Tony Robbins Accused of Harassment and Malpractice
America's leading motivational speaker and self-help guru is coming under fire.
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.
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.