Jenni Trent Hughes, Writer, Artist, Designer
Magnetic and oft-times peripatetic, Renaissance woman Jenni Trent Hughes delights in exploring, learning, creating, reinventing, teaching. The list is impressively long! For years a well-known BBC radio and TV host in London, Jenni has been a cultural affairs and social commentator, motivational speaker and life strategist, relationship expert, and behavioral observationist for corporations. Her formative years were spent in Jamaica, she moved to America in her early teens and ended up in New York City where she became the right hand to Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records.
Along the way, Jenni’s artistry blossomed and today this writer, painter, and designer of jewelry, hats and fashion is full to bursting, as she’s now immersing herself full-time into life as a creative person. From working on a new book, “I Meant to Behave,” studying haute couture embroidery in Paris and medieval icon painting with the top artists in Italy and England, to teaching arts and crafts from found objects to girls in Rio de Janeiro’s Alemao favela and to teenaged prostitutes in India to help them set up a better future, Jenni’s creative life is ever more awakening, ever more vibrant. At the same time, her spiritual side flourished and intertwined with her artistry: trance painting, an abiding connection with the archangels, and, recently, practicing Nichiren Buddhism, founded in Japan.
But remember, Jenni’s an explorer! Which in this case means her spiritual travels include being buried alive, naked, in a goddess ritual in Jamaica, and doing a purification detox jungle trek in Colombia that nearly got her killed. No surprise that Jenni, a self-taught reader at age three, is a wonderful storyteller, too. So I’ll let her tell you about those archangels…
For more on Jenni's artwork and adventures, see
RG: Hello Jenni Trent Hughes! I'm so excited to talk to you. You are a very busy woman with a very busy and fairly storied history. Would it be right to call you a Renaissance woman?
JTH: Oh, I would love to be called a Renaissance woman! I've never thought about it that way before but yes, I guess in the strict term of things you could call me that. I just think of myself as somebody who says ‘Yes’ to anything that doesn't leave scars!
RG: I see you somewhat as an explorer with a sense of wonder and really open to new experience. Have you always been that way?
JTH: Pretty much yes. In all seriousness, I usually do tend to do that. I'm very good at risk assessment, oddly enough, and so when something comes up I think about it and I think, 'OK, if this goes the way that I perfectly want it to be, what is the possible result?’ If it's kind of what I want it to be then I work it all the way down to, 'If this goes completely tits up, what is the worst possible thing that could happen and will I be able to handle it?' Once I've done that, which is sort of like four steps, I make my decision based on that. Once I've made a decision, that's it. I move forward.
RG: Do you think it's more of a heart decision than anything else in your risk assessment?
JTH: It depends on what it is. I'm a really peculiar combination of person where I will do something that to most people makes absolutely no sense at all, and it will be because my heart tells me that it's something I should do. But I've also been blessed with a kind of radar system that makes me easily think through the practical aspects of it, so it's both. Part of it is my heart and part of it is being able to really quickly figure out, 'OK, is there danger in this?' Which is funnily enough actually why I was never somebody who was into drugs because I knew that from a risk assessment point of view, and my personality was, 'Mmm, no, cupcakes will be my drug.' I can't go down any kind of bizarre road.
RG: Let's talk about some of these roads you've gone down. First of all, I want to say we've gotten to know each other because of our very dear mutual friend Sarah Jane Morris, who is my favorite singer and I could be correct in saying yours as well!
JTH: I'm sitting in her house right now! I'm in her office because she's away and I thought this would be an auspicious place to conduct the interview.
RG: It is indeed, so a resounding cheer to Sarah Jane. I am grateful to her for so many things, including introducing me to you.
JTH: I agree, I concur!
RG: So I'm basically interviewing an interviewer, in talking to you. You have been a radio and TV broadcaster for the BBC, a cultural affairs and social commentator, a motivational speaker and life strategist, a relationship expert, a behavioral observationist for corporations. The list goes on and on and on, and then you're also an author, you're an artist, you draw, you paint icons, you make haute couture embroidery, you've done fashion, hat, and jewelry design. What am I missing?!
JTH: I was a geophysical technician for Shell Oil! But other than that I think that you've gotten most of it and I have to say it's funny because there's so many things, that because it's your own life, and you're just living it, you don't really notice the whole view of it, and when you say all of that I think, 'Wow, OK, that's a lot of stuff!'
RG: It's a whole lot of stuff. You began in radio though, right?
JTH: Well, I moved to England in 1992. I married somebody who I had known for three weeks, and we were the first people to get married under the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. And one more thing, because I didn't want to discuss my plans with people because I didn't have time, I had a surprise wedding. I got married on my birthday and invited everybody to the Royalton hotel for drinks, 250 people came, and I walked in in a wedding gown with a strange man.
RG: Oh my! What did they say? See, now we're back to that risk assessment.
JTH: Exactly! But in fairness we were happily married for 14 years and we're still really good friends.
RG: You have an extraordinary son as well from this, right?
RG: So once again the risk assessment proved valuable.
JTH: Yes, I mean I would say that most times it did. Except I do have this odd habit of sometimes laughing at things that are highly inappropriate.
RG: For example?
JTH: I ended up being two minutes away from being gang raped by eight men in India on my recent trip, and I got poisoned by drinking tobacco soup in Colombia and my organs started to shut down. So in both of those instances, my risk assessment was not great, and if it wasn't for the archangels that I believe in, I would not be here.
RG: What happened in India?
JTH: I had gone to India to do some volunteer work with a project teaching young girls who are prostitutes on business sites how to do different types of arts and crafts so that they can remove themselves from prostitution as a trade.
RG: When you say business sites, what do you mean?
JTH: I'm sure other countries do it as well, but in India on big construction projects what they often do is they bring men in from the countryside and pay them, you know, God knows what, let's euphemistically say three dollars a month or whatever, and they live on site. Young men, and one of the ways they also pay them is they have on-site prostitutes. These are girls who live on the sites and service the men in the evening as part of the men's pay packet.
RG: You were invited by someone?
JTH: No, I found out about a charity that a woman runs in India and every morning she sends a bus to the business sites, an old yellow school bus kind of thing, and the women come with their children and some of these girls are like 15, 16 years old, and they have three children.
RG: Oh my.
JTH: I was going to then join some cousins of mine who were coming for something on the complete other end of the spectrum which was going to be a very luxurious trip of India where we were going to Kumbh Mela, the world's biggest spiritual festival. That is a whole miniseries in itself. I had time in between and because I had studied haute couture embroidery in Paris (Ecole Lesage), I was also looking at it in India because a lot of it is now done in India. I went into a place one day and the work was just astonishing. The woman who had taken me, who worked at the project that I worked at, I said to her, 'Listen, can you ask these people if I can pay them to study with them?’ She asks them, they say yes, and no, she doesn't have to pay us. I actually started crying when I saw the work. It was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.
In India, high quality embroidery is usually done by men. There was a supervisor who was a young Indian who spoke no English and then eight Bangladeshi embroiderers who sat working quietly – well, most of them. I was the only woman and am always very conscious in other cultures of what is appropriate to the culture and what is not. So there I wore not a stitch of makeup (I rarely do anyway), a headscarf, long sleeves, baggy trousers and no jewelry.
One day I went to work and the guy who was in charge, he had to go out to do something and he'd be back shortly. I sit down at my frame, because you work at a big frame on the floor, and I noticed that there's a man laying there asleep on the floor, which of course is quite odd, and then I noticed that he has one eye open and he's sort of looking at me but I focus on what I'm doing. Then I notice that he starts stroking his genitalia and I'm thinking this is really singularly unpleasant. He gets up and walks away and I think, ‘Good, I'm safe now.' The next thing I know he has taken out his genitalia and he's shaking it at me. One of the things you learn from a risk assessment point of view is that when you're in danger and there is a group of people and you are either alone or in a minority, the first thing you do is establish eye contact with everyone and also to see if you have an ally. Often there will be an ally in the room and that will be the person who will save you. So I start looking and two of the guys look away and try to pretend nothing's happening. Two of the guys go over to stand with him and they start doing the same thing he's doing.
