Lucy Wightman ran a successful South Shore psychology practice until her past became public. Now, after her indictment, the woman who was once Boston’s best-known stripper is defending her second life as a therapist - and trying to salvage her dignity.
January 22, 2006
By Keith O’Brien
IN NOVEMBER 2004, LUCY WIGHTMAN BEGAN RECEIVING anonymous e-mails that threatened to unravel the life she had crafted as a psychologist in two affluent Boston suburbs. It was, by all accounts, a good life. Her practice, South Shore Psychology Associates, was thriving, with an office first in Hingham, then in Norwell. In addition to her adult clients, children came after school, referred by pediatricians, school counselors, and fellow psychologists. She was liked in part because she was more laid-back than your typical psychologist. She didn’t wear makeup, and dressed in flowing skirts and turtleneck sweaters during her meetings with patients. Often her dog, Perry, was by her side. “My daughter,” says one Braintree mother, “fell in love with her at first sight.”
At 46, Wightman was a twice-divorced working mother who lived in Hull and didn’t stand out in a crowd. She had revealed only pieces of her colorful past – including a brief engagement to singer Cat Stevens – to some of her clients. Over the years, Wightman had been many things, including a radio talk-show host, a writer, a bodybuilder, and a real estate agent. But for nearly two decades, she kept going back to the job she knew best: stripping.
Now there were hostile e-mails in her in-box, threatening to expose that secret and a few more. The writer promised to tell everything to a local news station, including how she had briefly attended a private school for girls in 1975 before being kicked out for using marijuana, how she became a famous stripper in Boston’s Combat Zone, and, most damaging of all, how she was not licensed to practice psychology.
Wightman read the e-mails and saved them. Obscure details were correct; this had to be someone she knew. But one e-mail, in particular, was eye-catching, because it brought back her past in all its shocking glory. It began with one word: “Princess.”
LUCY WIGHTMAN USED TO BE KNOWN AS PRINCESS CHEYENNE, a stage name she was given, she says, by a strip-club owner. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, she welcomed notoriety, but that kind of attention was not going to be as good for her new career. In early 2005, three months after Wightman received the first threats, Princess Cheyenne was back in the news, her story broadcast on Fox 25 Undercover, as the e-mail writer had promised. Three days later, the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation announced that investigators were trying to determine if Wightman, in presenting herself as a psychologist, had broken the law.
Then, on October 6, the state attorney general’s office and a Suffolk County grand jury came down hard. Wightman was indicted on 26 counts of felony larceny, six counts of filing false health-care claims, six counts of insurance fraud, and one count of practicing psychology without a license. Michael Goldberg, the president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association and a psychologist in Norwood, compares it to a surgeon operating without a medical license.
But a surprise emerged as the case unfolded: While plenty of her clients felt angry, deceived, and cheated after learning about Wightman’s background, plenty more stood by their therapist, saying that she had done exactly what they had paid her to do – listen and advise. They didn’t care that she had never completed her training or earned and maintained a professional license or that she bought a doctoral degree from an online diploma mill. They called the criminal case a “witch hunt,” an effort by politicians to exploit a former stripper’s past while making headlines for themselves.
Wightman says she has been told by her attorney to keep quiet while her case moves forward. She declined to be interviewed for this story, saying in an e-mail that she had turned down all requests: “Oprah gets the same response.” But silence doesn’t exactly suit Wightman.
When news of her indictment turned up on a local man’s blog last October, Wightman responded with her own posting. “There is so much to this story that has not yet been told,” she wrote. One day, she assured her supporters, she would comment further. “Meanwhile,” she wrote just before her arraignment, she’d be wearing “Talbots or Ann Taylor for my day in court.”
This response – bold, self-assured – infuriated some of her former clients. But Wightman was just getting started. She launched her own blog and filled it with odd postings about everything from ladybugs to the law (the posts have since been taken down). Her period of not granting interviews was brief, too.
“My small existence,” she wrote in an e-mail to me last November, “really is a jumping-off point for more important dialogues about freedom, territory, scapegoating, politics, power and sex.” In bits and pieces, she began to reveal herself as a woman who had come close to earning a doctorate from an accredited university, only to be derailed, she says, by her life as a stripper.
As to her former clients, some are worried that neighbors and co-workers will discover that they sent a troubled child to weekly sessions with an unlicensed psychologist who was a former stripper. Some would only talk about Wightman if they were not identified. But others said they still go to see her and still pay to talk to her, and that they’re happy to do so. They say she is a good listener, a good adviser. What they probably don’t know is that these are skills she learned in her previous career.
