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She Takes a Hard Line With Dieters

Hermien Lee, 84, is a stern taskmaster in her approach to weight loss. Don't even try cheating.

July 02, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | 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."

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