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Lisa Bonet: The Vibe Interview

Waiting for Lisa Bonet is like waiting for Godot. Okay, maybe his goddess twin - but the anticipation is roughly the same. She is, after all, a Sphinx on two legs with a marital history and a media profile so public that her ability to maintain any sort of mystique defies all odds in this post-Monica Lewinsky era. And she does have a mystique. Despite all the available factoids, little is known about her day-to-day life.

The spot Bonet has chosen to meet doesn't do much in the way of demystifying her. Froggy's Topanga Fish Mkt., a restaurant known for its groovy locale, sits high up in a shrouded, mountainous region of Los Angeles.

Thankfully, Froggy's interior doesn't continue this outback motif; its a wooded retreat with a blazing fireplace. When Bonet arrives - rowdy mane of dreadlocks swinging around her warily bright smile - she only confirms how easily she resides between the earth and the ethereal. She gives you direct eye contact when she speaks but you get the sense that there are whole galaxies whirling behind that dead-on gaze. And as the details of her life tumble out, they underscore her graceful handle on ambiguity.

For instance, the dashboard and front mirror of her midnight blue pickup truck sport a shimmying surfer girl, a pirate's head, an Indian medicine pouch with tall protruding feathers, a painting of a Hindu goddess frolicking with a lamb, and a pendant of her patron saint, Bob Marley. It also makes sense that Bonet's circle of close girlfriends (which includes the equally free-spirited and multi-talented actor/singer Cree Summer) call themselves the Pirates and that Bonet grows oranges, plums, apricots and bamboo on her 10-acre property in the hills of Los Angeles County.

As impressed as we all were with Bonet's life as a teenage TV star, budding femme fatale, and wife of Lenny Kravitz, it turns out the woman she has become since then is twice as extraordinary.

From 1984 to 1992, when Bonet starred on The Cosby Show, her portrayal of the bohemian Denise Huxtable won the heart of just about every black woman who didn't fit the mold of debutante, fly girl or hoochie mama. Denise, Bonet reflects, shows us "that it's okay to be a freak" (a proclamation that her 11-year-old daughter, Zoë, has adopted via the credo FREAKS ROCK emblazoned on her sneakers)

These same sistas fell in love with her all over again after ex-husband Lenny Kravitz's VH1's Behind The Music special aired last June and they realized how much the rock star was suffering because she wouldn't take him back. In fact, Bonet dazzled a generation of women so completely that when you say you're doing an article on her, nine out of 10 will insist you address her by her other name- the one she gave herself more than a decade ago - the lunar referencing one she asks you not to publish. Furtive Scorpio that she is, she says, "Let those who know know, and let me keep what little privacy I can."

Ladies love Mademoiselle Bonet, but men become positively unglued at the mention of her name. Of course, the Bonet brothers are thinking of isn't the spunky-fresh Huxtable version but rather the tempestuous seminude one featured on the cover of Rolling Stone's 1988 "Hot Issue" or the steamier, seamier, not-much-left-to-the-imagination concoction she served up in 1987's demonic flick Angel Heart. But Bonet is matter-of-fact about her voodoo-priestess role, in which she mated with the devil incarnate, played by Mickey Rourke: "I auditioned for [Angel Heart] because I loved Alan Parker's films, Bugsy Malone was my favorite as a kid, as were Birdy and Shoot The Moon - all those films really influenced my artistic wonderment. But I just did my bits and went home. There was no deep Method-acting trip going on."

What all those caught up in yesterday's rapture don't know is that these scant résumé items were really just a prologue. The Bonet of today is far deeper than the telegenic hippie chick and voodoo sex kitten of yore. There is, for example, the Bonet who has spent the past two years paying weekly visits to incarcerated black and Latino youth at Los Angeles County Office of Education's Central juvenile hall and who has strong views about the way the judicial system deals with young folk. "Prisons," she forthrightly declares over a salmon entree so good she had to order it twice," are like the concentration camps of our time. So many go in and never come out, and primarily they're black and Latino. I'd never spent any time in a prison before this program, and its definitely taught me to appreciate my freedom and to feel like I'm part of an important movement that needs to happen."

