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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

MARK HUGHES' VERSION OF HIS LIFE STORY WAS A REMARKABLE TALE OF tragedy, resolve and triumph. He said he grew up underprivileged on the gritty streets of a Latino neighborhood in La Mirada, tucked away in the southeast corner of Los Angeles County. "I was basically brought up by my grandparents," he said on the Herbalife 20th anniversary video, referring to his mother's parents, Lawrence and Hazel Hughes. And according to the myth, his mother, Jo Ann, who lived off welfare, had this weight problem.

"My mom was always going out and trying some kind of funny fad diet as I was growing up," he remembered in a speech to a 1985 Herbalife rally that was reprinted as part of an Inc. magazine article on Hughes. "Eventually she went to the doctor to get some help, and he prescribed to her Dexamyl, kind of a fad diet then. For those of you who don't know about it, it's a drug, a narcotic. It's a form of speed, or amphetamine. You're not able to eat or sleep." (In fact, Dexamyl combines an amphetamine stimulant with a barbiturate depressant to offset the amphetamine's side effects.)

Hughes continued: "After several years of using it, she ended up having to eat sleeping pills for her to sleep at night. And after several years of doing that, her body basically started to deteriorate. And she started seeing four or five doctors to keep her habit up."

Hughes, described by Inc. as "a tanned and blow-dried California swashbuckler resplendent in black tie and diamonds, brown eyes flashing over a perfect, polished smile," then reached the climax of his story, mustering a tear: "I was 19 years old when she died from an overdose."

As recently as November 1999, Hughes repeated a similar story to a trade publication, Network Marketing Lifestyles. He "transformed the tragedy into fuel for a higher purpose," the magazine said, making it his life's ambition to "develop an organization that would put the kind of reliable information and safe, effective products his mother never had into the hands of millions."

The real story was a lot more complex, and fit less neatly into an inspirational parable.

Jo Ann Hughes did die of an overdose, and Mark Hughes did spend his first years in La Mirada. But he lived in a new tract home in a neighborhood sprinkled with citrus groves and mostly populated by upwardly mobile white suburbanites. And his mother died addicted to painkillers, not diet drugs.

Hughes was raised by Jo Ann and Stuard Hartman, one of two men who claim to be his biological father. Hartman now lives with his second wife in a modest L-shaped house in Camarillo. The retired businessman is tall and handsome, with a weathered face framed by tufts of white hair. He raised Mark, along with two other boys, Guy and Kirk. Tears sometimes well in his blue eyes as he tells his story, but he keeps his composure, arms crossed over his chest as if to ward off the pain.

He shows off photographs of Mark as a young boy. There he is, skinny, bangs of dark hair falling over his forehead, with a protective arm over the shoulders of each of his younger brothers; in another, he is posed with a softball and plastic bat as Hartman holds Guy and Kirk. A third photograph shows Mark smiling as he sits on a sparkling red bicycle equipped with training wheels. Behind him stands a petite, well-dressed young woman, her hands on her hips. This is Jo Ann, Hughes' mother and Hartman's first wife.

In the early '60s, the family moved to Camarillo, which was being transformed from an agricultural community into a suburban outpost of L.A. They acquired a custom-built ranch-style home, and with Hartman prospering as an entrepreneur--he had started a business supplying aircraft parts to the U.S. government--the boys enjoyed more riches than rags. "They always had the best toys, the best stuff, the best clothes," says Duane Livingston, a close friend of young Mark.

Of the three boys, Mark was the quietest, the least rambunctious, not academically brilliant but with a certain focus and intensity. He looked the most like his mother, sharing her dark hair and complexion.

His Camarillo lifestyle also included a housekeeper and fishing trips to the Channel Islands in Hartman's Chris-Craft Constellation cruiser. His mother drove a gold-colored Cadillac and spent a great deal of time on her wardrobe and appearance. But friends could detect all was not right. For one thing, there was a tension between Hartman and Jo Ann over disciplining the children. "It was always an issue--he was too strict and she wasn't," says Livingston.

Hartman adamantly denies Jo Ann had a weight problem. "This whole story is not true," he insists. But she did have a problem. "She was addicted to pain pills," Hartman says, singling out the popular painkillers Darvon and Percodan, which have never been prescribed for weight loss. "She used them in combination to prolong the high."

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