Whatever happened to that old feel good extended weekend seminar known as “est,” which developed a “cult following” that included celebrities like Valerie Harper and John Denver?

Well it got bigger and better, at least from a business perspective.

Est is now called “Landmark Education,” and according to a press release on Yahoo, the private for-profit company now has “60 major offices in 21 countries,” affecting “100 cities” with ” 750 professionally trained course leaders worldwide.”

The PR spin gushes about Landmark’s recent deal with Sprint “to improve its communications infrastructure.”

The company’s “flagship” program is called the Forum, which can be seen as mass marathon training.

Landmark has a rocky history that includes serious complaints about abuses, subsequent lawsuits and more than a little bad press.

Its founder Werner Erhard (a.k.a. Jack Rosenberg) also went through some rough times. His bad patch included allegations of incest, spousal abuse and income tax problems.

Erhard eventually sold the company and licensed its “technology.” The specific details of that sale were never disclosed

But never mind all is well now.

Landmark is clearly pulling in more money than ever.

And Erhard? He resolved his personal problems and ended up a rich man relaxing on the beaches of the Cayman Islands. He lives in Georgetown with his girlfriend Hanukkah.

Landmark still generates lawsuits, complaints and bad press, but they seem to settle such matters quietly and weather whatever controversy arises comfortably.

Start up your own cult?” Instead of Jim Jones, think Dow Jones,” reports Entreprenuer.com.

Yes, for those who say, “How could anyone be stupid enough to join a cult”? Maybe you should look into the mirror. How many products do you consume with cult-like devotion?

Do you prefer familiar brands that have developed a “cult following,” such as Nike, Starbucks, Jello, McDonalds, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, or Krispy Kreme donuts? Maybe you are part of the phenomenon of cooperate cult branding?

This is the focus of Geoff Williams analysis in his article “Develop your own cult following.”

What Williams offers is not only a “how to,” but a “how come?” inside look at the brand-driven consumer market, which is fueled by clever techniques of persuasion and influence through advertising.

What’s the difference between being “brainwashed” by Corporate America as opposed to “cults”? Well, there are some obvious distinctions. But clearly virtually everyone is vulnerable to persuasion, or companies wouldn’t waste their money promoting “cult followings” for their products.

And what about those destructive cult leaders?

According to leading cult expert and clinical psychologist Margaret Singer, “They’re all basically, really, the same, con men.”

Singer warns, “These sharpsters, when they’re very good at what they do, can get people to believe anything, You might think you’d never get taken in, but don’t bet on it.”

So the next time you are laughing at the Raelians or some other seemingly preposterous “cult” that accepts the bizarre claims of an apparent “con man,” think about the “sharpsters” who have taken you in. Starbucks anyone?

Since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 another band called the Phish seems to have filled the void left behind by the Grateful Dead.

The cult following known as the “Dead heads” that once wandered nomadically from concert to concert devoted to Garcia’s band have been replaced by the “Phish heads.”

Phish concerts are typically sold out far in advance due largely to the phenomenon of their cult following.

For many fans the Phish have taken on an importance usually reserved for religious devotion. Chris Hedges mines this mystery in his article “A Quest for Rapture Leads a ‘Phish Head’ Astray,” recently run in the New York Times.

But one aspect of both the Grateful Dead and “Phish head” phenomenon that has not been reported about is the often well-organized effort by groups called “cults” to recruit amongst the rock bands faithful.

Recognizing the vulnerability of nomadic youth searching for meaning some “cults” seem to think proselytizing at concerts is like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

Or is that “Phish heads” in a barrel?

Some groups called “cults” that once followed the Dead and/or now go Phishing are Krishna, Twelve Tribes and the Chabbad Lubavitch.

So as “Phish heads” continue to follow their beloved band, some might ultimately be caught by another group altogether.

One concert might just be the last for some unlucky “Phish heads,” unless they are later sent out to go Phishing too.

Fans are often obsessive about their idols and some can develop into a kind of “cult following.”

Recently, one group of sports fans took their obsession so seriously they established a church to honor their hero Argentina football star Diego Maradona, reports Ananova.

According to the “First Maradonian Church” we are now living in 42 AD. That is, 42 years after the birth of Maradona. And of course “AD” stands for “after Diego.” The church’s 100 members celebrate Christmas in October on their icon’s birthday.

Not to be outdone Americans in the United States have long worshipped at the altar of Elvis. Portland, Oregon has its very own “Church of Elvis.”

Stars who die young like Elvis and another evolving rock legend Kurt Cobain, often develop enduring cult followings.

Cobain’s recently published diaries seem to have largely energized his loyal fans. The Nirvana star’s journals expose a tormented genius, ultimately overcome by self-loathing and drug addiction.

A new film titled “Frida” starring Selma Hyek, is sure to feed the flame that still burns brightly for the unconventional Mexican artist and feminist icon Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s personal catharsis forged her own unique life, art and cult following.

