IT SEEMS EVERYBODY IN ELGIN is keeping tabs on what Jim Dunaway is eating these days. Wherever the 49-year-old city manager goes to dine—whether it’s a sit-down restaurant or a busy to-go joint—his neighbors are watching him with an air of suspicion. Dunaway is not a vegan, nor is he even a vegetarian. By Elgin standards, he says, his dining habits have been normal his entire life. But since August, when television talk-show therapist Dr. Phil McGraw set up shop in town, Dunaway’s dietary regimen has become the topic of conversation from Austin to Iowa.
Dunaway isn’t the only Elginite being watched. To demonstrate the impact that his eponymous weight-loss plan and self-help philosophies could have on a whole town, Dr. Phil and his staff are trying to get everyone in Elgin involved. They’ve held a fitness rally attended by more than one hundred residents, organized citywide exercise programs, and facilitated nutrition support groups. Dr. Phil himself talked some local restaurants into serving healthy meals; he even persuaded the 3-H Cattle Company to introduce some recipes from his Ultimate Weight Solution Cookbook. But to give his audience something to focus on, Dr. Phil needed some role models, and so he selected seven overweight Elginites to follow throughout the television season. Two of the volunteers were Dunaway, the 300-pound city manager, and Jeff Jackson, the 312-pound owner of one of the only gyms in town. Each was given a nutritionist and a trainer. And there were carrots, of course. When Jackson and Dunaway finally appeared on the show in Los Angeles before a national audience in October, Dr. Phil announced that he had a surprise: He gave Jackson three new machines for his gym worth a total of $20,000. “And I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Dr. Phil. “You two big old country boys drop fifty pounds apiece and we’ll make sure you get some more equipment.”
There were also conditions. This being a town project, Dr. Phil created an assignment for the rest of Elgin: If locals noticed Dunaway—who admitted to a weakness for greasy foods—eating something unhealthy at a restaurant, they were instructed to throw away his plate and send Dr. Phil the bill. And when he wasn’t exercising, they were told to ask him why. Sure enough, when Dunaway got back home, strangers were checking in with him to make sure he wasn’t cheating. Once, a local runner even called him up at 6:30 a.m. and chided him for not exercising that morning, singing into the phone, “Dr. Phil says, ‘Where aaaare youuuuu ?’”
The day I met Dunaway at his office, a stranger had just stopped him on the street after he’d picked up a take-out order for lunch. “What’d you get?” the woman inquired, staring at the Styrofoam box Dunaway was carrying in a plastic bag. He didn’t miss a beat: “I got the grilled chicken chipotle salad.”
BY NOW IT’S NO SECRET how Dunaway and his fellow Elginites came to be starring in their very own version of The Truman Show. This August, as has been reported all over the national media, Dr. Phil volunteered himself not only as Elgin’s new weight-loss guru but also as a personal guidance counselor for the town’s 7,200 citizens. The goal had been to find a place that was similar to “everybody’s town”—a community with an ethnically diverse population under 10,000 with an average median income—and to use it to explore the problems that affect Americans everywhere. Elgin fit the requirements perfectly. A rapidly growing bedroom community 25 miles east of Austin known as the Sausage Capital of Texas, it offered a perfect mix of small town and boomtown. So one Friday evening this summer, Dr. Phil’s producers flew from Los Angeles to Texas to propose the idea to Elgin’s city officials. Discussions lasted all weekend. By Monday the decision was final: Elgin would get a new nickname, Dr. Phil’s “Anywhere, USA.”
Opinion among Elginites, at least initially, was mixed. Some locals insisted that their citizenry didn’t need a town shrink; others thought the attention was good publicity, believing wholeheartedly that Dr. Phil’s presence would benefit the town. But then the first Dr.-Phil-in-Elgin episode aired on September 13, and viewers were hit with more dirty laundry than a washateria. The first willing subjects to appear on the show, the Waltons, a family of five who’d recently relocated to Elgin, detailed their dysfunction through a series of tear-jerking interviews during a Dr. Phil “house call.” Jim Walton is a youth soccer coach, and Elginites watched in disbelief as he confessed on national TV to looking at pornography for hours each day and having beaten his wife in the past. Later in the show, high school kids testified that students were having sex in the stairwells and selling drugs at their lockers. Before the episode had finished, the high school principal, Mary Liz Singleton, received an e-mail with the subject line: “For shame.”
