Thirty Seconds to Mars' Jared Leto Started a Cult—Because of Course He Did

Jared Leto performs with Thirty Seconds to Mars at the LA Forum, December 2018.  (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for KROQ/Entercom)

In the middle of August, Thirty Seconds to Mars—the rock band Jared Leto has fronted since 1998—returned from an island retreat they'd held in Croatia for hundreds of fans and proudly posted photos that had a distinctly Peoples Temple vibe. (Well, if everyone at the Peoples Temple had been white, anyway.)

The pictures showed Leto doing his best Jesus impersonation in flowing white robes, addressing fans who sat dotingly at his feet, and being followed around by hoards of young women. The band captioned the photos "Yes, this is a cult."

The band has been using that tagline for years now, on social media, in merch and in music videos. In 2013, Leto told The New York Times Magazine that it was "a joke, a response to journalists saying, ‘You have such a cult following.'" This is the first time, though, that the band has taken the reference to its most literal conclusion, even though they've been holding "summer camps" since 2015, and taking every opportunity to financially fleece their audience since the very beginning.

Thirty Seconds to Mars fans already collectively refer to themselves as "the Echelon," and are a group that seems overwhelmingly immersed not in music nerd-dom, but rather a more general sort of love for the community surrounding the band. The four-year-old video below doesn't bother itself with the band's music. Instead, it more closely resembles a commercial for a megachurch.

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The Echelon also seems more than happy to don all-white uniforms and worship at Jared Leto's feet.

Like many cults, the Echelon espouses an us vs. them mentality via the hashtag #YouWouldntUnderstand, a refrain Leto repeats often. That idea has pushed supporters to ever more fervent degrees of devotion any time the band receives any degree of criticism. (Scientology followers have been employing a similar methodology for decades.)

Leto is acutely aware of this degree of fan dedication (which is why the band once held a competition in which—appropriateness be damned—the prize was a night sleeping in his bed). In 2013, he said, "If people like Thirty Seconds to Mars, they really, really, really like it... We have this cult, this family, these believers." It's this knowledge that has given the band a sense of entitlement so ingrained, they have been known to specifically request their fans get tattoos in their honor. (Take that, NXIVM!)

Just as cult members often demonstrate their devotion by throwing money at their chosen group, the most obvious way Leto fans show their commitment is by giving Thirty Seconds to Mars way too much of their cash. The band's upcoming Camp Mars, taking place between Sept. 7–9 in Malibu, charges $999 for two nights of outdoor camping, and you have to bring your own tent and supplies. (The getaway includes daytime outdoor activities like rock-climbing and archery, plus two Thirty Seconds to Mars concerts, which the band calls Church of Mars.)

There are several increasingly expensive dorm options, but the only way to sleep in a space that isn't shared with strangers is by throwing down $6,499 for a "VIP experience." Day passes do not offer much better value, with costs at $349 for a show, some snacks and the cheerful caveat: "This pass does NOT include a photo with the band."

Hardcore Thirty Seconds to Mars fans have become accustomed to paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for crumbs. This is a band that has charged up to $900 for meet and greets in which they are sometimes removed to the point of literally wearing surgical gloves. (To put that in perspective, One Direction used to charge $658, Rihanna was still only charging $116 in 2015 and Taylor Swift has a policy of not charging fans to meet her at all.) One of the great ironies of all this is that Leto declared the band "anti-greed" in 2013.

The band's obsession with money is not invisible to their faithful following, but observing fans discussing the cost of loving Thirty Seconds to Mars online can be rattling. There is a sense that while some of them feel ripped off, they are also fearful of fully expressing their disillusionment. In a lengthy article about the tightening of restrictions during signing sessions with the band, one blogger wrote: "The 10 seconds it took for them to sign PLUS the few minutes they’d stop in order to collect the present you brought them... seems short for the amount of money... but it was usually quite fun." Another wrote: "I paid 250$ just to have early entry [to a concert]. Over priced, however, it was the BEST show ever."

In addition to the obvious financial benefits, wrapped up in all of this cult business is Jared Leto's untethered self-absorption. In 2013, Leto went to the trouble of buying the rights to goofy modeling photos from his My So-Called Life days and then getting them scrubbed from the internet by threatening legal action.

Music journalist Raziq Rauf told KQED: "After Leto sent cease and desist letters to some of his fans, I decided [to repost] the photos. I duly received very threatening legal notices of my own, so ceased and desisted. While it was amusing, Leto is a very wealthy and powerful man with very wealthy and powerful people in his team. He's the one percent and I couldn't compete with that."

It was a moment that demonstrated how much Leto's narcissism stretches beyond the bounds of normal celebrity.

A criticism frequently leveled at Thirty Seconds to Mars early in the band's career was that they more closely resembled actors playing rock star dress-up than an actual, real-life band. Despite ongoing criticism from music journalists that the band's sound is "hollow and emotionally one-note" (last year, Spin described Leto's lyrics as "meaningless word salad"), pretending to be a rock star for long enough did eventually result in Leto becoming just that.

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So could Leto's persistent assertion that he's the leader of a cult mean that too is finally becoming a reality? If one considers the band's entire history, Thirty Seconds to Mars forming a cult doesn't just seem like a reasonable possibility—it feels almost like an inevitability.

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