Culture

Why So Many Celebrities Joined NXIVM, According to Cult Experts

HBO's docuseries 'The Vow' makes clear that NXIVM was filled with Hollywood types – but why was the cult so good at recruiting them?
14 September 2020, 9:00am
Sarah Edmonson in The Vow
Still of Sarah Edmondson in 'The Vow' courtesy of HBO

One of the most striking things about NXIVM, the cult chronicled in HBO’s new docuseries The Vow, is the number of celebrities who belonged to the group. Infamously, Allison Mack, who starred in Smallville, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges related to her role in "D.O.S.," a branch of NXVIM (pronounced "neck-see-um") in which women entered into "master-slave" relationships that former members claim involved blackmail, branding, and an oath of secrecy. Mark Vicente, who directed What the Bleep Do We Know?, joined NXIVM in 2005, and helped run it for more than a decade. Show up to a NXIVM event, and you might find Kristin Kreuk (Smallville), Bonnie Piesse (Star Wars), Catherine Oxenberg (Dynasty), Nicki Clyne (Battlestar Galactica), Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment), Grace Park (Hawaii Five-O), and any number of other Hollywood types somewhere in the room, if not leading a workshop.

The cult's Hollywood connection wasn't a coincidence. Its founder, Keith Raniere, specifically targeted actors and directors, grooming them to become high-ranking NXIVM members and encouraging them to recruit their high-profile friends. But why did these people—already famous, already wealthy, already successful—buy into a high-control group masquerading as a self-help program? And why was the cult so focused on recruiting celebrities in the first place?

To find out, VICE spoke with three cult experts—Rick Ross, Diane Benscoter, and Steve Hassan—who have studied NXIVM extensively, and who have all worked with former members personally. (Ross was embroiled in lawsuits with NXIVM for more than 14 years, and claims Raniere hired private investigators to "stalk" him.) They detailed how the cult seduced the rich and famous into joining its ranks, using the promise of self-improvement and community to get them to forfeit their time, money, and personal freedom to Raniere—all while exploiting their influence to recruit new members.

Rick Ross: What they saw at first blush was, "This is all about you. This is about helping you to be a better person. And more than that, this is about creating a more ethical society. This is about making the world a better place." No one, when they saw what NXIVM was purportedly about, understood what was behind the curtain.

Why was that promise—of both self-improvement, but also improving the world—so enticing for celebrities? You'd think that someone who had already attained fame, wealth, and success wouldn't feel a need for a program like NXIVM.
Diane Benscoter: Just because someone is successful does not mean that internally they feel happy, and loved, and respected, and have a community. They may have what outsiders would consider success, but there's always that next audition, and there's always—I think—that feeling of emptiness: Everyone's out to get each other in this industry, and I don't have any true friends. Then you go to these [NXIVM] meetings and people are disclosing really intimate things with each other. There's intimacy that a lot of people haven't felt for a long time, if ever.

Ross: You do a series, like Allison Mack with Smallville, for 10, 11 years, and that's terrific. But how many actors do a hit series and never have another hit series? After that, they're wondering, When am I going to do anything else major? When will my next role come? Am I going to be forgotten? There's all this insecurity in the entertainment industry, and I think Keith Raniere fed on it. He would find what those insecurities were, and he would drill down into them and crack people open and then basically say, "Look, I'm the answer. I can make you a greater success. I can give you the tools to ensure your future success. And I can give you meaning."

Many people in that line of work think, OK, I had success with this series, and I have money, and I have name recognition. But I don't feel that I have a deeper sense of meaning. I've accomplished many of the things I hoped for regarding my career in entertainment, but what about really making a difference in the world? And Keith Raniere was selling that. He was telling people, "OK, you made movies. You were successful in television. But what about changing the world? What about really having an impact, not just through entertainment, but in a meaningful way?" And it appealed to these people from an idealistic standpoint. This would give them a sense of meaning that maybe they felt they didn't have by being successful in the entertainment industry.

Sarah Edmonson

Sarah Edmonson holding a NXIVM sash in 'The Vow,' courtesy of HBO

Do you think it was a conscious effort on Keith Raniere's part to recruit celebrities into NXIVM?
Benscoter: I know it was. People like Allison Mack—they really tried to pull them in and then really gave them lots of attention and lots of special perks.

Like what?
Benscoter: They get more access to the leader, and the leader tells them how important their role is and how they can use their fame to make a difference in the world. So now their fame has a higher purpose. It's one thing to be famous and get good roles in movies; it's another thing to be able to use that to really make a difference in the world. And that's really appealing to people who have more depth than just the desire to be rich and famous.

Ross: If you're Clare Bronfman [the millionaire Seagram's heiress chiefly responsible for financing Raniere] and you're in NXIVM, you're being treated much better than the other members. If you're Tom Cruise in Scientology, you're not experiencing Scientology the way that a grunt would. They recognize your value as a celebrity and they're going to cater to you and make sure that your perception of their organization is as positive as it can possibly be.

Why would Keith Raniere be so keen to indoctrinate celebrities into NXIVM—and, more broadly, why do so many cults try to do the same?  Hassan: It's a very well known social psychology principle that people who are famous have more power because people want to identify with them. They can be recruiters to bring other people in. [Cult] leaders want celebrities because they want their fame, they want the money, they want the network of people that the person might be able to make available to them.

