Saturday, June 22, 2019

Heat is still on Tony Robbins, but don't cry for him

In my previous post I wrote about the fallout from BuzzFeed News' investigative series on selfish-help giant Tony Robbins, the first installment of which was published on May 17 of this year. The stories, particularly the first one, generated tons of coverage in the news and entertainment media, as well as some heated conversations on social media. But wait, there's more.

BuzzFeed keeps on buzzin'
Since my last post, two more installments in the series have seen the light of day. On
June 18, BuzzFeed News posted an article with the rather sensationalist headline:

Tony Robbins Punishes Followers By Making Them Drink Unidentified Brown Liquid “Designed To Have A Lasting Effect”

And immediately beneath the headline:
At high-pressure seminars, the self-help superstar punishes people who don't measure up by feeding them a "gross shot" of unidentified brown liquid. His lawyers denied the mixture contains laxatives.
Granted, this sounds absolutely horrible. It makes Robbins seem like a sadist and the drinkers like helpless victims. And maybe you would argue that that's it in a nutshell, and I would say you probably have a case -- Robbins is clearly full of himself and at times almost maliciously confident of his "power" over others; and after investing big bucks and being browbeaten for hours or days, people's defenses are almost certainly way down -- but there is context. Apparently the coerced drinking is part of a specific competitive exercise that has taken place at some of Robbins' seminars: participants who "fail" at some contrived challenge are called onstage in front of large crowds and coerced into drinking an unidentified, gross-looking brown mixture that, according to a former staffer, they are led to believe contains a laxative. Internal docs and videos also reveal Robbins placing "L" (for "loser") stickers on their foreheads while the song "Loser" by Beck plays over the speakers.
Presumably this is all in the service of empowering them to live more passionate and fulfilled and purposeful lives and whatnot -- which, I probably don't have to tell you but will mention it anyway, is the rationale that has been used at every selfish-help seminar from
the est of daze gone by, to est imitators such as Lifespring, to the man-camp abuses perpetrated by orgs such as The ManKind Project, to James Arthur Ray's repeatedly hazardous and ultimately deadly faux sweat lodge events. And even Keith Raniere, that loathsome, recently convicted excuse for a man who headed the women-branding sex cult NXIVM, probably convinced his followers that the atrocities he commited against them were for their own good.

But if you look at it in the larger context of the sometimes appalling, sometimes dangerous, and occasionally fatal goings-on at selfish-help/McSpirituality/New-Wage events, drinking some gross brown stuff while being called a "loser" in front of a few thousand other folks, who also paid good money to be deceived and abused by a hulking huckster, is arguably on the less extreme, even if not totally benign, end of the business-as-usual spectrum.

That doesn't make it a good thing, of course, and the aforementioned Robbins ex-staffer told BuzzFeed News, "I always felt that this was highly inappropriate and falls into the category of public shaming, which is common for Robbins." Other observers said that it really seemed that Robbins was bullying the participants into drinking the "gross shots." Yep, bullying is precisely what is so often done at these events. And when the gurus aren't bullying, they are, more often than not, aggressively upselling and coercively "persuading."

Other former insiders told BuzzFeed that they'd also witnessed fans pressured into drinking supplements and juices outside of the "competitive" events. Despite assurances that the drinks would have health benefits, many people got sick. Gary King, Robbins' former director of security, said that people who'd downed the concoctions were "throwing up all over the place, in public restrooms, in hotel rooms."

As for the "gross shots" headlined in the BuzzFeed piece, Robbins' lawyers denied they contained laxatives but were instead a mix of "pickle juice, apple juice, lemon juice, tomato juice and a dash of tabasco." They insisted that no formal reports or complaints had ever been made about the drink.

The day after the gross-shots story was posted,
BuzzFeed followed up with Part 5 of the series, reporting that nine more former followers and staffers had come forward to accuse Robbins of inappropriate behavior that included groping women and mistreating vulnerable followers. Not surprisingly, Robbins "strongly denied" all of the new allegations, and his lawyers inundated BuzzFeed News with nearly two dozen glowing statements about Tony's impeccable character and behavior. Of note, many of those folks are still employed by Robbins and didn't work for him during the period of the alleged sexual misconduct.

