IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was Sucked Into a Self-Help Cult that Targets Vulnerable Women

I started feeling paranoid. The acquaintance who recruited me was tracking me and questioning everything I did.
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Publish date:
February 25, 2016
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Tags:
cults, scams, manipulation, Self-help

An acquaintance moved into my New York City neighborhood and asked me to have coffee. She was much younger, super-bubbly, and from what I could tell, we had nothing in common. I was feeling lonely, though, so I went.

The morning we met was the lowest point in my life; I was physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted from the train-wreck relationship I was in. Mary*, on the other hand, seemed on top of the world. Everything with her was "amazing" and "magical." Ahe was moving in with her boyfriend, her life was on track, and she was in control. She dished out bits of advice like "make your man feel like a man" and "use your feminine power."

I was desperate to feel good and stupidly thought that fixing my relationship was what I needed, so I put my feminist ideals aside and took in what she said. That's when she let me in on her big secret: there was a group for women that gathered on a weekly call called Sexy School. It was run by a man who called himself Universal*, but she wouldn't say more except that it was "exclusive," by "invitation only," and that Universal was "amazing." At this point, I was practically begging to get in.

Mary arranged for me to listen in on Sexy School. Universal greeted us with a mini-monologue about getting rid of the "crazy bitch" — the thing most men feared. He said he would solve all of our "man woes" and help us become more "attractive." He then took questions from confused women and dished out advice like, "Drop into your feminine power," "Make him feel like a man," and, "Joke with him, don't nag him" — and often times he suggested a man detox.

The call went on, but I was transferred to the "party room," where two women with hyper-inflated enthusiasm gushed about how "amazing" Universal was and how lucky I would be if I got "accepted."

I quickly learned I was accepted and could join next week's call for a monthly fee of $100, and I signed up without hesitation. Yes, I was skeptical, but I was also hopeful that it could help me because, after all, it "changed" Mary's life.

I put into action all of Universal's Sexy School advice, but my relationship got worse. That's when Mary let me in on another top-secret group led by Universal called Celeb Making Machine. Women traveled from all over the country to attend this monthly event. I asked lots of questions, but Mary just kept telling me to have trust and see for myself.

The Celeb Making Machine event was weird. Universal graced us with his presence, flying all the way from the West Coast (which he did every month) to New York City to help 20- and 30-something women become "strong women in the world" using the tools he developed. He told us to leave the "Old World" behind to become more successful, make more money, and have more confidence. He cracked jokes and the women giggled whispering to each other about how "amazing" he was. (Noticing a trend?)

Universal was charismatic, for sure, and almost handsome. After his monologue, he asked who wanted to join him on stage. The women eagerly raised their hands and he chose a beautiful, curvy woman who was wearing a crop top and who had driven eight hours to be there. She stood near him onstage and they stared at each other. It was part sexual and part little girl looking for encouragement.

Her face reddened, and she started crying. He told her she was brave. He asked her how she was feeling. She had trouble articulating. He said maybe she was feeling insecure because her belly was exposed. She cried because he guessed exactly how she was feeling: insecure. She cursed herself for choosing the crop top that was making her feel so vulnerable out in the world. He told her she needed to protect herself.

After a few more minutes of locking eyes, she expressed gratitude and left the stage. A few more women went up. Some women were able to hold his stare with confidence. They were praised and told to keep up the work. Universal was "reflecting to the ladies how they were viewed out in the world" so they could change to become stronger in their everyday lives.

After the event, I was taken to a separate room where I was recruited by Shea*, Universal's ringleader. For $300 a month, I could join Celeb Making Machine, Sexy School, and would have access to the online community, as well as a weekly call where all the ladies connected. I could not get up on stage, though, because I would only be at the "Audience" level. When I was ready, I could move up to the next level, pay a little more, get up onstage with Universal, access another level on the community chat board, and an additional weekly call.

The ultimate goal was to become a "Celebrity," and lastly an "Icon," which so far, there was only one of, and everyone said she glowed. Mary was a Celebrity, which meant she was achieving higher levels of success and "magic" in her life than Audience-level me. Despite the weird vibes, I was lonely and figured if Mary loved the group so much I would give it a try, too.

