What’s come out about the Tony Robbins scandal

Tony Robbins is larger than life in almost every imaginable way. From his broad 6’7″ frame to his booming voice, the self-help guru has a life story that would certainly give him credibility as a life coach: He left what he described to Fortune as an abusive home life when he was 17 years old, became a janitor and dropped out of college. He met motivational speaker Jim Rohn, who served as a mentor to Robbins — and the rest is history. Robbins went on to eclipse his own mentor and become one of the planet’s most in-demand life coaches. He currently boasts an estimated net worth of $500 million, plus famous fans and friends including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Hugh Jackman, Serena Williams, Eva Longoria, and Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

However, a series of bombshell reports have exposed an alleged darkness in the man who has seemingly brought light to so many. Allegations levied against the formidable Winfrey-dubbed “force of nature” range from staff complaints, to sexual misconduct, to shaming some of his followers to the point of physical illness — all allegations which Robbins vehemently denies.

Here’s what’s come out about the Tony Robbins scandal.

He was accused of sexual misconduct

In May 2019, BuzzFeed News reported that several of Tony Robbins’ former staffers accused him of sexual harassment, including alleged unwanted advances (some repeat), and allegedly appearing nude in front of staffers.

A former personal assistant of Robbins, using the pseudonym “J,” alleged that she had a consensual sexual relationship with Robbins while he was married to his first wife, Becky — and that she was fired when Becky grew suspicious. J’s friend, attorney Ron Blumberg, explained that she had a “strong” sexual harassment case, noting of Robbins, “He was on a pedestal as few celebrities in any field were at the time. Everything about him — his looks, his demeanor, his money — was crafted to define himself as having extreme power.” Another former staffer, “Marie,” said she rebuffed Robbins’ advances but that he allegedly stared at her body; she said she was fired. Robbins’ attorneys denied he had anything to do with her termination. Another former staffer accused Robbins of exposing himself in her presence in a second report released in June 2019.

Robbins, through his attorneys, denied any inappropriate sexual behavior and told the site that he was “never intentionally naked [in front of employees]. 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.”

He's accused of hitting on audience members

Gary King, a former director of security for Tony Robbins, alleged to BuzzFeed News that Robbins had him find attractive event attendees and get their phone numbers. Robbins’ former personal chef, Miki Knowles, told the outlet, “The security guys would tell stories about women they’d had to take up to his room.” A former bodyguard corroborated the allegations and said he’d witnessed Robbins make passes at women in his crowds. In a second report from June, two women told BuzzFeed News about encounters they had with Robbins: One woman said he placed her hand on his crotch and touched her breast, while another alleged that he kissed her, hugged her and touched her breast.

Robbins, through his attorneys, vehemently denied the claims, but did note that before marrying his current wife, Sage, that Robbins had consensual relationships with women who “aggressively sought him out.” For his part, Robbins admitted to Playboy (via Awaken) in 2013 that before tying the knot with Sage, he had adventures at the late Hugh Hefner’s mansion.

“I was beyond tempted at times. There was no drought, for sure. I was like a kid in a candy store. Hef invited me to the Playboy Mansion, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Women came bouncing on over to me saying, ‘Oh my God, Tony Robbins, you changed my life!'” Robbins added that some of them women propositioned him for a “nice, interesting group experience,” but he declined.

Was he insensitive to sexual assault and domestic violence survivors?

In April 2018, seminar attendee Nanine McCool told Tony Robbins he did a “disservice” to the #MeToo movement. “I’m not knocking the #MeToo movement. I’m knocking victimhood,” Robbins replied in a video from the incident. He added, “If you use the MeToo movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else, you haven’t grown an ounce. All you’ve done is basically use a drug called significance to make yourself feel good.” #MeToo founder Tarana Burke tweeted that Robbins’ team “reached out to do damage control” about the video.

Robbins later apologized, expressing his “profound admiration for the #MeToo movement.” He added, “I agree with the goals of the #MeToo movement and its founding message of ’empowerment through empathy,’ which makes it a beautiful force for good.” 

