Tim Appelo
October 22, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

There comes a time when even the most powerful people in entertainment must submit to a higher power—and for many, it’s the Higher Power of 12-step addiction programs. Celeb rehabs are hardly new, of course, but at the moment, no 12 steps are starrier than the correctives offered for drug, alcohol, food, gambling, and sex compulsions at Arizona’s Sierra Tucson center.

Built on the site of an old dude ranch, Sierra Tucson is to the no-frills ’90s what Betty Ford was to the high-rolling ’80s. ”It’s sackcloth and ashes,” says one actress-singer (call her Celebrity X) who’s been through the center’s emotional wringer. ”It’s not Club Med!”

But plenty of show-biz bigwigs feel the alternative is Club Dead. ”We’ve been given our lives back,” Ringo Starr has said about his five-week booze- busting Sierra experience, undertaken with his wife, Barbara Bach, in 1988 (three to five weeks is a typical stay). When Rob Lowe damaged his reputation by videotaping a stoned group-grope, he reportedly ventured to Sierra Tucson to repair his psyche. The center rocketed to even greater fame last year, when tabloids claimed—erroneously, according to his publicist—that Michael Douglas overcame sex addiction there. And Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler got the full treatment at Sierra Tucson—for alcohol, drugs, and sex.

It’s the sex angle—what else is new?—that gives Sierra Tucson its cachet. Not that sex addicts are treated any differently—”An addiction is an addiction,” says Michael Thompson Brown, the center’s director of special projects, ”we treat them all pretty much the same”—but their presence does make a difference. The counselors ”took away my black clothing and anything provocative-I had to wear baggy clothes,” says X of her Sierra Tucson stay. ”They took away my perfume, even nonalcoholic perfume. You know, the sex addicts have a problem with smells,” she says. ”Smells trigger sex memories.” Indeed, some female sexual-abuse patients must wear signs reading, ”Female Contact Only.”

What goes on behind those gorgeous adobe walls, miles from prying eyes in the sun-drenched desert? For a mere $13,000-$19,000, the addictive potentate buys a thrill that he has never known before: discipline. ”A lot of people who come in here haven’t been taking care of themselves,” says Brown. ”We give them an opportunity to start doing that.”

But getting that chance at the cozy 150-bed facility doesn’t always suit the resort—bred and Spago-fed. ”The counselors on the phone talk about horseback riding—but you have to get up at 4:45 a.m.!” reports X. ”They withdraw you off sugar immediately, and it was horrible, horrible food, nouvelle cuisine-I mean they didn’t even have Jell-O!—and you have to eat three times a day with no snacks. There’s nothing to watch on TV, and the only things to read are 12-step materials with bad grammar.”

In fact, X says she checked out before getting even halfway up the center’s detox scale. But the center says that most of the 10,000 clients it has treated over the years have stayed the course. ”The food is great,” says one top rock manager, who completed his 30-day tour, ”and you can ride the horses in the afternoon.” He offers a further endorsement: The singer he manages conquered a nasty groupie-sex habit during his own stay at the clinic. ”The center was the best thing that ever happened to him.”

Even our disgruntled source admits the value of the family treatment, when addicts’ loved ones troop in for group meetings, and offers a grudging partial recommendation. ”It’s a great place for coke people,” she says, ”because it’s so complex.”

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