20
Celebrity, the Popular
Media, and Scientology:
Making Familiar
the Unfamiliar

Carole M. Cusack

The Church of Scientology, a new religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, is strange and unfamiliar to the majority of Western people. This is for several reasons: New religions are generally misunderstood and little known; Scientology is numerically small and has a strong emphasis on secrecy concerning its teachings; and, in company with other new religions, Scientology has received negative publicity which impacts upon community perceptions. However, there is an important dynamic in modern Western culture that contributes powerfully to rendering Scientology “familiar” and “mainstream.” This is the all-pervasive culture of celebrity, which involves all forms of media (film, television, radio, and print journalism) in the nonstop coverage of the lives of the rich and famous, for enthusiastic consumption by the general public.

Celebrities function in Western consumer society as icons to be worshipped, role models to be emulated, and, most important, as exemplars of the perfected life (through their wealth, beauty, largerthan-life profile, and the fact that their existence is conducted entirely in the spotlight). Scientology is a religion with high-profile celebrity members (the American actors John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston, Tom Cruise and his wife Katie Holmes, Kirstie Alley and actorturned-musician Juliette Lewis, and in Australia millionaire James Packer and his wife model-turned-singer Erica Baxter, and pop singer Kate Ceberano, to name but a few). Through constant media coverage Scientology is rendered familiar, and even (despite some bad press) potentially desirable to many, in that it forms a core element of the lives of these celebrities. Further, insofar as they are admired

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