Mel Robbins Is Not the Bashful Type
Inside a radio booth tucked into a corner of her sprawling Sherborn farmhouse, life coach Mel Robbins preps for Make It Happen with Mel Robbins, the call-in advice show she hosts each morning on the Sirius satellite network. The tiny space is plastered with photos, clippings of “inspirational” sayings—one of which reads “Advice is bullshit”—and scrawled good-luck wishes from her three cherubic kids, Kendall, Sawyer, and Oakley. On the control panel in front of her sits a high pile of printed e-mails, which Robbins will answer personally, and an even higher pile of bills. “You can quit smoking and lose weight at the same time…,” she says over the phone to her producer in New York. Then, we’re live.
Today’s program, titled “Enough Is Enough,” focuses on domestic violence—a heavier topic than the discussions about debt, cheating, and weight that usually fill the show. Robbins takes calls throughout the broadcast, and by the end of an hour she’s talked at least one abused wife into moving out and getting a restraining order against her husband. Later, she connects the women with local resources, including domestic-violence prevention groups, and with other listeners who’ve e-mailed or phoned in to offer support. It’s exhausting to watch. When the show wraps just before 10 a.m., Robbins exits the booth “totally juiced!”
Earlier, I’d pulled up to Robbins’s fairy-tale home right as she returned from her daily sunrise jog, delicate droplets of sweat perched just so on her brow. Thankfully, I’d passed up the offer to join in even before I’d decided to down that third glass of sauvignon blanc the night before. (This woman might have 16 years on me, but I haven’t been to the gym in a year and a half.) Five foot 8 and all legs, the 39-year-old is undoubtedly more Fitness Barbie than Joy Behar, not that it would matter: As a radio host, she’s commanded a View-like following with just the sound of her voice. Since its launch in March, Make It Happen with Mel Robbins has been a growing success, with hundreds of calls coming in each morning and an estimated listenership of about 75,000. Bookstore giant Borders subsequently tapped her to host a talk show on its website and, most significantly, she’s also scored a development deal with Disney’s Buena Vista Productions. Plans for the coming years include self-help tomes, audio books, and a syndicated, off-line talk show, which she says she’ll insist be filmed in Boston. (“If Oprah can do it in Chicago, I can do it here!”)
“I believe I am a brilliant and gifted guide, that I have been given a tremendous intuition,” Robbins says over a breakfast of eggs and wheat toast served up by her adoring husband, Chris. As if on cue, the phone rings. It’s a girlfriend who’s feeling neglected because Mel’s been so busy lately. They talk it out; friend feels better. Robbins resumes: “Plus, I’m really damn good at helping people get what they want. And when somebody gets what they want, they tend to go out and talk about it.” Indeed, people around Boston are talking about Robbins. It’s just that “brilliant” and “gifted” aren’t always among the words they’re using to describe her.
Go on to the next page to learn the history of Mel Robbins’ career path…
It’s tempting to think Robbins was born to be a life coach. Except that before a few years ago—when the only option for a similarly ambitious woman looking for high-paying, flexible employment after popping out a kid or two was to sell real estate—life coaching didn’t exist. Now it’s the hottest segment of the self-help market: According to a study by Florida-based research company Marketdata Enterprises, personal coaching jumped from less than one percent of the self-improvement industry in 2000 to 42 percent in 2005. There are hundreds of coaching certification programs out there, but no license is required to practice, making for a largely personality-based field marked by strong and varied characters peddling an endless array of methods.
As a coach (and, for that matter, as a person), Robbins has built her brand on being ballsy. She’s unafraid to use four-letter words, sing her own praises, and be ultratough on clients. Her philosophy is that everyone can be happy, both personally and professionally, but should not for one hot second think such happiness comes easy. Her cut-the-crap advice is results-driven, an approach that carries over to many other areas of her life (see: her flawless body, her well-mannered kids). Within an hour—sometimes minutes—of meeting a new client, she’ll pinpoint that person’s “obstacle” and come up with a concrete plan to get them “unstuck,” getting deliriously personal as she goes. “My job gives me the permission to ask really great questions,” Robbins says. “Like ‘Are you sure you’re not pissed at him?’ or ‘Is the eating really about food or does it have something to do with your mother?’ or ‘How is your sex life? I mean, I know we’re here talking about your job, but I can tell this has to do with your sex life.’” She demands answers, and honesty, and says she has fired clients for “not being committed enough.”
