'Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath' Explores Celebrity Ties

Paul Haggis and a former Celebrity Centre recruiter join Remini and partner Mike Rinder to look into the Church's obsession with fame.
Photographed by David Needleman
Leah Remini

The sixth episode of Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath's second season focused on the Church of Scientology's effort to recruit celebrities — and what happens when those celebrities leave. In addition to Remini offering her personal experience, she and partner Mike Rinder interviewed a former Celebrity Centre recruiter along with one of the Church's most high-profile ex-members: Paul Haggis.

The Church's efforts to focus on recruiting celebrities began with L. Ron Hubbard back in the '50s. In 1955, the Scientology-run publication Ability Magazine ran an article titled "Project Celebrity," which detailed plans to recruit stars. That's why the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood was created, Rinder said.

"It's hard to dispute that from the very earliest times Hubbard was almost obsessed with getting celebrities into Scientology," he said. "The purpose of recruiting celebrities was to give legitimacy to Scientology and to popularize the subject and hopefully get other people interested because celebrities were interested."

Karen Schless Pressley, who first joined Scientology in 1981, was a recruiter at the Celebrity Centre before leaving the religion in 1998.

"We were really looking for people who could become mouthpieces for Scientology, that's the bottom line," she said. "We were all about building social capital. We needed celebrities to recruit other celebrities for that social capital."

She said recruiters would earn commissions based on the stars they got to sign up for the Church's different courses.

"The goal is to take your recruit and move them to more advanced services," she said. "We were motivated by that 10 percent commission, which really adds up."

Examples of celebrities who were recruited during her time there include Kirstie Alley, Terry Jastrow (recruited by Anne Archer), and, most famously, Tom Cruise (recruited by Mimi Rogers). Thanks to Cruise, money poured in, and an effort was made to cater to the A-list stars joining the religion. There are even separate classrooms for A-listers and stars of different categories.

Remini explained that she would receive commendations after large donations, and it wasn't until she donated a million dollars to the Church was she able to brush elbows with Cruise. 

"It's very different from being a celebrity in the real world," she said. "Scientologists believe — and they're shown this in their events — that some of the celebrities in Scientology are responsible for big changes on this planet for mankind. They believe, in a way, that these celebrities are deities." 

Remini said she was asked many times why she hadn't recruited her King of Queens co-star Kevin James. 

"When you're a celebrity Scientologist you're asked, 'Go promote us, go promote our good works, defend us,' and they push you out there," she said. "But as soon as you go, 'Hey, I'm out, and I'm going to say it publicly, you're everything bad about the world all of a sudden."

Haggis, a 35-year Scientologist, described how he first joined the organization and how it helped him with inter-personal relationships in his life.

"Loners, people who didn't get a college education like myself ... are good targets for them. Loners [typically] want to be part of a group," he said 

After working his way up the levels, he began to doubt whether he wanted to be a part of Scientology anymore. But when he confided that to someone at the Celebrity Centre, she told him to just pick and choose the parts of Scientology he wanted to apply to his life — and that's how he was able to justify his continued membership in the Church.

Things began to unravel when the Church publicly supported California's Proposition 8, which proposed to ban gay marriage. Though the Church publicly purports to have no negative stance on Scientology, Rinder, Remini and Haggis argued otherwise.

"It's not publicly stated to be the case," Rinder said, but "homosexuality is viewed as an aberration."

On the "tone scale," a scale rating human behavior, homosexuality is ranked with the most dangerous level of person. In a statement on the show, the Church denied this view of homosexuality: "The Church of Scientology rejects any allegations that it is homophobic or that it teaches that homosexuality is a lower level on the tone scale. The Church maintains that, like other religions, it has evolved its view on homosexuality as culture has progressed." And while the Church publicly states that "disconnection," a.k.a. cutting out "suppressive" people, is not a policy, a quote from a Scientology text that directly mentions disconnection would prove otherwise.

In a statement, the Church denied a policy of disconnection. "The Church of Scientology disputes any claim that its members are directed to cease all communication and disconnect with those it deems suppressive," the Church wrote in a statement to the show.

Ultimately, Haggis decided to resign from the Church in letter of resignation, which he sent to 25 friends.

"I'm a writer, it was a long letter of resignation," Haggis said.

Those friends ended up showing up at his house to try to convince him not to — or at least not to make the letter public, but he wouldn't resign quietly. Haggis' exit was well-publicized and was written up in a long profile in the New Yorker. He thanked Remini for remaining a friend, but she regrets not standing up for him.

"I think that Paul is being gracious in saying thank you for being his friend, but when I look back on it, I'm thinking, 'You were a coward.' That's what I'm thinking about myself," Remini said. "'You were a coward.' I didn't do the right thing. Paul was saying, 'This is a toxic, dangerous, bigoted, racist, organization that's doing horrible things to people,' and I'm not listening. I was fighting internally, 'Why are we letting this man go?' But I didn't actually stand by his side. It took me years to leave after that."

After someone leaves the Church, Remini and Haggis said attack websites pop up about them. And when other celebrities are asked about it, they deny negative behavior from the Church.

"At the beginning I excused them," Haggis said, because they were his friends. But not anymore. He wants them to be held accountable for the negative things he believes are happening in the Church.

(The Church of Scientology challenges the credibility and statements of the contributors appearing in the series. Read the Church's statement in response to allegations here.)