Dr. Phil, who first became a celebrity psychologist on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and his daytime talk show and rehab business empire have long been lashed by lawsuits, allegations of unethical conduct and controversies involving guests and troubled celebrities such as Britney Spears and Shelley Duvall.
Nonetheless, Dr. Phil — whose full name is Phillip McGraw — has managed to more than thrive with his tough-love, “tell it like it is” persona.
He’s marketed his no-nonsense advice to phenomenal success with his eponymous daytime talk show, his books, his recovery program and his other media appearances, including with his long-time friend and mentor Ophah Winfey.
These days, McGraw, 67, is America’s best-known TV doctor and highest-paid daytime personality, earning $79 million in 2017, according to Forbes. The American Psychological Association in 2006 also presented McGraw with its presidential citation, saying his “work has touched more Americans than any other living psychologist.”
But could the McGraw Teflon finally wear off with the latest scandal that broke Thursday?
A joint investigation by the Boston Globe and the medical news site Stat has chronicled new and disturbing allegations of treatment of guests who came to McGraw for help with substance abuse struggles.
The expose presents accounts from multiple guests on his syndicated show who say their addictions were enabled by members of McGraw’s staff in hopes of boosting ratings.
Todd Herzog, who struggled with alcohol abuse in the years after winning “Survivor,” said that when he arrived at the Dr. Phil Los Angeles studio in 2013, he found a bottle of vodka in his dressing room and was given a Xanax to “calm his nerves.” Herzog had to be carried on set before his sit-down with McGraw, and registered a .263 blood alcohol content — more than three times the legal limit.
The health and welfare of other guests was put at risk by staff members, who allegedly played a role in their search for drugs, family members told the Globe and Stat reporters. The investigation also looked into the level of medical care guests with addiction issues received while filming in Los Angeles, as well as McGraw’s relationship with the treatment centers his guests are often referred to. Centers that buy “Dr. Phil’s Path to Recovery” have been promoted on the “Dr. Phil” show.
McGraw declined to comment on the report, but Martin Greenberg, the show’s director of professional affairs, described the claims as “absolutely, unequivocally untrue.”
A spokesman for the show issued a statement to People on Friday, saying the article “does not fairly or accurately describe the methods of Dr. Phil, the TV show, or its mission to educate millions of viewers about drug and alcohol addiction.”
The statement also said that addicts “often lash out at the very people who are trying the hardest to help them break the cycle of addiction.” The show vowed to pursue its commitment to “educate and inform” the public about addiction.
No other word came from McGraw’s camp or his production company Friday, so it’s unknown what if any actions will follow the Boston Globe and Stat report. CBS Television Distribution is the distributor of “The Dr. Phil Show.” (He and his son Jay McGraw have also entered into a deal with CBS Television Studios to develop new scripted broadcast and streaming series, Variety reported. )
But in light of this new report, it’s fair to look at McGraw’s past controversies and question if and how they belong to a long pattern of behavior. Here’s a summary of the most notable scandals:
First wife: Dr. Phil was domineering, unfaithful
McGraw, an Okhaloma-born college football player, married ex-cheerleader and homecoming queen Debbie Higgins McCall in 1970 when both were 20 years old. In a 2002 interview with the Kansas City Star, McCall said that during their marriage, which was annulled in 1973, McGraw was domineering, unfaithful and wouldn’t allow her to participate in a health spa he had built and owned. She claimed that he demanded she confine herself to domestic duties but also lift weights to bulk up her bustline. “When I confronted him about his infidelities, he didn’t deny these girls and told me that it had nothing to do with his feelings toward me, to grow up, that’s the way it was in the world,” McCall said.
Stealing material from a former colleague for his show?
The entrepreneurial McGraw, who received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1979 at the University of North Texas, teamed up with Texas businesswoman Thelma Box, who presented motivational seminars, according to “The Making of Dr. Phil,” an unauthorized biography, which outlines “some dark periods” of his history, Salon reported. Critics claim that many of the phrases and the terminology McGraw later used on Oprah Winfrey and on his own show were coined by the businesswoman. While Box was hesitant to criticize McGraw to the biographers, she expressed alarm that he never mentioned her name or gave her credit in his books, on his show or in interviews about his background.
Investigated for a sexually inappropriate relationship with a client
A former therapy client of McGraw’s filed a complaint in the late 1980s with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, alleging that the psychologist carried on a controlling and sometimes sexually inappropriate relationship with her, Salon reported, citing “The Making of Dr. Phil” and other investigative articles. The client was 19 years old at the time, and alleges that McGraw touched her inappropriately, insisted that she check in with him often, and kept her “totally dependent” on him. McGraw eventually settled the case with the board, which issued a letter of reprimand and ordered that he undergo a year of supervision and an ethics class, according to documents from the Texas board.
Oprah Winfrey’s “creation”
After the Texas licensing board’s ruling, McGraw closed his private practice and entered into the business of trial consulting, where he took on Winfrey as a client when she was defending herself against libel charges from Texas cattlemen.
She was so impressed with his approach to life coaching that she invited him to appear on her show. That event was so successful that he began appearing on her show weekly in 1998. Dr. Phil launched his own show in 2002, debuting to the highest ratings of any new syndicated show since the premiere of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” 16 years earlier, according to Oprah.com. In 2015, the Oprah Winfrey Network shared a 2003 conversation between the two about “How Oprah Created Dr. Phil.”