Roughly five years ago, Bonet, 32,and several other artist/activist friends created Venice H.E.A.R.T (Hearing Each Other and Responding Together), a mentoring organization for young people at a Venice Beach, California high school. Word of the project reached Denise Miranda, an instructor at the Central Juvenile Hall in East L.A. She invited the members of H.E.A.R.T. to her classroom to speak with the young men who were awaiting sentencing at the facility. Bonet's crew brings some much needed love, respect and brass tacks into a place where human dignity is in short supply.

" She is a true honest friend to these kids." says Miranda," I mean, they have their gang-member friends, but those guys will turn on them. She's someone they can really confide in. She's genuinely concerned."

getting to Miranda's classroom demands you first navigate a hallway clogged with adolescents adorned in county-issue khakis and orange prison gear who've been made to squat on their knees with their hands clasped behind their backs until the probation officers deem them fit to rise. In the classroom, the walls are lined with photos of heroes and heroines of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent (Pablo Picasso, for once, among the usual suspects).

Bonet strides into the room, crouches on one knee, and lays a native-American blanket on the floor. She dresses it with a large round candle and a gnarled, wizened, and serpentine twist of wood. The branch, she says, is a talking stick, one with origins in American-Indian shamanic practice. She passes it among the teens to encourage them to speak from the heart.

Although most of the kids have met with Bonet before, her star presence doesn't go unnoticed by one lanky and gregarious teen who can't stop running down her résumé for his compadres, as though he's celebrity gawking at L.A.'s famed Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles and not the county's answer to purgatory. " Hey, that's the old girl from, uh...A Different World. She was on The Cosby Show. Damn, she got papers. you know she don't even have to be here." After begging Bonet to let him light the candle, he puts match to wick and devoted a prayer to "his niggas and what they have been going through." The Bonet presides over a soul baring session that's remarkable for how hungrily the young brothers seize the day - variously wielding the power stick like its a gun or handlebars or a flying trapeze - and for how indifferent they are to her celebrity once they get going.

Her lanky fan, for one, eloquently dominates the conversation with harrowing anecdotes about being introduced to gang culture at the age of 10 and about California's recently passed Proposition 21. this law, which allows juveniles to be prosecuted as adults, has him in the dark about whether he's staring down a six-month sentence in youth camp or 16 years in the state pen. He speaks of a district attorney who believes he's "fit" enough to serve in an adult institution, and it sounds as if the young inmates were on the auction block and not in the judicial system.

It's a while watching warrior-witch Bonet slung sidewise in her chair, twirling her locks and fervently bearing witness to these kids' hard-knock testimonies, that you recall VIBE has sent you to Cali to ensure her inclusion in something called "The Sexy Issue." Under the circumstances, the whole assignment now seems rather cheesy. But lo and behold, within these institutional walls an epiphany emerges about Bonet's beauty: the realization that she ain't movie-star fine - the kind of fine that comes alive for the camera - but what she is, instead, is rock-star fine - the kind of fine that makes the camera damn near jump off the tripod. Put another way, while anybody can become watchable, few of us are bewitching. Bonet is visually captivating from every angle and in every detail: like the snake tattoo on her forearm whose tail is wrapped twice around her wrists, its head slithering toward her knuckles or the Medusa tattoo further up her arm with its kinky snake locks and vipers tongue sticking out. Elfin even in thick-soled silver moon boots, this more-than-adept yoga student cuts a lithe pixie figure - compact, petite, magical, metamorphic.

" She called me one night and said,'We gotta be pirates,'" remembers Summer," Women who are able to take back what's ours spiritually, to search for treasure, and to share the booty.' Her creation of the pirates has made me see that part of being an extraordinary, talented, beautiful woman comes from surrounding yourself with other extraordinary, talented, beautiful women. It's like, Damn, that sister over there is bad, and if I'm in a group that she's in I must be bad too. Art is her life and her garden and her journal and her way of bringing together artistic people. I never would have made my album [Street Faerie in 1999] with [producer] Lenny [Kravitz]if it wasn't for her."

