Cult or con? Experts say upheaval at Mercola brand resembles both

Expert analysis delves into Joseph Mercola’s intersection with alleged psychic influence, raising concerns of cult-like dynamics amid company upheaval.

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief

May 2, 2024

12 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Dr. Mercola consulted a psychic before cleaning house.
  • Cultologists see parallels with Dr. Mercola.
  • Can Mercola really reach half of humanity?

The difference between a cult and a con is often difficult to discern, but experts on cult indoctrination and psychic fraud say developments surrounding osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola’s actions at his supplement company fit patterns seen in both, largely affirming the fears of people close to the controversial doctor that he is being manipulated by a purported psychic.

In hundreds of hours of video and transcripts to which Natural Products Insider was given access, Dr. Mercola consulted with a psychic who goes by the name Kai Clay but appears to have been previously known as Christopher Johnson. Clay claimed to channel an “ancient and wise high-vibration entity from the causal plane.”

Mercola began meeting with Clay — who spoke as the entity “Bahlon” — in late 2023, and announced that he was going to produce a book from Bahlon’s teachings that would change the world, bringing joy to “billions” of people. Mercola’s sister, Janet Selvig, said she confronted the doctor about his relationship with Clay and he reacted angrily, at one point declaring himself “the new Jesus.” A week later, Selvig was fired from her job editing content for the brand, along with CEO Steve Rye and Chief Business Officer Ryan Boland. An email appearing to come from Mercola cited the executives’ Catholic beliefs as reasons for firing them.

Related:Dr. Mercola consulted with psychic before axing top executives

While none of the experts interviewed for this story would declare Clay/Johnson or Mercola’s responses to be legal evidence of a cult or psychic fraud, they indicated the story checks multiple boxes for both.

Controlling dynamics

Rick Ross, founder of the Cult Education Institute, called the outlines of the Mercola story all too familiar. “It just sounds like something I've dealt with over and over and over and over,” he said. Ross, who has worked as a deprogrammer in cult recovery, said the description of Clay/Johnson’s channeling abilities is a flashing warning sign.

“The psychic, saying that he represents and channels this higher power, he’s setting himself up in that type of position where he cannot be questioned, because he is simply channeling the higher power, which is all-knowing, all-powerful, and therefore the doctor must accept whatever he says.”

That’s clearly controlling behavior, Ross stated.

Steven Hassan, Ph.D., author of Combating Cult Mind Control (Freedom of Mind Press, 2015), agreed that claiming special powers is an oft-used strategy in gaining control of a person. “It can be any number of noncorporeal entities,” Hassan explained. “It’s stereotypical with these channelers: They close their eyes, they go into trance and then they become the entity.”

Related:Dr. Mercola allegedly plans to introduce psychic advisor to followers

The trance scene Hassan described matches Clay’s transformation to “Bahlon” in the videos of Mercola and Clay. (The videos have not been posted publicly, but Clay in his “trance” state can be seen here.)

Such claimed abilities are also seen in less ambitious cases of psychic fraud. Susan Gerbic works with a “Guerilla Skeptics” group that exposes psychics that they allege are using age-old parlor tricks to deceive people. What makes something like a “high-vibration” entity such an easy ruse, Gerbic said, is that an entity can’t be fact-checked. It’s not as though Clay is claiming to channel Abraham Lincoln. “It’s always somebody that you can’t check up on,” Gerbic noted. “Do we have historical evidence of this supposed person?”

Crisis mode

Another area seen in both psychic fraud and a cult indoctrination is targeting people who are in a life crisis or going through a difficult period. For example, Gerbic has worked with many people who were manipulated by an alleged psychic when they were experiencing grief. Ross also sees a pattern of people being brought into cults when they are at low points in their lives. “Here's what I don’t hear: ‘My life was great. Everything was great. My family? Fantastic! Work? Great!” Ross shared. “What I usually hear is, ‘I was going through difficult time in my life. I felt unhappy, I felt depressed.’”

Related:Mercola rejects accusations in watchdog’s congressional testimony over COVID-19 claims

Mercola has recently gone through a challenging period. In 2021, the New York Times called him “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online,” and he was listed among “the disinformation dozen” by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. His anti-vaccine postings and videos were removed from Facebook and YouTube that same year, and in 2023, JPMorgan Chase & Co. closed his business and personal accounts, as well as the accounts of top executives.