The really scary bit was that the young guy who had been assigned to train me, when I turned to look at him for his reaction, he was standing there with tears streaming down his face. They start moving towards me and I am panicking because I have no shoes, because you would take your shoes off when you came in, and there was one entrance which they were blocking and we were on the second floor. I thought, 'OK, I'm actually going to jump out the window,' because I figured I have enough extra padding and, worst case scenario, I'll break both my legs. I surreptitiously sneaked my hand under the table and into my handbag, took my passport out, tucked it up my trouser leg and I plotted a route to run as fast as I can and jump out the window before they could grab me.
Then the boss returns. I'm cowering in the corner crying, the guy who was supposed to be watching me is bawling, and then there's the three men standing there exposed and heading towards me. And he went ballistic! He started punching the ringleader. I of course thought I was OK, had a cup of tea, left, never went back. I subsequently developed stress alopecia so for the past two years and a bit I've been completely bald in the back of my head.
RG: That's a horrific story.
JTH: Yes, and the thing is that my risk assessment was not good in that instance. I thought that I had done what needed to be done to protect myself in a situation like that, but I did not understand how deep the problem is.
RG: And you've traveled very widely. Have you come across that in other places?
JTH: I've been very blessed and I've traveled much more than most people have. I've probably been to every kind of country than you can imagine, and India is in a class by itself. I've been five times. The way they regard women is really on a whole other level.
RG: Have you been to India again since this happened?
JTH: Yes. And the funny thing is, and this is not a plus in my character at all, it's very difficult for me to accept what I might perceive as weakness in myself. In other people I'm completely fine and empathetic. But when it comes to me, if I can't stand up to the plate I get really angry with myself. I absolutely know where that comes from.
RG: Can you say where it comes from?
JTH: It comes from my father, who would not tolerate any sign of what he considered to be weakness in me. There's certain ways that it was to my benefit. But then there are certain aspects of it that are difficult and one of the things is that sometimes it is difficult for me to be kind to myself when I have made a mistake. Talking to you about it now makes me realize that it has never occurred to me that it's completely their fault for doing that. I blamed myself for putting myself in that position, for allowing myself to be in that position.
RG: But you know that's not the case, right?
JTH: If I'm completely honest, when you say it, I do know that, but I feel that a part of me does not intellectually accept that. There's a part of me that always feels that you are responsible for you. It causes me to be very hard on myself, very judgmental about myself. I'm not judgmental about other people but about myself I am diabolical.
RG: The really wonderful thing, though, is that it hasn't stopped you from doing amazing things and living your life and still putting yourself out there. At least that's how it appears.
JTH: It's really funny because one of my mantras is, ‘A life lived in fear is a life not worth living.’ I recognize fear – I am afraid of karaoke, and I leave karaoke alone! But other than that, when I feel fear I think, 'OK, let's discuss this,' and I discuss it with myself and try to discuss it away.
RG: Let’s go back for a bit. Were you always this way? You grew up in Jamaica. Was it early that you recognized this and then did it follow you everywhere or has it come out in different times and places where you've been living? You lived in New York for quite awhile.
JTH: One quick thing, which might make a lot of different pieces fall into place, is they found me reading when I was three without having been taught. I was put in regular school at five, and then in the first four years they skipped me twice. For all my schooling until I moved to America, I was four years younger than everybody else in my class, which was really screwed up and something that they don't do anymore I would suspect.
RG: That's a lot of years.
JTH: It's awful, it's just awful. It made me really quite odd in many ways I was very much alone, because I didn't have siblings and nobody at school wanted anything to do with me because not only was I the youngest but I was usually the quickest, so to speak. I went to a school that had five I think Jamaican girls when I was there and everybody else was British. I was just alone. I was alone at home, I was alone at school, I was sort of always out of sync. Then when I moved to America at 13, that was like '69 or something, and that was a very odd time to be not white in America, not white, and foreign.
RG: You moved to New York?
JTH: No, I moved to New Jersey, and we lived in a town where the multiculturalism extended to one Jewish boy and his father. That was it. There were no Hispanic people, nothing. Just this one boy, his mother had died, so it was this guy and his father. I was 13 and living in an environment where people were not unkind but I would have to answer questions like, 'Have you worn shoes before now?' 'Is it true that you people live in trees?'
RG: I'm horrified.
JTH: That kind of thing toughens you up really quickly.
RG: Were books your refuge at that point?
JTH: No, books were my refuge from when I was 5. I had read all of Charles Dickens by the time I was 8. At 9 I started trying to read 'War and Peace.' It was absolutely ludicrous! I was always out of sync, out of touch, with what was going on around me, and so in answer to the question about fear, it was more about my perception. It wasn't that I didn't want to be afraid, it was that I wanted to be as strong as was humanly possible. It was, thinking about it now, kind of like being an emotional adventurer.
RG: Did you have a spiritual life at that time?
JTH: Interesting question. There's a book called, 'The Water Babies,' by Charles Kingsley and it's all about some children who fall into a stream and live underwater. That was the first book that really gripped me and it led me to feel there was much more than what you saw around you and that the landscape inside of you was actually more important than what you were seeing going on around you. I became quite sensitive in the sort of spiritual terminology of being sensitive. I always felt that there was much more, and that there was something else you communicated with that was actually the most important form of communication that you had.
RG: Did you have a sense of what that might be?
JTH: I felt that it was a power. I did not feel that it was a person. I felt that it was, funnily enough, pretty much like I still do, an energy. I'm the one that will always be talking about 'the universe this' and 'the universe that.' Even when I was a very young child, I always felt that you had this power within you and that the aim was to hook up the power inside of you with whatever this big nameless thing was, and that hooking those two up was what you needed to live your life, to guide you and keep you safe and keep you well.
RG: Did you have a sense of how to do that or how to go about it? Was your family on the same path or were they doing something else?
JTH: No. I was theoretically Catholic but my family was not religious. Jamaica's a very interesting place about religion and it tends to be in the sort of smaller, upper classes of people. It's a terrible way to put it but I can't think of any other way. They tend to be less religious, so we were less religious than the majority of the people who would go to church every Sunday. I always felt, and I think in a lot of ways I still do, that if you keep quiet, if you still the noise around you and listen, you will hear what you need to hear.
RG: Did you feel that way at age five, at age 13, all along the way?
JTH: Yes, yes.
RG: Somehow you intuitively formed this on your own.
JTH: Yes. I did always feel that you were your best port of call, that you were the safest port of call, but that it wasn't you on your own. I'm trying to remember when the first time was that I heard the concept of God being within you. But I do remember that whenever it was, I said, 'Yes! Yes!' Now I'm definitely on board with that train. I still feel that a part of it is inside of you and then the other part of it is all seeing, all knowing, and what you're trying to do is connect the two. I've now reached a stage in my life where there's sort of two things that guide me the most, and I feel very comfortable.
RG: What is that?
JTH: Probably about 12 years ago somebody introduced me to the concept of communicating with the archangels. That's why I laughed, I thought it was hilarious when I heard the name Radio Gabriel. I laughed and said, 'I talk to Radio Gabriel every day!’
RG: What kind of answers are you getting? What kind of conversations are you having?
JTH: Well every day I say a little prayer, at least once a day, that came into my head from who knows where. I say, 'Angels far and angels near, tell me what I need to hear. Teach me what I need to know, and show me where I need to go. Angels far and angels near, tell me what I need to hear.'
RG: And then do you listen?
