I love cults as much as I love not leaving my couch for hours on end, which has led me (and many others) to binge Netflix’s Wild Wild Country. The docu-series follows the Rajneesh movement in Central Oregon, their nefarious takeovers of nearby towns and amassment of 93 Rolls Royces. There are two things particularly addicting about Wild Wild Country. The first is that there are no good guys. You root for neither the small town xenophobes nor the manic sex cult trying to poison the small town xenophobes. The second is the incredible style of the manic sex cult. At the intersection between evil and fashion is Ma Anand Sheela: style icon.
Ma Anand Sheela was the secretary to the Bhagwan and the mastermind behind Rajneeshpuram, the Oregon commune where over 7,000 people lived and fornicated (loudly). But as wayward city planners have the tendency to do, she quickly went from zoning law enthusiast to bio-terrorist, all while rocking a stunning monochromatic wardrobe.
Aside from being in a cult, people wear monochromatic outfits for a number of reasons: to not waste time picking out a look in the morning; they have a spiritual connection to the color; and, simply, because it looks good on them. All sannyasins (followers of the Bhagwan) were required to wear sunrise colors of orange, red, or purple to “to reflect a new start, a new day,” says Maclain Way, the co-director of the film. The dress code, especially when worn by large crowds of people, is striking. Perhaps because it is so bold, you don’t expect the wearer to be a devotee of an increasingly controlling cult. If I were to see someone in Williamsburg dressed in head to toe blood orange, I’d assume they were in some new age indie folk band. These cult members looked cool. Ma Anand Sheela, when she flipped the bird on television in her slouchy sweatshirt and her fingers stacked with chunky rings, looked like a grandmotherly badass.
Sheela was, dare I say, the Miranda Priestly of the Rajneesh movement. People feared her. They respected her. She did a lot of business behind closed doors and told it like it was, all while wearing killer outfits (pun kind of intended).
Let me be clear: Sheela is a criminal and attempted not only the murder of her fellow sannyasins and local politicians but entire towns of people. She is an evil person. Her weapon of choice was poison, which simply further cements her iconic villainous prestige. But watching a slight, beautiful woman in a hot pink jumpsuit plainly tell a Congressman she will behead him and his coworkers should they harm anyone on Rancho Rajneesh is electrifying.
Even amongst thousands of people wearing the same color, Sheela managed to power-match above the rest. Her striking cheek bones, soft voice and small frame don't match the unyielding determination she possessed. Her femininity is what lets her in so she can unveil her acerbic wit and unleash her destructive plans. While most other sannyasins wore colored denim or long flowing linen, Sheela's more structured ensembles (she was a huge fan of shoulder pads) communicated her authority. Her clothing didn't blend into the dry, desert-y countryside. Her hair never looked like it needed a brushing. She was one of the few Rajneeshees not doing manual labor, because of course she was the one doling out the manual labor duties. Sure, she'd wear what Bhagwan requested, but at any given moment she could be required to give an television for an interview. "Media is expensive, and one should not miss a chance for free publicity," she says in the series. This was a woman ready for the camera at any moment.
Ma Anand Sheela made being an evil sex cult secretary who poisons innocent Oregonian taco-lovers look good—or, if not good, bold. Powerful. Weirdly on-trend, for the eighties. That's no easy task. Any one who was surprised by her eventual takeover of and decampment from the Rajneesh community needs to do a double take of those oversized sunglasses she was so fond of wearing. No one rocking such glamorous shades plans on being controlled by a cult leader forever. They're destined for far greater things.