Tony Robbins Accused of Harassment and Malpractice

America's leading motivational speaker and self-help guru is coming under fire.

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins in February 2006
“Emotional High-Five” by Steve Jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Buzzfeed has conducted a year-long investigation of America’s most famous motivational speaker. The results are less than flattering.

The setup is weak:

When Tony Robbins leaps onstage in arenas around the world, under strobe lights and pulsing speakers, he’s greeted by thousands of screaming fans. They clap with him, jump with him, and when he puffs his chest and lets out a primal roar, they roar with him too.
The world’s most famous self-help guru whips crowds into fits of euphoria few pop stars could dream of, but many of his fans are grappling with life’s most serious problems. Victims of sexual and physical abuse, along with people who struggle with addiction and have mental illnesses, pay thousands of dollars to see him on the promise he has the power to “transform your life” and “rewire your brain.”

At the core of Robbins’ teachings is the message that his followers should not see themselves as victims, and should instead view their pain as something they have the power to “destroy.” He claims to have revolutionized millions of lives with this philosophy, while building a multibillion-dollar business and working with celebrities from Donald Trump and Bill Clinton to Oprah and the Kardashians. Access to his most exclusive membership program has cost as much as $85,000 a year.

— “Leaked Records Reveal Tony Robbins Berated Abuse Victims, And Former Followers Accuse Him Of Sexual Advances

Robbins claims he somehow discovered the secret to a pain-free existence. It’s hardly surprising that he guards it closely.

A yearlong investigation by BuzzFeed News, based on leaked recordings, internal documents, and dozens of interviews with fans and insiders, reveals how Robbins has berated abuse victims and subjected his followers to unorthodox and potentially dangerous techniques. And former female fans and staffers have accused him of inappropriate sexual advances.

Two former followers who went on to work for Robbins provided BuzzFeed News with signed statements swearing under oath that they felt he had sexually harassed them by repeatedly pursuing them after they made clear they weren’t interested. Two more women who worked as his assistants said Robbins expected them to work alone with him when he was naked in his hotel room or in the shower. And another former employee said she was fired after having a consensual sexual relationship with Robbins. The events described by all five women took place in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Robbins’ fame was skyrocketing and before he married his second wife.

That’s quite some time ago—long before #MeToo but after the Clarence Thomas hearings and Bill Clinton scandals made “sexual harassment” a household term—but nonetheless disturbing.

Secret recordings and transcripts from inside his events reveal Robbins has unleashed expletive-laden tirades on survivors of rape and domestic violence after inviting them to share their stories in front of a vast audience. “She’s fucking using all this stuff to try and control men,” he said after one woman said she had been raped. When, in 2018, another woman said her husband was physically violent and emotionally abusive, Robbins accused her of “lying” and asked: “Does he put up with you when you’ve been a crazy bitch?”

Interviews and records reveal how Robbins has created a highly sexualized environment in which both men and women have been told to touch themselves intimately and simulate orgasms — but he has repeatedly singled women out of the crowd for more personal attention. One secret recording from 2018 captured him laughing as he told a woman in the audience that he wanted her to “come up onstage and make love to me.” And two former bodyguards told BuzzFeed News they were sent out to trawl audiences for attractive women on Robbins’ behalf. Two women told BuzzFeed News they had witnessed it or experienced it themselves.

That’s . . . just creepy.

Robbins vehemently denied “engaging in any alleged ‘inappropriate sexual behavior,'” sending security personnel into the crowd to solicit women on his behalf, or making such approaches personally. He was “never intentionally naked” in front of staff, his lawyers said in a letter. “To the extent that he may have been unclothed at various times in his home or in hotels when working while either dressing or showering, and whether a personal assistant may have been present for some reason at that time, Mr. Robbins has no recollection.”

The letter said Robbins “admits he has made mistakes in relationships and other aspects of his life but he never behaved in the manner intimated by these salacious and false accusations,” and he has been “faithful and committed” to his second wife, Sage, since they married in 2001. No one has “ever filed a verbal or written sexual harassment or abuse complaint against Mr. Robbins in the last four decades,” the letter said.

He has since published an open letter via his Twitter feed that could have been authored by Donald Trump—attacking Buzzfeed as fake news. It doesn’t ring true.

The sexual harassment charges strike me as credible. But the bulk of the Buzzfeed report focuses on Robbins’ unorthodox methods. I’m not sure what to make of them, frankly. People are going to see a snake-oil salesman whose education stopped after high school and paying him far more than they would a licensed psychiatrist. I’m not sure what they’re expecting.

