VOICE EXCLUSIVE -- VH1'S Mimi Faust On Scientology: "At 13, They Told Me I Was a Freeloader"
Mimi Faust gets emotional discussing her mother on the show
Oluremi "Mimi" Faust is one of the stars of VH1's popular show Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, which runs on Monday nights. A week ago, Mimi stunned the show's largely African-American audience when she revealed that she had been abandoned at 13 by her mother, who was a Scientologist.
With the help of our commenting community, we soon identified her mother, and then tracked down some people who had worked with her in Scientology's hardcore "Sea Org."
But we still wanted to hear from Mimi herself. And yesterday, we did.
I talked to Mimi by telephone yesterday, and we had a detailed, frank discussion about her experiences. I had many questions, and she didn't hold back.
Faust has rocketed to celebrity after the June debut of the reality TV series, a sequel to VH1's surprise 2011 hit Love & Hip Hop. The show features a number of African-American couples and singles in Atlanta's music scene. Faust herself isn't an entertainer, but her rocky relationship with Steven Jordan -- a veteran hip hop producer known as Stevie J -- has become one of the show's central plot lines.
Each week, hundreds of urban culture websites compete to summarize the stormy triangle between Stevie J, a singer he's been sleeping with named Joseline, and the mother of his young child, Mimi Faust. As the show has developed, Faust has come off as the adult in the group, and she's attracted a large following who characterize her as a strong woman with smart entrepreneurial skills.
It was something of a shock, then, during the seventh episode, aired on July 30, when Mimi admitted during a therapy session that she's dealing with abandonment issues because of her mother's obsession with Scientology.
Twitter lit up with viewers asking, what the hell is Scientology? (An exceedingly white movement, Scientology has been trying to make inroads in the black community for years. One result of that effort is the bizarre involvement of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.)
As I began my interview with Mimi, I wanted first to clear up something about the complex names in her family. She explained that her mother's original name was Gloria Eva Simmons. Gloria added a "James" on the end after a marriage, and Mimi herself grew up as Mimi James. (Her brother, who appeared on this past Monday's show, is Kwesi James.)
Then, her mother changed her name completely, Mimi says.
"Before Scientology, she joined an African religion and changed her name to Olaiya Odufunke."
It was a man she was dating who introduced Olaiya to Scientology, Mimi remembers.
"When my mom joined Scientology, I was still living here in Atlanta. I think I was six or seven when she was introduced to Scientology. By the time I was 8 or 9 she just went balls to the wall and sold everything we owned. Our house, our car, everything."
As we explain in our handy introduction to Scientology, founder L. Ron Hubbard not only built a philosophy of the human mind from 1950 onward, but also a complex bureaucracy to go with it. While Scientologists claim to explore their past lives -- recovering memories of themselves millions of years ago on other planets -- they also find a role for themselves in Scientology's complex layers of involvement. For those who decide to dedicate their entire lives to supporting the enterprise, there is the "Sea Organization" -- a hardcore elite who sign billion-year contracts and promise to work for the church, lifetime after lifetime.
As Olaiya considered joining the Sea Org, she left behind her life in Atlanta. Mimi's two older siblings, a brother and sister, stayed behind. But Mimi was too young to be on her own. Mimi found herself being taken along with her mom to Scientology's administrative headquarters in Los Angeles.
Scientology's LA headquarters on Fountain Avenue is housed in what was once the Cedars of Lebanon hospital. Formally known as PAC Base, for Pacific Area Command, the complex is more commonly known for its blue paint job.
Once Mimi and her mother arrived, Olaiya joined the Sea Org, signing its billion-year contract.
"Life was completely turned upside down," Mimi says. "We lived in a room with bunk beds. We went to the cafeteria for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And my mom was working all the time. I only got to see her during what they called 'Family Time,' from five to seven pm. Just two hours a day."
We wrote earlier that people who worked with Olaiya say she was working for the Sea Org's "Office of Special Affairs," its intelligence and legal affairs wing -- some have called OSA Scientology's secret service.
But Mimi says that her mother never told her about the work she was doing. "I still don't know, to be honest with you. I had no idea what she did from the day we got there until the day she died."
As we've reported before, the children of Scientologists can find themselves heavily recruited for the Sea Org at a very young age. And about four years after arriving at Big Blue, Mimi says she was confronted by church officials.
"At 13, they told me that I was a freeloader. I was eating their food and staying in their facility. They told me I either needed to sign a billion-year contract or I had to leave."
I asked Mimi what her mother had said about signing the contract. Did she encourage her daughter?
"My mother never outright said she wanted me to join the Sea Org," Mimi says. "She knew how I felt. I just knew that it was not what I wanted to do."
Even after four years, Mimi hadn't bought into Scientology's quasi-military culture.
"I was just a child. I wasn't going to run around calling people 'sir.' It wasn't what I wanted to do," she says. (In the Sea Org, even women are called "sir" and referred to as "he.")
So what did she do?
"I packed up my little bag and left," she says.
I told her that must have been terrifying.
"It was. I had no idea where to go. I figured my mom would try to stop me. But there was nothing. She didn't ask me where I was going, she didn't ask if I had bus fare. I think that's what hurt the most. That she just watched me walk away."
