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Eddie Murphy was four years into his marriage to Nicole Mitchell Murphy on May 2, 1997 — 20 years ago — when police pulled him over at 4:45 a.m. after he picked up a transsexual prostitute, Atisone Seiuli (aka Shalimar), in his Toyota Land Cruiser at a known homosexual prostitution spot along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
To set the scene, Murphy’s run-in with police was two years after the Hugh Grant incident (Divine Brown!) and six years after Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) was arrested in an adult theater, and the public was prime for a new sex scandal, especially one that could imply that the comedian was maybe — gasp — gay, because the late ’90s were all about outing stars. Murphy, then a 36-year-old movie megastar after making the jump from Saturday Night Live to the big screen (Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places), wasn’t arrested or charged when he was stopped two miles after Seiuli (who was born a male but identified as a female and dressed like a woman) got in his car. An interrogation by deputies determined no illegal activity had occurred. However, his passenger — who police described as a “known transsexual prostitute” — was picked up on an outstanding prostitution warrant.
The damage control: He said
Murphy walked away from the incident with a clean record but didn’t do himself any favors with his publicist’s excuse for his night riding. His spokesperson claimed Murphy was merely giving the prostitute a ride home: “She asked him for a ride, and Eddie did so, like he had helped people in the past.” The rep told CNN that Eddie said, “I was trying to be a Good Samaritan, and this is what happens.”
The story made Murphy the punch line (even SNL aired a sketch with Tim Meadows as Eddie performing community service by saving a transsexual), so the star, who had recently bounced back from a career slump with The Nutty Professor, granted an interview to People magazine — with his lawyer Marty Singer (yes, the guy who repped Bill Cosby) present — for further damage control. Eddie recounted that Nicole and their kids were away, and he had insomnia, so he went for a drive to buy magazines.
“I saw this Hawaiian-looking woman and said, ‘What are you doing out here?’ She said, ‘I’m working,’” Murphy recalled of the meeting with the American-Samoan Shalimar. “I said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that [soliciting].’ And bada-bing… I’m never giving anyone a lift again.”
Murphy explained that he “thought Atisone was a girl” but noted, “That’s not even the issue. It wasn’t like I was looking for someone. It was a person I assumed was a girl at the corner.” He went on to describe the situation as “embarrassing,” saying, “I’m not sitting around depressed going, ‘Oh, people are going to think I’m not Eddie anymore, I’m not a man.’ I know I’m a man. I’m a man… I’m not ever on the 50 most wonderful list, [but] I’m not a degenerate either.”
See a news report from the time (4:28 mark):
The Coming to America actor launched into how he was really an undercover Good Samaritan. “What people don’t know is, for years and years at night I’d get in my car, I’d drive all over Manhattan, I’d give derelicts money,” he claimed. “I’d stop and talk to homeless people. I’d go to corners where there are prostitutes and give them $5,000 and $10,000 to go home and get off the street. … When I’m doing something charitable, I’m not doing it for publicity. … It’s out of the goodness of my heart.”
However, Murphy followed that by bizarrely mentioning how he scrubbed the car clean after Seiuli was taken away by police (not your typical comment made by a big-hearted humanitarian used to working with the homeless). “I’m obsessive-compulsive with cleanliness,” he said. “After I got home, I wiped off the door handle and the stuff that person had touched.”
Tim Meadow’s SNL spoof of Murphy isn’t available online, but here’s Mad TV poking fun at the star:
The People article noted some wrinkles in the star’s story, including the fact that Murphy said he was driving Seiuli home but they were pulled over after passing his residence.
The damage control: She said
Murphy wasn’t the only one talking — so was Seiuli. The National Enquirer was said to have paid her $15,000 bail in exchange for her story. Seiuli reportedly told the tab in an article entitled “Eddie Murphy’s Secret Sex Life — His Transvestite Hooker Tells All” that she was looking for johns when Murphy drove up. In the car, she claimed he placed two $100 bills on her leg and asked if she liked to wear lingerie. When Seiuli said yes, Murphy supposedly asked, “Can I see you in lingerie?’ I told him, ‘Whenever I have the time.’ He said, ‘I’ll make the time.'” Seiuli also said they discussed what kind of sex Seiuli liked, to which she replied “everything.”
Murphy ended up suing the National Enquirer and the Globe — for $5 million each — for libel, slander, and invasion of privacy for publishing interviews with trans prostitutes (yes, more than one came forward) who claimed to have had sexual relations with the actor. Soon after, he settled the suit with the Globe and then dropped the one against National Enquirer and had to pay the tabloid’s legal fees.
Murphy also sued Seiuli’s chatty cousin for $1 million for talking to the tabloids. It’s unclear what the outcome of that one was.
Murphy’s marriage initially withstood the scandal. He told People that Nicole “was shocked at first. … She was like, ‘Oh, Eddie, this could get twisted in all kinds of ways.’” But they stayed married — having five children (he’s a dad of nine) — before they split in 2005. At the time of their divorce, there were rumors that the scandal was going to rear its ugly head again as they hashed out a settlement (she supposedly wanted more money), but that never materialized. (Had she gotten more money, she might have thrown it away anyway; a con man later fleeced her out of $10 million of her divorce settlement.)
Eddie definitely withdrew from the limelight after the incident. Last year, while appearing on the Hollywood Reporter “Awards Chatter” podcast, he talked about how he stopped reading stories about himself around the time of the scandal (without crediting the scandal for being the reason behind it). “I haven’t read a newspaper in 20 years,” said Murphy, who welcomed his ninth child last year with girlfriend Paige Butcher. “I don’t read stuff about me. If there’s an article about me, someone has to read through it before they even give it to me. … I don’t wanna read any of that s***, so I don’t know what y’all think.”
In that article, he also said he doesn’t own a computer, use email, or go on social media. (His people actually ran a Twitter account for him, but it was shut down last month after an erroneous tweet about a Coming to America sequel.)
As for Seiuli, she was back in the news almost a year to the date after her arrest with Murphy. That’s when she was found dead on a sidewalk — wearing only lingerie — outside her apartment building. (The police identified her as female, since she had reportedly started to transition.) She had apparently locked herself out of her fifth-floor apartment and tried to swing from the roof to her window on a towel and missed. There are conspiracy theories about her death, but it’s just conjecture.
After she passed away, the Village Voice published some quotes she had reportedly made to a performer shortly before her death, saying she respected Murphy’s privacy and hadn’t made any money off the scandal. Seiuli added that what she hated the most about the headline-making scandal was “being called a ‘drag queen’ by the press.”
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