Finding New Life as Faith-Based Stars

Throughout his acting career, Stephen Baldwin has been known by many names: The Other Baldwin, The Other, Other Baldwin, and even The Republican Baldwin. These days, however, he wants to be known as something else entirely—The Christian Baldwin. Though he hasn't had a hit since The Usual Suspects in 1995, Baldwin is preparing to direct his first feature film—a faith-based story about a 19th century preacher who helps convert steamboat-casinos into "missionary ships." With a budget of $25 million, the movie, Baldwin explains in studioese, is basically O Brother, Where Art Thou? meets The Passion of the Christ. It's also a launching pad for his new career. "You're catching me on the precipice of a transition from mainstream, or secular stuff, to almost full-time faith-based stuff," says Baldwin. "And there is a tidal wave of faith-based content coming in the next ten years."

As Easter nears, the growing Christian cinema industry is overflowing with family-friendly, God-loving, and irony-and-sex-free "faith-based stuff." Last month, The Lion of Judah—which tells the Easter story in 3D through farm animals—took home the award for best animated movie at Milan's Sabaoth International Film Festival, the Sundance of the faith-based market. Also hitting screens is The Resurrection of the Christ, which—with an estimated budget of $20 million—is seen by many as the natural, albeit completely unofficial, sequel to the $600-plus million blockbuster The Passion of the Christ.

Meanwhile, What if... (the story of a high-powered businessman who's given a second chance to become a pastor and marry his high-school sweetheart) and Forgiven (in which an ex-con in 1870s California learns that love is greater than hate) have just been released on DVD. Though Christian-movie insiders don't expect these offerings to achieve the heights of Passion, the films' producers would no doubt settle for another Fireproof—the 2008 Kirk Cameron vehicle about a firefighter who saves his marriage through his faith in Jesus Christ. The movie cost $500,000 to make and grossed nearly $34 million.

Although faith-based cinema has been around for years—in 1970 pioneering Christian heartthrob Pat Boone starred in The Cross and the Switchblade—it is now attracting a more glamorous talent pool of former semi-stars who are trying to resurrect their careers by going full Christian. Along with Cameron, Baldwin will join a faith-based A-list including Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man; the forthcoming Jerusalem Countdown), Kristy Swanson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; A Christmas Wish), Kevin Sorbo (Xena: Warrior Princess; Soul Surfer), and former Love Boat star Gavin MacLeod, who confirmed to Fox News in 2009, "I know who my Admiral is." According to Ken Raney, the president of the Christian film website ClashEntertainment, Hollywood just "can't keep God down."

Christian Hollywood is merely an expanding part of a broader tapestry. Erstwhile celebrities are increasingly hawking all manner of branded goods in the multibillion-dollar Christian marketplace. MC Hammer grew up Pentecostal, hit it big, strayed, filed for bankruptcy, and is now an ordained minister. He also runs a mixed-martial-artists management company. Kim Alexis, the one-time face of Revlon's Ultima II cosmetics, entered the Christian marketplace about 10 years ago, when she launched a set of inspirational exercise CDs, including Praise Workout with Kim Alexis: My Redeemer Lives. Lisa Whelchel was briefly famous in the '80s for playing Blair, the over-coiffed brat on The Facts of Life. Now she's a home-schooling enthusiast and the best-selling author of a series of worship guides for busy mothers.

More recently, though, flyby stars have begun entering the faith-based market before their careers even have had a chance to die. The 29-year-old abdominal muscle guru and tanning addict Mike Sorrentino—also known as The Situation on the reality-television show Jersey Shore—has found an untapped market in the rosary business. Along with jewelry consultant Jeff George, The Situation is currently selling rosaries with an "iced out" cross in silver, black, pink, red, and sapphire blue, for $88. Sorrentino has effectively used his show to market the goods. His Official Jersey Shore Rosary Necklace runs $100.

However, no flailing star has been reborn like Kathy Ireland, the Martha Stewart of the faith-based home furnishings business. "Throughout history," says the former swimsuit model, actress, and founder of Kathy Ireland Worldwide, "Christians have earned a real negative association that has absolutely nothing to do with the truth—from the Crusades to the Holocaust to hypocrisy and being judgmental." Ireland is trying to combat these associations by being a good Christian, and selling all manner of home accoutrements—area rugs, ceiling fans, and apple-cinnamon candles—to the fan base who devour her books, such as the 2009 hit Real Solutions: 52 God Inspired Messages from My Heart. By promoting her faith—and attaching her image to various products—Ireland has created a powerful religious connection that isn't always so subtle. "We're here in Israel," Ireland says into the camera during one recent promotional video shot on the Dead Sea, "because of our faith, our family, our loved ones, nonprofit work. And also, Israel is home to our brand partners E.L. Erman and Kathy Ireland Skin Care!" It's unclear if she has won converts, but Kathy Ireland Worldwide claims $1.4 billion in annual sales.

Even with God on one's side, balancing faith with staggering faith-based success can be tricky. Making money "can't be the reason for sharing faith," Ireland explains. "At the same time, I can't deny who I am." Other reborn stars have struggled with the same conflict, and some have found it can be assuaged with the knowledge that they're simply following God's plan. That's how Kerry Livgren feels. Though the former Kansas guitarist hasn't reprised the success of Dust in the Wind, he's outlasted nearly all of his peers by staging a second career as a Christian rock star. "The gospel of Jesus Christ is the best news humanity could ever hear," Livgren says. "[It] makes it impossible to keep silent about it."

Going full Christian hasn't worked for everyone, though. David Papaleo was a successful gay-porn star in the '90s under the stage name Tom Katt. After his career stagnated, he left the adult-film business, married a woman, and became a vocal Christian. He also started a personal training business and tried to brand his "flex for faith" bodybuilding pose. There's been little heard from Papaleo since.

Baldwin appears certain that his transition will be smoother. His faith in his religion seems surpassed only by his faith in the future of the faith-based business. "Literally," he says, "the faith-based stuff is just going to domino-effect around the country." In addition to his directorial debut, he's been cast as a pastor in a faith-based sitcom and recently finished shooting the film I'm in Love with a Church Girl, which features another star searching for resurrection, once-famous rapper Ja Rule. While Baldwin suspects some revived Christian celebrities of opportunism, he's also confident that whatever happens—movies, mommy worship guides, apple-cinnamon candles, iced-out rosary beads—it's all part of someone else's plan. "It's God's business," he says. "It is God's business."

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