Stars in their eyes

The Spectator, UK/June 23, 2007
By Tessa Mayes

'A culture is only as great as its dreams and its dreams are dreamed by artists,' wrote L. Ron Hubbard, who founded the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre in 1969, 15 years after he formed the church itself. So, in a sense, the Scientologists have only been true to their founder's intentions in the ever greater emphasis they now put on the famous.

If you've seen the ordinary-looking Scientology shopfront on the Tottenham Court Road, the London Celebrity Centre comes as a pleasant contrast: it is an impressive, six-storey, cream Victorian building in Bayswater, adorned with balustrades. There is a small street sign advertising a 'Free Stress Test' with a background image of an exploding volcano and the words 'Church of Scientology — Celebrity Centre' in gold lettering and a gold cross-like symbol on the ground-floor window.

I am cautious as I approach. At the front, there's a small patio with an iron table and chairs. It is all tasteful and low-key. The interior is smart, with apricot walls, white finishings and soft dark carpets exuding an ambassadorial air. You notice the silence. The office-style window blinds are open, and on the left is a large, curved board covered with information, and a mounted television showing a film with the sound down. In the corner there's another television and DVD player, flanked by a black leather office chair and a large poster detailing Scientologist courses under the title 'The Bridge to Total Freedom'.

The most famous living Scientologist is Tom Cruise, and his wife, Katie Holmes, is now a member of the Church too (with all that entails). Merely because the Cruises and Beckhams have been seen together people are saying the Cruises are wooing them. Meanwhile, John Travolta, Priscilla Presley and Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson) have all been encouraged to use their 'sphere of influence' to promote the Church's works for years.

On 5 April 2007 the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled against the Moscow Justice Department's refusal to register the Church of Scientology as a religious association, but Scientology continues to attract a lot of comment and controversy. I decided that the only way to get a real insight into the Church was to get inside it. There have been scores of investigations into the Church's work, most recently John Sweeney's Panorama, which was made famous by the reporter's epic shouting match. But I wanted to try something different, which has never been done before: to get inside the Church's London Celebrity Centre as an undercover reporter and find out what really happens to the First Class passengers in the Scientology spaceship — those who want to move from Hello! to halo. Why does this particular, widely denigrated religion seem to win over those in the public eye?

The receptionist sits behind a large antique desk with a computer. To his right there's a display of books. More books are piled on top of a small table under copies of Vanity Fair and Hello! (the issues with Tom Cruise and his new family on the front cover). And then you notice a framed black-and-white photograph of Hubbard looking pensive on the wall.

Remembering that this is my first test — not everyone gets in, after all — I introduce myself as an actress. I have already heard how easy it is to be labelled a PTS: 'Potential Trouble Source'. 'Hi!' I say to the blond man sitting at the front desk, surrounded by glittering charts. 'I want to improve my skills. I've come along because I'm an actress....I train other actors as well. I was wondering how my techniques might differ to what you offer actors. Will it help me teach? Do you have seminars with other actors as well?' I notice the soft, jazzy music.

As my starter for ten, he gives me a pamphlet, 'The Emotional Tone Scale'. It sounds like a typical course in voice projection for actors, but it isn't. The scale charts a range of emotional levels from 4 (positive) to 0.1 (negative). It explains how to talk to people in the right tone, and also 'how to predict human behaviour'. Handy — how does that work?

'Certain people at a certain level will react and you can't trust them,' says my new tutor in human interaction. According to a chart called 'Human Evaluation', those with a 1.5 tone, for instance, express anger and are 'capable of destructive action' such as rape.

A loud, quickly spoken, partially inaudible intercom message momentarily interrupts the calm atmosphere. 'COULD-CLRRRGH-PLEASE-CALL-26!' But the receptionist resumes the impromptu lesson. He gently pushes a 'Dianetics Seminar' book across his desk. I buy a £30 introductory course and book with an exploding volcano on the front cover. He also gives me a free copy of Celebrity, issue no. 381, one of several Scientology magazines. A soft-focused photo of Michelle Stafford, an Emmy-winning American actress, is on the front cover. I feel as if I have turned the key in the lock: they haven't seen through my cover.

