Anatomy of a Talk Show Empire: Dr. Phil McGraw's Most Explosive Controversies Through the Years

Rumored to be worth as much as $400 million, Phil McGraw remains the most popular and highest-paid host on daytime TV—but the past 15 years haven't been without their issues

By Natalie Finn Dec 29, 2017 10:10 PMTags
Dr. Phil McGrawNBC

It's impossible to delve into every explosive moment that has occurred on Dr. Phil since the show premiered in 2002. (Well, it's possible, but who's got that kind of time?) Suffice it to say, nearly every episode has its moments, which is why Dr. Phil—a Donahue-meets-Maury hybrid of scandal, drama and sage wisdom—just spent an entire year as the No. 1-rated syndicated talk show on the air.

At the center of the now 15-year-old daytime TV staple is Phil McGraw, a charismatic former psychologist blessed with common sense, a sonorous voice, a way with words and the courage of his convictions.

"I do use an approach that is very straight-forward with people, I mean, because that's just who I am," McGraw said during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show when the grasshopper stopped by to check in with the master. "I'm not much one for psychobabble and buzzwords, and lettin' your inner puppy come out and pee, or whatever. That's just not me—and I'm not for everybody."

"Over the years, my god, I've talked to every psychologist known to womankind," Winfrey, whose Harpo Productions produces Dr. Phil, "psychiatrists, therapists, people talking to their inner childs, and their inner puppies, and I haven't seen anybody better than Phil at human-functioning assessment."

It turned out he was for enough people to have made him the highest-paid TV host in the business, according to Forbes, which had him in first place this year—ahead of Ellen DeGeneres and Ryan Seacrest—with $79 million. He's rumored to be worth as much as $400 million, though, if that's a stretch, we can picture him demanding that we take the "Get Real Challenge."

Celebs With Talk Shows

His empire doesn't start and stop with his talk show, either. The now 67-year-old McGraw has authored nine best-selling books on everything from relationship advice to weight loss, his production company Stage 29 launched The Doctors and the hit CBS drama Bull, and he's simply become an ubiquitous pop culture figure.

Much to the consternation of some.

Like the leader of a mega-church, McGraw has his devoted disciples, and on the flip side he has his harsh critics, those who criticize his methodology, his credentials (he has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from University of North Texas; he stopped practicing in 1989 and partnered with a lawyer friend to form the trial consultancy Courtroom Sciences); and his overall business practices. 


He's been sued several times over the years—including for over-touting the effects of his Shape Up! diet plan, a suit he ultimately settled for $10.5 million in 2006—but it's his everyday show that makes him a perennial target for criticism from those who think he doles out simplistic advice and exploits people who have serious issues for entertainment value.

The latest hit came yesterday in a joint investigative report from Stat and The Boston Globe in which multiple former guests on Dr. Phil who appeared on the show seeking help for their addictions alleged that staffers instead enabled their issues. Todd Herzog, who was battling alcoholism, claims that he was sober when he arrived on set for an appearance in 2013, only to find a small bottle of vodka in the dressing room. After he guzzled it, he said, someone gave him a Xanax, saying it would help ease his nerves.

In a statement obtained by E! News Friday, a rep for McGraw denied the claims put forth in the article. "The Stat article does not fairly or accurately describe the methods of Dr. Phil, the TV show, or its mission to educate millions of viewers about drug and alcohol addiction," the statement reads. "The show does not give drugs or alcohol to its guests and any suggestions to the contrary is errant nonsense.

"For the past 16 years, the Dr. Phil show has provided valuable information to viewers by telling compelling stories about people who are fighting the battle to overcome alcohol and drug addiction. Unfortunately, addicts often lash out at the very people who are trying the hardest to help them break the cycle of addiction. Although terribly unfortunate, this is an understandable part of the behavior of addicts on their journey to recovery. Deception, dishonesty and denial are hallmarks of addiction. It tears families apart and certainly creates levels of complexities when we produce these important shows. None of this will deter the Dr. Phil show from it's commitment to continue to educate and inform the public about the worsening epidemic of addiction."

Peteski Productions/CBS Television Distribution

McGraw has presided over a number of high-profile interventions over the years, including what started as a sit-down with Nick Gordon, the former boyfriend of Bobbi Kristina Brown. Her family later sued Gordon for wrongful death, believing he played a role in the events that led to her slipping into a coma in January 2015 and then dying that July. 

