NEWS FEATURE: Vegas star Lola Falana shuns show business, embraces religion

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ The big, doelike eyes are still long-lashed and beautiful. But the sleek Bob Mackie gowns that helped shape Lola Falana’s sexually charged Las Vegas stage persona 15 years ago have given way to a plain white cotton shift and sandals. A heavy crucifix around her neck has replaced the expensive jewelry. Indeed, the whole show business career is over, she says.

What’s left is evangelist Lola Falana, at 57, a soft-voiced survivor of multiple sclerosis who says she has undergone a radical religious conversion _ and who travels the country at the invitation of school principals, pastors and church groups urging audiences to embrace God.

“I am not a star. I don’t want to be called that dirty word,” she told an audience of 100 there recently.

Broken by disease and reborn, “I am confirmed in Christ. I am absolute in Christ,” she says.

“Ain’t no man in the world can compete with my Lord. I gotta guy who can walk on water.”

Now, she says, she lives on an uncertain income from such speaking tours, largely free of her disease. She is unsure whether it will return; yet she says she is largely content.

She is lukewarm at best about publicity. No publicist prepares the ground ahead of her, and her hosts say she is reticent about interviews.

In three recent low-key appearances in Louisiana and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Falana preached a mainstream Christianity with a devotion to the Blessed Mother consistent with her 1991 conversion to Catholicism.

Her stage manner is simple: 30 minutes to an hour which she manages without apparent fatigue, in a presentation that is part sermon, part personal memoir.

She advocates a childlike dependence on God in language that is sometimes childlike, as when she urges listeners to “choose your Daddy,” and later asks the giggling audience to practice Christian love by giving each other “huggie-poos.”

Her story involves a claim of a specific encounter with the healing power of God: an episode she describes as a tingling warmth ebbing slowly down her neck, past her paralyzed throat and tongue and into her useless left arm and hand as she lay abed at home, freshly stricken with multiple sclerosis in November 1987.

Over the next four years, she says, there followed slow healing, a deepening faith, several mystical encounters with Jesus Christ, Mary, her own guardian angel, a glimpse of heaven and a close encounter with the personification of evil.

The process, she says, has left her a transformed Catholic convert, willing to speak to small groups in small towns about faith, chastity and spiritual commitment _ each one, she says, a hard-won souvenir of her own journey.

In Falana’s telling, the tale begins at what would be the high point of many others. In the early and mid-1980s she was a Las Vegas star, booked 20 weeks a year at the Aladdin Hotel.

Her break had come when she was a teen-ager, when Sammy Davis Jr. discovered the athletic young singer and dancer in a chorus line and gave her a breakout role in his Broadway show, “Golden Boy.”

A series of network television specials for ABC followed in the ’70s; her energy and sexuality made her the national symbol for Faberge’s Tigress line of perfume.

She found a professional home in Las Vegas and settled in as a major resident star, not unlike her friend elsewhere on the strip, Wayne Newton.

The arrival of multiple sclerosis shattered that career, she said, and although she returned briefly to performing, she had already begun the personal transformation into the evangelist’s role she plays today.

After returning for several years to her native Philadelphia, she recently moved back to Las Vegas, where she lives quietly and largely out of the limelight.

Occasionally her telephone rings with another speaking invitation from another group. She has no booking agent, she says, nor is she a member of a speaker’s bureau. Her availability spreads by word of mouth, confirmed by two New Orleans priests who have hosted her appearances locally.

“She doesn’t ask for anything in particular, makes no special demands,” said the Rev. Jerome LeDoux, pastor of St. Augustine church, which sponsored Falana in New Orleans recently. “She says she’ll appear before Catholic or Protestant groups; she doesn’t care.”

“She’s a remarkable woman,” said Monsignor Richard Carroll of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Slidell, La., which arranged for two visits in 1996 and 1998. “She flew down coach. We put her up in a nice guest suite here in the rectory. She’s without pretense, easy to talk to. And she’s a delight _ a great sense of humor. She teases if she thinks you’re going to too much expense.”

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Carroll located records indicating the church gave her $2,000 after one of her two visits; each drew more than 900 to his suburban church.

“My feeling is whatever we collected, we’d give her. It’s how she makes a living now,” he said.

LeDoux said he would probably give her $300 or $400 from his smaller congregation.

In an interview Falana said her income and her speaking schedule are both uncertain.

“Sometimes I get only $50, and that’s OK,” she said. “Sometimes I accept three or four visits a month; sometimes a month goes by and I don’t accept anything.

When I get invitations, I take them to God. When he tells me to go, I go.”

“I learned to depend on him in my illness. I’m certain he will continue to provide for me now.”

She said she last performed professionally at Christmas 1997, singing a few carols with Newton at the entertainer’s theater in Branson, Mo.

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She has no plans to return to entertainment as she knew it, unless it fits with a message she believes came to her from God.

“He said, `You are an evangelist and you will sing for the glory of God,”’ says Falana.

“Whether that means actually singing, or speaking about my love for him as an evangelist here on earth, or later in heaven, I don’t know.

“I know this: if I sing again, it’ll be for the glory of God.”

DEA END NOLAN

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