A few years ago, as Ashley Cantley will tell you plainly, she was in a pretty bad place. She was unemployed, her relationship with her boyfriend was strained, and she had no one to turn to for advice.

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“I was super depressed and completely alone,” she says, when, around March of 2013, she met a new friend. The woman attended the same acting school, the William Esper Studio, and lived near her on the Upper West Side. There was one key difference between the two: the other woman seemed happy.

“She was on top of the world,” Cantley remembers, “And giving me all this man advice.”

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That struck Cantley as both odd and impressive, given that the woman was several years younger. “It seemed like, how does she know all this? And some of it made a lot of sense. ”

A lot of the women who joined—and eventually left—the group known as Superstar Machine will tell you they did so during a particularly rocky patch, either personally or professionally, and often both. A lot of the women were aspiring actresses or involved in other creative fields, where the difference between personal and professional lives can be thin. Superstar Machine seemed like something that could help both at work and outside of it.

It was, the young women who joined were told, an exclusive, in-the-know group of likeminded people in similar fields, who would learn together to supercharge their careers and dust their romantic lives in magic. For some of them, it probably seemed like a fast track or a last option, an alternative to the other things they’d been trying that weren’t yielding the desired effects: improv classes, yoga training, speed-dating, the bar scene.

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Katie Arnold had been living in New York a year and a half when she joined. She found living here “lonely and challenging,” she says. “I needed friends.” A woman we’ll call Rose—her middle name—was just emerging from an abusive relationship. Another woman, “Jane,” had also just gotten out of an abusive relationship, and found herself drawn again to an ex who was almost as bad. Her career, too, was stalled. “Amber” was bartending, and trying hard to get her acting career off the ground. (Many of the women involved in Superstar Machine are aspiring actresses, or else deeply involved in New York’s yoga and wellness communities.)

One by one, between 2011 and 2015, each of them were invited by a new female friend to join an exciting, secretive group, one that would promise to fix their relationships with men, draw rivers of money their way, and reveal the Divine’s plan for their lives.

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At first, though, many of them were unclear about just what, exactly, they were being invited to join. Rose, also an aspiring actress studying at Esper Studio, was invited to Superstar Machine by the same woman who’d brought in Ashley.

“She was like, ‘Come to this meeting with me,” Rose remembers. “She said, ‘It’s all about empowering women, and you need to be around women right now.”

She wasn’t wrong, Rose says. “Honestly, I did. I’d lost every one of my friends to this highly abusive, toxic relationship. I was just a wreck and was like, that sounds amazing.”

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At that point, her new friend casually threw in the factoid that the group, while open only to women in their 20s and 30s, was run by a man. That raised a minor red flag, Rose says now.

“She didn’t say his name,” she adds. “Because I probably would’ve thought it was completely bananas.”

“He’s really invested in making sure that women become empowered,” Rose remembers the woman telling her.

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She decided to go for it.

“At that point I’m grasping for straws,” she says. “I think I was so damaged I was like, OK, cool. There’s all these women who are really in touch with their emotions, and they seem on on top of their shit, and I’m not on top of mine right now.”

She pauses, looking for the right words.

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“I was a prime target,” she says at last, ruefully.

Around 2009, a man then known both personally and professionally as Greg Scherick was living in Cotati, California, in a house he referred to as The Barn. Scherick was in a relationship with a woman about 25 years his junior; they lived with her young son and would soon have a child of their own.

Every month, Scherick traveled to New York to lead something called The Process, a group that met in the penthouse of the Roger Smith Hotel, a funky, three-star, slightly rundown place a few blocks from Grand Central.

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“Poppy” says she was invited to join the group in 2010 2009 by Princess Superstar, the rapper and DJ. She says Princess told her Scherick was a “modern-day guru,” who would turn her life around, “make money flow to you,” and fix her every romantic problem. (Princess Superstar didn’t return an email from Jezebel requesting comment.)