PRINCESS CHEYENNE WAS A STRIPPER with a brain. She began dancing at the Naked i Cabaret in Boston’s seedy Combat Zone in the late 1970s. The district consumed several streets near the intersection of Washington and Boylston – overlapping what is now known as the Ladder District – and was lined with strip bars, X-rated movie houses, adult bookstores, and prostitutes. Countless women danced there over the years, but there was only one Princess Cheyenne.
For nearly a decade, she appeared not only on stage but also in newspaper gossip columns and on the radio, as the host of Ask Princess Cheyenne on WBCN-FM. She was a local celebrity. She was briefly engaged to Cat Stevens, and, during one of her retirements from the stripping business in 1982, she told local papers that she was writing a book about her life, to be called Bare. Wightman was beautiful. Blond and seductive, she posed for Playboy in March 1986 as part of a story on female DJs. This was the sort of attention that didn’t come to just any stripper. “She was a bona fide star,” says Tom Tsoumas, the managing owner since 1979 of the Foxy Lady gentleman’s club in Providence, who had watched Wightman’s career from afar and hired her to dance at his club in the early 1990s.
But in a world of pretty faces and prettier bodies, Wightman stood out because she was different: She was smart, and she came from money. Born Louise Johnson in 1959 in Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1975 she was attending Emma Willard School, a private high school for girls in Troy, New York. But just six weeks into the school year, Wightman admitted to the headmistress that she had smoked pot at a party. “I was on a train home that afternoon, devastated,” Wightman wrote in an e-mail.
In the late 1970s, she started working at the Naked i Cabaret and was soon known as the thinking man’s stripper. Customers swooned. Attention followed. When she was married on May 14, 1983, to Mitchell Zweibel, they exchanged vows at Trinity Church in the Back Bay.
In fact, this was an idea she promoted. Being a stripper, she told the Boston Herald in October 1985, was sort of like being a therapist. “People always ask me for advice,” she said. “I guess it’s because I’m levelheaded.” She saw herself becoming a younger, sexier version of Dr. Ruth.
Wightman divorced Zweibel in 1985 and soon married Donnie Wightman, a Boston police officer. They moved to Hanover. She got a real estate license, and they had a daughter. But she told the Globe in 1993 that she was miserable with that sedentary life, and that’s when she went to work at the Foxy Lady and also launched her brief but successful bodybuilding career. Marcy Baskin, a personal trainer in Hanover who became Wightman’s friend, recalls how hard Wightman worked in the New England Health & Racquet Club gym. She won two amateur bodybuilding competitions in 1993 and by 1996 was featured in Women’s Physique World magazine under the headline: 138 IQ, 285 Bench!
“Her body,” Baskin says, “was perfect.” But, by then, Wightman was ready to reinvent herself yet again. And this time, she wanted to use her mind.
JOYCE ROSSI WAS DESPERATE IN THE FALL OF 2000. HER daughter, Marissa, a freshman at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, was starving herself, and their first attempts at finding a psychologist had failed. A nutritionist referred her to a psychologist in Hingham, Lucy Wightman. “I got a really good feeling from her,” Joyce Rossi says. Wightman was articulate and charming. She seemed to know a lot about eating disorders and touted her experience working with anorexic kids. Marissa Rossi, who is now 19 and a student at Skidmore College, first went to see Wightman in early 2001. And even though Marissa says she was a “pissed-off teenager” at the time, the pair hit it off. “She just didn’t seem like what I thought a psychologist would be,” Marissa says. Wightman was relaxed, personable, confident, and engaging. More like a friend than a therapist, Marissa recalls.
Some parents saw just one possible problem. “She said she did not take insurance,” recalls one Braintree mother whose daughter also saw Wightman for an eating disorder about six years ago. “I asked her why that was, and her answer was that she didn’t like the institution of insurance and all the paperwork involved. She just wanted to be paid straight out.”
When Al Deluca, 38, began seeing Wightman in the summer of 2003 to talk about his marital problems, he says Wightman told him not to file an insurance claim because she was not licensed. Many patients, however, believed that she was. The word “psychology” was in her business name, and that, according to Eric Harris, a lawyer for the Massachusetts Psychological Association, is enough to put an unlicensed practitioner in violation of the law. Her e-mail address is “Dr. Wightman.” Her billing statements are printed with “Lucy Wightman, Ph.D.”
“It was kind of understood,” says Rossi, “that she was a psychologist.”
While a person can legally practice psychotherapy without a license in Massachusetts, state law requires that psychologists have a degree in psychology from a state-recognized doctoral program and that they be licensed with the state Division of Professional Licensure. Licensed psychologists must also have two years of supervised training. They must take specific courses, pass an exam, and meet continuing-education standards long after they have tacked their degrees to the wall.
