HOYT RICHARDS: MODEL BEHAVIOR

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: David Zaugh (Portrait)

From supermodel to cult survivor, the remarkable journey of Hoyt Richards.

In the late 1980s, Hoyt Richards appeared to be living a picture-perfect existence. Dubbed the “first male supermodel,” Richards rose to international fame posing alongside the likes of Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell for top fashion photographers around the world. He appeared on the covers of countless magazines, one of which ran a splashy fifty-eight-page photo spread dedicated entirely to him. And there were brains behind Richards’ beauty. Before he was jet-setting between exotic shoot locations, he attended Princeton where he played football. Yet behind his easy athleticism, Ivy League education and impossible good looks, Richards was living a shocking secret life—one that began years earlier on Nantucket.

Long before he became the face of Ford Models, Hoyt Richards went by John Richards Hoyt. He was one of six children born to a family from the Main Line, Pennsylvania, who spent their summers on Nantucket. His father proposed to his mother on the island during just their third date. Her conditions for their marriage were simple: She wanted to have a big family, and she wanted to spend every summer on Nantucket. Richards’ father agreed and made good on that promise, eventually buying a home in Shimmo where his children enjoyed idyllic summers growing up. “Under those circumstances,” Richards remembers, “the one adjective I’d use to describe Nantucket would be ‘safe.’”

Then one summer, when Richards was sixteen, he was approached by a stranger on Nobadeer Beach. Older, attractive and charismatic, the man set up his beach blanket right next to Richards’ and struck up a conversation, introducing himself as Frederick von Mierers. “I realized that I had heard about him through my friend group on the island,” Richards says. “They told me about this guy who was this flashback to the sixties and was one of the early adopters of health food, new age thinking, gems and crystals, meditation and yoga.” Drawing a yin and yang symbol in the sand, von Mierers waxed whimsically to Richards about Eastern philosophy, astrology, and alternative thinking. At the time, Richards was pondering the many existential questions of life and von Mierers appeared to have some of the answers. Richards had no reason to have his guard up, especially on Nantucket. He had no way of knowing that von Mierers would ultimately lure him into a cult that would claim more than twenty years of his life.

After that first encounter on Nobadeer Beach, Richards attended parties at von Mierers’ house on India Street where only the most beautiful people were invited to attend. Von Mierers rented the same house every summer and filled it with friends from Manhattan. He ran his house like a ship. After nightly parties, von Mierers would wake up everyone early to clean up from the previous night’s festivities and make them prepare for the party to come. Then he’d set his roommates out onto the beaches bearing white cards with his address on them to recruit a new flock of beautiful people to party with them that night. “It all seemed innocuous to me,” Richards remembers. “At the time, I was oblivious that he already had a group of friends he was controlling. I was really just going to his parties for the free beer. At sixteen, believe me, that was enough.”

At the end of the summer in 1981, after a year of studying abroad in London, Richards headed to Princeton for college. Von Mierers insisted that he come and visit him in New York City that fall, where he said he could get the eighteen-year-old into the legendary club, Studio 54. “He knew the doorman,” Richards remembers. “The first time I walked in there, I was addressed by a woman wearing nothing but scotch tape. I ended up hanging out with Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Liza Minnelli. As an eighteen-year-old, I thought this is it—I have arrived.”

So began frequent trips back and forth from Princeton to New York City to stay with von Mierers and the entourage of friends that he always seemed to have around. They party-hopped every night, with von Mierers constantly hunting for more beautiful people to draw into his fold. Charming and always immaculately dressed, von Mierers could talk a perfect stranger into a cab headed off to another party. For his part, Richards was just happy to be along for the ride. “I thought I was working him,” he says. “I had this guy in New York taking me to all the best parties, meeting famous people.” Little did he know, he was actually the one getting played.

During his sophomore year at Princeton, Richards suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him on the football field. He went to see a surgeon in New York City who told him that they might be able to repair his shoulder, but there was no way of knowing if he’d be able to get back on the field before graduation. Dejected, Richards left the doctor’s office and linked up with one of von Mierers’ friends, a commercial actor who just so happened to be meeting with his agent that afternoon. Waiting for his friend in the agent’s office, Richards caught the eye of one of the talent scouts who asked him if he’d ever considered becoming an actor. “All of a sudden, on the same day when I found out I couldn’t play football, I have someone telling me that I could be an actor,” he remembers.

