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Millions of Women Have Read Rachel Hollis’ Self-Help Books. What Exactly Is She Selling?

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Kara Kading wishes she weren’t crying, but there it is. The mother of three from Racine, Wisconsin, is overwhelmed. She’s working two jobs so her kids can go to a private Lutheran school. She has just sat through a day of lectures for one of them, helping to market and sell essential oils from her home. And now, after waiting in a 50-person line, she has met the conference’s keynote speaker and the woman who has helped her hold it all together, Rachel Hollis.

“I’ve been in that funk of trying so hard to keep up with everybody,” says Kading, 40, who started a book club with three friends just to read Hollis’ first self-help book, Girl, Wash Your Face. “She makes me feel like it’s O.K. to be me. That I don’t have to listen to the voice in my head that tells me I can’t do this.”

Hollis, 36, a 5-ft.-2-in. dynamo, has just spent an hour alternately laughing at herself and cajoling the several-thousands-strong audience to do what she does from the stage of the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. But she still has bubbles to spare. She signs whatever each woman brings her and leans in for a selfie, tilting her head forward for the best angle before each shot. She hugs some and pauses to give specific advice to others. Despite the fact that she’s been up since before 4 a.m., her cheer and warmth never flicker.

Of course, Hollis has never sold essential oils. She has no need. She’s already found the perfect product to pitch to you, dear modern woman. She figured out just the thing you need. It will change your life.

The product is you. Hollis is 100% persuaded that you are the answer to all your problems. You just need to invest in you, to believe in you, to prioritize you.

Girl, Wash Your Face, which came out in February 2018 and expounded on this theory, was the No. 2 best-selling book of the year, right behind Michelle Obama’s Becoming, according to Amazon. About 1.5 million people have bought it so far, more than bought anything about Trump or wimpy kids or by Jordan Peterson. It was a social media phenomenon, its insights celebrated by Jen Hatmaker, Drew Barrymore, Reese Witherspoon and thousands of female readers. It was also derided as dangerous nonsense by both liberal media outlets and conservative Christian ones, a twofer few books can manage.

As of March 5, it has a sequel. Girl, Stop Apologizing is more tactical and practical, and even more insistent on women’s need for self-improvement. It makes Hollis ache, she writes, when women don’t have a dream. “I don’t think that a beautiful life happens unintentionally,” she tells me in a conference room before her speech. “I think that you have to decide what kind of life you have.” It hit No. 1 on Amazon its first week.

Peyton Fulford for TIME

There’s nothing revolutionary about Hollis’s advice. Get healthy, get up earlier, choose a goal, plan how to reach it, ignore the naysayers and work the livelong day. But her pithy, down-home, just-between-us-girls voice is both Instagram-quote-worthy and has the urgency of a siren. “I no longer spend a single second of my life worrying about what others think of me for having dreams for myself,” she writes in Stop Apologizing. “Embracing the idea that you can want things for yourself…is the most freeing and powerful feeling in the world.”

Her popularity, which came as a shock to the book industry (she had already written three fiction books and two cookbooks, all selling in the low thousands, according to NPD BookScan), is one of those barometric indicators that mark the cultural weather fronts in the U.S. To some, Hollis is their totally relatable best friend, a successful working mom of four who tells it like it is, isn’t afraid to be vulnerable and has motivated them to up their game. She talks about how she overcame being bad at sex, the time she peed her pants, her boob job, her mommy guilt and her hairy toes. She inspires women to believe in themselves. “As I read the book over the summer, tears just started flowing,” Angel Hepp, 35, a mom of one with another on the way, who works in marketing in Colorado, tells me by phone. “She gave me the courage to start my own podcast.”

