Allison Mack: Inside her journey from 'Smallville' to alleged sex cult leader
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - During her "Smallville" days, Allison Mack was unfailingly sweet, smart, and kind. She was committed to female empowerment and making a difference in the world, according to multiple sources who worked with the actress during the series 2001-2011 run.
This month, federal prosecutors described Mack in court documents as the second-in-command of a sex cult that preyed on vulnerable young women for the benefit of self-help guru Keith Raniere, who was arrested last month in Mexico.
Mack, who was arrested April 19 in New York, is accused of being a leader and prime recruiter for a sorority-esque group of young women who were manipulated into serving as "slaves" for male "masters." She is facing 15 years to life imprisonment on charges of sex trafficking, conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor.
The coercion went so far as to include a mutilation ritual in which some of the women were branded in their pelvic area with a cauterizing pen with a symbol that incorporated Raniere's initials.
Mack's "slaves were kept seriously sleep-deprived and emaciated to the point where they stopped menstruating," according to court documents. "During the ceremonies in which her slaves were branded, the defendant placed her hands on the slaves' chests and told them to "feel the pain" and to "think of master," as the slaves cried with pain. The defendant also "provided naked photographs of her slaves to Raniere and was aware of Raniere's proclivity for having sex with multiple young women."
Mack was released from federal custody on $5 million bond on Tuesday. She is in the midst of plea negotiations with prosecutors and is believed to be prepared to cooperate in the case against Raniere, who has a checkered legal history involving his purported self-help businesses and alleged pyramid schemes. Mack was released on condition of serving on home detention with electronic monitoring at her parents' house in Los Alamitos, Calif. Her parents, Jonathan and Melinda Mack, put the property up as collateral to help cover their daughter's bail.
How did a young woman with a promising future as an actress become enmeshed in such a bizarre and sordid drama? Industry sources are shocked at the headlines involving Mack, particularly those knew the actress in the "Smallville" years.
More than one associate of the actress from her time on "Smallville," the Superman origins drama produced by Warner Bros. Television for the WB Network and CW, said she was "the least likely person" to be involved in an alleged criminal conspiracy, let alone something that targeted young women for abuse.
"Nobody can believe this," said an industry veteran who had close ties to "Smallville" throughout its 10-season run.
Mack's connection to Raniere is believed to be rooted in the time she spent in Vancouver, where "Smallville" was shot. With so many TV series heading north to take advantage of Canadian tax credits, Vancouver has developed a large community of working actors, many of them young adults.
Around the 2005-2006 period, a source said the actor circles in Vancouver seemed to take on a "new age-y vibe" with a focus on tools for self-help and empowerment. Some pegged it to the release of the 2006 documentary "The Secret," based on the book of the same name, which features a number of philosophers, authors, scientists discussing "the secret" to personal and professional success that purportedly aided historical figures ranging from Plato to Beethoven to Albert Einstein.
Raniere's Albany, N.Y.-based Nxivm Corp. -- billed on its website as "a community guided by humanitarian principles" -- has long operated a self-help seminar series known as Executive Success Programs, or ESP. ESP had a large operation in Vancouver that attracted numerous actors and others working on TV and film productions. Canadian actress Sarah Edmonson, who was one of the first to go public with disturbing allegations against Raniere last fall, was involved with the Vancouver ESP operation.
Multiple sources familiar with the situation at the time emphasized that the ESP seminars unfolded as they were billed -- a pricey series of lectures and classes designed to help participants set and achieve goals, overcome past traumas, and gain confidence and stature in their professional lives.
The courses, according to sources familiar with the ESP offering, ranged from a five-day series for about $3500 to 16-day intensive sessions to one-off classes. ESP instructors pushed participants to continually be "promoted" to higher-level courses. The seminars would typically take place in hotel ballrooms or conference centers. Instructors would play short videos of Raniere talking up his program and his philosophies. The emphasis was often on casual conversations and goal-setting in small groups.
A source familiar with the ESP service a decade ago emphasized that it was similar to other popular self-help programs such as the Landmark Forum series or Tony Robbins' live events. "These were legitimate courses. It's not like you showed up and there were handcuffs there for a sex cult," the source said.
But in hindsight, the source said, it's easy to see how the information gathered in ESP courses could help identify potential recruits for Raniere's alleged clutch of DOS followers. The ESP program pushed participants to divulge their fears and vulnerabilities in the context of overcoming obstacles to success. Mack would have been a prime target for drawing deeper into Raniere's world, the source said.
