The jackets were assembled in a factory in Alma, AR that was converted from a large restaurant. First the raw denim was washed in a drum filled with pumice stones and bleach, then it was cut and sewn into shape. From there, a basic stencil — a skyline or the outline of a cartoon character — was applied using a silk screen and then the delicate work of airbrushing and embellishing could begin. Children manned the rhinestone station. Using their small fingers, they dropped row after row of Swarovski stones into tiny fittings.
The working conditions were harsh. Bleach fumes billowed from the stone washing drum. Every day, up to 150 people — men, women, and children — worked for as long as 14 hours a day. Sometimes the children's fingers bled from handling the pointy rhinestones. The finished product was a genuine Tony Alamo of Nashville jacket. The workers who made them labored for free in the service of a cult leader named Tony Alamo who preached that only he could show them the path to heaven.
The jackets were a hot fashion commodity in the eighties. Flashy and expensive, they were a favorite among celerities. Dolly Parton, Mike Tyson, Brooke Shields, Burt Reynolds — anybody who was anybody wanted to be photographed in one. Michael Jackson wore a customized leather version on the cover of the Bad album.
“We really thought we were making these jackets for God. We did it with zeal,” says Benjamin Risha, who was born into the cult and grew up on on the Alma, AR compound. “We really thought we were saving the world by making money for the ministry and spreading its word.”
Today, the jackets, with their boxy fit, stonewash finish, elaborate airbrushed designs, and sparkling Swarovski crystals are having another moment in fashion. Tastemakers like Nicki Minaj, ASAP Rocky, Miley Cyrus, and Frances Bean Cobain have all recently been photographed wearing the highly sought-after vintage Tony Alamo of Nashville jackets.
People wore them then and wear them now because they are, let's admit it, awesome. But Alamo's factories ran on fear. He told his followers that if they left the church they would go to hell. Their path to salvation was paved in bedazzled denim.
Alamo's story begins in Joplin, MO, where he was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman on Sept. 20, 1934. He arrived in Los Angeles in the 1960’s with plans to become a pop star and music promoter. In LA he met an aspiring actress, a woman named Edith Opal Horn, who wore her hair in a bleached platinum bouffant. In 1966 they married and christened themselves Tony and Susan Alamo. The couple turned their attention away from mainstream fame, using the skills they’d honed as performers to become street evangelists in Hollywood.
In 1969, the couple founded the Alamo Christian Foundation.By the mid-seventies they had thousands of followers who referred to themselves as "Jesus Freaks" and were drawn to the evangelists’ fiery version of pentecostalism, which spoke of great miracles for believers and harsh punishments for those who didn’t follow the rules.
The Alamos targeted men and women living on the streets of L.A. They offered free meals and incorporated music into their spirited apocalyptic sermons, encouraging followers to forsake their families and devote themselves entirely to the foundation. They hosted a television show where they railed against Catholicism. They promised a passage to heaven for believers who, in exchange, took a vow of poverty and gave all of their property to church.
In the mid 1970’s as local CA authorities began to investigate the Alamo's practices, they moved their base of operations from Los Angeles to Arkansas. In 1982 they began a campaign to recruit young mothers as part of the foundation’ crusade against abortion. They promised to provide for the infants and young children by giving them a place to live and an education. In exchange, the Alamos received an influx of young minds raised in the cult who knew almost nothing of the outside world.
As the ministry — and the Alamo’s finances — grew, they established churches in cities including Miami, New York and Chicago. In Nashville they opened a worship center and operated a large Country and Western store that became the flagship for their flashy denim jackets and had a celebrity clientele.
Alamo may not have succeeded as a promoter in Hollywood, but as a self-fashioned man of God who dressed in fancy clothes and drove expensive cars, he managed to integrate himself into celebrity circles. With calculation and a laser focus on profit, he made sure his custom wares — sharkskin boots, sequined gowns, and, of course, his rhinestone jackets — were on full display wherever the most influential actors, politicians, and musicians happened to be. The magnetism that inspired such devotion to his followers worked in marketing as well as it did in religion.
In 1982, Susan Alamo died of breast cancer. Tony believed Susan would be resurrected and ordered followers to pray around her dead body for days. When she didn’t rise he grew furious, accusing his followers of not praying hard enough. Alamo reportedly then kept Susan’s embalmed body on display at the Arkansas compound for six months before finally interring her in a heart shaped mausoleum.
Risha identifies Susan’s death as the key event that caused Alamo to spiral even further out of control. He became more violent and paranoid. Risha recalls that, as children, he and a friend were beaten with a large wooden paddle for holding hands with girls on the commune. The beating was so severe that Risha’s 11-year-old friend fainted as Alamo’s followers continued to paddle his bruised, bloody, and unconscious body.
