When it comes to poster girls, Christianity couldn’t do much better than Jessica Simpson. The blonde bombshell, who claimed she was a virgin when she married Nick Lachey in October 2002, became one of the most famous Christians in Hollywood following her debut album, Sweet Kisses, and reality TV show, Newlyweds.
Brought up in a strict Christian household, Simpson may be too busy travelling to attend church regularly, but says: “My church is my relationship with God.”
Simpson isn’t the only celebrity with a direct line to the Almighty of one creed or another.
From Richard Gere’s Buddhist prayer beads to the red string that Madonna wears around her wrist (which is a kabbalistic shield against the evil eye) the high priests and priestesses of Hollywood are submitting themselves to a power more divine than their own celebrity.
Simpson’s pledge not to have sex until she was married was matched, with varying success, by Britney Spears, Mandy Moore and Hillary Duff. Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian also swore to keep his pants on until his wedding night.
Sebastian, whose Receive The Power is the official song for next year’s World Youth Day (to be held in Sydney), also refuses to sing lyrics that are crude or sexually immoral.
He is not the only star whose faith guides his career choices. Mormon actor Jon Heder, who starred in Napoleon Dynamite and is Will Ferrell’s skating partner in Blades Of Glory, will not play characters who take drugs, swear or have sex scenes.
“I don’t really change my values as much as I change the script if I have that power,” Heder told The Washington Times. “My faith, my family come first.”
In contrast, Prince didn’t let his strong Christian beliefs get in the way of a career of chart-topping songs such as Sexy Motherf—er, Gett Off – “23 positions in a one-night stand” – and Orgasm.
But walking a religiously righteous path through Hollywood is easier said than done, as many stars discover.
While the Mormon faith instructs its adherents not to smoke, drink or consume caffeine, “there’s no guidebook about ‘in case you become famous’,” Heder says. “Whatever career you do, it’s up to you how to interpret it.”
In contrast, celebrity Scientologists get plenty of help to lead the life of the good and righteous. The religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard operates Celebrity Centres – the main one is in Los Angeles – and actively recruits stars such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Beck.
As Hubbard put it: “Celebrities are very special people and have a very distinct line of dissemination. They have communication lines that others do not have and medias [sic] to get their dissemination through.”
– The Selling of a Church: The Courting of Celebrities
Certainly, Cruise has lived up to Hubbard’s prediction, proselytising with a missionary zeal not seen since the Crusades.
Cruise, who spent a year in a Catholic seminary, reportedly demanded a Scientology tent staffed with ministers on the set of War Of The Worlds to tend to the film’s cast and crew.
He also waged a public battle against Brooke Shields over the use of drugs to combat post-natal depression, and reportedly insisted that his wife, Katie Holmes, give birth silently in accordance with Scientology’s child-bearing rules.
“Some people, well, if they don’t like Scientology, well then, f— you. Really. F— you,” he defiantly told Rolling Stone.
Travolta, who credits Scientology with saving him from drug addiction, has been equally zealous. He reportedly asked Bill Clinton, when he was US president, to pressure the German government, which does not recognise Scientology as a religion and accuses it of exploiting members for financial gain, to relax its stance. Travolta told this newspaper: “I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Scientology – it’s been that helpful to me. It’s really sad – maybe I couldn’t be an actor in Germany. Tom Cruise and I couldn’t be actors. You have to look at that and say, if we were Jewish and it was 1930, could we be actors? Probably not.”
Travolta also showed his devotion by producing Battlefield Earth, a widely loathed screen adaptation of a Hubbard novel in which he played a leather-clad alien with dreadlocks and large hands.
Celebrity Christians aren’t afraid to put their money where their faith is either.
Hip-hop artist Kanye West released Jesus Walks in 2004, designed his own range of religiously themed jewellery and reportedly spent $US350,000 ($410,000) to have the Sistine Chapel re-created in his home. Likewise, Victoria and David Beckham shelled out $US192,000 to build a chapel for the baptisms of their sons Brooklyn and Romeo, the Biography Channel’s The Fabulous Life Of Celebrity Religion reported.
But the ultimate big-spending bible-basher is Australia’s own Mel Gibson, who put up $50million to bankroll The Passion Of The Christ, a gruesome account in the dead language of Aramaic of the last hours of Christ’s life. The film earned more than $US500 million at the box office.
Celebrities are rarely shy when it comes to flaunting their wealth, which some might say makes a mockery of their piety.
The New Testament, for example, states that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.
However, wealth was never a barrier for rich medieval popes, Renaissance counts and royalty, says Dr Carole Cusack, a lecturer in the department of studies in religion at the University of Sydney.
“I think also that Christian churches are no longer interested in poverty and self-denial.”
The asceticism of eastern religions has not been an obstacle to Hollywood Buddhists such as Richard Gere, Uma Thurman or Steven Seagal. And former Beatle George Harrison did not let his Hare Krishna beliefs, voiced in his hit single My Sweet Lord, get in the way of acquiring a multimillion-dollar fortune.
God also seems forgiving of wayward celebrities. Jailed party girl Paris Hilton told US television reporter Barbara Walters that the Almighty had given her a chance to mend her ways. “My spirit or soul did not like the way I was being seen and that is why I was sent to jail,” Hilton said. “God has released me. I feel that the purpose of my life is to be where I am.”
Religions of all varieties provide guidance and solace for believers, regardless of their fame. Echoing Travolta, Lisa Marie Presley says: “Were it not for Scientology, I would either be completely insane or dead by now.”
Stevens says he had long harboured doubts about a life of wine, women and song, but it took dangerous currents off the Californian coast to carry him towards a life of piety. Islam told The Sunday Age of that moment when he thought he would drown: “In a split second I shouted out, ‘Oh God, if you save me, I’ll work for you’, and at that moment a wave came from behind, pushed me forward and suddenly I was, with all the energy I needed, swimming back to land.”
“It’s bad karma, and I’m a big believer in karma – hence the fact that I’ve studied Kabbalah,” she told Elle magazine. “I’m very true to the ‘treat people the way you want to be treated’ sort of thing.”
Spears also turned to Kabbalah to help her through troubled times: “I read the Kabbalah books and I meditate on them … They are all in Hebrew. I don’t understand everything. But it’s kind of OK that you don’t.”
Kabbalah’s most famous disciple, Madonna, credits the religion with helping her find purpose in life. The Material Girl has fame, fortune and family, but it wasn’t until she drank rabbi-blessed Kabbalah water that she found inner peace.
“I was looking for something,” Madonna, who also goes by the Hebrew name Ha-Malkah Esther, told Larry King. ”
I know there’s more to life than making lots of money and being successful and even getting married and having a family.”
But Madonna’s acts of faith have rarely promoted peace and harmony around her.
Visiting Jerusalem in 2004, Madonna was heckled by Orthodox Jews, who shouted at her to go home and accused her of desecrating their religion. She has also been criticised for wearing a tefillin – two boxes containing Biblical verses connected to leather straps traditionally used only by men during morning prayers – in a music video for Die Another Day.
Religious condemnation is nothing new for Madonna, who has long been on a crusade to irritate the Catholic Church. Most recently, she stoked the fires of religious wrath by strapping herself to a six-metre mirrored cross wearing a crown of thorns during her Confessions concert tour last year.
However, not all Christian faiths disavow celebrity believers. After Sebastian won the first series of Australian Idol in 2003, StBarnabas Anglican Church in Sydney erected a billboard with a painted likeness of Sebastian that read: “Who does the idol worship?”.
As Cusack puts it: “Celebrities are excellent promotional material. A celebrity member works wonders for religions.”