Before she cut back on private appointments by about 70 percent to focus on her media pursuits, Robbins’s $250-an-hour counselees (she now charges $350) included fellow moms, recent college grads, and executives from companies like Dunkin’ Donuts, Fidelity, and Johnson & Johnson. (Under her direction, she boasts, all her clients in financial services boosted their annual returns by no less than 25 percent.) Boston entrepreneur Jeremy Brollier hired Robbins in January, around the time he was launching his business TranBen Partners, which administers transit voucher programs for companies. The startup was a risky endeavor, both financially and professionally, but would afford him the freedom that a previous job as a midranking professional-sports exec did not.
“She said, ‘If you don’t take this opportunity, I’m going to kick your ass,’” he remembers. “I did the heavy lifting, but Mel gave me the structure.”
In May 2006, Robbins got a call from a CNBC exec who’d read about her in the business magazine Inc. The story had convincingly portrayed Robbins as an entrepreneur’s golden ticket, responsible for turning stale companies into thriving ones by overhauling executives’ personal lives as well as their management skills. But Robbins wasn’t sure. A business show didn’t seem her thing. Eventually, the deal fizzled.
The lure of possible fame, though, was hard to shake. Robbins sought advice from her network of high-powered clients and got hooked up with a production company in New York; within three months, she’d secured the radio and TV contracts and was hosting celebrities like pop star Mandy Moore and Donald Trump for the Borders show. She’d also secured the services of big-league literary agent Jan Miller, who has packaged and sold self-help bestsellers like Dr. Phil’s The Ultimate Weight Solution. Miller is now shopping around the proposal for Robbins’s The Momentum Factor; Robbins says “several” publishers are interested. She’s also writing a column for the
Boston, New York, and Philadelphia editions of the Metro, and is an on-air correspondent for Good Morning America.
Robbins claims she’s not in it for the fame, that she just wants to improve more lives by coaching on a larger scale; for her, she says, helping people “is like a drug.” Any would-be celebrity guru with half a day of media training would say that, of course, but with Robbins the question is whether audiences will respond to her wisdom, or to something else. As much as it makes sense for “stuck” people to crave an insightful, brutally honest sounding board who comes complete with a confidentiality agreement and business connections, you can’t help but wonder if women are attracted to Robbins—with her enviable marriage, family, home, body, and career—in an “I’ll have what she’s having” sort of way. As for male clients, Robbins says it herself: “Men would rather stare at a very good-looking blond woman than a schlumpy guy.”
To find out what Robbins was like in high school and college, go on to the next page…
Robbins grew up in a small town in Michigan, where she was her high school’s student body president and was voted both “most likely to succeed” and “best legs.” After college at Dartmouth and law school at Boston College, she spent four years as a public defender in Manhattan. There she met Chris Robbins, who was working as a commodities trader (and is now one of the entrepreneurs behind Belmont-based restaurant chain Stone Hearth Pizza Co.).
In 1997, Chris got into business school at Babson. After the couple moved to Boston, Robbins decided to make a career switch. “I realized I wasn’t a good employee, because I was too busy listening to people’s personal problems to do work,” she says. Following failed attempts at a number of corporate jobs—a tech company, an ad agency, and a dot-com among them—Robbins booked an appointment with New York life coach Lauren Zander, whose fast-moving, no-secrets Handel method of coaching is based on the idea that “hard questions yield honest answers.” “When we began talking,” Robbins recalls, “she told me, ‘You should be doing what I’m doing.’ And that was it.” For two years, Robbins trained with Zander over phone and e-mail, with occasional in-person visits.