According to Poppy, Scherick claimed to be receiving inspiration directly from “the Divine,” as he called it. The Process was meant to “usher in a new world,” she says, one where “everyone is conscious.”

In practice, what that looked like was a group of women sitting in a semi-circle around Scherick in the Roger Smith penthouse (which sounds a little swankier than what it really is; photos show the penthouse there looks a lot like a stereotypical grandmother’s parlor, all overstuffed couches and cheery floral area rugs).

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With his partner by his side, he would “call people on our shit,” Poppy says, telling them about what he perceived their spiritual and romantic failings to be.

“I would always cry,” she says. Crying was frequent, and it was praised.

“This is really good,” Poppy remembers Scherick telling her. “You’re letting me in, which shows me how powerful you are as a woman.”

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The “spiel,” as Poppy refers to it, was a little vague and tended to repeat itself: Discussions about leaving the “Old World” behind and co-creating a new future with the help of the Divine, a new world chock-full of abundance, gratitude and romantic opportunity. “It was the same thing over and over again.”

Photos of Scherick show a man with white hair touching his collar and blue eyes. He was an unlikely-looking guru, the women who left the group say, favoring a slightly dorky uniform of jeans, blazers, sneakers and oversized belt buckles.

Scherick at a film industry event in 2006 with two people not affiliated with Superstar Machine. Photo via Getty

Poppy says Scherick would also stress that the women couldn’t do anything without his help: “The way he sold everything is that women are the leaders of the world, but, like, ‘They don’t know how powerful they are, that’s my job. The Divine speaks through me. No one connects with the Divine like I do.’”

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At the time, Scherick was doing private counseling sessions with both men and women, Poppy says (Scherick is not listed in any state databases as being licensed as a counselor in New York, California, or Oregon, where he now lives; this was informal spiritual guidance).

But men were never allowed into The Process, which evolved into being called Starmaker Machine and then Superstar Machine.

“He said men asked too many questions,” Poppy says. “And interrupted what he was trying to do.”

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In all its incarnations, Superstar Machine has fundamentally been about teaching women how to be successful in life and love. The path for these women is twofold: tapping into the Divine’s plan for their lives, and learning to be subservient to their male romantic partners. In time, Scherick would also create International Hot School, a weekly phone call where former members say he lectured women on how to tame their “inner crazy bitch,” as he put it, and create a “good experience” for their husbands and boyfriends. (Records show International Scherick, LLC, Scherick’s company, has applied for a trademark on the term “crazy bitch.”)

Two women help Scherick run the Hot School calls, Ashley Cantley says. They’re dubbed “the Super Hotties,” and she found their manner confusingly upbeat.

“Like level 50 peppy and upbeat,” she explains. After International would get off a call, the Super Hotties would take over, leading a conversation about how amazing what they’d just witnessed was, calling Scherick “fucking amazing” and “the bomb dot com,” saying, “We owe him a fuckton of gratitude.” (Cantley was left with the impression that the swearing was intentional, a way of making the group seem cooler and edgier.)

“It was weird,” she says now. “Very LA, do you know what I mean? Giddy, girly, like they just went to see New Kid on the Block. It’s kind of confusing. You’re like, ‘Was it that great? Why are these people so amped up?’”

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Despite all the bubbly positivity, Scherick and his helpers didn’t brook any dissent in the ranks, Poppy says: “Whatever he says, goes.”

The women who left Superstar Machine and spoke to Jezebel all say Scherick has cultivated a group of women who served as his seconds-in-command, and whose role is to praise him, back up his decisions, and remind everyone coming into the group that they needed to give him “a good experience.” Part of the broader emphasis, they say, was on “serving the masculine.”

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For that reason, there weren’t a whole lot of gay members in SSM, Poppy says. She instinctively understood that she should be quiet about the fact that she dated both men and women.

“Dating women doesn’t support what [SSM does] because they’re all about serving the masculine,” she says. “Even when very out women had come to SSM with friends, they were never invited to really sign up.”

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“She’s not a good fit,” Poppy recalls being told about a woman she brought along, a friend who she describes as “very butch.”

