Back in the mid-1950s, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard had a novel idea: What would happen if he could convince movie stars of the day to convert to his fledgling religion? With this in mind, he sent the following internal memo to his staff: “There are many to whom America and the world listens. On the backs of these are carried most of the enthusiasms on which the society runs. It is obvious what would happen to America if we helped its leaders to help others. Project Celebrity is part of that program.”
The memo ends with a rundown of Hollywood’s A-list roster at the time, including Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and Orson Welles. Even back then, Scientologists were encouraged to seek out celebrities and cultivate relationships with them whenever possible. While none of Hubbard’s initial quarry were ever successfully recruited , his plan would come to fruition several decades later. By the late 1960s, the church could count Gloria Swanson and William S. Burroughs among the faithful.
Project Celebrity eventually became one of the church’s defining pillars, along with the story of Xenu, all-powerful leader of the Galactic Confederacy who flew his spacecraft to earth 75 million years ago, founding the original human race of Thetans, which he later obliterated by detonating hydrogen bombs in volcanoes. If Xenu is Scientology’s secret Satan, celebrities are its public God. Who needs scientific credibility when you’ve got Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis and Kirstie Alley vouching for you?
For years now, Scientology membership has been sold to young recruits as not just a balm to the soul and ticket to eternal life in outer space but also as a networking opportunity – and given the impressive number of powerful actors, producers, writers and agents known or rumoured to be in its ranks, this would seem to be its most justifiable claim. In this sense, Scientology membership is the new millennium’s equivalent to the 1980s AA meeting: an instant place of belonging for those struggling to make it in show business.
But Hubbard’s Project Celebrity just hit a major roadblock – one that illustrates that the dangers of unbridled publicity can be just as potent as its benefits. In what is shaping up to be the biggest tabloid story of the year, Scientology’s reigning power couple – Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes – are in the middle of an acrimonious, bi-coastal split. While the tabloid consensus is that Holmes wants out of the church and she’s prepared to wage war to make sure her daughter comes with her, she has not confirmed the divorce is about the role Scientology should play in her or her daughter’s life.
The detonation of TomKat has escalated from just another celebrity divorce story into a full-blown public trial for Scientology and its ties to the entertainment industry. As Hollywood gears up for the fall release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (rumoured to be a fictional biopic of L. Ron Hubbard), and New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright puts the final touches on his book chronicling the defection Paul Haggis, one of Scientology’s biggest Hollywood names, the Church is facing a publicity crisis of unparalleled proportions. Could this be the end of Hubbard’s Project Celebrity?
For insight into how Hollywood talent is seduced into Scientology, it’s instructive to watch Rona Barrett’s 1984 TV interview with the young Tom Cruise. Prior to his conversion, Cruise comes across as a vulnerable young man who craves validation and is haunted by a childhood marred by poverty and divorce. Scientology, which he was introduced to in 1990 by his first wife, the actress Mimi Rogers, would have offered him not only a sense of belonging in Hollywood, but spiritual validation for his burgeoning public persona.
As a religion, Scientology is focused on personal growth as opposed to civic or familial duty. It uses a combination of life-coaching techniques, management theory and new-age philosophy to instill in its participants a heady mix of self-empowerment and intense loyalty. Above all, Scientologists are encouraged to focus their own inward spiritual growth and to “disconnect” from the negative influences of the outside world. Public veneration, however (in the form of fame and material status), is treated as evidence of self-actualization.
As Hugh Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University said of Project Celebrity in an interview with Beliefnet.com, “These aren’t people who need more wealth, but what they do need, or often want at least, is some kind of spiritual validation for their wealth and lifestyle, and Scientology is a religion that says it’s okay to be wealthy, it’s okay to be famous, in fact, that’s a sign of your spiritual development. So it kind of is a spiritual validation validation for that kind of lifestyle.”
If Holmes is the face of Project Celebrity’s apocalypse, Paul Haggis was the canary in the coal mine. In October, 2009, he left the church in response to its leadership’s position in support of Proposition 8, the ballot banning gay marriage in California. Since then he has become a vocal public opponent of the church, most notably in his participation in Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article The Apostate. In the piece, Haggis tells the story of his involvement with Scientology, which began in the mid-1970s, when he would commute from his home in London, Ont., to take advanced classes at the Dianetics Centre in Toronto.