A special kind of Everyguy
His image rises above the criticism and gossip
June 7, 2001
by Katrina Onstad, with reporting by Elizabeth Levine
In the stream of uncomfortable moments that is the Barbara Walters
pre-Oscars special, there was perhaps none weirder this year than the
sight of John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston, curled up on their living
room couch like kittens, attempting to answer the inevitable "What's the
deal with you guys and Scientology?" question. The two grinned maniacally,
rambling on about "audits" and "clears" until it all came crashing down
with Preston's breathless two-word statement: "Scientology rocks!"
No one else can get away with what John Travolta gets away with. Bad
movies, a high-profile affiliation with a controversial religion,
allegations of an affair with a gay porn star -- nothing sticks to the
man. He was well cast as Bill Clinton's alter ego in Primary Colors.
Travolta's sustaining image, created or not, is that of Everyguy. The
youngest of six children born in middle-class Englewood, N.J., in 1954,
Travolta played the precocious baby at home, given to lip-synching and tap
dancing for his family (Gene Kelly's lesser- known brother Fred taught him
to tap). But at school, he was something of a loner, and a lousy student
who finally dropped out at 16 to pursue acting. Asked about education,
Travolta told Rolling Stone magazine in 1980: "Now I'm into Scientology,
the science of the mind."
The Church of Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, claims to be
a non-denominational religious organization. Its Web site says the
religion springs from three fundamental truths: "Man is an immortal
spiritual being. His experience extends well beyond a single lifetime. His
capabilities are unlimited, even if not presently realized."
To set free said capabilities, members pay money for auditing sessions
(US$100-600 per) to help them move up in the church. Auditing involves a
device called an E-Meter that sends a small electrical current through a
person's body, registering minute physical changes in the skin, and -- so
Scientologists believe -- measuring thoughts. Enough auditing and you
might one day become an Operating Thetan like Travolta, one of the highest
levels (US$1,000 a course) of Scientology where one can supposedly move
matter with the mind.
Up at these levels, it's clear that the church founder was also a science
fiction writer: Operating Thetans study the evil Xenu, and learn to rid
themselves of alien infestations.
Killing with the mind; aliens in our bodies; an intergalactic incident
that took place 75 million years ago blocking spiritual truth --
Scientology has all the narrative flare and fantasy that Hollywood
requires. Cintra Wilson, author of A Massive Swelling: Celebrity
Re-examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural
Revelations, describes Scientology sarcastically as "the cool new
religion, kids, the one with space-age action figures!"
Flakiness in spirituality is nothing new, but over the past two decades,
many former members have laid charges against Scientology officials. In
the mid-'80s, U.S. juries awarded some ex-members millions of dollars for
fraud and mental abuse; most cases were settled out of court, and no money
has been collected. Scientology now battles the public perception that
it's as much a money-making cult as a religion.
None of this seems to resonate in Hollywood, where Scientology has
big-name backers in Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (though recent newspaper
reports suggest Kidman and Cruise's split had to do with her hesitation
over raising their kids as Scientologists), Lisa Marie Presley, Kirstie
Alley and Jenna Elfman. Arnie Lerma, a former Scientologist and vocal
critic, says actors like it because "Scientology appeals to the ego. It
promises you super-duper spiritual powers. If you're making a lot of
money, you can [pay to] be relieved of all your guilt. Scientology
surgically removes your conscience."
Travolta took his first Scientology course at 21 on a friend's
recommendation. As he catapulted to superstardom on the TV show Welcome
Back, Kotter, he spent more time at Scientology's Celebrity Center in L.A.
(the church also puts out a magazine called Celebrity).
Young Travolta was looking for tools to deal not only with the rigours of
fame but personal loss. On the set of the 1976 TV film The Boy in the
Plastic Bubble, Travolta -- not a ladies' man in his youth -- fell hard
for the actress playing his mother. Diana Hyland was 40, Travolta 22. The
relationship lasted nine months until she died of cancer in his arms. Less
than two years later, his mother died. Scientology, claims Travolta, got
him through the tough times, and kept his career on track. "I think it's
been not only an asset but most of the reason I'm still here," he told
20/20 in 1998.
