Love Thy Self-Help

Love Thy Self-Help Give us your tired (of being overweight), your hungry (for success), your poor (after a nasty divorce), your teeming masses yearning to be free (of their fears and insecurities), and show them the way to Dallas, where authors like Dr. Phil McGraw have answers for every problem and superagent Jan Miller knows how to sell their books to America.

MERE SIX YEARS AGO, no one had ever heard of him. He was just a balding, middle-aged guy who lived in the Dallas suburb of Irving, where he ran a company called Courtroom Sciences. The company was located in a nondescript white office building across the street from a Humperdinks restaurant. People who drove past the building had no idea what went on in there. The man didn't advertise his business nor did he hire a public-relations specialist to drum up publicity for it. Whenever reporters from legal publications like Texas Lawyer would call him to ask questions about what was going on at Courtroom Sciences, he would say, "No comment," and hang up.

Then, in early 1998, people began seeing him on television news reports coming out of Amarillo. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey was being sued in federal court by some angry West Texas cowmen who believed that her show about the dangers of mad cow disease had caused great damage to the American beef industry. Almost every time Oprah was photographed going in and out of the federal courthouse, this man would be right beside her. He was a big fellow, six feet four and 240 pounds, with broad shoulders. Reporters who were covering the trial—and I was one of them—thought he was Oprah's bodyguard. Whenever he walked past us, he gave us a look that could have chilled vodka.

We finally learned who he was after Oprah won the lawsuit. On the day of the verdict, she turned her show into a victory party, and among those she brought out to thank was the guy from Courtroom Sciences. His name was Phil McGraw, he was a Ph.D. psychologist, and his company was regularly hired by law firms to help pick jurors and develop trial strategies in criminal defense and big-money civil cases. McGraw had been working with Oprah and her lawyers for more than a year, preparing her for her testimony and holding mock trials inside Courtroom Sciences. But the real reason Oprah liked McGraw, she told her viewers, was that he had given her the best advice she had ever received about dealing with life's struggles. "It was Phil who gave myself back to me," she said.

And just like that, a new legend of the self-help business was born. Today, if you do not know the name "Dr. Phil," then you really have been living under a rock. After spending four years as a regular Tuesday-afternoon guest on Oprah's talk show, telling viewers in a blustery, take-no-prisoners manner that they should stop whining and start taking responsibility for their lives, Dr. Phil, 53, now has his own daily self-help talk show, which is produced in Los Angeles and watched by approximately six million viewers nationwide. He has become one of the most talked-about celebrities in America. David Letterman cracks jokes about him almost every night. The tabloids have teams of reporters who follow him. The phrase "I've been Dr. Philled"—a way of saying that someone has just been confronted about his screwy behavior—is part of the national lexicon.

What's more, Dr. Phil is threatening to become one of the best-selling authors in the history of the self-help genre: books that are filled with anecdotes, quotes, proverbs, advice, and philosophies that exhort readers either to be rich, thin, healthy, ambitious, spiritually centered, laden with good abs, or any combination thereof. All three of his books ( Life Strategies, Relationship Rescue, and Self Matters ) have shot to number one on various best-seller lists. Self Matters, a guide to finding one's "authentic self," sold more copies (1,350,000 copies in hardback alone) in 2002 than any other non-fiction book. Dr. Phil's fourth book, The Ultimate Weight Solution: The Seven Keys to Weight Loss Freedom, is being released this month by Simon and Schuster, with an initial printing of approximately one million copies, the same number printed this summer for Hillary Clinton's much ballyhooed autobiography.

"Not bad for a second career," I told Dr. Phil the other day when he called from his new Beverly Hills home, which he reportedly bought for $7.5 million in cash. (After putting his home in Irving up for sale, Dr. Phil also recently moved into a penthouse condominium near downtown Dallas, where he stays when he returns to Texas to keep up with Courtroom Sciences.)

"I'm doing all right," he said in a mock nonchalant voice.

"Oh, for God's sake," I said. "You couldn't have possibly realized how big this was going to get."

"Well, no, I grant you that one," he said. "I thought I'd be spending my life in Dallas, minding my own business. And then, well . . . " And he started chuckling. I could guess exactly why he was laughing, as the saying goes, all the way to the bank. According to reliable sources, the advance Simon and Schuster has paid him for his weight-loss book is a staggering $10 million, close to the reported advance of $10 million to $12 million that Bill Clinton is getting from Alfred A. Knopf for his White House memoir, a record for nonfiction. The literary agent who negotiated that deal for Dr. Phil just happens to live in Dallas too. Her name is Jan Miller, and she has turned Dallas into Self-Help City.

ACTUALLY, IT MAKES PERFECT SENSE that Jan Miller is based in Dallas and that the latest guru in America's self-help movement would come from here. As a resident for more than twenty years, I often tell visitors that Dallas is the country's self-help mecca. I do not exaggerate. While other cities contain communities of writers hoping someday to make the New York Times 's lofty best-seller list for fiction, Dallas has a community of writers who hope to make the Times's "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous" list, the category that covers self-help books. I regularly come across people in Dallas who are either writing a self-help book or want to write one. Recently, I met a six-foot-tall,

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