JTH: Of course! The funny thing is that it is an ongoing dialogue. It is an absolute ongoing dialogue. It can be, ‘I feel really sad, will you help me,’ ‘where the heck are my car keys,’ and always very very very much in relationship to my media work. If I'm about to make a speech, if I'm about to go on television, all of that kind of stuff. Boom. Archangel Michael has to show up if I think I might be afraid, or if I think I might need protection from anyone else there. Gabriel has to show up because he keeps me grounded and comfortable, and then I shout for Uriel, because he's good with the words. I say, 'I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say here, so you three take me in there.’
RG: Is this kind of a walking meditation?
JTH: For me, and of course I can't speak for other people, but what I look for is to always be connected. When I am not connected I feel disoriented. Being connected to the Source is what I'm aiming for. This is nothing at all against what anyone else does, but I don't want to have to go somewhere or be wearing a certain outfit, sitting in a certain building or doing a certain thing, to be connected to what I consider the spirit, the soul, the universe, God, all of that. I aim for it to be a state that I live in, not someplace that I go to. For me it's kind of like the concept of holiday, people who work all the time and they're miserable all the time and they live from holiday to holiday. I never quite understand that, I want to live in the state of holiday! I want to be working and all of that but in other words a state of mind that being on holiday brings to most people, I think we deserve to live in that state all the time.
RG: So your holiday is this sense of connection.
RG: What does it feel like when you're connected and what does it feel like when you're not connected? What's the difference that you can tell?
JTH: Calm, a state of calm. A state of being in balance. A state of feeling grounded, and a state of, which funnily enough I guess is probably where a lot of my creativity comes from, in that I think it's really important to look at things, and I think most people don't. If you want to use the phrase beginner’s mind, being in beginner's mind, funnily enough I had to explain beginner's mind to my son the other day. I taught him about the archangels when he was 10, and he's been using them in his life so he could get beginner's mind. I said that's when your life works best. I try to keep myself in beginner's mind as much as is humanly possible, so that everything that happens that comes in front of me, that I walk into, that I'm looking at it as if this is the first time I'm seeing it.
RG: How does this intersect for you with the arts? As you know, the site is about that intersection between your creative life and your spiritual life and for you they seem very intertwined because you're living this on a day-to-day basis talking to the archangels. Is there an intersection for you or is it just all one and the same?
JTH: It's funny, actually, because I was thinking about this yesterday. It depends in a way on what it is that I'm doing. I started painting when I was like 34 or 35 for historical family reasons. I had a mother who was a painter. I walked into the Art Students League when I was about 34, 35, sat down in front of an easel, the rest was history. What happened for me, though, was that I was one of those people who was basically almost like a trance painter. I would start painting and then my boyfriend would come home and I'd say, 'Did you forget your keys?' And he'd say, 'What do you mean?' 'Well you just left five minutes ago.' And he'd say, 'Look out the window!' And I was like, 'Oh! So that's why I'm hungry,' kind of thing. I would just start and then go off someplace and then step back and there would be a canvas and I'd be like, 'Oh! That's kind of interesting!' I'd have no idea where it came from. So yes, I am somewhere else, and funnily enough I'm trying to learn to control that but for me it is something that comes out of me and I don't know where it comes from. I have no idea.
RG: Do you think it's the archangels, and can you access it at will?
JTH: It depends on what it is, and yes, with most things. As you know, I am trying to learn to draw. The drawing is a problem, the drawing is a huge problem.
RG: Why is that?
JTH: Actually I can tell you why because she and I had a big talk about it the other day. As they say in the vernacular, ‘she owned it,’ so that makes it fair to talk about. When I was about 8 I did a drawing for my grandmother for Christmas and my grandmother said, 'Oh, this is wonderful, this is beautiful, I'm going to frame it, this is the best drawing I've ever seen!' And I of course was very pleased and left the room to go to the bathroom. But my mother didn't see that I wasn't gone out of the room yet and she said to my grandmother, 'Don't waste your money, that drawing is terrible! She's no good!'
RG: Oh my!
JTH: Yes! Funnily enough, three months ago I brought it up in a conversation with her, which was actually about accidentally saying things to people and you don't realize the import that it's going to have. I wasn't castigating her, I was actually using that as an example of the concept, and she said, 'Oh yes, I remember that.' And I said, 'Oh, you do?' And she said, 'Yes! And I'd say it all over again!' She said, 'I am kind of sorry that you were in the room, but it was awful, and you were awful!' It was actually brilliant because it A, totally changed my relationship with her, and we now have the best relationship ever because I just looked at her and I said, 'You're barking mad!' Because I thought she would take it as an opportunity to clean that up, you know, 'Oh goodness, I'm really sorry.’ I said to her it was just so awful it was funny. I said, 'Do you realize that I wanted to be an artist at that age, that I did not pick up a paintbrush until I was in my 30s, and because of you making that remark that I am still struggling with standing up and calling myself an artist because you did that! And she said, 'Yes, but that was how I felt!' And then I laughed and it was gone. After a lifetime of pain over that, it was gone. So that's why I'm now drawing, doing my course to learn how to draw as you've seen.
RG: You're coming at it at a different stage of life after having had a lot of other things happen to you. You're seeing it with a different lens.
JTH: But it was so deep, because this is the third time I have tried to do this particular drawing course and this is the first time I am continuing and it's like the sting has been taken out of the tail. I've painted and I am happy with the paintings that I do. But drawing, putting a pencil to a piece of paper, I would just break out into a cold sweat.
RG: I haven't seen the ones from before, but the ones you're doing now are fantastic.
JTH: Thank you, but this is an interesting thing as well. I thought the drawing that I did at 8 was fantastic as well! My son draws and paints, he's a natural draughtsman, just natural. He says, 'I don't understand why you keep saying that you can't draw because you do!' And I said, 'Yes, but for me it's about creating, so I could be creating a painting, a piece of embroidery, a whatever, it's about looking at something and extrapolating the emotional energy that it brings to you, and seeing if you can create something tangible with that emotional energy. That to me is what creating is. So you put a bunch of buttons and beads and feathers in front of me and OK, let's see what I can make out that, what can I make with pile A that it translates an emotion. With drawing I've never been able to do that because the pain has been so great that once the pencil is in my hand I'm paralyzed, because it takes me back to being that eight-year-old girl, crying. Now that that pain is gone, I'm on my way to being able to do the same thing with the drawing that I can do with other things.
RG: What did the archangels have to say about the drawing?
JTH: I never asked them!
RG: Why is that?
JTH: That's a good question, and I don't know. The archangels for me, it really is like my little poem, what do I need to know about this situation, where do I need to go from here, what should I really be doing? It would never occur to me to say to the archangels, 'I've gained a bit of weight, can you take it away?' That kind of thing. I think of them as helping me move forward. I don't think of them as helping me fix something behind me. Which maybe I should!
RG: The thing about that is the way you're phrasing it, about the weight, you're asking them to do something for you that has an outcome. But what if you just had a conversation with them about the drawing and didn't ask for something in particular? Just have a chat.
JTH: I'm going to try that and let you know what happens!
RG: Especially as you're so close to them and they're talking all the time. I'll bet they have a lot to say.
JTH: It's really funny because my son finished school, graduated from Bowdoin in December, and the archangels had helped him through his exams, they helped him through everything. He would always talk to them and they helped him to study and all of that. So he decided that he wanted to write them a thank you letter. He sat down and wrote them apparently a very long letter, he never told me what it said, and he said, 'So what should I do with the letter now?' I said, 'Leave it somewhere on the campus that you felt had the best energy for you'. And he said, 'I know exactly where I'm going to put it,' and he went and buried it in the snow outside the art department.
RG: It's interesting because so many people who do notes burn them when they want to send the note.
