I have always had a problem with authority figures.
It started probably with my parents, who were the first real authority in my life. Bedtime when mum said, wake up when mum said, tea when she said, breakfast and dinner when she said, in fact, basically everything when mum said.
My Dad wasn’t in charge of such daily grind decisions, and consequently I didn’t have much problem with him until I aged a bit, although that makes me sound like cheese, which I’m not.
My mum impressed upon me early in life that how you appear to others is of utmost importance. How you sound to them, how you look to them. “Greville” she said, “you will be judged on your appearance right or wrong. This is the real world, and it isn’t fair.” And thus, from a tender age, I grew up in two minds.
One, to please others. Two, to please myself.
As time passed and I went to school the family dynamic changed a bit. I noticed that often, my parents lied to me. Simple stuff like, “I’ll be right there” or “I’ll be right back” or “I’ll do it now” and that kind of simple untruth that confuses a child.
Things like what would be ok for my sister to do, a year my senior, somehow those things became not ok for me to do. Even silly stuff like going to bed at 9pm because when my sister was 10, she was allowed to stay up till then. But I wasn’t for some reason.
So, when my mum and my nan started on about being virtuous, I was full of suspicion that another double standard was about to come down the pike. My nan was an enormous fan of Shakespeare, and was of the generation in England that studied his works often and much.
It was her borrowed words from him that stuck in my mind and have remained to this day. It was a bedrock that I have lived my life to, and will continue to do if I ever get six feet under.
“To thine own self be true…and thou canst to no other man be false”
Those first words made complete sense to me, like a train switching tracks, or the aha! moments we all have and love.
By the age of 7, my path was set. Coupled with my sadness at learning all adults lie and the more powerful they are the bigger the lies, I decided that no one else knew what my own self liked or disliked, none could say for sure what was really going on inside my self-head, and so I decided there and then, walking home one day from school, that it was going to be me who chose my path, me who decided what was true to mine own self and nothing was going to change that.
However, I’ve always been brought up on the side of do good for others, help when you can, think of others first etc and consequently, without being overly aware of it, I turned into a good little boy, then a good boy and then presumably a good teenager.
And I was! If you dropped something, I would have picked it up. If you looked sad, I would ask if you were ok. This was my attitude to school work also. Having it drilled into me that without good grades I’d fail and suffer was powerful enough to last me until I was 14.
Then I discovered vice.
The interesting thing to me was that people didn’t agree on vice, and they didn’t really agree on virtue either. It seemed that to be virtuous meant you were poor or you suffered or you had some disability that made virtuous by default.
Or you were the prodigal son kind of thing, as if being a huge fuck up for ages and then changing your ways was more virtuous than not being a fuck up at all. And that annoyed me a lot. Because that’s hypocrisy, or to use another simpler word, that’s a lie.
Why are the people who change their ways considered somehow more valuable than people who never needed to change their ways? Why are people who stop doing cocaine or drinking more special than people who never snorted or liquored themselves up?
It’s still true today. There was a time when yoga teachers began to have articles written about them, and the ones who were lawbreakers and the like were lauded for their strength and courage. The ones who had chosen a path of ”virtue” were boring by comparison, as if “normal” and “ordinary” were practically insults.
So it came to be that to mine own self be true, this was my mantra. When I found myself living in London for a summer with The National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, I discovered a whole group of teenagers for whom vice was nice.
That fabulous halcyon summer set the tone for my whole life ahead although I didn’t know it then.
Approximately 30,000 people auditioned for 100 places, so it felt like a big deal to be picked and invited to London to study under a legend of the Stage and a Knight of the Realm and also be in a play with one of the hottest young directors around in 1980 London. In our welcoming speech, Sir Blank Blank (no names necessary) told us these sparkling words.
“Some of you are here because we see incredible talent and potential in you. Some of you are here because you have auditioned before and we knew you’d be back, and we’d take you a little older. And some of you are here because we think you’re really interesting people.”
I was certain that I was in the latter group. And what that statement said to me was this.
You do not have to play anyone else’s tune because you can play your own.
And so the vise-like grip I had on my “virtue” began to dissolve a little until after the summer, it was almost gone.
I’ll tell you a secret. When I was invited to write about vice and virtue I had to look up the meanings, because as labels they mean nothing to me. It comes back to the real point for me which has always been this; The question is not what is vice and what is virtue; the question is who are you, to tell me what is right to my own self?
Hence, when offered my first cigarette at 14, I didn’t think oh my goodness, that’s a vice, but instead I smoked it all and then had another. I got a bit dizzy and coughed a lot, but I didn’t feel suddenly my halo had slipped.
Nor did I feel like that when I got my first adult magazine, which only had boobs in it and left me feeling slightly ripped off. I looked inside myself and didn’t get any sense of foreboding like I would get if I told a lie knowingly, or if I pretended to not know something I knew very well. In fact, not only didn’t I feel as if I were being naughty or bad or unvirtuous, but I felt more alive and more awake than before.