What most often generates a “cult following” is a person who breaks with convention to establish something new. Such personalities are especially romanticized and their image empowered when they struggle to overcome adversity and/or personal obstacles, suffer and/or die young.

Some cult followings have developed into mass movements. Three historic examples are Nazism in Germany, Italian Fascism and Iran’s recent embrace of Islamic fundamentalism. Each of these mass movements was largely established and driven forward by a single charismatic personality.

However, cult followings that evolve into personality-driven movements are not always bad, such as Gandhi of India and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

History also offers examples of mass movements intended for good that somehow went bad. Inititially created by an icon espousing idealism, but later evolving into abusive totalitarianism, like Communist Russia, China and North Korea.

Whose to say which “cult icon” today might be the impetus behind a new mass-movement or religion?

Could there be a “Church of Madonna”?

Probably not—this “Madonna” only claims she is “like a virgin” and hasn’t really established anything new. Nor does it seem likely that she will abrubtly depart anytime soon.

The so-called “King of the World,” as proclaimed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his cult following, lives in Beirut with his parents, reports the Lebanon’s Daily Star.

“His Majesty Raja Nader Raam” or Tony Nader to his family, was crowned king of a supposed “Global Country” invented by the aging Indian guru two years ago.

“His Majesty” Tony now says there can be “world peace” if people put up $1 billion dollars to finance various proposals made by his spiritual mentor. But Tony’s guru has a history of frequently bizarre schemes.

Sounds like Maharishi has hopes to somehow cash in on the increasing fear and instability around the world since September 11th.

Battle Creek, Michigan is widely known as the birthplace of morning cereal. During the early 1900s Dr. John Kellogg created his now famous “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes” there.

Today the Kellogg Company is still the largest single employer in Battle Creek and controls almost half of the world’s cereal market.

Dr. Kellogg was somewhat eccentric and developed a cult following. He founded a sanitarium in Battle Creek where those devoted to his principles often went to “take the cure.”

Some of the odd practices at Kellogg’s sanitarium, which came to be known simply as “San,” included exercising in athletic diapers, multiple daily enemas and dunks into electrified water pools. And of course Kellogg pushed his cereal.

Unrestriced bowel movements were vitally important to the good doctor. Kellogg often said, “A housebroken colon is a damaged colon.”

Celebrities of the day flocked to San for the Kellogg cure such as Henry Ford, retailer J.C. Penney, actress Sarah Berhardt, explorer Richard Byrd, inventor Thomas Edison, industrialist Harvey Firestone, President William Howard Taft, and aviator Amelia Earhart.

The movie “The Road to Wellville” starring Matthew Broderick with Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg, is an often-hilarious send up about life at San.

Now it seems there will be a new “San” in Battle Creek with its own unique “cure.” And the charismatic creator of this program beget a group that has been called a “cult.” The name of its founder is L. Ron Hubbard and the “cure” touted by his devotees is Narconon.

A new Naronon facility is now being completed for Battle Creek, reports the Battle Creek Inquirer.

Hubbard’s is known as the founder of Scientology and his cure is the “purification rundown,” which includes large doses of niacin and lots of sweating in saunas.

However, Hubbard was not a doctor like John Kellogg. Instead, he has been called a “pathological liar.” And some say his “cure” is both unproven and little more than “quackery.”.

Nevertheless Battle Creek will soon have its very own Hubbard inspired “San.” And just like the old one the new “San” has plenty of celebrity devotees. Film stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta are perhaps the most famous. TV sitcom actress Kirstie Alley who is Narconon’s spokesperson, claims the program saved her life.

History seems to be repeating itself in Battle Creek. But ironically it appears that the old “San” was probably less “flaky” than the new one.

While some restaurants develop a “cult following” others are simply run by “cults.”

But food critic Betty Cooney doesn’t seem to care how her food gets to the table. If members of some “cultish group” suffer to serve her, it appears that’s not something Betty worries about, according to her article in the Queens Chronicle.

The “cultish group” restaurant Cooney reviewed is controlled by Guru Sri Chinmoy and is located in Flushing Queens.

But contrary to what Cooney concludes, Chinmoy is not simply the leader of “a cultish group that works for world peace and promotes health.” Chinmoy is instead directly responsible for hurting many people, according to former followers and affected families. And some women once involved within the group claim the supposedly celibate guru sexually abused them.

There are websites that discuss the bad behavior of Chinmoy that are easily accessible through the Internet. But did Ms. Cooney spend her time on such research before recommending his restaurant? Apparently not, the food maven seemed to be more concerned with the guru’s “incredible salads” and “delicious smoothies.”

Sri Chinmoy is not the only guru to staff a restaurant with devotees who work for free or very little pay.

The “Supreme Master Summa Ching Hai” has a chain of vegetarian restaurants and the “Twelve Tribes” have been in the food business since the 70s, first the group had delis and now they run coffee shops.

Starbucks may need to pay the minimum wage, but not the Twelve Tribes. However, a Boston food critic joked, “What I want is to stand in a place that makes a blueberry muffin this good. I nibble a corner and want to shout my lifelong devotion to their cause.”