But as with the first story in the series, it's not just about sex. The BuzzFeed piece cites several examples of people who claim to have have either witnessed psychological abuse or trauma at Robbins' events, or experienced it themselves. The accounts will sound pretty familiar to anyone who has even casually studied the dark side of the selfish-help industry. For instance, a staffer named Elizabeth told BuzzFeed about reading a 2017 account from a female participant who wrote on Robbins' Facebook page, saying that the event she'd attended was "overwhelming" and "awful" for her. She wrote that she'd been in her hotel room for the past five days, experiencing "extremes" and desperately in need of help.

According to Elizabeth, her team often received these types of messages. "She was clearly in distress and there was no protocol on how to handle it, even though it wasn't uncommon," Elizabeth explained, adding that everyone would "bump these concerns up but then nobody would do anything."

But Robbins' lawyers insisted that participants are always warned in advance of the "commitment and hours involved," and that there is a "robust medical team" onsite to lend support should something go wrong. They added that Robbins' conduct and that of all of his trainers in engaging with participants is "strictly governed by established protocol."

Still, given the fact that
this is the selfish-help industry we're talking about, "established protocol" could mean just about anything, or nothing. And I seriously doubt that Robbins' "robust" medical team was anywhere near that distraught woman who was freaking out in her hotel room after the fact. So maybe take some of that into consideration when making up your mind.

Canceled gigs
Ever since the first BuzzFeed story broke, I've read countless expressions of either fear or of hope that this "exposure" will finally mark the beginning of the end of Tony Robbins. But at this point I still don't think so, and said as much at the conclusion of
my last post. You know... "the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on." I may be wrong, but so far there's no indication that the fans are jumping ship en masse.

Even so, the BuzzFeed buzz has not died down, and indeed, Tony Robbins is frequently described these days as "embattled." And there have been some repercussions... well, maybe they're repercussions, and maybe they're just coincidences, depending upon whom you want to believe. F'rinstance, not long after the first stories came out, there were a couple of related-to-each-other developments that most media accounts framed as being a result of the accusations uncovered by BuzzFeed.

First it was announced that registered investment advisor (RIA)
Creative Planning, which caters to the affluent, had severed ties with Robbins, three years after hiring him as a "Chief of Investor Psychology." That's a pretty silly title if you ask me, and even if you don't ask me, but I'm thinking it was code for "expert on manipulating people out of their money." Anyhow, it was assumed by many in and out of the investment industry that this separation was a direct result of the accusations against Robbins, and the company was praised by some for the action they'd taken.

A week later, however, Creative Planning claimed that the split had actually been in the works for months before the allegations came to light. Peter Mallouk, the company's CEO of Creative Planning (he's also the owner), said that Robbins and Creative Planning had been "negotiating an exit" for six months, and that it was "a mutual decision and amicable." The scandalous accusations, according to Mallouk's version, had absolutely nothing to do with the breakup.

Shortly after the Creative Planning announcement, it was also revealed that
an upcoming book by Robbins was dropped by the publisher. Actually, however, he was only listed as a co-author of the book in question, The Path: Accelerating Your Journey to Financial Freedom. His co-author was none other than the aforementioned Peter Mallouk of Creative Planning. But Mallouk himself, as well as a spokeswoman for Robbins, stated that although the book was in the works, contractual terms had never been reached nor finalized with the publisher. Robbins spokeswoman Jennifer Connelly told NBC News, "It is a false and misleading characterization to state that this was a book authored by Mr. Robbins."

May 30, 2019 piece from the RIABiz site offers a little more insight. Apparently Robbins had authored two chapters of the book, some other person had written one, and Mallouk had penned the rest. But Mallouk and Robbins had teamed up for a previous book, Unshakeable, which is mentioned in this August 2018 fluff piece, also from RIABiz. And here, from the same site, is an April 2016 piece that speculates on the then-new business bromance between Robbins and Mallouk. Just a little history, if you're interested; take all of it for what it's worth. You can believe the media accounts or you can believe the PR statements from the RIA and the book publisher and Robbins' people.

But far as I'm concerned, it's just as well that Tony Robbins lost the financial-advice gig and possible book deal. After all,
as my pal Salty Droid documented years ago, Robbins is, to put it mildly, not the most qualified or credible financial expert.
According to The New York Times :: Tony Robbins is qualified to write a book about financial planning for the masses … because he’s life coach to hedge fund white guy John Tudor Jones. Tony has special access to life’s high achievers … and he passes their highly applicable secrets on to the rest of us {for a small to life ruining fee}.