JTH: I've actually used a technique of burning, having people write letters and burn them in different programs that I've had to do and individual counseling for people. But I use it when it is something negative that you no longer want to be a part of you. In other words, symbolically destroying it. Do you use it with something that's a positive experience? You write about it and then burn it?
RG: A lot of people have done that and I have done it myself. People do it around New Year's, they have wishes for the next year, or sometimes it's about things they want to let go of, but it's also things they want to bring to themselves and they just send it all up in smoke.
JTH: Ahhh! In other words what you're doing is creating smoke rather than making fire, which to me are two very different things because smoke I think of as a positive thing and mixing in with the air and going out into the ether, and fire I think of as destroying something. That's interesting!
RG: From fire, smoke. It's all yin and yang. So when you're going to work on an artistic project or you have an idea for something, do you talk to the archangels? Do you have a spiritual language that you involve in the creation of the piece or whatever the artistic adventure is?
JTH: It's really funny because there's so much that you're asking me that I've never thought of before. That I just take for granted. Now it's actually trying to think about the process of it. Like today, for example, where I am there are a lot of roses, and I love, love roses, I love the smell of roses, I love everything about roses. I know that I want to do something to capture how these roses make me feel but I don't know what it is that I want to do. I will sit there and I'll say, 'Guide me, guide me toward what I want to do.' Then I find myself being led through the garden. I would stand in front of a rose bush and I'd say, 'This one?' And then there was no feeling for it, and I would stand in front of a different rosebush. 'This one?' And then I'm infused with a positive feeling. What the angels do for me is they're always there. Well, sometimes they're not but most of the time they're there and when they're there it's almost like a voice in my head that says, 'Yes. No. Definitely yes. Maybe.' It's very clear, crystal crystal clear. Now, because of all these years of feeling this way, it's almost like I don't have to ask. It's like a radar in my body or something where I feel when they're telling me, I feel if I'm going in the right direction or not going in the right direction.
RG: When you feel them not there, what do you do to get the feeling back?
JTH: It depends on the level of the situation. I whisper quietly, 'Hello, hello, remember me?' And then there have been times when it's been like a matter of life or death and I'm shouting, 'Now! Come get me Now!'
RG: In India, when you were in the room with the men, were the angels there?
JTH: I shouted for Michael. I shouted for Michael and his sword, and it was like, 'Show up, and show up Now.' And when I got poisoned in Colombia.
RG: I wanted to talk about that, and then you had told me when you were in Paris, when the terrorist act happened, and your angels were involved then.
JTH: I went to Colombia and it was a last minute thing. I went with two people, there were supposed to be three of them going and then the night before one person said, 'You know what, I don't want to go.' So they said, ‘Why don't you come?’ They were going to be traveling with a shaman and going into the middle of the Colombian jungle to do all kinds of strange herbal potions, like a detox thing. I said I don't want to do any kind of herbal potion business, and they said you don't have to do that, you can hang about and do the detox and it's an adventure. So off I went, and when we got there, it was, seriously, a 14-hour bus ride outside of Bogota, then a two-hour ride in the back of a van, then we got dropped off on the side of a mountain and then a one-hour trek into the camp in the middle of the jungle.
RG: That's impressive right off the bat.
JTH: But of course me being me, I decided this is just a load of twaddle, there's really a road here! I mean, I just decided this was just all about mood enhancement, there's no kind of bloody way that there's no other way to get to this place than this one-hour trek, which was so ridiculous that my trainers fell apart and I ended up walking barefoot. So we get there and it is indescribable. There were supposed to be beds, there were no beds. We were sleeping in a building that had no walls, there was no electricity, there were rocks, you were going to sleep on rocks. The first thing the guy explains is that we have to purge ourselves, and this is going to be accomplished by drinking tobacco soup. Nobody spoke any English, and there was a woman who was supposed to be traveling with us who speaks their type of Spanish, but she got her period at the last moment and when you have your period you're not allowed into the camp.
RG: Do you know why that is?
JTH: It is just one of their things, so she had to live in a hut on the outside encampment. He takes us and puts us around this fire and we each get a plastic chair and bucket, which you know when you see somebody handing you a big old bucket, this does not bode well.
RG: No, not for one end or the other!
JTH: Exactly! We each get a plastic bowl the size of a soup bowl and he explains that we have to drink three bowls of this stuff that's bubbling in this cauldron and it will make us vomit. OK, fine. So years ago, for a whole set of health reasons, I had a type of bariatric surgery which means that I have a tiny stomach and there's a sort of tube that goes from the tiny stomach directly to the small intestine. With the best will in the world, I can't drink more than a cup of the nectar of the gods, never mind some kind of tobacco soup! And of course I didn't know, and this was an example of the worst risk assessment going terribly wrong in my life, I didn't realize that tobacco really is poison. I thought that when people say, 'Ooh, tobacco's poison,' it's one of those things like, 'Ooh, sugar's poison.' I didn't realize they really meant poison. I don't know if you know but if you take all of the tobacco in a cigarette and put it in water and inject that into yourself, you can possibly die and you can also have a heart attack and die. It really genuinely is poison and I didn't know that.
RG: I didn’t know that. But it never occurred to me to do such a thing.
JTH: Thank you! Exactly! There’s a word, emetic, which is something that makes you throw up However, because of my surgery I don't throw up. I don't have the muscles that make your stomach contract. But all of that is what I found out after the disaster. I knew I couldn't drink a lot and I'm trying to explain to this guy I can't drink three bowls of anything, and he's looking at me. I get a pencil and a piece of paper and I draw a photograph of the surgery, my insides. I show him the scar holes so that he gets the full picture. He's like, 'No no no, this is fine, this is OK, it won't be a problem.' So I drink, and feel free to laugh yourself silly through this because it is ludicrous. I drink what would be about three-quarters of a cup of tobacco soup and the other two people are vomiting, retching, their bucket overfloweth. I'm sitting there, slightly retching, nothing is coming up but I feel indescribably ill. But because I am not vomiting it up it has gone directly into my system. To make a very long story short, my organs started shutting down and I started dying.
RG: Oh my.
JTH: I am screaming, screaming like nothing you can imagine because I can feel that this is going terribly wrong and the people I'm traveling with are grabbing his mobile phone and telling him he has to call somebody. This is when I'm thinking, 'OK, now is when we're going to find out where that bloody road really is! They're going to take me to the hospital because this is not good.’ Long story short, he's not calling anybody, nobody's coming, and then I start having what felt like a fit. I'm laying on the ground on a banana leaf and my body is what looks to me like fitting, I'm spasming, my head is rolling around, I'm foaming at the mouth, everything is shaky. This went on for almost two hours. I finally thought, ‘OK, I'm dying, and I don't want to die. I don't want to die fighting. I want to die at peace.’ I said to the angels, 'Come hold me while I go.' Things got more quiet, and don't let anybody ever tell you that when you're dying you don't feel it, because it is a very particular feeling. I felt incredibly peaceful. I didn't feel like I knew where I was going or anything like that. It just felt a very particular type of peace.
RG: Were you still conscious or do you think you were having a near death experience?
JTH: I didn't feel like I was going down a tunnel or anything like that, but I was definitely somewhere. It is very difficult to explain, but it's almost like you’re watching yourself, like I was looking at me. It felt as though I was a soul within a body. The body was doing one thing, because when I decided I was going and ready to go, it felt as if my soul separated from my body. I close my eyes and see my son's face. Nowhere in this equation until that point had been my son. I see his face and said, 'I cannot go now.' That was when I shouted for the angels, every angel's name I could remember. 'Michael! Gabriel! Uriel! Metatron! Come on, no, no, it's not now, no,' I couldn't formulate a thought other than, 'No, Not Now, No No No.' It felt like I was being dragged through something. You know the old expression, ‘ass backwards through a hedge’ kind of thing. I felt as if I was powerfully being dragged back from somewhere. What I've been taught about the archangels and read is that when you really need help, you have to ask for it. You need to call them in and ask for it. So long story short, the people there pick me up, they carry me inside, they lay me down by a fire, they wrap me in a blanket for 24 hours. I did not move. Did not move.
