Like many in Hollywood, Mack sought spiritual guidance outside the mainstream. But 12 years after checking out a women's empowerment seminar, she stands accused of recruiting "slaves" and branding women with a hot cauterizing pen. Through interviews with close friends and ex-members of the Nxivm cult, THR reveals how a charismatic fan favorite allegedly morphed into the leader's No. 2 and explores the persistent allure and pernicious effect of cults on entertainment.
One Saturday morning in late 2006, several dozen people filed into an unremarkable hotel conference room in Vancouver, British Columbia, for a two-day introduction to Jness. The program was billed as a "women's movement" within Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um), an umbrella organization offering a host of personal growth courses attended by thousands of people around the world. Chairs were arranged classroom-style in the room, coffee and tea on offer in the back. Nxivm's president, Nancy Salzman, a bespectacled brunette with a bob and acute, sharply drawn eyebrows, rose to speak. Salzman, a nurse who co-founded Nxivm in 1998 with its leader, Keith Raniere, began with a brief history of gender relations. "She talked about how women have been raised to be monogamous and how men's general nature is to be more polygamous, to spread their seed," recalls Susan Dones, a Nxivm member at the time. "I found it really archaic."
Dones wasn't some recent Nxivm initiate. She was a "field trainer" with her own Nxivm center in Washington state, where she still lives, and had taught courses in Ireland and Mexico. She embraced the teachings of Raniere, who had adopted the title "Vanguard" from a favorite arcade game he'd played as a kid, in which the destruction of one's enemies increased one's own power. As Dones listened to Salzman that morning, she deduced that "they were introducing the idea of polygamy, but with a soft sell, laying the groundwork." Dones, who would leave Nxivm in 2009, knew from personal experience that Raniere maintained a harem of more than a dozen women. In private conversations, Salzman had repeatedly told Dones, a lesbian, that "the world wasn't ready" for Raniere's radical ideas about polygamy, incest, sociopathy and power.
For this particular Jness weekend, Raniere had dispatched key members of his senior team. Sara Bronfman — who, along with her sister Clare, was an heir to the vast Seagram Co. fortune and a source of substantial financial backing for Raniere — had flown out on her private jet. Salzman's daughter Lauren, a high-ranking member, also came. The reason for the charm offensive: They knew that Allison Mack, then 23 and an actress on The CW's Smallville, would be in the audience, brought by co-star Kristin Kreuk, who had recently joined the group.
This wasn't the first time Nxivm had rolled out the red carpet (Dones calls it "love-bombing") for VIPs. They'd done it for Dynasty star Linda Evans and for the uber-wealthy sons and daughters of disgraced Mexican politicians, who had been flocking to Nxivm in droves. Mack wasn't the first Hollywood catch, but she was a big one — a fan favorite with vivid green eyes and a bubbly charisma. This was her first exposure to Nxivm, and the group's senior leaders wanted to make it special.
Dones says that Lauren Salzman attached herself to Mack that weekend, eating meals with her. "By the end of the weekend, Lauren and Allison were like best friends," she says. When the seminar concluded, Mack accepted an invitation to fly on the Bronfmans' private jet back to Albany, New York, to meet Raniere in the flesh. They told her Raniere could help her with her acting career. This was a rare development, even for a VIP; most high-profile initiates had to complete at least one 16-day "intensive" at a cost of $7,500 before being granted an in-person meeting with Vanguard. A couple of weeks later, when Dones traveled to Nxivm's corporate offices and training facility in Colonie, north of Albany, she was surprised to see Mack still there. One Friday night, when Raniere gathered his followers, male and female, in a nearby public gym for a weekly game of volleyball, she found Mack sitting in the bleachers, smiling contentedly at the players. "She said she was having a great time," says Dones.
