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￼GONE GIRL? David Miscavige, in September 1998, in Los Angeles. Inset, his wife, Shelly, who some former Scientologists believe is in exile., Large photograph © Robin Donina Serne/Tampa Bay Times/ Zuma Press; inset courtesy of Renata and Claudio Lugli.After the wife of Scientology leader David Miscavige disappeared from public view, in 2007, those who asked questions were stonewalled, or worse. Now interviews with former insiders provide a grim picture of Shelly Miscavige’s youth, marriage, and fall from grace—and an assessment of her fate.
Say what you will about L. Ron Hubbard, the notorious founder of Scientology. Despite his many flaws, or perhaps because of them, he was a true Hollywood visionary, a shady pioneer in the dark arts of packaging, branding, and synergy.
In the 1950s, following a string of personal and professional failures, he spun his half-baked science-fiction fantasies into a best-selling self-help manifesto called Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.Then he repackaged his adaptation into a “religion,” with a killer third-act reveal, involving alien spacecraft, humanoid slaves, and an intergalactic warlord named Xenu. In the meantime, in order to establish multiple revenue streams, he branded a series of proprietary commercial tie-ins, among them “the E-Meter,” a Rube Goldberg gizmo said to “confront areas of spiritual upset.”
By 1969, Hubbard had established a permanent beachhead in Hollywood. There, in a grand Norman-revival chateau that had in the past variously housed Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, and Cary Grant, among others, he established Scientology’s Celebrity Centre International—a spiritual mecca for “artists, politicians, leaders of industry, sports figures and anyone with the power and vision to create a better world.”
The center was a synergistic vehicle for “Project Celebrity”: an internal church newsletter advised the flock to “hunt” for A-list “quarry” such as Greta Garbo, Walt Disney, and Orson Welles. Although none evidently proved amenable, Hubbard stuck with his business model. “Celebrities are very Special people,” he wrote in 1973. “They have comm[unication] lines that others do not have.”
By the time of Hubbard’s death, in 1986, Scientology was the offbeat “It religion” in the Age of Celebrity. It could boast of two tentpole movie stars (Tom Cruise and John Travolta) and featured a solid supporting cast (Kirstie Alley, Anne Archer). By the mid-1990s, the Church of Scientology claimed a membership of eight million.
And yet, as Hubbard would no doubt have realized had he lived long enough, Hollywood is a cruel mistress. Lately, multiple celebrity-related messes have sullied the Scientology brand. Travolta’s private life has been the source of endless scrutiny and controversy. Tom Cruise appeared an unreliable ambassador with his bizarre pyrotechnics on Oprah’s sofa and rants against psychiatry.
Then, in 2011, The New Yorker published a story by Lawrence Wright (later expanded into the 2013 bookGoing Clear) about the Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Paul Haggis, a longtime Scientologist who had defected from the church. The piece, which a spokesman for the church called “a stale article containing nothing but rehashed, unfounded allegations,” made the case that Scientologists are systematically brainwashed, fleeced, and abused by the church generally and by its current leader, David Miscavige, specifically.
Miscavige is the anti-Hubbard. With darty eyes and the bland good looks of a televangelist, he hawks the word of L.R.H. with ruthless efficiency. By this summer, a semblance of order had been restored, as Cruise had more or less rehabbed his image, when the tabloids exploded again. The story was Leah Remini, a TV star best known for playing Kevin James’s ballbuster wife on the CBS sitcom The King of Queens. Remini, a Scientologist who was raised in a family of Scientologists, wasn’t just another high-profile defector. She was a defector raising hell about the boss’s wife.
Or was it ex-wife? Or late wife? Or missing wife?
For decades, Shelly Miscavige had been the First Lady of Scientology. Graceful and smiling, she was always by Miscavige’s side—during virtually every meeting, every trip, every photo op.
Then, in August 2007, she was suddenly gone. Without a trace.
Since that time, there has been fevered intrigue and speculation as to her whereabouts—among outsiders, anyway. Sources say that church members rarely ask about her, because to ask nosy questions is to invite consequences of the sort that befell Remini. The more she pressed, sources say, the harder she was cursed, interrogated, and shunned. Every time she inquired about Shelly, “she got the runaround,” a source says. “They’d say, ‘Oh, she’s on a special project’ or ‘Oh, she’s visiting a sick relative.’ ” (Church spokespersons have repeatedly denied that Shelly is missing.) Finally Remini quit the church and filed a missing-persons report. The L.A.P.D. soon announced that the case had been closed, and ruled the missing-persons report as “unfounded.” It also said that it had met with Shelly, but gave no further information.
This cryptic explanation only fueled the mystery. Had Shelly fled the church? Was she in hiding? Some Scientology defectors believe she was exiled to one of several secretive and heavily guarded bases the church owns in remote western locales. There, the sources say, those who are banned endure lives of isolation, menial labor, and penury. The reason, they claim, is simple. “The law [in Scientology] is: The closer to David Miscavige you get, the harder you’re going to fall,” says Claire Headley, an ex-Scientologist who, along with her husband, Marc, worked closely with the Miscaviges. “It’s like the law of gravity, practically. It’s just a matter of when.” (The church of Scientology declined Vanity Fair’s repeated requests to interview the Miscaviges. In so doing, church representatives dismissed most of V.F.’s sources as disgruntled apostates, and called V.F.’s questions “ludicrous and offensive.” Additionally, the representatives described Shelly Miscavige as a private person who “has been working nonstop in the church, as she always has.” They also point out that I have written critically about the church in the past.)
In Deep Water
Scientology, during the mid-1970s, was literally adrift. The feds unearthed two criminal conspiracies in which Scientologists had endeavored to retaliate against investigations by journalists and to infiltrate law-enforcement and assorted government agencies. Hubbard, in a quest to find a remote location, had fled to international waters years earlier. He took up residence aboard an old transport ship he named Apollo, where he discovered that the life of a seafaring nomad was not without its charms. In his ascots and long denim jackets, “the Commodore,” as he liked to be called then, strolled the decks, regaling his crew with tales of his past heroism. Outfitting his staff in naval uniforms, he created a vaguely paramilitary organization called Sea Org. Membership was restricted to the highest-ranking and most devoted Scientologists, among them Hubbard’s third wife, Mary Sue, whom he had married in 1952. Sea Org also included a group called the Commodore’s Messengers Organization. Most of the Messengers happened to be comely teenage girls dressed in hot pants and halter tops. They were at the Commodore’s beck and call, fetching him drinks, recording his utterances, relaying his commands to others, drawing his bath, and lighting his Kools.
Among Hubbard’s most devoted Messengers was the youngest one on board: Michelle “Shelly” Barnett. In photographs from that era, she is revealed to be a willowy beauty with strawberry-blond hair. She became a Messenger in the early 1970s when she was around 12.