However, Buzzfeed News obtained a a transcript from a private event in December 2018 in which Robbins again lamented that “victimhood is rewarded in our culture,” and appeared to dismiss the concept of emotional abuse. The outlet also obtained a cease and desist letter that Robbins’ attorneys allegedly sent to the woman who posted the original video. Speaking with the outlet, the attorneys reiterated “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.” 

Two domestic violence experts interviewed for the piece denounced Robbins’ approach to the matter as potentially harmful for survivors.

His events are allegedly mentally and phsyically stressful

Some Tony Robbins seminar attendees have complained about mental and physical issues at his events. BuzzFeed News reported that his events, some of which run for multiple days, begin early in the morning and often run past midnight, allegedly leaving some guests mentally exhausted and disoriented, with some allegedly suffering from dehydration as well. 

A former logistics contractor for Robbins admitted, “We used to joke about it. People started ‘popping like popcorn.'” Gary King, Robbins’ former director of security, told the site that part of his job entailed responding to “crisis and emotional meltdowns,” some of which he claimed involved suicide threats and attempts. In one 2014 incident, a man reportedly emailed Robbins’ customer service after his wife was hospitalized when she allegedly hallucinated following one of Robbins’ “Date With Destiny” events. Robbins’ attorneys told the site that 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.” 

It’s also important to note that its unclear what the various attendees’ mental health may have been like before Robbins’ seminars or whether said attendees may have had any underlying or previous conditions.

Is this a self-help seminar or a juice bar?

Two of Tony Robbins’ former employees went on the record for a June 2019 BuzzFeed News story that alleged the guru made seminar attendees drink a “gross shot” as a punishment for not implementing the strategies they’d been taught during his events. A source told the site that attendees were made to believe that the shot contained a laxative, but his attorneys claim that the shot contained no such ingredients — just the deliberately grotesque combination of “pickle juice, apple juice, lemon juice, tomato juice and a dash of Tabasco.” Robbins’ lawyers added that there were never any formal complaints made about the beverage.

Not all of the beverages allegedly doled out to attendees were “gross shots,” however. Gary King and Glen Lechtanski, a registered nurse who volunteered for Robbins, both claimed that some guests were pressured to drink “health shots” that allegedly made some of them sick. Robbins’ attorneys denied the allegations and claimed that King and Lechtanski were “disgruntled.”

He settled a class action suit with some of his volunteers

Tony Robbins boasts a large staff for his massive operation, some of whom are volunteers. Robbins’ volunteers “often worked 12- to 18-hour shifts,” BuzzFeed News reported, and weren’t paid wages nor reimbursed for travel, but did get to hear Robbins speak for free (which can be pretty expensive). 

Former volunteer John Richelieu-Booth told the site, “You don’t have any food, you’re literally in the room until Tony gives you permission to for a break, you hardly get any sleep.” Documents obtained by the site revealed that in 2018, Robbins’ company settled a class action claim from volunteers over their alleged hours. In the suit, Robbins’ lawyers claimed that volunteers for Robbins’ events were “providing services for their own pleasure, education and enjoyment.” Robbins’ attorneys told the outlet that the company never violated any labor laws and that the settlement was simply to “avoid the time and disruption” that a potential trial might have entailed.

The truth about his famous fire walks

A signature feature of a Tony Robbins event is his famous fire walk, in which even Oprah Winfrey has participated. The event is reportedly designed to help participants overcome fear in an effort to reach their highest potential. Unfortunately, walking on hot coals has allegedly ended in injuries for some of his followers. 

In June 2016, CNN reported that 30 fire walk participants in Dallas, Texas, suffered minor burns. Others were reportedly injured at a 2012 event in San Jose, Calif., but the numbers of the victims and severity of the burns have consistently been called into question by medical professionals in attendance. 

