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I was eating lunch alone in a vegan Thai restaurant in Orange County, California around 2003. I liked to grab a bite after classes before heading to work, with nothing but a Marie Claire magazine or nonfiction book for company. 

On this particular afternoon, while the sound of chanting Buddhist monks reverberated through the dining room, I popped my head up just in time to see a young woman casually sauntering over to my table. She was thin, maybe early 20s, with light brown hair. She introduced herself and asked to sit down. I said sure, silently wondering from which table she had come. 

I don’t remember her actual name—let’s go with Moonflower. She told me I was pretty and asked if I’d ever modeled, then motioned over to an older bald gentleman seated nearby, watching us from afar. She said he owned a modeling agency and slipped me his business card in case I was “interested.” Moonflower spoke highly of this man: “He’s a multimillionaire who’s doing a lot of good for the world with his philanthropy and this modeling agency. You can stop by to check it out this afternoon if you’re available.” She returned to her table. Mr. Modeling Agency smiled and waved at me.

I was intrigued. Not because I fell for anything she said, nor was I ignoring my Spidey senses, but because I’m endlessly fascinated by the human psychology involved in scenarios like this. I wanted to know what was really going on here, so I decided to pay the agency a visit. But because I’m no dummy, I gave a good friend the address in case I went missing.

Pulling up to the “agency,” I was befuddled to find a large, multilevel house in a pristine residential neighborhood. Moonflower and Mr. Multimillionaire were both there to greet me with smiles and European kisses. He was much shorter than he seemed at the restaurant. I entered the house nervously; I’ve seen my share of horror movies and my instincts were louder now. There wasn’t anything alarming about the house, it was refined and clean and simple. Or maybe that’s what was alarming—we’ve all seen The Stepford Wives (if you haven’t, shame on you). I was focused on the fireplace when I noticed other young women prancing about. They were all cookie-cutter: very young, white, slim, and demure.

Mr. Philanthropist took charge now, Moonflower stepping aside to let him give me a tour of the place. He introduced me to two of the girls, who smiled meekly while he told me their personal stories. Then, as if on cue, they dismissed themselves without a word. He continued as we walked, “All the models live here rent-free in exchange for their work…would you like to see some of their work?” As I nodded yes, I thought So that explains why some of the women prancing about were in their underwear.

He played a video for me in the expansive living room while I sat on the arm of a sofa chair, not allowing myself to get too cozy. A couple of girls were hanging out nearby. What appeared onscreen was a beautiful grassy hill. Two naked young women with long, brown hair and matching bushes were running down the hill in slow motion while holding hands. That’s it. I was basically watching amateur 70’s softcore porn. 

I pretended to not be as bored and weirded out as I was. It’s not that I was anti-porn, anti-nudity, or anti-70s—I was just anti-cult. Moonflower proceeded to tell me that all the ladies got along and had fun, but all I was thinking about was how to get out of there safely. Then I was given this binder with official-looking documents explaining how the agency finds clients and listing all the rules for living there. One of them was that the “models” were all required to follow a vegetarian diet. I thought So that’s why they approached me in the vegan restaurant—that’s their hunting ground.

Just as I was starting to be skeptical that this man was really a philanthropic multimillionaire, he began to divulge what he did for work and how he built his wealth. As a former student of criminology, I know that many sociopathic con men are pathological liars who enjoy getting away with false identities. On the other hand, if he really did own that house, he probably had some wealth. That’s no easy feat in the OC. 

I thanked Mr. Cult Leader for his interest and told him I’d think about it as he walked me to my car. I drove away grateful that he wasn’t a serial killer.

I called him the next day because I wanted to avoid awkwardness if we ran into each other again at one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants. I explained, “I’m flattered, but I’m a bit older than most of these girls; I’m almost 30. Maybe if I’d met you ten years ago I’d be in a place where this would interest me, but I have very different goals for my life now.” I was lying my ass off about any possibility that I would’ve had an interest in becoming one of his Manson girls, but when dealing with a possible psychopath you have to hide any suspicions you might have of their ulterior motives. 

He sounded disappointed to hear I wouldn’t be joining his hippie commune in the wealthy suburbs and surprised to learn my age. He encouraged me to think about it some more before making a final decision and asked questions about what my goals were and where I went to school. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have thought twice about answering those questions, but with him, it made me nervous. Thankfully, I was able to enjoy my Tom Kah Gai soup at the restaurant without ever bumping into them for the remainder of the years I lived there. 

Now that almost 20 years have passed, I can see the cult’s recruitment techniques more clearly: 

  1. Mr. Modeling Agent used the girls to lure in more girls. He knew if he approached them, he’d be seen as creepy. Think Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein. Most cults get current followers to ensnare more members via things like missionary trips and college clubs. Steve Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church led by the late Sun Myung Moon (why followers are called “Moonies”) is now a licensed mental health professional and cult expert. He was a college kid in the early 1970s sitting by himself in the cafeteria privately nursing a broken heart when some attractive women approached him, flirted, and invited him to a social gathering. He attended the party. Two years later, he was escaping the cult.
  1. The modeling agency cult tried to “love bomb” me with flattery at the restaurant and hugs and kisses at the door, as if we were old friends, in order to push a false sense of security and kinship. It’s a common cult tactic, but also used by sociopaths and narcissists when they’re dating. You don’t know these people, but they want you to feel like you do so trust can be prematurely established. Once they sense you believed the disingenuous, performative kindness and praise they bestowed on you, their true personality and motivations will eventually be revealed, but by then you’ll be more likely to have blinders on. They’ll expect you to make excuses for their awful behavior because you’ll want to believe the first version of themselves they presented to you is their “true” identity. 
  1. Trading modeling work for free rent and food is an easy way to appeal to young people in one of the most expensive places to live in the country, making them more likely to stay financially dependent on the cult leader and more easily manipulated into doing things they might not normally do. Isolating followers away from friends or family who might convince them they’ve been bamboozled is also a typical move for smaller, newer authoritarian cliques. 
  1. Last but not least, like most cults, the leader had dietary restrictions for his harem. Rules regarding which foods can be consumed, how they can be prepared, and when to fast are so common that it would probably be easier to list which groups don’t engage in the practice. Mormons abstain from alcohol and hot beverages. Muslims are expected to avoid alcohol and pork and to fast during Ramadan. Seventh-Day Adventists follow vegetarian and vegan diets. In NXIVM, women were put on diets that restricted daily caloric intake to just 500-800 per day, while members of the Remnant Fellowship Church (led by the late Gwen Shamblin) were encouraged to starve themselves because body fat was seen as a sign they weren’t in “God’s graces.” What’s most fascinating to me is why cults enforce dietary rules. It’s important to the cult that your identity becomes entangled with the group so you don’t know who you are without them. To achieve this, they need you to think of the cult all day. Eating is imperative for survival and involves continuous decision-making throughout the day. If a cult demands followers obey the Food Commandments, they’ll be reminded all day of the fact that they belong to an exclusive club, reinforcing their identity as a member. 

I don’t recall whether religion played a role in the OC hippie commune. Maybe one of the rules was you had to be a particular religion or maybe no religion so he could create a new one. There have always been nonreligious cults, of course, but they pretty much operate the same way regardless. 

Though I can’t remember the name of this “modeling agency,” I like to imagine it finally imploded when Moonflower realized their “agent” was just a master manipulator using them all for his own sexual gratification, at which point she rallied the others to find their strength and secretly plan their escape. Wouldn’t that be a great ending?

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Liz LaPoint is a bibliophile, sexuality researcher, writer, atheist, secular humanist, producer of The Naked Advice YouTube channel, model, wife, and mom.