A couple of years ago Tony Robbins was using the exact same :: “I wanted to help people get their retirements back after the crash” type line he uses here … to sell us on his special access to Frank Kern and
The Syndicate … who Robbins labeled The New Money Masters.
And if you want more, let's turn to RIABiz again, with this November 2014 reprinted review of Robbins' book, Money! Master the Game, the work that reportedly set the ball rolling for Mallouk-Robbins' Unshakeable. The teaser on the site states that the book contains "a few sound nuggets but gimmicks, fallacies and straw men abound."

Please do take the time to read (or re-read, if you wish) that Salty Droid post I linked to above, and listen to the embedded audio of the hard-sell sales call, perpetrated by some of Robbins' then-cohorts. And remember that none of this has anything to do with #MeToo-ish allegations. The #MeToo movement was still a couple of years in the future at the time this post was published. Rather, this is all about financial exploitation of some of the most vulnerable folks -- and no matter how you may personally feel about how Tony Robbins is a force for good in the world and/or about how he has changed your life, his big fingers have also been in the filthy financial-exploitation pie for years.

For many reasons it would be foolish to weep for Tony, or to weep at all, because of his separation from Creative Planning and the collapsed book deal. Regardless of whether or not those events have anything to do with the allegations in the BuzzFeed series, it's probably best for everyone that legitimate financial advice firms steer clear of Robbins.

Alphabitching and other reactions
I have yet to see any indication that Robbins intends to make good on his threat to take legal action against BuzzFeed. And apart from that
"open letter" Robbins posted on the very day that the first story was published, and the odd video here and there, he hasn't said much publicly about the matter. But that hasn't stopped a lot of his rank-and-file defenders from mouthing off.

The worst of the offensively defensive reactions that I've seen have come from various alt-right-leaning
men's-rights activists (MRAs) who fancy themselves "alpha males" and sneer at "beta males" and at those even lower in their imaginary heirarchy, while consistently rejecting the very notion that some men rape or sexually abuse women. (Here's RationalWiki's take on MRAs.) I want to say right off that I am not for a moment suggesting that all of Robbins' fans, followers, and defenders fall into these categories, nor am I insinuating that Robbins himself embraces or encourages MRA dogma.

That said, on various social media discussions I've seen some defenses of Robbins that shamelessly reflect these mindsets. I've been privy to a bit of nattering about alpha males and how they are constantly being hammered by the #MeToo crowd, as well as by those loser betas and by "political correctness" and, of course, by "SJWs" (social justice warriors)... and about how men are being punished just for being men, damn it!... and about how Tony Robbins is just the latest high-profile example of this unconscionable oppression.

It gets worse, though. A cursory Google search led me to
a toxic little essay by American Nazi Andrew Anglin, originally published on his neo-Nazi Daily Stormer site, though that original link appears to be down. The headline blasts, "Tony Robbins' Book Canceled Because He's Too Alpha." (Apparently Anglin didn't get the memo that it wasn't, technically, "Tony Robbins' book.")

The screed leads with a pic of Robbins embellished with one of his famous quotations: "The path to success is to take massive, determined action." To which Anglin responds:

Not anymore, Tony. Not anymore. Today, the path to success is to take massive cocks in every orifice, and to have new orifices surgically added to your body so you can take massive cocks in those too.
He goes on to hurl blame at "sluts" (presumably feminists, as well as the women of the #MeToo movement and every woman who has ever sympathized or empathized with the latter); black people (though of course he doesn't use nearly so polite a term); and trans people (though he employs a far cruder term). And, he adds, "if you cross a slut or a mangina, the entire world will come down on you. Even if you're a diabolical genius who invented modern self-help ideology." Tony Robbins, of course, is precisely that "diabolical genius."

The glory days of alpha male rule, Anglin laments, are gone. No longer do we exist in a world where alpha males can express their alpha maleness by "whip(ping) out their dicks" and "grabbing bitches by the pussy" and telling "rape-hoaxing sluts to shut their filthy lying mouths." Why, alphas can't even use the "N" word with impunity, he rages, a complaint that appears to address the third BuzzFeed story, which reported on an old video of Robbins using the "N" word repeatedly at a seminar exercise whose stated purpose was to rob racial epithets of their power. As disgusting as that may be to most folks when viewed today, Anglin seems to be... well, anglin'... for a world in which those epithets would still have their full power, and alpha white guys could use them without facing any consequences.

Still frothing, Anglin continues:

The disgusting part of this is that Tony Robbins actually was giving people great advice. It was very simple advice, ultimately - he was just saying clichéd stuff about “reach for the stars and always be the best you can be, and you will succeed at whatever endeavor you take on.”