When Gordon ended up checking into rehab instead of talking about his relationship with Brown, McGraw—whose show was helping to pay the young man's expenses—explained, "That was the whole purpose of going in, to talk to him about how he feels and what he thinks is going on and all of the history about this whole situation. What I'm telling you is, I get there, he is not capable of giving an interview. He is out of control." 

Gordon gave McGraw a follow-up interview in April 2016. 

Was a Dr. Phil Interview the Remedy These Stars Needed?

McGraw never caught more celebrity-related heat, however, than he did in January 2008, when he visited Britney Spears at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she was hospitalized on a 5150 psychiatric hold, having stated that the pop star was in "dire need of medical and psychological intervention." TMZ called it an ambush; McGraw called B.S. on that categorization, telling Ryan Seacrest in a phone call at the time that he had shown up at the request of her concerned family.

On his website he further explained: "We had planned to tape a Dr. Phil Now show tomorrow, focusing not on the tabloid side of Britney's latest problems, but instead on the very serious issues surrounding this case. Clearly, it is not just Britney's family struggling to find a way to protect adult children who cannot be ordered or compelled to seek help."

Not surprisingly, the episode was canceled.

Happy Birthday, Britney Spears! See Her Talk Family, Music and More in This 1999 E! News Interview

"Because the Spears situation is too intense at this time, and out of consideration to the family, I have made the decision not to move forward with the taping at this particular time," McGraw said. "Britney and her family are in our prayers and we ask that they be in yours."

Meanwhile, the Spears family confirmed that McGraw was indeed invited to the hospital—but as a friend and adviser, not for public consumption. 

"What's wrong with Dr. Phil's statement is that he made a statement," a family spokesman said. "The family basically extended an invitation of trust for him to come in as a resource to support them, not to go out and make public statements. Any statements publicly that he made, because he was brought in under this cloak of trust, are just inappropriate. We feel like, to set the record straight, we need to say that."

McGraw never did have that Britney Spears special, but the whole debacle was parodied by MADtv, which suggested what such an intervention might like look.

David Keeler/Getty Images

On his show, McGraw said he released a statement about his visit to quell the wilder rumors circulating about Spears' condition at the time, and that he would never reveal what actually occurred during the meeting—though, as a CBS Corp. spokeswoman told the New York Times afterward, "he did not go there to counsel her, but as a private citizen." 

Winfrey was rumored to be furious, but she never commented publicly on McGraw's actions.

"I really have discovered, and created...this," Winfrey said smilingly when McGraw was on Oprah in 2003, noting that he had never done television before he started making appearances on her show. They met when Winfrey was being sued in the 1990s in Texas for allegedly maligning the beef industry and McGraw was a consultant for her defense. Winfrey prevailed. ("That's the way in. If you're gonna get in, go with the big 'O,'" McGraw quipped to Conan O'Brien in 2015.)

Winfrey continued, "I said to Phil, 'you know, I think you should put all the things that we've talked about the past six weeks...and I understood that what he was saying to me could really be beneficial to a lot of other people." She encouraged him to write a book about it for starters, "and the rest is history."

The Spears scandal proved just a bump in the road for McGraw—although 2008 turned out to be quite bumpy. That April, a Dr. Phil producer posted $30,0000 bail for a teenager who had been accused of being the ringleader of a group of eight girls who viciously attacked another girl in an altercation that ended up on YouTube. They'd been planning an hour-long special on teen violence and related issues that was subsequently scrapped in the wake of the producer's ethically questionable overstep.

Also that year, McGraw was sued for defamation by Thomas Riccio, the sports memorabilia dealer who had helped arrange the meeting that led to O.J. Simpson being sent to prison for nine years on armed robbery and kidnapping charges. Riccio alleged that his October 2008 appearance on Dr. Phil was edited in a way that made him look bad; the suit was ultimately dismissed.

O.J. Simpson's Life on Parole: An Expert Weighs In

And then McGraw and his team had to learn the hard way about social media. In 2013, a tweet was posted to his personal account reading, "If a girl is drunk, is it OK to have sex with her? Reply yes or no to @drphil #teenaccused."

He was soon apprised that there was no such thing as an innocent conversation-starter. In person, that may have been a rhetorical question to pose to get a conversation about date rape and sexual assault going. On Twitter, just sitting there, it looked like an actual question.

"This tweet was intended to evoke discussion leading into a very serious show topic," a Dr. Phil rep clarified. "It was not intended to be taken lightly. It's based upon a recent news story, hence the #teenaccused label."