The sort of clincher of the story is about four or five days later I fly back to Jamaica, and Jack had come down for Christmas and had arrived when I was away. He had arrived a day before I returned and he came to the airport, and he's very tall. He walked up to me, and he had a very peculiar expression on his face and said, 'Have you looked at your phone?' And I said no, there was no electricity where we were, you know, blah blah blah. And he said, 'Well when we go back to the house you're going to plug in the phone and look at it. I have something to ask you and I wanted to be standing in front of you when I ask.' I said, 'God, this is really weird,' because he wasn't being like himself at all. He lifted my chin up, he's like 6'4, so I'm looking into his eyes and he said, 'Did you almost die four days ago?' For a whole host of reasons I don't lie to him. I didn't say anything, and he said, 'Answer me.' And I said, 'Yes.'
We went back to the house and plugged in the phone and all these messages came up. At the exact same time I had started to get sick, he had sent me a text, 'Are you OK?' I then had five texts from him, 'Are you OK, I'm really worried, I can tell something's wrong, are you OK?' Then he phoned. So this is him calling from Maine to Colombia. There was a phone message and he was hysterical. He said, 'Look, something's really really wrong, why aren't you answering me?' All of that was through the two-hour time, that's how we actually figured out afterwards how long it had been. He said he had this overwhelming voice in his head saying he had to come and get me, and that was the moment when his face appeared in front of me. He knew something awful was happening, and there was this voice, a sense, that he had to come and rescue me from whatever it was.
RG: And he did.
JTH: And he did! And he did! I think maybe it's part of why I'm out of step so much of the time. I can't explain any of this stuff, but it's real. It. Is. Real. It is just 100% real to me. These archangels, all these things that I believe in, if I had to choose between, ‘Do I believe in all of this stuff,’ or, ‘Do I believe in, you know, the Law of Gravity,’ I believe all this stuff more because it is every day of my life, it is every moment of my life. I can't say it's not real, and the fact that I can't explain it doesn't make it any less real at all. I don't care that I can't explain it, because I've lived with it every day for pretty much as long as I can remember so it is my reality.
RG: Things happen to you, but then at the 11th hour it works out in your favor.
JTH: Like you would not believe. That's why I always say to people, 'If you cannot find your keys, and you cannot find your keys for longer than 15 minutes, then don't go wherever it was that you felt you needed to go because that is the powers that be saying that for whatever reason, you are not supposed to go.’ I was booked on a flight years ago from Paris to Turkey, and it's too long and complicated a story about why I ended up not going but I was in a hotel room, it was a heat wave outside, but it was freezing and the wind blowing in the hotel room and I kept being like punched in my stomach and falling back on the bed. I canceled the flight, all I knew was that I needed to be back in New York. I could not be on the flight I was meant to. I was waitlisted and it was a Turkish airlines flight where they used to have those velvet ropes like in a bank and if you were on the waitlist then you stood behind that.
I switched to a Pan Am flight to go back to New York. I get to the airport, this man starts talking to me and he says, 'Oh, did you hear what happened at Orly,' and I said, 'No,' and he said, 'Terrorists blew up at a Turkish airlines flight and nine people are dead. They had nine people on the waitlist line and somebody put down a suitcase behind the velvet rope and all those people died.' I said, 'No, it's not nine, it's eight.' And he said, 'No, no.’ I remember him to this day because he gave me his business card and he was a journalist. He said, 'No, they called me,' and I said, 'No, I was the ninth person.' Ever since then, I think I was maybe 25, I listen. I listen when it's a very specific feeling when I know I am not supposed to be going someplace.
RG: Does that give you a sense of safety in making choices, maybe knowing that you're going to be protected? Do you actively look for signs in your life, which doors to open and which ones not to open?
JTH: I don't take it for granted, and I don't assume I am a cat with 79 lives. I listen. I respect the heck out of all of this stuff, I feel that it is very powerful and that you need to learn to listen. One of the reasons I communicate with the angels at the level that I do, and I don't mean a level of height, I mean a level of constancy, is because I feel you need to stay in the habit of knowing when they're talking to you. They will whisper, and you need to be listening.
RG: Is it whisper in words, or whisper in a feeling?
JTH: I've never thought about it before you asking me that. Sometimes it's words, sometimes it's a feeling. I actually think it has to do with the personality of the angel that's speaking to you.
RG: What does Gabriel do?
JTH: Gabriel's actually quite conversational. Michael barks orders, Uriel will provide you with the information that you need to think about. I think of Uriel kind of being like Ian McKellen, tall, austere, 'Now, have you thought about this and that?' Michael is actually funnily enough like Michael Douglas with long hair.
RG: If you said John Travolta I wasn’t going to believe you, after ‘Michael,’ his movie!
JTH: No, no, kind of Michael Douglas with long hair, or actually Liam Neeson, maybe, with long hair. I'm not quite convinced, but Gabriel might be a woman.
RG: I've heard that said before. What makes you say that?
JTH: Because I've never tried to conjure up an image before this moment. But when you had me come up with a visual, I know how I feel Gabriel communicates and for some reason a man wasn't coming up. Whereas a woman, but I can't think of who. For me, anyway, I listen. Sometimes it might be a word, sometimes it might be almost like a nudge. 'Nope, go down that street, not this street,' kind of thing. A lot of it is wordless communication. Think about when you're with somebody that you love and doing something together, unpacking the groceries, cleaning the house, whatever. Think of how little of it is actually verbal communication. It's like two pieces of machinery, two halves of a whole, however you want to say it. Working through something, a project, getting something accomplished, and the two of you are doing it without, 'Pick this up, put that down.' It's like a seamless communication.
RG: It's a little like a dance.
JTH: Yes. That's how they communicate with me. That's how my life feels. Unless something is terribly wrong, it's like they're there and if I need them I reach out. Sometimes they might talk to me without my reaching out. They say, 'Hey, have you thought about this, have you thought about that?'
RG: There's been a lot written about the archangels. Did these impressions come to you and you're basing it on your own information, or have you read widely about the archangels as well?
JTH: My introduction to the archangels came from a dear family friend who lives in New York, and she got in touch with me and said, 'Listen, I'm going to send you something and it's going to sound a little bit left field and if it doesn't resonate with you I won't take offense. But I've done it and I find it quite incredible.' She sent me a thing about what they call ‘Hosting the Archangels,’ and it's a process basically where you get a candle and an apple or whatever. I don't do that bit of it anymore because now they don't leave so I don't call them in. But you call them in for five days. It starts at a certain point in time, you open your front door, you call them in by name, you say, 'Please come in,' and then during that period of time in theory they are in residence in your house. It's almost like going on a retreat with them, and if you have specific problems you want help with, it's like they're with you 24-7 kind of thing.
From the first time I did it, I found it incredibly powerful. After probably a year or so of doing it a few times, I thought, 'Oh! I wonder what kind of books there are about these folk?' I read maybe two books and then decided that the experiences I was having were more powerful than what I was reading. I realized that I had actually had them in my life for a lot longer than I thought, and that in many ways they had probably always been there. I felt it would be distilling their power and effect and place in my life by reading about it, that I was better off communicating with them in my own way. I didn't want to turn it into a religion. I wanted it to be the experience that it was, rather than someone else telling me how it needed to be.
RG: Part of the reason I'm asking is because certainly in the arts, from what I have read about you or know about you, you are a studier. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you studied at the Art Students League of New York, you were at Parsons School of Design, you were studying African dance in Paris, you were studying how to paint icons in England and in Italy. You're a studier, you're a learner, right? I wondered whether you were doing that with the archangels as well.