Licensed professionals who treat mental health issues must undergo extensive training and follow strict ethical guidelines governing their relations with their clients. Self-help coaching requires no such qualifications or standards. But it creates a potent recipe for the abuse of power, setting its leading lights up as godlike figures with answers to life’s most painful questions, and placing the supplicants who seek their wisdom in their thrall.

Robbins claims that his methods have helped fans overcome severe trauma, averted suicides, and transformed the lives of “phobics, the clinically depressed, people with multiple personalities.” Many credit him with extraordinary breakthroughs. They report summoning the strength to quit dead-end jobs, launch new companies, reunite with estranged family members, end toxic relationships, and find their soulmates as a result of his teachings. Some of the women who spoke to BuzzFeed News still view Robbins with awe and reverence — one said she sees him as someone who “saves lives.” And the fan whom Robbins accused of “lying” after she said her husband was abusive told BuzzFeed News it was a positive experience and that she was grateful for the advice not to be a victim, which had helped her leave that relationship.

But some long-term staffers, including Robbins’ former director of security Gary King, who spoke exclusively to BuzzFeed News, said they were deeply troubled by the psychological impact of his methods on vulnerable audience members.

Robbins’ intensive multiday events are often held in rooms kept deliberately cold and run from early in the morning to well past midnight, with few breaks for food and water. Followers are encouraged to run across hot coals. Internal company emails reveal concerns about fans suffering mental breakdowns after days of emotional exhaustion as well as “sleep deprivation and dehydration.” In this intense atmosphere, some audience members became disoriented as the days went by, said Todd Spendley, a former logistics contractor for the organization. “We used to joke about it,” he said. “People started ‘popping like popcorn.'”

Robbins’ lawyers said there have been “very few reported instances of anyone suffering any form of significant physical injury or adverse medical condition” at his “thousands of events over the past 40 years.”

Several leading national experts on domestic and sexual violence who reviewed transcripts of Robbins’ private events said berating traumatized women and blaming them for their reactions to abuse is a dangerous strategy.

“It’s not only secondary trauma, but a secondary assault,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “This behavior from a self-touted self-help expert is just beyond egregious.”

I mean, what are the standards of conduct for a “self-touted self-help expert”? Aside from not committing actual fraud, it’s not obvious there are any.

People flock by Robbins out of desperation to improve their lives. Presumably, given how large his following has been for so many decades, lots of them feel like he’s helping them. His methods strike me as dangerous quackery but, then again, I’m hardly his target clientele.

Robbins has been sued many times over the years and paid out in a few instances—but he’s also won some defamation claims. He’s certainly aggressive on the legal front:

Like many famous men caught up in the #MeToo movement, Robbins has engaged powerful lawyers to try to shut down accusations: Lavely & Singer, a Hollywood megafirm with a client list including Bill Cosby, Charlie Sheen, and Scarlett Johansson.

The firm has been shielding Robbins from scrutiny since at least 2007, after a website published anonymous criticism of Robbins, including allegations that he had sexually harassed and manipulated women insiders. The site quickly disappeared, and website registration records show the domain was taken over by Lavely & Singer. The firm said the site was “not a source of reliable information,” and was taken down because it “was illegally using Mr. Robbins’ tradename.”

Robbins did face some rare public criticism last spring, after leaked video emerged of him calling the #MeToo movement an excuse for some women to “try and get significance” by “attacking and destroying someone else.” He apologized after widespread backlash, professing “profound admiration” for #MeToo and promising to examine his own behavior to ensure he was “staying true to those ideals.”

But behind the scenes, Lavely & Singer had tried to shut the story down, sending a letter to a woman who posted the video online, warning that the footage was a “clear violation” of the legal agreement she had signed before being let into the event, and demanding she remove it.
And secretly recorded audio from another private event in December 2018, obtained by BuzzFeed News, shows Robbins soon doubled down on his attack. “Victimhood is now rewarded in our culture,” he railed. People can now “make claims about anybody, and everyone jumps to support them.”

Lavely & Singer defended that stance in its letter to BuzzFeed News. “While BuzzFeed attempts to portray Mr. Robbins’ remarks in a negative fashion, it is important to remember that when Mr. Robbins says something like ‘victimhood is rewarded in our culture’ that’s because, in some cases, it is,” they wrote.