And you can criticize him for saying something that has been said before - but you can’t call him a liar.

The fact of reality is that your only choices are:

  1. Live in fear
  2. Grab life by the pussy
There really aren't any other major choices, and there is very little gray area.
I'm thinking that #NotMyPresident Donald Trump should be extraordinarily proud that he has inspired no lesser a Nazi than Andrew Anglin to turn a 2005 hot-mic boast into a metaphor for how to live one's life. Maybe Trump and Anglin can co-author a ghostwritten book called, Grab Life By The Pussy! Although come to think of it, I don't think Trump would want to share author credits with anyone, so scrap that idea.

For that matter,
Anglin's former lawyer, free-screech advocate Marc Randazza, should also be proud to count Anglin among his stellar former client list. I say "former" lawyer/client because, although Randazza was indeed representing Anglin in November 2018 when I wrote the blog post linked to in the previous sentence, he has since begged off the case. Luke O'Brien had this to say in the HuffPost in April of this year:
This is not the first time Randazza has slunk away from his legal wreckage -- last year, he withdrew from a case after he and a client made numerous misrepresentations in Utah federal court that led to his client being sanctioned. This breakup, though, is different. For a time, Randazza and Anglin were pals subverting the system together. But Anglin was always too far gone, a conspiratorial loon raving about Jewish cabalism, his hatred of America and his desire to see the brains of his enemies splattered on walls.

“He has gotten far more radical,” Randazza told HuffPost in March.
"Gotten" far too radical? Okay, whatever you say, Marc.

But I digress. Anglin, ignoring the fact that the subject of his rant is not in fact down for the count (though Anglin apparently bases his view of Robbins' "downfall" on the fact that Robbins has actually made half-hearted apologies and concessions here and there, which a functional alpha male would never, ever do), concludes in his little essay that Tony Robbins may well be "the last 1990s Alpha Male Extremist to fall to the disgusting hordes" of women and people of color and LGBTQ and so forth. But, he adds, while this is a cause for mourning, all is not lost. Rather it is a sign that "we, the men among the ruins, must rebuild our own new society" from scratch.

"I can promise you this," he assures his readers. "There'll be plenty of chances to whip out your dick on the road to a new civilization."

Well, I say, go ahead and whip it out, MRAs, and keep it out. Just ignore the hearty laughter you encounter on the road to that brave new civilization, and do be on the lookout for women with axes to grind. Or just with axes.

By contrast to Anglin, MRA (and self-described alpha), misogynist, alt-right Trumpian, and conspiranoid
Mike Cernovich almost sounded rational in a post he wrote in response to the initial BuzzFeed revelations. Though as might be expected Cernovich downplayed the actual accusations, he did manage to make a couple of valid points about Robbins' history of engaging in "aggressive litigation posturing" and the use of "bottom-feeding lawyers to silence his critics." He also expressed the opinon that Robbins was being too sensitive about the accusations in the BuzzFeed articles, and that he overreacted to them. Most of all Cernovich touched on a point that I've previously made:
No one who likes Robbins will read the article and think, “That’s it. He’s cancelled.”
Yeah... you know... barking dogs and caravans. Cernovich concluded with another salient observation, which is that like most celebs, Robbins has been coddled by the media for decades, "and any criticism leads to an overreaction."

So even a card-carrying member of the right-wing alphabutt manopshere can occasionally exhibit a thread of rationality.

Where (or if) it stops, nobody knows...
One of the ongoing themes on this blog is that in Scamworld there are no neat and tidy endings. As I've noted more than once in the past couple of posts, I really don't think the BuzzFeed series will mark the end of Tony Robbins' career as a huckster.
A possible, though by no means certain, Achilles heel could be the allegations related to #MeToo matters, which have, after all, led to the downfall of numerous successful and powerful men, and possibly a few women, in various industries and in public office -- Donald John Trump being a notable exception, so far.
But then again, placed in the context of what has been going on with selfish-help gurus and "spiritual" leaders for decades, and given the fact that the selfish-help/McSpirituality industries have weathered many other allegations of physical and emotional abuse, nothing is certain. Yes, women (and men) are finally saying, "Enough!", and as a culture we are becoming less tolerant of bad behavior that was formerly taken for granted. However, absent an extreme situation like Keith Rainier and his sex-slavery cult, or like James Arthur Ray and his lethal sweat lodge, it's unlikely that any of Tony Robbins' misdeeds -- or, for that matter, the misdeeds of most other motivational icons -- will result in any criminal charges or even many successful civil actions. And while Robbins and others may lose some fans and followers for one reason or another, you can't keep a good huckster down, and there will always be new generations of marks.

