Human history is riddled with people whose limited credentials have not stopped them from successfully hawking miracle cures and religious salvation, but Grigori Rasputin stands out as a talented wellness grifter even now. After arriving in St. Petersburg in the early 1900s, Rasputin ego-massaged his way into the upper echelons of Russian society, charming the rich and influential to access ever-greater levels of power until he reached the ruling Romanovs, the family that had been in control of Russia for more than three centuries.
Most of what historians know about what Rasputin actually did to ingratiate himself—or what skills he actually had—has been passed down through mere rumor and legend. What’s clearer is that the Romanovs apparently considered Rasputin’s abilities so indispensable to the health of their son and the legitimacy of their government that he was allowed to run roughshod over their court and alienate the trust of the public, hastening the Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanovs’ deaths.
Today, stories of celebrity gurus usually have more to do with Instagram than assassination. But many people who have built careers selling snake oils or spiritual transcendence have adopted Rasputin’s basic approach to cultivating celebrity followers. Dr. Sebi, a self-described herbalist and healer, claimed Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy among his disciples. The Medical Medium, whose website features testimonials from Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert De Niro, doles out health advice from a spirit. Oprah has been criticized for her associations with self-help luminaries, including one whose teachings led to deaths. (In that case, Oprah’s representatives emphasized that she had no business relationship with a motivational speaker who was a guest on her show and later convicted on charges of negligent homicide.) Cast members of the Real Housewives franchise consult with energists and psychics so frequently that it has forced the word energist into my vocabulary.