In 1989, a flaming meteor burst through Earth’s atmosphere landing in a cornfield, marking the arrival of a young Kal-El to a nondescript town in Kansas. Or at least that’s how it happened on CW’s cult-favorite show Smallville, which follows a teenage Kal-El/Clark Kent through his high school years as he evolves into the Superman the world knows today.
The series, which premiered exactly 20 years ago—on Oct. 16, 2001—and made a star out of Tom Welling, went on to become a massive hit and still holds the title for the longest-running superhero show on television, spanning 10 seasons until its finale in May 2011.
But in recent years, the once family-friendly show that many fans cherished for its life lessons has become known for something much darker: a recruitment playground for the now-infamous NXIVM sex cult.
Smallville’s Allison Mack became one of the main faces of the scandal, accused of being founder Keith Raniere’s second-in-command as he ran a sex-trafficking operation from the group’s headquarters in Albany, New York, while establishing chapters in Vancouver and Mexico.
Mack was integral to Raniere’s operation after being introduced to the 60-year-old in 2006 and eventually becoming a leader of Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), a secretive inner cult within NXIVM.
She would selectively recruit women from the larger group to become her and Raniere’s personal sex slaves, requiring them to hand over “collateral” in the form of explicit footage of themselves or letters falsely accusing family members of sexual abuse in order to prove their loyalty. Many of the women were sadistically branded with Mack and Raniere’s initials.
It was shocking for many that the bubbly Mack found herself entangled in such an ugly web. After all, her personality seemed so akin to her fan-favorite character of Chloe Sullivan, a trusted friend of young Superman and an intrepid reporter who was admired for her dedication to exposing the truth.
The actress admitted at her sentencing in April that she had indeed lured women into the hands of Raniere, who she called a “twisted man” hellbent on carrying out his “nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes.” (Mack is currently serving a three-year sentence in prison in California, while Raniere was sentenced to 120 years behind bars.)
One would assume that the legacy of Smallville is gravely tainted after at least three of its stars were members of the insidious cult. But loyal fans tell The Daily Beast that while they are disgusted with Mack, they believe her actions shouldn’t destroy a show that provided a refuge for those who needed an escape from their personal lives.
“The show was created long before the NXIVM stuff was in play,” explains Charles, who runs a fan account that highlights similarities between Smallville scenes and those from the Arrowverse. “If you need help or you need some comfort, it’s a great show to find strength. When I found the show, my home life went kind of crazy. So, I learned a lot of stuff from Smallville that was my world, and it helped me out a lot and I was very grateful.”
Charles points out that Mack’s strong female character of Chloe was a role that wasn’t typically seen on TV in the early 2000s.
“There were so many people that put effort into making [Chloe] someone that people could look up to,” he says. “Allison Mack’s decisions I hope don’t affect that. They shouldn’t. She doesn’t get the right to destroy what every other person put into it to make this character so great. Everybody on the show worked for 10 years to make it amazing and hopeful—something that comic book fans would enjoy, and casual fans would enjoy.”
Florence, who lives in Argentina and also runs a fan account dedicated to the show, says she discovered the superhero series when she was 17 years old in 2007. Rifling through the video section at a record store, she came across a DVD and decided to watch the first few seasons, intrigued by the backstory of a teenage Superman.
“As soon as I watched the pilot, I instantly loved it because we were both teenagers, but I don’t have superpowers,” she laughs. “But it was nice because he was going through high school, and I was going through high school. It was so cool watching the first seasons because he had to struggle with his high school years and his love interests—stuff that I was also going through at the time, so I related to that.”
Although the accusations against Mack broke long after the show had finished, Florence said she was dismayed because Mack’s character of Chloe had been one of her favorites. And since HBO Max now has Smallville available for streaming in Argentina, Florence says it sometimes makes the series hard to re-watch.
“I honestly couldn't believe it,” Florence explains. “I didn’t expect her to do that [so] it was hard to digest. It’s hard to watch the show now and try to separate what she has done from her character and the show itself. I try to focus on the show and on the episodes and leave out the whole Allison thing but sometimes it’s hard.”
