Mike Rinder served as a senior executive within the Church of Scientology from 1982-2007, both on the board of directors and as head of their Office of Special Affairs, lording over the cult-like religion’s public image. He often acted as the public face of Scientology, speaking to the media and putting out PR fires.
Since leaving Scientology in 2007, he’s become one of the world’s premier Scientology whistleblowers, appearing in the HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, co-hosting the Emmy-winning A&E docuseries Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, and currently co-hosting the Scientology podcast Fair Game (also with Remini). His new memoir, A Billion Years: My Escape from a Life in the Highest Ranks of Scientology, out Sept. 27 from Simon & Schuster, chronicles his time within the shadowy organization, the alleged abuses he witnessed, and his dealings with its leader David Miscavige.
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In this exclusive excerpt from A Billion Years, Rinder writes about Scientology’s web of celebrities.
One thing Hubbard wouldn’t have wanted omitted was his brushes with celebrities. He was fascinated by them, and he name-dropped constantly, claiming association and interaction especially with Hollywood figures even during his time as a writer of pulp fiction. This fascination continued into Scientology, where he began to see them as a means of gaining publicity and acceptance. He even had a list of “target” celebrities to be lured into Scientology to help make it popular, and in the early ’70s he created the Celebrity Centre—a Scientology organization dedicated to the recruiting of celebrities in Hollywood. Miscavige also believed in the value of celebrities, and devoted a lot of time and attention to them. What was important to Miscavige became the priority for his underlings. –Mike Rinder
My days were endless, crammed with keeping track of Scientology’s enemies, conducting programs to neutralize them, putting out fires on the internet, and dealing with the constant celebrity issues.
Perhaps the strangest celebrity encounter I had was with Michael Jackson. I became the go-to person in Scientology for Lisa Marie Presley during her marriage to Jacko. Her mother, Priscilla, had become involved in Scientology when Lisa Marie was young, and so she had been raised a Scientologist. She enlisted me in her efforts to convert Michael to Scientology, or at least to convince him to accept it. I gave them both a private tour of the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition. Throughout the tour, Michael was extremely paranoid. He repeatedly dove to the floor, whimpering that he had seen someone taking photographs of him through the windows, though there was no line of sight to any publicly accessible location. Lisa Marie laughed it off and explained that he was always worried about the paparazzi. He was so soft-spoken I could hardly hear him, and his comments and questions were disjointed and childish. She had told me she thought Michael understood her because he had grown up in the media spotlight and never really had a childhood, similar to her own experience as the daughter of the King. But it was not to last—they divorced in 1996.
In March 1995 I flew to Wichita, Kansas, to attend the grand opening of a special Scientology mission. Miscavige had been pushing hard for celebrities to become more active in promoting Scientology, and Kirstie Alley was the first to take the step of putting money into opening a mission in her hometown. After the 1982 mission holder fiasco, few people had stepped up to open new missions, which had diminished the flow of new recruits into Scientology. Celebrities doing so would popularize the idea again. Alley was a longtime Scientologist who credited Scientology with curing her drug addiction. She had become a star on Cheers and was close friends with John Travolta, who had been at the top of the Scientology celebrity heap before Tom Cruise, though his career was now on a downward trajectory at the time when Cruise’s was heading to the stratosphere.
Travolta in fact piloted us all on his Gulfstream from LA to Wichita. I sat across from his wife, Kelly Preston, and played cards with Isaac Hayes and Lisa Marie Presley in the back (they would subsequently be persuaded to open a mission in Memphis). Kelly stunned me when she told me she had lived in Adelaide during her teen years, just a mile from where I lived, and had attended the sister school of the all-boys school where I had spent many years.
Tom Cruise didn’t attend, as he was shooting Mission: Impossible, but his presence in the Scientology orbit loomed larger than ever before. He was the biggest star in the world, and Miscavige was using this to his advantage. Despite the IRS victory, the German government still refused to recognize Scientology, believing the organization contradicted the country’s values and constitution. The idea of creating a world of supermen (Clears) and replacing wog law and government with Scientology principles cut too close to the bone of the earlier master race and its “Deutschland über alles” thinking for their liking. Miscavige wanted a campaign conducted against Germany, based on the Hubbard dictate of always attacking: in this case, claiming that the German government was persecuting Scientology just like the Nazis had persecuted the Jews. I was instructed by Miscavige to get Hollywood powerhouse lawyer Bert Fields, who was Cruise’s attorney, to help out. With Tom’s blessing, Bert took the cause of the supposed persecution of our religion in Germany personally. In January 1997, he bought a full-page ad in the International Herald Tribune designated “An Open Letter to Helmut Kohl,” signed by many of his clients and friends, including Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Stone, and others, decrying the acts of the German government against Scientology. The country stood its ground, but the attempt did prove the mettle in Tom Cruise’s star power.
