While it’s easy to put celebrities on a pedestal, famous people make mistakes just like the rest of us. That includes getting taken in by manipulative cults like Scientology, Children of God, or NXIVM. But some Hollywood superstars didn’t have a choice in the matter because they were born into a crazy cult environment. Here’s a surprising list of superstars who grew up in cults — and eventually got out of them.
Best known for roles in old-school hits like Scream, Jawbreaker, and Charmed, actress Rose McGowan spent her early childhood in the polygamous Children of God cult. Both her mother and father were members, and McGowan says the experience was harrowing. Luckily, McGowan’s dad eventually came to his senses and realized he needed to get his family out of the disturbing sect. “We had to leave on the sly,” McGowan said in a 2011 interview with People magazine. “[We] escaped with my dad’s other wife in the middle of the night. I remember running through a cornfield in thunder and lightning, holding my dad’s hand and running as fast as I could to keep up with him.”
The Joker’s Joaquin Phoenix (along with his late brother, River) also spent his early years as a member of Children of God. His parents were active in the cult for a number of years before fleeing with the family in 1977. Fortunately, Joaquin was just three years old (River was seven) when they escaped the cult, so he doesn’t remember the experience. But he does say he knows his parents only had the best of intentions when they first became involved with the group. “I think they were idealists, and believed that they were with a group who shared their beliefs, and their values,” the actor told Vanity Fair in a 2019 interview. “I think they probably were looking for safety and family.”
Hollywood heavyweight Glenn Close spent 15 years as a member of the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) group, after her father joined the cult when she was just seven years old. The Tony-, Emmy-, and Golden Globe-winning actress says spending her formative years among the MRA had a huge effect on her life. “You basically weren’t allowed to do anything, or you were made to feel guilty about any unnatural desire,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “If you talk to anybody who was in a group that basically dictates how you’re supposed to live and what you’re supposed to say and how you’re supposed to feel, from the time you’re seven till the time you’re 22, it has a profound impact on you.”
During her early days in Hollywood, Michelle Pfeiffer admits that she was part of a cult that practiced breatharianism (the belief that people can — and should — live on little to no food). “They worked with weights and put people on diets,” the Catwoman star told The Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine in 2013. “They were very controlling. I wasn’t living with them but I was there a lot and they were always telling me I needed to come more. I had to pay for all the time I was there, so it was financially very draining.” Fortunately, Pfeiffer’s first husband, Peter Horton, helped her realize she was part of a cult and needed to break free.
David and Patricia Arquette
David and Patricia Arquette — along with their two other siblings, Rosanna and Alexis — spent their early childhood living in extreme poverty as part of a commune called Skymont. While Patricia was four when her father joined the cult, David was actually born there. “Everyone in the commune looked down on ownership and had to contribute their income to the common good,” Patricia told The Wall Street Journal in 2017. “Before long, we wound up living in intense poverty. We were so poor, the government dropped off food for us.” The Medium star went on to explain that her family spent four years living as members of the Skymont group until the cult fell apart and they moved on.
Reality star Emily Schromm, who’s best known for being a The Real Word: D.C. cast member and frequent contestant on MTV’s The Challenge, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian cult in Columbia, MO. She managed to break free when she was 14 years old, and while her past was a big part of her story line when she first appeared on The Real World, she says didn’t intend for that to happen. “I don’t really like to put that out there but it’s part of my past and I realize that the way I was raised makes me who I am,” she said in a 2010 interview with Reality Wanted. “I wasn’t trying to make a stand and a statement. I didn’t come in saying I wanted to prove something or say something about my religion.That story is just going to come out as I get to know people. It’s inevitable.”
Like Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix, singer-songwriter Christopher Owens was born into the Children of God cult. He left when he was 16 years old, following in the footsteps of his older sister who had been branded a traitor for leaving the group. “Imagine being raised in the Taliban,” the “Here We Go Again” singer said of his experience in a 2011 interview with the Guardian. “Being told everybody else in the world is bad, rejecting technology, rejecting medical research, being devoted to God and believing America was evil and the end of the world was coming: all the same principles.”
Stranger Things star Winona Ryder became a member of a commune called Rainbow when she was seven years old. She lived with her family and six other families on a large plot of land in Northern California, raised without electricity, TV and other modern conveniences. Fortunately for Ryder, the experience was not traumatic and she says she enjoyed growing up in nature. “The place we lived was, like, 380 acres of redwoods,” she told Parade in 2019. “It was beautiful.”
One of the most outspoken ex-cult members, Leah Remini became a Scientologist at the age of eight after her mother joined the organization. She stayed with the cult for more than three decades and became one of the group’s highest-profile celebrity practitioners. But in 2013, she became disillusioned with the “religion” and is now one of its harshest critics. She’s made it her mission to speak out about the cult’s problematic practices on her A&E show, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and podcast, Scientology: Fair Game. “I don’t want to be known as this bitter, ex-Scientologist,” the King of Queens star told BuzzFeed in 2014. “I’m not trying to bash anybody and I’m not trying to be controversial. I just want people to know the truth.”
Rapper Angel Haze grew up following the very restrictive principles of the Pentecostal Greater Apostolic Faith. “We all lived in the same community, within 10 minutes of each other,” she told the Guardian 2013. “You weren’t allowed to talk to anyone outside of that, you weren’t allowed to wear jewelry, listen to music, to eat certain things, to date people … you weren’t allowed to do pretty much anything. Church was on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. When they did revivals it was every day. I used to just crawl under the bench and try to sleep.”
When she was 15 years old, the “Battle Cry” rapper broke from the community, which she says she’s come to recognize as a cult.
Star of The Bachelor Australia and Bachelor in Paradise, Keira Maguire was born into a polygamist cult run by her father, who had nine wives and 64 children. When the story was broken by Women’s Day in 2016, the reality show star clarified that she left the group when she was very young and spent the rest of her childhood in a normal, healthy environment. “My mother removed my family from that environment when I was five years old, over 25 years ago,” she said in a statement. “I was brought up by my mother and grandmother in Brisbane in a loving, caring and compassionate household.”
Singer Toni Braxton was born a member of a rigid Apostolic Pentecostal congregation called Pillar of Truth. In her 2014 book Unbreak My Heart: A Memoir, the Grammy Award-winning performer revealed that the strict religion required women to only wear skirts and dresses to “cover their nakedness” and save them from going to hell. “I began connecting religion, God and church with judgment, anxiety and guilt,” she wrote. The singer also said she faked speaking in tongues at age eight to fit in with the group, and realizes now that her family “had fallen into religious extremism.”