Angelica Hinojos was prepared and ready to have her flesh branded with the initials of a man she hardly knew, and she was excited about it.
To Angelica, though, the brand wasn't about the man. It was about the personal development she felt she'd undergone during her eight years at a company called Executive Success Program — a program that would go on to be more commonly known to the world by its umbrella company's name: NXIVM. The flesh-scalding brand wasn't necessarily part of ESP but rather a symbol of a secret invite-only women's society within the organization called DOS, or Dominus Obsequious Sororium, which loosely translates to "Master Over the Slave Women."
"I was scheduled to get a brand and I was excited," she says, adding that her husband was "supportive" of her plans to be branded. "The brand to me signified a commitment to my growth, and the commitment that I also was making with the other women to help them grow."
However, before the Mexico City native was able to get branded, NXIVM and ESP were shuttered after the program's founder, Keith Raniere, was arrested in 2018 on federal sex trafficking and forced labor charges. He has since been sentenced to 120 years in prison for his crimes. Former "Smallville" actress Allison Mack was also sentenced to three years in prison on racketeering charges for her role within the organization.
Via shows like HBO's "The Vow" and Starz's "Seduced," Keith's case soon took on a life of its own, as the word "cult" was thrown around leisurely, and viewers heard salacious stories about DOS, which some former members deemed nothing more than a secret sex club created to fulfill Keith's desires and boost his ego by branding women with his initials.
However, five years after NXIVM — and by default, DOS — disbanded, several women within the secret society spoke to Wonderwall.com about life within the invite-only group, and they maintain that it was about female empowerment, solidarity and love.
MORE: The craziest celebrity conspiracy theories
In addition, they all insist that they are not Keith's victims but rather victims of the response to NXIVM.
Nicki Clyne, who gained fame as Cally Henderson on "Battlestar Galactica" in the mid-2000s, has lost friends and jobs due to her involvement in ESP and loyalty to Keith. She and several NXIVM loyalists are also named as defendants in a civil lawsuit brought on by former group members who claim the whole thing was essentially a pyramid scheme.
"I'm a victim of tremendous prejudice because at the end of the day," the former actress says, "I've done nothing wrong and yet I get attacked regularly. I've lost friends, I've lost career opportunities, I'm being sued because I won't adhere to this narrative that, you know, NXIVM was all bad, Keith is a monster and I'm a victim."
In a legal response to the lawsuit, she argued that her name was only listed for "window dressing."
MORE: Controversial celebrity marriages
Linda Chung, a highly educated former lawyer who was involved in ESP for more than four years, says her reputation was tarnished due to the narrative that she was in a "cult."
"There was a time where people were kicking me out of organizations and trying to get me fired," she says. "I am a victim of that in the sense that people were trying to do bad stuff to me and making up stuff about me that was just simply not true. That had real-life consequences for me."
The truth about DOS, they claim, is far less sensational than what is being told. And although women were referred to as "slaves" and "masters," this shouldn't gin up visions commonly associated with those words, the women assert.
"DOS was a network of women who were working together to build more discipline, more personal accountability, self-reliance and mindfulness," Nicki insists. "It was a series of relationships where it would be one-on-one type mentorships where you could have total trust, total accountability. The person who invited you is called your master. You're called a slave. I know that those words are very provocative, and they were meant to be, but only in the sense that it brought up questions of freedom and choice."
MORE: Celebrity mug shots
Angelica says the women in DOS were all friends and were free to come and go.
"I lived in Los Angeles at the time and my mentor lived in a completely different city. She had no way of monitoring me. She could tell me whatever, but I had choices. I had freedom to come and go as I pleased," she explains. "I think people thought we were living in a commune and not being able to leave, and we were doing some things that were very kind of dark. That just wasn't the case."
Linda maintains that DOS was "built on a foundation of true friendship."
Nicki adds, "I understand that DOS is not for everyone because it's difficult. I think that we may have been overly enthusiastic too quickly, and I think we may have invited people who thought they wanted it but didn't. Maybe [some of the women] didn't understand the commitment because they hadn't committed to something to that level until that point in their lives. I also think that some people joined more just because they wanted to be part of something that they thought was cool, which wasn't a good reason. So I think that those factors played into why, when things got hard, we didn't stick together."
