Kelly Preston and John Travolta: Scientology’s Other Celebrity Wife

Who is Kelly Preston? Tricia Romano on John Travolta’s enigmatic wife.

Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

When Katie Holmes filed for divorce from her Scientologist husband, Tom Cruise, two weeks ago, the event prompted a renewed interest in another famous wife of a beleaguered Scientologist: Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s spouse. On the surface, the women in the two couples have much in common: they both married men in the controversial religion, they are both actresses who married up, and they both have been in relationships fraught with scurrilous gossip. When Travolta faced a number of lawsuits (some of which have since been dropped) from men who claimed he’d groped or inappropriately tried to touch them during massage sessions, the rumor mill heated up again: depending on who you ask, Kelly Preston is a knowing Hollywood “beard” or a clueless, but devoted, wife, trapped in a fake marriage.

An email request on Friday to Preston’s PR representative—who also represents Travolta, and used to represent Tom Cruise—asking for comment for this story resulted nearly immediately in an emailed letter from the couple’s attorney at Lavely & Singer. The lawyer wrote, in part, “Numerous false and highly defamatory rumors have been disseminated about my clients, each more absurd and farfetched than the last.”

Unlike Holmes or Cruise’s second wife, Nicole Kidman, not much is known about Kelly Preston—she is something of a Hollywood enigma: pretty, friendly, devoted to helping charities, and judging from a recent appearance on Craig Ferguson, a game and flirty talk show guest.

It’s hard to recall, for instance, that in her pre-Travolta days, she dated George Clooney, who gave her a pot-bellied pig during that strange trend whom he ended up caring for when they broke up. Pre-Travolta, she was also married for two years to actor Kevin Gage, who was in her 1986 movie SpaceCamp.

And, perhaps most strangely, Preston was also once engaged to Charlie Sheen. Sheen proposed to her with a 25 carat pink diamond ring that cost more than $200,000, which she didn’t return when they broke it off. They were living in an exclusive Malibu enclave when she was shot by his handgun in 1990. At the time, it was a huge scandal that helped cement Sheen’s image as a womanizing, possibly dangerous, bad boy.

But Sheen has said, as recently as during his tour last year, that he didn’t shoot her—that she had picked up his pants off the floor, not knowing the gun was inside, and it went off. She later told TMZ that his story was the truth: “It was an accident.”

She told Movieline magazine after the incident, “We’re still friends despite all the bullshit in the press.”

And when Sheen was imploding last year, she told People magazine she harbored no ill will toward Sheen: "My heart just goes out to him, and all of his family. We were together for a year, and he wasn't drinking, and he wasn't doing drugs. And there's a beautiful person in there. He really is a great man. I think there's a way back for anyone. I always have hope, and my prayers are with him."

A year after the Sheen break-up, she married Travolta. The two had met on the set of the comedy The Experts in 1987, in which they played two New York nightclub owners who were kidnapped by the KGB to show Russians how to be cool like Americans. The movie was a forgettable, straight-to-video flick, but featured a supremely dorky dance-off between Travolta and Preston sporting their best bad '80s looks. (On Travolta, a truly embarrassing business in the front/party in the back mullet, and on her fantastically big '80s hair.)

When she married Travolta, it was prime People territory. The magazine ran a piece about their engagement touting their six-carat, yellow-and-white diamond ring, their plans to have babies, (“We’re practicing right now,” she was quoted as saying), and covered her history of bad boy romances with men like Sheen.

Indeed, she was already two months pregnant when they got married in Paris in a super-secret ceremony presided over by a French Scientologist minister and with only four witnesses. (Initial reports that the marriage was not registered in the country raised eyebrows about its legality, which led to the couple to say they would later have a civil U.S. ceremony.)

Just a year into their marriage, they had their first son, Jett, who later died unexpectedly at the age of 16 from a seizure while they were vacationing in the Bahamas. The unexpected tragedy shed light on Scientology’s denial of neurological and psychiatric conditions, which had led the couple to deny that Jett had autism (they had previously said he suffered from Kawasaki disease). It was only during a trial against two men in the Bahamas for extortion did Travolta admit in public that their son had been autistic.