Though Wightman was headed down this path at one time, she never applied for or received a license to practice as a psychologist in Massachusetts. With a 1985 bachelor’s degree from Emerson College in hand, she earned a master’s in counseling psychology from Lesley College in 1996. She then began attending the accredited Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. There was no doubt, says friend and colleague Katy Aisenberg, a Cambridge psychologist, that Wightman was talented. “I think if Lucy wanted to be a psychologist, she could have done that quite easily,” she says. In fact, Aisenberg believed Wightman had gotten her license and says she even referred patients to her colleague on the South Shore in recent years.
But Wightman never earned a doctorate from MSPP or from any other accredited school. She left, she said in an e-mail last December, while she was working on her dissertation and after a fellow student turned on her. The student, according to Wightman, told school officials that she had been practicing without a license – something Wightman admits she was doing but says she was under paid supervision by a licensed psychologist at the time and had been told by psychologists and school advisers that the arrangement was ethical. The same student, Wightman wrote, also brought up her past as a stripper, outing her to an official at a prison where she was an intern. “I had managed to break away from my long-ago past and move on into something meaningful,” Wightman wrote in an e-mail. The official at the prison researched Wightman online, confronted her with photographs, and told her that the inmates knew about her former career.
“I was very shaken up,” Wightman wrote, adding that she withdrew from school several weeks later. It’s a decision Wightman now regrets. But she doesn’t apologize for purchasing her doctorate from Republic of Dominica-based Concordia College & University, an online institution that is not recognized by the state of Massachusetts and boasts on its website that it can deliver a degree in a matter of days. She says she thought it was legitimate. “I saw it,” she wrote, “as the only way to salvage all those years in school.”
“I HAVE A FULL CASE LOAD RIGHT NOW,” WIGHTMAN E-MAILED IN mid-November. She was talking about her practice, still running and apparently still prospering. The name has changed. It’s now called South Shore Psychotherapy, a notable distinction legally. The people who come to see her don’t care what she calls herself. “She made a mistake, I think, in using the word ‘psychology’ in her business name. But I don’t think what she did warrants all the attention and all the charges that have been levied against her,” Al Deluca says. “I think Lucy is being used. If this whole thing about her being a stripper had never come out, then this would have died.”
This is a popular argument among Wightman’s supporters, and they may have a point. Most state licensing violations – there are 49 pending cases, according to George Weber, acting director of the Division of Professional Licensure – don’t make headlines. But what makes Wightman’s story interesting now is the same thing that made it interesting 25 years ago: She goes against type. Just as one kind of client didn’t expect to find a stripper as smart or as ambitious as Princess Cheyenne in the heart of the Combat Zone, another kind didn’t expect his or her therapist to be an unlicensed psychologist with an unconventional resume.
Not all of her clients were shocked by her past. Some of them heard bits of it from Wightman during their sessions. Others heard rumors. Marissa Rossi, for example, says she heard that Wightman had been a stripper from another student – also one of Wightman’s clients – at school.
At the time, Marissa says, she looked up to Wightman, accepting everything she said as fact. She didn’t care then about the stripping rumors and still doesn’t care, now that she knows they are true. “Everybody has a past,” Marissa says. But she does feel she was duped, even “brainwashed,” by someone she trusted. “It’s that she lied about her abilities and her credentials to be a licensed psychologist,” Marissa says, “which she wasn’t.”
Laura Murphy, who, like Marissa Rossi, is listed as a victim in the criminal case, agrees. Murphy, who lives in Cohasset, took one of her children to Wightman in 2001 for a neuropsychological examination ordered by her family doctor to determine whether lead poisoning had caused brain damage. This type of evaluation requires specialized training in addition to a professional license, but still Wightman performed the exam, Murphy says, and recommended special education classes. Murphy disagreed and disregarded the advice, a decision she says has proved to be the right one. Now she wants an apology. “She did something she was not qualified to do,” says Murphy, “and we’re just fortunate that it didn’t impact our child in a negative way.”
Therapy is all about trust, about revealing one’s deepest secrets or fears in the hope that talking about them will lead to understanding and a better life. Some clients believe Wightman helped them do that. Others feel their trust was violated, and when they look back, these clients see a woman who was putting on one big elaborate show.
In a sense, it was nothing new for Wightman. In the 1995 book Ivy League Stripper, Heidi Mattson describes her job at Foxy Lady in Providence, documenting how she and her fellow exotic dancers used to manipulate customers. The goal: to give ordinary and lonely men a glimmer of hope that they just might have a chance to go home with the beautiful, naked women dancing before them. Then the women would take their money and leave. No guilt. No ties. Just business.
They all did it, says Mattson, now a full-time mother living in Southern California. They all played this game. But no one, Mattson tells me, was better at manipulating people than her co-worker Princess Cheyenne, the smartest stripper she ever met.