Acting led to modeling, and before he knew it, Richards was heading off to fashion shoots and commercial auditions in New York between his classes at Princeton. He relocated to New York City full-time after graduating college and moved into von Mierers’ apartment where he slept on the floor while he pursued his modeling career. “That’s really when the hooks went in,” he says. “I saw that Freddy was starting a movement.” Between partying at Studio 54 and summering on Nantucket, by the mid-eighties, von Mierers had groomed an entourage of nearly a hundred followers. Much like he did with Richards on the beach, von Mierers revealed his teachings to his “students” gradually, using astrological charts, gem stones and an amalgamation of religions to seduce them.

“Freddy presented the idea that spiritual life didn’t have to be heavy and serious,” Richards explains. “Everything was acceptable; you just had to be sincere and devoted. You didn’t have to be a monk or give up anything. You just needed to be unattached to the material world. He would constantly say that with the proper mindset you could experience the world as God’s higher cocktail party on earth.”

Richards describes his indoctrination into what became known as Eternal Values as a slow burn, beginning as an innocent pursuit for self-improvement that gradually grew more extreme and more bizarre. “The best way to describe it is like boiling a frog,” Richards reflects. “If you put a frog in hot water, it jumps right out. But if you put a frog in lukewarm water and incrementally turn up the heat, it will stay in there until it boils.” Von Mierers revealed to Richards and his fellow followers that, in his previous life, he lived in a “light body” on the distant star Arcturus. He claimed that he had been sent down to Earth to warn the masses of the impending apocalypse. He told his students that it was his job to find the “sincere souls” that were destined to lead the future of mankind after the world came crashing down in the year 2000. For the uninitiated, his claims might have sounded crazy, but to Richards and the rest of the inner circle, the prophesies became normalized. The young, altruistic followers had been simmering too long to sense that the water was beginning to boil.

“Now I can laugh about what I came to believe after just a few years in Eternal Values,” Richards reflects. “Freddy had a very convincing way of presenting these far-fetched, extreme ideas in a very casual and matter-of-fact manner. It was like you would feel stupid not to believe it. Part of the indoctrination process is learning not to question the leader. The peer pressure element of the group psyche is designed to suppress your critical thinking. If no one else is saying anything, why would you? And you certainly did not want to confront or challenge Freddy directly and possibly invoke his wrath. We were dealing with a volatile, unstable personality. He had quite a temper.”

The inner circle of Eternal Values operated out of von Mierers’ apartment building where Richards and a dozen others lived, partied and stayed up into the early morning hours listening to von Mierers preach. “The pathology of a cult leader is very similar to a serial killer,” Richards says. “Like a serial killer, they get better as they do it, and continue to refine how they hunt their prey.” As the cult grew, von Mierers began running an illegal gem racket, selling stones that he claimed possessed healing powers to his followers for tens of thousands of dollars.

Huddled in his studio apartment, von Mierers prophesied about the coming apocalypse and eventually started sharing his visions with the outside world on a radio program as well as his own cable access television show. “Freddy would espouse that when the end times come, these space people were going to come down in their ships and pick us up,” Richards remembers. “He said that while the majority of the world’s population gets wiped out, we would have access to the rejuvenation chambers and be trained by our benevolent space brothers and sisters. Then they would bring us back to Earth in the aftermath where we would become great leaders to the next eon of prosperity on Earth. As ludicrous as that sounds, at that point I was so brainwashed I would’ve believed almost anything. And as a Star Trek fan, I thought that it all sounded great.”

Meanwhile, Richards’ modeling career continued to skyrocket, earning him millions of dollars – nearly every cent of which he handed over to the cult. He wasn’t just the golden boy; von Mierers also manipulated him into becoming the golden goose for the group. Richards was the one financing Eternal Values to grow beyond von Mierers’ apartment. Eternal Values formed an office and sold books and audio tapes, held seminars and developed a mailing list of over 40,000 people. After wrapping photo shoots in Milan and Paris, when all of the models went off to celebrate, Richards would pop right back on the plane and return to Eternal Values. All his worldly possessions fit in a three-by-three-foot space in the closet of von Mierers’ studio apartment.

