Inside the Cult of Marianne Williamson

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB - Getty Images
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB - Getty Images

From Town & Country

Marianne Williamson did not have much to offer in the way of policy at last week’s Democratic presidential debate. The spiritual leader and best-selling author of 13 books on suffering and enlightenment did not serve up economic fixes, like Elizabeth Warren. Nor did she make a case for Medicare-for-all, like Bernie Sanders.

Williamson, who once described herself as a “bitch for God” and who has inspired generations of socialites with her eclectic spiritualism, promised to fight President Donald Trump in the 2020 election with love. “Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk,” she said. “He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans.”

Instead she offered tender mercy. “I’m going to harness love for political purposes,” she told the audience. And love, she said, “will win.”

Photo credit: Drew Angerer - Getty Images
Photo credit: Drew Angerer - Getty Images

People have long sought divine guidance to untangle their chaotic lives. The Beatles went to India in the 1960s to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In the 1970s, devotees of Werner Erhard confronted their pasts with EST. But now, like personal trainers and private chefs before them, spiritual gurus have joined the well-heeled woman’s household retinue. And if Williamson and her acolytes have their way, Americans could end up with one in the White House.

“In this day and age, we have a trainer for our body, a teacher for our mind and spirit,” says Nicole Berrie, who owns a food and wellness company in New York and has studied with Gabrielle Bernstein, a spiritual motivational speaker inspired by Williamson. “I’m getting more invitations to cleansing full moon crystal parties than I am cocktail parties,” she says with a laugh.

Unlike their predecessors, though, today’s gurus use Twitter and Instagram to build their brands. And they approach enlightenment with the savvy of a Wall Street dealmaker. Mastin Kipp’s message of “hidden power” became mainstream after Kim Kardashian tweeted about Kipp’s website. And many of the fans of Bernstein-a former public relations executive-aspire to be life coaches or spiritual advisers themselves.

“We do this in our culture where, if something is successful,” says Krista Tippett, author and host of the public radio series On Being with Krista Tippett, “we endeavor to commercialize it.”

Photo credit: Scott Olson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Scott Olson - Getty Images

On a Sunday morning last year, about 250 women gathered at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood to take a weekend class with Bernstein. She is known to her fans as Gabby, and she spent her early twenties promoting trendy Manhattan nightclubs. In 2005, though, she had an epiphany. After a long night of booze and cocaine, she says she told herself, “Get clean and you’ll live a life beyond your wildest dreams.” She embarked on her second career-as a spiritual motivational leader.

Many of today’s aspiring gurus, like Bernstein, say they look to Williamson, a best-selling author and lecturer who is revered in the modern spirituality movement. Bernstein has read all of Williamson’s books, including A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, published in 1992. She is a devotee of meditation and kundalini yoga. In the mid-2000s she became a life coach and taught classes in her Greenwich Village apartment until she was forced to move them.

Photo credit: Cindy Ord - Getty Images
Photo credit: Cindy Ord - Getty Images

The qualifications for such a job are, in a word, loose. Still, the guru business is lucrative. Bernstein charges as much as $45 a ticket when she gives book talks or speaks at live events. And attendees paid $1,999 apiece to attend the “Spirit Junkie Masterclass” sessions with Bernstein at the School of Visual Arts Theatre last year, a cross between a retreat and a business seminar for wannabe new age healers.

Bernstein sits on a chair onstage as “Rise Up,” Andra Day’s anthem to female empowerment, blares from a pair of speakers overhead. “Close your eyes a moment,” she says in a half-whisper. “Just take a deep breath in and start to think about what is the story that brought you here.”

“Now rise up. Rise UP!” A handful of women wave their arms in the air. “See it. See it!” Bernstein beckons. “Be moved by the vision!”

Bernstein, who is Jewish, says she starts every day reciting a prayer from A Course in Miracles. “My intention is to really help my audience to receive that they are the guru, they are their own guru, and that they have everything within them to heal themselves,” she said in an interview last year. “I really see myself as a raconteur to tell stories and give them guidance and crack them open.”

Photo credit: Araya Diaz - Getty Images
Photo credit: Araya Diaz - Getty Images

However she sees herself, Bernstein is also an astute digital messenger. Weekly newsletters cheerfully arrive via email. Her Facebook page is chock-full of television appearances, livestream talks, free advice videos, and guided meditations. But she is most relatable on Instagram, where she courts an audience of more than 600,000 followers much like herself: aspirational, affluent, female.

There she is with Oprah, promoting her recording on the SuperSoul Conversations podcast. In another post she displays a breakfast of overnight oats. And there are scores of inspirational messages like this one: “I choose to learn through love.”

Enlightenment doesn’t come cheap, as anyone who has shopped on Goop’s website knows. There, a water bottle with a rose quartz crystal inside will set you back $80. Want a 24K gold vibrator? You can buy one for $3,490. Gwyneth Paltrow even sells a singing meditation bowl set on her website for $185.

Photo credit: Richard Perry - Getty Images
Photo credit: Richard Perry - Getty Images

Williamson, 66, has been a confidante of Oprah’s and of Upper East Side matrons for more than two decades. She is best known for A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, which was based on A Course in Miracles, the spiritual curriculum created in 1975 about love and forgiveness and inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ. “I think the spiritual yearning is basic,” Williamson said in an interview before she announced her candidacy for president. “We all want lives of meaning.”

But too much of the messaging around spiritual growth, she said, is focused on salesmanship. “At the end of the day success is not defined by how many clicks we get or how many books we sell,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s how many hearts you touch.”