JTH: This is another biggie that I've never thought about! I actually always think of myself as the absolute opposite of a studier! So that's really interesting. Now, the icons, yes. The icons yes, the embroidery in France, yes. The rest of it, what I tend to do is, OK, I'm a sponge, I absorb things. I will put myself in an environment where in theory they are trying to impart information on a specific topic but I take what I want, which is why it usually drives anyone who is trying to teach me anything absolutely insane and up the wall.
RG: How did that work with when you were studying icons? It's a particular medieval technique.
JTH: That's where it doesn't work. I'll tell you something, studying icons has to be one of the most spiritual experiences you could ever ever ever subject yourself to.
RG: Why is that?
JTH: It is just, and not in a good way, there's actually an expression which you or I can look up, I know I have it at home in a book, but the sort of ecclesiastical definition of it is 'bringing light from the dark.' And that's what you do. The sort of spiritual concept of it was that you were creating something filled with light from something that was very dark, and so that was the concept of bringing Jesus into your life, your life being very dark and filled with sin, and then you brought Jesus into your life and Jesus brought light and then you could see. In a technical way, that's what iconography is because instead of regular painting where usually you’re going from the light to the dark, in iconography you're basically starting with complete blackness and then the very last time your paintbrush touches the icon is when you're putting the drop of white that is in the center of the eye.
RG: I don't know anything about icon painting so this is fascinating to me.
JTH: The icons that I've done, they will have at least 30 layers of painting. You paint a layer, it dries. Then you paint another layer, it dries. After awhile your mind just goes into a whole other mode. You don't know what your icon looks like until probably about a year after you've finished it. Your brain becomes very segmented, is the easy way to explain it.
RG: These were the medieval techniques you were learning, and you studied with the nun who paints icons for the Pope, is that right? There is a nun at the Vatican who is just painting icons?
JTH: There are so many weird connections on the whole long journey. I actually first started, because I was at Sarah Jane's in Canterbury, and talking to a lovely lady and I said, 'So what's new with you, Jean?' and she said, 'I'm going to start learning how to paint icons tomorrow with Peter Murphy.' And I'm like, 'And who is Peter Murphy and what are icons again?' Then she said, 'Well, you know, it's medieval techniques,' and I thought, 'Oooh, medieval painting techniques, that's something else to learn about! OK!' So I somehow sort of wormed my way into the class and that was that. When I finished, and he's one of the most famous icon painters in England, I said, 'I really love this! Where do I go from here?' Because he's at the top, so then where else can I learn? And he said to me, 'Sister Monica is who you need. I just heard about her, I don't know how to find her, but she's who you need.' She's a Brazilian nun who’s relatively young who runs a convent in Sorrento right outside of Naples, and it was originally started – now this is a real Woooo moment – it was originally started to rehabilitate the prostitutes from the streets of Naples. So it was basically an Italian version of what I did in India.
RG: We're right back where we began!
JTH: Exactly! So I went on this massive search, I mean, Inspector Clouseau and Columbo had nothing on what it took for me to find this woman, and I eventually found her and got in touch with her and she said, 'I'm doing a course, but it's taught only in Italian, there's no English.' And I'm so desperate I went, 'Yes yes yes, that's fine, no problem.'
RG: Which you've done before. You've studied things and taught things in languages that are not yours.
JTH: Well that was my thing! I studied in Paris and I don't speak French, I've taught in Brazil and I don't speak Portuguese, I taught Indian girls, none of whom spoke English. So this will be fine. But it was a flippin' nightmare! I was weeping the entire time. It was me and a bunch of novitiates, you know, the young nuns, people who are studying to be a nun. Me and a bunch of novitiates taking egg yolks and squeezing them through old nuns’ stockings to mix with paint. Wow! Don't worry, there will be a book! And you want to know what the title of the book is? I'm almost finished. The title is, 'I Meant to Behave.' Because that's the thing, when you talk about going to classes and studying things, I go with the best of intentions that I'll learn something new, and then after I'm in this 30 seconds it's like, 'All right, so, what I want to do is...' And I'm off! But I'm very quiet and I'm not disruptive. I just sort of do my own thing.
RG: Do you have a sense that this adventurous spirit you have and traveling widely – I know I've seen somewhere that you talked about having two red suitcases and a passport – do you see the travels as pilgrimages?
JTH: Yes, because the first really big trip I did I was, I don't know, 23, 24, and I went to Paris. I was living in New York. The first three times I went to Paris, I spent most of my time sitting in a launderette on Ile Saint-Louis.
JTH: Because I wanted to watch the people. I didn't go to the Louvre, I didn't do any of that stuff. I wanted to watch the people. For me, it’s about absorbing what people are doing, absorbing the spirit of the people. Learning what is different and what is the same, and using the information to help other people somewhere else, if that makes any sense.
RG: Yes, of course.
JTH: That was actually the idea of the whole journey. I was going to take stuff from one place and then see if it would help the people in a different place. That's actually what I hope for the book to do, to share insights about people, all the different types of people that I met, and their approaches to their daily lives and, you know, this is a random description, is there anything about how the people in Rio treat each other on the subway that can help people living in New York on the subway? Because I know what all of this has done for me, and I would like to see if any of that can help anyone who needs it.
RG: You really are a behavioralist. I'm wondering if it's this idea for you, kind of strangers being instant friends, this perhaps Jungian idea of One and Oneness, is maybe why language isn't quite so important for you in communicating?
JTH: I think that's quite possible. One of the things I think is a huge problem – well I think there's two huge problems with society globally. I think that we don't really listen to each other anymore, and we don't really look at each other anymore. I think that we hugely suffer from that. It's like we're walking around with earplugs and blinders.
RG: We are.
JTH: I would like in some small way to help change that. I want us to learn to start really looking at each other, so that we are not seeing, you know, ‘there's a woman and she's a certain age and she's a certain color,’ and, ‘there's a man, and you can tell he has a lot of money.’ I think people look at other people now and they tick three boxes and then move on, and by doing that I think they're missing so much. They're missing the essence of a person. It's kind of like sometimes what somebody is not saying is the important part of the conversation.
JTH: How to listen, how to see each other, how to experience each other. I think we're all making our worlds smaller and smaller and smaller, and by doing that we are missing out on so much. It's about expanding ourselves, expanding our consciousness, expanding where we're willing to go, what we're willing to eat, who we're willing to talk to, just expanding ourselves again so we can breathe. It's in being open and breathing that the calm arrives, and for me the calm is the aim. The calm, the inner calm, that's the goal.
RG: It's interesting to put that in perspective with what you were saying about your conversations with the archangels because it's similar. In other words you're saying that they're there but we don't see them, we're not acknowledging them, and we have ear buds in our ears, we have blinders on, and that perhaps there's more available to us as human beings than many of us are even willing to acknowledge or see as a possibility.
JTH: There are no limits! That is the blessing, and the problem is that we limit ourselves and there are no boundaries. I know it's daft, but you know the skies the limit? It's true, it really is bloody true. For some reason, the more opportunities we have to be without limits, without borders, I think that we've become afraid and that we're actually creating smaller spaces, smaller emotional spaces, to exist in because we're so afraid of being out there. I don't think you need to sell your house and go off on a trip around the world or whatever. People say, 'Why did you do it?' I did it because I wanted to learn stuff to help other people. I wasn't looking for something, I wasn't searching for something, and I wasn't running away from something. It was that I wanted to see what was out there that I could bring back to share with other people.
RG: Do you think that you had this early on? One of the things we haven't talked about, one of the major highlights in your background, is that you were Ahmet Ertegun's right hand for 10 years, he being the late founder of Atlantic Records. He was so strongly steeped in the arts, and I think of him as being someone who – not just me but I think everyone – he excelled at discovering talent that hadn't been seen before. So this concept of seeing people and hearing people, do you think there's an interconnectedness for you with him?
