Clone artist

Dozens of major media outlets, from 60 Minutes to The New York Times, have reported recently that the Raelians, a Quebec-based free-love cult, are about to clone a millionaire's dead baby in their secret laboratory. JAN WONG investigates the Raelians -- who also say the human race was created by super-aliens and that their leader is Christ's half-brother -- and wonders, why on Earth does anybody believe them?

White candles flicker alongside a dish of fresh strawberries. Diane Brisebois clutches a microphone, torch-singer style. She's sexy in tight pants and red lipstick, curls cascading over her shoulders. "At 11, as we always do," she says, "we will make telepathic contact with our leaders."

Brisebois is the chief priestess in Ontario for the Raelians (rhymes with "aliens"). It's only 10:35 a.m., because, an organizer explains, it takes 25 minutes to reach the extraterrestrials called Elohim (rhymes with "annoying").

To Raelians, evolution is bunk. The Elohim cloned their own DNA to create the human race in a laboratory 25,000 years ago, according to Rael, the one-named cult leader, a transplanted Frenchman who lives half the year in Florida and the other half at UFOland, the Raelians' theme park and condo complex about an hour northeast of Montreal.

Rael founded his sect in France in 1973, but it is now based in Quebec. It claims 55,000 members in 84 countries, but the real number is probably half that. Now 54, Rael advocates sensual massage, nude meditation, free love, and eternal life through human cloning.

He'd also like you to tithe your after-tax income. And until you can clone yourself, he requests that when you die, you leave the bulk of your worldly possessions to the sect. Its plans include an embassy, complete with spaceship landing pad, for the Elohim's scheduled return in 2035. So far, it has raised about $11-million.

In the meantime, the cult hopes to reap an even bigger windfall. Targeting a growing market of bereaved parents, infertile or same-sex couples, and your average megalomaniac, the Raelians plan to clone the first human. Or so they have declared in dozens of interviews to pliant, panting media, and, last week, in testimony before the U.S. Congress.

"A grieving family hopes to replace a lost child. A genetics-obsessed sect dreams of achieving immortality. Is this how human cloning will begin?" asked the display copy on Margaret Talbot's New York Times Magazine cover story in February.

"Two groups announce human cloning plans," CNN reported in March, right along with "Lung cancer rising in women."

"Human cloning project may have begun," headlined USA Today. "Is this what Aldous Huxley warned us about?" fretted the National Post.

Everyone including 60 Minutes to Good Morning America to Dan Rather has duly reported that the cult has a bereaved and very rich American couple bankrolling its effort. The unnamed couple wants to clone their 10-month-old son who died following an operation two years earlier.

News groups have also repeated the Raelians' claim to have 50 wombs at their disposal. One belongs to Brisebois. Another belongs to the eldest daughter of Brigitte Boisselier, chairman, chief executive officer and "scientific director" of Clonaid, the cult's cloning company.

Finally, the media swallow whole the Raelian story that they have a lab up and running in the United States -- even though no one has ever seen it -- and that they are cloning a human as you read this.

The Raelians have a history of stunning announcements followed by zero results. In 1997, when Dolly the sheep was cloned, the Raelians said they had more than a million customers and were building a laboratory in the Bahamas.

"It was just a P.O. box," admits Rael, formerly a wannabe race-car driver named Claude Vorilhon. "There was nothing. We wanted to see if there was interest from potential customers, potential investors, from scientists."

In their current media blitz, the Raelians have not had to buy a single ad to let potential customers know they are selling human eggs for $5,000 (U.S.), storing DNA samples for $50,000 and cloning babies for $200,000. Make that $500,000. Or $1-million. As publicity builds, the price keeps going up.

Cloning isn't explicitly outlawed in Canada or most of the United States, although U.S. President George W. Bush has signalled he'd like to pass legislation soon. But scientists now say that cloned humans could be prone to a high risk of genetic abnormalities. Cow clones often have enlarged hearts.

And, as The New York Times has reported, some mouse clones that looked normal at first have become obese in maturity, even though they eat the same amount of food as other mice.

Though Boisselier is a chemist, not a geneticist, that doesn't stop Clonaid's scientific director from stating that the "success rate for cloning cattle is 15 to 30 per cent." It's actually 1 per cent. It took 277 tries before scientists succeeded in producing Dolly the sheep. And a three-year, $3.7-million effort in Texas to clone a mongrel dog named Missy for an anonymous West Coast billionaire has so far failed.

But why let facts get in the way of a good story? No matter how strange they are. There's Rael's claim that he's Christ's half-brother, for instance. Or Centre UFOland's pictures of little green men and its life-size plywood replica of the flying saucer Rael boarded in 1973. Or the Raelian claim of covering a distance of two light years in 25 minutes, sans spacecraft. That's what we're doing here on this frozen Sunday morning.

