Frederick Von Mierers, a deeply tanned cult leader with a shocking crown of platinum blond hair, spoke to his followers through their television sets. At two in the morning, Von Mierers would be beamed out into the universe courtesy of cable television. In clips from these extremely ’80s appearances, the former model shills mail-order cassettes and spouts new-age gibberish, his eyes getting impossibly larger and more urgent with each nonsense aphorism. It’s hard to imagine just how strange it would all seem without context, an insomniac flipping through the channels, stumbling upon this exaggeration of a man who claimed to be an alien from the star Arcturus.
Von Mierers believed in impending doom—that he and his fellow aliens had been sent here to help earthlings, an intergalactic team of emergency responders. As the leader of the group Eternal Values, it was Von Mierers’ responsibility to find the others, and teach them about their true origins and noble calling. Like so many cult leaders, he appealed to his followers’ vanity, telling them that they were special enough to literally save the world. Von Mierers, who believed in a “master race,” courted attractive young people. His Nantucket house guests recall being sent out to scour the beach for good-looking recruits, handing out invitations to the finest physical specimens they could find. John Richards Hoyt was 16 when the 30-something Von Mierers approached him at the beach. In a new documentary, Welcome to the Beyond, Hoyt recalls his introduction to the cult leader who would alter the course of his life. “Freddy said to me, you’re different,” Hoyt says, speaking directly to the camera. He and his friends would go to Freddy’s parties for the free beer; for a moment, at least, Hoyt was using him.
In Welcome to the Beyond, which premiered at Doc NYC on Tuesday, director Brent Huff deep-dives into Hoyt’s double life. It helps that Hoyt, or John as his family calls him throughout the film, was born into such a stereotypical American existence.
The documentary starts by introducing Hoyt’s impossibly blond, brawny family. They summered in Nantucket every year, and struck neighbors as a charismatic, close-knit bunch. Hoyt and his brothers supply a good deal of material for the film. We jump between pictures of a mess of blond look-alikes and the siblings all grown up—grey-haired now, but still handsome, and still grouped together in a hyper-masculine pack. Despite those picturesque, endless Nantucket summers, the good impressions made on friends, neighbors, and distant admirers, Hoyt’s siblings reveal that there was dysfunction at home. Hoyt’s status as the perfect, athletic, handsome son created a complicated dynamic; in reaction to his father’s unrestrained affection, rooted in envy, Hoyt’s mother attempted to balance the scales by treating him harshly.
Hoyt, who was praised by outsiders as too good to be true, was never enough for his mother. Her exacting standards, and Hoyt’s inability to measure up to them, made him a vulnerable mark, the documentary seems to suggest. Von Mierers praised him, and offered a clear path toward the validation that he craved. Unfortunately, this tidy explanation serves to undermine one of the documentary’s other theses: that a cult could happen to anyone, no matter how well educated or successful, no matter how chiseled their cheekbones. Von Mierers purposefully surrounded himself with good-looking Ivy League graduates like Hoyt, betting that no one would believe that these attractive, intelligent individuals could be brainwashed. “The story of Hoyt Richards is a cautionary tale,” Hoyt intones. It’s the story of the world’s first male supermodel, and the cult that controlled him—and pocketed an estimated $4.5 million of his earnings—for almost two decades.
Hoyt went to Princeton, where he played football and studied economics. Meanwhile, he had an open invitation to visit New York and crash at Von Mierers’. He met the rest of the Eternal Values crew at—where else?—Studio 54. In the documentary, Hoyt still seems shocked by the sudden turn his cookie-cutter life took—partying with Andy Warhol and Truman Capote at night, before decamping to Freddie’s apartment to have “high tea” and talk about the principles. Both worlds were sensory overload.
Other Eternal Values followers appear onscreen to walk viewers through Von Mierers’ lair, as they remember it. It’s clear that over the years, memories from apartment 4N have taken on a mythical status. There were no windows, only immense murals of sky. The furniture was clear, and the rooms were filled with imagery and artifacts of various world religions. “You wouldn’t think that anything sinister could happen there,” one former member remarks. When Hoyt graduated from Princeton, quickly becoming a highly-sought, world-renowned model, he officially moved into apartment 4N. He slept on a mat on the floor.
Welcome to the Beyond breathlessly charts Hoyt’s early years in the modeling industry—a cacophony of designers, agents and onlookers all speaking to his meteoric rise. It was the age of the supermodel—Naomi, Christy, Cindy, Claudia—and those were his peers. Rebranded as Hoyt Richards, he worked with Versace, Ralph Lauren, Fendi and Valentino. Encouraged by Von Mierers, Richards quickly became the first male supermodel. As his former agent explains, Richards wouldn’t work for less than $15,000 per day, the only male model who even came close to the price tags of his female counterparts. Flashes of campaigns, magazine covers, and fawning TV coverage capture the Hoyt Richards narrative: the handsome, all-American Ivy League grad who gets to travel around the world to kiss beautiful women on camera (and wear some very expensive suits). Meanwhile, Richards laughs, “I’m in a cult, and my whole life is being controlled.”