In 2011, Scherick began calling himself “International,” Poppy says. That’s the name newer members of the group use for him; it’s also the name of his business, International Scherick LLC.

Scherick’s name change was the subject of a “big conversation,” Poppy says, during a Sunday group discussion for the most “advanced” SSM members.

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As she remembers it, Scherick told the group that he had been called “to a higher level of holding his value,” and that his old name no longer satisfied “the Divine plan.”

“In order to support what I’m doing with the Divine and in building the new world, I have to be a symbol,” she remembers him saying.

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Scherick also repeated something Poppy heard him say many times, she adds: “He’d always say, ‘This is not what I want to do, it’s what the Divine wants me to do.’ It takes the responsibility for his actions out of his hands.”

“International” remains Scherick’s professional name, and Superstar Machine and Hot School are both alive and well, with roughly 100 members in New York, according to people who recently left, and a scattered few in L.A., DC, and elsewhere in the country, all of whom stay connected by phone. The women who left SSM agreed to speak to Jezebel because they came to believe that the group is a cult, one that preys on its members’ insecurities, exploits them financially, and isolates them from friends and family.

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This fall, we were also contacted by a woman whose close friend had recently joined the group; she expressed concerns about what she saw as negative changes in her friend’s demeanor.

“It’s distancing her from friends and her partner, and handing her a whole new language to use while talking with people,” the woman wrote. Concerned, the woman looked up Superstar Machine’s website (which is now largely inaccessible), and downloaded a free clip of one of International Scherick’s lectures. She was unimpressed.

“He seems like a babbling narcissist,” she wrote.

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Over the fall and spring, we spoke briefly twice with Shana Kuhn-Siegel, a yoga instructor and administrator for Superstar Machine. Former members told us Siegel isn’t an SSM member, but rather Scherick’s top employee, who’s worked for him for years, sometimes without pay, and has essentially devoted her entire life to the cause.

In two brief and very pleasant phone calls, Siegel said the group would consider speaking to Jezebel. (Scherick didn’t respond to two emails, a phone call, and a Facebook message requesting comment from Jezebel.)

“It sounds like you have good intentions,” she said. “Definitely, I feel like the work that’s being done, there’s definitely a story there. I’ve definitely seen it help a lot of people. I think this is good.” She was referring to the phone call we were on. “It helps me get a sense of you. I think it’ll be pretty easy for me to have an internal conversation and then figure out what the next step is.”

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At her request, I sent Siegel a list of questions I wanted to ask her, Scherick, and SSM members. She got back to me by phone a few weeks later, thanking me for the questions while also objecting to a few of them.

“We love the idea of collaborating with you on a story,” she explained. “And I’ve thought of some questions that might help you more.”

She didn’t immediately specify what those were, but did say SSM wasn’t interested in participating in a negative story. “If I’m going to make myself available or International or other people that I think would really valuable to talk to, the intent would be to understand Superstar Machine and not judge it,” she explained. “We would never be interested in talking to someone whose intention is just to judge something and is not interested in capturing all sides.”

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She added, “Anything powerful gets a lot of reactions, I’ve learned that in my life. I think it’s a sign. Some of the greatest bands I’ve ever loved, people either love them or they hate them because they were really making a statement and into what they were doing and people had really strong reactions to them. And then there were devotees of the music.”

I expressed a (sincere) willingness to hear all sides of the Superstar Machine story, and apologized for any questions she might have found offensive. She promised to call again soon. She didn’t.

That left me to work out Superstar Machine’s backstory on my own, through the admittedly one-sided perspective of former group members. Poppy says that Scherick told the group he’d grown up wealthy, in New York’s tony Dakota Building (where John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously lived) and then Beverly Hills. He is the son of producer Edgar J. Scherick, who worked with actors like Sidney Poitier and Woody Allen. His family money came up frequently in the private sessions with more advanced members of the group, Amber says.

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“He bragged about snorting cocaine off a Picasso,” she says. “I don’t know if he was kidding around or serious.”