Brisebois is leading the monthly meditation. She instructs us to breathe deeply. We're about to visit another planet. Only 22 devotees have shown up for the ride. They sit, eyes closed, on orange vinyl chairs. In deference to the weather, no one disrobes. The men look ordinary. The women are almost all attractive, or at least have made a major effort to that end. Everyone seems to be wearing identical medallions, a swirl within the six-pointed Star of David.

We're on the fourth floor of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education on Bloor Street in Toronto. A huge photograph of a bare-chested Rael is propped on a table. I don't feel any breeze when Brisebois, an ex-Quebecker, announces that we are flying through the sky. I do notice the Bloor Street subway line rumbling beneath the building every four minutes.

"You can see Lake Ontario," she murmurs. "And the cars are getting smaller. The planet is now just a tiny blue dot. And you are among the stars. On your right side, you see a beautiful star. You start going toward it."

Suddenly a man bolts. Does he know a shortcut? No, he's merely having a coughing fit in the hall. Brisebois announces we've just landed on the planet of the Elohim, one light year from Earth (which is odd, because astronomers say the closest star is four light years away).

After briefly hanging around a marvellous green forest I can't see, she leads us back to Toronto. She points out the North American continent, then the Great Lakes. "You can recognize the Bay," she adds, referring to the department store's Bloor Street branch. Ta-dah! We're back. Everyone claps. Two Raelians pass around envelopes, collecting $5 here, $20 there.

Chatting later, Brisebois says that she joined the Raelians when she was 16. She subsequently had sex with Rael whenever he was in Montreal. "It was wonderful," she breathes. "I loved him in the past, and I still love him."

Like many Raelians, Brisebois is childless by choice. But, she says, "I think it would be wonderful to be the surrogate mother of the first cloned child." She admits that she hasn't had a single one of the many drug injections required to prep a woman's body to accept a foreign embryo. So is she a bonafide volunteer? "I'm 41," she concedes. "That would make me borderline."

Marina Cocolios, however, is a picture of female fecundity. At 22, she has a peaches-and-cream complexion and shiny dark eyes. As Boisselier's daughter, she's also the surrogate-mom volunteer the Raelians always trot out for media interviews.

This week, she's done CTV and a Dutch magazine. Later, she'll talk to Japanese TV reporters. She has the routine down pat. She meets reporters at this Second Cup on St. Denis Street in Montreal and orders herbal tea and chocolate cake. Then she parries questions. She's met the cloning couple, of course, but she is absolutely not at liberty to disclose anything about them.

Cocolios turns heads with her shapely figure, swathed in a caramel leather skirt and snug black sweater with eyelet stitching just below the bra line. Lovely as she is, conversations with her tend to veer off into outer space. Take her plans for the future. After she graduates from Concordia University where she is in third-year fine arts, she plans to teach art. Then she'd like to open a school for abused children. Later, she wants to study science.

And after that? "Then I want to go to another planet as an artist and scientist." Last year, her performance art consisted of donning an antique white nightgown and bathing with red wine. "It was extremely sensual," she recalls. This year she's working on a paper dress covered with quotations from Rousseau, Sartre and, yes, Rael.

Cocolios, a French citizen, has no plans for any children of her own. She's already had one abortion. But she'd be thrilled to carry the first cloned human embryo. "It's like having a pregnancy not just for yourself, but for the whole world. Isn't it beautiful?"

As Boisselier's daughter, she should have the inside track. Yet she has never been to her mother's cloning lab. And, like Brisebois, she has not donated any eggs or undergone the heavy drug regimen required for implanting an embryo. Has she done anything at all to prepare herself for this momentous step? Cocolios smiles. Her ex-boyfriend, a Raelian who decided he'd be happier living in Europe, gave her cream for stretch marks.

Raelians love publicity. They issue press releases. They stage stunts, like distributing condoms to Montreal high-school students in 1992 to protest against the Catholic Church's stand on birth control. They even have publicists, like Sylvie Chabot, a Montreal consultant whose business cards carry Rael's photo and identify her as "Rael's press attaché."

Raelians also love hierarchy. They group themselves into six levels, ranging from novice to Rael himself, who alone occupies the 6th level. Cocolios is a 3rd-level Raelian and a "regional guide." Chabot, a 4th-level Raelian and a "national guide," sets up an interview with Lear, a 5th-level Raelian.

