"I don't want to be known as this bitter, ex-Scientologist," Leah Remini told BuzzFeed over a recent lunch at the luxe Sunset Tower hotel in Los Angeles. "I'm not trying to bash anybody and I'm not trying to be controversial. I just want people to know the truth."
But the truth has been especially hard for the court of public opinion to pinpoint in the months since the actress very publicly defected from The Church of Scientology in June 2013, given the notoriously confidential Church's ability to quickly close ranks and target defectors whenever their practices come into question.
Remini's then-friend and Church member Kirstie Alley called her "repulsive" and "a bigot" during an interview on Howard Stern's show, and the 43-year-old actress spent much of what she refers to as a "devastating" time, hysterically crying as friend after friend abandoned her for doing what she considered "the right thing."
Remini has since learned, albeit the hard way, that honesty isn't always the best policy in Hollywood, a place she's called home since 1983 when her pregnant mother, Vicki, could no longer stand the living conditions her daughters endured at The Church of Scientology's Clearwater, Florida location.
"We went from a middle-class lifestyle [in Brooklyn, N.Y.] to living in a roach-infested motel with six other girls off a freeway in Clearwater," Remini recalled of her family's transition to the Church's compound in Florida, before her 10th birthday. "We were separated from our mother. We had to sign billion-year contracts we didn't understand. And we kept saying, 'Why are you doing this to us? Why are we here?'"
The answer was simple: Their stepfather (her parents had separated when she was young) had convinced their mother to move the family — which, at that time, included Remini, her mom Vicki, and her sisters Nicole and Christina — to Florida. Though the women made the long trek to the Church's gates in Clearwater, their stepfather never followed. But there was no time to mourn the loss of their father figure since they were immediately thrown into service.
"We were working from morning until night with barely any schooling," Remini said of her early days at the Church. "There was no saying no. There was no being tired. There was no, 'I'm a little girl who just lost her father and everything I've ever known.' There was only, 'Get it done.'"
"If the church needed a ballroom wall knocked down, you made it happen because there were heavy repercussions if you didn't," Remini continued. "And although that was horrendous for a child to deal with, at the same time, it gave me my work ethic."
Eventually Remini's mother, who was, by then, pregnant with her fifth daughter, tired of life in Florida and packed up her girls for a necessity-fueled exodus.
"Oddly, moving to L.A. had nothing to do with me wanting to be an actress," said Remini, who was forced to put her childhood dream of starring in Annie on the backburner when they left New York. "My mother had a friend who was willing to take us in for a month until we could get on our feet. So we lived on her floor. It was pretty traumatic, but I found my strength through my mother in that time because she never once made us feel like we wouldn't be OK."
But Remini's adjustment to L.A. was anything but smooth.
"I went back to school, but it was nearly impossible to re-acclimate after Florida, especially since I was going to be an actress and didn't think I would need an education," she said.
After repeatedly rejecting her daughter's requests, Vicki finally allowed her teenage daughter to drop out of public school, knowing she would still be receiving an education at The Church of Scientology.
"She didn't feel like I was missing out on a real education," Remini noted. "The only thing that mattered was that we were taking courses — and not taking drugs."
In no short time, the 13-year-old aspiring actress found herself with an agent — and an audition for acclaimed casting director John Levey (Head of the Class, China Beach, Growing Pains) — thanks to Juliette Lewis, whom she befriended hanging out "in the bad part of town," in Remini's words.
"I went to the $5 clothing store, bought myself a miniskirt, some Skippies, and I walked into that audition being my most Brooklyn," Remini recalled with a smile. "I was being a total smart ass and John's laughing, so I'm thinking, This guy loves me and I'd be showing up on a set the next day." Levey would later tell Remini she delivered one of the worst auditions he'd ever seen, but that initial vamping made an impact as he recognized something special in this incredibly un-Hollywood young lady. He called her back for audition after audition, until she eventually landed a very — very — brief guest role on Head of the Class.
"John Levey begged the producers to give me the part, not because I deserved it," Remini said with a candor that's omnipresent in nearly every sentence that escapes her mouth. "But, I do believe when it's your turn, it's your turn. I envision Hollywood as a race and some people simply drop off before their turn comes around. It's all about stamina — your ability to get back up and keep going even though everything is pointing at the odds not being in your favor."
Not long after that, Remini's stamina paid off.