"They try to help you get through some of your trigger points," the source said. "He probably started grooming her there. He located her trigger point of wanting to make other people happy and to feel special."
Mack got her start in acting as a child, which means "she's been taught to want to make everybody happy from a young age," the source added. She was born in Germany but grew up from the age of 2 in Southern California in a family with multiple siblings. Her father is an opera singer who has been associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and worked as a vocal arts instructor at USC and Chapman University.
In Vancouver, Mack became enamored of the ESP courses and continued to move through higher levels. She sought to recruit her "Smallville" co-workers and other friends to sign up for ESP offerings, multiple sources confirmed.
At the same time, Mack was widely praised as a pro on the set of "Smallville" who was always prepared for shooting and always cooperative with PR and fan requests, and was a good ambassador for the show at ComicCon and other forums, multiple sources say. She was a "Smallville" fan favorite for her role as the earnest Chloe Sullivan, who long nursed a crush on her classmate Clark Kent and was later found to have superpowers of her own. She was also remembered as bright and determined to expand her horizons, as she did by directing two episodes of the series in 2009 and 2010.
Sources who know Mack say the actress seemed to struggle at times "to find her place in the world," she said. She was vocal about wanting to make a contribution to the world in a positive way and about female empowerment.
Now prosecutors say she was part of an elaborate front organization designed to provide a steady stream of young women to serve as sex slaves to Raniere and others. Prosecutors and others allege that Mack was the leader with Raniere of the effort to recruit women under the guise of joining a women's empowerment group.
Those who were led in the secret society known as "DOS" or "the Vow," had to provide a form of "collateral" in the form of embarrassing photos or written testimonials that could be used against them if they tried to leave and discredit others. Members were continually pressured to divulge more compromising material under the threat that previous items would be publicly released.
In a eerie echo of the dystopian drama series "The Handmaid's Tale," women in the group were also forced to remain celibate, remain alert at all hours, and perform menial tasks for Raniere and others, according to court documents filed this week in New York's Eastern District in connection with Mack and Raniere's indictments.
"DOS slaves understood that if they told anyone about DOS, if they left DOS or if they failed to complete assignments given to them by their masters, their collateral could be released," according to court documents.
"A number of DOS slaves, including Jane Doe 1, performed services other than sex (such as editing [Raniere's] articles and transcribing interviews) for the benefit of the defendant, believing that if they did not, their collateral could be released. The masters who gave these assignments received the financial benefit of free labor from their slaves. Many DOS slaves were also groomed for sex with the defendant by (1) being ordered to adhere to very restricted diets (the defendant is known to sexually prefer extremely thin women), (2) being ordered to remain celibate (the defendant has taught that women should be monogamous but that men are naturally polyamorous), and/or (3) being ordered to stop waxing or shaving their pubic hair (the defendant is known to sexually prefer women with a lot of pubic hair).
The slaves were told that they were being given these orders to benefit themselves. The DOS masters who directed their slaves to have sex with the defendant received financial benefits in the form of continued status and participation in DOS, as well as financial opportunities from the defendant."
Moreover, "DOS slaves were seriously sleep-deprived from participating in 'readiness' drills, which required them to respond to their masters any time day or night."
Raniere has "physically assaulted at least two intimate partners," prosecutors alleged in a filing to deny bail for Raniere, who remains in federal custody. "In 2012, under the guise of mentorship, he encouraged a woman to run headfirst into a tree and to drink from a puddle," prosecutors said. "He also co-founded a movement called 'Society of Protectors,' which, in part, relied on humiliating women in order to eradicate weaknesses the defendant taught were common in women. For example, women attending the classes were forced to wear fake cow udders over their breasts while people called them derogatory names."
In the years since the show ended, Mack relocated to New York. Prosecutors said she'd spent the past year living in an apartment in Brooklyn, where she was arrested last week.
Her professional credits during the past few years were limited. She logged guest shots on FX's "Wilfred," Fox's "The Following" and NBC's short-lived "American Odyssey," and was also a member of the voice cast of Amazon's animated series "Lost in Oz."
The image of Mack in gray-green jail scrubs answering to felony charges in a Brooklyn courthouse stands in sharp contrast to the wholesome image she projected for 10 seasons as "Smallville's" plucky Chloe Sullivan. Former associates expressed sadness for Mack's predicament, even as they are quick to condemn the criminal allegations she faces.
"Who she was and who she became are very different people," a source said.