Thirty minutes into the fourth episode of The Vow, HBO’s nine-part documentary series about NXIVM, Allison Mack goes to a volleyball game. She’s not here to play. She’s here to meet Keith Raniere, the leader of what would later be regarded by many as a sex cult, for the first time.
It’s 14 November 2006. Mack is a 23-year-old, luminous actor and a regular on the TV series Smallville. Raniere is 46, a yet-unconvincted fraudster and sex trafficker, still revered by the members of NXIVM. Mack and Raniere sit down for a conversation on the field’s sidelines. She’s wearing street clothes; he’s still dressed for the game in a black polo shirt, matching shorts, high socks and knee pads, his long hair in a ponytail, partly held back by a sweatband.
“Why is art important to me?” Mack muses. “Because so much of who I am is wrapped in art.” Raniere presses her: “What if artistic endeavours were really bogus? What if art was just an excuse for those who couldn’t do?”
“And it is sometimes,” replies an increasingly pensive Mack. Raniere picks up: “The most excitement that you’ve ever felt is yours to have all the time, independent of art. The bad news is you have to divorce yourself from the thought that it comes from the art. If you feel that art is necessary for that, that’s almost a self-condemnation.”
At this, Mack laughs – but it quickly turns out that laugh is a way to mask her sobs. She wipes tears from her face and continues her exchange with Raniere in a trembling voice, broken up by sobs. Minutes later, she’s hugging him and kissing him on the lips. “Cute voice,” he tells her. She beams. Their glances linger on each other. “Thank you,” she tells Raniere. “You too.”
Neither of them knows it yet, but this is the beginning of a story that will end with Raniere sentenced to 120 years in prison and convicted on federal charges including racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labour conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy. Raniere’s verdict came through in June 2019 and his conviction in October 2020.
Back in April 2018, Mack was arrested on charges pertaining to her involvement with NXIVM. Prosecutors referred to the actor as a “first-line master” of DOS, a NXIVM sub-group described by former members as a sex ring in which “slaves” were branded, made to report to “masters”, and provide collateral, sometimes including nude photos or videos. She pleaded guilty, a year after her arrest, to charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy.
Mack will be sentenced on 30 June. The hearing will bring a conclusion to one of the most unexpected celebrity news stories of the decade, in which the star of a once-beloved teen series was revealed to have been one of the closest collaborators of a man widely described as a sex cult leader.
Born in 1982 in what was still called West Germany, Mack’s family relocated to California when she was a toddler. She began her acting career as a child. “My very first job was a commercial for German chocolate and it was all in German,” she told SciFiAndTvTalk in 2011. “The thing that still sticks out in my mind most about it was I wasn’t allowed to swallow the chocolate. I would take a bite and then at the end of every take I’d have to spit it out. That was very frustrating, especially for a kid.”
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Having scored a series of film and TV credits in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Mack appeared in an episode of 7th Heaven as Nicole, a new best friend to Beverley Mitchell’s Lucy. In 2001, she began appearing in Smallville in the role of Chloe Sullivan, the enamored best friend of Tom Welling’s Clark Kent and editor of the school newspaper. The part earned Mack seven Teen Choice Awards nominations in the Best Sidekick in a TV Series category; she won twice, in 2006 and in 2007.
After Smallville wrapped up in 2011, Mack kept acting, albeit more sporadically. She had a recurring role in the comedy series Wilfred between 2012 and 2014, and a couple of guest roles in The Following and American Odyssey in 2015.
By that time, based on The Vow’s archival videos, Mack had been involved in NXIVM for years.
Based out of Clifton Park, New York, NXIVM presented itself as a personal development organisation, with chapters in the US, Canada, and Mexico. An estimated 18,000 people attended its seminars beginning in the 1990s.
According to The New York Times, Mack’s Smallville co-star Kristin Kreuk brought Mack to her first meeting with Jness, a NXIVM sub-group, in 2006. Kreuk said in a statement in 2018 that she had left the organisation “about five years ago”, around 2013. “During my time, I never experienced any illegal or nefarious activity,” she wrote. “I am horrified and disgusted by what has come out about DOS.” Kreuk described herself as “deeply disturbed and embarrassed to have been associated with NXIVM”. She has not been charged in the case.