Nihad, a 22-year-old from Bosnia and Herzegovina, recalls how he was thrilled when he came across Smallville around 2014, explaining that he had always been a fan of superheroes, both Marvel and DC.
He began a popular fan page on Facebook, hoping to connect with other fans so he could discuss the series, since many people in his small country had never heard of the show. “I happened to make a lot of really great friends from this fan page because when you surround yourself with like-minded people, you start to feel more accepted,” Nihad says. “You start to feel like there’s a community for me in which I can share my thoughts and beliefs about certain topics, and I know they’re going to understand.”
Nihad says he only recently learned about Mack’s NXIVM involvement. He agrees that she should be held responsible for her actions but says he has always connected with the characters rather than the actors, so it’s easy for him to separate the two.
For him, it’s even more important to keep his fan page running so newcomers to Smallville are reminded of all the positive aspects of the show.
Giada, a fan from Italy, also only recently learned about NXIVM over the summer by watching a TikTok about Mack’s prosecution. “I cannot defend her in any way,” she says, noting that Chloe was her favorite character on the show. “I’m sorry that such an awesome series is connected to such a bad thing.”
While Mack is often thought of as the main Smallville NXIVM member, she wasn’t alone. It was actually Kristin Kreuk, who played Lana Lang, that brought Mack to her first NXIVM meeting in 2006, after taking Raniere’s “Executive Success Programs,” touting itself as an intensive personal-growth course.
Following Mack’s arrest in 2018, Kreuk said that she had left the group around 2012 and had no idea about any illegal activity. “The accusations that I was in the ‘inner circle’ or recruited women as ‘sex slaves’ are blatantly false,” she wrote in a tweet. “I am deeply disturbed and embarrassed to have been associated with NXIVM.”
However, former NXIVM publicist Frank Parlato claimed to Vice in 2018 that Kreuk was not “just a mere fringe player, she was a major integrated person into NXIVM—and was a coach, not just a student.”
At the time, NXVIM was sinking its teeth into the entertainment industry in Vancouver, where Smallville was filmed, establishing a thriving chapter there. The Canada outpost was launched in 2009 by actress Sarah Edmondson (later a whistleblower), who helped bring Kreuk, Resurrection star Mark Hildreth, Hawaii Five-O’s Grace Park, and Battlestar Galactica’s Nicki Clyne into the fold. (Clyne was once married to Mack and still supports Raniere.)
Through casual dinner parties, the word about NXIVM spread to Mack and her then-boyfriend Chad Krowchuk, who recalls how Kreuk sang its praises for helping her overcome her extreme shyness.
Word of the alleged life-changing organization also reached Smallville actor Callum Blue, who played General Zod in seasons 9 and 10, leading him to briefly join in 2011 following the death of his father.
“At the height of my popularity, I went through some trauma,” he explained to E! True Hollywood Story in 2019. “My father took his own life and I continued working and I was caught up in this spiral of chaos because Hollywood can be a chaotic and noisy place. And that really opened me up to looking to the outside world to find the answers. I was in it for five days and I heard the same thing again and again and again.”
But it was Mack who was credited as being an all-star recruiter, reaching out to handfuls of other celebrities and even high-profile writers, including Samia Shoaib, Beverley Mitchell, Kelly Clarkson and Emma Watson, as well as writers Amanda Hess and Jill Filipovic.
Michael Rosenbaum, who played Lex Luthor, said Mack would even try to recruit people to NXIVM while on set. “I remember she was a part of something… doing some self-help stuff,” he said on a podcast in 2018. “I remember thinking that sounds a little culty, maybe it’s not for me, but I never thought about it. When I was on the show Allison was the sweetest, most professional, just a great actress.”
Mack currently sits at a low-level federal prison in California, where she’ll serve three years behind bars for her involvement in NXIVM. It’s a considerably light sentence compared to leader Keith Raniere’s 120-year sentence, and the seven-year sentence of Seagram heir Clare Bronfman, whose fortune backed the cult.