Montreal -- Claude Vorilhon, the leader of the sect claiming to have produced the first human clone, relies on a UFO myth, hedonistic lifestyle and scientific intrigue to maintain media interest in his movement.
Vorilhon, 56, who wrote for car racing magazines in his native France before becoming a self-proclaimed prophet named Rael 29 years ago, has never shied from media exposure if it brings free publicity.
"Rael and the media are, to a degree, inseparable," said Mike Kropveld, head of Info-Cult, a Montreal-based monitoring group. "He is very adept at knowing how to use the media."
Vorilhon and his Raelian movement, which claims 55,000 members in 84 countries, have garnered a torrent of publicity worldwide since an offshoot company, Clonaid, claimed on Dec. 27 to have created the world's first human clone.
The claim, so far unsubstantiated by experts, provoked outrage from medical ethicists, religious groups and world leaders, including President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac.
Even if Clonaid's announcement turns out to be a hoax, the Raelian movement could well benefit from all the attention, said Kropveld.
In Vorilhon's book "Yes to Human Cloning," published by the Raelian Foundation in 2001, he brags about the free media publicity generated by the formation of Clonaid in 1997.
"First of all, for a minimal investment of $3,000, it got us media coverage worth more than $15 million...I am still laughing," Vorilhon wrote. "Even if the project had stopped there, it would have been a total success."
Vorilhon founded the Raelian movement after what he says was a visit from a four-foot tall extraterrestrial atop a volcano in France in December 1973. Over six days, the visitor from another planet explained to Vorilhon that extraterrestrials created all life on Earth through cloning -- using DNA, the building blocks of life, to create mirror images of themselves.
Since then, Vorilhon has dedicated himself to the movement he fostered, which denounces conventional religion and encourages atheism, yet has its own "bishops."
Based in the Canadian province of Quebec, the group operates a theme park on unidentified flying objects. The Raelians promote a hedonistic lifestyle at summer camps where they offer seminars on "awakening" through "sensual meditation" in settings that are "friendly and informal, sensual and harmonious," according to the group's Web site.
"They even had a conference here in Montreal a number of years ago on masturbation," said Info-Cult's Kropveld.
Government authorities in Quebec have largely ignored the Raelians. A roadside placard approved by the provincial government even points the way to the group's UFO theme park.
The movement describes itself as nonprofit and recommends that members contribute up to 7 percent of their after-tax income to the group.
On the "Raelian Revolution" Web site, Rael's account of his encounter with the extraterrestrial comes complete with descriptions of a "flattened bell" spacecraft and a "beautiful" alien with "almond eyes" that would fit well in a cheesy 1950s science-fiction film.
Vorilhon usually dresses in white robes, or a costume that appears to be a cross between a race car driver's protective suit and marching band leader's tunic. He wears a neatly trimmed beard and ties his hair in a small bun atop a receding hairline.
Raelian publicity stunts include a plan unveiled earlier this year by Clonaid to produce a clone of the "last count Dracula of noble Germanic descent." Scantly clad women, also dressed in white, have been seen cavorting at parades in downtown Montreal, promoting the movement.
But in recent months, the Raelians have stepped up their activism against organized religions. They raised public acrimony in Quebec by handing out condoms in front of Catholic schools and urging students to leave the Catholic church.
During an interview on CNN on Monday, Vorilhon appeared to distance himself from Clonaid, saying the company was "completely separated from the Raelian movement."
But Vorilhon appears prominently on the Clonaid Web site, which includes his speech to a U.S. Congress subcommittee in March 2001. Vorilhon told CNN that, in the future, human clones would be produced through an "accelerated growth process" into which people would "download" their memories and personality.
"Eternal life is the ultimate goal. This is just the first step," he said.