In April, 12 years after that first meeting, federal prosecutors in New York indicted Mack, 35, and Raniere, 57, on three felony counts of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor, alleging that Nxivm provides cover for a brutal, coercive sex ring that requires its subjects to turn over sexually compromising pictures and other damaging "collateral" as a form of insurance against breaking with the group. Raniere was arrested in March after a six-week manhunt led FBI investigators to a lavish $10,000-a-week compound near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he and several women, including Mack, had been staying. Federales hauled him away in a blue sedan while Lauren Salzman and Mack chased after them. Mack returned to Brooklyn, where she'd been living since 2012; she was arrested there April 20. Prosecutors believe that the actress with the bubbly charisma was also the leader of a secretive sex cult within the Nxivm structure called DOS, which stands for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or Master Over Slave Women. (Other reports have called it "The Vow.") In this group, Mack allegedly occupied the second-most-senior position (only Raniere was above her) as a "master" and recruited "slaves" from within Nxivm who were held down by other slaves and branded with a hot cauterizing pen. Prosecutors say this was done forcefully and without consent, and also without telling the victims the nature of the scar that would form: a ragged, stamp-size welt that turned out to be an amalgam of Mack's and Raniere's initials: K, R, A and M.
In early May, Mack waived her right to a speedy trial, opening up the possibility of making a plea deal, although none has yet been struck. A source familiar with the case says prosecutors remain open to talks. Mack was released on $5 million bail into her parents' custody. In the years since her first exposure to the Jness women's empowerment seminar in Vancouver, she had traveled to the nether reaches of the Nxivm identity and into the darkest recesses of Raniere's pathology. The trial is set to begin Oct. 1. If convicted, both Mack and Raniere face at least 15 years behind bars.
The history of Hollywood is shot through with stories of cults' allure and destruction, from the long reign of the Manson family to the hippie-ish spiritual sect called Full Circle, founded by former Party of Five star Andrew Keegan. Hollywood attracts creative, artistically minded people with an openness to unconventional spirituality whose careers and sense of self-worth are often bound up in esoteric, even arcane searches.
"I find that the vast majority of people who join these groups are extremely intelligent, open-minded, kind, loving people," says Jodi Wille, who has spent years researching cults and who directed The Source Family, a feature film about Father Yod and the radical sex-, drugs- and rock 'n' roll-fueled sect he ran in the 1970s. It doesn't help that Hollywood is filled with vulnerable, empathic artists, many of whom "are lost or damaged, and so if you get a predator in the mix, whether it's Harvey Weinstein or the leader of Nxivm, they're going to go for it," says Wille. "They offer other forms of support that you can't get from your agent or your manager."
Cults, like companies or NGOs or virtually any product, benefit from celebrities embracing their brand. "Cults seek out people in Hollywood because those people have cultural influence," says Chapman Way, who directed the recent Netflix cult docuseries Wild Wild Country with his brother Maclain. In 1955, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard announced an initiative called "Project Celebrity," encouraging his adherents to "hunt" a list of some 60 luminaries, including Walt Disney, Greta Garbo and Orson Welles, like "quarry."
Wild Wild Country, about the Rajneeshpuram commune in Oregon in the mid-1980s, touches briefly on the story of Francoise Ruddy (ex-wife of Godfather producer Albert Ruddy), who rose to the sect's highest levels. "If you're successful in Hollywood, you're a rare breed who has achieved your goals," says Chapman Way. "When people find that success doesn't bring them the absolute fulfillment they thought it would, they go on these journeys, and cults often fulfill that vacuum." Jessica Goldberg, who created the Hulu drama The Path, starring Aaron Paul as a cult follower, found herself asking whether actors might be particularly susceptible. "You have to wonder what that kind of adoration does," she says. "There's a need to feel like your life is more important than everyone else's."
By the time Mack joined Nxivm in 2006, she had spent 20 years — nearly her entire life — in show business. "She was so hungry for something bigger, some kind of sign [that would show] the purpose and meaning of life," says Step by Step actress Christine Lakin, who was friends with Mack as a fellow child actor in the '90s. Mack also was undeniably famous, with a capacity to draw in others. "Her celebrity was her appeal," says Rick Ross, a self-proclaimed cult deprogrammer who has been involved in decades of litigation against Nxivm and Raniere. "There were other women who were pretty, but she was the one who was so poised, so good on camera. She was somebody who could really sell it."