Lear (Rael spelled backwards) is a "bishop" and "continental head" for North America, and Rael's top aide. Like his mentor, Lear goes by only one name. His real surname is Potvin, but he says his real first name is too dorky to reveal. We meet for dinner at Jardin Sakura on Mountain Street in Montreal. It's Lear's favourite restaurant, and he orders without even glancing at the menu: miso soup, a giant sushi-sashimi platter, and a couple of orders of barbequed eel and raw sea urchin.

Raelians may be casual about nude meditation, but they're quite formal about interviews. Chabot, a slim angular woman with hennaed hair and watchful eyes, insists on joining us. She joined the Raelians when she was 25. Now 46, thrice-divorced and childless by choice, she's weirdly secretive. Her brother, Daniel Chabot, heads the Canadian Raelian movement and teaches psychology at a Montreal CEGEP. Asked which one, she says, "I don't know. Somewhere in Montreal."

Lear, who is an artist, designed the medallions every cult member wears. His own is the size of a Pringle's potato-chip canister lid. "I had a bigger one," he says, "but somebody stole it at the gym out of my bag."

Lear also designed Centre UFOland. It consists of a museum devoted to DNA and extraterrestrials, the plywood flying saucer, a snack bar, souvenir shop, campsite, 500-seat dining hall and six condos for top Raelians, including Rael and Boisselier. (It is open to the public only in the summertime.)

"I'll take a little sake, but don't tell Rael," says Lear, smoothing back his longish dark hair, which has bleached tips. Raelians, he explains, aren't supposed to smoke, drink or take drugs, even caffeine. (Chabot also sneaks a cup of sake.)

Lear is childless, too. He doesn't want a squalling baby, but he would like to be cloned, as an adult, and download his memories into the new body. Exactly how is unclear. "It's going to be possible soon. One will have eternal life." The promise of perpetual youth through cloning could be why so many attractive women are drawn to the Raelians -- and they, in turn, draw in the men.

"I would keep my mind," Chabot says enthusiastically, "but in a new body, when I was 17 years old, when I was young and sexy." As a lapsed Catholic, Lear isn't afraid of going to hell. "But if they tell me I'll never come back to sushi, I'll be sad."

Clearly, he's no starving artist. He dines at Sakura several times a week. Soon, he'll fly to Florida to relax on the beach and play the ball game petanque with Rael. Lear also has a health-club membership, a black Volkswagen Jetta with heated seats, and two homes. He needs two, he explains, for the inevitable day when he and his Raelian girlfriend split up.

Lear, who is 37, became a Raelian at 14. A neighbour in the Quebec village of Lac St.-Jerome gave him The Message Given by Extra-Terrestrials, the first of Rael's half-dozen books. (His latest, Yes to Human Cloning, is about to be published by the sect.)

In the first book, the author describes how, at 27, as an auto-sports journalist and aspiring race driver, he boarded a hovering flying saucer in Auvergne, in southern France, in December, 1973. For six days straight, a little green man explained in fluent French the origin of Earthlings. He also unravelled all those mysteries in the Bible. The miracle of Jesus feeding the multitudes with just 20 loaves of bread, for example, was merely "synthetic dehydrated food -- which, when added to water, increased to five times its original volume."

The space alien informed Claude that his true father was an extra-terrestrial who had impregnated Claude's mother. (The same E.T., by the way, who had earlier inseminated Mary, mother of Jesus.) The alien asked Claude to spread the word and to change his name to Rael, which means "messenger" in space-speak.

Two years later, Rael was whisked to that same planet we visited during the Sunday meditation. There he met Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed. Moses was there, too. It turns out that, like Jesus and Rael, Moses is of mixed parentage (which may explain the confusion in the bulrushes).

Like a New-Age Hugh Hefner, Rael enjoyed perfumed baths and, with the aid of six voluptuous robots, other favours. It was, he writes, "the most extravagant night" of his life.

Suddenly Chabot starts talking about green lists and pink lists and blacklists. "Every journalist has one chance," she says, pushing away her plate of sushi. "When we don't like what they write, they're on a blacklist." The pink list, she adds, means the journalist is "pure." She stares at me. "You're on the green list. It means green light, go ahead."

Chabot is tired of Earthling ridicule and contempt. She can't wait until the first cloned baby is born. Then all those blacklisted media types will besiege her for interviews. "And I'll say, 'Sorry,' " she gloats. Lear gets into the spirit: "When the Elohim come to our embassy, we'll remember who has been disrespectful and we'll let them line up. And then we'll make them go back to the end of the line." He laughs uproariously.

I may not be on the green list for long, so I quickly request an interview with Rael himself. Like many Quebeckers, cult leaders or no, he winters in Florida. For several years now, he's been the semi-permanent houseguest of a devout Raelian in North Miami Beach. Chabot says Rael gives only one interview a day, for one hour, always at 4:15 p.m.

Why 4:15? "Because this is his schedule."