With Tom as Miscavige’s most important asset, the actor’s concerns became Scientology’s concerns. When Cruise became aware of an unauthorized biography by British author Wensley Clarkson, Miscavige told Cruise, “I will take care of this for you.” I was dispatched to London with Scientology in-house lawyer Bill Drescher to deal with the publisher and make sure nothing negative appeared in the book. Yes, a church lawyer and the head of the Office of Special Affairs were acting on behalf of Tom Cruise, paid for by the Church of Scientology. With a lot of persistence and veiled threats, we persuaded the publisher to allow us to “review and correct” anything related to Scientology in the manuscript. We went to the Blake Publishing offices in West London and collected a copy of the manuscript from the editor. We took it back to our room at the Savoy hotel and spent two days cleansing it of anything negative in return for a promise not to sue. In truth, the book didn’t reveal anything new, but it did contain some of what we considered the usual “inaccuracies” about Scientology—calling the E-Meter a lie detector and saying that Scientologists believe in aliens and that it costs a lot of money. In the overall scheme of things, had we done nothing to the manuscript, it would have made no difference to Scientology or Cruise, but it was another “see what I can do for you” feather in Miscavige’s cap with Cruise.
In 1997, cracks started to show in the relationship between Cruise and Miscavige during the filming of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Costars Tom and Nicole were effectively cut off from the world for a year as the notorious perfectionist Kubrick demanded reshoot after reshoot on the highly secretive closed set in London. Losing the day-to-day interaction with Miscavige and spending his time with Nicole had an effect on Tom. He was not checking in with Dave or even returning his calls. Miscavige, fretting that Nicole was pulling Tom out of Scientology, sent me to London to meet with Tom’s sister Lee Anne at the Dorchester hotel to try to find out what was going on. Lee Anne, a dedicated Scientologist following in the footsteps of her brother (he got his three sisters and mother in), claimed everything was fine and they were just busy, but Miscavige didn’t buy it.
Not one to give up, Miscavige tasked Marty Rathbun with getting Cruise back in the fold. Rathbun began auditing Cruise under the direct supervision of Miscavige. As Cruise was gradually drawn back into the world of Scientology, he rededicated himself to the cause. This created a distance between him and Nicole. Rathbun worked with Bert Fields to hire infamous PI Anthony Pellicano to spy on Nicole and tap her phones. Rathbun also turned their two adopted children, Isabella and Connor, against Nicole by indoctrinating them into the Hubbard teachings of Suppressive Persons. When Tom and Nicole divorced, Miscavige was happy that the “negative influence” of Nicole was no longer dragging Tom away. Cruise thereafter became more fervent in his vocal public support of Scientology—and Miscavige.
While Marty was dealing with Cruise, I was tasked with the job of helping John Travolta with some public relations issues. Since the beginning of the ’90s, Travolta had been hounded by stories from various alleged male lovers, including one of his former pilots as well as a porn star. I met with John and his attorney, Jay Lavely, to help navigate these land mines. The National Enquirer reached out to Travolta and the church for responses. Realizing the potential PR damage a story of gay sex would have on the perfect Scientology couple of John and Kelly, we dug up dirt on the sources of the stories and threatened the media with lawsuits. The stories were shut down, and I became a trusted person in John’s life. Similar claims have continued to pop up over the years and they have been denied by Travolta or shut down. Gay allegations are land mines for Scientology. Scientology publicly claims it is not anti-gay (despite Hubbard’s writings to the contrary), yet the threat of a story describing a Scientologist as gay would cause panic internally because for a Scientologist, not being “cured” of homosexuality would indicate that the tech doesn’t work.
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When convenient, our public statements were “We do not get involved in commenting on the personal lives of our parishioners, celebrity or otherwise.” In truth, we were very much involved in all aspects of their private lives. This was not reserved exclusively for the two big headliners, Cruise and Travolta. Kirstie Alley and her actor husband, Parker Stevenson, were brought to the Int Base to “resolve their marriage,” though Miscavige was not so interested in them personally—Kirstie was past her peak in Hollywood. I was the couple’s designated companion while they got their “marriage counseling.” I joined them for meals each day for the week or so they were there and engaged them in small talk. They ate in the tiny bar/café in the building that had been converted, theme-park style, to look like an old four-masted clipper ship, next to the large swimming pool reserved for Miscavige and his guests. Despite the circumstances, Kirstie was an entertaining mealtime companion—outrageous, funny, and sometimes inappropriately gross. Parker was an extremely pleasant man whose only apparent flaw was his lack of interest in Scientology. We didn’t talk about their marriage at all; that was off-limits. But I could tell Kirstie had decided there was no future for her with Parker and so the result was inevitable: divorce. Parker was “not into” Scientology. And to the organization, that was all that mattered.
Excerpted from A BILLION YEARS by Mike Rinder. Copyright © 2022 by Michael Rinder. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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