“Mel was a lawyer and a very savvy businesswoman, and she loved talking about people, getting into the drama,” says Zander, who now also teaches the Handel method to MBA students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “And she cares. She’s smart, can follow instruction. Her personality took well to self-management, the idea of putting yourself on a leash.”
Five years ago, Newbury Street clothier Dava Muramatsu turned to Robbins upon realizing she was in a rut in both her business and personal life. “Mel knew how to teach me to access my own jewels,” says Muramatsu, who has since separated from her husband and overhauled her business. “Out of all the advice Mel has ever given me, which was a lot, not once can I tell you that she’s been wrong, ever.” Other satisfied customers include local media personality Lisa Pierpont, Wellesley Partners CEO Tim Sullivan, philanthropist Kristina Hare Lyons, and San Francisco–based life coach Jay Grant, who considers Robbins a “trailblazer.” After interviewing a long list of coaches across the country to be his own, Grant was struck by Robbins’s directness and speed. “I’ve done the touchy-feely stuff, the let’s-get-comfortable stuff, but I was ready to cut through that,” he says. “It’s not Mel’s style to pick out the weaknesses, but to find your strengths. And she’s made for TV and radio because she gets to the point so quickly.” (Zander agrees: “She’s a ham!”)
“Mel’s like an advertisement for the law of attraction,” says Roni Selig, Buena Vista’s senior vice president of programming and development, who signed Robbins in June. “She just has this light around her, this great energy. Plus, she really believes in the process of transformation. We were sure about her almost instantly.” Which is why they want to do it right, Selig says, in explaining why Robbins’s development deal isn’t already a TV show. She aims to avoid having Robbins follow self-help predecessors who have peaked fast and crashed even faster. Remember Fox talk-show host (and Newburyport resident) Dr. Keith Ablow, and Greg Behrendt of He’s Just Not That Into You fame? “It’s like training an athlete,” Selig says. “Are they ready to compete? That’s when we’ll put her out there, when she’s ready and the audience is clamoring for it.”
“I told my people at the beginning: The problem is that I’m scared to be on TV because I’m scared to lose control of how I’m portrayed,” Robbins says. “I would make a great character.” Clearly, Robbins would make a phenomenal caricature, something close to Amy Poehler’s Mean Girls mom on speed. “Control is what you exchange for publicity, but that’s what I’m afraid of. Once you’re a public figure, people get to vote.”
To find out what other women really think about Mel Robbins, go on to the next page…
Over the years, Robbins has drawn much of her new business from working the Boston social circuit. Conversely, many clients have become friends, or at least acquaintances. When I first hear murmurings among them that not everything about Robbins is as rosy as it might seem, I figure it’s just jealousy, imagining Robbins at a PTA meeting, spewing suggestions while looking all pert and pretty in her Pilates outfit. But it turns out the animosity may run much deeper.
“She’s very aggressive, very narcissistic,” says one former client. “A lot of women I know don’t want to be around her; if they know she’s invited to a party or event, they won’t come. I don’t think I’d hire her now. I’d feel like a speck in her universe.” Over the course of the two months I spend working on this article, I find that almost everyone I ask has heard of Robbins, though some say they don’t know what they think of her quite yet. Others aren’t sure how to put their feelings into words. One believes it’s so important for me to show the “other side” of Robbins that she makes a number of calls on my behalf to fellow detractors in the hopes of finding one willing to speak on the record (while refusing to be quoted directly herself). Yet another whispers, “Oh yes, I’ve met her. All I’m saying is, that’s not my bag.” I get a lot of “Who pitched that story?”
Robbins’s close friend Jane Remillard, a biotech lawyer at Lahive & Cockfield in Boston, can see where the critics are coming from, but she insists they get Robbins wrong. “She can come off as egotistical, calling herself a smart, kick-ass woman, telling stories about people saying she’s incredible,” Remillard says. “But I think she feels she needs to be that way in order to succeed. For TV, you need to exaggerate everything; you better bulk up on the self-confidence or you’re not going to make it. It’s a survival mechanism.” I suspect the backlash may have more to do with Robbins’s sales pitch itself. It speaks volumes about our celebrity-obsessed age that a woman like her could believe that simply because she has a decent life, and her act generally together, she deserves to be famous. There
are a lot of rich suburban women out there who exercise, look good, dote on their husbands and kids, all while still pursuing a career; the difference is that Robbins is convinced her charmed life can be a career unto itself—a platform, as they call it in the entertainment business. It’s the ballsy thing again.
