This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. Ever since alleged cult leader and sex trafficker Keith Raniere was arrested last month, the world has been trying to make sense of the seriousness of the charges against him, as well as the confusing involvement of more than one early 2000s TV crush.
Raniere is accused of conspiring with Smallville actress Allison Mack to recruit a small army of women “slaves”—some of whom were allegedly ordered under threat to have sex with him. This “secret society” (or “organized criminal group” if you ask the FBI) was one of many offshoots from Raniere’s 20-year-old company Nxivm, which mostly traded in expensive self-help “intensives.”
Last week, VICE reported on some of the television actresses who at various times have been involved with Nxivm, but the truth is not all Smallville actresses participated equally. There was a time when being connected to the Vancouver community was a chill party/networking thing that had nothing to do with branding or blackmail.
At the same time, it’s impossible to tell the whole story of Nxivm without recounting its obsession with recruiting famous women. In order to understand how people like Kristin Kreuk (Smallville’s Lana Lang) had their seemingly benign career coaching experiences used against them, VICE spoke to a former insider who says she cannot be named due to an ongoing FBI investigation.
Marlena is not this person’s real name, but here’s what she had to say about why someone like Kreuk, who left in 2012, would very much like to be excluded from this latest Nxivm narrative. VICE has reached out to Kreuk’s management for comment but has yet to receive a reply.
VICE: What was Nxivm’s mission as you understood it back in 2006?
Marlena: You know what? It’s so embarrassing to say what we thought because it's so idealistic and naive in retrospect, but when you take the five-day course, so much of it is about not only bettering yourself but bettering the world by working through your own issues and becoming a more compassionate humanitarian person. We wanted to get these tools to world leaders and make a difference. We thought if leaders have these tools we could have world peace. That was the underlying mission. It was a really idealistic pie-in-the-sky dream.
Did you feel like Nxivm was also just a community of friends helping friends?
We certainly created, especially in Vancouver, a community of people who were, for the most part, young actors and artists and entrepreneurs. There was certainly an environment of people who were like-minded trying to help each other achieve goals. We'd have parties and events, and people who were really striving toward bettering themselves in whatever way would see what we were creating and say: "I want a part of that."
Was there pressure to recruit celebrities?
It wasn’t so much a pressure to recruit celebrities, it was just kind of a whim within the company. Like, Oh, how great we’ve got a VIP. We wouldn't get bonus points per se, but it was something that was acknowledged as a good thing because it would grow the mission and grow the company if we had whoever endorsing. We never put people's names in pamphlets, but they were there, and people would see pictures of Kreuk and Mack in group photos on the wall and say, “Is that Kristin from Smallville?” I’d say, “Yeah she’s a coach!” Stuff like that. There were other A-listers in Hollywood that I actually can’t say, but they were bragged about very openly.
Was it rewarding to bring people in?
It was very rewarding to do a five-day course and watch people have a huge transformation. Many people did that for free. The thing I really want to point to is that not many of us were making money. A lot of people did it because it was emotionally rewarding to work with people and help them shift their life.
How would someone like Kristin Kreuk fit into the coaching role at Nxivm?
I think people like Kristin enjoyed being a coach. I don’t want to speak for her, but she was a very lovely, gentle, compassionate, very caring kind of coach. And that was rewarding for her, it appeared. And she didn’t necessarily want to be paid, she didn’t need that. Going on to be a proctor [the paid coaching level] would have been very difficult for her acting career. At least that’s my interpretation.
Were famous actresses playing a significant role? Were they a marketing tool?
I definitely think they were used as a marketing tool to create validity for what we were doing.
Were they used to counter the cult narrative at all?
When I first enrolled the cult stuff online was pretty minimal. There were a couple articles but they didn’t point to anything particularly bad—other than people were calling Nxivm a cult. The bad thing about Keith at the time was he went for long walks with women in the neighborhood [in Albany]. I was like, that seems like disgruntled neighbors.
In the first course, we even talk about how people use the word “cult” to discredit what you’re doing without actually saying what’s bad. And I understood that. I had done an acting program I didn’t like, and I even said to somebody, “It’s kinda culty.” Which isn’t very specific. A better way of saying it is, well, it was very insular. I found everyone deified the leader, and they pushed peoples’ boundaries in unsafe ways. I didn’t like it, but some people loved it!
I think at the time I wouldn’t have said we were using actors to cover the cult thing, it’s more like: Hey, we’re not a cult, Kristin Kreuk and Allison Mack are doing it. Just look at all these happy successful people.
Do you think it was a “breakthrough” for Nxivm when Allison Mack and Kristin Kreuk joined?
We joked about it but it really changed the dynamic of Nxivm’s culture. Until then, it was largely a different vibe. Bringing Hollywood to Nxivm was exciting. The vibe was young women, cool people, artists, and people who were actually doing stuff.
When did you start hearing about allegations against Keith? Did he have a reputation with women?
In the beginning, I was told he was celibate. So he had no material possession. He was like a monk. He didn’t indulge in those types of things because he didn’t need to—he was so evolved. It sounds ridiculous now. I remember asking if Keith had a girlfriend a couple of times. Later, polyamory was more deeply formulated as part of our belief system—that it was OK for men to be nonmonogamous, but women should stay monogamous. That’s more where he almost stopped making an effort to keep it hidden, and just made it OK. It never occurred to me that he was keeping more than one partner. Still, I thought it was none of my business. If I asked questions they were shot down. I didn’t figure it out until I left.
What about in 2012, the Albany Times Union reported he had sex with three underage girls. This is around the time Kristin left.
Kristin didn’t leave on bad terms. She left to go to Toronto for work. That was the best way to leave, to not make a scene… I don’t even think I read the Times Union story. It wasn’t local for me, and we all believed it was a smear campaign. We were told not to read the press, it would change our internal representation, we wouldn’t see the company in the same way. I maybe went to a friend and asked about it, and she basically said it’s not true and that anyone can accuse anyone of anything. If it was true, he’d be in jail.
How did everyone learn of the more serious allegations? Was it back then or more recently?
I think my own personal questioning started some time before the New York Times story last year. Even then it was outweighed by the good stuff—I was always motivated by my own growth. It wasn’t until I started sharing what I knew with friends that we realized how deep and dark this was. It all happened within months.
Kristin left in 2012 and really distanced herself from everybody. Her ex was in the company, so I assumed that was the point of resistance. As an insider, I know there’s no way Kristin would have known about the slavery or branding until it became public. She wasn’t in touch, she completely distanced herself for personal and professional reasons.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.