Bettina Arndt was getting herself passed off as a psychologist long before Phil McGraw, America’s favourite fake doctor ever thought to do it. But after a blessed television career that’s spanned more than two decades, one of Hollywood’s most powerful bullies might finally have to answer to a ‘monster’ of his own creation. Chris Graham explains.
For legions of ‘empowered middle class (mostly white) Americans’, Phil McGraw is a living legend and one of the most trusted figures in the country. But for anyone with a fifth-grade level understanding of mental health, McGraw is public enemy one.
Brought to us all by Oprah Winfrey, the doyen of daytime talk shows, ‘Dr Phil’ as he’s better known, has been profiting from tragedy for decades now. And by profiting, I mean making out like a bandit – McGraw earned $65.5 million last year, and his nett worth is estimated at almost half a billion dollars.
Of course, McGraw is not a ‘real doctor’ and never was one, although as one actual forensic psychologist put it, “he does play one on TV”. McGraw earned a PhD in psychology in the 1970s, when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and ‘sodomy laws’ could get you a life sentence in some US states. But like Australia, ‘Doctor’ is not a protected title in the US, which has allowed McGraw to build a global following as ‘Dr Phil’, because his show is classed as ‘entertainment’.
It’s also enabled him to trick thousands of vulnerable and mentally ill people into coming on his show, where he then routinely humiliates them while inflating his own ego with claims like ‘I’ve been doing this for 45 years…’
Longevity is not necessarily a recommendation when you consider that Joseph DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, was finally sent to jail in 2018, after commencing his Californian rape and murder spree in the 1970s. Either way, daytime television’s most successful psychopath might finally have abused one child too many.
One of McGraw’s most famous ‘guests’, and by guests we mean victims, was Danielle Bregoli, a 13-year-old “out of control” girl who appeared on the show in 2016.
It’s hard to fathom the ethics of a parent allowing their child to be humiliated in front of a global television audience, but it’s something else altogether to contemplate a one-time trained psychologist allowing it… let alone directing it. And that’s more or less what happened during the filming of the show – McGraw’s audience started mocking and laughing at Bregoli, as they frequently do, which prompted Bregoli to respond ‘Catch me outside, how about that?’… although in her southern teen drawl it came out as ‘Cash me ousside how bout dah’.
It might have been a case of ‘advantage McGraw’ in a studio where he has a fawning audience and absolute control, but once the clip made it to the outside world, Bregoli became a global overnight sensation as the ‘Cash Me Outside Girl’.
After the show aired, Bregoli parlayed her fame into a music career (as rapper ‘Bhad Bhabie’), and in the space of a few years she’s attracted a massive following, and about $6.5 million in album sales. But before the show aired, McGraw sent Bregoli to his ‘favourite treatment centre for troubled teens’, Turn-About Ranch in Utah. And that’s where things have gone seriously pear-shaped for McGraw.
Earlier this year, news broke that another of McGraw’s former guest/victims, Hannah Archuleta, has filed a lawsuit against Turn-About Ranch, alleging she was sexually assaulted there twice in 2019, and punished for it when she tried to report it.
The story attracted little interest from media – Dr Phil is, after all, a powerful man, and he’s regularly accused of abuse… nothing to see here, move along. And then, Bregoli decided to come out in support of Archeluta, detailing her own allegations of abuse against the facility, and setting McGraw a deadline of April 5 to publicly apologise. And now we have a news story…
As you might expect, McGraw hit the media hustings trying to clean up the mess, adopting a variation on the old ‘all care, no responsibility’ defence. Or in other words, ‘What happens on Turnabout Ranch stays on Turnabout Ranch… but if it gets off Turn-About Ranch… ithasnothingtodowithmebecauseIwasn’tthere’.
Over to McGraw: “We don’t have anything to do with what happens to guests once they leave the stage. That’s between the guardian and parent. I assume if she had a problem she would file a complaint with the proper authorities or something five years ago, so I really don’t know much about it. I’m not talking about this story, it was five years ago I don’t remember too much about it.”
Because of course, as ‘Dr Phil’ knows, children who suffer neglect and abuse always report it straight away.
For its part, Turn-About Ranch decided to compete with McGraw for the race to the bottom, responding on its website with what must surely rank as one of the most ham-fisted gaslighting spins in history. After completely ignoring the allegations levelled by Archuleta, Turn-About writes: “[Bregoli’s] positive, emotional journey at the ranch is well documented in her follow-up visit to the Dr Phil show. Anyone with a desire to understand her true feelings about the Ranch and the relationships we built are encouraged to re-watch the show.”