Scherick said he and his father were both Harvard graduates (a class roster confirms he graduated in 1983).

“He was an English major and he’d say things that didn’t make sense,” Amber says. “Like, ‘I never once wrote a paper there.’ He made himself into this legend.”

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Upon leaving Harvard, Scherick went into the Hollywood business himself. According to IMDB, he worked as an assistant editor on Melrose Place from 1992 to 1999, and on a handful of other TV shows and films. His most recent credit is as executive producer on a film called G. I. Jesus, an indie that garnered mixed reviews.

Scherick’s experiences in Hollywood are central to the advice he proffers in Superstar Machine, according to the women who have left the group.

“He used to tell us constantly over and over, ‘Your life is a story. You’re telling a story, I’m a successful writer in Hollywood, let me collaborate with you on the story of your life,’” says a woman who says she was a member of the group in 2012.

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That woman called me from a blocked number and emailed from an anonymous address; unlike the other former SSM members I spoke to for this story, she declined to identify herself.

“I’m sort of in the public eye as it is,” she explained, a little cryptically. She called her membership in the group “so embarrassing.” (A little detective work indicates she is someone who has recently begun making headlines in either yoga or the entertainment world.)

Scherick’s genius, the woman says, is his ability to identify women who are in transitional places in life—graduating, say, or leaving a long relationship, or arriving in the city.

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“It’s a perfect time to prey on women,” she says. She claims that Scherick convinces Superstar Machine members their problems are due to an innate personal flaw.

“He convinces you that you having problems because there’s something wrong with you, or that you’re not doing,” she says. “But he’s so demeaning. He would constantly talk down to us. He’d say ‘You’re the underdog, that’s why I love you, there’s nothing greater than a good underdog story.’”

Several of the women who left say Scherick claims his real job is acting as a spiritual advisor or a life coach to “high level” celebrities, while SSM is more of a hobby.

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“He basically would talk about himself like a really high-level relationship advisor,” the anonymous woman says. “He would allude that his main clientele are millionaires and that they pay him ‘a fuck ton of money per hour’ to come into their lives and fix their relationships. He said he did SSM as a hobby and out of the goodness of his heart because girls like us are underdogs.”

In a 2011 Eventbrite listing, the group is described in a couple ways:

Scherick himself, meaning, is likened, very literally, to Jesus and a bunch of other people, in a description that sounds a lot like he wrote it:

Caitlin is a 29-year-old casting director who was invited to join the group in 2013, and who asked us to withhold her last name to protect her professional reputation. She went to one SSM event, she says, held at a small community theater on the Lower East Side, and listened in on one Hot School call. The experience was so unsettling she didn’t join, she says.

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“He’s really good at zoning in on people’s weaknesses,” she says.

These days, Superstar Machine events happen monthly on Sunday mornings at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, where there’s a small, unadorned theater available for rent. Lower-level members of SSM are referred to as the “audience,” and sit at events without speaking. Occasionally, they’re pulled onstage, where Scherick looks at them deeply and zeroes in on what he sees as their core issues.

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As with the early iterations of the group, back when it was The Process, that usually ends in a woman breaking down in tears and thanking Scherick ecstatically for his advice, the former members say. The same things happen on Hot School calls, where women describe their problems with their boyfriends—sometimes deeply personal ones of a sexual nature—and are given Scherick’s brand of relationship advice.

“So someone gets invited up onstage or on a call, get unmuted, and asked to share her story,” Caitlin says, recounting her experience. “If it’s in person he’ll do this ‘stare into your aura’ bullshit until you start crying and thanking him. It was the weirdest thing. I was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’”

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Caitlin was invited to talk during a Hot School call and describe her current romantic situation, she says. But she didn’t stick to the expected script and Scherick seemed irritated.

“He literally said I was a tough nut to crack,” she remembers. “And that I didn’t know how to ‘properly relate to the masculine.’” She remembers him telling her that she needed to “soften like a prune in water,” to go out of her way to compliment the men in her life and the many things they did for her.