Regardless of the veracity of the injury reports, celebrity scientist Bill Nye told The Wrap in 2017 that simple physics makes walking on burning coals actually not too difficult. Citing another physicist, the outlet explained, “the foot is never in contact long enough to induce a burn, and the burning wood that heats the coals is a good insulator and never heats up too much.” Although Nye didn’t directly call out Robbins in his revelation, he did say, “People will charge you $5,000 for a weekend where you learn to be spiritually prepared to walk across wooden burning coals,” Nye said. “You don’t have to do that — you can just walk across wooden burning coals.”

This video did not age well

In a resurfaced video from the 1980s, Tony Robbins used the N-word repeatedly while speaking about an interaction with a black attendee at a previous event. He recalled saying, “‘As long as someone calls you a n****r and gets that kind of response I’ve seen right now, where you’re ready to explode, and what you’ve done is given that person absolute control of you. You have no control in your life. You are still a slave.'” He then reenacted a literal song and dance from the prior event in which he used the slur ad nauseam. Robbins’ attorneys told BuzzFeed News that the slur was “accepted in the context in which it was conducted: a passionate discussion about racism and how to rise above it … any suggestion that Mr. Robbins is somehow racist or insensitive to the African-American community is absurd and false. Indeed, one of Mr. Robbins’ event partners for 25-plus years is an African-American.”

In the same video, Robbins recalled kissing an audience member to “break her pattern,” after she claimed the seminar wasn’t “working for [her].” He said, “I went over there and I got in her face … right at the moment I amped her, I stopped and I reached out and I gave her a kiss. You know that? She didn’t know how to deal with it at all.” 

Robbins vehemently denied engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with any audience members.

He may have lost a book deal following the scandal

Since the first BuzzFeed News article detailing the myriad allegations against Tony Robbins, Simon and Schuster reportedly dropped an upcoming book by the I Am Not Your Guru (2016) star. A rep for the publisher told NBC News that they will not move forward with The Path: Accelerating Your Journey To Financial Freedom, which Robbins co-wrote with Creative Planning wealth management firm president Peter Mallouk. Mallouk told the outlet that he and Robbins were amicably ending their partnership but that the scandal had nothing to do with the dissolution of their professional union. 

It’s unclear, however, how much involvement Robbins actually had in the book: His rep told NBC News in a statement, “As Mr. Mallouk has publicly stated that while his book was in the works, contractual terms were never reached nor finalized with its planned publisher. It is a false and misleading characterization to state that this was a book authored by Mr. Robbins.” The rep added that the ending of Robbins’ partnership with Mallouk “was amicable and predated any of the recent false reporting from BuzzFeed.”

He's vehemently denying all accusations

Tony Robbins, through an open letter on Medium, slammed BuzzFeed‘s reporting. He wrote, in part, that his “open-classroom therapeutic methods are not for everyone,” and that while he admits he’s an “imperfect human being,” he denies [behaving] in the reckless, irresponsible, or malicious manner intimated by false, unfounded, and incendiary allegations suggested by BuzzFeed story-tellers.” He also claimed that “several individuals” have accused Buzzfeed of “[manipulating] their testimony and, in some cases, even ignored their legal counsel when they pointed out inaccuracies and mischaracterizations of their client’s personal accounts at the hands of [the outlet]’s reporters.” In response, BuzzFeed News told NBC News, “It does not appear that Mr. Robbins read the story itself before he published his open letter, which contains a number of demonstrably false and defamatory claims about both our reporting and the resulting article.”

Several of Robbins’ staffers denied receiving any complaints about his conduct in the original BuzzFeed News piece, and one of Robbins’ followers released a video accusing the site of taking her quotes out of context. Robbins released a video saying that while he’s a “better human being” now than when he was “in his 20s or 30s,” he “never claimed to be perfect. And if there’s anything I’ve ever said or ever done that, sincerely, would have offended anybody, hurt anyone’s feelings, or if they felt anything of that nature, I just didn’t support you, I apologize. It was certainly not my intention.”

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