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Death and Denial at Herbalife

The Untold Story of Mark Hughes' public image, Secret Vice and Tragic Destiny

February 18, 2001|MATTHEW HELLER | Matthew Heller's last story for the magazine was a profile of St. John Knits' Kelly Gray

There's a star on the stage of the Great Western Forum. Immaculately dressed as always, 6-foot-1, tanned, not a hair out of place, he is a veteran of such very public appearances. In seminar after seminar, convention after convention, he has captivated thousands of people around the world with his charisma, sincerity and enthusiasm.

But this appearance, on Feb. 19, 2000, is something special for Mark Reynolds Hughes. It's part of a five-day celebration of the 20th anniversary of Herbalife International, the company he started in a former Beverly Hills wig factory. There is a lot to celebrate. At 44, Hughes is the ruler of a $956-million business empire that sells weight-management and personal-care products through a network of more than 1 million distributors in 50 countries.

So-called multilevel or network marketers are lucky to stay in business for several years. Hughes has racked up 20--and become extremely rich in the process. In the preceding fiscal year, he earned more than $2 million in salary and bonuses; he controls 60% of Herbalife stock, worth about $250 million, and has interests in suppliers of the company's products. In 1998, he collected a tidy $43 million in a leveraged buyout of one manufacturer. He owns homes in Beverly Hills, Malibu and Maui, and is planning to build a veritable San Simeon on a mountaintop above Benedict Canyon.

From the Forum stage, Hughes looks out on an audience of acolytes, about 4,000 Herbalife distributors who have followed his prescription for health and wealth with almost messianic fervor. To them, he is the manifestation of how a flair for salesmanship, hard work and a belief in your product can make just about anyone a millionaire. Like his followers, he sports one of the ubiquitous "Lose Weight Now, Ask Me How" badges--the slogan that also adorns telephone poles and car bumpers everywhere. "The dream he had has helped so many people like me," says Paco Perez, a distributor who was a hotel bellboy when he first met Hughes.

The faithful focus their attention as the Forum Diamondvision displays a video montage of highlights from Hughes' past, from the early days of selling a protein powder out of his car trunk to his current status as chairman and chief executive of a multinational corporation headquartered in a Century City high-rise.

There, on screen, is Hughes crying at Herbalife's fourth anniversary rally--"I can't believe what's happened with all of this,"

he sobs--hobnobbing with the likes of Milton Berle and Merv Griffin, handing out $1-million bonus checks to distributors, globe-trotting in the company's private jet, promising to "take Herbalife around the entire world."

On the Forum stage, moved by the nostalgia, Hughes again allows a tear or two to roll onto his cheeks. "I will never forget that moment," recalls Perez. "It was emotional for him and me."

Three months later, on May 21, Mark Hughes is lying on the four-poster bed in the master bedroom suite of his beach retreat, a Mediterranean-style mansion on 71/2 acres with 300 feet of Pacific Ocean shoreline that he recently bought for a Malibu-record $25 million.

It is late in the morning after another celebration. The 87th birthday party for Hughes' beloved maternal grandmother, Hazel, known affectionately as Mimi, had been a private affair, just a few family members joining him at home for the evening. Out of the public limelight, Hughes drank white wine, smoked a cigar and played his drum set, protected by security gates, round-the-clock guards and surveillance cameras.

From an adjoining part of the suite, Darcy LaPier Hughes--his fourth wife and, like her three predecessors, a former beauty queen--enters the master bedroom. Her husband's back is facing her. He is wearing only a black T-shirt and black bikini briefs. Something about him doesn't look right. Darcy calls the guards, who realize something is very wrong. They carry him to the floor and lay him on his back to perform CPR. Unsuccessfully.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office concludes he died of a toxic combination of alcohol and Doxepin, an antidepressant he was taking to help him sleep. His blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.21, more than 2 1/2 times the legal limit for driving.

The death was ruled an accident, an eerie echo of the ruling on the drug-related death of Hughes' mother 25 years earlier. Hundreds of mourners grieved the loss of a man struck down in his prime who had helped so many get so rich.

But the real story is even sadder, the tale of a troubled man who grew up amid discord and drug abuse and, as an adult, turned a mythical video version of his past--the Herbalife story--into his reality. It's also the story of how Mark Hughes, the super-salesman, may have become a prisoner of his public image.


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