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John Travolta: Under Fire

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A storm was brewing-the kind that might topple an ordinary marriage-but Kelly Preston resolved to weather it calmly. Confiding in a close friend back in February, “she said there were some unscrupulous people who wanted to make money off her and John,” recalls the friend. “She said they were demanding money or they would go public with allegations that were total lies. She seemed more annoyed by it than anything-not upset, just sort of preoccupied.” The actress and her superstar husband, John Travolta, went on with their lives, acting as naturally as always, notes the friend, going for walks and bike rides in their luxury fly-in community in rural Ocala, Fla., with kids Ella Bleu, 12, and Benjamin, 18 months. But as time went on, it was clear that a determined Preston was steeling herself for battle. “Kelly would make comments like ‘It’s really sad when people will destroy a family just to make some money,'” recalls the friend. “She was angry. She was like, ‘You attack my family, and I’ll come down on you. I will fight back every time.'”

The time has come, again. In 20 years of marriage, Travolta, 58, and Preston, 49, have stood united through triumph and tragedy, a Hollywood power couple who slowly healed together after the 2009 death of their 16-year-old son Jett. Now, as they did then, the couple are leaning on each other even as their union faces its most intense scrutiny yet: Travolta is the subject of a $2 million assault and sexual battery lawsuit filed May 4 in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in which, at first, one anonymous male massage therapist claimed the actor exposed himself and acted inappropriately while receiving a massage in L.A. Four days later another anonymous plaintiff joined the suit, similarly alleging in graphic detail that Travolta groped him during a massage in Atlanta. Travolta’s high-powered attorney, famed Hollywood pit bull Marty Singer, vehemently denies the allegations and other claims of sexual misconduct that have surfaced (see box), calling them “false” and “absurd.” Says Singer: “People are going to come forward to get their 15 minutes of fame.”

Much of the lawsuit already seems to be imploding: The plaintiffs’ attorney, Okorie Okorocha, dropped his first “John Doe” as a client and asked for his portion of the suit to be dismissed after Travolta’s side produced evidence-including a restaurant receipt and flight records-that seemingly proved Travolta was in New York on the date the accuser claimed the misconduct had occurred at the Beverly Hills Hotel. At press time, Okorocha told PEOPLE he planned to move forward with the second, Atlanta-based therapist’s case: “The only thing that counts is the court’s position.”

The suit may or may not ever make it to a courtroom: “It’s still flimsy at best,” says L.A. sexual harassment attorney Bill Waldo, who is not involved in the case. But the firestorm of publicity has brought an intense level of attention to Travolta’s private life. Rumors about the star have circulated for years, rarely surfacing beyond the world of supermarket tabloids and Hollywood gossip. A true pop-culture icon whose career spans four decades, Travolta is an up-to-$20-million-a-movie star whose lifestyle is at once luxurious, ordinary and idiosyncratic. Consider: He’s a commercial-grade pilot who flies around the world in his personal Boeing 747, shops at Wal-Mart and eats dinner at Denny’s-sometimes at 2 a.m. He’s an outspoken Scientologist whose beliefs have invited curiosity and criticism. And he’s a married father whose sexuality has been the subject of chatter. “My feeling about John has always been that we know,” the actress Carrie Fisher quipped to the Advocate in 2010. “And we don’t care.” On a few occasions, Travolta’s camp has responded: In 1990, porn actor and director Paul Barresi was reportedly paid $100,000 for a National Enquirer story that he had a two-year affair with Travolta. He later retracted the claim in a letter to Travolta’s attorneys. In 2006 the Enquirer ran a photo of Travolta kissing a man on an airport tarmac. The explanation: Travolta likes to greet both men and women with a friendly kiss.

Both Travolta and Preston have addressed the speculation themselves over the years. “I have never felt compelled to share with you my bathroom habits or … my bedroom habits,” Travolta told W in 2007. Asked if innuendo hurt his career, he said, “What affects your career is the quality of the product.” As for Preston, she told the New York Post in 1999 that speculation that her marriage is a sham “pisses me off. Of all the condescending … [It’s] just so insane. It’s like, how do you respond to ‘Somebody said you were having an alien’s child?'”

Several sources who regularly spend time with Travolta and Preston say they are very much a committed, loving pair. At home in Ocala “they talk all the time, they hold hands-they joke and laugh and are just an all-around solid couple,” says Preston’s friend. Other than the airplanes in the driveway, their daily life in Ocala is surprisingly suburban: “They’ll go out to eat at Chili’s or Olive Garden; they’ll go to the mall or Target. She’ll try on clothes, and he’ll give his feedback on them,” her friend adds. “At awards season, they try to see every single movie that is nominated, and they’ll debate which one should win. I’ve heard her say, ‘The last movie you chose was horrible!’ And then they’ll laugh about it.” On their many vacations in the Bahamas before Jett’s death, “they would spend time reading or talking to each other on the beach,” says Jarreth Rolle, owner of the Straw Bar at Old Bahama Bay, where the Travoltas own a villa. “If guests approached them, they would take the time to talk to them. For a high-profile couple, they were down home.”

