Up With People disputes film calling group a cult

The Arizona Daily Star/August 1, 2009

The peppy song-and-dance group Up With People is being portrayed as a repressive cult in a documentary that debuted this weekend.

Four former cast members level such charges against the once-Tucson-based Up With People in the film "Smile 'Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story," which will play in Tucson today in two private screenings.

Director Lee Storey, a Phoenix attorney, set up the screenings for Up With People alumni who are in Tucson this weekend for a reunion at the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa. Storey said she did so as a courtesy and goodwill gesture.

The film opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles for an Oscar-qualifying run.

Among the accusations made in the film, which Storey wouldn't show to the Star in advance because the screenings are private and not part of a festival or regular opening:

  • Up With People originated as part of the religious movement Moral Re-Armament, a controlling, ultraconservative religious sect that believed in the philosophy "change yourself, change the world." Moral Re-Armament was formerly known as the Oxford Group (which spawned Alcoholics Anonymous) and is now known as Initiatives of Change International. People in the film accuse the movement, as well as Up With People, of being a cult.

  • From 1965 until well after 1968, Up With People guided members into arranged marriages and dictated the number of children couples were allowed to have.

  • The organization was unfriendly to homosexuals, forbidding gay members from rooming together or showing affection.

Bruce Erley, Up With People's chief marketing officer, said most of the allegations he's heard about in the movie are either false or misleading. He also said the organization feels deceived because it gave Storey access to its archival material under the impression she was going to make a positive documentary.

Storey said she never made such promises and always said her film would be objective.

Erley acknowledged Up With People's intertwined roots with Moral Re-Armament but said the organization doesn't have a religious affiliation.

He disputed the assertion that Up With People is a cult.

"The quick and easy answer is: That's nuts because it's not," Erley said. "If you go and look at any definition of what a cult is - control, cutting people off from access with others, can't talk to parents or family, being secluded or isolated - we don't match a single criterion or benchmark. I think the people who say that simply have some sort of agenda."

Eric Roos, owner of a San Francisco bath-products business who traveled with Up With People in 1980 and 1981, is one of the interviewees who says Up With People has cultlike qualities.

"A cult is anything where a group of people give away their own decision-making to leaders," Roos said. "Young people are especially attracted to (expletive) like that. You have a charismatic leader who sets out rules and objectives and the young people allow them to do that."

Sofie Martinsson, a 21-year-old Swede who participated in Up With People in 2008 and now works for the organization as a recruiter, said the group is not cultlike or biased against gays.

"I think it's very open. All the subjects were very open in discussing all different sexualities," said Martinsson, who is in Tucson helping with the reunion.

She dismissed the notion that the cast is somehow controlled.

"It's a schedule, obviously, but there's a lot of freedom as well, with discussions in the group," Martinsson said. "And in your free time you can make your own choices."

Former Phoenician Rick Ross, a cult expert and founder/executive director of the Ross A. Ross Institute of New Jersey, said Up With People does not fit the accepted criteria of a dangerous cult, mainly because former members don't seek outside help and the organization doesn't try to stop members from leaving.

He likens Up With People to fraternities and sororities - tight-knit organizations that exert measures of control and conformity without stepping over the line.

"The complaints just aren't there," Ross said. Up With People "just doesn't fit the criteria."

In addition to his cult allegation, Roos said Up With People was an anti-gay organization when he was a member. Public displays of affection were forbidden and gays weren't allowed to room with one another.

"Those were just social norms. We never had any policies one way or another," Erley said of Roos' experience. "As norms changed and there was a social acceptance of coming out of the closet with your sexual orientation, Up With People changed. We have plenty of openly gay staff."

He said Up With People discourages all public displays of affection in order to foster a sense of unity rather than having members pair off and close themselves off.

Up With People began in the 1960s as a counterpoint to student protests over the Vietnam War. Casts travel the world to spread positive messages of peace. More than 20,000 men and women from 89 countries have visited 3,600 communities in 38 countries.

Based in Denver, where it moved from its original location of Tucson in 1993, the organization accepts performers 18 to 29 and charges tuition of more than $14,000 for a six-month tour. Cast members stay with host families rather than at hotels.

Storey said her film is fair and notes the positive aspects of Up With People, such as ethnic diversity, virtuous and peaceful messages and its role in expanding communications by visiting China in 1978 and the Soviet Union in 1984.

She became interested in the history of Up With People because her husband, William, was a member in the 1960s and she wanted to let former members tell the history of the group.

However, in the director's statement on her Web site, Storey said she was unnerved by Up With People executives.

"It was like being around the Borg from 'Star Trek': resistance was futile, and the crew had to assimilate or die," Storey wrote.

Storey stopped short of calling Up With People a cult herself.

"We attended annual alumni reunions," she said, "that were like Amway conventions on steroids."


Up With People is donating its archives, including paper documents, videos, photographs and news clippings, to the University of Arizona. The donation includes organizational archives and personal papers from founder J. Blanton Belk and his wife, Elizabeth "Betty" Belk, as well as organizational papers from the Up With People Alumni Association. The collection, which will reside in the Special Collections area of the UA Main Library, is currently in Denver and will be transferred to the UA over the next year.

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