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Preston, unlike other Scientologists, speaks candidly about her religion and about how the process of “auditing” has helped her: “In Scientology, we have what’s called ‘auditing,’ and that helps you to address things in your life and to strip them away,” she said recently on Amanda de Cadenet’s Lifetime talk show, The Conversation.

“It's a path of spiritual enlightenment. Also, it helps rid the mind of painful experience completely. Through that, the people at my church literally held my hand and got me through... I will forever be indebted.”

Unlike Holmes and Kidman, Preston has not had a very high profile career since marrying Travolta, who told People magazine in 1989, “She definitely has leading-lady potential. All of this is her entryway into the big time.”

It was probably not the career trajectory she imagined for herself. After spending time in Australia, she went to the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, attending the same high school as President Barack Obama. (He was class of ’79; she was class of ’80). She enrolled in drama and theater at the University of Southern California, and quickly got modeling and fashion roles. As a rising star in the '80s and '90s, she specialized in comic roles that played off her all-American sexiness in movies like SpaceCamp and Twins. Her most memorable role in recent years was that of Tom Cruise’s oversexed, oversharing girlfriend in Jerry Maguire.

But since then, even though the 49-year-old is still smoking hot, much of her recent oeuvre has ranged from that of glorified extra in her husbands’ films (IMDb checks her as “woman on Eiffel Tower” in an uncredited part in From Paris With Love to bit parts as the wife or the mother in movies like Casino Jack or the Miley Cyrus vehicle The Last Song.

Her showbiz career is mostly relegated to that of spokesperson for fellow Scientologist Kirstie Alley’s weight loss company, Organic Liaison, Elsewhere, her time has been spent as a mother and working with charities such as Healthy Child, Healthy World, Save the Sea, and Narconon International—the last of which may shed light on her own past.

In May 2012, she revealed that she’d given up drinking, hinting at a wilder life behind closed doors. She told Us Weekly: “It's different in that I'm so much wiser," she revealed. "I know myself so much more now. I’m so different, too. Now I don't drink anymore. I don't smoke anymore. I don't do drugs anymore. All of those come with an 'anymore.' I used to do everything and a lot of everything." With drinking, I just decided that I wasn't always at my best. There were times where I drank too much, for sure. And when I didn't drink, I felt amazing, and I woke up feeling amazing every single day."

And unlike Holmes, a tabloid narrative is not constructed for Preston based solely on paparazzi pictures of her walking down the street. Instead, it appears that Travolta and Preston go to great lengths to control the story themselves. After the news of masseuse lawsuits broke, the tabloids exploded, naturally. One National Enquirer cover featured a “World Exclusive: Travolta Cross-Dressing Scandal” with a 1997 photo of him in a blond wig next to a headline that read “Kelly Tells John: IT’S OVER.” Preston and Travolta kept out of the spotlight, making a single appearance at the premiere of Savages in late June, during which they awkwardly kissed.

She’s an old hand at dealing with the gay rumors surrounding her husband. In 1990, the National Enquirer reported that he’d had a liaison with an actor who happened to be in Perfect, one of Travolta’s movies: Paul Barresi, who said that Travolta had picked him up in 1982 at a health club shower room and that he’d had a two-year affair with the actor. Barresi had been paid by the Enquirer, and later retracted his claims after hearing from Travolta’s lawyer. (He later told a journalist, “When the dust settled, I regretted the retraction a lot more than I regretted that initial call to the Enquirer.")

Even as tabloids insisted that the two were soon to split, Preston posted a “Mother’s Day” video made by “Johnny” that featured a handful of private pictures mixed in with clearly professionally done shots of their family—their daughter Ella, son Benjamin, and the late Jett—and the couple. It is set to Barbra Streisand’s “That Face.”

“My husband, Johnny, made his directorial debut creating a special Mother’s Day video for me. I was so moved and love it so much that I wanted to share it with all of you.”