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Joaquin Phoenix, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rose McGowan among Hollywood stars linked to cults

When someone thinks of a celebrity’s lifestyle, lavish luxuries, unlimited wealth and spotless dream homes come to mind.

The lives of stars can take a turn like anyone else’s. Sometimes, even the biggest stars can find themselves wrapped up in the wrong crowd – or worse, a cult.

Here are some celebrities who have experiences in cults, either growing up in them or choosing to join them as adults.

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Joaquin Pheonix, Michelle Pfeiffer and Rose McGowan

Joaquin Phoenix, Michelle Pfeiffer and Rose McGowan have all described their experiences in cults. (Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Images / Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images / Laurent Viteur/WireImage)

Bethany Joy Lenz

Bethany Joy Lenz, best known for appearing on the popular teen drama “One Tree Hill,” recently admitted she was in a cult for ten years.

A split image of Bethany Joy Lenz

“One Tree Hill” star Bethany Joy Lenz in 1999 and 2020 (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Paul Archuleta)

Although she didn’t name the cult, citing legal reasons, she did go into some detail about what she experienced.

On the podcast she shares with fellow “One Tree Hill” stars Hilarie Burton and Sophia Bush, Lenz opened up about it all.

“I was in a cult for 10 years,” Lenz said. “That would be a really valuable experience to write about. And the recovery — 10 years of recovery after that. So, there’s a lot to tell.”

She was hesitant to share too much of what she’d been through because of the legal issues.

“And also I don’t know how much I can say,” Lenz added. “Because there are still people and legal things in place that make it more complicated for the timing of that.”

Hilarie Burton, Bethany Joy Lenz and Sophia Bush

Bethany Joy Lenz stands between “One Tree Hill” costars Hilarie Burton (left) and Sophia Bush. (David Becker/Getty Images for iHeartRad)

She didn’t share any additional information about the cult, but she did say a preacher named Tim Keller helped her find her Christian faith after ten years of having religion used as a tool of manipulation against her.

Lenz hinted we might be hearing more about her experience in the future.

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Without knowing all the details, therapist Julie Mangus explained to Fox News Digital that, general speaking, a person might want to join a group like this because “they might want to increase their self betterment, might be looking for a place to belong and for a sense of a greater understanding of who they are and what purpose they might be here on earth for.

A photo of the cast of "One Tree Hill."

The cast of “One Tree Hill” poses for a photo in 2004. (Theo Wargo/WireImage)

“Cults can give people a sense of community and being a part of something larger than themselves. This can be very intoxicating and fundamentally soothes a very important basic human need to belong,” she continued. “Additionally, cults usually provide a faith-based element or a way of bettering yourself towards a greater good or purpose or to carry out a religious agenda with a leader in charge.”

Allison Mack – NXIVM

“Smallville” actress Allison Mack was part of a group that is now very well known — NXIVM.

Keith Raniere

Keith Raniere, the ex-leader of NXIVM, was convicted in 2019 of seven counts that included racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and attempted sex trafficking.  (YouTube           )

NXIVM was in business for nearly 20 years, targeting self-help courses to the rich and famous. Founded by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, it offered workshops, and some began viewing Raniere not just as an instructor but as a powerful leader.

In 2017, some members came forward to claim there was a secret organization within the group called the Vow, a group of women who were branded and sometimes slept with Raniere. Some were made to recruit “slaves” for the group.

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After an investigation, Raniere was arrested along with a few others, including Mack. The charges were serious: sex trafficking, identity theft, money laundering and extortion, among others.

Allison mack

Allison Mack was originally facing up to 20 years in prison per count. (Reuters    )

In 2019, Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges, a move that freed her from the sex trafficking charges. In court, she reportedly cried while detailing how she recruited women under false pretenses before making them “slaves” that were forced to sleep with Raniere.

She faced 20 years for each count but was sentenced to three years in prison. The actress was released earlier this month after serving two years.

Joaquin and River Phoenix, Rose McGowan – Children of God

Children of God is a cult that’s gone by many names over the years — The Family, The Family of Love and The Family International. It was founded by David Berg, who wanted to combine Christianity with the free love movement of the late 60s. 