Even Buena Vista seems to get this. While Robbins’s appearance has certainly aided her coaching career, she and her handlers aren’t sure such assets will translate well to television. Robbins specifically worries that her looks could come across as intimidating. (Consider all the daytime talk-show fixtures, and their flaws: Rosie is overweight. Barbara Walters is old. Joy Behar is average-looking. Elisabeth Hasselbeck is Republican.) “For TV, you need to be relatable,” says Robbins. “The truth is I probably will never have a weight issue, because I run, I’m a healthy eater, and I’m disciplined. That’s a liability. My challenge is, Will they relate to me because I’m a mom and I’m from the Midwest? Or will they brush me off because they think I’m too arrogant or too confident or that my life is too perfect?”
Robbins’s efforts to be seen as that Tyra Banks–esque best girlfriend include calling herself “self-deprecating!” and “real!” and regularly declaring that she’s “fucked up a million times!” But if she truly believes her “perfect life” is a hindrance in her route to fame, there’s no sign she’s willing, or able, to effectively downplay it.
At the taping of Robbins’s Borders TV interview with Mandy Moore in July, I count about 80 people congregating inside the bookseller’s Downtown Crossing location. (Robbins later swears it was closer to 350.) Another 17 million Borders shoppers will receive a link to the segment via e-mail. Instead of the no-fail suit or, perhaps, sophisticated dress that most other professional women pushing 40 might wear for the occasion, Robbins has chosen a slinky gray ruffled number that leaves one of her tanned, angular shoulders bare aside from the babysitter-length blond hair that falls against it. When Moore, 16 years Robbins’s junior, finally arrives onstage in a demure, knee-length red dress and brown cardigan, the contrast is stark, and begs the question: What, exactly, is Robbins going for here? No one would argue that she looks good in her getup, which I later learn came from the sale racks of teen clothing hot spot JasmineSola. But it’s her second show of the series, and undoubtedly there are some corporate bigwigs watching closely. What’s more, it’s Robbins’s chance to win over a new audience of moms, there with their Moore-loving teenage kids—and instead she seems to be targeting frat boys with MILF complexes.
A few weeks later, I run into Robbins at Boston’s annual Best of Boston party. (Chris’s restaurant has won an award.) She’s wearing a tight, strapless geometric-print dress, and, after a few beers, is feeling honest. “Want to see how I keep my marriage hot?” she asks, whipping out her cell phone as she sways to the beat of the cover band. Onscreen is a message from Chris, asking if they could “squeeze in sex” before the party. By this point, she has not only my attention but also my girlfriends’. One wants advice, and Robbins is happy to dish it. Anna, visiting Boston from New Orleans, has been hooking up with a working actor back in Louisiana. She wants to send him a text message but wonders if letting him know that she’s thinking of him when out of town might come off as too strong. I’ve been advising Anna to abstain from long-distance texts—in my book, that’s serious-relationship territory—but according to Robbins, a text is the right move. And make it a dirty one. “While you’re at it, do you have a camera phone?” she jokes, pantomiming a crotch shot.
“I’m incredibly effective with the high-school-to-thirtysomething crowd,” Robbins tells me later. “It’s just part of my personality. I’m going to know about Second Life, play Xbox, be on MySpace, read TMZ every day, have an opinion on Lindsay Lohan. Like, I love the way I can run into you at a party and tell your friend to send her boyfriend a dirty text message!”
Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, Anna hasn’t seen the guy since her ill-fated missive. He’s made it clear (via text message) that he’s no longer interested.