One month before that reporter’s observations were published the Twelve Tribes was fined for child labor violations. But that didn’t seem to affect the tenor of his story either. Maybe Betty should call him and set up a lunch?

One California “cult” called the “Fellowship of Friends” runs a winery and their wine is sold by the glass for $10.00 at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. The Ritz doesn’t appear to care either about the terms of cult labor. Their buyer sniffed, “There is value and quality and I never took into consideration anything else about them,” reported the Sacramento Bee.

Once upon a time years ago there were organized boycotts of lettuce and other produce to protest the substandard wages and working conditions afforded to migrant farm workers. However, today it seems few people care or are even interested about how “cults” may exploit their members.

One California wine buyer did say that he didn’t want to work with “a winery that has all that excess baggage.” But he appears to be an exception. Most people are more likely to agree with Betty Cooney who wrote, “Don’t let this stop you from trying their restaurant.”

“Hippie guru” Ira Einhorn had a cult following in the sixties, but now he has nothing—not even his freedom. The 62-year-old self-proclaimed philosopher was convicted for first-degree murder yesterday. He will now spend his “golden years” behind bars, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Einhorn lived in luxury as a fugitive in France for many years, but was finally extradited on the condition that he receive a new trial. He was previously convicted for the murder of a girlfriend that wanted to leave him in absentia.

The self-styled guru may see himself as a profound thinker and philosopher, but the prosecutor seemed to nail down his historical significance better when he called Einhorn a “Fraudulent, phony…fake.” And then added, “He’s nothing,” reported the Philadelphia Daily News.

Einhorn certainly fits the classic historical profile of a destructive cult leader, who are often described as narcissistic sociopaths.

It was the open display of that personality through his own testimony that did Ira in, according to jurors. They didn’t appreciate the one-time hippie’s hubris, lies and lack of remorse.

In fact all Einhorn seemed to be concerned about, like most narcissists, was himself. He apparently felt the trial was an opportunity to proclaim his greatness. But there were no devoted followers listening this time.

A courtroom is not the ideal platform for a man like Einhorn, it is based upon facts in evidence not fiction. In the end he came across not as a profound philosopher or thinker, but instead like a counter-culture con man. He was largely undone by his own arrogance.

The former guru will now face the rest of his life without groupies. And It is doubtful Einhorn’s fellow inmates will appreciate his pedantic ramblings. If he rants to them he will more likely be punched than praised.

There were few surprises in the trial of Ira Einhorn. But the process did offer a unique opportunity to study the typical personality most often responsible for the creation and control of destructive cults.

Cher fans can’t seem to get enough of the 56-year-old star. The enduring diva has won their hearts and an Oscar. And her fans seem to follow her every move, concert and costume change with ardent fascination. There is even a website called “Cher World” for “Cherworlders.”

What is it about the historic pop star that has drawn such a cult following? One Canadian fan in a recent article put it this way, “I love her to death.”

And some “Cherworlders” feel it’s not enough to watch Cher—they want to be Cher, according to an article recently published by the London Free Press of Canada titled “Sharing Time with Cher…a serious business.”

The Free Press reported how usually staid Canadians dressed up to see who could be the best Cher. During the contest one impersonator said, “When I get into costume, I feel like her.”

Perhaps celebrity cults have become the most popular form of culturally acceptable escapism. Adoring fans living an alternate fantasy life through their respective idols.

Cultural icons like Cher, Madonna, Liz and legendary stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and James Dean have certainly beget cultic devotion. Their carefully coifed and cultivated personas often become larger than life and some are even more popular after they’re dead.

And let’s not forget all that lucrative marketing potential.

An icon’s fashion sense can easily become a new trend and celebrity endorsements sell products. Cher’s infomercials may have bombed, but Liz’s “White Diamonds” made her millions. And the “Material Girl” Madonna is perhaps the ultimate celebrity merchandising genius—at selling herself that is.

Will Cher fans allow their idol to retire after her “farewell tour“? Maybe the diva is already planning an encore? After all, will “Cherworlders” really be content with just her image through DVDs and videos? As the Canadian press says, “sharing time with Cher” seems more “serious” than that.

In Texas, the state that gave us David Koresh and the Waco Davidians, a new cult is “brewing” quite literally.

The St. Arnold Brewing Company of Houston, Texas has developed a cult following of deeply devoted beer drinkers. So devoted in fact, they actually paid for the privilege of being inscribed on the brewery’s new water tank, reports the Houston Chronicle.

Texans must take their beer seriously and in Houston for some this has taken on almost religious proportions.

Brock Wagner owner of the brewery “obviously has done something right,” according to one expert who commented to the Chronicle. The proof is he didn’t need to pay for new equipment, instead he simply called upon the faithful to “pony up.”

But unlike David Koresh, Wagner is just stacking cases of beer, not ammunition.

Perhaps fanatical partakers of the good brewery’s product might get in trouble if they drive while under its influence, but no one is likely to make a federal case out of it.