JTH: OK, I'm now going to hang up! Ahmet is, gosh, this is like so big. Ahmet is who made me become an artist. Ahmet sent me to the International Center of Photography (ICP), Ahmet was who made me go to the Art Students League. When Ahmet saw my painting – and I was no longer even working for Ahmet at this point because I went to the Art Students League after I left Atlantic – Ahmet made the guy who was in charge of the Citibank art buying program come to my apartment in the East Village and look at what I had been painting to tell me whether or not I was any good, and should I continue.
RG: What did he say?
JTH: Yes. And told me what to do. And no, I didn't do most of it, but yes. So that gave you an idea of how powerful Ahmet was in the art world because at that point in time Ahmet owned the world's biggest collection of Russian Constructivist art. He kept telling me, 'Listen, you have an eye that other people do not have.' I said, 'Yes, but I can't do this, and I can't do that, and I can't do the other,' It was like whining. 'You can learn all of that,' he said. 'You cannot learn to have an eye. You have been gifted with an eye. Use it.' So I started taking photographs and I said, 'You see? I can't do this.' So then he sent me to the ICP and paid for me to have a whole bunch of my photographs framed and put up in my office. When I decided I was leaving he said, 'OK, now it's time for you to do what you really want to do, which is paint.' And I said, 'Oh, no no no, I don't paint!' And he said, 'Yes, like how you don't take photographs.' He said, 'I'll tell you what, there's a place called the Art Students League, go over there for a month and see what happens.'
I had never put a brush on a canvas in my life when I walked into the Art Students League. I showed him some pictures of what I had done and he said, 'I'm going to set up an appointment for you with the Citibank guy.’ The guy calls and said, 'Ahmet Ertegun said,' and I thought this poor man must be bloody furious because he's head of the biggest corporate art buying program in the world and he has to come to East 6th Street to look at some girl's crap! But the other thing that a lot of people don't realize is that Ahmet studied philosophy at Georgetown, and so Ahmet really was a philosopher. When I went to work for him, I was, I think, 23, and we spent much of our time discussing philosophical concepts so a lot of my whole way of processing information and not being afraid comes from my time with him.
RG: There are a lot of themes here with him and when we first began talking about your mother and grandmother and the framing of your work, and then Ahmet sends this fellow to you and they are framing the photographs for your office. There are echoes there, and talking about fear and where he was on that for you. It's almost like there's, not a transference, necessarily, but from where you were as a child to what happened to you. He was a significant figure to you in countless ways.
JTH: You know what's going to make you laugh, when I was, I don't know 24, Ahmet's father was Ataturk's right hand. Ataturk was the man who modernized Turkey, etcetera, etcetera. The Turkish government asked Ahmet to bring Henry Kissinger to Turkey on a diplomatic trip, like an official diplomatic trip. Remember Abe Ribicoff, the New York Senator?
RG: I do.
JTH: So it’s Abe Ribicoff and his wife, Ahmet and his wife, and Henry Kissinger, Nancy Kissinger, and Henry Kissinger's son. I had organized the trip, and two days before Ahmet said, 'Why don't you come along?' I was like, 'Ah, oh, OK.' So we all get into the Warner jet and off we go. One day, after about 10 days, we were at the Istanbul Hilton and we had the whole top floor, for security reasons. We would all be walking up and down the halls in our bathrobes and what not, just talking, and I find myself one morning walking with Kissinger down the hallway and you know, he has that voice. He says to me, ‘I have a question. Why are you not afraid of me?' I looked at him and said, 'What?' He said, 'Everyone else is afraid of me. Why are you not afraid of me?' And I started to laugh! Because the answer first came up in my head and I started howling with laughter.
Of course he's looking at me at this point like I am absolutely insane. I said, 'I work for Ahmet Ertegun every day of my life, so why on earth would I be afraid of you?' And then he started howling with laughter! All of this is a story I'm sure he wouldn't remember but he and Ahmet were best friends and so he knew that for however scary he might think he was, Ahmet was much more scary and a much bigger pain in the backside. It was kind of like, 'If I can handle him, please! You're a picnic!' It was quite funny.
RG: He really had an impact – I'm talking about Ahmet here – on your life in very major ways.
JTH: I am fascinated by the mind. I think that that is what attracts me to people, or it used to be, probably because of how my mind developed when I was a child. When I see somebody with an interesting mind that works in intricate ways, it's not about knowledge and intellect, it is about how your mind works for me, the speed at which it works, or the way that you can be looking at a pencil and you'll say, 'This is a red pencil,' and then a split second later you're saying, 'Cherries in Bordeaux,' because the color of the pencil reminds you of cherries in Bordeaux, and there would have been like 10 steps between the identification of the pencil and the cherries in Bordeaux. I gravitate towards minds. I had a father with a specific mind, then I went to work for Ahmet, and trust me, we had the most tempestuous relationship. In a lot of ways he was just exhausting, absolutely exhausting. But he was for me one of the kindest people I've ever known, and there's all kind of stories going on about him, none of which are true. He was kind to me but also he was rigorous. He did not allow sloppy thinking, he really wanted me to become who he thought I could be.
I ran into him in Las Vegas the year before he died and by then my life was very different, I had lived in London for 20 years, I had written books, I had become the television personality, blah, blah, blah. I said, 'Look, I want to thank you. Our relationship was difficult, the ending of it was difficult, but you changed my life and I wanted to thank you for this, that, and the other.' And he said, 'You know, I am really proud of you.' I said,' What do you mean?' And he said, 'Because you took what I gave you and you did something with it.' It was like I had been an apprentice in a way to him and for that I will be forever grateful.
RG: I'm smiling thinking about that. That's really lovely.
JTH: Ahmet once said to me, 'Treat the receptionist as if she's a princess, treat the star as if he works in the mailroom.' He said, 'Both will thank you for it.' And it's true. What it gave me was the strength to feel comfortable with all different kinds of people and I don't feel that I'm better than anyone except maybe morally! But I don't feel that I'm better than anyone, and I don't feel that I’m less than anyone. That was possibly the most valuable thing that he gave me. He also taught me to have the courage of my convictions. So if I think something, it could be stupid, I could be wrong, it could be whatever, but hold onto it, if you believe in it. Hold onto it and stand up to it.
RG: To circle back to the angels, that is what you've done with that as well, right? Rewarded isn't perhaps the right word, but you've had wonderful things happen as a result.
JTH: The funny thing, because this is another level of spirituality, the BBC used to have what was loosely considered a morals and ethics pool. It was a group of people who, if they needed somebody to talk about the sociological aspects of behavior of one sort or another, they would look at a list of people and see which ones of us most related to what they wanted to talk about. I was part of that, and so for years I did a lot of their Sunday morning religious programming, what they called it. There was a program called, 'Heaven and Earth.' You'd go in and the strap line, the words they put under your name when your picture comes out. You'd have a stage and it would be a rabbi, a vicar, an imam, and me.
RG: That sounds like the beginning of a joke.
JTH: It really does! ‘A rabbi, an imam, a vicar, and that woman, walked into a bar.’
RG: I think that needs to be the subtitle of your book.
JTH: Oh thank you, exactly! They would always say, 'What religion are you? We have to say something.' People used to always say to me, 'You're a Buddhist, aren't you?' And I'd say, 'No.' And they'd say, 'But everything that you say sounds as if you're a Buddhist.' A couple of months ago one of Sarah Jane's friends said to me, 'You need to come with me to my Nichiren meeting.' And I'm like, 'Well, what's Nichiren?' I don't know if you know but it's the Japanese section of Buddhism. It's Buddhism, but it's Japanese. So I went along, and yesterday I just finished doing Buddhism chanting twice a day for 90 days in a row. And that's interesting as well.