But please, don't waste any time feeling sorry for Tony Robbins. Just continue to keep your eyes open and your boots on as you continue to negotiate (to quote a certain Cosmic blogger) the dung-filled streets and murky swamps of pop culture. It's a mess out there.

UPDATE, 6 December 2019:
Buzzfeed published yet another installment in its Tony Robbins series on November 22, 2019 --
that's Part 6, for those who are keeping track. This story covered Robbins' alleged sexual abuse of a minor female at a summer camp in Southern Cali way back in 1985, when Tony was 25, but already rich and famous.

Following the publication of that piece, Tony, who denies the allegations, had apparently had enough.
He has now decided to SLAPP Buzzfeed with a flawsuit, and is currently threatening to sue Twitter too in the bargain, apparently for allowing word of the Buzzfeed series to spread. But he's not suing in the United States; rather, he's suing in Ireland, with his lawyer rationalizing that Dublin is Twitter's Euro headquarters. Per Mike Masnick, writing on the TechDirt site on December 4:
Of course, the real reason to sue in Ireland is because either lawsuit would be laughed out of court in the US. The bar to prove defamation against a public figure like Robbins would make it nearly impossible for Robbins to win a defamation lawsuit here, unless he could somehow prove that Buzzfeed made up the reporting, which seems highly unlikely. And, of course, Section 230 of the CDA would protect Twitter. Even in Europe, it seems unlikely that Twitter could be held liable for how other people tweeted, just because Mr. Robbins is "aggrieved" about how this story spread.
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed continues to stand by their reporting.

Related on (and off) this Whirled

  • September 2018: Enough with the ludicrous "alpha male" myth, says author James Fell, writing on The Good Men Project blog. Not that this will dissuade many if any of those who most need dissuading, but this is for the rest of us.

  • Updated September 2018: Here's Why Tony Robbins Should Definitely Not Be Your Guru
    Some really powerful observations in response to the 2016 Netflix documentary, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. The author, Mia Doring, describes Tony as "a raging 'self help' narcissist," writing:

    I had hoped there was more to him than this, but the Netflix documentary “I Am Not Your Guru” (weird title considering that’s exactly what he thinks he is) didn’t really convince me, or anyone else I have foisted it upon.
    She describes a scene in which Robbins coerces a woman to break up with her boyfriend on the phone in front of 2,500 people at one of his "Date With Destiny" seminars.
    She wants Robbins’ approval so badly that it hurts to watch. “Pick up your f*ckin’ phone”, he says dismissively, walking away, smirking. As he lectures her about the relationship he knows nothing about, he occasionally shrugs his shoulders in apparent exasperation with her. She fumbles in her bag. Of course nobody is making her do anything. Just her intense desire to please the giant man shouting “f*cking” commands at her, the several TV cameras all pointed at her, and the palpable energy of the giant crowd all around her, all who see this as a “breakthrough”. Oh and the $5K she spent to be there. Her boyfriend hangs up on her. The music blasts. She gets a standing ovation. She looks devastated. Tony gives a little speech about being “authentic”. I want to shoot myself in the face.
  • November 2014: From The Guardian: Infomercial king Tony Robbins wants to tell you what to do with your money. Be very afraid
    Not related to sexual abuse allegations, but about Tony Robbins' unfitness to be a financial guru.

  • September 2010: Salty Droid on Tony Robbins and the Syndicate
    Going back even further than the 2015 Salty Droid post I linked to above, here's more about Tony Robbins teaming up with a group of aggressive second-rate scammers who referred to themselves as "The [Internet Marketing] Syndicate" to suck as many folks as possible into a fraud funnel. Salty explained:
    [Robbins] will “introduce” you to [the members of "The Syndicate"] for $67 per month … but if you want to know about the cartel … and the fraud … and the
    boiler rooms … and all the other seedy fucking bullshit that these wanks have to pull just to make far less than they report … then that’s gonna be extra.
    Again, this has nothing to do with scandalous #MeToo-type allegations that have dominated the headlines about Robbins since BuzzFeed's first story was published. But it is equally as scandalous and should be treated as such.
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