Why did Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson get married?
Love, if you believe her press release, the one pledging to "dedicate my life to being his wife." Or, goes the speculation from Hollywood, Jackson is rehabbing his image and simultaneously consummating the ultimate entertainment merger.
But another possibility is circulating among conspiracy-minded former members of the Church of Scientology. It's an astounding theory - that the church itself helped arrange the Presley-Jackson union - but these defectors say nothing about Scientology would astound them.
"Scientology has been known to tell people to get divorced or married for public-relations purposes," says Lawrence Wollersheim, a former Scientology celebrity handler who won $2.5 million in damages from the church after he sued it for alleged brainwashing.
Lisa Marie Presley, the King's only daughter and heir, has been a Scientologist since childhood; her mother, Priscilla, is said to have joined the church about a year after Elvis' death. Lisa Marie was married to a prominent Scientologist, Danny Keough, but quickly and quietly dissolved that union to marry Jackson in the Dominican Republic in May.
Keough's younger brother, Thomas - also a Scientologist - was an official witness of the Jackson-Presley nuptials. The Church of Scientology International issued a statement this week wishing the newlyweds "the very best for a joyful future."
So what does this add up to? The hot theory among former Scientologists is that the church previously selected Jackson for recruitment and, in the words of Wollersheim, used Lisa Marie as "the bait."
"Stars are heavily recruited, and you can be sure that Michael Jackson was targeted," says one ex-Scientologist who worked at Celebrity Centre, the church's social hub for its glamour members in Los Angeles.
"Why would she marry him? The only answer is Scientology," says another church defector who worked as a liaison with the entertainment community.
"A complete fabrication," responds Karin Pouw, an L.A. spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, which was incorporated by pulp science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard 40 years ago and ever since has waged war against detractors in the press, the government and the medical establishment. In a statement sent by fax, Pouw added: "There is no factual substance to the rumor that there is a project to `recruit' celebrities. Any such reports by `former members' or in past media articles are false."
It's true that the church has long treasured celebrities for the seeming legitimacy and publicity they bring. According to Pouw's statement, Scientology Celebrity Centres - there are 13 around the globe - "offer a distraction-free environment which is free of drugs and the other harmful influences that often plague celebrity lifestyles."
And, of course, stars also bring with them lots of cash and might be magnets to prospective members.
"One of my jobs was to get celebrities active, to convince them to hustle and promote Scientology," recalls Robert Vaughn Young, who spent 20 years in the church, much of the time as a publicity officer, before leaving in 1989.
As early as 1955, Hubbard offered plaques and free seminars to induce followers to bring in celebrity "quarry." A Scientology magazine listed such luminaries as Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx, Walt Disney and Jackie Gleason as potential candidates for "auditing" - that is, the problem-solving technique Hubbard advanced in his best-selling book "Dianetics." Later church documents point to the importance of "using Scientology celebrities to mold the opinions of their publics."
Stars currently involved with Scientology include actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Anne Archer. In various interviews, they have credited Hubbard's "applied religious philosophy" with enriching their lives and helping their careers. But the church doesn't pick their friends or mates, they say.
"The Church of Scientology doesn't run my life or career," Cruise wrote in a 1993 letter to Premiere magazine.
Scientology, which claims millions of members worldwide, focuses
on eliminating the traumas, fears and sources of mental anguish that Hubbard believed were stored, computer-like, in mental "engrams." Adherents work with counselors using a galvanic device called an E-Meter to locate troublesome "engrams" and "clear" them. The process can cost thousands of dollars, and records of the auditing sessions are supposed to be confidential. The IRS, FBI and Food and Drug Administration long have been wary of Scientology and its founder, who once proclaimed that writing for a penny a word was no way to get rich, but that founding a religion was. In the 1970s, Scientology retaliated against its perceived enemies by planting spies in various federal agencies and stealing documents; this led to the conspiracy convictions of 11 church leaders, including Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue.
Documents seized in the case showed Hubbard - who died in 1986 - to be a paranoid and exceptionally wordy megalomaniac. ("Our war has been forced to become to take over absolutely the field of mental healing on this planet in all forms," he once wrote in a policy statement.)
The IRS, after years of denying a religious exemption to Scientology organizations, granted the mother church tax-exempt status last year. Church spokesmen say all those responsible for criminal activities were purged in the early '80s.
Defectors from the church - many of whom share information through a computer network established by Wollersheim in Denver - contend Scientology is a destructive, money-oriented cult bent on world domination. They say auditing files are exploited to control members. The church denies all such charges.
What makes Jackson a prime candidate for recruitment, in these critics' view, is his vulnerability. His career is diminished, he remains under suspicion of child molesting and he recently has been in drug rehabilitation.
"This is a person whose life is in turmoil - a perfect target for the authoritarian, high-influence techniques of Scientology," say Wollersheim, who spent 11 years in Scientology (he left in 1979) and has battled its lawyers in the courts ever since. He says he's now fighting to collect the $2.5 million judgment sustained this spring by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rumors are intense, but so far no one has confirmed whether Jackson has, in fact, joined the church.
"I've never heard that," Jackson's attorney, Howard Weitzman, said this week. Scientology officials said they had "no other information" about Jackson.
But interfaith marriages are rare, ex-church members say.
"Lisa Marie will not stay married to Michael if he does not become a Scientologist or isn't already," Wollersheim predicted.
Other critics say that if Jackson is "audited," he could become even more vulnerable.
"If they can get him to where he starts telling his personal secrets to them, the chances of him walking away diminish," said Young. "That's the control point. They've got him."