The middle child of three, Mack was born in 1982 to American parents in Preetz, Germany, where her father was performing as an opera singer. Two years later, the family moved to Southern California, where at age 4 Mack started acting in commercials. She enrolled at the famed Young Actors Space in Los Angeles, training ground of Keri Russell, Elijah Wood and Leonardo DiCaprio, and made her film debut in 1989's Police Academy 6. Steady work followed, and by 16 she had moved from northwest Orange County to L.A., where she lived with friends in an apartment complex. "It was as normal as 'normal' can be in this business," says someone who worked closely with Mack throughout her career and who, like many of the more than a dozen people who spoke to THR about her, asked to remain anonymous. "Her parents were just like, 'This is what she wanted to do.'"
After high school, Mack was planning to study theater abroad when a casting director persuaded her to audition for Smallville, a new WB drama about Superman's teenage years. "I was 18, recently in love and getting ready to go to theater school in London, so my life was going in a very specific direction, … and it wasn't a TV show that filmed in Vancouver!" Mack recalled in a 2011 interview.
But she booked the part of Chloe Sullivan, a proto-Lois Lane who becomes the best friend of a young Clark Kent. She relocated to Canada, where the show was shooting, and seemed to settle into a stable, healthy routine. But some of her friends say she also was insecure about having missed college, and compensated by seeking alternative sources of wisdom. "I have a tendency to say I am stupid. I [have become] very comfortable chalking things up to the fact that I don't have a 'proper education,'" Mack wrote on her blog in 2007. "The truth is … I am an eternal student, and I am loving all the opportunities I have to grow."
Meanwhile, Nxivm's push into Vancouver's film and TV community had been spearheaded by Barbara Bouchey, a businesswoman and senior Nxivm executive who dated Raniere for several years. One of Bouchey's first targets was director Mark Vicente, whose film What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? explored the meaning of life. Bouchey had courted him aggressively. "I helped enroll these people," says Bouchey, who left Nxivm in 2009. Vicente, in turn, had recruited Sarah Edmondson, a Canadian actress based in Vancouver who, with Bouchey's help, opened up doors to locally filmed productions like Battlestar Galactica (whose actors Grace Park and Nicki Clyne were also recruited) and Smallville.
By the time of that first Jness meeting, Mack was into her fifth season of the show. She began taking Nxivm intensives more regularly. In the early days of her Nxivm membership, she hosted a dinner at her apartment overlooking Vancouver's Coal Harbour. She had adorned her place with the trappings of a spiritual seeker: art from the subcontinent and many Buddhas. Bouchey was one of the guests.
"It was really Bouchey that put her under her spell," says Mack's former roommate. "I heard three years of how wonderful Barbara Bouchey was and how she was so great with business. Allison had such a desire to be a strong businesswoman and have a mentor."
During dinner, Mack told her guests that "she grew up in a more progressive, uninhibited environment," recalls Bouchey, trying to make sense of Mack's later trajectory. "Maybe the more bizarre sexual things didn't seem so bizarre to her."
Nxivm didn't expose most of its followers to anything overtly sexual. Raniere had designed it that way, with a curriculum that ranged from childhood education to an acting studio called The Source. Nxivm's flagship enterprise was its Executive Success Programs (ESP), which melded courses on business with self-help philosophy. Advancement through levels (and fees) promised increasing knowledge and achievement, much like Scientology.
Prosecutors allege that Raniere ran Nxivm like a pyramid scheme, as he had done in the 1990s with his previous company, Consumers' Buyline. Officials in New York had shut that down after a long investigation. Nxivm was more deliberately New Agey, with an emphasis on self-expression and personal growth. Raniere espoused a philosophy that he invented called Rational Inquiry, based on the idea that deeply held convictions formed in childhood often were wrong and needed changing. Some of his other ideas were more fringe. One of his many bizarre patents, this one filed in 2007, purports to be a method to "rehabilitate a type of sociopath … who commits destructive acts." Raniere deems these sociopaths "Luciferians," writing that "a Luciferian realizes his desires by any means — without consideration for others and without remorse. A Luciferian is a person lacking in conscience and loyalty to others. He commonly employs manipulation and deceit to achieve his desired end and is therefore capable of acts that could be highly destructive to those that interact with him. A Luciferian, therefore, typically experiences pleasure or gratification in situations where 'normal' people would be repulsed or disturbed."
