The Svengali of Success

To Legions of Adoring Fans, Anthony Robbins Preaches the Gospel

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  7/31/2000

Lantern jaw to dumbbell shoulders, he's chiseled like a model. He emotes with weepy personal anecdotes and uplifting homilies. And fans adore him for a nearly transcendent intensity that bridges salesmanship and salvation.


He's Anthony Robbins, late-night infomercial king, maven of motivational speaking, celebrity of the self-help book industry, and when he strides onstage at the FleetCenter it takes little more than the sparkle of his toothy smile to wow the crowd of 12,000. Accompanied by thumping rap music and scantily clad dancers, his 6-foot-7-inch frame encased in a sleek black suit and gold tie, he winks and blows kisses in an event that feels like a cross between a rock concert and a religious awakening.

"Wake up! Wake up!" he shouts through a microphone fixed to his boxy head. "You're the most passionate person you know, the most aerobic, the most sexy. . . . "

No matter how trite or treacly his prescriptions for lifelong happiness, Robbins, 40, attracts crowds like the recent one in Boston wherever he goes.

The author of such seize-the-day tomes as "Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny!," Robbins has been on the motivation circuit since age 18, pumping up everyone from Bill Clinton to Andre Agassi with his live-with-passion mantra. In the past 22 years, he claims to have "coached" more than 2 million people.

"I believe in everything he says," says Steve Howe, 46, a salesman from Whitman, after massaging his boss's back on Robbins's cue. "What he says is just so true. He tells you, `You can do anything, as long as you set your mind to it.' "

While Robbins may seem to cast a spell on his audience, his message is more corporate than cultlike, with slogans like "Success without fulfillment is failure," "The secret to living is giving," and "Cultivate an attitude of gratitude."

This approach can help people by instilling a measure of hope, psychologists say, but could backfire with the weak-minded and impressionable. "The problem is in the overly simplistic interpretation by the listener," says Sanford Portnoy, president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association. "The risk is it won't work, and listeners will experience failure. Other people also might overidentify with such figures, and they won't think about how the philosophy applies to themselves."

As Robbins lumbers from one motivation session to another at the FleetCenter, fans rush at him with requests for hugs and beg him to pose for photos. Between orders to his publicist and bodyguard, Robbins complies just before slipping into a back corridor.

A skeptical reporter follows. "Aren't you little more than a modern-day quack, a guy hawking simplistic solutions to lifelong problems?" he asks.
Robbins, visibly rankled, yields to a little unscripted emotion and dismisses the query as "uneducated" blather from "some jerk who never took a risk."
Then he recycles an anecdote he's been telling for years, the one about the film critic who feels free to pan a movie, though he has never made one himself.
In this case, Robbins is particularly appalled that a writer nearly kept him from seeing "Gladiator."

"It takes no energy to be a critic," he rails.

And although the promotional literature for his conferences, audiotapes, and books promises to "empower anyone who attends with the proven tools they need to achieve measurable and lasting results in their lives," Robbins insists he merely offers hope and prods people to find their own answers.

"I tell them what's possible and how to produce results," he says over the din of dance music blaring in his dressing room. "I don't come from a place as an authority. I just try to be a catalyst."

But do those who come to be coached expect more from Robbins than "the seven-day emotional fitness challenge" and axiomatic antidotes, such as "The Secret to Relationships Is the Power of Proximity"? Do they seek the tools, say, to score a house like Robbins's $5.8 million mansion in Southern California?

Perhaps they want the resilience Robbins touts in his own life story, a tale of a teenager evicted from his home who never went to college yet became a self-made millionaire.

The task for Day 1 of his "emotional fitness challenge" is to maximize "hunger and drive." Wake up, Robbins says, and ask yourself a few simple questions: "What would it mean to feel a compelling hunger and drive for my life? What does someone who is driven believe about life? What does someone who is hungry and driven look like?" Remember, he stresses, to be in "a peak performance state as you fully associate to each emotion."

Somehow, though, it all works for Robbins's fans.

At motivation extravaganzas like "Results2000" earlier this month in Boston, Robbins's devotees praise him for helping them lose weight or quit smoking, recommit to relationships, or make lots of money.

"There is such an aura about him," says Vinnie Digiacomo, 30, a video store manager from Holbrook. "Everyone here just gets it. He pumps you up and refreshes your batteries."

"He's just awesome," says Donna Link, 35, an East Hampton saleswoman for a financial-services company. "He really inspired me to be a better person. I'm just more positive and outgoing. Also, he's really good-looking."

"His `outstanding philosophy' pushes people over the edge," says Elaine Johnson, 51, an e-commerce consultant from Worcester. "The more I hear, the more I get fed, the more I can give to other people."

The reason people buy his books and flock to his seminars, Robbins says, is that he offers "strategies" to attain happiness. He presents himself as the proof, lacing his pitch with anecdotes of his pals, the country's top plastic surgeon and the millionaire movie producer, and of his own boundless bliss.

At 40, he's not having a midlife crisis, he assures his fans. In fact, Robbins says, he's in the midst of a "midlife celebration." But even if he were down, it's unlikely he'd let on. His chief product is happiness, and the salesman cannot be somber.
"It might be hard to believe," he tells a lunchtime crowd in Boston, "but I'm enjoying my life more than ever before."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.  Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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