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Battling Dr. Phil

A reporter set out to write a fair, honest book on the phenomenon that is Dr. Phil. But how was she to react when the TV shrink's people decided she was just out for dirt?

- July 7, 2004

It started out so simply.

The plan was to write a business book tracing the rise to pop-culture ubiquity of Dr. Phil McGraw, the TV shrink with a linebacker's build and no-bull approach. In early 2003, when book packager Kirk Kazanjian called me about co-authoring the book, McGraw had just completed the most successful syndicated daytime talk-show debut since Oprah herself—Dr. Phil's television godmother—took the stage. McGraw notched two Daytime Emmy nominations and had four books on the bestseller lists. His son Jay was following closely in his father's footsteps, with books of his own. His wife Robin was gaining her own following.

Kirk had sold a book proposal to John Wiley & Sons that would both profile a gifted businessman and provide a take-home message for readers. The question it would answer: How did this plain-talking, small-town boy become a pop-culture powerhouse?

McGraw earned his first fortune in Dallas, and Kirk called me seeking a local author. I'm a freelance features writer here, and I'd spent many years at The Dallas Morning News. At the time, I had no strong opinion about Dr. Phil. I'd seen him a few times on Oprah, and he seemed OK. He was entertaining and made sense. In fact, unlike many other public advice-givers, McGraw has a doctorate in clinical psychology. I have nothing against pop psychology, and as a psychology student myself (literally, in school), I saw this as an opportunity to learn how to make a gazillion dollars as a psychologist.

Kirk would edit the book before it went to Wiley, and my co-author was to be Lisa Gutierrez, a reporter at the Kansas City Star, covering the city where McGraw grew up. We had six months to get the manuscript to Wiley and a shoestring budget on which to do it. Kirk assured us that once we started making calls, it would all fall together. We knew what to do. You do your research, make calls, conduct interviews, get referrals, travel as necessary, piece it all together, and tell the story. We were experienced newspaper reporters, and we were confident.

Lisa and I divided the work between us. She would write chapters on McGraw's childhood, youth, and family life. I would take up the chronology from college through the present, focusing on his professional progress.

It was McGraw's successful Dallas-based litigation-consulting firm that first brought him together with Winfrey, when she was sued by Amarillo cattlemen for speaking unkindly about hamburgers. It was a fateful meeting that launched his celebrity. How hard could it be to find people in Dallas who knew Phil?

Lisa already had a compelling start on covering McGraw's early years. After an article about the Dr. Phil show appeared in the Kansas City Star, a reader tipped Lisa off to Phil's hometown connection. Lisa found an old yearbook containing a photo of McGraw dancing at his high school prom. She tracked and telephoned the girl in the picture.

"I knew you'd find me some day," the woman who answered the phone had said. Lisa had a scoop: A first wife whom McGraw never mentioned, even in his most confessional moments in his books or with Larry King. The story had run in the Kansas City Star and was picked up nationally.

The first thing I did was call McGraw's publicist at Paramount to request an interview and perhaps a behind-the-scenes day on the Dr. Phil set. The publicist told me to fax a request.

Rereading that fax now makes me blush: It's so hopeful, so starry-eyed. I was enthusiastic, excited, confident I was the ideal person to plumb McGraw's secrets for success. I listed my credentials, sent clips, concluded by writing, "I remain hopeful that Dr. Phil will meet with me and allow me a glimpse into the inner workings of his phenomenally successful show."

And that's as far as it went. I called and emailed with the Paramount publicist for a while. He was friendly, but he put me off for weeks by telling me that he hadn't yet broached the subject with McGraw.

Then McGraw's attorney called. In a menacing monotone, he tried to intimidate me off the project. He advised me to keep his name out of the book, as well as the name of a mutual Dallas acquaintance. He made no threats but his tone was ominous.

"You people just want to dig up dirt and bring people down," he said, or something along those lines. And by "you people," I don't think he was talking about journalists in general. McGraw had recently started making regular appearances in the tabloids, and this rankled the attorney and no doubt McGraw. Clearly, his "you people" was lumping me in as "tabloid scum."

"What 'you people'?" I protested. "I'm a journalist. I worked for The Dallas Morning News. I'm just doing a job." The attorney was unmoved, ordered me again to keep his name out of the book, and we hung up.

Next time I checked in with the publicist, he told me that any further contact would have to be through the attorney.

And so the tortuous saga began. We'd decided to write about Dr. Phil just as his success launched him into the stratosphere of celebrity; now he didn't need us and wanted nothing to do with us. The project changed and we—naïfs in celebrity land—could only press on and do our best. We were now writing an unauthorized biography. We had to dig to get the story and keep our noses clean, both to maintain journalistic integrity and because we sure as hell didn't want to be sued by Dr. Phil.