In hindsight, Raniere could have been describing himself. According to several sources, he demanded that the women in his harem be thin to the point of near-starvation. He required that they restrict themselves to diets of 900 calories or less a day and insisted that they report their weight status daily. A former harem member says that if Raniere had difficulty getting an erection, which was often, he blamed it on her weight. She says he told his followers that Oprah Winfrey was not an ethical human being because she was fat. According to several reports, he preferred ample pubic hair and asked women not to shave or wax. Raniere didn't seem to adhere to the same dietary restrictions he imposed on others — in numerous public videos, he appears, if not exactly chubby, at least amply proportioned. "That's his sacrifice for humanity," quips the former harem member. "He doesn't have time to work out because he's working so hard for everyone else."
Raniere told the women in his harem that they were all connected via his sperm. In practice, this created opportunities for psychological manipulation because "if one woman is having an issue, it hurts Keith, and if he's hurting, you're hurting," explains the former harem member. "So if you do something he doesn't like, you get an army of women, sister wives, coming after you. You get ostracized. No one wants to socialize with you unless you get back in line." She likens the coercive method to one used by Warren Jeffs, the Mormon polygamist.
According to a March letter from Department of Justice officials to a federal judge, Raniere had a "history of sexual assault and other abuse of girls and women" dating back to the 1980s, when he was in his 20s. In one instance, he is alleged to have had sexual intercourse with a 12-year-old girl; in another, with a 15-year-old. "Keith said to me multiple times that it was OK for little girls to pleasure their fathers sexually," recalls one former harem members. "He thought that was fine."
Raniere had a philosophy he called The Fall, which, as a former Nxivm member described it, taught that "it felt really good to do bad things," while doing good things "felt really bad." Other former students had similar experiences. "There was an obsession with discussing people who didn't have a conscience," says another ex-Nxivm member, "and I saw people develop less and less of a conscience and less and less empathy as time went on." In early May, a Nxivm doctor and Raniere devotee, Brandon Porter, was arrested on charges of experimenting on humans by forcing them to watch horrifically violent rape and snuff films while filming them. "Porter was breaking all kinds of research and medical laws," says someone who knows him well and warned him to stop on several occasions. But Porter, allegedly a devout follower of Raniere, wouldn't listen. "He's mad at the whistleblowers; he's totally brainwashed."
Those who do speak out are subject to harassment and litigation. After her 2009 exit, Bouchey endured years of lawsuits by Nxivm and the Bronfmans, who claimed Bouchey had caused them harm by releasing their private financial information (all have been dismissed). It's estimated that the Bronfman sisters, whose family once owned Universal, have shelled out upward of $150 million and have even borrowed against their future inheritance to back Raniere's needs and bankroll lawsuits against detractors. The imperative was to keep the movement growing or, as Nxivm often said, to keep "the mission" moving forward.
Around 2009, one former member close to Raniere says that he actively tried to replicate Scientology's outreach tactics to improve the profile of ESP as a legitimate class. (While Scientology is recognized as a religion in many countries, including the U.S., Nxivm is not.) Nxivm had gotten some bad press that year and saw a wave of defections. Its website was shoddy, the marketing poor. "The group's leaders were studying Scientology and saying they wanted to be more like them — more visually appealing, more streamlined, more like the cool kids," says this former member. "And they wanted people who were attractive and compelling; that's why they went after people like Allison Mack." As Ross says, "She was the Tom Cruise of Nxivm."
Mack was an enthusiastic proselytizer, convincing even her parents to take courses. "She told me about Jness and ESP within 30 or 40 minutes of meeting her," says one woman whom Mack hired as a consultant. "She said she only wanted 'ethical' people on her team." Mack, though, was clearly already aware of the organization's controversial reputation; she told her new staffer to Google the group by way of inoculating her against the critiques. "You might find all kinds of bad information out there, and I just want you to go in aware and informed," Mack told her. "Rick Ross is just trying to [push us down]." The woman ended up in Nxivm for six years. "The mistake I made is that I believed Allison over everybody else."
A close friend and former roommate of Mack's, who previously had rebuffed her solicitations, agreed to have lunch with her, only to find that the rendezvous was actually an ESP recruitment meeting. "They wanted to have an image of success, so it was at a multimillion-dollar property overlooking the ocean in the Pacific Palisades," he says. "You drive up and immediately see the wealth." Mack told him that she would pay for his courses. Instead, he confronted her and told her she was in a cult. "If you used that word, you were done," he says. "You were excommunicated from her life."
