers & Queen, a hitherto minor post in which she rapidly achieved guru status. At a time when most people's ambitions for health extended to little more than swallowing the odd spoon of cod- liver oil, she managed to persuade her readers to indulge in an array of what were then seen to be outlandish practices. ("She was ahead of her time," says one of the magazine's former editors. "She'd write all these quirky articles about mad-cap things - but now they don't seem so mad. Drinking mineral water, eating raw food, avoiding stress - everyone's doing it these days.")

In 1988, by this time with a fourth child, fathered by another lover, she left Harpers & Queen to write a wild, hugely sprawling novel about Beethoven, entitled Ludwig. "Beethoven was a multiple personality," she says breezily. "My father was a multiple personality, actually. He had the same birthday as Beethoven." The hero of Ludwig becomes obsessed with the composer, just as Kenton herself did. She developed ringing in the ears and became quite mad during the writing of the novel, staying up all night to work and then rushing out into the sea at dawn. "I stopped menstruating the same mouth that I finished Ludwig," she says, with her characteristic lack of reserve.

Kenton then embarked upon her book about the menopause; she also trained to be a shamanic healer in America, completed a course in film directing, and somehow found time to fall in love with a 23-year-old boy whom she met when he mended her Land Rover. ("He loves wolves," she says. "My son Aaron and I are very fond of wolves, too. We've lived with wolves, in fact.") Kenton is now writing her second novel, which is a love story about an older woman and a younger man set in Pembrokeshire. "And I may do other things as well," she says. "All I know is that everything I do, I want to come from my soul."

THE NIGHT before I was due to see Kenton, I was stricken with tonsillitis. When I rang to explain and postpone the interview, she was full of practical advice. "You don't need antibiotics, you need to take some tincture of sage," she said confidently. "Ten drops, three times a day."

When we finally met, I asked her if she ever worried about dispensing medical guidance at a distance. Might not some of the remedies in her books be harmful, if only to a few of her countless, unseen readers?

"No," she says firmly. "The stuff that I'm writing about is pure nature cure. It's all about doing whatever you can do to support the body to heal itself." And the strange thing is, whatever one's doubts about Tibetan medicine and seaweed baths, when she looks you in the eye, she is spookily convincing.

This may be why, several weeks after my trip to Wales, I find myself in her London flat on a weekday morning, listening to much talk about healing spirits and soul retrieval and non-ordinary reality. There is a smell of incense in the air, and many candles are burning, and soon the noise of traffic outside recedes, to be replaced by the sound of her shamanic rattle and drums. It would be easy to scoff (a white woman doing tribal rituals in Primrose Hill, for heaven's sake), but the whole thing is strangely beguiling. I end up telling her about my life - which is quite the wrong way round in an interview - and she says that the spirits will protect me. This seems batty but comforting. When it is time to leave, she tells me to go and sit beneath a tree on Primrose Hill. "Trees are very grounding," she says. So I find a tree without too much dog shit around it, and yes, I sit there for a few minutes, feeling both foolish and hopeful. Perhaps I'm gullible: but if Leslie Kenton told you that you could fly, you might well believe her. !

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