By all appearances, Mack remained with the group. Some of her former tweets sent in 2016 show her attempting to contact other celebrities, including singer Kelly Clarkson and actor Emma Watson. “I participate in a unique human development & women’s movement I’d love to tell you about,” reads one of her messages addressed to the latter. “As a fellow actress I can relate so well to your vision and what you want to see in the world. I think we could work together. Let me know if you’re willing to chat.”
It was in 2016 that a woman named Nicole says Mack allegedly invited her to join “a really cool women’s mentorship [program]”, which turned out to be DOS. “If I wanted to get more information on this mentorship, I’d have to provide collateral,” Nicole said during Raniere’s trial, according to court testimony published by Rolling Stone. Such material, Rolling Stone noted, would include “a sexually explicit video of herself as well as letters that would hurt her family members or ruin her career”. As part of DOS, Nicole alleges she was made to refer as Mack as her “master” and take part in “readiness drills” in which she was expected to reply to Mack’s texts within 30 seconds. Nicole alleges that when she discussed a potential exit from DOS, she was told leaving “wasn’t an option”.
Nicole testified in court that Raniere on one occasion blindfolded her, told her to undress, and tied her to a table, after which a third person performed oral sex on her. According to Nicole, her involvement in DOS devolved into her feeling coerced into having a sexual relationship with Raniere, and being branded with Raniere’s initials (within NXIVM, the symbol was alleged to represent air, earth, fire and water, the four elements).
Nicole’s testimony echoed that of other former members of NXIVM, several of whom shared their stories in The Vow. Nicole left NXIVM in 2017 and was a key witness during Raniere’s trial.
Mack herself didn’t testify against Raniere when he faced trial in 2019, although she was prepared to do so, Page Six reported at the time citing multiple unnamed sources. At a court hearing in April 2019, in which she entered her guilty plea, Mack appeared to renounce Raniere, stating: “I believed that Keith Raniere’s intentions were to help people, and that my adherence to his system of beliefs would help empower others and help them. I was wrong.” According to a recent report by Variety, Mack ultimately played a key role in Raniere’s conviction, by providing prosecutors with an audio tape of Raniere discussing the ritual through which “slaves” were branded with his initials.
Of her involvement with NXIVM, she told the court at a 2019 plea hearing: “I joined NXIVM first to find purpose. I was lost and I wanted to find a place, a community in which I would feel comfortable.” More recently, in a pre-sentencing statement published by Variety, she apologised to “those who have been harmed by my actions”.
“It is now of paramount importance to me to say, from the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry,” she wrote in part. “I threw myself into the teachings of Keith Raniere with everything I had. I believed, wholeheartedly, that his mentorship was leading me to a better, more enlightened version of myself. I devoted my loyalty, my resources, and, ultimately, my life to him. This was the biggest mistake and greatest regret of my life.”
NXIVM shut down operations in 2018 following Raniere’s arrest. The group is believed to have all but ceased its activities since, although a small group of supporters stood by Raniere even after his conviction.
The charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy Mack has pleaded guilty to each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years. Back in September 2020, Judge Nicholas G Garaufis sentenced Clare Bronfman, described by prosecutors as “a high-ranking member of NXIVM’s executive board”, to almost seven years in prison. The heiress to the Seagram Company fortune had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conceal and harbor aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of personal identification information, charges stemming from her role in helping finance NXIVM.
Bronfman’s sentence surpassed the five years requested by prosecutors, which some have interpreted as a warning sign that similar severity might follow during Mack’s sentencing.
“Allison Mack should be worried,” Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Silva Megerditchian told Yahoo! Entertainment in October 2020, adding: “Explaining to the court she was brainwashed herself by the organisation would help garner sympathy. ... Without these proactive steps, Ms Mack will likely receive the same increased punishment Ms Bronfman received – and possibly worse considering she was the face of the organisation.”
Mack’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for 30 June in Eastern District of New York, in front of Garaufis.
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