To be fair, Dr. Phil wasn’t pointing the finger at Elgin specifically. As he had stated repeatedly on the episode, Elgin was “a small town with big problems, just like every other town in America.” It followed, then, that the first episode would focus on the issues that concern Anywhere, USA. After all, one had to look at the challenges before one could propose solutions.
But none of those explanations seemed to minimize the shock around town. Before Dr. Phil showed up, personal matters weren’t something you discussed in public, and Elginites were just fine with that. And while the landscape of voyeuristic TV is familiar now to every American, all that reality is easier to take when it occurs on a desert island rather than in a town where most folks know each other by name—and where the pharmacist still delivers prescriptions to customers’ doorsteps and the local furniture store owner lets shoppers buy tables or chairs on credit. “If you’re in Austin or Dallas, you have anonymity,” says Molly Alexander, a former Elgin economic development director. “In a small town you don’t. I would guess the Waltons probably had no idea—may still not know—how much people talk about them. Or maybe they don’t care that people see them in the grocery store and think, ‘Hmmm.’”
After the first episode was broadcast, people called each other in a panic. “Nobody used the word ‘condescending,’” Alexander says. “They used more-descriptive phrases, like ‘This is blank-blank ridiculous.’” Locals aired their grievances at the chamber of commerce and city hall. “Who asked Dr. Phil to come here?” some demanded to know. In just a few days, Beverly Daughtry, who has been the editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper, the Elgin Courier, since 1967, received more letters to the editor about Dr. Phil than she had on any other topic in her entire career. One came from Dan Bennett, a member of the board of directors of the Greater Elgin Chamber of Commerce, who wanted to clarify that nobody in Elgin was to blame for Dr. Phil’s arrival, that Dr. Phil did not need permission or an invitation. “Personally,” he wrote, “I feel that the problems Dr. Phil’s show is addressing would be better handled by professionals in a professional setting, and not be exploited for entertainment purposes. Phil McGraw will certainly get more out of Elgin than Elgin will get out of Phil McGraw.”
Many shared that sentiment, some insisting that Dr. Phil’s show had less to do with improving the community than with creating sensational television through public humiliation. When the show’s producers called Beth Rolingson, the executive director of the only social-services center in town, she was excited, hoping that they’d be able to help find her funding for her housing and literacy programs. Instead of partnering, however, she says they wanted names. “They said Dr. Phil was a therapist,” Rolingson says, “and they wanted me to provide them with some names of people interested in going on the show, which we did not do, primarily because of confidentiality. But we didn’t recruit the people we serve to go over there, because it had the potential to be exploitative.”
The show had touched a nerve, one that the national media would have a field day with. Among other coverage, the Dr. Phil backlash received feature treatment from the Dallas Morning News and a spot on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Highlights included Jon Stewart’s reporter spoofing the first episode as “America’s Most F—ed-Up Town” and interviewing two guys at an Elgin bar who said Dr. Phil didn’t know how to wipe his own ass.
That September, Elgin’s city leaders called an emergency meeting. Dr. Phil’s producers flew in to meet with Dunaway, the school superintendent, and others. Some of the facts in the program had been wrong, particularly those involving the high school, and the city wanted Dr. Phil to air a correction. His people, who said they wanted to make every effort to do right by the city, were clearly surprised by the outrage.
“What did you expect?” principal Singleton asked.
ONE REASON MANY LOCALS were so incensed was that the content of the first episode was vastly different from the vision that Dr. Phil himself had seemed to promise. At a now-notorious rally held at the high school football stadium in August, the six-foot-four Dr. Phil, dressed in black from head to toe, had stood on a stage in front of five thousand spectators from all over Texas and praised the community for wanting to “get real” about the issues that face Elgin and every other town: teen pregnancy, drug use, domestic violence, rotten health, and divorce. He kept up his high energy for two hours, sweating as he paced and shouting into the microphone attached to his head: “We wanted a city that would say, ‘We’re willing . . . to do the work it takes to get right.’”
