Jun 3, 2017

John Hoyt's Journey from Male Supermodel to Cult Member

John Hoyt
John Hoyt
The Main Line native discusses his shockingly unconventional path.
Mainline Today
May 30, 2017

The golden hair has thinned and those vivid blue eyes have dimmed a shade or two, but it’s hard to imagine anything could happen to John Hoyt’s jawline, made up of two I-beams connected at the chin by a ball-peen hammer’s divot. Sitting at the bar at Casey’s Pour House in Berwyn on a frosty afternoon before New Year’s, watching meaningless college football bowl games and enjoying a few beers, Hoyt looks like he could easily jet to Milan, stride into a studio and command the lens, just as he did 25 years ago.

Back then, Hoyt claimed the title of “First Male Supermodel” under the name Hoyt Richards (his middle name is Richards). He did things like serve as the delighted sandwich meat between Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell on the New York party scene.

But Hoyt doesn’t do that anymore. He’s more interested in filmmaking and the occasional acting gig. More than anything else, though, he wants to use his art to help others who’ve endured what he has—and tell the world that, just because you spend almost 20 years in a cult and bestow $4.5 million of your earnings upon its membership, you aren’t some simple-minded person capable of being brainwashed by anyone with a Manhattan apartment and a wild story about intergalactic reincarnation. “I’ll never be boring at cocktail parties,” says Hoyt with a laugh.

You want stories? Hoyt has them. Some are incredible, like how a kid from Princeton turned down an offer—and a fat payday—to fly to Europe for a photo shoot because he had an econ exam that day. But not all of them are upbeat—like the mental image of Hoyt having his head shaved by angry Eternal Values cult members tired of his preferred status. A bit more amusing, perhaps, is how Fabio helped him escape.

It’s tough to listen as Hoyt talks about recovering some sanity and esteem after being berated for hours by EV acolytes about his unworthiness. He speaks willingly about his time in Eternal Values, his struggle to regain his life after leaving, and how important it is for him now to help others heal from similar experiences.

Hoyt’s smile is ready, and his wit is more than just a defense mechanism. He’s reached a point in his life where his time in Eternal Values no longer defines him. He may look pretty much the same on the outside, but Hoyt has changed on the inside.

“It’s been a hard process,” says Hoyt’s older sibling, Rory. “He’s grown a lot and matured. He left Eternal Values when he was 37, and he was still 20 in terms of his maturity. Now, he seems like a regular 54-year-old.”

Rory has seen his brother do a lot of growing in a short time. “And it’s taken a lot of personal effort on his part,” says Rory. “Part of it has been looking in, and part of it has been looking out and saying, ‘What can I do to help people avoid this?’”

That’s the story now. Hoyt is working on a documentary about the ordeal, plus a book he’s writing with a former EV member. Hoyt once looked at Eternal Values founder Frederick von Mierers as a spiritual talisman of sorts, capable of opening fascinating worlds to a young man whose life to that point had been pretty much out of the “Preppy Handbook.” He wasn’t stupid—Hoyt holds diplomas from the Haverford School and Princeton—but he was vulnerable. As a result, what started as fun and games became a sad story of manipulation, humiliation and regret.

“When I was in that situation, I thought, ‘Nothing like this could ever happen,’” Hoyt says. “That was my greatest vulnerability. It started simply, and as I got further and further into it and it got cultier and cultier, the thing I said was: ‘This isn’t a cult. It can’t happen to me.’ Mind control works on everybody.”

John Hoyt didn’t want to go to the Haverford School. He was perfectly happy at Conestoga High School, where he was at the top of his class. But after his sophomore year, his mom insisted he make the switch.
Hoyt was 2 when his family moved to Berwyn from Fayetteville, N.Y., a village of about 4,300 just east of Syracuse, in 1964. He was the fourth of six
children—four boys, two girls—raised by Bob and Terry. His mother’s reasoning for the change in school was based on the success Hoyt’s brother Rory had at Haverford, where he tightened up his academics and gained admittance to Princeton. “Rory was a notorious procrastinator and was struggling in public school, while I was succeeding,” Hoyt says. “When Rory went to Haverford for his senior year and got into Princeton, my mother said, ‘That’s the solution.’ I said, ‘No.’”

It didn’t matter. He started at Haverford in the fall of 1978—but at least he got the chance to play football, something he hadn’t been allowed to do while he was at Conestoga. Preseason practices introduced him to a group of guys who would help facilitate a soft landing. During his two years at Haverford, Hoyt played fullback under the late Mike Cunningham and ran track in the winter and spring seasons, standing out particularly in the hurdles. “He was an athletic, Adonis-looking guy who had dropped out of nowhere into the school,” says Mark Mayock, who graduated from Haverford in 1980 with Hoyt. “There were only about 80 guys in our class, and there was a little bit of assimilation. But the nice thing was that he could start right away in football and at least know the guys on the team before he got into classes.”