Caitlin also shared that she was having casual sex with a couple people, which Scherick disapproved of.

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“[With] sex, he has strict rules about how soon you should be having sex with someone you’re dating,” she recalls. “There’s no sex without confirmed monogamy. There needs to be a verbal confirmation of monogamy for there to be sex in a relationship. He said a woman’s reasons for having sex is to get a relationship and a man’s is to get more sex. “

Caitlin was also unimpressed with the hard sell she got to sign up for the group.

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“At the event, they pull you into another room when everyone’s trying to leave and try to get you to sign up,” she says. “They try to get your credit card info, your home address, all this stuff. Also a waiver that says you’re there of your own free will. It was a hard copy and they take it right back. I signed it. I had to, to be there that day.” (Other members confirm that within the last couple years, attending SSM events requires signing a waiver stipulating you’re there of your own volition.)

The whole event left her with a sense that something was deeply wrong, she says.

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“The way they pressured me to get credit card information that first time—I just had this weight sitting on my chest. It felt like the moment before something really bad is about to happen in a movie. Like, this is not a good thing.”

Caitlin, who’s a casting director, knows a lot of struggling actresses. Those are her friends who joined SSM, she says.

“When these young women arrived in New York, it was like hitting a speed bump while driving 70 miles per hour,” she says. “They thought [the setback] was because something was ‘wrong with them’ and were too ashamed to ‘go back home a failure’ or ask for help. So International really filled the void for them the way some people would have fallen into hard drugs in the ‘80s. It was the love and recognition they were longing for in a very simple, glossy packet: ‘If you properly relate to the masculine, all your problems will be solved.’”

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In an essay for The Hairpin in 2011, a writer named Jamie Schuh recounted a similar experience with an unnamed group that sounds a lot like Superstar Machine describing an event at a yoga studio with a “weird dude” and what she described as “his doe-eyed cult of followers.” She said she was pulled into another room and enthusiastically pressured to pay $200 a month to join. She said no thanks, politely:

At this point, I was feeling super uncomfortable and just wanted to get the hell out of that room. Should I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and then climb out a window? “Dammit, my purse is in the other room,” I thought, “and what if they locked all of the doors?!”

Belonging to Superstar Machine isn’t cheap, the former members say. “Audience” members generally pay around $200 a month, while higher-level members, known as “Megastars,” “Celebrities” or “Icons,” (the highest level) pay more. Katie Arnold, who was part of the group for five years (and who, like Ashley Cantley, gave Jezebel permission to use her full name), paid $600 a month.

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Both Cantley and Arnold were brought in by the same woman; they said independently that they believe she pays between $800 and $1,000 a month and will lose her coveted status if she fails to recruit new members. (The woman didn’t respond to a Facebook message requesting comment.)

Higher-level membership also bought entry into the “afterparties,” held after Superstar Machine events for the Celebrities and Icons.

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The afterparties were “entirely sex-based,” Poppy says. “He would ask women to talk about their relationships, their sex lives, what they’d do with their boyfriends.”

Scherick never quite explained why that was necessary, she says. A typical opener instead would be something like, “All my energy is being directed towards Lisa right now, she’s so attractive.” (In SSM-speak, “attractive” is an all-purpose compliment, not referring to physical attractiveness but to drawing energy, attention, money and good vibes towards you).

Poppy remembers Scherick following up statements like that with things like “What’s happening with your boyfriend? Tell us.”

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He never actually directed members to go into detail about their sex lives, she says: “It’s all, ‘She looks like she wants to tell me about it. Does everyone else in the room feel that energy?’”

Scherick had specific ideas about what type of sex was best, Poppy adds.

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“Having anal sex was a marker of being a true, fierce powerful woman. The length of your orgasms were also markers of how intense your feminine power was.” In the higher levels, she said, “We had phone calls having to share how long our orgasms were, the positions we masturbated in. People were claiming to have like 30-minute orgasms.”