RG: I actually know quite a lot about this, you're talking about Nam Myoho Renge Kyo chanting.
JTH: That's me, that's me!
RG: I used to chant a very long time ago, at two different times in my life. Are you going to continue past the 90 days?
JTH: Yes, yes, I am. I find the combination really seems as if it's working for me. The combination of the angels and the chanting feels really good.
RG: Are you doing the booklet twice a day?
JTH: Yep, yep. Well, here's the thing – we're in 2018 so I have my booklet but I also have my YouTube video! With the YouTube video I feel like I'm in a room full of a whole bunch of people.
RG: You're part of it.
JTH: And it's absolutely hilarious. But yes I am. This will make you laugh. In a combination of all of the different aspects of my character, I was in Provence this summer, sitting by my friend's pool hand sewing and embroidering a little cover for my booklet. The cover is fabric that I bought in India, with thread I bought in Paris, with some beads I bought in Brazil.
RG: That's fantastic! Do you have an altar set up?
JTH: No. Well I have an altar, but my altar was not set up in relationship to the Nichiren. It's something that I started compiling because I made a mandala a year and a half ago and it's half painting and half embroidery. I have my mandala and then I have a collection of archangel memorabilia.
RG: Do you also have, with the Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, a Gohonzon? (the venerated scroll)
JTH: Not yet, because the group that I go to, the guy said, ‘Chant for three months and see what you think about it, see if you feel it making a difference in your life and after that you can decide where you want to take it.’ When I first went they said to chant for something that when it happens it's tangible so that you'll realize that this could be something that works. I was chanting for work because I desperately needed work and needed money and finances are a mess. So I chanted for two days, two sessions, and then the phone rang and it was Microsoft offering me a corporate spokesperson job, and then I got an email asking me to host a big conference, a different job. I thought, and this is when your inner insanity kicks in, I thought, 'Oh God, this shit works, I'm not doing it anymore!'
RG: It's so good that you've got to stop that?!
JTH: Exactly! So I then spent three weeks saying that I had become very much into Nichiren Buddhism and somebody would say, 'How often do you chant?' and I'd go, 'Uh, uh,' so then I got a giant white board from Amazon for 8 quid and I drew 90 crosses on and said ‘OK, I'm putting this up next to my desk so that I have to see it and every day after I do my two sets of chanting I'm going to put a circle around this.’ That was yesterday, the last circle.
RG: What happens now for you with it?
JTH: It is now one of those things where I can't go to sleep if I haven't done it. I will get my Gohonzon, and then I need to start studying.
RG: See, you want to study!
JTH: Yes, yes! Well the funny thing is, until you said this today, I never think of myself as a studier but I realize now that I like to know the components of something so that I can then immediately decide how I can make it work for me. Which of course is not particularly applicable here. I don't want to study Nichiren so that I can change it. With everything else I want to learn the basics so that I can do it my own way.
RG: It sounds like you're going to have a lot of interesting things to learn about. I'm wondering what you were learning when you were in Jamaica and you were buried naked as part of a goddess ritual.
JTH: It was 12 women, and the idea is that they dig a pit in the earth, it would be like what you would put a coffin in, and you lay in there and then they shovel the earth on top of you and you're covered completely except for a small area of your face. You're basically buried alive.
RG: How long are you under the earth?
JTH: It depends on where you quote unquote go. It can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes. I've done it twice, and first of all because I'm me I said I want to do it naked!
RG: Only you!
JTH: I'm there stark naked, climbing into earth that is filled with worms and bugs crawling up your nose and all kind of everything else. It is an immersive experience and so they don't want to tell you before that xyz is going to happen to you because there are people who can’t complete it. Halfway through the dirt being shoveled on top of them they start screaming, which is completely understandable. Then there are people who do it and they start weeping, and one woman had a really incredibly loud 15 minute long orgasm. We all said, 'Well we can't tell her when she comes up, she'll be horrified!' In normal Jenni style I laughed during mine for 25 minutes. The first time I laughed and the second time I cried. You don't go into it with the idea you're going to accomplish something, especially the first time, because you have no idea what's even going to happen. The second time I did it because I thought it would be relaxing and it wasn't relaxing at all the second time. I was telling somebody a week ago actually that I would love to do it again, and they said, 'Oh, we could do it in London.' and I said, ''No, London has cold dirt.'
RG: Were you talking to the angels when you were doing that?
JTH: I was the second time. I always thought that my life changed in a less than positive way in certain subjects when I was five. The second time I got buried I saw myself when I was two, and I knew I was two because I have a picture of myself at that age. I was walking through the rooms of a really big house and saying, 'Is anybody here, is anybody here who loves me? Is there anybody here who loves me?' There was no answer so I found a tray and I picked the tray up and I started walking through the rooms. 'Anybody here who wants to give me some love? Anybody here who wants to give me some love? I have something that can carry the love.' Still no answer, and so I find myself sitting in the corner of a room on the floor crying. When that happened, I heard two voices and they said that they were Father Sky and Mother Earth and that they were my real parents, and they then explained pretty much everything about my character and why I was the way that I was and what it related to and what gifts they had given me. It was pretty damned intense.
RG: There's a real sense of protection I’m getting from what you're telling me, across the board, not just with this particular thing. We didn't get back to it but also when you were in Paris and your guardian angels told you to stay home, and not go out, and you were protected. There is a theme here.
JTH: These two people who showed up, they said, ‘Look, you might feel that you've been robbed, that you didn't have parents who loved you, you feel that you didn’t have friends when you were growing up, all of that.’ They said, ‘But listen, for the stuff that you feel you'd never got, that's why we've given you so much extra in the other departments to balance it out.’ When I sat there and looked at my life that way, I realized it was completely true because I feel protected, I feel loved, and I feel incredibly blessed. Absolutely blessed, like I will sometimes sign myself off as the luckiest girl in the world. I really do feel it. But the things that I am blessed with are insights, talents ,and abilities. The tangible things I need or most people have, that I don't have. One of the things that I am trying to reconcile or work through is how to make that balance.
RG: It sounds like it might be on its way. What do you think is next for you artistically?
JTH: A couple of weeks ago I stretched one of my old paintings and it's very large and I had to take it outside in the back garden to photograph it. It started to rain, and it's acrylic on canvas so I wasn't worried, and I sat there looking at it and all of a sudden I started crying, weeping uncontrollably, and I said, 'How did I lose my path and why have I not done this?' And that's what made me agree to do this interview. Because it's time. It is time to deal with this gift, and even if it's a gift that nobody ever sees, being able to do it is a gift.
RG: I think it's something that has been with you all along and it's been waiting for you to decide.
JTH: Once again it's the eight-year-old girl being told, ‘You think it's nice, but guess what, it's shite.'
RG: Except the fellow came to your apartment in the East Village on East 6th Street and told you otherwise.
JTH: But he doesn't count! He didn't count because he's not my Mommy, you know!
RG: Allow him to balance out your mother. There's definitely something here, and congratulations for following it through and saying, 'I'm going to do this, and it's time.' And also for even agreeing to the interview. Those are all intertwined.
JTH: Thank you for saying that. But listen, do you think if your site had been named Radio Lampshade that I would have said yes?! No! It was like, come on, it's Radio Gabriel! You can't argue with that, that's angel presence writ large!
RG: It's all perfect. Is there anything we need to cover that we haven't?
JTH: I wear size 6.5 shoe, English, and a size 9 American, and I want a job in New York so if anybody wants to give me a job in New York then my telephone number is, my email is! And that's about it!
RG: I can't thank you enough, Jenni. This was really wonderful and I can't wait to see what's next!
JTH: This has been a game changer for me so thank you, thank you, thank you!
This conversation has been edited and condensed.