Upon my return to school, I had lost all my desire to be a “good” student. The A marks that until that point were almost all I saw, those marks were replaced by C marks, which in England is good enough for a PASS on your exam, and by the time I’d been invited to tour Europe with the NYTGB but been disallowed from it by my mum who felt I couldn’t miss two weeks of school for some theatre jaunt, my mold was set. I would never strive to be a straight A student ever again and would be leaving school immediately at 16 to become an actor.
After all, actors don’t need exams to get work and therefore such things were of no use to me and I would waste no more time on them than necessary.
I continued smoking and got quite good at it, spending my lunch money on 10 Benson & Hedges because they only sold Marlboro in 20’s (In England we sold ciggies in 10’s and 20’s). Because of my status as a smoker, I met some far more interesting types than before and none of them seemed like non-virtuous people. Certainly no angels, but equally no devils.
After I left school I had to leave home immediately since my parents were super angry that I didn’t ask them if I could leave, although the truth was that my school refused to take me back for another year, as the teachers felt that I had lost my interest in it and didn’t pay attention, wasting their time.
Very soon after that I auditioned for Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, and at the ripe old age of 18, understudied the part for almost 4 months, playing it on stage for over a third of the run.
It raised some fascinating self-reflective monologues/discussions inside my head.
For me the question is always the same. Who decides what virtue is? Who’s the decision maker in this life of ours? Who says what is right and what is wrong?
In Superstar, Pilate tells Christ “We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?”
That simple question summed up everything for me, life in a nutshell.
After that I left England to live in Paris and Copenhagen for a couple of years. I really felt like I grew up in Paris, I deconstructed the elaborate wall I’d built to keep others out. Fun people began to appear, fun experiences.
I was still smoking and looking at boobs, about my biggest vices, neither of which I considered even a tiny bit vice-like. But I started to meet far more interesting characters and each time I did, I felt more alive than before, more vibrant, more aware of how the wind feels on your face, the sun on your skin, the tingling of knowing you ‘re about to do something “wrong”.
I spent my 21st birthday on a train from Paris to Madrid via Barcelona, and I had the compartment to myself until just before leaving France. Two unshaven and unwashed fellows appeared in my compartment and made themselves at home. We struck up conversation easily and they told me were train hopping to Madrid to unload their Moroccan hashish, two very vice like things to do. And while as a kid I would have never dared to talk to these dangerous types, as an adult I had no fear and enjoyed their lawlessness. I found it liberating almost.
The following summer I came to LA to be an actor here. Or so I thought. Because by then, I already didn’t know anymore what exactly I wanted to do. I had thought acting would be great, because I could discover myself, find out who I was inside, work on the issue of “what am I doing here?”
But instead what happened was I discovered the Holy Spirit. I found that like Jesus said, I am That and He is me, that sort of thing. Which I had suspected for a very long time as I studied philosophy and religious studies as we had then. Jesus, to me, seemed the utmost virtuous person because he really was true to himself, including the smashing up of commerce in the Temple, a show of outrage that people rarely mentioned on account of it not seeming very peaceful.
After being in the U.S. for 6 months, my visa expired and I became what was called back then an “illegal alien”. Just being here I was breaking the law, which is one definition of vice. Another three years passed outside the law and then I met the most virtuous person I had ever had the pleasure to know.
But this was no angel, no model of decorum and spotless living. This was no holier than thou kind of epitome of virtue. Except, she was. My kind of virtue.
She was a madam. As in, she ran girls. As I came to find out she ran the biggest vice ring in all of Los Angeles.
She was my neighbor and I had seen her a few times before she spoke to me.
I was living on a boat in Marina Del Rey and she lived in the apartment that overlooked my slip, so occasionally I’d see her drive up in her red Corvette. She’d stare at me as she drove by and I’d have to pick my jaw up off the floor after that.
It was my birthday again when she smashed any semblance of ice that might have existed. There was no greeting, no small talk, no gentle soft approach. Just a direct look into my eyes that I swear I felt in the souls of my feet as well as the ends of the hairs on my head.
“I heard it’s your birthday. Why don’t you come upstairs and we’ll tie you up”?
And with those few precious words, she set me on a course that even today, still seems surreal.
I went upstairs but they didn’t tie me up. Instead, we smoked only my second ever joint and I had the best birthday half hour of my life.
Belinda Ryder, after the Anne Rice heroine, wasn’t her real name. Not that it mattered. Because I had met a woman of such fierce pride, such committed passion for taking care of her girls, and more than anything else, she took no quarter from anyone and asked for none. This was a woman who was truer to her own self than anyone else I’d ever come across.
And for me, that made her the most virtuous of souls, a role model for being authentic, being real, and being unapologetic about it.
She was wonderfully laid back and seemed completely unfazed by anything. That first short burst of light was enough for me to determine that this person would be my friend and I would enjoy being hers, a mind opening heart challenging proposition given that she was drop dead beautiful and yet without doubt the kind who chewed her men up good before spitting them back out where they deserved to be, wherever that was.
At the time, I was studying acting with a private coach who had led me to a map of my inner world that I’d been looking for my whole life, the map that shows you why you believe what you believe and takes you to yourself. Hand in hand with that was my search for unconditional love, the kind that isn’t given and taken back like a yoyo of swirling emotion but the type of love that goes beyond what you do or don’t do.
