In the shark-eat-shark world that is Hollywood, everybody needs an edge. For some, it's the personal trainer. For others it's the celebrity psychic. Sometimes it's cabala classes or the Tao Te Ching or Sun Tzu's "Art of War" (a one-time favorite of ubershark Mike Ovitz).
For producer Helena Echegoyan, it's something else. That's her seated in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, calm amid the buzz of agents on cell phones and filmmakers draped with would-be starlets drinking martinis in the darkened bar.
She's with her success coach.
Success coach? That would be Dena Crowder, seated across from Echegoyan beneath a 19th-century French silk-screen, dressed in an elegant jacket and oversize pearls. They're eating dim sum and drinking tea and discussing Echegoyan's progress in life.
So sorry to interrupt. What's a success coach?
Crowder smiles, a dazzling, 200-watt coruscation from a tiny, crop-haired figure. "I get that reaction," she says. "People go, 'Okay.' They don't really know if it's serious. It's like, 'Hmmmm.' Most of the time people just raise their eyebrows and attack the client. 'What the hell? You give her a check? Every month? Like a car payment? What is this?' And the client will generally explain what he or she is receiving, what the relationship is."
Okay. Let's ask the client.
Echegoyan, who has a film called "Light It Up" coming out in the fall, is happy to answer.
"What doesn't she do for me? She provides insight, strategy, skills and tools for me to deal with my professional life. To deal with my internal life."
And now, an alternate version for people who live east of Palm Springs:
"You cannot be a successful person in business if you are not a successful human being," Echegoyan explains. "Was Don Simpson"--the hard-living producer of films like "Flashdance" and "Days of Thunder" found dead of an overdose in his bathroom in 1996--"successful? He was not successful at all. If I'm a successful human being, I can be successful in my business."
"People want what Helena wants," continues Crowder, 27. "They want the whole success. You come to me and you say, 'Here's what's going on in my life.' You fill out a two-page questionnaire to do the work. I evaluate whether it's going to benefit you . . ."
"The work" is what Crowder calls her process of delving into one's character; it involves homework, and lots of thinking. "The work appeals to them because it allows them to target, to tap into arenas of self-expression and creativity, to learn and acquire knowledge in ways they never had before.
"I want people to understand: I'm the architect. I'm the coach. But in the end, they're the performer. They're hiring me to be the catalyst."
Private sessions go for about $200 an hour. Minimum commitment: five times a month for six months. And by the way, she's not particularly looking for any new clients.
Of course, there's another way of looking at this. Which is, that America's overpampered upper class has finally become brain-addled by its narcissism. Who would pay for such drivel? Do you really need a Dena Crowder to tell you all the stuff you already know? Regarding finances: Get organized, she says. You need more money coming in than goes out. Regarding professional confusion: Have courage! Be who you are! And for low self-esteem: You are more than your monthly paycheck. You have narrowed yourself so much that you "are" your job.
Even Crowder says, "This is not brain surgery."
But still. Her clients don't really seem that naive. Let's listen to Gardner Cole, a musician who met Crowder at a New Year's Eve meditation a couple of years ago. They were meditating partners. Cole, 35, wrote the hit tune "Open Your Heart" for Madonna. He produces music and writes for Al Jarreau, Michael McDonald and Tina Turner, to name a few. He scores movies. By the time he was in his early twenties he had a $3.5 million deal with Warner Bros to record albums and publish music.
But in 1997 he was unhappy. "The music industry has a way of making you feel devalued if you don't keep making Number 1 hits," he explains by phone from Phoenix, where he lives. "I made millions of dollars really young, and didn't have the impetus to go out there and keep doing that. I was floundering when I met her; I wasn't feeling enjoyment anymore from my work."
Crowder helped the musician climb out of his slump by getting him--for one thing--to face his past demons. Despite his successes, Cole discovered that he still was affected by the insults that his father flung at him as a child: "You're a dreamer, you'll never be [expletive]."
"I'd lost faith in myself," Cole says. "I had convinced myself I wasn't worthy. I didn't believe I deserved success." Pause. "In the entertainment industry people want to be around winners. If you throw out energy that you're a winner and on top of your game, people want to be around you."
Cut to the chase: Cole has started his own record label, found $6 million worth of financing to produce new artists and is writing country music.
Another case: Brigitte Secard, now 26, had already been a boxer in college, had been a personal assistant to "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher and had started her own business to provide people with personal assistants when she decided she needed help in her life. At the time Secard was faced with a critical choice: either to choose a career as a personal development consultant (at a company run by a relative of Deepak Chopra) or take a chance on her dream of being a singer.
She called Crowder. "I went from potentially never singing again to where I am now," says Secard. "Yesterday I had meetings with a top individual at Sony Music." She spends her days in the recording studio, and feels she's on the brink of landing a record deal.
Secard says she couldn't have done it without Crowder's encouragement. "There's nothing she tells you that you don't already know. It's just a process of working together, collaborating on taking action," she says. "It opens you up to yourself, to look at the possibilities for yourself." Secard takes a beat. "Other people I came into contact with were in subordination syndrome: 'I am the teacher.' Dena is very much the teacher and the student."
And now a voice of caution. Homa Mahmoudi is a consulting and clinical psychologist who for 14 years headed the psychology department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and who now does a fair bit of management coaching herself.
Though she doesn't know Dena Crowder, here's what she has to say about a fledgling field that grows more crowded every day:
"Organizations have to be really careful about who they hire. You need someone who has some life experience and educational experience and a great deal of sensitivity to be able to deal with the different issues."
