Like a prayer
by Stephanie Bunbury
Before L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics, according to the memoirs of several of his old muckers in science fiction, he told them that the way to make real money would be to start a religion. He went on to invent Scientology, then took it to its natural heartland, Los Angeles, where the Church of Scientology's luxurious Celebrity Centre caters to the very particular needs of the famous.
Right from the start, he directed his underlings to target the stars. So sneer as you might at Scientology's mix of banal self-help techniques, comic-book mythology about invading aliens and bizarre layers of secrecy, there is no denying that time has proved Hubbard to be, in one way or another, a true visionary.
Hubbard could have just been following the money. Actors can be paid as much as $US20 million for making a single film; you could reasonably expect that an effective marketing campaign would find at least a few both able and willing to pay the $US360,000 it reportedly costs to reach Scientology's innermost sanctum of understanding. But, in fact, it wasn't just a matter of finding clusters of people with startling amounts of money who were less likely to be hard-headed than, say, bankers about how they spent it. Even if they didn't pay anything, they would be worth the effort.
Because Hubbard and his followers clearly recognised that if you want to reach hearts and minds out there in the world, you cannot do better than have a sprinkling of celebrities to carry the message. Nobody knows how many Scientologists there are, but their starry list of known acolytes includes Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman, Giovanni Ribisi and any number of others.
Tom Cruise was Scientology's beaming poster boy for years before his unbridled couch-bouncing on Oprah Winfrey's show heralded a series of appearances in which his enthusiasm for his life as an Operating Thetan finally rendered him incoherent. "Now is the time, OK?" he said, somewhat mystifyingly, in a typical outburst. "It is being a Scientologist; people are turning to you, so you better know it ... And if you don't, you know, go and learn it!"
In America, where entertainment is a prime export, celebrities also enjoy unparalleled access to the corridors of power. When the US put pressure on Germany to legalise Scientology through the international forum of the Helsinki Commission, it was John Travolta, Isaac Hayes and Chick Corea - all prominent and committed Scientologists - who were on hand to speak on its behalf. They also published an open letter, signed by a wish list of Hollywood celebrities, comparing the German Government's stance to that of the Nazis.
Successive German governments have not relented, but Cruise reinforced the message recently by choosing to play Claus von Stauffenberg, a German national hero who was executed for his part in a military plot to kill Hitler, in a film made in Berlin. It wasn't hard to join Valkyrie's dots: here was a Scientologist standing up, once again, to the Nazis.
But while it is clear enough why marginal religions need the stars, why the stars are so susceptible to them is more mysterious. In a country where 81 per cent of the population identifies with a specific religion, the entertainment industry has always been notably agnostic.
About a third of Americans identify as born-again Christians, an exclusive path to salvation that is not too compatible with a business full of Jews, gays and the generally damned. If there are people in Hollywood who have been born again, they aren't too evangelical about it.
The spectacular exception is Stephen Baldwin, raised a Catholic along with brothers Alec, William and Daniel, who saw the light after September 11 and has since gone on the road with his right-on, right-wing "Livin' It" mission to the young and tattoo-friendly, inviting tens of thousands of young boys to sign "decision cards" promising to join him in "the gnarliest thrill ride" with Jesus. His conversion came complete with a flaming variety of conservatism; he now believes, for example, that efforts to end global poverty and violence are examples of the "stupid arrogance" that rightly earns God's wrath. Bono, he just knows, is in league with the Devil.
Celebrity religions are cut from a much smoother cloth than this. Fifty years after Scientology found a home in Hollywood, a secularised version of the Jewish mystical cult of Kabbalah has become the spiritual choice de nos jours; adherents range from Demi Moore to Gwyneth Paltrow.
Meanwhile, we are into our second generation of Buddhists: Goldie Hawn has passed the baton to Kate Hudson. There is even, on the shadowy fringe, a sybaritic Church of Satan that could once claim Jayne Mansfield as a member. Faith-hopping is a Hollywood commonplace: even Tom Cruise, in his pre-movie days, was a Franciscan seminarian.