McGraw is a harsh, charismatic man of high intelligence and higher self-regard. His quest for success has left a trail of dislike, admiration, envy, loyalty, respect, mistrust, and gossip. Not surprisingly, pissed-off people were happiest to speak with us. McGraw's friends and colleagues, who would presumably have painted a different portrait, were likely to agree to interviews then never again return an email or phone call. We assumed they were checking with McGraw before speaking with us and being warned off. Eventually, our calls to the McGraw camp were formalities. We called because we had to, expecting nothing.

For every interview we landed, we made dozens of fruitless phone calls. Some people indignantly refused at first contact, sometimes out of loyalty, sometimes out of what sounded like fear. We quickly learned not to leave messages, which were rarely returned and only gave people a heads-up. Some people agreed to talk with no names or identifying details, others told stories with trembling voices and then panicked and refused to let us use them. McGraw's first wife decided that she wanted to write her own book and refused to speak further to Lisa.

Courtroom Sciences, Inc., McGraw's litigation-consulting firm, was impenetrable. Database searches revealed little existing press on CSI. To get a look at the CSI office, I hand-delivered to the receptionist a written plea for an interview with a CSI principal. (No response, of course.) I landed interviews with two former CSI employees and considered myself lucky. Another person seemed anxious to talk about CSI but then balked, claiming McGraw was known to stage mock press inquiries as a way of catching indiscreet employees.

People told us tales about McGraw's bullying childhood, youthful indiscretions, betrayals, infidelities, and rages. The most damning accusations were whispered, too tentative for us to touch them. We cautiously used only what seemed plausible with appropriate qualifiers. We ran everything past Wiley's attorney, who advised us to remove a tale or two.

As our deadline approached, I found myself calling people and begging them to do McGraw a favor and speak well of him. Lisa and I were determined to write a balanced book. We mined published interviews extensively, letting Phil speak for himself with previously published words. At this point we were making sausage, but we wanted it to be honorable sausage.

We're proud of The Making of Dr. Phil: The Straight-Talking True Story of Everyone's Favorite Therapist, an honorable sausage if ever there was one. We got our story—and we could have done even more with another six months, once we'd hit our stride.

But the book was released in November 2003 to resounding silence. Traditional attempts at publicity mostly failed. Our big coup happened months before the book was out, when the E! True Hollywood Story came to Dallas to tape an interview with me. Presumably, they were hitting the same brick walls we were and an unpublished biographer was better than nothing. (The show is still in their on-air rotation.) I was recently contacted for an upcoming update of A&E's Biography of Dr. Phil.

But there was little notice in the traditional press. We got a snide write-up on Salon.com, which complained we didn't have enough new dirt. Lisa got some press in Kansas City; I did interviews with Canadian radio stations and Internet sites. My former employer, The Dallas Morning News, ran a blip on the book. And that was about it.

We know we achieved balance because every interviewer who bothered to read the book asked, "So do you like Dr. Phil? I couldn't tell." We speculated that the balance we had strived for was actually a liability. Tabloids wanted more dirt, and other outlets, perhaps anxious to stay in Phil's good graces, wanted less. Balance has proven a dud on the marketplace. When people ask me how the book is doing, I say, "Well, we haven't been sued." No small feat, to be sure, but we'd like to sell some more books, too. We tell ourselves that better books than ours have failed and worse succeeded, but we're frustrated nonetheless.

Meanwhile, I seemed to have lost my benign ambivalence towards Dr. Phil. After six months of pounding my head against the wall of silence, of being treated like a bad smell, of hearing stories about McGraw's rages and self-serving life strategies, of watching him bellow at his guests every weekday at 3, I turned sour on the doctor. I admired his success. I'd learned some things from him. But he'd become my nemesis.

So when, via a connection made through colleague, the New York Post asked me to write a story about Dr. Phil, I bit. Press is press and we wanted to sell books. In his "Life Laws" Dr. Phil says, "You create your own experience," "People do what works," and "Life rewards action." According to Dr. Phil, if wanted to sell books, I had to do what it takes, even it if meant being exactly what I'd tried not to all this time: one of "you people."

I had a nice little scoop—a class action suit filed against Phil over his ShapeUp! weight loss products—and again did the grim dance of evasion with Phil's people to report the article. I got my facts and interviews, upholstered the story with the careful ambivalence of balance, and turned it in. When it came back to me, the editor had stripped away all the waffling and qualifiers to get down to the basics of the story. It was a masterful job, and chilling. It was a tabloid story. Truthful and carefully reported, but stark and with only the slightest nod to balance.

A few days later, the story ran. There was my byline under an "exclusive" banner and the headline, "DR. PHIL A BIG FAT LIAR:SUIT."

I'd become one of "you people."

And I lived. What the hell? Buy our book.

Sophia Dembling is also author of The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to Texas. You can buy The Making of Dr. Phil at Amazon.com.



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