A True Believer : Tony Robbins Has Attracted Converts--and Critics--to His Positive-Thinking Empire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The seminar has just begun, and Anthony J. Robbins is on a roll.

"How many of you have ever had a business idea, or an idea for a gadget that you thought everyone in the world would use?"

Robbins' voice is a rapid baritone, his tone that of a pumped-up cheerleader. His eyes scan the crowd.

"How many of you, six months later, have walked into a store, and someone had stolen it? There was your gadget, right on the shelf!"

Eyes flutter in confirmation. Heads nod. Shoulders slump.

"What was the difference between you and the person who got it on the shelf? Was it intelligence? No. Was it brilliance? Ability? Skill? No.

"The difference was one thing--personal power. You might say, 'But I don't know what to dooooooooo. They know what to do, and I dooooooooon't. ' They found out what to do by asking questions, which you could do as well."

By now, the crowd is enthralled. They clap. They cheer. They bellow "WOOOOOOOAAAAA!," these hundreds of paying customers who previously had only stared at the man before them.

At 6 feet, 7 inches, he wears a dazzling blue coat and silk tie, with a gleaming smile and arms extended to the wingspan of Magic Johnson blocking the lane. Shoe size: 16EE.

"How many of you have ever seen someone who seemed to be less talented than you but seemed to be more successful in business, in relationships or even in growing up? And you thought to yourself, 'How come they're so successful, and I'm not?' Well, you might want to remember this: Intelligence is nothing. Action is everything. "

At 31, Anthony J. (Tony) Robbins is the owner of nine companies, including a resort in Fiji. He's a much-in-demand "peak-performance consultant" and the millionaire owner of a 1927 castle built on three acres that overlook the Pacific here.

He's the evangelistic New Age guru of "firewalking," which he parlayed into a lucrative fad in the mid-1980s by convincing thousands--who were willing to pay--that a barefoot stroll on hot coals would not only not burn the feet, it also just might serve as an affirmation of the power of positive thinking:

If you wash away your doubts and take the risk of believing, you can probably accomplish almost anything. You can write your book, make your million and find the girl of your dreams in your own back yard.

Robbins, truly a self-made man, managed all three.

Yet outside the high-priced seminars, where he clearly is boss, Robbins is more like a tennis player, ever-advancing, ever-retreating. Self-made, it seems, does not necessarily mean self-disclosing. So Robbins can be remarkably guarded and evasive:

* He notes proudly that his flagship company, La Jolla-based Robbins Research International, grosses more than $50 million a year and that he alone has made at least $1 million every year since 1985. But ask his or his company's net worth and the boasting gives way to silence. "That's kind of personal," he says, surprised by the question.

* He says he recently purchased an oceanfront house in Huntington Beach for his mother and sister but refuses a request to interview other members of the clan except for his wife, Becky, 41, whom he met at a Denver seminar eight years ago. His father, who left the family home in Glendora when Tony was young, parks cars in a Santa Monica garage, he says; his sister manages a Carl's Jr. and his brother installs equipment for a cable TV company. "They don't wish to be interviewed," he declares sternly. "I don't want that."

* He acknowledges that his mother kicked him, her eldest child, out of the house when he was 17, making him homeless for "a day or two," which he spent in a 1968 Volkswagen. But when asked the nature of the disagreement, he won't say, except to note that it wasn't provoked by drugs or alcohol, neither of which "I've ever used."

* After high school, Robbins, who did not go to college, went to work for a motivational speaker and then conducted seminars for Harvey and Marilyn Diamond, authors of the controversial diet book "Fit for Life." Robbins and the Diamonds had a falling-out, he concedes, but beyond that, he's mum.

* From that experience, he went to living in a 400-square-foot apartment near Venice Beach, washing his dishes in the bathtub and gaining 38 pounds. He calls it his lowest moment--but one that soon gave way to a phoenix.

And slowly, bit by bit, today's Tony Robbins comes into focus. He says he carved out a living, on his own, as a "human-development trainer," and when he moved to ultra-upscale Del Mar, he had to stretch to afford the lifestyle--"stretching" is a popular Robbins concept--because he was making a mere $40,000 a year.

Then came firewalking--Robbins' gadget on the shelf. It made him a millionaire and a household name in the wide world of self-help.

Now, the Robbins visible to millions of Americans on a television "infomercial"--a half-hour spot in which he's seen in earnest discussion with football great Fran Tarkenton as a way of plugging his audio tapes--seems to be reaching a personal crescendo.

These days at the castle, he, Becky and their four children enjoy a lifestyle that puts the L in lavish. A line of Porsches, BMWs and Corvettes gleams out front, and there are ornate artworks, a baronial living room, marble floors, heavy oak doors imported from Spain, nannies, chefs, gardeners and secretaries--as well as a turret with a 360-degree view. When Robbins wants to visit his second mansion, in Palm Springs, he often takes his private helicopter.

The author of a best-selling book in 1986 ("Unlimited Power," Simon & Schuster), Robbins has a second from the same publisher ("Awaken the Giant Within") due out in November. A new infomercial has been produced and is scheduled to air beginning Nov. 1, with actor Martin Sheen as co-host, and his one-day fee for addressing a private corporate gathering is $60,000.

Other seminars range in price from $170 (for a day on sales techniques) to $5,000 (for a two-week "certification" program in Hawaii that covers just about everything Robbins teaches).

His line of audio tapes retails for $179.95, and the infomercial alone, according to Robbins, has accounted for more than $60 million in sales.

"I'm like the general of an army, working 'round the clock," he says with a satisfied smile. "I'm the quarterback on the field, throwing the 70-yard touchdown pass. Everybody says, 'Look at the hero.' I don't mind the acclaim, but in reality, it's a team effort."

He sits back in a massive chair.

