In 1955, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard announced “Project Celebrity,” coming up with a list of Hollywood stars he wanted his followers to treat as “game” to hunt down for the church.
And while Hubbard didn’t succeed in bagging Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, or Liberace (!), his organization did eventually have a good run of attracting actors and musicians to its ranks.
You know the list. Cruise. Travolta. Alley. Elfman. Archer. Corea. Hayes. Rimini. Beck. Etc.
These celebrities not only gave the relatively small organization some luster, they were trained how to talk about Scientology — in positive, but always very vague, terms — and entertainment reporters knew not to pry.
But now, with Scientology going through several serious crises — from flagging membership to investigations of deaths at its drug rehab centers — the church’s biggest problems are only being magnified because of the involvement of its celebrities.
Could its obsession with Hollywood stars ultimately hasten Scientology’s demise? Let’s go over the evidence.
— Celebrities have left Scientology over the years, but they usually do so quietly. That changed in 2008 when character actor Jason Beghe left noisily with a viral YouTube video. Then, his friend, Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, went him a step further by talking to New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright for a 16,000 word story last year and an upcoming book. After Beghe and Haggis went public, every celebrity suddenly seemed like a potential noisy defector.
— With its drug rehab center in Quebec already shut down after health officials there found its methods questionable, Scientology’s flagship drug treatment operation in Oklahoma — Narconon Arrowhead — is under investigation by local and state agencies because of three deaths there in a nine-month period. When NBC covered the problems at Narconon recently, it led its segment with endorsements of the program by Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kirstie Alley. In other words, Narconon’s troubles are only more newsworthy because of those celebrity connections.
— We’ve reported previously that some of the accusations against John Travolta by male massage therapists were utter garbage. But the accusations keep coming, and Travolta is increasingly being portrayed by the media as a publicity train wreck. Invariably, Travolta’s disastrous PR brings up his involvement in Scientology, and the church’s legendary homophobia.
— In July, New York magazine’s Richard Rushfield wrote a brilliant analysis of Tom Cruise’s rise as Scientology’s ultimate celebrity zealot, calling him the church’s “best advertisement” — until, that is, Katie Holmes filed for divorce, and suddenly Cruise and Scientology were front page news around the world. “And so it proves ironic that the religion, which has historically been so adept at squashing bad press through lawsuits and intimidation, now finds itself under an onslaught of negative scrutiny — and it’s largely thanks to Cruise,” Rushfield wrote.
Now, of course, the relatively quick and painless divorce with Holmes feels like only a foreshock of the news hitting this week in Vanity Fair about Scientology “auditioning” actresses in 2004 to be Tom Cruise’s next girlfriend.
Even before Maureen Orth’s VF story actually appears, it got a major confirmation from Paul Haggis thanks to longtime celebrity reporter Roger Friedman.
Friedman is definitely in a position to comment on Orth’s subject matter. As he reminded us this weekend, he was reporting on the “auditions” way back when they were actually happening. From a 2005 story Friedman wrote when he was then at Fox News:
We know that Cruise auditioned several actresses for this role before settling on Holmes. This column reported a story about Jennifer Garner. There have been published stories about Kate Bosworth, Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Alba being approached.
But even if the “auditions” story is not new, Orth’s identification of Nazanin Boniadi as the woman whose audition led to a three-month tryout as Cruise’s possible wife #3 is a revelation, and the details promise to be shocking.
However, we’re already seeing the old benefits of celebrity trying to assert themselves in the face of adversity for Scientology. Barbara Walters’s sad defense of Tom Cruise yesterday on The View — saying that she didn’t believe a word of the accusations, and complaining that Cruise’s “faith” should be off limits — is a reminder of how efficient Scientology’s strategy of celebrity used to be.
Can Walters seriously think that top Scientology officials getting involved in vetting a new companion for Cruise has anything to do with “faith” or religion? If she really feels that way, I’d like to see her have Laura DeCrescenzo and Claire Headley on The View to talk about their forced abortions while working in Scientology’s “Sea Org.” Should they just shut up about those experiences because they were working for a church, Barbara?
I’ve been writing about Scientology for 17 years, and I can tell you that “auditioning Tom Cruise’s next wife” is not a commandment in Dianetics or anything else L. Ron Hubbard committed to paper or dictaphone.
This is not about religion. This is not about faith. It’s about a toxic organization that asserts inappropriate levels of control over its members, and hides that methodology by using smiling celebrities as fronts.
It’s a strategy that’s worked swimmingly for more than 50 years. But now, it appears to be imploding.
The Best Way Scientology Can Refute the Vanity Fair Story
While it flails with unwise public statements (see below), Scientology must know that it has a very simple and effective way to shut down talk of Tom Cruise’s girlfriend auditions.
It’s simply this…
Produce Shelly Miscavige to tell us her side of the story.
Orth’s article in Vanity Fair will say that Shelly, the wife of church leader David Miscavige, was running the 2004 project to audition women for the role of Tom’s next girlfriend.
So obviously, the best way for the church to refute that story is for Shelly herself to come out and give interviews about her side of the story.
It’s an easy solution, COB.
Go on. I dare you.
Us Weekly Participates in Church Slime Job
There is never a reason for a publication to shield the identity of a corporation’s official spokesperson when that person is speaking on behalf of his or her organization.
So how can Us Weekly justify keeping out of a story it published yesterday the name of the Church of Scientology “rep” who spoke on behalf of the church, and while doing so slimed director Paul Haggis and actress Nazanin Boniadi?