That warmth and closeness were evident from the start. Travolta and Preston met on the set of the 1987 movie The Experts, when he was in a long-term relationship with TV star Marilu Henner and she was married to actor Kevin Gage. A few years later, both single again, the pair began dating-cautiously putting past heartbreaks behind them. Travolta had lost his first love, actress Diana Hyland, who played his mother in 1976’s The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, to cancer in 1977. Preston’s high-profile exes included George Clooney and Charlie Sheen. (She was infamously shot by a bullet from Sheen’s gun in 1990; she said the gun went off accidentally when it fell out of his pocket and discharged.) Falling for the romantic, affectionate Travolta was easy, Preston has said. “John is definitely the greatest guy I’ve ever been with,” she told Redbook in 2000. “I didn’t want to be with a bad boy anymore, and I wanted to laugh. John and I both have really whacked senses of humor. Our best friends tease that we’re the same person-we fly together, we go swimming, we love to just hang out.” Travolta piloted the plane that whisked Preston to their 1991 wedding in Paris, officiated by a Scientology minister, with a civil ceremony following in Florida.

Travolta, a Scientologist since the 1970s, and Preston, who joined the church around the time they got married, often speak of how much support they have drawn from Scientology, a church with a reputation for being protective of its members. Scientology “has given me stability,” he told W magazine in 2007. Travolta defended Scientology when gay activists criticized what they claimed were the church’s antigay views. “Scientology is one of the least homophobic religions,” Travolta told The New York Times in 2007 as he promoted his cross-dressing role as Edna Turnblad in the movie musical Hairspray. “It’s not very interested in the body at all.”

In times of crisis, the pair have leaned on their faith-and on each other. Immediately after Jett’s death, following a seizure in their Bahamas home, “they were a team,” recalls Obie Wilchcombe, a member of the Bahamian parliament who has known the family for years and was with them in those first grief-stricken hours. “I knew they suffered a tremendous loss, and they handled it collectively. They needed each other.”

The sudden loss of their firstborn son, who had autism, makes the current turmoil “seem like a minor annoyance in comparison,” says their friend. “They’re upset about [the lawsuit], but this is not their lowest moment. That was when Jett died. Nothing they have gone through will ever top that.” After Jett’s death, two Bahamians were charged with attempting to extort the Travoltas; the case ended in a mistrial and was subsequently dismissed. “This is the same feeling of betrayal,” says the friend. “But nothing can or will ever come close to approaching how devastating Jett’s death was for both of them.”

Still, the allegations are having an impact on the family. “Someday they’ll have to say something to Ella, which they haven’t wanted to do,” says the friend. “This can be really hurtful for a 12-year-old girl. They can say, ‘Someone is spreading rumors and lies about Dad,’ but it won’t be a fun conversation at all. Kelly said she was worried about that.”

In the meantime, the latest allegations have ratcheted up unwelcome curiosity about Travolta’s private life. When he’s shooting a film or traveling, the star typically stays at five-star hotels, where he often books massages from the hotel spa or outside services, usually requesting male massage therapists. Travolta’s accusers say he took off his towel while lying on the massage table and made unwanted advances toward them, but several other therapists reached by PEOPLE give widely varying accounts of Travolta as a client. Michael Caputo, a former massage therapist at the Peninsula hotel in New York City, says three fellow therapists complained to him that they didn’t want to work on Travolta: “They felt uncomfortable because he would move around on the table in a way that they felt was inappropriate.” Caputo never worked on Travolta himself. But one who did was former spa manager Frank Baldassare, who says the actor repeatedly requested massages with him. “I never felt uncomfortable with him,” says Baldassare. “He was never inappropriate with me.” Caputo was quoted by the New York Daily News saying that Travolta was banned from the hotel’s spa for his behavior, but he now disputes the quote, telling PEOPLE Travolta was never banned. Travolta’s lawyer Singer responds: “It is obvious that Caputo has no credibility and that he confirmed he never had any personal interaction with Mr. Travolta at the Peninsula hotel.” Another former therapist, Larry Costa, who worked at Manhattan’s upscale Bliss Spa, says he was called in to massage Travolta in his room several times at the Four Seasons hotel and nothing inappropriate happened. “The call was for a nice, normal massage,” says Costa. “He’s a nice guy.”

Despite Travolta’s fame, those who have encountered him consistently remark about how friendly he is to total strangers. On location in Atlanta earlier this year to film Killing Season with Robert De Niro-where he stayed at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, and Preston and the kids paid several visits-Travolta dined at the Atlanta Palm steak house with a small group of friends, indulging in a 4-lb. jumbo lobster, fries, crispy onions and a flourless chocolate cake. “Within two minutes of me greeting the table, he was asking me personal questions like if I had kids,” says a male staffer. “He told me I was really charismatic, which I thought was strange, since he had only known me a few minutes. It didn’t make me uncomfortable.” One of the things that Preston has said that she loves about “Johnny” is that “he cares about people,” as she told the newspaper The Morning Call. “No matter who it is, he’s truly interested.”

When it comes to the current legal flap, experts say the case against Travolta is shaky. “In high-profile cases, shady people always come out of the woodwork,” says sexual harassment attorney Waldo. “Doe No. 1 has been dropped, and there is still little to no evidence provided from Doe No. 2. Unless Okorocha gets plaintiffs who are willing to come forward and be named, his lawsuit is still very weak.”

As for Travolta and Preston, the pair recently shared a collection of joyful family photos on their personal websites-a Mother’s Day gift from John to Kelly. Friends are confident that they will weather this storm with the security of a union that, no matter what the outside chatter, has endured for 20 years. “They just figure that people are going to say things,” says Preston’s friend. “Kelly’s not a doormat. She doesn’t believe the rumors and thinks they’re ridiculous. And this too will pass.”