Every evening I spent in her living room on her sofa was an entire education in itself, a study of how interactions between people can be manipulated, bent and shaped to will and desire. Over the following four months Belinda showed me how valuable being yourself is in a grown-up world filled with vice and virtue. A world of lies, hypocrisy and shadows, a world where secrets were currency and threats were delivered with smiles and quiet voices rather than menace and malice.
Whenever challenged by a client or potential client as to the morality of her work she answered with measured response, with beautiful logic and simple grace. If you met her in the street you would never know this lady was running a ring of vice that stretched far beyond her 300 girls. Occasionally I would be asked to leave for a few hours and then invited back up. The reason, which was irrelevant to me, was always offered. Often it was because a vice cop was coming over and identities needed protecting. I wasn’t sure if it was mine or his but I didn’t argue. I wanted nothing more than to hang out with her and enjoy the spectacle.
These were halcyon days, salad days we’d call them in England. The sun was brighter, the colors deeper and more vibrant and the characters who crossed my path showed me a side of life only wondered about. I saw dealers of drugs, dealers of arms, dealers of all sorts, and yet I never felt in any way unsafe or threatened. In fact, I felt like for the first time in my life, someone accepted me completely as I am with no desire or wish to change me. It confirmed again for me that this was a woman of great virtue, while living a vice filled existence.
She did not suffer fools gladly if at all and would frequently challenge my ideas of what’s right and wrong. When we became close enough that I could introduce her to others, she didn’t change one iota.
Living opposite me was a reformed drug addict from Indiana, who’d been on some retreat or other that had given him a new name. He’d gone from something like Fred Bloggs to Satyam, which doesn’t mean Fred Bloggs in Sanskrit but a completely different thing. She asked him how he came to be called that, and replied that he’d been in initiated into a form of yoga and been given a new name by his guru.
“No, it’s satyam. It means the truthful one.”
“So you only speak the truth?”
“I hope so!”
“Well it’s nice to meet you Sancho”
“No, my name is Satyam”
“I’ll decide what I call you, just like someone else gave you that other name, I’m giving you this one. OK?”
And just like that, she stripped his façade away. Within a month, he was smoking crack cocaine again, his feather grip on his new world totally blown apart by her simple refusal to honor what she felt was bullshit. And I couldn’t have liked her more. It was like watching an echo of myself, except she had the balls to call it how it was.
As time progressed, Belinda became more and more visceral, towards me her edges softened and it seemed she was allowing me in. It was highly unusual to ever see her alone in the first few months, but then my phone would ring in the middle of the night (this was before cellphones so my ringer was on).
Just hearing her say my name made life better, made my heart soar like nothing before or since.
“Come up. The doors open”
“I’m in bed”
“Good. I am too. The doors open.”
“What about Michael?”
Michael was her arms and drug-dealing former Israeli Army Officer boyfriend.
“He’s coked out. He won’t be conscious for 24 to 36 hours. Come upstairs.”
And I did. On more than one occasion we made love while he snored next to us, the victim of her encouragement to take as much coke as he could. She also had a “wife” whom bizarrely I had been reading about in a Premiere Magazine article the previous year when I’d been running a Hostel for backpackers, when suddenly the doors burst open and I looked up to find a gun pressed against my third eye in an armed robbery which I clearly survived.
And now I found myself not even a year later, making love with the Madame mentioned in the article that was almost the last thing I ever read, while the subject of the article recovered from her own coke induced blackout and I made passionate and fabulous love next to her.
Never did I feel so completely myself, so wholesomely virtuous, as I did when I was with Belinda. She gave everyone permission to be themselves but as soon as she smelled a rat, she withdrew in spectacular fashion her gift of benevolence and replaced it with scorn and dismissal. And I liked her more and more for it.
It’s said that to achieve something, you must help others achieve things themselves.
During my life I have been fortunate to come face to face with such “spiritual” people as Billy Graham, such revered figures as we all know in the yoga world, and I’ve spent serious quality time with the most famous actors and actresses and singers on Planet Earth whom I counted among my closest and most intimate friends.
But never have I experienced such magnitude of respect and admiration for anyone as I did for Belinda.
Because more than anything else she valued, she preferred authenticity. Utter and sometimes devastating honesty. While her virtue was everyone else’s vice, for me the light has not dimmed. Virtue means being true to yourself.
Everything else is vice.
It’s that simple.
What became of her I don’t know, although a few years after this happened I found her face in the back of a girlie magazine selling 976 numbers. (google it if you’re under 25) and just like that, my angel had practically become a centerfold.
And yes, that day, my blood ran cold.
It’s heated back up since, and I believe that while I enjoy my “vices” as much as the next person, I have become the virtuous being I held was possible.
For that, to Belinda, I will be eternally grateful.
I am who I am today because of the fierce passion of the paragon of virtue I met that wonderful winter of 1991, and I defy you or anyone alive to decide what is vice and what is virtue in my world.
It’s that easy.
Belinda by Greville Henwood
Cover Photography by Jen DeNike