By Paolo Zinatelli
We’ve all seen the video by now. It was circulated on the Internet faster than Pam and Tommy’s honeymoon porno.
A short little man, dressed all in black, is jumping like a monkey on an expensive yellow leather couch. His hands pump in the air. He yells with excitement. His host — horrified — cowers in the corner, pretending to be amused, but the look of fear in her eyes is unmistakeable. The ladies in the audience scream and yell like hormone-injected 12-year-olds.
The little man? Tom Cruise. The scared host? Oprah Winfrey. The screaming audience? Desperate housewives. This incident last year sparked the beginning of the end for the movie star formerly known as Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. It was shortly after he was seen going crazy on Oprah that Cruise went crazy in real life. He began professing his love for his much younger fianc?e Katie — pardon me, Kate — Holmes, she of Dawson’s Creek fame.
It was also around this time that our beloved Tom started going around the talk-show circuit, preaching the values of a clean, drug-free lifestyle. His opinions on everyone and everything were, well, everywhere. He was especially adamant about his hatred of psychology and psychiatry, a “pseudo-science” that he didn’t believe in. Remember his comments to Matt Lauer, the lovable Today Show host? “No, you see. Here’s the problem. You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.”
And there you have it. Tom Cruise went from being a movie star to being a scientist, all in the blink of an eye. So you might be asking yourself, why did Jerry Maguire suddenly pull a Willy Wonka on television? Well there are two answers to that. The first is that he fired his long- time publicists who had managed his career for years. They told him to shut up when he needed to shut up. He then hired his sister to take over the job.
And she allows her little brother free reign on what he wants to say. The second answer: Scientology. The new age religion that has been sweeping Hollywood like a Santa Ana brush fire for the last 25 years. Cruise, a devout Scientologist, and one of the highest-ranking celebrities in the church after John Travolta, has been involved in the religion for about 20 years. And he’s not alone.
Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, often join Tommy for Sunday brunch after church. Then there’s Kirstie Alley. Beck. Leah Remini. Juliette Lewis. Even Issac Hayes. So all these crazy antics and foolish shenanigans got me to thinking: what exactly is it about Scientology that makes it so appealing? I mean, if Vinny Barbarino is a devout follower, can it really be that bad? On a cold winter day, I made the trek up Yonge Street to the Church of Scientology in Toronto.
Upon entering what looked like a Leon’s furniture showroom without the furniture, I was immediately welcomed by the lovely red-headed Agnes (no last name given). She was a fairly attractive, younger woman, who was sensibly dressed for the day’s cold climate. Actually, it was colder in the church than out, but the orange space heaters in the corners provided bursts of heat to warm my cold, cynical heart. I was told to look around the room, and to read the giant billboard-size posters that were up on the walls.
They would explain all I needed to know about scientology, she said. While I took my little walking tour, Agnes kindly ran about collecting pamphlets for me to look at. Some “background reading,” she said. “So, any questions?” she asked. Any? Try hundreds. “Well, I have one for you first,” she said. “Don’t you want the technology to solve your problems?” Technology? Tell me more. I was intrigued — was there a new robotic device that would cure my backaches, or make my noisy neighbour finally stop tap dancing at 2 a.m.? Had I missed it in the papers? Not quite, Agnes informed me. “L. Ron Hubbard studied philosophers… Greek, Asian, Buddhist.” And from those philosophers, he took the best of all their work and came up with a “technology” that would revolutionize the world, she said.
This technology was called Dianetics, a Hubbard invention that would help to “blast away those negative thoughts.” How exactly does it work? Well, all for the low, low price of $78.50 (plus applicable taxes), I was told I could take a seminar to find out. The courses are held in the back room of the church and involve independent studies (textbooks begin at $7.99 and go up to $24.99). If there are any questions, Agnes said a supervisor is always around to answer them, but “independent learning is encouraged.”
In the end, I was told I would learn if I was a good brother, good grandson, good employee or a good lover. The answer would be revealed, but all in due time. The other technology, which I was oh so curious about, was the Electropsychometre or E-metre. This little device is hooked up to your fingers, much like an electric shock therapy machine is. It’s supposed to “measure your brainwaves,” Agnes told me. It will tell me if my mental state is good, bad or “other.” And what is “other?” “Other is neither good or bad,” she said, and left it at that.
If that’s how she wanted to end our afternoon delight, that was OK with me. I walked back out into the cold wind, my shoulders sunk, my head down, scarf wrapped tightly up to my nose. I was more confused then ever, and now I had visions of a horrible Dr. Jekyll-type man strapping me to an electric shock machine and cackling maniacally about “technologies!” My head was swimming with questions. What exactly draws a celebrity to a religion like Scientology? Is it the religion? Is it the celebrity?
Is it the “trend” of seeming religious? For answers, I turned to Ryerson’s guru of pop culture Murray Pomerance, sociology professor and author of Johnny Depp Starts Here. “If you look carefully at what it’s like to be a celebrity in our culture… it’s people that are plucked out of normal society,” he said. Their managers might be telling them they’re good, but for the life of them they can’t figure out why producers, the press and especially audiences like them. “They don’t particularly have any other talents.”
So celebrities are in a constant state of anxiety, and joining a new age religion is one way to help deal with that. “It’s an answer to the lack of stability,” said Pomerance, adding that the religion probably tells them it’s normal to not have stability. Well put, I thought to myself. Scientology is telling the crazy celebrity that it’s OK to be crazy! You’re not normal? Then come on down! Pomerance also pointed out there might be some marquee value in having a weird religion attached to your name.
It adds some cache, and might make you seem cooler than you really are. “It’s part of what they’re marketing,” he said. So, now I seemed to be getting a grasp on this whole new age religion thing, but no one had fully answered my question yet as to what made Scientology so attractive. For the definitive answer, I went on the official Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre website. And there, in black and white was my answer.
If you want to go for Sunday brunch in the courtyard restaurant, you can print a coupon to save $10 off the buffet and hear Leah Remini lecture on how to make it in Hollywood.
It ain’t going to get much sweeter than that.