Mimi caught a bus to a friend's house. "She was a friend but I called her my cousin. I went to her place. I just had to figure it out. And this was the crazy part. I was still going to a Scientology school. It was the middle of the school year. After staying with my cousin over the weekend, I had to catch a bus back to the school on Monday."
She was a student at the Mace-Kingsley school in Silver Lake (named for its founders, two Scientologists; today the place is in Clearwater, Florida, and is an after-school center for kids to get Scientology auditing). For the rest of the school year, Mimi says, she had to scramble to find a place to stay each night.
"These weren't just Sea Org kids. There were children of rich Scientologists there too. So I'd ask if I could spend the night with a different schoolmate every day, and I'd go home with them. No one knew I didn't have a home of my own. I finished the school year that way."
Over the summer, she says, she ended up getting a job at her cousin's pharmacy.
"I've been working all my life. I was never on the street or homeless. It just always worked out."
Four years later, Mimi heard from her mother again for the first time.
"When I was 17, my mother called and said she wanted to see me. We hadn't seen each other in four years," Mimi says. "I caught the bus back down to the building. It was great to see her. I got a hug."
They were in Olaiya's office at Big Blue, catching up, Mimi says, when another Sea Org member came into the room. And then another. And then another. And then one more.
"I looked up, and there were four Sea Org officers standing there while my mom and I were trying to catch up. I thought it was really odd."
Then, the four officers began pressuring Mimi about joining the Sea Org.
Mimi's mother, Olaiya Odufunke, left, with her Sea Org friend, Joyce Earl
"They started saying I needed Scientology to be a better human being. And I thought, 'Here we go with the bullshit.' Then they pulled out a contract, and a pen, and they told me to sign it," she says.
It was the Sea Org billion-year contract.
"They said over and over, 'Sign the paper. Sign the paper. Sign the paper.' They were chanting it. I thought I was in the Twilight Zone," she says.
"I look at my mom, and she's looking out the window. I felt like I was there on my own again," she says. "I didn't sign it. I told them sorry, I'm not going to sign the thing."
Mimi says she got up to leave. But the Sea Org officers shut the door and locked it.
"They taped the contract to the door. And they told me to sign it again."
She was told that she couldn't leave the room without signing the contract.
I asked her how she got out of that situation.
"I just acted like a complete fool," she says. "I cursed and screamed. I just lost it."
She laughs, but I can't help thinking it must have been a disturbing scene.
"They finally let me out, and I just hauled ass. I was so mad at my mom. It was years before I saw her again. And we never spoke about that moment until I was 27," she says. "She had the nerve to tell me that she didn't know I felt that way, and she didn't know why I was so upset."
In 1996, Mimi James changed her name to Mimi Faust.
"I found out who my biological father was. So I changed my last name to his."
But her mother, Mimi says, was owned completely by Scientology.
"They had her. They had every part of her. My mom literally died there," Mimi says. "When she got cancer, she got two surgeries. They paid for everything, I'll give them that."
By 2003, when she fell ill, Olaiya had been working for the Office of Special Affairs in Clearwater, Florida at Scientology's spiritual headquarters, known as "Flag Land Base." As we explained on Friday, it was Olaiya's job to go through the confidential files of parishioners to see if they were fit to receive pricey services at Flag.
Her former co-workers describe her as tough Sea Org material.
"Yes, she was a tough lady," Mimi says. "She was hardcore."
But then Olaiya was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she was sent to the City of Hope National Medical Center in Los Angeles County for treatment.
"When she was dying, I flew out to see her. But I was not allowed to be alone with her. Even when she was dying, they had a chaperone in the room," Mimi says.
On this past Monday's show, Mimi and her brother Kwesi James fulfilled their mother's final wish, to have her ashes spread on a body of water. I noticed that Kwesi referred to his mother's previous name -- Gloria Eva Simmons James -- and Mimi talked about holding her mother's hand at the hospital as Gloria took her last breath. I told Mimi the scene gave the impression that she had wanted to hear her mother express some regret about how things had gone.
"She never did. She wouldn't say she was sorry for anything, but she did recite a poem called 'If.' It took her about an hour and a half to get it out. Her body was breaking down, her breathing was bad. It was awful. But she was determined to get this poem out. It was about forgiveness. She couldn't have just said that she was sorry," Mimi says.
"My mom was always searching for that something in her life. For whatever reason she found it in Scientology. But she gave up her kids for it."
I asked Mimi what she thinks of Scientology today. She didn't want to badmouth it, and assumed that some people find something positive in it. But she pointed out that it was her understanding Scientology wants to unite people. "Well, how are you going to keep the world together if you can't keep your family together?"
To this day, Mimi says, the church always tracks her down and calls to send her new literature or encourage her to take a course.
"They always find my new number. It's so insane. No matter where I move or what I do, they call me and say they want to send some new literature."
Knowing Scientology's skills for tracking her down, I asked Mimi how she felt about speaking so freely about it on national television.
"I was just telling my story. I didn't even think twice about the effect of it. But it's the truth," she says. "It's what happened to me."
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Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.