The conference at which Hollis is speaking is for doTerra, a multilevel marketing organization (MLM). The mostly female attendees have been invited because they’ve persuaded a number of people to become doTerra wholesalers, to buy a preset amount of oil each month that they can then try to resell to friends. MLMs, which are often compared to pyramid schemes, have come under fire for overpromising results and trapping people with too much product. (A doTerra spokesperson says 80% of its customers buy for personal use without intending to resell.) They also offer one of the few jobs women can do in their own time, with small kids. All they need is a work ethic and ties to the local community. Hollis speaks at a lot of MLM events. It’s exactly the kind of crowd she thrives on.

I don’t think that a beautiful life happens unintentionally...I think that you have to decide what kind of life you have.

To her critics, Hollis is a vapid purveyor of false hope and white privilege. She tells women their problems will be solved if they just work harder and journal more intentionally. She seems to believe women’s empowerment means telling women they have power. She ignores the structural inequities, racial disparities and economic pressures that many women face, essentially asking them to put out fires with their bare hands. For all her willingness to talk about anything, she pointedly avoids politics. “I only want to talk about things that I’m really passionate about,” says Hollis. “I don’t like politics because I don’t have faith in [politicians] at all.”

When pushed on whether it’s unfair to tell young moms to fix their own lives without addressing, say, the parlous state of America’s family leave policies, Hollis displays, for the first time, a reluctance to step up. “I start to worry that if you share too much of that stuff it’s like you’re trying to tell people to vote a certain way,” she says.

Hollis also gives her haters plenty of ammunition. Among the revelations in her new book, for example, are that she has the word “mogul” tattooed on her wrist and that one of the ten affirmations she writes for herself every day is that she only travels first class. She opens chapter six proclaiming that 850,000 people saw her fail, only to reveal her definition of failure by explaining that she told her social media followers she wanted a New York Times bestseller and Wash Your Face took 10 weeks to get there.

Some critics bother Hollis more than others. She finds the accusation that she can’t possibly know what it’s like to struggle pretty easy to shrug off. As she tells it (her parents declined to be interviewed for this story), Hollis grew up no stranger to want. Her father was a Pentecostal preacher, as was his father, which might explain her declarative style. Her family lived in rural California near Weedpatch, a community that John Steinbeck drew on when writing The Grapes of Wrath. Her parents fought often and frequently separated.

One Monday morning, when her older brother, Ryan, was supposed to take her to school, she found him in his room dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She was 14 and her parents weren’t home. For years afterward, she assumed that every person she encountered who was not moving might be dead. “I am still here,” she writes, “because I will not let a nightmare have more power than my dreams.”

She attributes her drive to her childhood shame over poverty, not a lust for wealth. “Anybody who grew up poor,” she says, “and now has the ability to make a business, to be self-made — well, I heard Tyler Perry say this years ago. He said if you’ve ever been hungry, then you’ll never be full.”

Hollis finished high school early and hightailed to Los Angeles where she got an internship at Miramax. From there she started an events company (Chic Events), which became an online lifestyle blog (MyChicLife), which then began to veer into self-help (The Chic Site) and was recently rebranded The Hollis Company, specializing in “arming people with the tools to make positive and lasting change.”

Each business iteration marked a phase in Hollis’ metamorphosis from marketer to liberator of women. “For the longest time, it was sort of like, Here’s my life and my kids, and here I am with this [laundry] detergent,” she says, of the sponsored content she used to produce. “But that started to feel very soul-sucking.” Having suffered from anxiety, she began to post about her vulnerabilities. She saw the response those posts got and began to orient her content around that. Whether Hollis has described the plight of most American women with any degree of accuracy is open to debate, but clearly millions of them—and even some men—feel seen.

Backstage at the doTerra event, the lone man in the line of people seeking to have a meet and greet with Hollis, Troy Miller, 50, from Toronto, said he had never heard of her before the weekend, but he and his fellow travelers had listened to her audiobook on the car ride down. “I don’t relate to all of it,” he says. “But don’t we all compare ourselves to others and have a negative voice in our head?”