Hoyt’s school situation may not have been his ideal, but his summers were idyllic. His family spent long stretches in Nantucket, where he would join siblings, cousins and friends in typical seaside adventures at Nobadeer Beach. “We called it ‘No Brassiere Beach,’” Hoyt says.

It was there, when he was 16, that Hoyt first encountered Frederick von Mierers. “Nantucket is not where you think you’re going to meet a cult leader,” Hoyt says.

Von Mierers was a charismatic type, with blond hair and striking good looks. He spoke about ancient cultures and astrology, topics that interested Hoyt and ones he didn’t generally discuss with those close to him. Hoyt and his friends attended von Mierers’ parties, looking to get free beer. “I thought I was working him and taking advantage of him,” says Hoyt, not understanding at the time that von Mierers was actually working him.

After graduation and a year at Haileybury boarding school outside of London, Hoyt began at Princeton, where he majored in economics and played football. Being in Central Jersey gave him greater access to von Mierers, who had an apartment in Manhattan and was a fixture on the New York social scene. Hoyt and his friends would head north for parties, again thinking they were fortunate to have such a connected patron. “I thought it was awesome,” Hoyt says. “I saw Truman Capote and Andy Warhol.”

During a stretch after his sophomore year, Hoyt lived rent free in von Mierers’ apartment, where he met a Brooks Brothers designer who encouraged him to consider modeling. It was an awful lot for a college student, although Hoyt didn’t suspect anything untoward. “We shared spiritual values, but we were also having a good old time,” he says. “I was experiencing life, and it seemed innocuous at the time.”

About those “shared” spiritual values: Von Mierers said he was from the star Arcturus, which is in the constellation Boötes and is located 36.7 light-years from the sun. According to the cult leader, Arcturus is the “spiritual center of the universe,” and it was there that the members of Eternal Values—in a previous incarnation—had gained the necessary knowledge to save planet Earth from the coming apocalypse.

As Hoyt heard more about Arcturus and met those who’d come back from the star, he felt a desire to join them in their quest to preserve the planet. For almost seven years, von Mierers had given Hoyt the soft sell, enticing him with parties, lodging and friendship. In 1985, having just graduated from Princeton and at the genesis of what would become a remarkably successful modeling career, Hoyt was ready for more.

Von Mierers had built steadily to a crescendo. When he met the teenaged Hoyt on the beach, he didn’t lead with the post-apocalyptic tale. He worked up to it. “I wanted to be on the inside of the club,” Hoyt says. “Everybody else was Arcturian. What about me? For me, [von Mierers’ Arcturus story] wasn’t far-fetched. How far-fetched is it that someone can walk on water?”

As Hoyt has learned more about the psychology of cults, he has come to understand that their main manipulative tool is eroding people’s ability to think critically. Once the information is introduced, “recruits” become intent on learning more. After a period of indoctrination, any instinct to question the story or those telling it is looked at as a lack of faith and a stepping away from the group that has become their primary social network.

Hoyt’s move toward the Eternal Values world took him further from his friends and family. Mayock says he and his Haverford classmates didn’t see Hoyt much, if at all, after they finished school there. Mayock taught at Haverford from 1985 to 1988, and during that time, Hoyt’s younger brother, Garth, graduated from the school. “I was talking to [Garth] at graduation and asked him about John and how he was doing,” Mayock says. “[Garth] said, ‘He’s a little unreachable these days. I’d love him to be here today, but I haven’t seen him in a while.’”

The rest of the Hoyts didn’t see too much of John, either. By that time, he’d become Hoyt Richards, the star of the Ford Modeling Agency and a sensation in fashion capitals across the globe. His family referred to the other members of Eternal Values as Hoyt’s “friends from New York,” but didn’t look at EV as a cult. Just as Hoyt was dissociating himself from his friends, he wasn’t visiting his family.

Part of it was the job. Hoyt was spending time all over the place, filming commercials, doing photo shoots, and enjoying the spotlight. But when he wasn’t working, he was with von Mierers and the other cult members.

In 1990, Vanity Fair ran an article that exposed Eternal Values. As one might expect, von Mierers and the members—including Hoyt—denied this vehemently. While they were performing damage control, Hoyt’s family and friends were getting an education. “We came to the stark realization that the group of friends he had been talking about was really a cult,” Rory says. “It was dangerous, and he was into bad stuff. We thought that John was a victim of all of this and he didn’t know it.”

Not long after the article ran, Rory, cousin Stephen Williams and Nick Donatiello, a friend of both Rory and John’s from Princeton, visited Hoyt in Newport, R.I., to stage an intervention. Donatiello had called Steven Hassan, a former Moonie who had become one of America’s foremost authorities on cults, to talk about some techniques that might be successful. Hassan recommended consulting an “exit counselor,” someone trained in helping people escape cults. They prepared carefully for the confrontation, but despite their efforts and concern, the intervention failed. “Because it was unsuccessful at the time, a door slammed,” Rory says. “We had one shot. All his friends in the group had vilified his family and friends. They told him, ‘These people tried to take you away. We’re your friends.’”