Von Mierers’ twisted worldview categorized Richards and the vain industry he worked in as morally bankrupt and useless. To make up for this, and to make himself of use, Richards could contribute his earnings to Eternal Values. Everything that Richards made, he insists, went to Von Mierers. The cult leader controlled who he could and could not speak to, driving a wedge between Richards and his family. Richards’ siblings and parents describe the strange experience of having a close family member who is there, but also not there, like a robot or a ghost. One of his sisters says, “It’s like a death,” and family photos show the ten weddings that Richards did not attend.
His mother, who appears to have participated in the documentary on the condition that Richards himself would be asking her the questions, tells him how helpless she would feel, how she would wake up in the middle of the night in tears. Of course, Richards’ family had begun to suspect Eternal Values as early as Richards’ Princeton days, when his roommates called, concerned, saying he was filling his dorm room with crystals and painting the walls periwinkle blue. The rest of the world was about to find out about Von Mierers and the cult in a shocking Vanity Fair exposé.
As Richards narrates, that’s when the shit really hit the fan. “Everyone was talking about” the 1990 article, “The Ford models and the alien from Arcturus”. After the article came out, “that’s when my career really took off”, Richards laughs. “They want to book me and see if I start talking about another planet.”
Vanity Fair reporter Marie Brenner shed light on Von Mierers’ gem scam—he made millions by selling “healing” gemstones to his followers, playing up their mystical properties and charging far more than their worth. Brenner also reported “bizarre sexual activities,” which Richards corroborates, saying that one of Von Mierers’ core beliefs was that romantic love was the downfall of man, and that doing “everything” sexually could therefore make you free. Richards unequivocally categorizes sexual interactions within the group as “abusive,” saying, “the women were made to feel lesser than.”
“They were basically handicapped by having a vagina,” he continues, alluding to women’s place in Von Mierers’ gender hierarchy. This meant that the least they could do was pull in someone of value, in order to benefit the group. Von Mierers was basically saying “go prostitute yourself,” Richards concludes. “That did happen.”
Meanwhile, Freddy claimed to be completely asexual, but was having sex with male sex workers. Often, Richards was the one footing the bill. “I would peel off a hundred bucks thinking I’m helping out this guy who’s really down on his luck, and then [Von Mierers] is like, oh I have to go back and initiate him into the beyond, and they’d be back there for an hour and a half and then the guy would leave.” Richards believes that Von Mierers “contracted AIDS by these encounters in the back room.” In one of the more shocking moments in the documentary, Richards recalls the cult leader’s passing, and how his followers attended to him on his death bed. As the process dragged on, Richards swears that one of the Eternal Values members suffocated Von Mierers with a pillow until he stopped breathing.
Eventually, Eternal Values relocated to North Carolina. The compound there had been designed by Freddy, in his typical fashion. Richards recalls Von Mierers telling him, “We’ll build platforms here for the spaceships to land on.” In a rare moment of levity, New York friends of Richards describe flying out for a party the cult threw on their compound, their attempt to ingratiate themselves with the community and appear normal. Party-goers arrived to ostentatious pink marble, obelisks, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and circling parrots. Unsurprisingly, “The locals were suspicious.” As one friend puts it, “At the end of the day, it was a cult.”
In 1999, Richards realized that the world was not ending, and was increasingly angered and humiliated by his treatment in Eternal Values. The new leadership shaved his head and forced him to do “slave labor” in order to learn humility, like vacuuming and scrubbing toilets. “I just needed to get the hell away,” Richards narrates. On July 3, 1999, he called a taxi to arrive in the middle of the night. He crept out of the house, careful not to wake anyone. And then he ran. “It was like a prison break,” he explains. He moved in with a friend, who recalls having to chase away a cult member who tried to come and take Richards back. An emotional Richards describes the slow road back to himself—tough conversations like apologizing to his mother, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and has since passed away. We see a clip from his eulogy for her, where he insists that she always had faith in him. He recalls his mother telling him, “I never gave up hope.”
Richards made peace with his lost time, but not with the people who stole from him and made his life a living hell. Richards called up the cult members and told them, “You’re living in a house that I paid for.” He even threatened a criminal case, citing potential murder charges in connection to Von Mierers’ death. “I could make sure Eternal Values would be dead.” Richards eventually sued Eternal Values and won, more or less shutting down the group.
The documentary ends a little wistful, but with a number of silver linings—Richards summers with his family in Nantucket again, and spends time with his nieces and nephews. He helps work with experts to get people out of cults, and to combat the stigma for other survivors like him. He takes long walks in New York, where he is still coming to terms with everything that happened in apartment 4N. “This is my biography,” he concludes. It’s a lot to process.