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The dark side of fame

A brunette in a full-skirted dress, indigo suede platforms, camera-ready small jewelry and "natural" makeup is posing for a photographer in front of her picture-perfect pool.

Her glowing smile turns off and on with the click of the lens; she shakes her hair like a professional. Until the shutterbug asks her to remove one suede bootie to dip her big toe into the pool. This causes her to hesitate, then frown.

"I'd better not," she says. "I want to avoid any reference to Jesus. That just gets me into more trouble."

Trouble is something Marianne Williamson has gotten all too familiar with.

Bursting onto the bicoastal scene in the late '80s as what she calls a "spiritual teacher," and what others have called "guru to the stars," she preached The Course in Miracles on both coasts until her book based on its tenets, A Return To Love (HarperCollins, 1992), became a runaway best seller.

Suddenly, Williamson found herself as famous as her congregation. And instead of faint praise, all she got from the press was a loud damning.

That may have to do with her credentials. A background in lounge singing and office jobs doesn't exactly add up to prerequisites for a ministry.

"When you come out of nowhere to this level of celebretatiousness," says Lynda Obst, producer of Sleepless in Seattle and Williamson's Pomona College roommate, "and you have no preparation for the scale of your pulpit _ people are going to want to know, who are you to be preaching to all these famous people?"

"Happiness is an inside job," Williamson is wont to say, but success is an outside one.

Has success spoiled Hollywood's high priestess?

Her association with some of the town's finest _ Shirley MacLaine, David Geffen, producer Sandy Gallin, Barry Diller, performing the marriage of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky _ probably has hurt her more than helped her.

"Liz is a wonderful woman," she sighs, "but perhaps I should have thought about it more. People choose to diminish my work by saying I chase after movie stars.

"I've never publicized my lectures. It's been argued that I should have stayed obscure. It's better not to be famous if you're doing radical work. Not one good thing has happened to me by being famous! Not one! The image so reduces me," she declares with some disgust.

"The truth is, you could walk around with me for six months and you'd see one celebrity. Trust me, I've seen some stars, and I'm not their guru.

"One person told Vanity Fair some things, and I don't know what of my behavior could substantiate speaking such lies to the press. I don't go out with moguls. The men I date," adds the 40-year-old single mother, "they're hippies."

"I don't think a lot of those people wereas close to her as the media made them outto be," says Steve Sager, a marketing executive who helped her set up the Course in Miracles audiotape business.

"Elizabeth Taylor was very "of the moment.' Marianne met Shirley MacLaine a few times. David Geffen helped her out with the Centers, but then they got too close and had a major falling out. Sandy Gallin is her friend. But the only celebs she's really close to now are Judith Light, Leslie Ann Warren and Oprah."

"She got caught up there for a second, as anybody would," admits Howard Rosenman, Gallin's partner at Sandollar Productions and a Williamson friend. "But she pulled back."

Meanwhile, responding to all the vitriol, Williamson wrote a second book _ A Woman's Worth, which Random House published in May, and which is at No. 1 in its category on the New York Times best-seller list.

Robert Bly had his Iron John; Williamson's book may be her Iron Mary, lifting her out of the realm of your common New Age guru into High Priestess of Passion.

It's also exceedingly well-timed for Random House. Books such as Backlash, The Beauty Myth and more recently the Jungian Women Who Run With the Wolves have primed female readers for a new post-men's movement more-feminine feminism.

"Bly says to men, you can't be soft all the time, find your man!" Williamson as-serts. "And I'm saying to women, you can't be tough all the time, find your feminine. I see it as totally parallel stuff.

"Being soft has been associated with staying home and being oppressed for so long. I'm saying, "Be soft, be feminine, and speak up and make waves.'

"This business about my being a contradiction, that I like clothes. What does that contradict? A spiritual life? America doesn't mind Mother Theresa _ but she's old and not a sexual threat of any kind," Williamson adds.

In your average '90s woman this contradicts nothing. But in a woman who's devoted her life to God, it can be hard to swallow.

"The confusion of the spiritual and the glamorous is something Marianne faces. To pursue them simultaneously is to get hit by the media," Obst says. "I'm just not sure spiritual leaders should be doing photo shoots."

There are others who see it exactly the opposite, such as Joe Voci, director of comedy development for CBS, who says his life was changed for the positive when he attended the Course in Miracles lectures in Hollywood and did some work with Williamson.

"She galvanized Hollywood's wealthy people to good causes because she's glamorous and pretty," he says. "If she was in sackcloth and ashes do you think they'd be listening?"

No one would dispute that Williamson's lectures and her foundations _ including the Centers For Living in Manhattan and Los Angeles _ have done good work. But even friends will tell you she's moody and has a penchant for yelling.

"She's famous for wigging out," Steve Sager says. "Her motives are always good, but her execution isn't always so great."

Williamson admits she's moody and finds nothing wrong with that.

"The situations I yelled in, most of those incidents happened when I was pregnant. Hey, I'm a normal person going through normal problems, but I'm decent and I'm trying.

"Jesus got angry in the temple, and no one has a hard time understanding why. It's hard to be alive today. But to have 20-million people read lies about you when you've worked as hard as I have!"

These days Williamson refers to her job title as "lecturer."

"I like to think I'm in John Bradshaw's camp. Of course, he's a man and was a minister, so he's not attacked much. He doesn't use the word "god' too much _ but all the "inner child' is the baby Jesus. But he can make all the money he wants because he's a man and he has a beard."

Williamson has made her money _ $3-million from a two-book deal with Random House _ and just moved into her new Hollywood Hills house with 2-year-old daughter Emmie after years of working and liv-ing in a small Hollywood Flats apartment.

"Believe me, I could go back to living in a two-room apartment and it would be okay," she says. "I can't let this book deal affect what I write. But a book that is a success comes from your heart. Besides, what has fame given me that God hasn't given me? I'm writing for him."

As she starts a major book tour and a new book, Williamson is not abandoning her flock.

"I'm very excited about the next phase," she says, sounding more and more like a preacher. "I'm getting more enamored of the idea of spiritual healing. I'm feeling stronger in my spiritual beliefs.

"Oh! If they don't like me now _ watch this! I'm going to do even more lecturing, and I intend to start incorporating music. There's a performance aspect to teaching _ that's nothing to apologize for. Should I just try to be as boring as possible?

"I have a dramatic personality! I'm not pale beige, and I'm not trying to be! I'm Jewish and I'm a Texan! Someone told me I'm the Janis Joplin of the spiritual world. I'm trying to sing from my gut."

And after all is said and done _ and it has been _ the most important thing about her remains untouched by any of this.

"You see," she smiles confidently, "I believe in miracles."