'Dianetics' is Hubbard's very distinctive version of the familiar 'talking cure'. The aspirant Scientologist talks to somebody (an 'auditor', in Scientology-speak) who is trained to help you recall memories until you feel happy about them (the process of 'auditing'). You also learn how to listen to (or 'audit') others.

And so I embark upon my course of study: the hurdle I must clear to join the Church's elite and call myself a 'celebrity Scientologist'. The essence is studying Hubbard's texts. I'm told repeatedly that Dianetics involves 'auditing' to unburden the mind from painful memory-like recordings of the past, or 'engrams'. These supposedly infect our unconscious, which stores engrams in the 'reactive mind'. The goal I am set is to remove the bad effects of those pesky engrams to become 'Clear'. The alternative, I'm told, is that the reactive mind continues to play havoc in our lives without us realising it, causing physical ailments, turning us into 'puppets' and denying us true freedom.

To bring home these supposed dangers to the novice, I am shown films depicting actors pretending to be parents yelling unnecessarily at children, and others having accidents. It would be comic if the purpose wasn't so deadly serious. If you aren't convinced by this slapstick, the voiceover warns that the reactive mind is the cause of 'rising crime rates, terrorism and nation turned against nation in war'. The face of a lucky 'Clear' pops up at the end, like a character in an ice cream ad. 'I smile every day now,' says Mr Clear.

It's my third visit to the big Scientology house. Another student is in the library. We're working at our own books, although a dark-haired, thirty-something Spanish woman has headphones and tapes. My tutor starts the drilling study-aid technique. 'So you're ready to start?' he asks. 'Yes,' we chant obediently. 'All right, start!' he orders. 'Start!' is a big word round here.

One thing I should admit up-front: the only A-list celebrity I actually see on my course is a rotund, cloth Winnie the Pooh bear teaching aid. I'm to audit Pooh for practice — yes, seriously. We're in a room with lecture seats, grey tables and a 5ft-high portable blue screen. I notice a small CCTV camera in the corner of the ceiling. I'm told some audits are taped for senior members to check on progress.

The tutor, a pale-looking, middle-aged, pleasantly spoken man wearing an open-necked shirt and suit trousers, will do the speaking, of course. And just so you know: the bear in question is an 'imitation pre-clear'. We both laugh.

'Good. Start,' he says (the tutor, not the bear). This is one of those moments that test your credibility as an undercover: one snigger, and I will squander all credibility as an aspiring Travolta or Cruise. As calmly as I can, I ask the speaking bear some textbook questions about problems in his life.

A sad Pooh tells me about his traumatic motorbike accident. Oh dear! I've allowed Pooh to recall something too heavy, too soon. We stop. 'I'd probably direct you to do something a bit lighter than that,' advises the tutor.

I'm learning fast what these people really want, and it's more subtle than the heavy brain-washing of caricature. It's lighter and more clever than that. Scientologists don't claim to judge the content of your memories; it seems to me that what they're looking for is your willingness and ability to share experiences. After about an hour the bear is cheerful, dancing on the tutor's leg.

At the heart of all this is astonishing amounts of procedural repetition. The idea is that auditing will make you — the actor, the film-maker, the writer — feel happier. If you progress through a selection of around 200 courses and programmes — yes, 200 — towards 'the Bridge to Total Freedom', you might also embrace the religious belief itself.

This is the idea that we are ultimately immortal, fully aware, spiritual beings called 'Thetans'. As I understand it, you can only achieve the spiritual state of the 'Operating Thetan' through Dianetics. No Dianetics, no spiritual awakening. So this is more than left-field psychotherapy: it makes much greater claims than that.

I'm told I could save money with the 'Clear to Eternity' course package that carries a 40 per cent discount, and am invited to an OT (Operating Thetan) summit in Florida this summer. For the novice celebrity Scientologist like me, there are more enticements on offer. This year's Annual Artists' Convention for actors, film-makers and writers is aboard Freewinds, the Church's 440ft luxury ocean-liner based in the Caribbean. And the buzz inside the Celebrity Centre is clearly designed to make you think that anyone could be transformed into an international star. At the most basic level, I am offered help learning my lines and 'career analysis for artists'. There is a special elite course for creative folk, offered only at the Celebrity Centres, called 'Hubbard Basic Art course'. It offers 'The restoration of a Thetan's creative impulses'.