In the beginning, many members said it was a nice, inviting community that worshiped together and shared beliefs.

A photo of Children of God members singing and playing instruments

Members of the Children of God group perform outside in 1976. (Frederick Thomas Murray/Fairfax Media)

Over the years, things turned dark, with a number of people reporting child abuse, child marriage and separating children from their parents. At one point, Berg instituted a practice he called “flirty fishing,” in which he allegedly sent women in the group out to hook up with strangers in an attempt to convert them. Throughout all of these changes in the cult, they were increasingly isolated from society.

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Three big name celebrities were brought into the cult as children by their parents: Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix and Rose McGowan.

Joaquin, River, their parents and siblings Rain and Liberty were all part of the group in its early days. The youngest child, Summer, was born shortly after they fled. They traveled around the U.S., as well as Central and South America, doing work for the cult.

As Joaquin has said, once his parents realized the direction things were going, they immediately left.

A photo of the Phoenix family

The Phoenix Family at home in Los Angeles IN 1983; L-R Summer Phoenix, Arlyn Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, John Lee Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix and River Phoenix.  (Dianna Whitley/Getty Images)

“When people bring up Children of God, there’s always something vaguely accusatory about it,” he told Playboy in a 2014 interview. “It’s guilt by association. I think it was really innocent on my parents’ part. They really believed, but I don’t think most people see it that way. I’ve always thought that was strange and unfair.

“I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals. Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It’s usually someone saying, ‘We’re like-minded people. This is a community,’ but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out.”

Joaquin Phoenix at the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on the red carpet in a black tuxedo looking off in the distance

After his unconventional upbringing, Joaquin Phoenix went on to have a remarkable acting career. (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

River, like Joaquin, achieved fame through acting, though his career was cut short when he died of an overdose at 23. 

Two years before that, he claimed in an interview with Details magazine that he’d first had sex when he was 4.

“But I’ve blocked it out,” he said. “I was completely celibate from ten to fourteen.”

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River Phoenix

Actor River Phoenix (1970-1993), star of “Stand By Me,” poses during a 1988 Los Angeles photo portrait session. Phoenix, a rising young film star, died in 1993 outside a Sunset Strip nightclub of a drug overdose.  (George Rose/Getty Images)

McGowan was born in Florence, Italy, and her father was in charge of the country’s chapter of Children of God. Because of the nature of the cult, she told Interview magazine in 1997 she has almost no memory of her parents during that entire period of her life.

In 2011, she told People magazine, “The group encouraged you to have a lot of kids as fast as you could. Then, if you made plans to leave, they would lean on you. You know … maybe your kids would disappear.”

Rose McGowan at a podium

Rose McGowan went on to have an acting career and become a leading voice in the #MeToo movement. (Ena Laverty/AFP via Getty Images)

The Phoenix family left when “flirty fishing” came into play, McGowan’s father realized the situation had turned bad when Berg began advocating for sexual relationships between children and adults. They left in secret, and members of the cult attempted to track them down. But they were finally able to settle in the U.S.

“As strong as I like to think I’ve always been, I’m sure I could have been broken,” McGowan admitted. “I know I got out by the skin of my teeth.”

Glenn Close – Moral Re-Armament

Moral Re-Armament, also known as MRA, was a religious movement that began in the 1920s when a man named Frank Buchman began evangelizing and became successful with it. Some of the beliefs he touted were the importance of surrendering oneself to a higher power and the practice of solitary silence. Over the years, he attracted thousands of followers from a number of countries

a photo of Frank Buchman and Mae West

Frank Buckman discusses Moral Re-Armament with legendary actress Mae West in 1939. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone)

When World War II loomed over the planet, Buchman made the decision to name the group Moral Re-Armament, explaining that he planned to use spirituality to unite the world and bring peace. The group’s critics scoffed at his simplistic vision, but others became enamored with it. One of those people was Glenn Close’s father.