She was spending her days working at an insurance company, and Remini remembers, like yesterday, the moment she was called to audition for ABC's Who's The Boss? spin-off, Living Dolls. She was up for the role of Charlie Briscoe, a tough-talking girl from — of all places — Brooklyn. "I mean, it was me," she laughed. "I said to my mother, 'If I don't get this role, I'm not meant to be in this business.'"
After less than a year in L.A., Remini — the girl who once dreamt of belting "Tomorrow" on Broadway — had booked the lead on a major network sitcom.
Looking back, Remini laughs at her naivety upon landing the gig.
"I really thought that was it. I thought I was done. I thought I'd made it. You don't realize there's going to be trials and tribulations in the ebb and flow of this business," she says now, with 30 more years of experience.
So when ABC canceled Living Dolls in December 1989 after just 12 episodes, Remini was devastated. After an understandable grieving stage, she received an invigorating pep talk from her mother.
"She was like, 'Cut the shit, dust off your boots, and get back on the horse.' Because my family believed in me, I was able to keep going." Luckily, Remini's next job wasn't too far off — although not everyone on "Team Leah" thought it was in her best interest to accept the role of Stacey Carosi on Saved By The Bell in 1991.
"My agents actually told me if I took the job, they would no longer represent me," Remini said. "I took the show because I loved the show and to this day I still get tweets from people that are like, 'OMG! You kissed Zack Morris!!!!"
An enduring Saved By The Bell fanbase was not the only thing Remini took away from her six-episode stint on the iconic series when the Bayside crew headed to Carosi's father's Malibu Sands Beach Club.
"I would sit to the side, watch all those guys work, and think to myself, I want this," she remembered. "But I was always very aware of my position, which is funny because even in life, I'm like that; I have always compared where I am to where I want to be. As a kid, I remember wondering why we lived in an apartment, not in a brownstone, and why we drove an LTD, not a Cadillac. Even now I'm like that. If I'm on the 5th floor, I will wonder why I'm not on the 6th floor. But that was my drive. I was obsessed with my family having a better life."
That quest for financial security materialized in six years of guest spots that ranged from the iconic (Cheers and Friends) to the forgotten (First Time Out and Renegade). And then, in 1997, Remini was cast on Fired Up, an NBC sitcom that co-starred Sharon Lawrence and scored the plum post-Seinfeld timeslot. But what seemed like a gift ended up being more like a curse.
"It was hard to keep all their viewers through one commercial break," Remini recalled. After two seasons, NBC pulled the plug on Fired Up, and once again, the then-27-year-old actress was devastated. "People don't realize how much blood, sweat, and tears go into every show — whether it's a hit or not. You develop friendships with the cast and crew, so it's like a little death every time they go away," she explained.
It was during that professional mourning period that Les Moonves, president of CBS, approached Remini's agent with an offer for a new show called King of Queens.
"I'm still crying over Fired Up, so the last thing I wanted to do is audition for another show. But Les said to my agent, 'Who the fuck does Leah think she is? She's coming off a failed show!'"
Eventually Remini came around and headed to a meeting with the show's star, Kevin James, an introduction she recalled with a bemused smirk.
"I think he called me a nasty name and grabbed my tit in the first 30 seconds," she said. "From that point on, I was hooked. There was just something in his eyes that was indescribable; I fell in love with him."
And in time, so did the rest of America.
King of Queens, which starred James and Remini as blue-collar couple Doug and Carrie Heffernan, premiered on Sept. 21, 1998 to decent reviews and even better ratings. Remini may have adored the show, but she was wary given her TV track record. "Because of everything that had happened to me, I always thought I would never work again, and that every job would be my last," she explained. "That feeling followed me to King of Queens."
In her TV husband, Remini found a soulmate who shared her fear of cancellation, which led to many "knock-down, drag-out fights," but also fueled their desire to make every King of Queens episode count.
"Each time we came out for introductions [to the live studio audience], we'd look up and say, 'One day we won't be looking at those rafters.' We never didn't value what we had with that show, and it came from the fear that this would all suddenly go away," Remini said. "We were never comfortable enough to think what we were doing was good."
But this time, cancellation never came. King of Queens routinely drew 10 million-plus viewers over the course of its first eight years. But, going into the ninth season in 2006, James informed the cast and crew he was ready to leave the show behind, a revelation that still hits Remini like a ton of bricks eight years later. "There are no words to describe it," she said, still using present tense to describe that moment.