The explanation for this religious frailty may lie in the nature of acting as much as the shared characteristics of people who do it. Actors, it is often noted, are generally insecure. But that's inevitable, surely, given that even the famous ones don't know where the next job is coming from and the job depends not on experience or even a skill set, but on whether some guy in a suit thinks they're hot. They only have themselves to sell.
They can see, moreover, that those selves are under constant scrutiny; whole magazines are devoted to passing on glimpses of their cellulite, signs of marital breakdown or evidence of creeping insanity. Apparently, everyone is looking at the stars, all the time. Not that they find that a negative thing, necessarily. Not at all. They didn't get into this business, most of them, in order to stay anonymous. Or to be poor. Or to make nice, necessarily. And the new religions don't expect them to.
Kabbalah was originally an esoteric occult offshoot of Judaism based on a 13th-century commentary on the Torah called the Zohar. It purported to explore the nature of God and the universe via arcane forms of mysticism - using numerology to reveal hidden truths in the Torah's words, for example - that were considered so complex that Kabbalah studies could only be undertaken by Jewish male scholars over 40 who had spent their lives poring over the sacred texts.
Karen and Philip Berg changed all that. In 1971 they opened their first Kabbalah Centre, aiming to offer a simplified version of this pursuit to everyone, Jew or Gentile. Their "technology of the soul" - or "McMysticism" in the eyes of its critics - is largely stripped of any faith content or even Hebrew words that might "alienate people", according to a centre spokesman.
Madonna was first seen wearing Kabbalah's defining $26 red string (supposedly cut from an ur-string wound around Rachel's tomb in Jerusalem, although reports that they are labelled "Made in China" suggest this may be true only in a spiritual sense) in 2005. Where Sandra Bernhard - her sometime gal pal - had led, she followed, eventually bringing successive bosom chums Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan into the fold, albeit temporarily. It was a great story. There would have been less fuss, the star complained, if she had "joined the Nazi party". It is intriguing to note, just in passing, how often those jackboots march through the argument.
Both Scientology and Kabbalah are career-positive: being in the right mental place, they suggest, is crucial to the commercial success that is the sole measure of worth on the Hollywood scale. "Why is Kabbalah suddenly so attractive for artists of various domains, you may wonder?" writes the entertainment editor on the Softpedia website. "The answer is pretty simple: because it promotes physical welfare and wellness, because the 'divine system of wisdom' is primarily based on the principle that the 'Creator wants you to have everything you want': that is, money, good relationships, love and happiness. What more could one man ask from his petty existence on Earth?"
Actually, apart from the candle-lighting and talk of chakras, testimony of its aficionados suggests that Kabbalah, like the less controversial aspects of Scientology, is largely a variety of self-help. Ashton Kutcher, for example, explained that Kabbalah had improved his relationship with Demi Moore. "It is one of the essential ingredients in the success in our marriage," he said last year. "Every time that we come against a challenge, we turn to the tools we have learned and a solution follows."
Before Moore discovered Kabbalah, she was a disciple of the fantastically successful self-help guru Deepak Chopra - an Indian doctor whose advocacy of meditation owes a good deal, in turn, to Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - whose success in Hollywood has made him a celebrity in his own right. Moore's daughter Scout told Harper's Bazaar that she was quite comfortable with Kabbalah in the home because it represented only the last in a long line of conversions. "She has always moved from religion to religion, with different stages of her life."
What Kabbalah and Scientology offer that self-help doesn't, however, is some comfort in the face of the yawning emptiness of the cosmos. Even the biggest stars will die, or perhaps not. In an article on Kabbalah in Salon magazine, journalist Daphne Merkin - who was raised as an Orthodox Jew - reports how she discussed the cult with Mystic Madge in an interview for a glossy magazine occasioned by the release of Confessions on a Dance Floor. She and Guy Ritchie were taking Hebrew lessons at the time and she had been renamed, at least for devotional purposes, Esther. She no longer believed in death, she told Merkin, but in a concept of reincarnation taught at the Kabbalah Centre.
Reincarnation has no place in Jewish theology, but Kabbalah's "reconciliation of science and spirituality, of the Garden of Eden and string theory", as Madonna put it, follows its own precepts. " 'The thought of eternal life appeals to me'," she told me, as though she were trying on a new outfit in front of a mirror," Merkin wrote. "'I don't think people's energy just disappears.'