Scherick’s justification for all of this was that he was trying “to give you a better feminine experience,” Poppy says.

Former group member “Amber” says she witnessed the type of sexual advice Scherick doled out, and was so uncomfortable with it she eventually chose to leave the group. He told women, she says, “to do stuff like get down on the floor,” or instructed them to go home and “stick fingers up their asses, or stick, like, a carrot up your ass.”

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Rose left the group after witnessing an interaction where a woman, under International’s guidance, “recovered” a memory of having been sexually abused by a family member.

“She was crying like a child,” Rose remembers.

That was the last straw, she says. “As soon as we were done I walked out the door and didn’t say a word to anyone and emailed them like, ‘I quit. This is crazy.’”

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Rose obviously doesn’t know if the woman was molested, she says now, but at the time the scenario “seemed very manufactured,” she says. “It seemed scary. Like something that somebody who doesn’t have a degree or an ability to diagnose people should be doing to someone. And I really wanted her out, too. I freaked out and called her boyfriend and was like, ‘We’re in a cult. You need to get [her] out.’ And she called me and screamed at me and told me I was never allowed to call her boyfriend.”

Rose believes that the woman was forbidden to contact her after that. “We never spoke again. I loved this girl. She was such an amazing person and now she’s just a little robot. They just crushed her.”

From Superstarmachine.net

Besides mandatory meetings and phone calls each week, which the former members say ate up much of their time, they were also expected to post lengthy missives on a group message board, praising “The Machine” for its positive impacts on their lives. The posts are read by Shana Kuhn-Siegel or another top administrator named Lisa Paris before they go up, the women say, and if they’re not sufficiently adulatory, they are edited and the women are scolded.

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There’s punishment for falling out of line, Poppy says, which she experienced firsthand and often. On the message board, a member could be placed in “Waystation,” where she can’t post to much of the board. Members might also be made to stay home from the events, Poppy says, or be allowed to attend but forbidden from speaking. “You’d have to earn things back,” she says.

In the end, the sex talk and the punishments “started to get creepy for me,” Amber says, as did the general, overwhelming stress Scherick placed on becoming submissive to men, and, as she saw it, to him.

“Under the guise of empowerment, he was supposed to be making us heroes in our own lives and making us strong women,” she says now. “But really he was disempowering us and making us do whatever he wanted us to do.”

One of the things that distinguishes a cult from a spiritual self-help group is the attitude that group has towards communicating with outsiders. There’s disagreement about how to categorize Superstar Machine, of course, but it’s a fact that SSM members are subject to an exceedingly strict set of behavioral rules regarding communication, including restrictions on when they’re allowed to talk to other members of the group. Members have to get permission to call or text each other, “Rose” says.

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“If we wanted to talk to women outside of the events who were in SSM, we had to get permission from Shana,” she explains. Members had to get permission to “connect,” as phone calls or texts were referred to, and then tell Shana what had been discussed. (Email chains from several former members provided to Jezebel bear that out; they show women clearly asking Shana for permission to talk to the fellow group members they saw every week.)

“It was like, ‘Wait a second, these aren’t really my friends,’” remembers another former member, “Jane.” “I couldn’t text them freely. I couldn’t just hang out with them. If I texted them it had to be about the Machine.”

In our second phone call, Kuhn-Siegel responded: “Are members free to text? That question is not that interesting to me. I feel like it puts me in a defensive posture, and I don’t feel like I have anything to defend really.”

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Members also aren’t exactly encouraged to talk to outsiders about SSM, unless they seem interested in joining. The woman who emailed Jezebel in the fall, concerned about her friend’s membership in the group, says that was her experience. “She said that there is no secrecy in this group and no one is telling her she isn’t allowed to talk about it, but that she would only share things with people who are authentically interested and genuinely wanting to learn more. She said I did not fall into that group.”

Rose alleges that the members are also encouraged to rat each other out for infractions.