Raniere deployed his young TV stars to recruit college students, dispatching Mack, Kreuk and Clyne to emcee A Cappella Innovations, a festival for university singing groups that, according to comments left on an online forum right after the event, left several attendees "unsettled" over the hosts' repeated requests for personal information, such as Social Security numbers. The outreach wasn't entirely successful. "The college kids got uncomfortable," says Bouchey. "Students felt pressured to join the club."
Mack tried landing other stars too. 7th Heaven alum Beverley Mitchell revealed on Lakin's Worst Ever podcast that Mack once tried to get her to take a Jness seminar. The two had known each other since they were kids. Mitchell declined, and Mack later wrote her a sorrowful email lamenting her response. (She also attempted to entice Kelly Clarkson and Emma Watson over Twitter, to no avail.)
As Mack drifted away from any friends who declined to join Nxivm, her social circle grew increasingly insular. With her role on Smallville winding down, she purchased a house in Clifton Park, near Albany, expanding Nxivm's presence there and dedicating herself to Jness. "She really believed that teaching the difference between men and women was good, that it was pure and noble," says her former consultant. "I don't think any of us saw where it was going, that it was teaching women to be subservient."
Several sources close to Mack say that before Nxivm, she was driven by genuine humanitarian impulses. That started to change soon after she joined. In 2007, her fans donated more than $4,000 as a 25th birthday gift to benefit a cause of Mack's choosing, a microfinance organization to help female entrepreneurs in Mexico. The donation was ready to go when Mack suddenly redirected the funds to World Audience Productions, a company owned by Lauren Salzman. A source familiar with the transaction suspects Raniere got involved, adding that he taught against giving to charities.
"Her personality [increasingly] turned inside out," the former employee says, adding that Mack began berating and humiliating her for small infractions. If Mack's critiques of others were scathing, her own self-esteem wasn't much better. She told her employee she would never choose to have kids of her own because she was "so fucked up."
One woman who had been a member of Raniere's harem for years but declined to be named out of fear for her safety recalls running into Mack after an ashtanga yoga class around 2010. "I took one look at Allison, and I knew she was involved romantically and sexually with Keith," says the woman. "She had a gray pallor that was common to Keith's women because they all start to get a little sickly. I know I did. They drop weight. Their heads get too big for their bodies so they become bobbleheads. It's scary-looking."
Smallville ended in 2011, after 10 seasons. Mack continued acting, nabbing a recurring role in FX's Wilfred in 2012, but the world she turned to increasingly belonged to Raniere. "If she did something well, it was [all credited to] Keith," says Mack's business associate. "She'd say that Keith has unconventional ways that no one really understands."
Mack's increased presence in Albany turned out to be a pivotal move. In the coming years, Raniere would suffer several blows. The women he trusted most — Dones calls this group "the wolf pack" — began to disappear. One trusted confidante, Barbara Jeske, died in 2013. Another adviser, Kristin Keeffe, defected in 2014, taking Raniere's child, Gaelen, and reams of Nxivm documents with her. And a third confidante, Pam Cafritz, the daughter of D.C. socialites and perhaps Raniere's most trusted and loyal lieutenant, died of cancer late in 2016. "These three were his best, most stabilizing women," says Frank Parlato, who was the first person to expose the DOS group on his blog, which led to a damning exposé in The New York Times in October. Parlato, who has spoken with several of the women who are now part of the case prosecutors are building against Raniere, believes Mack stepped into this void.
After leaving Nxivm, Keeffe called Bouchey, telling her, "Keith had set his sights on Allison and was thinking about bringing her into the inner circle." Keeffe also told Bouchey that Raniere was getting "more intimate" with Mack. "She never had what Cafritz had, the ability to be an excellent body servant or valet," says Parlato. "But she had the ability to bring women to Raniere's bed. She procured some startling beauties." Parlato did PR for Nxivm briefly and also is engaged in a lawsuit with the Bronfmans, who have sued him for fraud, which led to an FBI investigation against him. He says the DOS group Mack ran had more than 50 slaves, the same figure cited by prosecutors.