When that rep called Haggis “a status obsessed apostate,” it sounded a lot like Scientology’s longtime spokeswoman Karin Pouw, who is known (comically) for calling every ex-church member a “bitter apostate.” But if it was Pouw, why would she not want to use her name? And more importantly, why would Us Weekly go along with it?
The answer to that question comes a little later in the article, when the unnamed church representative engages in some old-fashioned Scientology “Fair Game,” sliming Haggis and Boniadi by implying that they are or were in a relationship. The statement is made in a way to imply that there is something inappropriate about Haggis speaking out about Boniadi’s alleged mistreated by the church, but is unsupported by any verifiable facts.
In other words, it’s extremely scummy.
The thing is, we expect that kind of behavior from the Church of Scientology. Anonymously sliming people it considers enemies is what it does regularly and has done for decades.
But what’s your excuse, Us magazine?
I called Us Weekly’s owner Wenner Media yesterday and left a detailed message with a media relations person there. I’ll let you know if they get back to me.
I also called Marty Rathbun, who for years as Scientology’s second-highest ranking official was often tasked with handling public relations disasters for the church.
“It’s such trash,” Rathbun says of the Us Weekly accusation. “They’re only doing this because Tom is calling in a chip. That’s the way they do it.”
Rathbun says he watched it happen from the other side, when he was still at the church’s highest levels and was also Tom Cruise’s personal auditor.
“They’ll say, Us Weekly owes us this, People owes us that. It’s like a big poker chip,” he says. “This is Tom Cruise. There’s no way that Us would run Freedom magazine drivel for the Church of Scientology,” he says, referring to Scientology’s propaganda vehicle, Freedom.
“This is Cruise, I’m telling you.”
UPDATE: PAUL HAGGIS RESPONDS. We received an e-mail this morning from Haggis, who is in Italy making a movie. We brought the Us Weekly story to his attention, and he sent us a statement with more about the Vanity Fair article, Boniadi, and Scientology’s attack.
Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth on ABC This Morning
The Top 25 People Crippling Scientology — 2012 Edition
Last summer, we put together a little list that took on a life of its own. We counted down the 25 people and groups who had been doing the most to get word out to the wider world about the Church of Scientology’s many alleged abuses, and who have contributed to its steep recent decline. A year later, we thought it was time to update our list. This time, we’ve put a premium on what’s happened in the last twelve months, so you might see some of your old favorites drop off the roster. But never fear — you can always revisit our choices from last year, or the choices of our readers.
#6: L. Ron Hubbard
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is revered by longtime church members, even the ones who are souring on the organization and walking away from the church in increasing numbers. But the man’s ideas, policies, mannerisms and supposed charisma have a hard time coming across to an increasingly Internet-savvy world, where Hubbard often comes off as a relic of a paranoid past. (Here’s a sample of what he was like, in his own words. Judge for yourself.) Hubbard topped our list last year, and he’s still a major reason why the church is in big trouble today. Many of Scientology’s worst abuses — from the ripping apart of families to the extreme retaliation against perceived enemies — all can be sourced to Hubbard himself.
#5: Tom Cruise
This week, Tom Cruise is very much in the news again with a Vanity Fair piece about how Scientology “auditioned” actresses to be his wife after his break-up with Penelope Cruz in 2004. But in the past year, the most remarkable thing we learned about Cruise came from a man named John Brousseau in our story about his 32-year career in Scientology’s hardcore “Sea Org.” We had always assumed that as Cruise became such a visible companion to Scientology leader David Miscavige at church events in the mid-2000s, it was Miscavige who was being a bit of a fanboy to the charismatic actor. But no, Brousseau told us — it’s the other way around. Brousseau, who had once been Miscavige’s brother-in-law, and had worked extensively with Cruise (even in his household), told us that “Tom Cruise worships David Miscavige like a god.” It’s amazing to think that the world famous actor is so in thrall of Scientology’s diminutive chief, but everything we’ve learned about him confirms that Cruise is really gone on Hubbard and Miscavige. Yikes.
See also: 25. Xenu, 24. Kate Bornstein, 23. Lisa Marie Presley, 22. Dani and Tami Lemberger, 21. John Brousseau, 20. Jamie DeWolf, 19. Jefferson Hawkins, 18. Amy Scobee, 17. Marc and Claire Headley, 16. Dave Touretzky, 15, Mark Bunker, 14. Tory Christman, 13. Karen de la Carriere, 12. Debbie Cook, 11. Astra Woodcraft, 10. Anonymous, 9. Tom Tobin and Joe Childs, 8. Stacy Dawn Murphy, 7. David Love and Colin Henderson
Look for the next installment of our Top 25 on Friday. We have things timed so that we’ll reveal this year’s number one just a few days before the opening of “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film that should explode interest in all things Scientology.
“Tom Cruise worships David Miscavige like a god”
Scientology’s president and the death of his son: our complete coverage
What Katie is saving Suri from: Scientology interrogation of kids
Scientology’s new defections: Hubbard’s granddaughter and Miscavige’s dad
Scientology’s disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise
Scientology crumbling: An entire mission defects as a group
Scientology leader David Miscavige’s vanished wife: Where’s Shelly?
Neil Gaiman, 7, Interviewed About Scientology by the BBC in 1968
The Master Screenplay: Scientology History from Several Different Eras
And a post that pulls together the best of our Scientology reporting
Please check out our Facebook author page for updates and schedules.
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, “What is Scientology?” Another good overview is our series from last summer, “Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” At the top of every story, you’ll see the “Scientology” category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we’ve covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology’s “Mecca,” whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology’s policy of “disconnection” that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We’ve also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there’s plenty more coming.