Tony Robbins is a very big man, with a very big following. For decades, he has spoken about his big ideas in his big, booming voice in front of very big audiences, and sold big, bold claims on how his followers could make big changes for very big sums of money.
Tony Robbins has made a career out of being a big deal.
Now, Robbins – the American master of the self-help sector who has made millions commodifying inspiration – is facing big accusations. Ten people have now come forward to accuse him of serious sexual misconduct following a year-long investigation from Buzzfeed reporters Katie J.M. Baker and Jane Bradley. Back in May, two of Robbins’ former followers and his former assistant claimed that Robbins made unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances towards them, groped them or exposed himself during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Last week the reporters obtained and released audio of Robbins publicly berating a victim of emotional and physical abuse, and accusing her of lying, asking her what “part” she played in provoking the abuse. This week, they say, “nine more former followers and staffers have come forward to accuse [Robbins] of inappropriate behaviour”. In their latest report, Baker and Bradley say that “one more woman has now provided BuzzFeed News with a sworn statement accusing Robbins under oath of touching her inappropriately during a job interview – bringing the total number of women who say he made sexual advances or was naked in front of them to 10, with nine of them saying they were upset by his actions”.
Robbins vehemently denies “engaging in alleged ‘inappropriate behaviour’”. In a letter to Buzzfeed News in May, he “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”. His lawyers clarified that he was “never intentionally naked” in front of his staff. “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 authors of the BuzzFeed investigation say that he has accused them of “flat-out lying”.
Robbins has been around since the 1980s when his self-help audiotapes and infomercials first became popular in the US. Now 59, he has been a featured TED speaker, founded football clubs and addiction intervention centres and personally worked with the likes of Bill Clinton, Serena Williams, the Kardashians and the Hugh Jackman. He’s published books: Unlimited Power in 1986, Awaken the Giant within (1991), Giant Steps (1994), Money: Master the Game (2014) and Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook (2017). The Harvard Business Press named him one of the “Top 200 Business Gurus”. Around four million people are thought to have attended his inspiration seminars and Robbins claims to have transformed millions of their lives – even saved lives from suicide, and cured people with multiple personalities.
Robbins has achieved a cult-like following not just in the US, but here too; his seminars (some of which last a week) are often described as “evangelical” – and many will eagerly testify that his life-coaching has worked for them. For years Robbins has sold a very covetable product: the pathway to achieving all that you desire, financial or otherwise in downloadable, digestible packages. As an example, the Create a Long Lasting, Passionate Relationship package is available for $229, to Live Life At Your Healthiest Weight, Get Lasting Energy And Increase Your Vitality you’ll need $687, whereas the Sales Mastery Bundle will set you back $4,995. The latter has five stars, but no customer reviews, curiously – or even a description on the site. Tickets to see him live in the UK range from £599 to £3,999 if pre-booked. He is perhaps best known for his “Date With Destiny” seminar, which lasts six days and costs around £7,000.
It’s clear that Robbins is incredibly powerful, and that a lot of people vouch for him – enough to pay his wild fees and to attend his events. The people who go to see him, largely speaking, are at a cross-point in their lives or dealing with difficult, painful experience – mental health issues, abuse, addiction or failure. “Problems are what sculpt our soul,” he says, “Problems are what make us become more. If we can realize that life is always happening for us, not to us: game over. All the pain and suffering disappears.”
Now, structure of power that Robbins erected for himself over the last 40 years appears to be wobbling. Along with accusations of sexual assault and inappropriate sexual behaviour, the motivational speaker stands accused of some worring – and plainly bizarre – “techniques” exercised on vulnerable followers, including asking women to twist their own nipples and say “Calling Tokyo” to “break [their] pattern”. He was publicly admonished for his comments during the early stages of the #MeToo movement after it emerged that he told a woman who had been raped that she was “fucking using all this stuff to try and control men” and publicly bereated a woman who admitted her husband was physically violent and emotionally abusive. “Does he put up with you when you’ve been a crazy bitch?” he retorted, and accused the woman of “lying”.
The audiences that Robbins attracts go to him because they feel broken. They are victims of abuse, sufferers of mental ill-health; those who are ostracised or who have little to no self-esteem. And who isn’t tempted by the thought of being alleviated of pain, at the cost of a few thousand pounds?
Just like so many powerful white men, Robbins’ influence – and how he uses that – has been left unchecked. And, aside from the sexual allegations, there is an implicit level of exploitation in the very nature of his work that can barely be denied. Tony Robbins is a very big man – but he’s not too big to be held to account.