But as challenging as all that might be, Gerbic contends that age may be the factor that put Mercola in a susceptible crisis mode. The doctor will turn 70 in July. “That’s a big number,” Gerbic observed, explaining that some people start to think about bold acts and legacies at that age. “He’s just having that kind of ‘Oh, shit. I better do something else with my life. Maybe I should write a book on happiness with this guru that is giving me such joy.’”

Older people are also a growing demographic for cults, according to Stephen Kent, a retired professor who researched cults. “When I started off in the early ’70s, the targets for so-called cults were people in their 20s,” he said. “Now I get phone calls occasionally from adults in their 40s and 50s who are worried about their parents in their 70s and 80s.”

At any stage in life, grandiose affirmation can make people especially vulnerable, experts interviewed for this story agree What the channelers and psychics can then do — having displayed their special powers and established bond as a guide or teacher — is confer some divinely appointed status on the follower, Hassan explained. “If the entity flatters you and says you’re Jesus from a past life, that will be very flattering.”

An elevated status, whether it’s messianic or special in some other spiritual way, is ubiquitous in cult manipulation, Rosst and the other experts agree. Long presenting himself as a guru at odds with conventional medicine, the doctor may have been particularly open to validation from a supposed divine power.

“People believe what they want to believe,” Hassan suggested, “and so, if you want to believe you’re special, that you have a unique role in human history, you are going to be more receptive if some authority figure shows up and says, ‘I have a message for you.’”

That message almost always includes a world-changing mission. Gerbic noted that run-of-the-mill psychics don’t often have such lofty goals. “That’s more of a guru thing,” she explained. But cult experts say “changing the world” is central to the cult model and can either give purpose to people in crisis — or turbocharge the egos of people who already believe in their “chosen one” status. An accomplished cult leader knows how build a pitch around the ego of the person they are attempting to control, Ross said. “It sounds like this individual is catering to the already-existing narcissism of the person who they have targeted.”

In an email to an employee that previewed the executive firings, Mercola boasted of his transformative reach. “I have influenced hundreds of millions of people,” he said, “but that is not good enough. We have to reach at least half the world’s population and this book and work is the only thing that I know of that has a chance.”

Big fish

It’s also not unusual for cult leaders and people claiming to be psychics to target high-wealth individuals. “What’s the use going after someone who washes dishes at Taco Bell?” Hassan asked. Mercola, owner of a brand with annual revenues upwards of $150 million, certainly qualifies as high-wealth, but his huge and unique online following would also be attractive to an enterprising psychic or cult leader looking to grow their own following. Big donors to Scientology are reportedly described within the organization as “whales,” but celebrity followers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta are what gain the church recurring notice.

Daniel Shaw, a cult recovery counselor, said celebrity and wealth are extremely attractive — even essential — to cults. “Anybody who wants to be a leader in this way, they absolutely have to keep growing their followers. They need more and more followers, and basically, they need more and more control, and more and more feeling of being omnipotent, really powerful. Having celebrities, people who fall at their feet, it’s an advertisement; it’s a marketing strategy; it’s great PR.”

Psychics also rely on celebrities to grow their fame. Dionne Warwick promoted the Psychic Friends Network, and similar cases abound. Where Clay’s Bahlon differs from the more typical psychic offering may be the scale of ambition.

Mark Edwards, who once entertained audiences with deceptive “psychic” abilities and now exposes people he describes as psychic scam artists, noted that most psychics are content with readings to people of lower means and status. “They’re generally more interested in one-on-one so they can feed off that, but if they can increase their audience, and add a few million dollars into their own pocket along the way, they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ They’re going to probably slowly insinuate themselves with as many people as they can.”

Isolated and insulated

What cult leaders and psychic scam artists both attempt to avoid is any questioning of their abilities or their belief structure. Doing that while also controlling or manipulating a target often means isolating the target from their families and other people who may attempt to intervene.

In Mercola’s case, he fired his sister and two important advisers in chief executives Rye and Boland. According to his sister, the split and firings came after she confronted him about his work with Clay/Bahlon. In the videos, Clay talked to the doctor about separating himself from Rye.