Bob Roth, the chief executive of the David Lynch Foundation, whose transcendental meditation clients include Jerry Seinfeld, Ivanka Trump, and Tom Hanks, thinks the new generation of gurus is overhyped. “I think it’s temporary,” he says. But in an era when Americans are questioning long-standing institutions-like religion, government, and science-he isn’t surprised spiritual relief has become big business. “People genuinely want to feel better,” he says. “They are desperate for something. And they will do anything.”

Corny Koehl met many of today’s new media-savvy gurus in her former role: vetting and booking guests as a co–executive producer for Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday. That show established the careers of many of today’s newest spiritual leaders. And their path to a higher power followed a predictable pattern rooted in self-help.

“We got several hundred names pitched to us, all in their twenties and thirties, and they all had the same story,” Koehl recalls. “They were living in a dark place, the result of a tragedy of some sort, a breakup, addiction.” It was only after hitting rock bottom that they found spiritual enlightenment and redemption.

Like Roth, she is wary of today’s spiritual-industrial complex. So much so, she’s developing a television show, Souled, which takes a satirical look at the industry. “They are brilliant at marketing themselves,” she says of the new gurus. “But just because you can Google a quote from Joseph Campbell and tweet it doesn’t mean you have the wisdom.”

Suze Yalof Schwartz founded Unplug Meditation in April 2014, and in five short years it has become the place to discover up-and-coming spiritual entrepreneurs in Los Angeles. Yalof Schwartz, a former fashion editor at Glamour and Vogue, says that a lot of people launch careers from Unplug. “The bigger they get, the bigger we get,” she says.

Photo credit: Matt Winkelmeyer - Getty Images
Photo credit: Matt Winkelmeyer - Getty Images

A number of her teachers have book deals. They are featured on the Unplug app. And Hollywood is beckoning, too. “People are reaching out to us to connect them with TV producers and book agents,” Yalof Schwartz says.

One of those is Camilla Sacre-Dallerup, a former dancer on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing who in December is releasing her third book, It’s Not You, It’s Me. For years, she says, she attended Williamson’s lectures and considers her a role model.

Shannon Wollack, a 40-year-old home design firm owner, attended one of Sacre-Dallerup’s crystal energy healing classes last year at Unplug in Santa Monica. There, in a dimly lit, lavender-scented studio, Sacre-Dallerup placed a blue crystal at the base of Wollack’s throat as she lay, eyes closed, flat on the floor. “You are carrying a lot of tension in your throat,” Wollack recalls Sacre-Dallerup telling her after the class. Wollack’s business was expanding at the time, and she was finding it hard to keep up. Sacre-Dallerup told her she could help. They agreed to meet for a private healing session a week later.

There, Wollack picked out a color that depicted how she felt. She picked out another color to reflect how she wanted to feel. Then she was hypnotized. Wollack was so taken with her teacher she brought her husband to a session, which cost $185. “I was never into this stuff before,” she says. But everyone needs a spiritual tune-up. “It’s accountability, like a priest.”

Sacre-Dallerup makes most of her money in private practice, including seeing clients in London and New Zealand, where she's a judge on Dancing with the Stars. Everyone deserves spiritual contentment, she says. “I feel like I’m part of the staff.”

Photo credit: Gustavo Caballero - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gustavo Caballero - Getty Images

In 2018, Yalof Schwartz opened a second studio in West Hollywood, and she now offers 95 classes a week. Business is booming. Corporations pay Unplug as much as $5,000 a day, she says. And if you want to be trained as an Unplug meditation teacher, she can do that, too. A six-week class costs $3,500, and there are now graduates working in Mexico City, Tokyo, and London. “I feel like a modeling agency,” Yalof Schwartz says. “I’m making these people.”

Danielle LaPorte, 50, has been a devotee of Williamson’s since the 1990s. (Williamson called LaPorte “the bright light in the modern priestesshood.”) Born in Canada, LaPorte started her career as publicist hawking new age books. Then she moved to Washington, DC, and worked at a think tank. She has long been a seeker. In the late 1990s she traveled to India to meet the Dalai Lama.

But by 2001 she had moved back to Canada to start a “soulful” personal branding company that, she says, went bust after she got in a fight with her business partner. “I had a huge amount of debt,” LaPorte says. “The business declared insolvency. That is when I became myself.”

LaPorte started blogging and taught classes to women seeking to start online businesses. They were called “Fire Starter Sessions,” and she charged $300 for 90 minutes. One year she visited 16 cities. “I would go where anyone would have me,” she says. “If you could get 20 women in your living room at $100 per person, I would jam on entrepreneurship.”

Of that time, she says, “I fucking delivered to these women.”

LaPorte honed an identity online as the sassy next door neighbor who understands your existential crisis. But it wasn’t until 2014, when she wrote The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul, that her career took off. In the book, LaPorte broke down life planning into five categories: livelihood and lifestyle; body and wellness; creativity and learning; relationships and society; essence and spirituality. It was a best-seller and spawned a line of Desire Map–branded products and online courses.

On Instagram she posts “#truthbombs,” and her online store is crowded with meditation kits, oracle cards, and books. But what exactly is Danielle LaPorte selling? Herself, mostly.

A few years ago LaPorte began licensing the Desire Map workshop curriculum to life coaches and retreat planners. Now workshop facilitators pay $2,000 for the curriculum, plus an annual renewal fee of $1,000. She says 700 facilitators have been licensed so far in more than 15 countries. Not bad.

“It beats selling sex toys,” she says with a laugh.

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