The Robbins are taking huge financial leaps to achieve success. Find out just how much is riding on making it big…
Her questionable counsel to my friend notwithstanding, Robbins’s own romantic life seems on very solid footing. Her singular intensity may give the illusion that Chris is just along for the ride—even as he’s in the public eye himself, thanks to the fast-growing Stone Hearth—but it’s clear he’s more than just the Stedman to her Oprah. Every Sunday the couple meets for an hour to discuss “the logistics,” so that domestic details don’t consume their time together during the week. “My job is to make sure his life works, and vice versa,” she says. “My job is to push him out the door. A marriage is all about surrendering and trust.”
This trust shows up in the huge financial leaps they’re taking for Robbins’s media career. With companies like Disney and Borders aboard the Mel train, one might assume she’s raking in the cash. But Robbins’s development deal paid only a lump sum to lock up exclusive rights to her talents. She’s not drawing a salary for any of her Borders work, and receives just a small stipend for the radio show. And she opted to pay for her own producer instead of using the one that Sirius assigned her, flies herself to New York for meetings, finances promotional materials like demo reels and her website, and has been shelling out $600 an hour for a Manhattan voice coach. “We are so out over the tips of our skis financially,” she says. “Chris is launching a business and I’m building a media brand, both self-financed. This could be a quarter-of-a-million-dollar investment before we start making money. And because my life is about coaching people to take risks, I’m basically having to drink my own Kool-Aid.”
What the couple is banking on is that a few million others are willing to drink the Robbins Kool-Aid, too. And they just might be out there. Sonya Prasad, a 34-year-old Brooklyn resident, was feeling frustrated with her professional life when she discovered Robbins through her Metro column. After being in touch via e-mail, Robbins invited her to be coached on the radio. On Make It Happen’s July 31 broadcast, Robbins fired one probing query after another at Prasad—“What did you think life was going to look like?” “Do you regret having your daughter? Then why are you continuing to punish yourself for the fact that you got pregnant?” Through tears, Prasad admitted that in order to move forward in her career she must embrace the decision she made six years ago to have her daughter out of wedlock. After following Robbins’s suggestion—the fairly obvious “Pick up the phone and call a temp agency”—Prasad now feels “in sync with the universe.” And more than Robbins’s advice, Prasad says, it’s the whole package that makes tuning in so attractive. “She’s got kids, and she’s really cool. On my good days, that’s who I try to be and who I always aspire to be.”
This is exactly the sort of response that Robbins gets off on. “I get so much positive reinforcement, and that makes me say, ‘Oh my God, I must be doing something right,’” she says.
“Doesn’t it feel good when people acknowledge what you’re doing? Gratitude is very empowering.”
One afternoon Robbins and I meet for coffee on Newbury Street. She’s got a hair appointment at Mario Russo’s salon later, and she breezes in looking all “cool mom” in tight designer jeans, an even tighter gray T-shirt, bejeweled belt buckle, and ridiculously tall white wedge sandals. I have on my last clean pair of jeans, and I spend a few seconds wishing I looked nicer while I listen to Robbins go on about her “blissful” life, her “sick” wardrobe, how proud she is of her body, how gifted she is at her job. “I’m like the friend who’s already won the marathon of life,” she says. Then the tape in my recorder runs out on me, and I almost die of embarrassment. She calls me “sweetie” and looks through her purse for her own recorder, offering to lend it to me.
There was genuine kindness in the gesture, and in her abrupt transition from ego to empathy, I think I glimpsed the whole Mel Robbins. She may be a little too fond of tooting her own horn—but then, unabashed self-esteem is one of the big principles she promotes to her clients, and she displays an addictlike commitment to practicing what she preaches. High on her own momentum, she can’t figure out how to cheerlead for others without constantly doing the same for herself. “One of my best personality traits is also one of my worst,” Robbins says. “You don’t want to drive a car that just has one speed, and I’ll work on that until the day I die. But my confidence paves the way for people to do what they want. If I’m like, ‘Fuck, yeah! You can do it!’ it’s a lot more convincing.”