An acquaintance of Mahmoudi's left behind a failed catering business to become a hit as a success coach. "She has good presentation, good jokes, good taste--she's very successful at it," Mahmoudi says ruefully. "A lot of these people are just nice. They have a line. They have gone through some of the management books and they've packaged a nice little talk. It's like a good pep talk. And you may learn a few sentences. It's a very good game."
Can it really help people? "They help at some level," she says. "But it's more of a sales process than an intellectual process."
We arrive at Crowder's gated, peach, South Florida-style mansion in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles. There is a two-tiered fountain in the front yard and three cars parked in the back. The Tudor house next door is on the market for $1.7 million. (We think: How can she afford this?)
Crowder wiggle-waggles her way to the front gate, motioning in a visitor while talking on a wireless headset to a client. "What magazine?" she is saying to some anonymous, successful person. "Modeling News? Mmm-hmmm. In Europe?" She deposits the visitor in her living room while she finishes the session in her office, out back, past the pool. The living room is formally furnished in Chinese rugs and Louis XVI-style sofas and armchairs. The dining room, adjacent, has an ornate French china cabinet and a massive dining room table with gilt detailing and matching chairs upholstered in silk. The walls are adorned mostly with large, gilt-framed photographs and paintings of Crowder, her mother and her younger sister.
Born in Los Angeles, Crowder early on seemed destined for great things. Her father was a lawyer but her parents divorced early, and Crowder's mother, an educator, was determined to make a genius of her first child. Crowder says she could read by age 2--her mother was already teaching her while in the womb--and was doing TV commercials by the time she was 6.
Success in a competitive industry came easily to her; she landed spots for Kellogg's, McDonald's, other big companies. "I was funny," she recalls. "And so much of success is in your expectation. I would be like, 'I'm here to get my job.' People get that energy." Finally--inevitably--she failed to get a role on a miniseries and decided to give it up. "I realized I was a product. I didn't like that," she says. She was 12. Still, at 13 she went on to host a local kid's interview show called "The Elementary News."
Journalism appealed to her. She went to a top high school, Marlborough School for Girls, which put her on the academic track. She went to Columbia University then got a master's in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California.
The family's more distant history is at least as interesting as Crowder's meteoric youth. Her great-grandmother, who cared for Crowder while her mother worked, was an octoroon born in Louisiana in 1898--a descendant of mulatto slaves and their owners--and came to California from Mississippi. A rebel and a courtesan in 1930s Hollywood, Maribel Dunham worked at Saks Fifth Avenue at a time when blacks could not shop at the store. "She always had a lot of money. She'd be dragging a mink coat behind her in the middle of the Depression," says Crowder. "Married three times. Widowed twice. She redefined in every way what was possible. She was a tragic figure because of the times. Today I think she would have been a movie star." On Crowder's father's side there are music and performance: Jazz great Charles Mingus is a cousin.
Flash forward to the early '90s. Crowder had finished her journalism degree in a year but didn't want to be a journalist. ("Too unstable," she says.) Family pressure was intense: What would Dena do next? Next she got sick and found herself in the hospital recovering from major surgery. After hurtling from success to success her whole life, Crowder was facing a black hole. What to do? End it all? She says that from somewhere in the ether, a voice told her to keep trying. She crawled her way back to health and started taking personal development courses, meditation, religion, coaching, teaching, helped by communications guru Lillian Glass. She began counseling her friends. She gave a class and dozens came.
That's how it started. Now Crowder gives her private sessions in a sparsely-furnished guest house in the back of the mansion, a boxy room filled with incense, self-help books and a flat bed covered by an Indian cloth. A low tray holds candles, silver goblets of water and a card she has signed: "Thank you, Thank You, Thank you," it reads, "I am so grateful and humble and surrender to your will." An envelope reads, "Resolution," a letter she has written to herself.
We ask Crowder how she differs from, say, motivational speaker Tony Robbins. "He teaches a lot of techniques," she replies. "I never, ever give people techniques without first giving them a ground of being." What does that mean? "It means if you tell me, 'Oh, Dena, this is going on,' I'd say, we start with cleaning out old stuff. No matter how successful, intelligent, how rewarded you are, we start at ground zero, with you cleaning out with what I call the debris of past foundations--everything from 'My mother never loved me' to your 3,000-pound-gorilla neurosis. We start with 'Who am I?' In this culture we say, 'I know who I am.' What I find is that anybody who ever comes to me has needed work on focusing in on who they are."
Crowder coaches about 30 private clients at the moment, but also gives seminars and lectures on her method at colleges and trade schools. Hollywood comers are not the only ones attracted to her practice; there are also a lot of lawyers, a few psychotherapists and one former crack addict. Expansion is definitely in the cards; both Crowder and her clients are eager to spread the word.
Ring, ring. We are calling Dena Crowder. The machine picks up: "The true goal of human activity is the creation of a worldwide community of awakened persons," says her upbeat, determined voice. "Our business is your accomplishment."
In a city of seekers, who could resist such an embrace?
Crowder is aware that some, particularly on that other coast, might view her with serious skepticism. "I make a very vigilant effort to be as authentic as possible, to allow people to experience that authenticity," she says patiently. "The minute I don't, then I'm open for people to say, 'She's like the mahahshishi who stole all that money.' The answer is--I'm me."
She adds: "People have to get over so many things when they meet me. That I'm not crazy. That I'm not a guru. That I don't have Kool-Aid in the back of the house." She shrugs. "I know. It's a lot."
And there is another possibility, namely, that Dena Crowder isn't just selling ephemera and her own glowing image of success. Perhaps she is offering an alternative to L.A.'s relentlessly acquisitive society. Maybe her counseling answers a hunger for something beyond the consumerist fantasy, the Hollywood dreamscape, the golden handcuffs. Maybe she is about redefining success.
It's certainly possible. Now pass the dim sum.