And what about his career lows -- what about Two of a Kind? What about
Battlefield Earth, based on a book by Hubbard, a movie that made
innumerable Worst of 2000 lists? Travolta has never blamed anything on
"I don't think the public cares about [Travolta's affiliation with
Scientology]," says Joe Queenan, author of Confessions of a Cineplex
Heckler. "They have a feeling of goodwill towards him, and what he does
off-screen doesn't seem to affect it."
If the public seems willing to forgive Travolta his eccentricities,
perhaps it's because we need him to live out the movie star fantasy we
never could. Travolta is the rare modern celebrity without shame. The
(refreshing?) opposite of Tim "Down with the people" Robbins, he is
completely comfortable with celebrity, relishing its excesses in every way
(he claims to have lost weight for Swordfish, which opens tomorrow, but he
looked pretty blocky and out of breath when challenging Jay Leno to
push-ups on The Tonight Show Monday). Travolta has homes in Hollywood,
Santa Barbara and Carmel, Calif., a 20-bedroom waterfront Maine chateau,
an estate in Florida, a flotilla of cars, and three jets he pilots
Sex, that other entitlement of fame, has always been part of the Travolta
persona. After Hyland's death, he was linked to almost any actress bearing
the mark of the '80s: Debra Winger, Brooke Shields, Olivia Newton-John,
Marilu Henner. Sex and fame that close together seem often to breed
allegations of gayness. "I hear those rumours and I ask myself, 'What's
the motivation of people spreading them?' " Travolta has said, offering a
The rumours might go back to the '70s, when Travolta was packaged and sold
as a feather-haired androgynous sex symbol, his publicized affair with the
elder Hyland perceived, perhaps, as the clich gay "masking" experience of
sex with an asexual mother figure. The perception continued when Travolta
appeared in the 1978 movie Moment by Moment as Strip, a young stud taken
in by an older woman played by Lily Tomlin.
"It's as if he has every dichotomy -- masculinity, femininity, refinement,
crudity. You see him, you fall in love a little bit," said Tomlin.
In 1991, tabloids reported that porn star Paul Barresi claimed Travolta
had picked him up in a health-club shower room in 1982, commencing a long
affair. Travolta's publicist denied the report.
Scientology and homosexuality seem quietly linked in the rumour mill;
maybe the only actor asked to deny his gayness more than Travolta is
fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise.
Michael Pattinson, a member of the church for 24 years, says he was told
the organization could "cure" his homosexuality. "They do make a written
promise of handling homosexuality," says Pattinson. He calls it a "scam
based on eliminating the mental failures of [your] mother, therefore you
won't try to be your mother anymore. This will rehabilitate the
As Travolta headed into the '90s, he got the perfect family to go with the
perfect career, and the sex rumours died down. In 1991, he married actress
Kelly Preston (Jerry Maguire), who had been previously engaged to Charlie
Sheen, and the couple have two young children.
But even in domestic bliss, little clouds of strangeness seem to fly
around Travolta. Son Jett's birth in 1992 reportedly took place in
complete silence, as advocated by certain Scientology practices. When Ella
was born last year, Travolta appeared on the cover of Good Housekeeping
looking like a wax dummy of Eddie Munster with a bizarre widow's peak on
his forehead. The magazine said this was the only cover he approved.
Wilson, when asked about the Travoltas' eerily blissful turn on Barbara
Walters, commented: "Yeah, the 'scientology rocks' thing was somewhat
bone-chilling, but hey, whatever mows their lawn and keeps them out of
That attitude -- that Travolta's eccentricities are the permitted and
private territory of this very public figure -- is one that Travolta alone
among movie stars has been able to summon for close to 30 years. No matter
what he does, people await his next incarnation. As critic Alan Brien
wrote of Travolta: "Like many swoon-idols, he looks not quite finished, as
if waiting for that varnish of admiration only an audience can supply."