Sunday, August 21, 2005

Cruising with a Cult

Cruise Tries to Recruit Oprah to Scientology

YOU could argue that she is the most influential woman in America, not least because her daily television program reaches into the living room of almost every home in the US.

Television insiders insist she can single-handedly turn books into bestsellers and mere celebrities into megastars. But now, glamorous talk show host Oprah Winfrey has become the target of the controversial Church of Scientology.

The campaign is being led by its most famous disciple, 43-year-old Tom Cruise, who is doing everything in his considerable power to convert her to the cultish faith. Cruise recently bought a house two doors away from Oprah in the glamorous suburb of Santa Barbara, California. The two are close friends. Winfrey regularly sings Cruise's praises on her show, and it was there that he chose to make his first public declaration of love for his new fiancee, 26-year-old Katie Holmes, in a toe-curling spectacle.

But the wooing of Oprah Winfrey to the Scientology cause has not been left to Cruise alone.

Fellow Scientologist and Pulp Fiction star John Travolta, 51, whom she also repeatedly favours on her television program, recently presented her with a $700,000 Bentley car for her birthday.

Oprah would be a huge catch for the Scientologists, one internet site announced this week, and you can almost see Cruise's eyes gleaming at the prospect. Another adds: "If Oprah falls into the hands of Scientology, who can tell what influence she might have on the population? The prospect is terrifying."

The Church of Scientology has a controversial reputation. One American judge described its founder, science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, as a pathological liar.

Scientology may not be quite as hip in Hollywood at the moment as Kabbalah, the ultra-fashionable Jewish mystical group beloved of Madonna, but it is regarded by many as being more powerful - and it is clearly on a recruitment drive for another star disciple.

Scientology already counts among its celebrity followers Travolta's actress wife Kelly Preston, former Cheers star Kirstie Alley, Lisa Marie Presley, and Nancy Cartwright - the voice of cartoon character Bart Simpson.

Travolta, who also has a house in Santa Barbara near Winfrey, vehemently denies claims followers of Scientology are brainwashed into blind adherence to its principles.

"That is garbage," Travolta says. "Do you really believe that I would stand for something like that? The courses help me solve my problems. I also attend religious counselling where, with a spiritual guide, I tackle personal problems."

But most of the focus is on the cult's biggest star, Cruise, who now uses his considerable power and influence in Hollywood - not to mention his estimated $US400m fortune - to bring notable new recruits into the Scientology fold.

Founded by the late L. Ron Hubbard in 1955, Scientology is defined by a belief in the power of a person's spirit to clear itself of past painful experiences through self-knowledge and spiritual fulfilment.

This is achieved through intensive counselling. Scientologists believe humans are an exiled race from outer space called Thetans and claim to have eight million followers worldwide (though some critics would argue its true membership is only about 50,000).

Scientology is extremely sensitive to criticism. It uses the vast funds it accrues from members to defend itself vigorously. The church's appetite for rich and influential supporters knows few bounds - Winfrey aside. The TV host is not Cruise's only prey when it comes to wooing the rich, powerful and famous.

Just two years ago, Cruise is believed to have made a determined effort to convince James Packer of the benefits of Scientology, just as he did with his second wife, actress Nicole Kidman, and his subsequent girlfriend, Penelope Cruz. None of those attempts worked, however, which accounts for his current fascination with Oprah.

Cruise is now so in thrall to the Scientologists that he insists his children - and anyone who wants to be close to him - also embrace its bizarre teachings. These include a claim that Scientology can free individuals of the negative views implanted in humans by aliens centuries ago. Indeed, some movie insiders say that Cruise's passion for the cult has grown to such extraordinary proportions in the past year that it now pervades every single part of his life.

On the set of his latest film, War Of The Worlds, Cruise demanded that a Scientology tent - complete with volunteer ministers - should be available at all times to help any sick and injured among the movie's cast and crew.

There are suggestions Scientology lies behind his sudden engagement to the beautiful Katie Holmes.

There's no doubt Holmes has fallen under the spell of the church since meeting Cruise. The young former Dawson's Creek TV star has already announced her conversion to Scientology.

She is also seldom to be seen without her Scientology minder, a shadowy 29-year-old woman called Jessica Feshbach Rodriguez, whose family is one of the church's largest financial donors. Holmes now calls Rodriguez her best friend, even though they have known each other for only a matter of weeks.

Bizarrely, a series of red blotches on Katie Holmes's face, which suddenly appeared after she met Cruise, were alleged by some critics to be the result of a niacin-based detoxification process performed by the Church of Scientology - although this process was officially denied by the organisation.

Holmes says it is ludicrous to suggest that she has been press-ganged into adopting Scientology by her new fiance.

She says: "Tom doesn't put pressure on people. He is the kindest, smartest, most adoring man."

Not everyone is convinced. One US commentator said this week: "Holmes, who was previously a sweet, thoughtful, articulate young woman, now comes across as a zombie." He adds: "It can only be more worrisome for her parents as they see the steady hold Tom Cruise and Scientology have taken of their beloved daughter."

So pervasive is Scientology's influence in Cruise's life that he is believed to have placed the education of his adopted children with Nicole Kidman - Isabella, 12, and Conor, 10 - in the hands of Cass and Marian Cruise, two of his three sisters, who both converted to the religion over a decade ago. They are reported to be placing heavy emphasis on the teachings of Scientology.

Bella Cruise, as his daughter is known, has recently been listed in the Scientology bulletin for completing what it calls the basic course. Like Kidman, Holmes, too, comes from a Catholic family, but Holmes agreed to convert to Scientology - something that Kidman, however, always refused to do.

Actress Penelope Cruz, whom Cruise dated after his separation from Kidman, also took Scientology courses during their three-year relationship, but she, too, declined to convert - which many Hollywood insiders believe was one cause of their break-up.

You can hardly get to speak to Cruise these days without going through a Scientologist, one industry professional claims.

Cruise's third sister, Lee Anne De Vette, another convert to Scientology, has taken charge of his public relations this year, replacing the respected movie industry figure, Pat Kingsley.

A convert to Scientology in 1987 in the wake of his first marriage to actress Mimi Rogers, Cruise claims that its teaching helped him to overcome his dyslexia.

According to members of the group, Cruise has reached the sixth of eight "Operating Thetan" levels and is trusted enough to know almost all the secret truth of the universe. Oprah Winfrey beware.



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