Alamo terrorized his followers, punishing them physically, emotionally, and sexaully. Following Susan’s death, he declared that he was entitled to take as many wives as he wanted and he had a specific taste: teenage girls. He publicly and vociferously preached that the age of consent was puberty. He raped dozens of girls in the cult, some as young as 9 years old. At one point he had as many as 10 wives, all of them under 15.
With an unpaid work force (and unpaid taxes) Alamo created a financial empire worth at least $9 million. At its height, the Alamo Ministries operated as many as thirty businesses including trucking companies and real estate interests. He owned a popular nightclub in Alma where Dolly Parton performed and a young Bill Clinton once visited. Clinton described Alamo as “Roy Orbison on speed.” Meanwhile, while Alamo lived a flashy life of luxury, his followers worked at his various enterprises for up to 20 hours a day, were forced to scavenge food from dumpsters, and were only allowed to flush toilets on the commune only a few times a week to keep costs down and profits up.
Alamo told his followers that his protracted battle with the IRS was really a war against the devil. They believed him. And even as he was on the run from federal authorities facing charges of child abuse, tax evasion, and unfair labor practices, buyers continued to clamor for his custom designed jackets. In 1989 he gave an interview explaining how he faxed the designs from his various hideouts to the Alma factory. He told a reporter, "The clothing is so groovy, everyone wants it no matter what they think I am. No matter what, the superstars are going to want my jackets."
And he was right. The Los Angeles Times reported that the jackets continued to sell for as much as $600 in Melrose Avenue boutiques and upscale clothing stores nationwide.
I guess I would tell people wearing them, once you know where they come from, to try to go out of your way to help people less fortunate.
The jackets were so core to Alamo’s fortune that Los Angeles Deputy Deputy District Attorney, Robert Foltz told the Los Angeles Times, "I think the real desire of the Alamo Foundation is to protect the clothing business and not some religious principle. A trial would bring even more publicity and affect the ability of him to market his products."
In 1994, Alamo was sentenced to six years in prison for failing to pay taxes to the federal government and wages to his employees. He served four years. The IRS seized assets from his properties in Arkansas, Saugus CA, and Nashville. They auctioned off hundreds of items including church pews, a director’s chair bearing the name Alamo, and hundreds of jackets. Many have since found their way to vintage stores and sites like eBay and Poshmark.
Josh Glasser, a tattoo artist who currently collects and sells the jackets says he first became interested in them as a teenager growing up in Baltimore in the 80's. There he saw flashy drug dealers sporting them and wished he could afford one.
“They really are one of a kind pieces of art,” he says, though he’s aware of their complicated back story. Scrolling through his Instagram page, one can see how the attention to detail in the making of the jackets is echoed in some of Glasser’s intricate tattoo designs.
He explains that the prices he receives for the jackets on sites like eBay can vary. Some designs, like the Las Vegas and New York skylines were produced in fairly large numbers and don’t fetch as high a price. But the ones that were made in more limited quantities — there are jackets featuring illustrations of the Kentucky Derby, Gone With the Wind, and Batman, among others — are for more sought after.
Glasser says he’s seen an influx of interest in the jackets when celebrities were recently photographed wearing them. When Minaj was spotted in an Alamo jacket with an illustration of Barbie, demand went through the roof.
“The very rare ones are worth as much as $1,500 and the Barbie one will sell out in an hour if I put it on eBay," he said.
For Risha, who left the cult when he was 17, life has often been difficult. He's undertaken the hard work of years of therapy to cope with the complicated PTSD he suffers from his childhood in the cult. He speaks out regularly now, most recently discussing his life under Alamo for a documentary airing on Investigation Discovery. On the phone, he speaks quietly and eloquently about his experiences and the years it has taken him to achieve some sense of clarity and peace. And he has a complicated relationship with the jackets and their resurgence in popularity.
When asked about them, he says “They do look awesome, right?”
Then he pauses.
“I guess I would tell people wearing them, once you know where they come from, to try to go out of your way to help people less fortunate. Go to a place where women are battered or children need help. If you can afford the jacket, chances are you can afford to go help somebody.”
Risha and some of the other survivors felt a measure of relief when Alamo died in a federal prison in 2017. He was 82 years old. He’d been convicted of transporting underage girls across state lines for sex, including a 9-year-old.
"Tony hated losing and would do anything to appear as a winner,” says Risha. While Alamo died a disgraced and bankrupt sex offender, there are still some who continue to follow his teachings. The website for the Alamo ministries remains active online. It features a photo gallery of celebrities wearing his jackets throughout the years.
All summer long, Refinery29 will be examining cults from every angle: pop culture, fashion, food, beauty, and their controversial origins. Let’s dig into the fascination behind this fervor with "Cult Fridays."
For more on Tony Alamo, People Magazine Investigates: CULTS is available for download on Investigation Discovery’s IDGO.