“Cult life was fairly mundane and regimented,” he remembers. “You got up early, you did chores. Freddy would have new people coming in all the time. We were not aware that we were actually actively recruiting. After a night of dancing at the clubs followed by long spiritual conversations over herbal tea until the morning hours, we would all roll out mats and crash on the floor. It was kind of like an ashram in that way. That’s how I lived for the next five years.”

Then in 1990, von Mierers died of AIDS. Days after his death, Vanity Fair published a scathing exposé on him and the cult he had created. A media frenzy ensued, and with the leader now gone, the press went after the most famous face of the cult: Hoyt Richards. Still steadfast in his belief that Eternal Values was not a cult, Richards dodged and denied interview requests. Eternal Values became embroiled in a power struggle that eventually split the cult into two factions. Richards stayed with the side that had retained von Mierers’ assets, namely a compound in North Carolina where he said they’d be safe during the end-time. Once down south and under new leadership, the group became more extreme and abusive.

“We went underground,” Richards says. Funded primarily by his modeling career, Eternal Values amassed an arsenal of guns, gold and four years’ worth of stored food in North Carolina. “Those next ten years were much more difficult than the five years I spent with Freddy in New York,” Richards says. “Freddy always propped me up pretty high because I was the cash cow. When he was out of the picture and there was a new leader, there was a lot of built-up resentment because I had been given that preferential treatment.”

The resentment boiled over, so that when Richards started questioning some of the Eternal Values prophecies, particularly that the apocalypse might not be coming in the year 2000, the cult made his life a living hell. They shaved his head weekly so that he couldn’t model anymore. He was forced into months of menial labor while also being subjected to various forms of mental torture such as sleep deprivation, isolation and being screamed at for hours on end. “The group crushed my self-esteem and made me feel totally worthless,” Richards reflects. Reaching his breaking point, he contemplated suicide. Instead, he decided he needed to escape.

On July 3, 1999—after two other failed attempts—Hoyt Richards finally escaped Eternal Values in the middle of the night. He fled to the one place that still felt safe: Nantucket. Appropriately enough, he arrived on the island on the Fourth of July, celebrating his own independence day. Wearing a ball cap to hide his shaven head, Richards reunited with his parents whom he’d not seen in more than a decade.

After staying for nearly a week on Nantucket, Richards reached out to his friend and fellow supermodel, Fabio. “Fabio was one of the first models I met in New York and we had been close since way back when,” Richards says. “He always had this open-door policy in Los Angeles, so I ended up living with him for a year rent free.” During that year, Richards weathered tremors of post-traumatic stress disorder and tried to come to grips with what he’d just emerged from. It took him nearly two years before he could admit to himself that the group was in fact a cult.

Now, exactly two decades since escaping Eternal Values, Hoyt Richards openly shares his story in hopes of not only explaining how people end up in cults, but also helping many others identify the toxic relationships controlling their lives. “The truth is everyone is a cult survivor,” Richards says. “What I mean by that is that we’ve all experienced relationships where the person whom we’re seeking love and approval from is controlling and abusing you. I’ve just gone through the extreme version of that.”

Richards has rebuilt his life, pursuing a career in acting, writing and filmmaking. He says his work has given him an artistic outlet to process the traumas of his past and reclaim his self-esteem. More important, he has connected with a network of fellow cult survivors, some from Eternal Values, and encourages them by example that one can face their difficult past without shame and become empowered by their journey.

Believing in the power of storytelling, Richards is committing his experiences to a forthcoming memoir that he’s writing with a fellow Eternal Values survivor, as well as producing a podcast. “I’m grateful for this experience,” Richards says. “This is not a burden I’m carrying around any longer. It’s been hard work and a long road. I had to educate myself about cults, how they work and how we’re all vulnerable to un- healthy, cultic relationships. I’ve had plenty of counseling, therapy and self-reflection, but now I wear my cult chapter as a badge of courage. I can say I got myself into a situation that I never dreamed would happen to me, and found my way out of it—and actually, I’m a better person because of it.”

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