Translation: Please focus on the nice things Bregoli said about us when she was much younger and under McGraw’s control, not the bad things she’s saying about us now that she’s older and has her own voice. Given their capacity for abuse and spin, you don’t have to wonder real hard how McGraw and the Turn-About Ranch found each other.
As for McGraw’s excuse that he had no knowledge whatsoever of anything that happens at Turn-About Ranch, despite sending hundreds of teens there and telling his global audience countless times that it’s a great facility… quite apart from the fact that he obviously had a camera crew there at some stage to capture the footage above, that story might wash with a fawning, sycophantic entertainment journalist, but a court is unlikely to swallow it so easily. And on that front, Hannah Archuleta is being represented by high profile women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred.
Like McGraw, Allred has her own chequered past, but she’s also undeniably a powerful litigator. The most likely outcome is Allred will negotiate a multi-million settlement with a gag order attached to it, like she did in several of the proceedings against Harvey Weinstein. These sorts of Hollywood problems have a long history of ‘somehow going away’ – money talks louder than courts in the US. But that only solves the problem of one motivated abuse victim (Archeluta), it doesn’t do anything to silence Bregoli, who is starting to look increasingly like a bushfire McGraw can’t put out.
After McGraw missed his April 5 apology deadline, an angry Bregoli released another video, where she revealed that the contract she signed with McGraw in 2016 specified that Turn-About must keep McGraw updated on her progress at the ranch.
If Allread didn’t know about that side of proceedings before, she does now. Add another a zero to the settlement figure.
This story is likely to continue to play out for some time – Bregoli doesn’t look like she’s going to stop talking any time soon. And that’s actually a very good thing, because while at first blush, this story might look like just another ‘celebrity battle’ in a slowly fading empire where celebrity battles are a dime a dozen, but it’s actually about something quite a bit more important: the growing power of new media, and the slow death of old.
McGraw was able to abuse Bregoli and cast her as the ‘precocious tween’ because everything was done on his turf. It was his studio, his audience, his lights and cameras, and his editors, all of which has been designed to supercharge his bullying. But, over time, the power imbalance between McGraw and Bregoli has levelled out somewhat. McGraw, aged 70, is no longer just trying to monster a 13-year-old kid.
Bregoli is now 18, and as it turns out she’s grown into a formidable young woman, with a potty mouth that would make a sailor blush. She also happens to have her ‘own turf’, and it’s quite a bit bigger than McGraw’s.
More than 7.5 million people have subscribed to Bregoli’s Youtube channel, and 17.3 million more follow her on Instagram page (where she also shared her allegations against McGraw and the ranch). McGraw lags 2 milion behind her on Youtube, but his Instagram page, by comparison, is more than 16 million people behind.
Bregoli’s numbers sound impressive, but they’re actually quite a bit more impressive than you might think. To give you some sense of scale, the most popular television program in Australia in a single year might attract around 4 million viewers. So, that’s 4 million people for a couple of hours, one day of the year. McGraw’s syndicated show, Dr Phil, attracts about 3.8 million viewers a week… that’s 52 times bigger than the best annual show in Australia.
Bregoli can access at least 17.3 million people anytime she wants, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Granted, a lot of those people will be kids, but a lot of them won’t be too. And kids grow up.
Point being, while there are some very obvious problems of the world of Youtubers and Insta-famous people – the subject of a future New Matilda feature – there’s also some obvious advantages. Establishment media – where Mc Graw’s power base is rooted – can’t do anything to shut Bregoli up, but more importantly they can’t do anything to deafen her audience either. Bregoli can say whatever she wants, whenever she wants… and it looks like she’s got plenty to say.
McGraw’s star power is undeniably still immense, but Hollywood’s Law of Happy Endings (and possibly Newton’s Law of Physics) suggests that McGraw is at serious risk of finally being held to account… by a 13-year-old child he once abused.
Which brings me neatly back to what McGraw said about Bregoli way back in 2016, during her first appearance on his show: “It’s really sad, because I think she has so many great qualities. I think she’s obviously very smart, but I do think she’s on a self-destructive course right now.”
Ironically, if you take the self out of that sentence – something Phil McGraw has never been able to do – it might just turn out to be the most accurate prediction he’s ever made.
Ed’s note: If you want a more ‘scientifically-informed’ analysis of McGraw’s absence of ethics or basic humanity, this analysis from Dr Todd Grande, a Youtuber who actually does have a license to practice, is worth a watch.
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