"Kevin loved the show, but his film career was taking off and he didn't want it to end up being the show that trickled off. I mean, everyone else was OK going out with a 0.3 rating," she laughed. "I understood his position, and looking back, he was right, but I'm still mourning that loss. I can't really watch the reruns because I still feel that show in my bones."
After Queens, Remini found herself entirely unequipped for a life full of down time.
"I like to be busy; very, very busy," she said, gesturing wildly with her hands. "I work hard, so I can relax hard — I'm talking about watching The Real Housewives all day. But if I don't work hard, I feel like I don't deserve to relax."
With the Queens wound too fresh for Remini to jump straight into another sitcom, she began toying with the idea of hosting a talk show. As that new endeavor was taking shape at Paramount, Moonves approached her with an offer to join a talk show he was producing at CBS.
"I really wanted to do my own thing," she recalled, "but Les said that for every year I was on The Talk, he'd let me develop shows for CBS, which sounded great."
Thus began a year of learning lessons the hard way.
Lesson 1: Be careful what you wish for. Turns out, Remini hated producing her own star vehicles. "My hat is off to writers everywhere, because I am not a writer," she said with a chuckle. "I just want to get my script, have a showrunner tell me what to do, and say their words."
Lesson 2: Promises are often broken. What she'd been told about the quality of guests The Talk would chase, and the conversations the hosts would ignite, turned out to be, ironically, all talk. "I get there and I'm thinking, It's important to understand why these guests are worth talking to, but no one else gave a shit," Remini said. "I didn't get what the job really was, so I caused a ruckus because I thought it had the potential to be a better show than they were making it."
Remini's unwavering passion became crystal clear over our two-hour lunch. When asked if she believes that being passionate often gets perceived by others as being difficult, she quoted Marilyn Monroe: "If you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best."
Lesson 3: Fervor has its consequences. Dozens of tabloid stories were written about The Talk's behind-the-scenes drama — Remini called the spats "nasty girl shit that had nothing to do with business." And eventually, she and co-host Holly Robinson Peete were fired. But she's quick to add that there are no lingering issues with the remaining hosts (Sharon Osbourne, Julie Chen, and Sara Gilbert, who also executive produces) — especially given the valuable career lessons she took away from her year on CBS' chatter.
Lesson 4: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. "That experience really helped me understand the politics of this business," she said. "Sometimes heart and passion don't actually get you far and good intentions are not always rewarded. It's best to simply stick your toe into this business. You should be all-in with your friends who have proven themselves to be true, but don't give all of yourself to someone when you don't know if they'd do the same for you."
Remini thought The Talk had taught her the importance of, what she calls, "Ride or Die" friends, but she was about to get schooled on the subject on a much grander scale.
In July 2013, PageSix reported that Remini had quit The Church of Scientology after allegedly being subjected to years of "interrogations" and "thought modification" for questioning leader David Miscavige's rule. The New York Post wrote:
"It all began when Leah questioned the validity of excommunication of people," a source said of her decision. "She is stepping back from a regime she thinks is corrupt. She thinks no religion should tear apart a family or abuse someone under the umbrella of 'religion.' "
Former Sea Org member Mike Rinder blogged this week that at Tom Cruise andKatie Holmes' 2006 wedding, Remini innocently asked where Miscavige's wife, Shelly, was. Former Scientology Celebrity Centre head Tommy Davis scolded her, "You don't have the [bleeping] rank to ask about Shelly." Mrs. Miscavige reportedly hasn't been seen in public since 2007.
As a result, Remini "was put through interrogations and blacklisted within the church that she donated millions to and that her family has spent their lives in. She was put through 'thought modification' for five years," our source said.
The source added that church friends Remini had for "25 to 30 years wrote internal reports" about her that "caused an investigation on her family."
Remini supported those claims in August 2013 by filing a missing persons report for Shelly Miscavige, but lawyers for Miscavige denied that she was missing and insisted she'd been working for the Church. Though the Los Angeles Police Department found the report "unfounded," a Vanity Fair piece, published online in February 2014, digs deeper into the alleged absence of Miscavige.
While Remini insists there were dozens of influencing factors fueling her decision to exit the notoriously controlling Church, none were more persuasive than her 9-year-old daughter, Sofia.
"She was getting to the age where the acclimation into the Church would have to start," Remini revealed of the process, which begins with auditing. It includes having children answer questions like, Have you ever pretended to be ill? Have you ever decided you didn't like some member of your family? Have you ever been a coward?
