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.
When he first moved to Los Angeles in 1976, he was given a room at the ramshackle Chateau Élysée, the mansion that would later be lavishly refurbished into Scientology's Celebrity Centre. Haggis describes his early days in the church as having a sense of boundless possibility – one of mystical secrets, out-of-body experiences and the glittering promise of future success in show business. "There was a feeling of camaraderie that was something I'd never experienced," he told Wright, "all these atheists looking for something to believe in, and all these loners looking for a club to join."
In later years, however, Haggis describes a life scrutinized and controlled by church leaders, hundreds of hours of expensive "auditing" courses and strict controls on his family life that contributed to strained relationships with his children and the demise of two marriages. Despite this, Haggis was strangely reluctant to criticize the church until the end. "I had such a lack of curiosity when I was inside," he told Wright. "It's stunning to me, because I'm such a curious person."
The Church, for its part, responded with a statement in Entertainment Weekly calling Wright's piece "little more than a regurgitation of old allegations that have long been disproved," and went on to express its disappointment "that a magazine with the reputation of The New Yorker chose to reprint these sensationalist claims from disaffected former members hardly worthy of a tabloid."
Haggis's story is remarkable. With the notable exception of William S. Burroughs, who called the church "just another control-addict trip" after defecting in 1970, public criticism has been relatively rare – until recently.
Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, set to be released this fall, is widely thought to be a critical biopic of Hubbard, the man Scientologists hail as the "Source" and whom critics have attacked as a charlatan and madman. The film follows the story of a charismatic burgeoning cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his hold over a troubled Second World War veteran (Joaquin Phoenix). Anderson has declined to comment on the film and Hoffman has denied the parallels between his character and the Scientology founder. When The New York Times contacted church spokeswoman Karen Pouw by e-mail and asked if they had any concerns about the film, her response was curt: "Thank you very much for your inquiry. The Church only knows about the film what it has read in the press."
While the church has long been known to suppress negative press through its legal arm, the public relations campaign against Hubbard's followers appears to be gaining ground. Last week, the embattled media magnate Rupert Murdoch tweeted that Scientology is a "very weird cult, but big, big money involved with Tom Cruise either number two or three in hierarchy." He went on to add that there was "something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people." While the notion of a character like Murdoch taking aim at others for being creepy and rich is amusingly hypocritical, his boldness is worth noting. Perhaps the church has become less vigilant about suppressing its critics because "dissemination" (as Hubbard would say) is now simply beyond their control. In an era of Twitter, anti-cult blogs and 24-hour newsfeeds, it has become impossible for even a powerful organization like the Church of Scientology to manage the fallout from a public relations disaster like this one. As the Daily Telegraph observed this week, "the Cruise-Holmes divorce is more than a car crash: it's as if Xenu's spaceship … had plunged into one of those volcanoes."
Katie vs. Xenu
Just five years ago, it looked more hopeful for Project Celebrity. Back then, Scientology's golden couple were fixed in their roles: Tom as the dazzling public smile of the organization, beautiful sloe-eyed Katie as Scientology's virgin bride and Suri as their immaculately conceived child. And now, like an apocalyptic twist in a sci-fi allegory, Katie is biting back. While Tom celebrated a lonely 50 th birthday on the set of his movie in Iceland, his wife was meeting with her team of New York lawyers and is said to be determined to secure custody at any cost.
By abandoning the celebrity flock, Holmes is not just fleeing her own marriage but imperiling a much grander union, a relationship on which the future of her husband's religion may rest: The love affair between Hollywood royalty and the Church. Will her bid for escape ruin Hubbard's 60-year-old Project Celebrity? One thing is certain – it'll all play out in this summer's science fiction star vehicle: Katie vs. Xenu.
Editor's Note: Pianist Dave Brubeck was not a Scientologist. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article.