Again, none of this is surprising. Robbins’ whole shtick is that we all control our destiny and failure, pain, or unpleasantness is simply a function of the wrong mental attitude. It’s nutty. But people aren’t obligated to pay him gobs of money, either.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    It’s disturbing that what I always criticized in myself as caustic cynicism turned out to be naiveté. People are so much weaker and so much dumber than I used to understand.

  2. grumpy realist says:

    Don’t know how much this guy charges, but am wondering if certain people decide to go see him because normal therapy is so expensive and takes so long. (Also, a heck of a lot of therapists go into it because they’re trying to solve their own mental issues…..which means that they may or may not be good at helping you solve yours. Some of them will just manage to screw you up even more.)

    But yeah, a lot of what is mentioned as Standard Operating Procedure sounds awfully cult-like.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    I’m starting to see the point of organized religion. Sure it’s all lies and no one with a functioning brain should buy it, but it gives the sheep something rather than letting them wander around to find something even dumber to believe.

    Chicken and egg. Which comes first? Does religion subvert reason and leave people vulnerable to all manner of mental infection? Or are people just hopelessly incapable of autonomy and independence so they’ll fall in line behind any jackass with a loud voice and swagger?

    I stand slack-jawed and appalled at my fellow humans. No wonder it took us a million years to discover fire. I mean, we’re brighter than chimpanzees, but not by much. And in terms of virtue we will never be the equals of any random Labrador Retriever. Nastier than dogs, slightly smarter than chimps. I bow my head in the general direction of Dublin where Jonathan Swift beat me to this realization by 292 years.

  4. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds: It’s the promise of eternal life after death that most religions offer, I suppose. Or, if not the promise of life after death, at least that there’ some order and meaning to this life, that it’s guided by a rational supreme being. I don’t know. I wasn’t raised in any religion–I still can’t tell you what, if any, beliefs my late parents had–so the appeal of religion, in any form, has always eluded me.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    @CSK:
    Eternal life is a promise to fools, a threat to the wise.

  6. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds: Then most people are fools, aren’t they?

  7. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s disturbing that what I always criticized in myself as caustic cynicism turned out to be naiveté. People are so much weaker and so much dumber than I used to understand.

    I’m starting to see the point of organized religion. Sure it’s all lies and no one with a functioning brain should buy it, but it gives the sheep something rather than letting them wander around to find something even dumber to believe.

    Do you think you’re not a sheep, or that you’re just a slightly different breed of sheep?

    People delegate to authority because they can’t work out everything on their own, and they choose those authorities based on social pressures and what promises a solution, rather than anything remotely rational.

    Take the global warming thread. Do you understand the mechanics of global warming, or are you deferring to authority? Unless I am grossly mistaken, your bio reads “best-selling author of countless books” not “best-selling author of countless books and awesome climate scientist extraordinaire.”

    How did you defer to this authority system? What other authority systems have failed you? Do you really retain a healthy skepticism?

    Years ago, at some job that doesn’t matter, we had to choose between a couple of different technologies for something. My boss created a spreadsheet where we listed the pros and cons of each, assigned scores and weights and then summed up all the results… I refer to this now as The Spreadsheet of Subjectivity, and I realized that this is how people “make decisions” — they will create a faux logical and rational framework that leads to whatever they wanted to do anyway. The real decision was made long before, based on the most unrelated reasons.

    I’ve seen myself doing this for all sorts of decisions, big and small, and notice other people doing the same, and at this point, I think people just find an authority system or two, which worked out well at a critical moment, and just root for them as if they are sports teams.

    And, in the case of global warming, if the wrong sports team wins, we all die (no pressure).

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    I am the diametric opposite of a follower. I’m so averse to the very concept of following that I am equally averse to leading – I despise anyone weak enough to follow me. A big part of the reason I write is that it allows me to work entirely by myself, and outside of any real hierarchy. I sell a product: you can buy it or not buy it but no one is the boss of me. I’m not saying it’s an admirable trait because in a crisis when someone’s yelling, ‘go right!’ I will absolutely go left. As sure as the sunrise.

    Which is not always the clever thing to do as I’m sure you will deduce.

    I wrote a character who is obvious self-parody, at least to my family, a big dumb white guy named Armo who has oppositional defiant disorder and simply cannot do what he’s told to do. You know why I’m an atheist? Sure, I can marshal all the logical arguments, but fundamentally it’s that no invisible sky daddy is the boss of me. I mean, fck ‘im, he wants to tell me what to do he can damn well run for office and follow the laws – which is not to say I’ll follow those same laws.

