Who is "Rael," the odd, balding, middle aged man with the outlandish flight suits and silly ponytail?
During a news lull after Christmas of 2002, the bizarre French expatriate, now a resident of Canada, grabbed headlines and television coverage around the world, when his followers made fantastic and unsubstantiated claims that they had somehow produced "the first human clone."
The stories told by the funny little man from Montreal have never been proven and it seems the latest one about "clones" is just another stunt planned to gain media attention for an apparent megalomaniac and "cult leader" whose followers are called the "Raelians."
Rael has created a mythology about his birth, life and eventual realization as a worldwide "prophet," would-be "savior" and/or interplanetary "messenger."
But what is the real story behind this strange man who has become a media curiosity?
The place to start on any quest for the truth about Rael is in France. There are the people who really know him the best, which include his family and old friends.
French journalists have investigated the background of Rael. The following is his biography pieced together from various news articles recently run and/or recounted.
"Rael" was born some 57 years ago and named Claude Vorilhon.
Interviews with family members paint a vastly different portrait of the man who now insists he be addressed as "His Holiness Rael" (French "Sa Sainteté Raël"), as one precondition before granting an audience or interview.
Claude Vorilhon was born in Vichy, in the "Massif Central." An area within France famous for its old volcanoes. He spent his childhood in Ambert, a small town of only 7,500 at that time. Ambert is widely known for its very distinct cheese, the "fourme d'Ambert."
The Vorilhon family was well established and had lived within Ambert for generations. They owned a fabric factory.
But scandal surrounded Claude's birth. Colette, his mother, had a liaison during World War II with man referred to as "Marcel X." He was a married man. And from this union came Claude, born out of wedlock.
Marcel was a refugee from Alsace, an eastern part of France. Germany annexed this region during the war and Marcel's life was subsequently at risk due to his Jewish heritage. The Massif Central provided safe harbor for the Jew fleeing the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
Marcel had run a wood factory in Alsace, which he returned to at the end of the war. He abandoned Colette and Claude. But Marcel continued to see Colette and they made trips together.
Colette eventually left Claude with his aunt.
The French press has extensively interviewed Claude Vorilhon's family members.
In the Sunday paper Le Journal du Dimanche January 5, 2003, reporter Emmanuelle Chantepie recounts her meeting with Claude Vorilhon's aunt Thérèse, who is now 87. She raised Vorilhon with her mother in Ambert. The elderly woman still lives there in a small apartment.
Thérèse says Vorilhon was a very gentle boy, despite all the nasty stories about him today. She is still fond of him and calls her nephew "little Claudy." Thérèse never had a child and raised Claudy as if he were her own son.
But Thérèse admits that "little Claudy" at times may go too far. She says, "For instance, when he claims that he was born from the union of his mother Colette with an Extraterrestrial." When Vorilhon makes such claims the old woman calls him a "cornichon" (pickle), which is a French word for nitwit.
Thérèse made the same statements to another reporter François Vignole, quoted within the popular French daily newspaper Le Parisien on January 15, 2002.
And what about Vorilhon's mother? What does she think of her son now?
Colette Vorilhon when interviewed chose to hide her face. She is apparently ashamed of her son.
Journalist Hervé Bouchaud on a program that aired three times on the network M6 presented by Bernard de la Villardière on April 10, 2001, April 14, 2002, and on January 14, 2003 interviewed Colette for French television.
Bouchaud prodded the woman, "Don't tell me that you have been inseminated by an Extraterrestrial!"
Colette replied laughing, "Who knows? Like the Holy Virgin? An angel came through my window. Well, I sleep with my window open!"
Aunt Thérèse does not seem to respect Colette. She made negative comments about her to both journalists Chantepie and Vignolle. Thérèse confided, "She was bad."
It seems that little Claudy's aunt feels her nephew suffered due to an unstable home. His mother sent him away at seven and they often quarreled when visiting.
When Vorilhon was 15 his father died. His mother then forced him to abandon his studies. He went to Paris hoping to become a entertainer, imitating the famous singer Jacques Brel. Vorilhon used the stage name Claude Celler. But he failed.
Not long after his singing career fizzled Claude met Christine, whom he married in 1971.
Christine Vorilhon has also been interviewed by French journalists and offered details about their troubled marriage.
In the beginning she loved Claude and would bear him two children. But in the coming years as Vorilhon's incredible ego grew, he became unbearable. The marriage ended in 1985.
Christine says she was "completely destroyed by her husband."
She left their marriage with nothing. And despite his growing income derived from the so-called Raelian movement, "He never raised a little finger for me," she said.
But long before their bitter divorce Claude Vorilhon had essentially ceased to exist. His new stage name became "Rael."
The former Mrs. "Rael" is now attempting to build a new life. She hopes to remain anonymous. "I don't want to be harassed by his supporters. This is a dangerous sect," Christine warned.
Vorilhon made one more failed attempt at a career before becoming Rael. While he lived with his wife and children in Clermont-Ferrant, the main city of Massif Central, he put together a little auto-racing magazine called Auto Pop.
According to an old friend Patrice Vergès the magazine was a "little rag" ("canard"). And after a brief run in 1973 it went under and folded.
Vorilhon now would embark on the only successful endeavor he would ever experience; little Claudy launched his career as a "cult leader."
The failed magazine publisher now began telling fantastic stories about meetings with alien beings from outer space. Vorilhon said these encounters began at a volcano called "Le Puy de Lassalas." The extraterrestrial had supposedly given little Claudy an important message for all mankind.
These sensational claims attracted some media coverage. And from this time forward Vorilhon apparently became obsessed, intoxicated with media attention, which ultimately seems to have become an addiction.
Vorilhon appeared on Le Grand Echiquier, a popular French television program in 1974. And after that appearance he received thousands of letters. Those fans were probably the beginning of what would become Vorilhon's "cult" following.
Roland, a childhood friend of little Claudy, still lives in Ambert. He was also interviewed for French television. On M6 TV Roland recalled an evening with Vorilhon some years ago, during which the two men spoke frankly.
Roland asked Claude if he had lied about his encounter with alien beings from outer space.
Vorilhon reportedly replied, "Yes, I lied, but you knew it, anyway, so I am not teaching you anything!"
Claude went on to explain that he had never seen any "little green men," but that the tale helped him achieve the attention and eventual status he wanted.
It seems that Claude Vorilhon may be misrepresenting more than his close encounters with extraterrestials.
Vorilhon and his followers have made claims about the vast membership of Raelians. But the Raelian movement in France is not really that successful. According to a French official specifically assigned the task of watching specious sects, there are less than a thousand Raelians in France.
It appears French authorities are interested in the group's finances and tax payments.
Some Raelians also have serious legal problems.
According to Christophe Dubois, reporting for The Parisien January 15, 2003, official sources say that there are no less than five cases of sexual abuse currently under investigation regarding Raelians.
Vorilhon hasn't done well in civil court either.
Rael sued French journalist Jean-Yves Cashga in 1991 for defamation. However, he lost and was ordered to pay court costs. The judgement remains uncollected.
Amidst growing legal problems Rael decided to leave France. He immigrated to Canada, where he is a resident and achieved tax-exempt religious status for his Raelian movement.
Claude Vorilhon's mother told reporters recently that she hasn't seen her son since 1996.
The last time that "little Claudy" phoned home he told his mother that he was afraid to return to France. He said that authorities there might put him in "handcuffs."