"I couldn't have done it without the team," he says.

As successful as Robbins is, cracks have started to appear in the foundation of the empire.

Since January, Robbins has been sued seven times in San Diego County Superior Court. Other suits are pending in courts from San Jose to Atlanta. (The Georgia case is scheduled for trial later this fall.)

The complaints have a common refrain: Franchisees, under contract to market seminars featuring Robbins on video at $595 per person, allege fraud, breach of contract or both.

One Texas suit accuses Robbins of masterminding a pyramid scheme that "delivers no goods or services," making its money by drawing in new investors as opposed to revenues from the sale of tapes.

In that suit, plaintiff Larry Sergeant says he made an initial investment of $20,000 for the right to market Robbins' tapes in several areas of Dallas, over which Sergeant was given "exclusive control." But soon, he says, "it was obvious the regional distributor--my support person--was competing against me with the blessing of the home office. After all, they'd already gotten my money."

Other plaintiffs say that, after investing $20,000, $60,000, $250,000 or more, they also were denied the promised exclusivity in regional territories, failed to receive adequate backing and advertising and, with little to sell besides video pep talks, had no way of clearing the debt--much less making a profit.

Texas attorney Charles Chandler Davis, who represents Sergeant and others in suits against Robbins, charges that the Robbins seminar is "no more than a videotaped sales pitch"--and says only Robbins is getting rich.

Davis says his clients are "males who have been fairly successful in life but, for some reason, feel insecure, lost. . . . They go to these deals, pay the money and get pumped up--in a religious sort of way. The truth is, they want to be like Tony, who stands in front of them in $600 suits, silk ties and looking like Hollywood and the American Dream rolled into one.

"Everyone wants to be like Tony," he observes wryly. "But it ain't gonna happen."

Gordon Clanton, a sociologist at San Diego State University, attributes the rise of Robbins and other New Age practitioners to "the search for faith in a secular age."

In massive numbers, Americans are leaving religious institutions, hometown communities and ties to family and friends. And the void, Clanton says, has put even greater emphasis on the individual and "what's right for me. "

Critics say that what Robbins preaches is really just common sense--eating right, setting goals and staying focused as a way to reach dreams--but he does it with a ministerial fervor. And he is the best proof of all that mere mortals can come from nowhere to score.

Others say it isn't action he's selling--it's the illusion of action. Taking a screenwriting class is not the same thing as writing a screenplay, but it feels like something is happening--something, as opposed to nothing.

Alan Hahn, the chief executive officer of Robbins Research, which oversees the seminars and tapes, says the owner of the company has never been more popular and that the flurry of litigation is nothing more than growing pains.

"The distributor operation was a new business and suffered the problems of any new business," Hahn says from his office in La Jolla. "The failure rate of new businesses in this country is high. People try things, and it doesn't work. That's what some of this is all about.

"And when someone fails at a business--and it's particularly true with franchisees--it doesn't make any difference whether you're a human development training company or a fast-food chain, the first person they blame is the franchise owner," Hahn says.

Hahn says the American Bar Assn.'s franchising committee "estimates that, of the typical chain, only a third of the franchises do well, a third break even and a third are losing money." But he doesn't say whether he or Robbins alerts franchisees to the gloomy forecast before or after they sign up.

To hear Robbins tell it, he's as concerned as anyone about the charlatans of get-rich-quick extravaganzas.

"I didn't want to be in a no-money-down real estate genre," he says in an interview at the castle when the topic veers to infomercials. "To me, that was real scummy, and I'm not trying to be negative toward that industry. I just didn't . . . want to be attached to that."

Robbins' infomercial, one of many distributed by Palm Desert-based Guthy-Renker Corp., is different, he says, in that he produces it and it's watched by more Americans than any other--an estimated 100 million viewers in 200 markets.

Infomercial is the moniker given 30- or 60-minute broadcasts that resemble a talk show or documentary but are in fact paid advertising. Infomercials hawk everything from cosmetics to remedies for baldness to Robbins telling viewers they can lose weight, improve their relationships and "master" their destinies by heeding his philosophy of "never-ending" improvement.

The strikingly handsome Robbins has had no trouble drawing celebrities into the fold. In addition to Sheen, actor LeVar Burton ("Star Trek: The Next Generation"), former Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), author Charles J. Givens ("Wealth Without Risk") and retired Navy Capt. Gerald L. Coffee, a former prisoner of war, have appeared in Robbins' infomercial or endorsed his material.

In Del Mar, which may be to the self-help movement what Nashville is to country music, Robbins numbers among his friends fellow authors Ken Blanchard ("The One-Minute Manager") and Warren Farrell ("Why Men Are the Way They Are").

One wall inside the castle is like a gallery of famous friends: Robbins is pictured with rock star Michael Jackson, Dodger manager Tom Lasorda and Laker guard Byron Scott.

Those who knew Robbins at Glendora High School, where he emerged as student body president in 1977-78, say they're not surprised by their classmate's success.

"A lot of us look at this guy who had the same socioeconomic background and status that we did--poor--and look at what he's done. If he can make it, we can too," says Scott Salter, who sells sprinkler systems for a Glendora landscape company.

Says another Glendora High alumnus, John David Eckert, an air quality inspector for a regional agency: "I think Tony's position on life is a good one, that you can go out and make life happen. I wish I . . . had done that more."

Now, were Robbins to come face-to-face with his former classmate, he probably would tell him what he tells the scores of customers who pay for his tapes, his seminars and even his fire walks: "If you can't, you must. And if you must, you can."

The goal, Robbins says, is "to reach as many people as possible, in the shortest period of time. I believe I can make a difference. I know I can, and the sky's the limit. I'm not a guru. I want to be a coach--or a friend. I can change people's lives forever. I know it. I already have."

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