Later in 1990, when von Mierers died of AIDS-related causes, Eternal Values continued on, albeit without the same philosophical bent. Members relocated to a house in North Carolina, and as the ’90s moved forward, EV’s personality became a little edgier. In 1999, the other members thought Hoyt was losing enthusiasm for the cult, and they became nasty. “They needed to indoctrinate me more,” Hoyt says. “I needed to spend more time with them.”

They shaved his head so he couldn’t model and made him perform demeaning household chores. “My nickname was Dipshit,” Hoyt recalls.

When the members were in better moods, they’d call him “Dippy.” But those moments weren’t too common.

Often, the other members would spend hours berating Hoyt. He was no good; he was stupid. “My brain was put into a high-stress environment, and my fight-or-flight instinct was triggered,” Hoyt says. “Once I was off the hot seat, I had a couple hours to decompress and let the adrenaline drain out of my brain.”

After nine weeks of this treatment, Hoyt came to the conclusion that the hazing wasn’t going to end. Instead of being angry at his fellow cult members, he felt shame, believing he was unworthy of them and that his leaving would allow them to move forward.

It took three tries, but he finally escaped. He was bald, with two or three thousand dollars on a credit card and nowhere to go. Then he remembered that his buddy Fabio had said he could crash with him anytime he wanted. So, he went west. “It was the perfect place for me to decompress and go through the post-traumatic stress phase,” Hoyt says.

The healing had begun. But it wouldn’t be easy.

Combine John Hoyt’s Princeton degree and Kim Wong Keltner’s graduation from Cal-Berkeley in three-and-a-half years, and you have two pretty smart people. So how in the world did they both end up in a cult? That’s the question Keltner is trying to answer as she works with Hoyt on a book about their Eternal Values experiences.

Keltner met von Mierers in the mid-1980s, when she was a high school freshman, and spent a good amount of time in Manhattan with the Eternal Values group—though she told her parents she was visiting friends in Lake Tahoe. A student at an exclusive prep school in Northern California, Keltner was dealing with the expectations of her extremely demanding “tiger mom,” for whom any grade less than an A was not tolerated. “An A-minus is the Chinese F,” says Keltner, an accomplished author whose most recent book, Tiger Babies Strike Back, is a response to the strict parenting of Chinese-American tiger moms.

During the few years she was associated with EV, Keltner got to know Hoyt. She sent him a Facebook message a couple of years ago, hoping to reconnect and find some answers. How did it all happen? The title of their new book, Do You Remember Me?, refers to the first line of her message
to Hoyt.

“If I can use the access I have to help somebody who feels stupid for falling for [a cult’s methods], that’s great,” Keltner says. “What led us to Eternal Values was a camaraderie and the belief that we could do good. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Hoyt is doing more than just working on the book. He’s produced a documentary, tentatively titled Who Is Hoyt Richards?. He calls it a “cautionary tale” and hopes it will show people how to “make life work” after such a harrowing cult experience. Hoyt would like to take it to the Venice Film
Festival in September, and then Toronto. His production company, Tortoise Entertainment, has had some movies make it to festivals before. Ultimately, he hopes to see the final product on HBO or as a Netflix Original.

It’s all part of his healing process. Hoyt says he’s become “fascinated with telling stories,” but he doesn’t limit his work to being behind the camera. He coaches actors and writers and also does some acting of his own. Mostly, he’s looking to live a happy and full life in West Hollywood.

Hoyt has reached out to other EV members and counseled people who’ve been in cults. In 2015, when Islamic extremists bombed targets in Paris, Hoyt went on Dr. Drew to discuss how people are indoctrinated into groups like ISIS. It’s important to him to share his experiences with others. “John is so transparent and willing to talk about any aspect of the group,” Keltner says. “It made me feel safe to talk.”

The most important work Hoyt has done in his recovery is with his family. After the intervention attempt, Hoyt “hated” Rory and didn’t want to have any contact with him. Once he left Eternal Values, he went about the business of rebuilding his relationships with all involved.

In 2003, Hoyt spent several months caring for his mother, who was dying of cancer. He has since become close again with Rory, who describes Hoyt as “the fun uncle” to his four children. He spends summers on Nantucket with his family and enjoys being part of their lives. “After I got out of Eternal Values, I developed such a love and admiration for Rory, because he was willing to [attempt the intervention],” Hoyt says.

The time is right for Hoyt to tell his story. He might still look a lot like he did at his modeling peak, but inside he’s so much more.

“I’m hoping all of my information helps people make choices that are healthier for them,” he says. “If this hadn’t gone down, I wouldn’t be doing the work I am today. It’s the most rewarding work I’ve done.”


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