The Dr. Phil Show

The debate over whether McGraw is helping or hurting has never ended, and the Stat-Boston Globe report adds another layer to the existing criticism—which was inflamed earlier this year after his interview with actress Shelley Duvall, who talked about her struggle with mental illness. On the show it was said that Duvall rejected treatment from a clinic and McGraw was working with members of her family and mental-health professionals to formulate a strategy that would help.

"I recoil in complete disgust," Vivian Kubrick, daughter of Stanley Kubrick, who directed Duvall in The Shining in 1980, wrote on social media in response to the episode. "I hope others will join me in boycotting your utterly heartless form of entertainment, because it has nothing to do with compassionate healing."

"Dr. McGraw has a very strong sense of trying to not exploit people," Martin Greenberg, a psychologist who serves as Dr. Phil's director of professional affairs, told Stat in response to its queries about the guests who claimed their addictions had been exploited. "Now it is a television show. These people volunteer to come on. They beg to come on. And he tries to treat them with respect...and to give them the opportunity to get help if they want to do that. It's not a complicated formula."

Greenberg said guests with substance abuse issues are supervised "100 percent of the time."

Dr. Phil's Show Denies Claims That Guests Were Encouraged to Use Drugs and Alcohol

So far nothing has sullied McGraw's reputation in a way that has made him unmarketable. His outspoken opinions and deadpan delivery remain in demand, and he's also a regular on the late-night talk show circuit.

"You just called me a quack!" McGraw, not looking particularly perturbed, charged Jimmy Kimmel in 2015, to which Kimmel admitted, "I make a quacking noise sometimes. No, I don't think you're a quack. I think you're know, you're on TV. Sometimes there's a simple answer to these things that maybe aren't so simple."

But Kimmel still really wanted to know what McGraw's "diagnosis" would be of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"Well, I project into the future," McGraw said, clasping his hands as a sign that he was about to lower the boom, "and I wonder sometimes just how exactly diplomacy would play out with him. Let's say we were in a tight, tense situation with another world power and he decided to, um, make s--t up, and he decided to claim that we had 4,000 submarines in their harbor and we didn't have any or something...I just wonder if he might lack in diplomacy."

In his day job he steers clear of politics, but McGraw continues to be asked his opinions on Trump wherever he goes, be it The View or back to Jimmy Kimmel Live again this past September, where Kimmel summed his guest up that time as "maybe America's most famous mental health professional."

"What do you mean, maybe?" McGraw cracked. (He also had concluded that, as he suspected two years ago, Trump "lacks diplomacy.")

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

McGraw's folksy yet barbed twists of phrase, his pleasant drawl (he was born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas and went to high school in Kansas), his professed (but not belabored upon) Christian faith, and his commanding presence (he attended the University of Tulsa on a football scholarship before transferring to Midwestern State in Texas) have all served to win him fans from all walks of life.

And McGraw may consider himself kind of a down-home straight shooter, but that home is now a 14,000-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills that he and wife Robin McGraw purchased in 2010 for a reported $29.5 million. He plays tennis and golf, scuba dives, has his pilot's certification and enjoys his toys, including dirt bikes—at least until he broke six ribs and bruised a lung in an accident over the summer.

"When I was 20, you know, you could take a bullet in the shoulder and, you know, by morning you kind of shake it off and you're fine," McGraw told Kimmel. "Now I get a hangnail and it's a month, you know, before you're any better."

McGraw's first marriage, to his high school sweetheart when he was 20, ended in 1973, and then he married Robin in 1976. They have two sons, Jay, who is also a producer on his dad's shows, and Jordan.


Meanwhile, his friendship with Oprah Winfrey, whose Harpo productions also include The Dr. Oz Show and Rachael Ray, endures.

She appeared on his show in 2015 and happily reminisced about the early days. "I feel like I raised this dude, and let me just tell you, I had a moment driving in," she turned to him, "and seeing your big face on the side of the Paramount wall. I must say, wow." Winfrey put her hands over her heart. "Wow!"

Asked about the secrets of his success, aside from being smart and lucky enough to be discovered by Oprah Winfrey, McGraw told Forbes in 2013, "I deal with truth and I'm very goal oriented and I'm very action oriented. I put verbs in my sentences. I'm not someone to sit around and pontificate. I'm very action oriented. I think the universe rewards action as opposed to thought."

McGraw also emphasized the importance of accountability, which he said is inescapable for everybody in the end.

"A lot of people along the way are going to give you advice. A lot of people along the way are going to give you input and even try to make decisions for you," he said. "But when it gets to accountability time, you'll be able to find those people with both hands: it'll just be you. Since I know at the end of the journey I'm going to be the one held accountable, you better believe that I'm going to make the decisions along the way."