Hollis has adeptly ridden several waves in her rise to the top: the emergence of a new type of Christian, a more widespread desire for women’s empowerment, the gig economy and the dawn of the Instagram age. She writes freely about her faith, and anthropologists would put her in the tribe of so-called hipstians, hipster Christians who follow Jesus with the ardor of Ned Flanders but different sartorial choices. They tend to live in cities, have no problem with same-sex marriage or feminism, believe climate change is real and might even vote Democratic. (She voted for Hillary Clinton and President Obama.) They worship in churches with names like Foundry and Mosaic. And they’re hungry for cultural role models like Hollis, both for lifestyle tips and personal direction.

That said, not every Christian loves her. The Gospel Coalition, a Christian leadership training group, recently called her advice “exhausting and damning” because it puts self rather than God as the ultimate source of salvation.

Hollis has needed little institutional help — from church, media, or venture capitalist — in building her brand. She acquired hundreds of thousands of followers using social media even before the self-help books. But beyond that, almost her entire post-high school education has come via the web, conferences, YouTube videos and podcasts. (She is a Tony Robbins fanatic.) In the way of the internet, she aggregates liberally from other sources — Julius Caesar, Margaret Mead, Theodore Roosevelt — without worrying too much about attribution. She built her companies “through hard work and hustle and the wealth of knowledge that can be found from a Google search bar,” she writes.

A 2015 social media post in which she showed off her stretch marks on the beach is textbook Hollis. Rather than bemoan her fate, she captioned the beaming self-portrait with an upbeat ode of gratitude to her body for bearing her three sons, Jackson, 12, Sawyer, 10 and Ford, 6. “They aren’t scars ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them. Flaunt that body with pride!” (She also has an adopted daughter, Noah, 2.) Practically overnight, her followers more than doubled.

Almost every day, Hollis and her husband, Dave, 44, stream a live show on Facebook where they answer questions and talk about their lives. Topics range from why she got acrylic nails to how to make a business idea a reality to what it was like to be interviewed by TIME magazine. (Despite her determination not to care about what others think of her, she replays the interview in her head, judging her answers.)

You can’t be a fan of Hollis’ without also adoring Dave. He is the cherry on the ice cream sundae of her life, the 6-ft.-4-in. trophy of a husband, whom she jokingly refers to as her “emotional support animal.” They met when she was 19. They married when she was 21. She thanks him for “covering my losses” early in her career. Their marriage — and his puppy-dog devotion to her — is a big part of her brand’s appeal.

Last year, he left his job as an executive at Disney to run the business side of his wife’s company, which they recently relocated to Austin. During our interview, he sits a few yards away from his wife, chiming in when he wants to amplify one of her answers, even though he knows it looks like classic mansplaining. “Honey, it’s O.K.,” says Hollis.

Now she and Dave have what Hollis would call “big, obnoxious dreams” for The Hollis Company. They’ve committed to a bunch of speaking engagements and business deals this year, but after that they’re not taking on more. Any content they produce will be made for The Hollis Company alone. They have a series of business and life-coaching lectures listeners can access for a monthly fee starting at $39. Hollis will be speaking only at their own conferences, known as Rise.

In the last year, Hollis has surpassed many of the goals she wrote in her journal. It’s clearly a bit disorienting for her. “I manifested all the things I wrote down,” she says. “But I – I don’t know how this sounds – I wrote down the wrong thing. I wrote down goals that were about myself and who I wanted to be, and maybe not as much about what I wanted to create for other people.”

Often, contemporary women are painted as these ambitious go-getters delaying marriage and family for a shot at their dream job. But Hollis seems to have found a different group, women who aren’t sure exactly what they want or who they should be. They like the mess of marriage and kids and keeping a home together and shopping at Target (which sold tens of thousands of Hollis’ books), but their lives aren’t quite how they’d pictured them. Hollis gives these women permission to pursue a dream, any dream, a way to be someone other than somebody else’s something. She might not be everyone’s idea of a revolutionary, but for many women, she’s what change looks like.

The original version of this story misstated Angel Hepp’s home state. It is Colorado, not Oregon.

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