Published February 21, 2007
The latest craze in Hollywood doesn't come in a bottle, has nothing to do with weight loss and can't be snorted, videotaped, worn or dressed up in cutesy clothing.
It's Scientology, the high-profile religion that, depending on whom you talk to, is either the world's best chance at achieving peace or a bad science-fiction-novel-turned-cult that's turned Tom Cruise into a hyperactive zombie.
What everyone can agree on is that with antics like the "Mission: Impossible" star's infamous fit on Oprah's couch and subsequent anti-psychiatry rant on the "Today" show, the church that late pulp-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard founded will probably be in the spotlight for a good long while.
What's less cut-and-dry is whether Scientology really does have a kung-fu grip on Tinseltown's jugular (including A-list stars like Jennifer Lopez), and if this is a dangerous thing.
Scientology is the religion that Hubbard founded in the 1950s, centered around such concepts as reincarnation, the immortality of the soul (or, more precisely, something called the "thetan") and the idea that personal difficulties and ailments can be overcome with a series of mental and spiritual cleansings.
"People have a lot of misconceptions about us. What we're about, basically, is that we're here to help people," said Greg LaClaire, vice president of the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles.
It's also fervently opposed to the field of psychiatry, and has been accused through the years of being a cult, of using bait-and-switch trickery to attract new members, of taking part in financial improprieties and even of being linked to a number of deaths — including a 2003 case in which a Buffalo, N.Y., schizophrenic Scientologist stabbed his mother to death after refusing to take psychiatric medication.
Recently, concerns that "Dianetics" may replace Variety as the bible of the entertainment capital of the world peaked with reports that a new wave of A-list celebs may be joining Cruise, Katie Holmes, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Isaac Hayes, Leah Remini, Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley, Beck, Nancy Cartwright (who voices Bart Simpson) and others.
Soccer's No. 1 face, David Beckham, and his wife, Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham, who are moving to Los Angeles, have recently become good friends with TomKat, and in October, Victoria Beckham was spotted reading a Scientology healing manual (she's officially denied that she's interested in joining the church).
Cruise, Holmes and TV actress Remini have also reportedly been wooing J-Lo, who is said to be intrigued by Scientology's toxin-flushing purification process and claims that the religion can help her conceive a child and aid her career.
As for the helping her conceive a child, LaClaire says Scientology "never has and never would make such medical claims. We are a church and are concerned with the spiritual progress of people in a very practical sense."
Lopez, whose father is a Scientologist, has said she isn't interesting in converting to the church and that she remains a Catholic.
But sources told FOXNews.com gossip columnist Roger Friedman that Lopez and her husband Marc Anthony are getting more and more into Scientology, despite their denials.
"They're in," a source said. "There's no doubt about it."
With Cruise and longtime business partner Paula Wagner essentially running the newly resurrected United Artists studio, Scientology could potentially have converts at the top of each of the major traditional entertainment outlets — movies, music and sports.
"Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are a huge celebrity couple practicing Scientology, so add J-Lo and David and Victoria Beckham and you've got the new celebrity religion," said Suzanne Rozdeba, senior reporter at Star magazine.
"Scientology is the Kabbalah of 2007," added Jared Shapiro, news and entertainment director for Life&Style Weekly.
The benefits the Church of Scientology could reap by recruiting these stars are almost too obvious to mention, and they may happen sooner than anyone expected.
There are reports that Cruise wants to film a movie with Victoria Beckham based on the works of Hubbard and closely following the tenets of Scientology (she would supposedly play an alien bride).
Apparently, Cruise wasn't fazed by the abysmal reception that another Scientology-based flick, "Battlefield Earth," got from critics and audiences, and if "The Thetan" does better, Scientology could suddenly see its philosophy expounded before millions around the world, earning the mass audience it has always craved.
Which would all be exactly as Hubbard wanted it to be. Both critics of the religion and Scientologists themselves agree that Hubbard plainly stated that it was critical for the church's future to reach out to society's movers and shakers.
The church now boasts eight celebrity centers around the world to cater specifically to artists and cultural figures while guaranteeing their privacy. (The church says that, despite the name, the celebrity centers are fully open to the public at all times, however, FOXNews.com requested a tour of the Manhattan celebrity center and was denied access because of "privacy issues.")
"Celebrity centers were set up for a couple of key reasons, one of which is rehabilitating the artists' ability, because the ability of an artist is crucial for a culture to go forward," LaClaire said.
But Scientology boosters and its critics sharply disagree about whether Hubbard was describing a divine revelation about bringing truth to the people or a cynical ploy to gain power.
"This all echoes L. Ron Hubbard's game plan — to recruit people who are icons," said Rick Ross, founder and executive director of the Ross Institute of New Jersey, which monitors controversial movements. "He was one of the early people to recognize the power of celebrities and the power they had to bring other people into his organization."
Perhaps even more relevant than the big-name stars who have fallen under the spell is the fact that they're just the tip of the Hollywood Scientology iceberg, Ross said.
From its acting coaches to its talent agents, from its screenwriters to its managers, Los Angeles has become perhaps the most important hub for the church, and that network of fellow travelers may play a role in whether someone succeeds or fails in the entertainment industry, he said.
"You will see opportunities open up for Scientologists in another Scientologist's studio project, like Tom Cruise with Kelly Preston in 'Jerry Maguire,' Kirstie Alley with John Travolta in 'Look Who's Talking,'" Ross said. "There were complains by people on Jenna Elfman's television show saying she was bringing too many Scientologists to work on that sitcom series."
And Tinseltown, where people are greatly valued for how they look and where they're paid millions for pretending to be someone else, is a perfect market for a religion like Scientology — which at first glance appears to be a series of self-help courses but is based on the idea that we're all immortal, 75-million-year-old space aliens in transient human bodies.
"It's definitely a lot easier to preach these types of experiences and this type of religion to a culture that's already based in fantasy, to people who already star in action movies and deal with the supernatural and are part of this million-dollar glitzy world where anything's possible," Shapiro said. "It's a lot easier than to [preach to] Joe Normal living in the Midwest who works 50 hours a week to make ends meet."
"It appeals to people in the performing arts," said Frank Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., who has studied Scientology extensively. "You go in and do the auditing [a key and regular Scientology process] and most of the people feel immediate and continuing results."
But you shouldn't feel obliged to go out and buy a copy of "Dianetics" to join the new world order just yet. Third-party estimates of the number of Scientologists fall far below some of the church's more extravagant numbers, which can run into the millions (the U.S. Census recorded 55,000 members in 2001).
Stories of Scientology brainwashing seem unlikely when you look at the church's very modest conversion rate — only about 1 percent of those who take the first Scientology course end up as full-on members, Flinn said.
And though Scientology gets a bad rap for its celebrity-focused proselytizing, Flinn said it's really nothing new.
"All major religions in their past did it — the Christians tried to convert Constantine, the Jesuits when they went for the Brahmins in India and the Mandarin class in China's royal court," he said.
And, finally, there's at least one major factor that, ironically enough, may be the biggest factor of all in keeping both celebrities and non-celebrities away from Scientology: Tom Cruise himself.
"I don't think people should have any sort of fear at all about Scientology at the moment, especially with a guy like Tom Cruise and his erratic behaviors. It doesn't really give Scientology a great name," Rozdeba said. "If that's a repercussion of following Scientology, people will stay away."