Again, the sell is subtle: you are meant to think that you being here, listening to your teachers, doing as you are told, can not only make you a Scientologist. It can make you a celebrity. Save your soul and get famous while you're doing it. The Freewinds leaflet declares: 'Take your career to the next level and help create a new civilisation through the arts!', promising 'clinics and seminars by top industry professionals in each major artistic field'. Well, what other Church offers that? This is more like a pious version of Fame Academy than the Moonies.

Scientologists use a mixture of rote-learning and what some see as hypnotism techniques. Hubbard denied that Dianetics was hypnotism on the grounds that it psychologically 'wakes people up'. He did, however, concede that auditors had to be careful because some inexperienced practitioners might mistakenly be in a trance.

My auditor is an educated, middle-aged woman with a family. I warm to her. In a small, quiet room at the top of the building there is hardly enough space for a small table, two chairs and a medical couch.

I slump into the comfy chair. She checks I haven't drunk alcohol or taken recreational drugs in the past few days — a question more relevant to some celebrities than others, I imagine. I am disturbed to learn that the list of banned substances also includes painkillers, although smoking is OK.

Here we go. My eyes need to be closed. She begins the textbook therapy mantra: 'In the future when I utter the word "cancelled", everything I've said to you while you're in the therapy session will be cancelled. It will have no force on you. Understand?'


I'm asked to provide a list of pleasant memories from my life, then painful ones. She wants to know lots about me. Any 'losses'? 'A boyfriend,' I say. 'Do you want to spell his name?' 'Er ... it's quite private,' I reply. 'It is confidential, this,' she replies, explaining that auditors work under a code of conduct.

I'm asked to repeat stories from my past several times. My mouth starts to feel dry. As the session progresses, I realise the couch may be necessary for people who are simply exhausted. Sessions can take hours. Eventually, I'm asked if I'm back in 'present time'? 'Yes,' I reply — although the truth is, I never left it.

All the jargon, the rote-learning and the deference to the supervisor (you must direct questions to your teacher and 'never to another student') bolsters a sense of joining an exclusive elite: I am reminded of C.S. Lewis's famous description of 'The Inner Ring' as the longing for membership of group for no other than reason than because 'you merely want to be "in"'.

Thus, I start to mix with the Celebrity Centre's 'in-crowd'. A cool-looking musician in his early twenties strolls around casually in his low-slung jeans and bright yellow T-shirt. A cheerful man from the art world enthuses about his 'Purif' ('Purification Rundown') course. He encourages me to go on higher stage programmes so I can audit celebrities. I'm introduced to a pretty young actress who's just spent a few hours in the library. She is bright, articulate and studious. 'It does what it says, I tell you!' she says of her particular course, Happiness Rundown. 'It works.' She says such courses have helped focus her stage work and build up confidence. I'm told about the Scientology-supported 'Narconon' drugs rehab centre in Hastings that uses Hubbard's drug recovery methods — their version of the Priory.

Who ends up at the Celebrity Centre? It has, I learn, attracted some wealthy people, models, television and film producers, a drummer, several actresses and musicians, and a baroness. Hubbard's desire to draw in creative people is a matter of record. A friend in the film industry tells me she's received about six introductory letters containing Dianetics Personality Test forms in the last couple of years.

Then excitement fills the house. David Petit, Lieutenant Commander of Hollywood's Celebrity Centre, flies into town for the first time in ten years. This is big league stuff: I can't believe my luck, as Petit is Scientology A-List. We're on the first floor in the smartest room in the building, reserved for services, talks and events. It's darker than the others, with curtains draping the floor-to-ceiling windows, with several rows of lecture chairs, an antique table and a piano in the corner. On the wall there's a painting of Hubbard, a coloured image of him in middle age, with a smattering of ginger hair, wearing a casual shirt and looking appropriately serene. This, for them, is hallowed territory.