“If you thought anything somebody said wasn’t in line with International’s teachings, you were required to go back and tell International about it,” she says. “If you didn’t and they found out about it because that person felt guilty, you’d get in trouble and you might be put down in a lower level but still have to pay at Celebrity level.”

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“I told on [another member of the group] about something,” Rose says. (The woman remains a member; Jezebel is choosing not to identify her by name.) “I feel ashamed about it. I remember doing it. She called me, told me not to tell them, I immediately went and told Shana. I was like, ‘I’m not getting in trouble for this.’”

Amber also says that SSM relies on “finger-pointing.” When she became concerned about being asked to aggressively recruit new members, (“it felt deceptive,” she says) she was punished by being placed on an “intense” group phone call with other members, where all of them told her in turn how badly she’d messed up.

“It made me feel awful,” she says. “It made me think it must be my evil ego talking, sabotaging me.”

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Another time, she says, she was singled out again for no reason she could see, told she wasn’t “holding as much value” as other members of the group. “It was a psychological beating,” she says bluntly. “They would randomly pick on you.”

Amber says the goal here, as always, was for the women being singled out to break down and cry. “You’d break down in tears and cry right away and they’d say that was so brave.” She participated in finger-pointing and punishment-administering too, she says.

“Part of it was the fear of being in the hot seat yourself,” she explains. “It was like Stanford prison experiment. If you give people power, they start to trip on it. It was scary. You didn’t know what was coming at you. These are women you’re supposed to bond with. The unpredictability of that is somehow toxic.”

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“It was like a police state,” Katie Arnold says. “Everything you say to another ‘Megastar,’ you’re saying to International.”

Arnold went through a divorce while she was in the group, and also entered a 12-step program. (Several women came into the group through Alcoholics or Overeaters Anonymous. They allege that SSM members occasionally attend OA meetings for the purpose of recruiting new people.)

Though she was repeatedly told that the group was her strongest support system, it didn’t feel that way, Arnold says.

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“I was getting a divorce,” she says. “That wasn’t acknowledged.” She found herself “getting in trouble” repeatedly: “I got called ‘defiant’ because I didn’t do something perfectly.”

All around her, Arnold says, “I saw that no one was being helped. I saw mental illness and a need for real support. And I was like, ‘Why are these women spending their money here? They need to go to a therapist.’”

The women in Superstar Machine didn’t seem happy or fulfilled, she said, notwithstanding their breathless posts on the message board about how much value the group was bringing to their lives: “I saw the women who’d been with me for four years being very very lonely. And I was the one who invited them in.”

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Therapy is also not encouraged, several former members say.

“I was seeing a therapist at the time,” Ashley Cantley says. “They don’t like to hear about it.” She wasn’t explicitly told to stop, “But it was not encouraged to see a therapist. And by the way, my therapist knew nothing about any of this.” Other women had similar experiences, she says, telling Ashley they kept Superstar Machine a secret from their therapists.

In the meantime, she says, “My life was getting worse.” She took Scherick’s relationship advice, submitting to her boyfriend more and more but the relationship, too, continued to bottom out.

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“I was in a verbally, mentally abusive relationship,” she says bluntly. “All his advice was geared towards making that guy happy, which kept me in this really bad relationship. “

Most ironically, it seems that SSM was set up in a way that actually prevented its members from gaining the things the group was supposed to give them: confidence, clarity, mutually supportive industry friends, a leg up in their field. Many of the women in Superstar were at similar stages in the same fields—acting, yoga, the creative arts. But the women who left say they’re not permitted to talk about anything but The Machine, meaning that women who could have helped each other benefit professionally weren’t allowed to do so, and were instead encouraged to think of success as something held in the hands of a man who was financially interested in them feeling helpless.

“You’re not encouraged to be friends with them,” Ashley Cantley explains. Cantley began working as a booker for TV shows, a job she still does. She knew one of the women in the group worked as a makeup artist at a time when she needed one, but wasn’t allowed to just offer her a gig directly. “I thought I would give her a hookup, but they told me I had to go through Shana,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m doing you the favor.’”

