It seems like celebrities and cults go together like celebrities and controversy, celebrities and malfeasance, and celebrities escaping prison time despite their malfeasance since they’re celebrities. But let’s focus on cults for a minute.
Everyone knows about the connections Charles Manson had to the Beach Boys and Neil Youn, but there’s still some modern craziness going on. Former actor Andrew Keegan now runs his commune called the Full Circle that specializes in indie music and colon cleansing. Oh, and serving illegal kombucha. Alison Mack, who played Chloe on Smallville, allegedly became the second in command of a cult that extorted and mistreated its members, but the rumors are vague.
Thanks to South Park, we know all about Xenu, Scientology, and people getting trapped in closets. But there’s even more to it. Things that are still going on that you didn’t know about, and cults from the past with celebrity clientele that’s been lost to time. Sometimes you make mistakes or get born into a bad deal. Cults are easy to get into, but usually difficult to get out of, and nearly impossible to recover from the trauma. Everyone’s got a story, and we’ve listed them for you.
These are 15 Stars Who Escaped From Cults.
16 Michelle Pfeiffer
When she was first starting out in Hollywood, Michelle Pfeiffer— the once and future Catwoman— gave Breatharianism a try. For the uninitiated, the Breatharians are vegetarians. They work out and diet constantly to alter their bodies to a point where they no longer need food or water; eventually, they would be able to gain sustenance wholly from sunlight.
Pfeiffer became involved in it through a couple of very controlling personal trainers.
Not only did she exhaust herself physically, but financially as well—giving most of the money she earned to the movement.
Pfeiffer’s then-husband Peter Horton was working on Moonies, a film about Rev Moon Sun-myung’s Unification Church—itself a cult as well. While helping out with research, she realized the parallels between the two groups. Faster than Homer Simpson could say “You don’t make friends with salad,” Pfeiffer left the Breatharian group.
15 Leah Remini
We’re not sure if you heard about this one. Leah Remini has been very quiet about her exit from Scientology.
We’re kidding, of course. Her exodus and battle against church leader David Miscavige have been very public and very loud for years. In her own words, Remini— who grew up in the church from the age of nine— left in 2013.
She was disillusioned with the Church; likewise, the Church didn’t care for her outspoken personality.
Between finding out about Xenu and asking questions about Miscavige’s wife Shelly, who no one has seen in a decade, Remini finally realized how insane all of it was and got the hell out of Dodge. She has since seen a major career surge and has publicly fought Scientology for its (alleged) immoral practices and the possible cover-up of the disappearance of Shelly Miscavige.
14 Winona Ryder
You would think the Rainbow Commune would be something sweet and fun, or a geographical location in My Little Pony or something just as trite and saccharine like that. But no, turns out it’s a bit of a cult, and Winona Ryder was involved when she was young.
Ryder grew up in California in the '70s, so naturally Rainbow was hippie-oriented. There was no TV, no electricity, and no music, but at least there was plenty of draft-dodging!
In her teens, Ryder’s parents insisted that she not procure substances on the streets; if she was curious, she should go to them so that they can experiment safely. That's pretty weird.
The cult has lived down to its reputation in recent years. Gatherings have been beehives of violence, substance abuse, thefts and assaults on police officers.
13 Glenn Close
You have to admire how nakedly the Moral Re-Armament flaunted its status as a cult with a name like that.
Glenn Close only revealed that she was raised in the cult back in 2014.
Her father, Doctor William Taliaferro Close, brought his entire family with him into the cult. The Re-Armaments believed in “The Four Absolutes”: honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. These were brutal maniacs. Their intense devotion to strict religious doctrine left its followers joyless and constantly second-guessed their instincts. There was also no means of escape; they were kept at the Church’s headquarters in the Swiss mountains.
Close has sparingly discussed these childhood events but did disclose in an interview: "You basically weren't allowed to do anything, or you were made to feel guilty about any unnatural desire and what you're supposed to say and how you're supposed to feel…From the time you're seven till the time you're 22, it has a profound impact on you. It's something you have to [consciously overcome] because all of your trigger points are [wrong]."