Petit, meanwhile, exudes all the qualities with which Scientology likes to be associated. He's attractive, confident, declares that people can make anything happen and gives a masterful performance in public speaking. Petit has pressed the flesh of all those famous Hollywood stars, and he is in our building, speaking to 30 of the chosen. I confess: I am gripped. Am I slowly being drawn into the very thing I set out to investigate?

A plasma screen displays the words: 'Creating Ideal Celebrity Centres'. As Petit quotes from Hubbard's writings, he shows us the CCs (Celebrity Centres) around the world. The Church has a magnificent property portfolio including CCs in LA, New York, Paris, Vienna, Florence, Dusseldorf and a new castle planned in Cologne. A member exclaims, 'Wow!'

'London is the most important city in the world. That's a fact,' says Petit. People in London 'run the world or have hotlines to people that run the world'. He warms to his theme. 'The Beatles. Shakespeare. The Brits lead the way.' I wonder who has a hotline to Shakespeare; but this is no time for flippancy.

This view of London as the very apex of the Church explains why it intends to expand and open a new, much larger Celebrity Centre this year in Bloomsbury near the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts (RADA). The new HQ will train and audit celebrities, even visiting them at their place of work like film sets, and offer broader help with their careers.

Petit says that only top-flight auditors will be used at the new centre 'because when a baron comes in, or a lord comes in, they need that special care'. The right etiquette and auditing skills are important so that staff could even deal with the Queen and 'put her in session!' On cue, everyone laughs.

Motivational music starts playing. We're shown images of cultural events such as children performing stage plays. At the end everybody stands up and applauds Petit. Then, in a spooky act of collective deference, they turn towards a picture of Hubbard, who died in 1986, and applaud him too.

A few days later I'm told there is a message for me from Petit. How do I feel? Apprehensive, of course. But, at least in my adopted guise, special, too. Meanwhile, another Church member wants to talk to me about other courses such as the 'Purification Rundown', which clears toxins from the body. I'm told there's a sauna in the basement. But remember: I'm supposed to be the aspiring actress in a hurry. I don't want to discuss body toxins. I want to talk to Petit, the main man. My invented persona wants her spiritual ticket to Hollywood.

Eventually I talk to Petit's London aide: a young, quickly spoken guy wearing a smart dark blazer and crisp white shirt. 'In our [celebrity] industry it's very easy to make it if you know what you want.' He tells me that there is a lady in Los Angeles who works with actors at a weekly club. 'They are really successful,' he says. She teaches them how to get themselves known and how to communicate confidently in the industry. 'I want to establish [this] here also,' he adds.

And then, my reward: he offers me a full-time job ('Staff Status 0') at the centre. Wages are based on the overall takings of the centre (on average I'd earn £300 a week) and 5 per cent commission on book sales. I'd be one of nearly 13,000 staff members world-wide. A whole new life with income, a network of celebrity and wannabe celebrity friends and a therapeutic brand of spiritual codes to live by is waiting for me. And, since you ask, I have also been contacted by the Department of Training at Flag Service Organisation, FSO (or 'Flag', as it is called), the global 'spiritual headquarters' of Scientologists in Clearwater, Florida. They are looking for 'qualified Scientologists' to join them, and want me to fill in a form.

I've become enough of a celebrity Scientologist to be offered a job in the inner sanctum. And I can see how the truly famous, detached from the day-to-day, hungry for certainty and privacy, could fall for this immaculately presented pitch. It all chimes with the current cultural obsessions of celebrity and emotional disclosure. The Church offers shiny guard-rails to troubled souls; and, more surreptitiously, it presents an in-crowd, a ladder to supposed stardom, to low-level performers with stars in their eyes. There's as much Pop Idol here as religion: everybody wants to be kept on the show for another week.

And after three months of my looking into it all, they want me to stay for good. But I'll leave the job offer: however much it might have appealed to the actress I was pretending to be, it's definitely not for the real me. Time to emerge blinking back into real world of the engrams — and bid farewell to those beaming Clears: the world will have to manage with one less Operating Thetan.

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