"I started thinking of my own childhood and how I grew up resenting my mother because she was never home," Remini explained. "It's funny; somehow my father, the guy who left his kids and never paid child support, was excluded from my resentment and I grew up resenting my mother for not being home to make food, like all my friends' moms were. But my mom thought she was doing something good; she thought she was helping the planet. That's what the Church tells you."
Like many churches that actively exclude non-members, Scientology reinforces a "Church First" mantra, which became harder and harder for Remini to swallow. "In my house, it's family first — but I was spending most of my time at the Church," she added. "So, I was saying 'family first,' but I wasn't showing that. I didn't like the message that sent my daughter."
Remini soon began to speak to her friends within the Church, many of whom she'd known for nearly three decades, about implementing changes, yet she was only met with opposition.
"We had a chance to make a change from within, but they didn't want to," Remini said. "That showed me they didn't actually care, which went against everything I thought we stood for. They only cared that their lives would be disrupted if they stood with me. They didn't care about doing the right thing. That showed me everything the Church taught me was a lie."
Eventually, Remini's renouncement of the Church devolved into a public he-said-she-said with countless high profile members of the Church, particularly Alley, speaking to multiple outlets in an attempt to tarnish her reputation.
But there was still one particularly important member of the Church who took Remini's side. "The fact my mother stood by me after all her years in the Church totally took away any resentment I may have been harboring," Remini said, her face lighting up. "When it mattered the most, my mother was there for me. It was the moment that erased all those days she wasn't there. That moment proved to me she was with me. 'Ride or Die.'"
As she'd done after every other major chapter in her life came to a close, Remini mourned. She mourned the friends she lost upon exiting the Church and she mourned the life she was leaving behind after more than 30 years. But she simultaneously gained a newfound clarity into the prejudices she'd inadvertently adopted as a result of her affiliation with Scientology.
"In the Church, you're taught that everybody is lost," Remini explained. "They say they're loving, caring, non-judgmental people, but secretly, they were judging the world for not believing what they believed. To me, that is not a spiritual person. That's a judgmental person and that is the person that I was. I was a hypocrite, and the worst thing you can be in this world is a hypocrite."
After the maelstrom died down, Remini turned to what has always saved her: her work. First, she competed on Season 17 of Dancing with the Stars, where she placed fifth. The glitz and the glamour of ABC's ballroom staple put Remini in touch with a feminine side she'd never before known.
It also taught her how to celebrate life. "Before, I would be going to the Church right after this lunch," she said. "There's no going to dinner with friends and having a glass of wine — I never did that in my adult life. I always thought people who had a glass of wine at dinner were alcoholics. It was so crazy to me because you can't get counseling the next day at the Church if you've had a drink, so most Scientologists don't drink. Not that that's a bad thing, but it also prevents you from having fun because your mindset is to wake up early and go to the Church every single day. There's a lot of work required to retain your place in the Church."
After Dancing with the Stars, Remini's thirst to create was re-energized and she began what she's dubbed her "Third Act: Shock and Awe," which includes working on a memoir, pitching shows with her husband, Angelo Pagán, and signing on to TV Land's The Exes, where she plays Nicki, the newly divorced sister of Stuart (played by David Alan Basche).
"This is one of the best jobs I've ever had," Remini said of the show, which, like King of Queens, films in front of a live studio audience. "When you get the applause or the joke lands and you get the laugh, you can't match that feeling. This business that I love is the drug I never took."
As she's re-evaluated her own beliefs in the aftermath of such a massive life change as leaving the Church she's been a part of for three decades, Remini has reclaimed her spirituality, and, at the suggestion of her best friend Jennifer Lopez, begun listening to affirmation tapes.
One of the daily exercises requires Remini to look in a mirror and say, "I love you, Leah. You're doing the best you can do." And that's typically followed by Remini laughing hysterically at herself. But she still does it every day. "Jennifer made special rings for all the women in her life that say, 'I Love Me," and I've really come to realize you have to love yourself before you can expect someone else to," Remini added. "You have to learn to believe you deserve love. And I'm getting there. I'm starting to believe it."
The Exes airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on TV Land.
Correction: This article cites a February 2014 Vanity Fair article regarding the absence of Shelly Miscavige, the wife of the Church's leader, David Miscavige. The Los Angeles Police Department has investigated this issue, and the missing persons report was "ruled as unfounded." The wording of the following sentence has been changed to reflect the LAPD's findings: "Though the Los Angeles Police Department found the report "unfounded," a Vanity Fair piece, published online in February 2014, digs deeper into the alleged absence of Miscavige."