12 Joaquin and River Phoenix
The Children of God are going to come up quite often on this list. They were a large, popular cult in the '60s and '70s. At their apex, there were 130 chapters around the world. Its leaders, David Berg and Karen Zerby, advocated love and worship of God, as well as having relations with underage family members.
Joaquin Phoenix and his family were members of the Church from 1972 to 1978.
While Joaquin was still a baby at that point, River had been subjected to abuse. When their parents became aware of the situation, they escaped the group, and changed their surnames from Bottom to Phoenix, to represent their change and their desire to start anew.
The Children of God still exist, having rebranded themselves as Family International in 2004.
11 Rose McGowan
Rose McGowan also grew up in the Children of God cult, at one of their branch groups in Italy.
The hippie-commune front belied its seedy nature.
Women were sent to bars to lure potential recruits to join; they were modeled only to serve men. McGowan was never one for authority, even from a young age, and recalled burning a wall of Bibles, which certainly didn’t endear her to the other cultists. Her parents’ slavish devotion to God kept them in the thrall of the group for years, even as the Children of God devolved into little more than a Roman impropriety. However, when the Church started advocating child abuse, her father snuck his family out and back to America under cover of darkness.
10 Lisa Marie Presley
The Princess of Rock ‘n’ Roll grew up in the Church and recently left it after becoming disillusioned. We can only guess what the final straw was, but it’s quite clear she was unhappy with ol’ L. Ron. Lisa Marie Presley's latest album, Storm and Grace, is a bitter goodbye to the House that Xenu Built.
Songs like “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and “So Long” detail in no uncertain terms her distrust of the church; her lyrics even use Scientology terminology like “suppressive.” However, the most telling lyrics are the most brutal: “Farewell, fair weathered friends/I can’t say I’ll miss you in the end.”
While Scientology usually keeps its members from seeing family members who leave the Church, Presley has been lucky enough to keep in touch with hers, thanks to the very public nature of her departure and the negative press the embattled Church would receive from it.
9 The Arquette Family
The Arquette kids have had a rough go of it. Their parents were not the best people. Their father was an abusive drunk, and their mother was abusive for the sake of it. Oddly, they were also deeply invested in utopianism, and they started their own commune on the outskirts of Virginia along with a bunch of their friends. Basing their beliefs on the teachings of Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, their focus was on “The Greater Life Force,” which would bring them closer to God.
This didn’t work out well.
There was no electricity. There was no running water. There were no bathrooms. Meditate on that one for a while.
That the kids were able to rebound at all is a miracle in itself, but their childhood traumas came at a cost. David Arquette dealt extensively with his addictions over the years, while his sister Alexis passed away in 2016 from complications due to HIV.
8 Katie Holmes and Nicole Kidman
Pile into the DC-8s; we’re Going Clear again.
Katie Holmes and Nicole Kidman are together for their obvious connection: Tom Cruise.
Given the (alleged) stalking that the Church does on former members, extricating yourself from it isn’t simple. It may even be harder when you’re a celebrity. In the case of Holmes and Kidman, they also had to consider their children. Cruise had been the one to file for divorce from Kidman; it’s been widely speculated that the Church didn’t like the influence she had over him and the fact she never converted to the religion with him.
In Holmes’ case, her egress was more dramatic. Over several months, she set up her departure with the help of friends and her father Martin— a former police officer— before leaving LA like she was on the lam.
7 Toni Braxton
Not to be confused with the Stick of Truth, the Pillar of Truth was a small cult that singer Toni Braxton was unfortunate to have grown up in. Her mother, a strictly religious woman, brought the family into the extremist sect.
The Pillar of Truth demanded women be covered head to toe and that congregants not recognize any holidays.
Braxton and her siblings would routinely fake talking in tongues, which was a symbol of devotion in the Church, as well as an indicator that those speaking were closer to God and ready to move on to Heaven. The family, thankfully, left the church eventually. Though Braxton still is religious, she has questioned her faith over the intervening years, especially when considering her lengthy list of health problems.
6 Angel Haze
When you are not a straight cisgender person, and you’re involved in an enclosed religious group called The Greater Apostolic Faith, you’re probably going to run into trouble.