I was a member of Celeb Making Machine for eight months. At first, it was comforting because I was surrounded by women. My relationship ended, but Mary became a prominent friend in my life, checking in with me daily to see how I was feeling and dishing out advice. She slowly became involved in every facet of my life, including decision-making.

As a Celebrity who brought me into the group, she was responsible for my progression in the group. She made sure I was on my weekly calls, encouraged me to post on the website, held me "accountable," and was my personal cheerleader. She told me that the women of Celeb Making Machine were not her friends — they were her support leading her to the "New World." The lines blurred with us, though, because we were friends in some sense, but she did withhold certain details of her life. As she would often remind me, she was "highly trained by Universal" and as a Celebrity, I was not privy to all the information of her life. She was 25 and I was 34, so I wasn't quite sure what magical secrets of life she learned that I hadn't, but I played along.

I never moved up levels in Celeb Making Machine because I had no desire to get up on stage with Universal, nor did I have extra cash, and I felt like I was learning a lot as it was. For example:

  • Universal was an extremely important person, graduating from Harvard, from a prominent family with a very successful father, and had a major career in television working on Melrose Place.
  • Universal was guided by the Divine (code word for God), so everything he said was from the Divine. Celebrities and Icons were most in touch with the Divine, and I, too, was working on my connection with the Divine.
  • "Connecting" with the ladies after events is important. Excessive eye contact was almost mandatory, and crying was praised because "women are at their most powerful when they are vulnerable."
  • Universal did not want to charge us money, but in order to hold himself accountable he had to do it.
  • I should limit my time in my conditioning environment, that being my family, who fucked me up and put me in the situation that Universal was trying to undue.
  • I should look for the magic in everything, and if I did, miracles would happen. And I owed Universal a "fuck-ton of gratitude" for leading me to this better life.
  • Staying in constant contact to the ladies of Celeb Making Machine was extremely important to live in the New World and avoid slipping back to Old World habits. So I had to post daily on the message boards, get on my calls, connect with Mary, and attend events.
  • Celeb Making Machine was NOT A CULT as a few people claimed — I was told this more than a few times — but I should keep it a secret because people were judgmental and would not understand.
  • Leaving the group is frowned upon. Women can come back to the group, but only if they leave in a "powerful way."

In my eighth month with Celeb Making Machine, a few things happened that I could not ignore. At an event, Shea handed me a paper to sign stating that I was there "on my own free will." Next, in Sexy School, Universal was repeating advice. When I told Mary that he was repeating himself and he wasn't helping, she scolded me, saying I was resisting, that Universal talks to the Divine, and I was being "lame" for not trusting.

Then, I started feeling paranoid. If I couldn't make a weekly meeting, I'd still dial into the call and put my phone on mute so I wouldn't be questioned about what was more important than the group. If I did miss a call, I'd then go create fake posts online about the amazing things that happened to me, thereby justifying my absence on the call.

Also, Mary was tracking me and questioning everything I did. By nature, I'm an independent person who, because of the mentally abusive relationship I'd been in, allowed myself to give up my independence. But one day when I was hanging out with Mary, she slipped up and told me she was "managing" six girls. Managing. That word bothered me. This girl thought she was managing my life? My old independent self was objecting, and I started paying attention.

The next day, I ignored Mary. Because of that, she called me eight times within an hour. At the same time, I was visiting my mother who had already noticed I was withdrawing; she said I seemed defeated, was acting like I was under surveillance, like I had no free will, and that I was brainwashed.

My mom helped me see the light and convinced me to leave the group. She researched and saw that there was a such thing as a "self-help cult" and the description of it was Celeb Making Machine to a T.

I emailed Shea and ended my relationship with the group while Mary blocked me on all social media. I felt total relief.

It took time to make sense of how I got sucked into Celeb Making Machine. I didn't realize that the brainwashing was happening, slowly and over time. I also trusted Mary. When I left, I thought Mary was a bully, but now I feel bad that she is wrapped up in this. These ladies pay thousands of dollars to be shamed and beaten down by this man. They worship him and have delusions that they are celebrities and icons walking around amongst us.

I'm angry that this man is taking advantage of all these women, and it makes me crazy that as I write this that more women are being recruited to this group. I hope my story will help other women from getting into the same situation. Pay attention to your intuition and be suspicious when people tell you not to question things.

*All names have been changed.