"When I asked her why she hadn't stuck with Catholicism, which incorporates belief in an afterlife, she snapped in reply: 'There's nothing consoling about being Catholic. They're all just laws and prohibitions. They don't help me negotiate the world.' ''
The caricature of celebrity-friendly religions, of course, is that they are long on consolation and short on anything else, such as uncongenial moral codes or an actual God whose own celebrity, celeb-watching snarks suggest, might occasionally overshadow the star's own. This may be part of the appeal of Buddhism, however vaguely understood it may be by many Westerners who flirt with it. Anyone can latch on to ideas of individual spiritual growth and the pursuit of physical and mental well-being. After all, it sounds a lot like therapy. Everyone in Hollywood understands that.
Celebrity Buddhists accordingly abound: Oliver Stone, Keanu Reeves, Orlando Bloom, Uma Thurman, Tina Turner and Sharon Stone are among the many who have declared themselves, more or less convincingly, to be fans of shedding all desire. Naomi Watts said after making The Painted Veil that she was "drawn" to Buddhism and was, in an odd counterpoint to the red thread brigade, wearing "Buddhist beads" around her wrist.
Richard Gere, raised a Methodist, is perhaps Hollywood's best-known Buddhist, adhering to a disciplined schedule of meditation that does not, in fact, suggest his religious choice is an easy option. In the process he has also committed himself to the Tibetan cause, visiting the Dalai Lama in northern India several times a year and lobbying ceaselessly at home on his behalf. The story of his conversion is that he tried meditation for the first time back in the mid-'70s, when he had retired to bed in depression after being fired as lead actor in The Lords of Flatbush.
"Back then, doubts were eating away at me," Gere said later. "And Buddhism as a religion seemed like the therapeutic way to deal with that ... For the first time, I felt I had really found myself." As an actor who embodied a certain kind of sexualised narcissism peculiar to movies, he could see a way of "cutting himself down to size", as Der Spiegel put it in a long profile centred on his choice of faith. "Gere is a narcissist seeking to overcome his infatuation with his own image."
More recent Hollywood conversions have included some that are almost archaically conventional. The days when people had to change religion to match their partner's might have been thought to be over, but Isla Fisher has spent years on the preliminary studies required for Jewish conversion in order to marry Sacha Baron Cohen. They have had a child in the meantime. Just last week it was reported that Leonardo diCaprio will reportedly undertake the same arduous training to marry his Israeli girlfriend.
And last year, having long since dropped out of Kabbalah via Alcoholics Anonymous, Lindsay Lohan posted her intention to convert to Judaism. Her plan, by contrast, is pure Hollywood. Her girlfriend Samantha Ronson is Jewish and Lohan said that she had become close to her family and was attracted to their beliefs. They, too, are said to be considering marriage in a state that will permit it. But she is still only 22, so has time for a few changes of heart yet.
Despite the absurdities of celebrities in search of a god effect - it can't be too substantial, but should be spectacular - any of us can understand the urge to embrace the momentarily transcendent. It's that sense of missing something that makes Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers wish they did this more often, or puts us in awe of Uluru or a sunny morning, or allows us to take pleasure in traditional ritual that means little to us simply because preceding generations have said the same words and made the same gestures in company with their fellow human beings. The most determined non-believer can see what a church or equivalent offers in our world.
But in the middle of the movie industry, with its naked adulation of success and money, its emphasis on surface gloss and a competitive ethos that some say makes everyone else implicitly untrustworthy, the longing for a refuge from "the infectious malaise of secular life", as Daphne Merkin puts it, must be proportionately greater. And if it comes with "an up-to-the-microsecond sense of branding" and excellent merchandise, so much the better. After all, however much those celebrities might be looking for a haven, they're still in Hollywood.
"Another passing fad or a genuine search for meaning? Stephanie Bunbury parses and unpacks the complicated relationship between celebrities and religion." An appropriately entertaining, superficial, derivative, armchair essay on Scientology, Kabbalah and the other popular Hollywood religions from Melbourne's The Age.