Cantley left the group after eight months, following an intervention from her mother. She ended up writing a lightly anonymized account of her time in Superstar Machine for XoJane, calling the group “Celeb Making Machine” and International “Universal.”

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Months later, she ran into the woman who’d recruited her on the street. By then, the woman was pregnant, wearing an engagement ring, and still beaming about her romantic good fortune.

“I was so scared about seeing her, but it was…” Cantley trails off. “I both felt confident and I cried. I think that was a triumph for her that I got emotional. They love when you cry.”

Several of the women say that the group also damaged their romantic relationships by taking time away from their partners. It’s another irony considering how much stress the Hot School calls place on honoring the masculine. One woman says her relationship with her current partner is still scarred from her time in the group.

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“It’s hard to admit that,” she says. “He took a backseat for so long. And then he’s also taken a backseat because after I left, I had so many intimacy issues to work through.”

Poppy left, she says, after she’d been in for nearly two years, and after she recruited some 15 other people, including a close family member.

The last straw she said, is when International, Shana, and International’s partner began pressuring her to be part of a nonprofit they hoped to launch. At first, the stated purpose was to support artists, she says; later, it became about supporting International and his work. They learned that she had some family money, she says, and wanted her to ask her relatives for a gift of $50,000.

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Poppy badgered her relatives for months for the money, she says, although doing so made her feel hideous. She started having panic attacks. She had trouble sleeping. When she finally got a check for the full amount from a female relative, it came with a stern lecture.

“She was like, ‘Listen, we’re giving you this money because you’ve been so persistent,’” she remembers. “‘But you’re not getting anything else from us ever again.’”

Her relative asked what had happened to all her hobbies: singing, acting, cooking.

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“You had such a big life,” Poppy remembers the woman saying to her. “What happened to that person?”

She held the check in her hands when it arrived, she said, and realized that she was on the cusp of making Superstar Machine into something much bigger than it was.

“I was holding all their power in my hand in that fucking check,” she says. She stood in her apartment and had a moment of clarity: “I thought, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’”

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Most women had their monthly membership dues subtracted automatically from their bank accounts. Most had no trouble leaving the group when they decided to do so, they say, although Poppy (and, a cynic would argue, her family money) received significantly more pressure and guilt to stay. None of them ever spoke to any current members ever again; they were unfriended on Facebook, blocked on Instagram, and, in several instances, passed in the street without a word or a glance.

Several women say they are in intense therapy to process their experiences, and two say they’ve been diagnosed with PTSD. A lot of their former friends steer clear.

“No one in my life wants to hear anything about Superstar Machine ever again,” Katie Arnold says. “I tried to recruit all the people in my life and now I talk about cults all the time.” She refers to SSM as “my spiritual heroin,” and counts the days she has clean.

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Many of the women say they’re left feeling like they were part of a sad, threadbare scheme to give Scherick the success and adulation he dreams of.

“International’s dream is to be rich, have great sex, make movies, come back to Hollywood and own it,” Rose says. Even this story, she adds, will likely be taken by International as proof that Superstar Machine is developing according to his grand vision.

“He’s gonna love this,” she says. “He’s compared himself to Jesus.” After a couple people had left in quick succession, she says, “On one of our celebrity calls, he said people were going to come after him and ‘crucify’ him.”

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She feels bad for the current group members, she says. “They’re not bad people. They’re all just trying to feel better.”

Update, 10 p.m.:

Shana Kuhn-Siegel responds:

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Superstar Machine is a coaching program that helps women realize their destinies through the power of effective story-telling. For the last five years, hundreds of students have experienced transformational success in their personal and professional lives with our help online, on the phone and in person. We’re the first to acknowledge that our program is rigorous and it is not for everybody. We are unsure why the sources in your story, many of whom have provided Superstar Machine with glowing and unsolicited testimonials, decided to say the things they did. Nevertheless, we wish them the best on their journey in life. In the meantime, we’ll be continuing to provide the coaching and support that our community seeks out.

Illustration by Jim Cooke