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After he joined the group, he left to work in Africa while Close and her siblings were placed in Switzerland at the MRA headquarters. In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the actress detailed the strict rules and manipulation that took place behind the scenes.

“You basically weren’t allowed to do anything, or you were made to feel guilty about any unnatural desire,” she explained. “If you talk to anybody who was in a group that basically dictates how you’re supposed to live and what you’re supposed to say and how you’re supposed to feel, from the time you’re 7 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.”

Glenn Close at Met Gala

Glenn Close was able to push past many of the things she experienced in Moral Re-Armament and became beloved movie star with a career spanning decades.  (Cindy Ord/MG23/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

In a 2021 interview with Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey, she elaborated, saying, “It was really awful. We were so broken up. It’s astounding that something you went through at such an early stage in your life still has such a potential to be destructive. I think that’s childhood trauma.

“Everybody spouted the same things, and there was a lot of rules — a lot of control. Because of how we were raised, anything that you thought you would do for yourself was considered selfish,” she explained.

In 1970, when Close was 22, she left the group but still struggled.

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“I would have dreams because I didn’t go to any psychiatrist or anything,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “I had these dreams, and they started with betrayal, a sense of betrayal, and then they developed into me being able to look at these people and say, ‘You’re wrong. You’re wrong.’ And then the final incarnation of those dreams was my being able to calmly get up and walk away. And then I didn’t have them anymore.”

A photo of Glenn Close at the Oscars

Glenn Close admitted to having nightmares after breaking away from the group. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool)

Mangus suggested to Fox News Digital that psychiatry or therapy would be very important for someone, especially a young person, to work through these kinds of experiences.

As children in these situations, Mangus explained, “they feel hyper dependent on someone else calling the shots telling them what to do, so much so that they are lost without it. They would need help from a trained professional to process this trauma in a healthy way, and redirect their body and mind to connect with the truth based on a sense of reality, as opposed to the reality and norms just of the cult and all the expectations they grew up in. There would most likely be tremendous trauma, and depending on the age, developmental and chronic.”

Michelle Pfeiffer – Breatharianism

Breatharianism, plainly put, is the belief that one can survive without consuming food. Sometimes this extends to water. And sometimes practitioners believe that they can survive off fresh air and/or sunlight alone.

A photo of Michelle Pfieffer from 1979

A photo of Michelle Pfeiffer in what would have been her breatharianism era. (American Broadcasting Companies)

While this is not scientifically possible, cult leaders can be very convincing. And, as Michelle Pfeiffer has described, she believes a couple of trainers she briefly worked with were part of an actual cult.

While speaking with The Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine in 2013, Pfeiffer explained that when she was 20, she moved to Los Angeles and soon after met a couple with some unique beliefs.

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“They worked with weights and put people on diets,” she said of these trainers. “Their thing was vegetarianism. They were very controlling. I wasn’t living with them, but I was there a lot, and they were always telling me I needed to come more. I had to pay for all the time I was there, so it was financially very draining.”

A photo of Michelle Pfeiffer at an event

Michelle Pfeiffer eventually came to realize she was in a cult. (Joe Maher/Getty Images for Paramount+)

“They believed that people in their highest state were breatharian,” she added.

The people Pfeiffer was spending time with believed they could use sunlight to live.

As she remembered, it was during this time she met actor Peter Horton, who would become her first husband. He’d been working on a movie in which he played a cult member – a member of the Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, also known as a Moonie.

A photo of Peter Horton and Michelle Pfeiffer

Michelle Pfeiffer with Peter Horton (LGI Stock/Corbis/VCG)

She helped him do some research “on this cult,” she said, then realized, “I was in one.”

Pfeiffer said, “We were talking with an ex-Moonie, and he was describing the psychological manipulation and I just clicked.”

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“When people are in a vulnerable state or feeling lost or overwhelmed with life, especially as new celebrities in the profession, all of a sudden having successes and not knowing what to do with that, success and new-found money and fame can be overwhelming,” Mangus said. “And a situation like a cult might give someone a greater sense of purpose, clarity and grounding to how they fit back in the world.”


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