Leah Remini

A&E, Getty Images, CBS, ABC

Ten years after her hit sitcom ended, Leah Remini is a bigger star than ever.

There's the obvious sign of resurgence: Starting this fall she'll be a regular on Kevin Can Wait, her first full-time role on a prime-time, broadcast-network comedy (that isn't hanging in the balance) since she starred on The King of Queens.

But it's what she's been up to in the interim that has made her a sought-after talk show guest, a best-selling author and, most recently, the star of the docu-series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, which has been renewed by A&E for a second season.

Her break from the Church of Scientology in 2013, after being a member since she was 9 years old, ensured that anything she said against the church would immediately be met with a response—and the most frequent response is that Remini is making stuff up to further her own celebrity.

Remini has firmly denied that and has never budged from her side of the story. She has said that the church is welcome to sue her if it so desires. But in the meantime she couldn't help the fact that general mass curiosity about Scientology and what it's really like helped buoy interest in everything Remini was up to, starting with her appearance on Dancing With the Stars right after she split from the church.

In 2013 Remini was two years removed from being a co-host on The Talk and her latest sitcom, Family Tools, had come and gone. At the time, Dancing With the Stars became her most visible platform to date to talk about her life after giving up Scientology. She obviously made headlines when she told partner Tony Dovolani during rehearsal, "The church is looking for me to fail so they can say to their parishioners, 'you see what happens when you leave the church?' They're waiting for me to fail."

She didn't win the mirror-ball trophy, but her professed plight won her all sorts of attention.

Remini has since said that she didn't plan, when she first left Scientology, to speak out against the church, knowing that leaving quietly would make it easier for her and her family. Since then, however, exposing the inner workings of the church has become her "passion."

"Everybody on my team told me not to. They want me to be an actress," she said during The Hollywood Reporter's annual Reality Roundtable talk in May. "They don't want me to be known as somebody who does a show about Scientology. I'm like, 'What am I going to do? Not do it?' This is my passion."

Leah Remini, Kevin James, King of Queens


Playing Kevin James' bemused hot wife for nine seasons (plus the last 10 years in syndication) was certainly a boon career move for the Brooklyn-born actress, who had come out of the gate strong. Her second TV role ever was playing Alyssa Milano's reluctantly lovely friend Charlie on Who's the Boss?, which led to the short-lived spin-off Living Dolls, about aspiring model roommates in New York (and which also starred Halle Berry!). Then she forever became Stacy, Zack Morris' summer love interest on Saved by the Bell, thanks to endless Saturday morning repeats.

Remini did voice work, hopped from guest appearance to guest appearance and scored a few starring roles on short-lived sitcoms before signing onto ABC's King of Queens, one of those shows that no one you know says they're watching but maybe they were lying, because millions of people were faithfully watching.

In 2003 she scored the role of Vince Vaughn's wife, Lara, in the R-rated blockbuster Old School, another plum part. 

But after King of Queens folded after nine seasons in 2007, there wasn't a lot of memorable Leah Remini action to speak of. She joined The Talk as one of its original hosts in 2010 but only stayed for one year.

Enter the springboard that Dancing the Stars can be. It just so happened that Remini showed up ready to dance, and ready to talk (and charmed so much that she has filled in as a guest co-host in recent years).

The bright new spotlight attracted TLC, which aired Leah Remini: It's All Relative for two seasons. It was during the show's second season that Remini said one of her primary reasons for leaving the church was the negative effect she foresaw it having on her daughter Sofia.

At the same time Remini was busy cranking out Troublemaker: Surviving Scientology and Hollywood, a scathing account of her experience that debuted atop The New York Times' hardcover nonfiction list in November 2015 and joined an already raging conversation that had been re-fired up earlier that year by Alex Gibney's HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, based on Lawrence Wright's 2013 best-seller of almost the same name.

The church was none too happy with either book, nor with HBO.

Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, Leah Remini

Ballantine Books

"She needs to move on with her life instead of pathetically exploiting her former religion, her former friends and other celebrities for money and attention to appear relevant again," the church punched back in response to the book, which it called "revisionist history."

But Troublemaker cemented Remini's status as the most famous face of the Scientology resistance—and with her story having been told over and over, she expanded her mission to encompass bringing other people's stories to light. Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath premiered on A&E to much hype last November, earning the network its biggest premiere numbers since 2014, and it didn't disappoint viewers who came looking for an intense experience—or real-life horror stories about Scientology. She hosts the show with fellow ex-Scientologist Mike Rinder, who left the church before Remini did and spoke out in her defense early on.

The church has continued to insist all along that Remini's been peddling fairy tales for fame and fortune, saying in a statement issued in response to the series that it should be called "Leah Remini: After Money," and charging that she's become exactly what she once claimed she didn't want to become: "this bitter, ex-Scientologist."

Real Time with Bill Maher, Leah Remini


But in the "which came first" battle, Remini's celebrity preceded her high-profile battle with Scientology. Speaking out against the church has won her some new admirers, but in a company town where the church does hold some sway, it was conceivably more of a risk to take it on than a surefire way to win friends and influence people. 

Asked if she thought doing the A&E show might negatively impact her career, she told Entertainment Weekly in March that, so far at least, it's been "just the opposite. I've been embraced even more by Hollywood, and I continue to work."

Leah Remini, Kevin James, Kevin Can Wait


And if the show did have a negative effect, she's cool with that too.

"As far as acting is concerned, if my career was affected by my speaking out against abuses, then I'm good with it," Remini added. "I don't need to work in a town that's complicit with these kinds of abuses."

While she prepared for the possibility that she could be shunned by certain people, her inner circle seems to have held fast. For instance, longtime friend Jennifer Lopez, who revealed in 2007 that her dad had been practicing Scientology for 20 years, advised Remini to "keep the good things and move on with love," and has remained a close pal. "She doesn't judge," Remini told People when her book came out. 

The respectively busy ladies were most recently spotted out together in January grabbing dinner in L.A., and then Remini and husband Angelo Pagán joined J.Lo and Marc Anthony to celebrate their twins Max and Emme's 9th birthday in February.

Celebrating our Max & Emme's 9th birthday @jlo @marcanthony @therealangelopagan #familia #memories #friendship

A post shared by Leah Remini (@leahremini) on

It's a testament to Remini's overall likability and star power, however, that crusading against Scientology hasn't become (or didn't need to become) her sole means of bread-winning. Rather, The King of Queens fans were thrilled to see her and James reunite on Kevin Can Wait, and CBS responded accordingly by bumping her up to series regular.

"Dreams do come true #blessed #grateful," Remini shared the sitcom news on Instagram.

It may be impossible for the foreseeable future to separate "actress Leah Remini" from "Leah Remini, determined ex-Scientologist"—and the two are probably forever linked. But there's been enough evidence lately that people are also just perfectly happy to tune in and watch her trade zingers on a sitcom, or banter on Match Game or Dancing With Stars.

Her first passion, acting, is enough.

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