The final months of Mack's journey through Nxivm were characterized by dissonance and a double life. To some, nothing seemed amiss. According to one close friend, she and Mack enjoyed coffee and chatted pleasantly at The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills in March, just before Raniere's arrest. They spoke daily by phone, and nothing about their conversations struck this friend as alarming. "I didn't think she was part of a cult because you think of cult members as cutting themselves off from family and friends," she says. "She didn't do that [with me.]"
But another woman who spoke with two of Mack's alleged DOS slaves at length says that during the very same period, Mack was deep into her role as a "master" of DOS and running the organization with brutal efficiency. "These slaves said Mack was incredibly intimidating, cruel and punitive," says this woman, who declined to speak on the record because of the ongoing case. The slaves told her that Mack threatened to release the collateral she had gathered on them if they didn't sleep with Raniere. "You made a lifetime vow!" she says Mack screamed at them. "She berated them and told them they were worth nothing, that they were weak and couldn't uphold their word," says the woman. She told them if they refused her orders, dated other men, left the group or refused sex with Raniere, they would be destroyed. Both women were in Mack's "slave pod," and both were eventually branded.
During the summer of 2017, Parlato and Catherine Oxenberg, a former Dynasty star whose daughter India is reported to have been a slave in Mack's pod, called Mack's manager, Sheila Wenzel. (Simon & Schuster will publish Oxenberg's book, Captive, about her attempt to rescue her daughter from Nxivm, in August.) They had learned about DOS, though it was not yet public, and wanted to alert Mack's closest friends and confidants. The manager seemed upset during the call, according to Parlato. "I think she had an intuition something was drastically wrong," he says. "I think she was tormented by this." But when Wenzel brought up Oxenberg's allegations with Mack later, she says Mack shrugged them off, saying, "This stuff is not true; these crazy things are not true."
"Allison's an actress," says the former roommate. "Even when she's been in pain, she's good at pretending things are OK. It doesn't surprise me that she could make it seem like things were fine."
Yet "if you read her blogs, you could see her mind shattering over time," says the former consultant. In a series of missives posted last summer, Mack seemed to be crying for help: "Cold sweats. Constantly. The anxiety of being caught makes my heart thrum like a hummingbird. Someday I will be discovered. I will be found out!"
After Raniere's arrest in Mexico, a close friend of Mack's texted her: "This sounds crazy; I hope you're OK." Her response: "I'm home and I'm safe."
By most accounts, Nxivm is now in disarray. People once closely associated with the group are quietly disavowing their connections. The actress Kreuk has refused to speak to the press, referring people to an anodyne statement in which she says she departed five years earlier. Battlestar Galactica actress Park has remained silent. "Some people are starting to say, 'What I learned was good, the technology was good, but as with Scientology and David Miscavige, the leader is bad, Keith Raniere is bad,'" says Ross, who says he is in touch with a number of the recent defectors.
There are real questions about how Mack should be understood within the Nxivm universe. Was she herself, as many believe, a victim? "I don't think she was thinking she was actually trafficking girls," says the former roommate. "It doesn't mean she doesn't deserve punishment, but I think she had drunk enough Kool-Aid to really believe that these girls were going to save the world with [Raniere's] super-sperm." This was similar to the line of defense used, generally unsuccessfully, by many members of the Manson family for their role in the Tate murders, as well as by Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and later convicted for her role in a bank robbery. Do Mack's alleged horrific actions likewise preclude her from the sympathy normally afforded to those who fall into brainwashing?
Friends and former Nxivm followers once close to Mack, as well as those who have observed her, harbor a fear, based on many members' continued loyalty to Vanguard even after his arrest, that Mack may try to exculpate Raniere by taking full credit for DOS, claiming that he had no knowledge of it. "If Allison testifies that Keith didn't know, that's a crock of shit," argues Bouchey.
Throughout the history of Hollywood, cults have drawn in sensitive, soul-searching people and bound them to their leaders with ideas that have been nurtured for years. These are hard patterns to sever. During a recent court appearance in Brooklyn in which Mack and Raniere were both present, Mack steadfastly refused to look at him. But as she left the court, she turned to Raniere's lawyers, smiled and waved. And then she was gone.
This story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.