    Am I deferring to authority on climate change? Actually I’m behind the curve by several years on accepting its likelihood because I am incapable of believing what I’m told absent supporting evidence. As more evidence accumulated, I changed position. Anything I do believe I am perfectly willing to alter as I take new data on-board. People who defer to authority are not people willing to turn on a dime as new data becomes available. They want certainty, I love doubt.

  9. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: You seem a lot more conventional than you like to think you are.

    Anything I do believe I am perfectly willing to alter as I take new data on-board. People who defer to authority are not people willing to turn on a dime as new data becomes available. They want certainty, I love doubt.

    This, for instance, is just the scientific method as an authority system, and it’s what most schools have been attempting to teach (with one name or another) as long as I’ve been alive, and all the way back to the Scopes Monkey Trial. (Well, some time after that, as the monkey was found guilty).

    It’s bog-standard thinking outside of very religious communities. And, you will accept the beliefs of someone else who follows that same authority system, and places it above others, far sooner than someone who doesn’t.

    You say you’re not a follower, but you have a wife, house, kids, work for a living, and aren’t out in the national parks living off the land, or living under a bridge. Yes, your job is writing books, away from people. You’ve also managed a restaurant in the past, which is kind of the opposite. It probably chafed a bit, but all jobs working for someone chafe a bit.

    You’re not so much of an iconoclast as you are a curmudgeon.

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  10. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    No, the scientific method is not just another authority system, that’s nonsense. The pursuit of hard, replicable data is not related in any way to the top-down assertion of authority or the bottom up acquiescence to same. To conflate the two is beyond lazy thinking, dude. One demands evidence, the other does not. One can be tested in the real world, the other cannot. The only way you can equate science and authority is by dismissing the idea of objective reality.

    The word iconoclast refers to the shattering of idols, originally in the religious context. An atheist is by definition an iconoclast. That’s really the only price of membership in the iconoclast club. But I get to add rejections of formal education, the law, extended family and employment as secular icons rejected, and not just in the abstract. Religion, law, family, education and employment? That’s five systems of authority. Kind of seems like a lot to me.

    A curmudgeon is an old, bad-tempered fellow. That I may be, but that’s not what we’re talking about, we’re talking about authority. We don’t have to choose between iconoclasm and curmudgeonry, the two often co-exist. Right?

  11. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: The modern scientific method is an authority system without an ultimate overseeing authority. Variants have been developed over the course of human history — you can see elements in Socratic dialogue and Buddhism, among places, but really kicked off in the European renaissance, when it met the printing press.

    I’d say that it became an authority system when the sum of knowledge became great enough and complex enough that the individual wasn’t able to test the results — either because of specialized knowledge, or just lack of time.

    There’s a reason why it has clashed with the Catholic Church, beyond just showing that some things weren’t literally true — because it creates a different structure of authority. There were lots of things in the Bible that were accepted as metaphor, and stories in it that were accepted as revealing a truth rather than being literally the historical events.

    Unless you’re traveling to the Antarctic to take ice core samples, you are deferring to the authority of others — trusting their data because they have the same values and beliefs that you do, and because other people (who you have no more knowledge of than the first person) reproduce it.

    You make decisions in your life (who to vote for, in this case), because of this authority. Hence, authority system.

    It’s distributed, so there’s no Science Pope who is going through and verifying the data (or modifying it, to create a global warming conspiracy so they can require socialism everywhere and enslave JKB).

    We’re humans. We create things bigger than ourselves, and are controlled by them. That’s what separates us from the animals. That, and we use cutlery.

    I was using iconoclast in the colloquial definition, as you well know. It seemed less worse than special snowflake. You’re also not literally crystallized water, before you object to that.

    I find it hysterical (not in the 18th century definition, as I lack the appropriate uterus) that you are so good at understanding other people, and so bad at understanding yourself. Not in a mean laughing at you way, but in a more jovial laughing at you and everyone else way. We all have massive blind spots.

    And your life, as you explain it, doesn’t seem any less conventional than any craftspeople I know. You’re just not buying lumber and figuring out where to store it, and you’re less likely to cut off your fingers in a bandsaw.

  12. CSK says:

    It occurred to me recently that the most loathsome people I’ve met in my life have been in-your-face Christians. By that I mean not normal believers; they don’t bother me, and I don’t bother them. Whatever floats your boat is fine with me, as long as you don’t try to force me to climb aboard. I mean, ranging from the lower end of loathsomeness to the higher end, those sanctimonious, self-righteous, self-infatuated twits who publicly announce how Good Friday is such an agonizing day for them because they can’t stop thinking about the sufferings of their savior to the outright crazy/evil. The latter take great delight in human suffering.