When Bonet and Kravitz wed in 1987, it seemed like a marriage made in heaven, a blessed union of two gorgeous and amorphous hippies, both of black and Jewish descent, (Bonet's late mother was and Kravitz's father is Jewish.) Their separation in 1990 roughly coincided with Bonet's retreat from showbiz into a monastic period of full-time mothering for Zoë. There's a melancholic strain visible in her eyes when she's asked how joint parenting was worked out after the separation. For years, she says, Kravitz's visits with Zoë were at the mercy of his tour schedule. but now that their daughter is older she's able to accompany her globetrotting and guitar-wielding pops on jaunts to places like South Africa, as she did this past winter.

Bonet says Zoë's absence gives her the opportunity to vacation in Hawaii with her pal Summer, but the tremor of separation anxiety is easily detected, especially when she relates how transformative her relationship with her daughter has been," My heart was blown open from just loving someone so much. It also deepened my desire to heal myself - you know, not wanting to pass on the less-than-positive 'family heirlooms' that get passed down. I can honestly say it accelerated my growth and my desire to be here and to participate in a loving, conscious way on this planet."

Bonet lost her own mother last year, and she still seems to be in deep mourning. When she speaks about her childhood, it becomes clear that she inherited her fearlessness from her moms. "My mother, brave woman, lost her whole family when she decided to marry a black man in the 60's. When the marriage fell apart, she had no where to come back to but her family. My grandmother has a hard time with the choices Mama had made. I was literally the black sheep of the family, and there were definitely moments of discomfort while my grandmother was working through her racism."

" I spent a lot of time feeling alienated and rejected," she continues," but I fund my art- theatre - and when I was 16 I was fortunate enough to get Cosby and move to New York and shift my whole life. that had been my dram all along, and it came true."

But like many, Bonet found fame a mixed blessing. "The success of the show made me self-sufficient, but it also took away my anonymity. I'm just this quiet nobody, and all of a sudden people are nervous around me. That was kind of weird. But I took solace in my relationship with God who, along with my dog, was my best friend growing up. Both of my parents would say they were atheists, so where I inherited my connection to God I don't know. But it's natural. No Bible, no Torah, just the love religion."

In 1998, Bonet suddenly popped up like Mr.Mxyzptlk in the Will Smith feature Enemy of the State. She played a mysterious woman with a mysterious past who provokes all sorts of rambunction before tragically exiting the mise-en-scène. this march, in director Stephen Frears's High Fidelity, she played an equally pivotal supporting role opposite John Cusack.

Frears says he was lazily watching Enemy of the State on mute when Bonet's cameo snapped him to attention. He invited her in for a reading and cast her on the spot as a gorgeous folk singer who has a fling with Cusack's jerk-off record collector before walking into the sunset.

Frears sounds like a man under a spell when he speaks about our black faerie queen," She showed up looking extraordinary, and she just did it. I mean, she is what she is: distinctive, mysterious, extraordinary. She brought a different perspective to that part as far as portraying someone whose sexual politics are quite sophisticated and who's perfectly able to get what she wants without seeming whorish. Her character is someone who turns the tables in a much more elegant way than a man could."

Overturning conventions and upsetting expectations is, of course, Bonet's stock and trade. having excused herself from the Hollyweird dinner table to quietly raise her child, Bonet is clearly someone who dictates the terms of her engagement with the business. As of this spring, she has no film projects or prospects lined up and rarely goes for readings or auditions. "There's not a lot out there, and what is out there has to be really interesting to make me want to leave my life, which is really precious to me." she says. "My desire to participate in the business is not to make more crap so I'm really content. I have a desire to create more film, more beauty, more art, more love - but I don't feel desperate. I mean, for me it's not about creating or building a career anymore, you know?"

So while the rest of Hollywood obsesses about their weekend grosses, Bonet will be using her juice to salvage the next generation, visions of New Jerusalem dancing in her head.

VIBE Photo Gallery: See the gorgeous collection of photos Lisa posed for.

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Purchase 'High Fidelity' on video or DVD.

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