Shaw has heard similar stories from the cult survivor clients he treats: “[After] the follower has really gotten hooked, the follower will get rid of whoever it is that doesn’t believe, whether that’s their own children or parents.” Gerbic sees the same things with psychics. “They want to separate them (fraud targets) from their money, so they isolate them from other people, from their normal advisers.”

What makes Mercola’s case match so well with the typical cult practices is the way he cites Catholicism in the email preceding the firings. He described the Catholic church as “the entity behind the global cabal,” adding that the church “created all the pain that most people experience” before declaring that “the current leadership,” referring to Selvig, Rye and Boland, “has strong commitments to the Catholic Church.” [See email image, below.]


Cults often present themselves as being in opposition to a particular group, Hassan said. “Every mind-control group has a devil or a demon,” he said, explaining that the evil force creates the separation and isolation the cult leader needs. “If you’re a controller, you want to neutralize anyone that might interfere with your ability to control.”

Status check

Determining whether a controlling dynamic could be tied to a cult or a con is all but impossible from the outside. Some psychics actually believe what they are doing, just as some cult leaders are convinced they are the next messiah. “A con knows what he or she is doing is false and it’s just trickery,” Kent maintained. “A person with delusions won’t have that knowledge. You know, they may actually believe what they’re doing. Now with him (Clay), I don’t know.”

At some point, it may not make a difference in terms of the impacts, Shaw contended — the behaviors are the same. “Yes, they’re manipulative and conniving, and they’ve got all kinds of strategies for controlling and dominating, exploiting, but they’re doing it from this delusion.”

Gerbic suspects many psychics likely begin believing they have psychic abilities, but as their activities become more grandiose, a transition occurs where most of them accept that what they are doing is an act. “The bigger-name psychics usually know damn well what they’re doing,” she asserted.

There can be shades of doubt even among believers. Naturopath and “metaphysician” Stephen Spencer appeared with Mercola and Clay at a November event held at Sacred Space Miami. He said he accepts the “Bahlon” entity, but perhaps not Clay’s intentions. “I also believe that Kai is a true channeler of Bahlon with the manipulation of facts to benefit himself and his inner circle of people,” Spencer said in an email to Natural Products Insider.

What may matter more than whether Clay and Bahlon are part of a cult or a con is whether Mercola is the victim or an active participant. Cults often declare a mission against a group or outsiders more broadly and Mercola’s has a long history as a contrarian voice.

That could make talking him back from his recent choices harder. As Kent explained it, people who think they are “part of this globally transformative message” often don’t want to give up the charge they get from that status. Kent spoke of Sun Myung Moon, of the “Moonies” religious movement/cult, who declared himself ‘Lord of the Universe.’ Kent stated, “These people have extraordinarily inflated senses about themselves, their importance, their writings, their impact upon the world.”

Mercola could not only fit into that mold, but his entrenchment around alternatives to mainstream medicine might also make him susceptible to accepting wildly outlandish beliefs, like perhaps that an ex-branding executive from New Jersey is channeling an ancient entity. “There’s something called the cultic milieu, which is all of those odd fringe alternative beliefs that get thrown into a great big pot. They get stirred around,” Kent says.

What’s next for Mercola?

Where Mercola’s company goes next is far from clear. Shaw described cults as often reaching a crisis point. “The psychology of the leaders gets more and more grandiose and paranoid. The followers become more and more exploited and things start to go wrong. The whole thing goes up in flames.”

The fact that there is an existing corporate structure might portend a different ending, however. The situation is very unique, Hassan said. “This is a corporate takeover. It’s not a typical thing, from my point of view.” Mercola appointed a new CEO who seems to have a background with Clay and his channeling activities. Several other new hires with work experience well outside the supplement space have also been brought in. But people still working at the company indicated that however shellshocked employees may be, business continues.

Part of Mercola’s new vision, encouraged by Clay as Bahlon, is opening clinics to bring “joy” to the world — although no evidence has emerged that the Mercola brands will ever be the platform for a cult. Nor is there definitive evidence that a cult-like movement is Clay’s intent.

But still, as Ross pointed out, every cult has to start somewhere.

“All you need to begin a cult is at least two people. You have the leader and you have at least one follower.”

About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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