Angel Haze, whose real name is Raeen Roes Wilson, grew up in this cult. Given its localized centrality, it was often overlooked. It was like the cult took over the small town in which she lived. Haze was unable to talk to people outside of the Faith, wear jewelry, listen to music, or date.
Even their diets were highly regimented.
Thankfully, at some point, the Wilson family realized that a life without eating steak or listening to Warren Zevon isn’t really a life at all. Before leaving, Haze had never heard non-secular music, and it wasn’t until she left that she got a taste of the good stuff. She’s now an up and coming rapper.
5 Susan Cagle
You hear a lot of musicians claim that music saved their lives. The Cagle family were members of the Children of God, and music saved their lives.
Playing on streets, subways, and venues around the world since she was seven, Susan Cagle and her nine siblings also grew up in the heavily orthodox religion. Given the enclosed nature of cults and the natural freedom that music represents, there was a conflict there. As missionaries who also worked as performers, the music they performed was faith-based. The Church banned all non-secular music and literature. Everything had to be approved by the cult.
Cagle herself used to sneak away to listen to actual music, and her small acts of rebellion and minor tastes of freedom made her eventually run away from the cult—and her family—and she fled to New York City.
4 Jason Beghe
At one time, Jason Beghe and his awesome voice were charter members of Scientology. As recently as 2005, David Miscavige referred to him as “the poster boy of Scientology.”
Beghe and his wife operated at an extremely high level. They achieved the rank of Auditors (where you get to use their E-meter/tricorder thing on people). Beghe also reached OT 5, wherein you deal with “living lightning” (your mileage may vary). You, of course, learn about Xenu in OT 3, if that helps with context.
In his 12 years in the "church," Beghe donated over a million dollars to them.
It wasn’t until he became a father that he wanted to take stock of his life and jettison the garbage that was in it. In taking stock, he realized that Scientology only made him miserable (and certainly was a drain on the old bank account). To make life better for his family, he left, and the Church has certainly regretted it since.
3 John Lennon
Well, this one is just plain weird, though it does seem fairly average for LA in the '60s and '70s.
James Edward Baker— also known as Father Yod or YaHoWha (he gave himself these nicknames)— was a musician, yogi, restauranteur, murderer and cult leader. He had a popular restaurant on the Sunset Strip called The Source, which had a large celebrity clientele including Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Marlon Brando and former Beatle, John Lennon.
Lennon was intrigued by the Source Family, Baker’s spiritual commune, that was focused on music, meditation and organic vegetarian dieting. Lennon left The Source when he realized it was set up for Baker to indulge in his many lusts. Baker himself eventually shuttered his restaurants and moved his commune to Hawaii, where he eventually died while hang-gliding.
2 Deidre Shaw
You may not immediately recognize Deidre Shaw, but you know her mother: Angela Lansbury; the star of the classic elderly drama Murder, She Wrote. She had two children: Anthony and Deidre, who grew up in California in the '60s.
By the time the siblings were in their early teens, they were experimenting with marijuana before graduating to illegal substances. They also ran into Charles Manson, who at that point had become quite a popular figure among teens and beach-adjacent runaways. These runaways would go on to comprise the Manson Family, with whom he abused and used in the Tate and LaBianca murders that truly ended the “Era of Love.”
Had Lansbury and husband Peter Shaw not intervened— getting the kids clean and moving to Ireland— it’s quite possible that they would have continued with Manson or died from overdoses.
Deidre Shaw is now a restaurateur, and Anthony is a retired director.
1 1. Jerry Seinfeld
Before he became famous, Jerry Seinfeld dabbled in Scientology, but never became a full-fledged member.
With all the donations he’d have to give them, he might only have 28 porches instead of 31. News that he took some classes way back when was only revealed recently. Seinfeld commented on it in a Rolling Stone interview. "I did some Scientology courses about 30 years ago," Seinfeld said. "The only thing that bothers me about people knowing that is that it is not my complete wacko resumé. It’s just one aspect!"
Seinfeld would go on to joke about Scientology on his show, specifically in the episode “The Parking Garage”, where a Church member flips out over a joke. Jerry refers to them as “sensitive.” Perhaps the member needed to start chanting “Serenity now.”
Do you know of other celebrities who escape from cults? Let us know in the comments!