Ross: If you get one, you get more—that's the L. Ron Hubbard way. Scientology was the pioneer in mining celebrities, particularly from Hollywood, and using them as poster boys and girls to get more celebrities. You get Tom Cruise, you get John Travolta, you get Kirstie Alley, and then you get more because they're the guideposts—people say, "Well, if that person thinks it's good, it must be good. If that person is in, I want to be in."

Benscoter: I don't know who your heroes are, but if one of your heroes said, "This is really great," you would probably be drawn to it.

Especially if through joining whatever they were a part of, I could then hang out with that person.
Benscoter: Yes. You get to be part of this thing that some of the people you want to rub elbows with are a part of.

Ross: Hollywood people are thinking, I can network. I will get into Scientology or I'll get into NXIVM and I'll meet other people in the entertainment industry, and it could be good for my career. You would meet in some celebrity's house; it could be Catherine Oxenberg, it could be Casper Van Dien—the Bronfmans might be there. And you would be in this environment [with] powerful, successful people, and it was very enticing, very glamorous. Then you would think, Well, if these people are in, why should I be concerned? And they would speak very positively because they were true believers at that point.

And that can be very compelling: when you have someone in front of you who's very sold, very excited, and you respect them. Think about the Dalai Lama of Tibet coming to show his respect to Keith Raniere—later convicted of sex trafficking and extortion and [wire] fraud—but at the time, the Dalai Lama is giving him a scarf, and saying how great he is, and implying that the media is lying. So if you're someone coming into this, you're thinking, Well gee, the Dalai Lama thinks this guy is a great guy. And Kristin Kreuk thinks he's terrific. And Allison Mack and these other people from Hollywood, and these notable rich people. So who am I to question this?

But what about after the initial recruitment phase? You'd think that as soon as things started getting weird, and abusive, and you watched NXIVM bleed your bank account dry, you'd see that you had been duped and want to leave.
Ross: When you come in, you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and then you go into the training with no advanced understanding of what you're submitting yourself to. You have to understand that they went through unbelievable amounts of training. You're eating, sleeping, breathing NXIVM, 24/7. You're in a hotel room with NXIVM people, you're sleeping with them, you're constantly talking about NXIVM, NXIVM, NXIVM—day after day after day after day, for 14 days. In my experience, you can break people in 14 days and you can change them and you can lock them in. And NXIVM was very good at breaking people. Now sometimes they would break somebody like Kristin Snyder, who ended up killing herself and saying that her mind was destroyed in her suicide note—those are the casualties. But most of the people would make it through, and most of the people that made it through it became devoted and ready to sell NXIVM to every friend and family member they knew.

Hassan: What's missing, when you're in a mind control cult, is reality testing, where you can describe what's happened to you and go, "What did you think about that? Let's go talk to an ex-Scientologist, and let's do a critique on it." That's what's missing. The minute somebody does that, they don't get into the cult. Your capacity for critical thinking and reality testing is systematically dismantled as they disclose more and more details of what the group actually believes.

Mark Vicente

Mark Vicente in 'The Vow,' courtesy of HBO

But wouldn't there be someone in a NXIVM member's life, or a Scientologist's life—especially a celebrity, who probably has an agent and a manager—who would raise a red flag, and let them know that they were involved in something really unhealthy? Like, how is Tom Cruise still so gung-ho about Scientology?
Ross: If anybody questions you—like, for example, Katie Holmes—that's a suppressive person, and you should not listen to them. In fact, you should disconnect from them, and people around them. So for example, Suri Cruise would be a potential trouble source—a PTS. And so you wouldn't visit with her because she is involved with an SP—a suppressive person, Katie Holmes—and so you would disconnect.

And that's exactly what Keith Raniere copied from Scientology. That isolates people, and it cuts them off from any accurate feedback or critical feedback. And then if you become involved with Tom Cruise in Hollywood, or any of these celebrities, it's very likely they're going to tell you you have to do Scientology; you have to be amenable to doing some courses and getting involved with that. So it's kind of like a cocoon that he's in, where he doesn't really hear or see anything to dispel the myth that Scientology perpetuates.

The same certainly is true of the NXIVM people. I mean, when those celebrities were in NXIVM, they were completely encapsulated socially with NXIVM people that were with them all the time. When you're surrounded by like-minded people that are constantly reinforcing the group norm, how does that allow you to think outside the box?

Ultimately, a majority of the celebrities involved in NXIVM did come to realize that it was a destructive, abusive cult. How painful is that realization? Not only did they recruit so many members personally; they legitimized NXIVM in the eyes of everyday people and played a big part in making it as successful as it was. That has to be really hard to deal with.
Benscoter: It's horrible. It was one of the first things to come up in talking with some of these people: "Oh my god, I've harmed so many people." They feel terrible. When they start understanding how it works, the psychological manipulation part, they realize that it was self-perpetuating: You get hooked in, and the next thing you do is start bringing other people in and using the same manipulative techniques. And when you realize that's what's taken place, it's horrible to realize that you've messed up so many people's lives. And they want to fix it. A lot of people that I know that were in the upper echelon of it are doing everything they can to help those people they brought in.

Hassan: I want to compliment Mark Vicente and Bonnie [Piesse], his wife, and Anthony Ames and Sarah [Edmonson]. [Note: All of whom are former NXIVM members interviewed in The Vow.] Most people, when they wake up and leave a cult, they don't think of others. They skulk away and they don't want the limelight. They certainly don't go and do a high-profile criminal case—much less do a documentary that millions of people are going to watch, where they're literally baring their souls and showing what happened to them.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.