When we think of cults, we tend to picture charismatic leaders with legions of brainwashed followers, eager to devote their lives to the group’s mission. But in reality, most of us, at some point in our lives, have been seekers — open to discovering new ways of life and paths to enlightenment — and celebrities are no exception. Here are a few examples of some who were, at some point, either members of cults or fringe groups, or have some association with them.
When 20th Century Fox signed actor Jayne Mansfield in 1956, they primed her to be their next “blonde bombshell,” following in the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe. Though her films are largely forgettable, she remains one of the most iconic mid-century sex symbols, thanks to being one of the original Playboy Playmates, and a string of publicity stunts, which usually involved her in some state of undress.
But what many don’t know about her is that she was thought to be involved with the Church of Satan. She met Anton LaVey, the high priest of the sect in 1966 and they struck up an unlikely relationship. Whether this was just another publicity stunt or something Mansfield truly believed in, rumors about this connection swirled after her untimely death in a car accident at the age of 34.
Joaquin & River Phoenix
Whether you’re more familiar with Joaquin Phoenix’s work in movies like Walk the Line and Her, or grew up watching his brother River in the iconic film Stand By Me, you may not know that the brothers grew up in a cult. In a 2014 interview with Playboy, Joaquin opened up about his unconventional upbringing in the Children of God fringe religious sect and traveling around South America with the group and his family in the early 1970s.
Though the cult is best known for their recruitment technique called “flirty fishing” — where they would use young women lure in new members by having sex with them — Joaquin Phoenix said that his parents’ involvement with the group was “innocent” and they truly believed in their Christian-based message. Both Joaquin and River Phoenix decided to leave the cult — as did Rose McGowan. The activist and actor was also born into the group, but got out along with her parents once they started advocating adults having sex with children (a policy the group, now known as the Family International, has since abandoned).
In her 2014 memoir, Unbreak My Heart, R&B singer Toni Braxton wrote about her childhood in a rigid Apostolic Pentecostal congregation known as the “Pillar of Truth.” The group had many rules, including prohibiting seeing movies, listening to pop music, and celebrating holidays. Braxton did enjoy singing in the church’s children’s choir called the Sunshine Band.
Like other extremist religious sects, the Pillar of Truth believed that the rapture was quickly approaching, and that the only way to be saved was to follow the church’s strict doctrine and speaking in tongues — which was considered evidence that a person was worthy of a spot in heaven. Living in fear, Braxton began to fake speaking in tongues at the age of eight. As she grew up, her family broke ties with the church and she began her musical career.
From connections with the Church of Satan, to growing up in extremist religious sects, the association between celebrities and fringe groups is hard to ignore. Famous or not, we’re all searching for knowledge and truth, but some end up finding it in very different — sometimes dark — places.
Season 2 of Strange Angel premieres on CBS on June 13.