Before he concluded his speech, he told the people of Elgin that he was the man who would help them with their problems. “You may well be doing things in your life that are scarring your children,” he warned, “ruining your marriage, your family, and you don’t know it! . . . I want to make Elgin a shining example on the American landscape!”
But while many angry Elginites were still talking about the “shining example” comment when I visited in October, Dr. Phil’s production crew was already at work trying to patch things up. After the first episode aired, the Courier took an online poll and found the town split: 47 percent pro-Phil, 51 percent anti-Phil. To win back their detractors, the producers promised that future episodes would be more positive. They insisted that when Dr. Phil uncovered a problem, he also proposed a solution. For example, when he found a young boy who had been bullied at school and felt so much rage that he wanted to beat up his attackers, Dr. Phil’s son intervened and promised to start a bully program with Elgin’s students. When he discovered a high school dropout whose grandmother complained that the teenager was sleeping all day, Dr. Phil’s staff found the kid a job at a downtown cafe and enrolled him in a GED program.
On September 25 Dr. Phil’s second Elgin installment aired, this time focusing on the town’s teens. Knowing that principal Singleton was still upset from the first show, producers asked how they could regain her trust. “You’ve given us a black eye,” she said. “Now where’s the beefsteak?” The beefsteak came in the form of a $5,000 grant from Target for a parent resource center and meetings with state and national organizers of parent-teacher programs so the school could create its own group. The show even used its clout to get cable installed in the classrooms (the school had been having difficulty getting wired). Dr. Phil also clarified his facts about the high school during a taped episode to air on November 26. Though Singleton’s nostrils still flare when she discusses the Dr. Phil program, she admits that she’s coming around: “After the emergency meeting, Dr. Phil’s staff did start changing their attitude and redirecting their focus.”
A week later the weight-loss-challenge episode featuring Dunaway was aired and was well received. By October the show was in town filming an “Assets of Elgin” episode that was set to run during sweeps week in November. The installment would focus on a family voted “most phenomenal” as well as on “phenomenal teachers and students.” The teachers were rewarded with laptops, the students with iPods, the family with a trip to Disney World. Here was the “shining example” Elginites had been promised, and suddenly the buzz around town seemed to be more appreciative of Dr. Phil.
One afternoon I visited with Deborah Ostas, who was selected as one of the phenomenal teachers interviewed on the show. Tall and athletic, Ostas stared intently as I asked her about the controversy. “What happens when the spotlight is turned on a small town or a person?” she repeated. “In some ways it’s fun, and in other ways . . .” she trailed off, wincing. I asked her if she thought the recent installments featuring a more positive side of Elgin had been planned or just a last-minute switch by the show’s producers after the first episode’s fallout. (One reason I wanted to talk to Ostas was because, in addition to being “phenomenal,” she had been voted “most honest” by the student body.) “The producers have never done a show like this before,” Ostas told me, “and I think they’re amazed at the way a community can open themselves up and also shut themselves off. So they know they have to kind of step a little more softly. It’s not saying we don’t have problems or don’t look at the problems. It’s just that we want it to be gentler. I think they’re going to be more conscientious about what goes on-screen, and I think they’re generally concerned about being more positive so we’re not alienated. And I believe it’s a sincere effort.”
NO MATTER HOW THE NEXT Dr. Phil episodes play out, locals can be assured that events between now and May, when the season wraps, will be well documented as the media cover the media covering the town. Molly Alexander recently started a guest column in the Courier to address issues that surround the Dr. Phil show, and an Austin filmmaker is now working on a Dr.-Phil-meets-Elgin documentary. With six months to go, the town’s real-life version of The Truman Show has only just begun.
Indeed, by the time Elgin High School’s homecoming had arrived in late fall, meetings were once again taking place all over the city for the show’s various programs. Some groups were gathering for weight-loss support; others were assembling to discuss Dr. Phil’s book Family First. At one of the latter meetings, a group of women who have known each other since birth sat around a table in a rented room at the chamber of commerce building and talked about alienated daughters, interracial adoption, and other issues they faced in their homes. Their rapport was light but meaningful, and the women nodded as the facilitator talked about Dr. Phil’s approach to each problem. The cameramen dancing gently around the table, zooming in on the faces in soft focus, were barely noticeable.