MORE: Celebrities who come from rich families
Since the group's disbandment, it's become common for former NXIVM or DOS members to speak out against the organization. The thing about DOS that's rather ironic is that it was supposed to be highly secretive. The women all gave "collateral" to ensure that they wouldn't discuss the group outside of the group — "collateral" was essentially described as something you wouldn't want out in the public sphere, including but not limited to salacious pictures, financial records or family secrets.
"The point was never for someone to feel coerced to do anything because of their collateral," Nicki says. There's currently no indication that anyone's "collateral" was ever released to the public.
While Nicki admits that sex was involved in DOS, it was far from a "sex cult" to satisfy Keith. In fact, Angelina and Linda — neither of whom were branded — say they hardly knew or saw the man and viewed him more as the CEO of a corporation. The vow they took wasn't even about the NXIVM leader.
"The vow that I took for life was to commit to my growth and for the growth of others. I still uphold it," Angelica says. "This was something that I really thought about and evaluated. I thought about how it would impact my life. So when I took [the vow] it was serious. It was the same way when I decided to marry my husband, you know, it had the same weight."
MORE: Stars who did time in prison or jail
The women — all of whom are highly educated — are unmoved by the negative TV shows about NXIVM and DOS, which Nicki calls "entertaining works of fiction." She even cites a part of "The Vow" in which several DOS members are outside a jail "looking crazy" and trying to get in contact with Keith. The reality, she says, was actually far less about Keith and more about humanity, something she says didn't fit the HBO show's narrative.
"We actually started a movement where we put on parties in the parking lot outside the jail," she explains, adding that weekly gatherings occurred for six months during COVID lockdowns. During this time, she says, Keith's cell window only briefly looked down on the revelry. Still, after a response from inmates, she remembers thinking, "'Wow, this is probably one of the first novel expressions of humanity they witnessed in a long time.' They've been locked essentially in a bathroom 24/7 with another grown-up. So we did it for six months and it was amazing."
To this day, she gets Instagram messages from former inmates. "They thank us and said we made their time more bearable," Nicki says.
Empathy, the women say, was a component of their ESP lessons. Linda insists that the teachings she received within the organization were more beneficial than those she got at Dartmouth College, Cornell Law School and Columbia Business School.
"I attribute a lot of my success now because of the traits that I really learned in ESP," she says. "For that I am forever grateful, and the [return on investment] on these trainings was far better than all of my formal education before, hands down."
No longer in the legal world, Linda now owns a successful financial services business. But the negative perception of NXIVM — largely attributed to the TV shows, documentaries and news articles — has stayed with her.
"I've lost lifelong friends who really thought that I was either so brainwashed or so stupid or something. They thought I didn't know what I was doing," she says. "I know my intent. I know that I was really trying to help people because I believe ESP was very helpful for me."
MORE: Celebrities you forgot guest-starred on the original "Law & Order"
Angelica, who has a degree in psychology and a master's in work and organizational psychology, will never completely move on from NXIVM, nor does she want to.
"It's part of me, the learnings are with me," she says. "I do have a beautiful life and a rich life, and I think a lot of it is because of the learnings in ESP, not just the courses but because of the way I learned to think in those years."
For Nicki, her post-NXIVM life and mentality has shifted in a way she never could have imagined when she was walking red carpets and promoting mainstream network TV shows.
"There's nothing like having everything destroyed and facing some of your biggest fears to find out who you really are, and as strange as it may sound, I wouldn't trade any of these experiences because I've grown so much," she says. "I've found out who my friends are. I've learned that I'm willing to stand up for what I believe in. I've also found such a strength and a kind of a peace within myself because I'm not so concerned with what other people think, which is hard to overcome as an actor. Your whole idea of who you are and also your value in the world is determined by what's being said, how audiences react, how much people like you."
Along with five other former DOS members, Nicki, Linda and Angelica are now working with the Dossier Project (the "DOS" in Dossier is no coincidence). The purpose is to share their perspective on what they personally experienced in DOS and with Keith. Suffice to say they had different experiences than former DOS members whose stories are more prominently featured in the news.
"We talk about what DOS really was and what we experienced," Nicki says, "but we also talk about what's going on in our culture and how we view women and how we view women's empowerment and whether some of those ideas are really as empowering as we think."
Adds Linda, "The truth really is that ESP and DOS were really good trainings and really a group of people who all shared the value of personal development. I know that doesn't sound as sexy as sex slave, but that's the truth."