March 9, 2012 – The two women closest to John Lennon are speaking out against claims that the former Beatle suffered with bulimia. A new book entitled Backstage Pass VIP by Debra Sharon Davis claims that John Lennon suffered from crippling eating disorders, specifically bulimia.
By its own account, the book “is a provocative and controversial look at Mick Jagger, John Lennon, George Harrison and dozens of other rock icons (and their wives) from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. The book has a 21st century perspective…written to entertain and involve the reader.” John Lennon is cast as a “passive-aggressive capitalist” along with Mick Jagger, as heading up the first wave of icons who stood up for the working class, yet lived among the rich and famous.
But the one claim that has gotten to most attention this week is that Lennon had bulimia. According to the Mirror, “Author Debra Sharon Davis claims in her book "BackStage Pass VIP" that Lennon suffered from food fetishes and loved bowls of Rice Krispies topped with ice cream. She said the singer kept bowls of snacks hidden away at his various homes and "fantasized" about foods.”One of the main sources is an old interview with close pal Harry Nilsson, who died in 1994.
Yoko Ono has rebutted this claim: “John did not have an eating disorder. Sometimes he slipped and ate a bar of chocolate. His diets included vegetarian diet, macrobiotic diet and, very rarely a juice-only diet. All of the above are internationally approved health diets.”
We contacted May Pang for her personal take on it. She lived with John for eighteen months, between 1973-1975, and got to see many of his frailties and his strengths first hand.
In an email today, she wrote emphatically that he had no such eating disorder, at least while he was with her: “John's Bulimia ... Not! During my whole relationship time with John, who weighed about 155 lbs., he was never bulimic. In fact, he loved having a full English breakfast including black pudding which I made most Sundays when we were home in NY. When we were away, he loved having his blueberry pancakes. WALLS & BRIDGES was made on Whoppers and pizza. His favorite soup was Chinese hot and sour soup. This is all evident in my book of photographs I took of John called INSTAMATIC KARMA released in 2008.”
We went back through the archives of history to sort out the truth. The claims seems to over-generalize-- and perhaps minimize—the very real disease of eating disorders. In John Lennon’s case, are his symptoms being sensationalized in this book for the purpose of “entertainment?”
Let’s take a closer look. First of all, these two women sound like they are talking about two different men. In one case, he occasionally “slipped and ate a bar of chocolate” even though on a strict vegetarian macrobiotic regimen. (If that’s called a “slip” then a lot of us must have very bruised knees.) In the other, he loved Burger King and pizza. Something’s fishy here.
Background on John’s diet
In the many books written about Lennon, there are several references to John’s problems with “diet”.
In Albert Goldman’s book, “The Lives of John Lennon”, (which even today is disturbing in its revelations,) John developed an unhealthy relationship with food as early as childhood. His Aunt Mimi and Uncle George reportedly didn’t always have enough food to put on the table. And his tough, domineering auntie(s) created a boy who grew up being very driven and hard on himself. If this is true, this alone is a great breeding ground for an eating disorder. But, we don't have proof of this.
The excesses of Beatlemania began to wear on John by the 1965 “Help” era, after a year of constant touring and performing. He dined in expensive restaurants and shoveled junk food in between the chaos. Some journalist wrote that he was the “fat Beatle” and that did him in. Noticing that he’d put on a spare tire, he began the effort of losing weight at the same time he was getting into drugs.
He and Cynthia supposedly converted to vegetarianism at that time. Coupled with the drug use, he lost a great deal of weight, and by the time of the 1967 Sgt. Pepper launch party, he “looked haggard, old, ill and hopelessly addicted to drugs.” (Ray Coleman, John Ono Lennon, 1984) He was really in trouble at this point, but his compadres didn’t take much notice.
When he got together with Yoko, in 1968, she was said to have made the effort then to get him off “junk food” and convert him to the restricted macrobiotic diet. By the time he recorded the Imagine album in ’71, he was lean but appeared healthy. But the drinking and depression that followed in ’72-’73 took a heavy toll, and by Mind Games he was very thin.
The change came when in 1973-75 he was in May Pang’s care. He ate normal meals, as she said, soups, Thai food, regular English breakfasts with eggs and sausage. He gained weight and looked good at the time of Bob Gruen’s famous 1974 New York City t-shirt photograph, looking healthier than ever.
John went back to the Dakota and Yoko in late January of 1975 and re-instated the highly restrictive macrobiotic diet, losing weight quickly. The term “anorexia” was used for the first time in Goldman’s book (pg 572) in reference to 1976, saying that John had “restricted his calories so much” that he was down to 120 pounds, stayed in bed all day, and was now a “wealthy victim of malnutrition.” To quote: “His anorexia did prove one thing… John Lennon proved he was master in his own house.”
Fred Seaman, who was John’s personal assistant and companion from 1978 until his death in 1980, confirmed in his book, “The Last Days of John Lennon” (1991) that John was on a strict macrobiotic, vegetarian regimen during that time period. This consisted of brown rice, vegetables, trail mixes, and so forth, and no sugar. (However it’s pointed out that despite the health kick, he loved orange marmalade and was addicted to cigarettes and was still a frequent drug user.) (page 33): “John had become preoccupied with his weight and obsessional about his diet… Once a robust man, tending toward overweight, he was now so thin that his face looked hollow and sunken in, even though it was concealed by a full beard. Standing five-feet-ten, he weighed less than 140 pounds.”
May Pang says he loved food, and had healthy eating and living habits while with her. Yoko Ono says he was on a strict diet but that he “slipped occasionally and had a chocolate bar.” The proof is in the “blood pudding” so to speak. Lennon historians have long gasped at Lennon’s appearance by the time of his death in 1980—gaunt, sunken and dangerously thin. So it’s a no-brainer to point to which diet and lifestyle was actually better for him. But you have to consider the toll his drug use was taking, the extent to which no one can seem to really agree on.
Yoko has long been accused of being the "Aunt Mimi" in John's life. That she inflicted heavy guilt and restriction on him, turning him into the suffering man who was driven to limit his food choices as a way of feeling he had control over his life. Many who have suffered with anorexia claim that establishing this type of control—strict regimens, lists of acceptable foods, and forbidding other foods, then occasionally bingeing because they're so hungry—is a primary feature of the disease.
Princess Diana suffered with bulimia during her unhappy marriage to Prince Charles, and became exceedingly ill and thin. She became healthier after the divorce.
In discussions about the disease with a close friend, it’s a disease that “comes and goes” depending on one’s happiness and satisfaction with life. The danger comes when life begins to close in on the person, and they are subjected to any sort of ridicule, societal judgment, or restrictive and demanding relationships that are unhappy. This ignites the need to deprive themselves of food choices in order to feel they are in control of their lives.
All of these conditions were evident at various times in John’s life, and certainly provided a perfect environment for unhealthy choices with food, drug use and alcohol.
However, there is no proof that he had an eating disorder. The assumptions are based on his appearance only, which again could have been caused by drug use and heavy smoking. His "food obsessions" while living with Yoko Ono, according to her, are the result of maintaining a strict diet, but there was never a diagnosis or suspicion of an eating disorder.
(Note: This article has been edited from the original posting on March 9. In that posting we concluded that he probably did have some sort of eating disorder. However this is a supposition that can only be made by a physician, and our opinion was based largely on published biographies. The statements by Yoko Ono and May Pang have to be given the most amount of consideration. In all our discussions with May Pang, she has never said John had an eating disorder.)
Here is a reference guide by the Mayo clinic on eating disorders. Eating disorders are serious and life-threatening. If you or anyone you know has these symptoms, immediate help should be sought.