  13. Teve says:

    @Gustopher:
    almost nobody gets their beliefs from either authority or the scientific method. I was in science and I don’t get 99% of my beliefs straight from the scientific method. I can’t, I’ll never do even a tenth of 1% of the scientific experiments that make up the world of knowledge I live in. Neither do I accept the things that I believe based on simple authority, like you mentioned there’s no science Pope.

    We believe things because they fit into a coherent set of beliefs we have in our heads. Look at something simple from a science textbook like a description of a carbon bond. When a chemistry textbook describes an sp3 bond that carbon engages in, you believe it, I believe it, and neither of us directly believe it because of the scientific method or authority. We didn’t do the science that backs that carbon shit up, nor do we trust the textbook just because it’s an authority. But believing the basic shit in a basic chemistry textbook coheres with a thousand other beliefs we have about textbooks and chemistry and carbon and time and the amount of research that’s going into things, and the technology that’s been produced, and the lack of scientific protests regarding basic text books and a million other things.

    One of the reasons we have a general education system in the first place is to give citizens a big mental structure of well tested beliefs they can generally trust. Then when bulshit comes along it will fail to cohere with numerous other things they already know and they’ll be suspicious.

  14. Tyrell says:

    Robbins and Beto O’Rourke look and sound similar.

  15. JohnMcC says:

    Just a short note to point out that the Buddha started his spiritual journey with the realization that everyone will suffer and all will feel pain. Buddhism (as I understand it–very humble beginner) is based on the need to minimize this pain and to understand it. Much cheaper than Mr Robbins, apparently.

  16. CSK says:

    And speaking of cults…folks, for the low, low price of just $45, you can be the proud possessor of an official Donald Trump prayer coin, which Jim Bakker, who’s peddling them, assures you that the coin will provide you with a contact point with God.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    1) I’m excited to learn that I’m conventional. The people who actually live with me, know me, read my work and know my history all disagree strenuously, but I’m sure you’re right and they’re all wrong.

    2) You are attenuating the definition of ‘authority’ to the point where the word loses all meaning. For there to be authority there must be obedience or at least belief. That is incompatible with my doubt everything, be willing to reconsider everything, approach.

    3) I assume you’re bored and killing time on a Saturday, but I tend to lose interest in semantic arguments which is what this now is.

  18. Gustopher says:

    @Teve:

    When a chemistry textbook describes an sp3 bond that carbon engages in, you believe it, I believe it, and neither of us directly believe it because of the scientific method or authority. We didn’t do the science that backs that carbon shit up, nor do we trust the textbook just because it’s an authority.

    We kind of do. Not to a complete exclusion of everything else, but our heuristic shorthand for who and what to trust puts sciencey things into the trusted camp by default, because of our basic education.

    But it’s also clearly a choice (whether it was our choice or our parents is up for debate), as so many people don’t trust it. Not sp3 bonds (honestly I remember so little of my chemistry that I wouldn’t know if you were making them up… spdfghk… I mean, it’s plausible that’s its true), but bigger things like evolution, global warming, etc., are denied by a large chunk of the population that doesn’t really subscribe to that as an authority system.

    Alternately, by having the outwards appearance of science, Social Darwinism was able to gain favor quickly and become a force that still reverberates to this day (racist thinkers will justify their beliefs by saying there was no Enlightenment in Africa (ignoring a fair bit of history), and then concluding that it’s because the black race is inferior).

    But believing the basic shit in a basic chemistry textbook coheres…

    It’s a shame your example wasn’t biology, as so much of that field has been radically changed in the past fifty years.

    Because it’s Sunday, and I’m at a coffee shop, waiting to meet up with friends later, I’ll digress a bit more… when the Protestants began translating the Bible from Latin into languages that people spoke and read, and having services in current, local languages, they were weakening the clergy, and leaving the ultimate interpretation of the Bible in the hands of the lay person. Clergy still had some authority, but the overall authority system had become partially decentralized. And it happened after the scientific method had begun percolating about in Europe.

    Specific authority figures, such as Popes and Kings, are being replaced by decentralized authority systems, but people show no less allegiance to them.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: While I am just killing time, I find the Myth of Michael Reynolds, Standing Above The Sheep With His Unique Perspective That Lets Him See The World to be preposterous.

    You’re pretty full of yourself sometimes, and it just makes me want to poke it. Usually, when I’m killing time.

    You’re also one of my favorite commenters on the site, so go figure.