This is Part 6 of a BuzzFeed News investigation.
To read the rest of the series click here.
As evening fell on a eucalyptus-lined hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the teenage campers spilled out of a well-lit hall. They had spent the day enthralled by the self-help guru Tony Robbins, who had taught them how to reach for their dreams.
It was the summer of 1985, and Robbins, already rich and famous at the age of 25, was a star speaker at SuperCamp, an elite summer camp in Southern California on a campus with bubbling fountains and a grand Mediterranean-style villa. But what was about to happen would shatter the peace of the tranquil setting — and scar the memories of dozens of campers for decades.
The teens set off through the trees to the site of their next activity. Steffanie Scott, then 15, remembered jogging outside with a small group when she glimpsed something that brought her to an abrupt stop. She recalled seeing Robbins towering over the slight figure of a female camper, pinning her arms back as he kissed her forcefully. “He was going for her, his whole body was pressed up against her,” Scott recalled. “I wouldn’t want to be pinned,” she said. “Not like that.”
Nearby in the woods, close enough to see Robbins kissing a camper with his arms wrapped around her, stood 16-year-old Eva Bush. Her first impulse was jealousy; then it hit her that Robbins was a grown man, and her feelings turned to anger. That camper, she thought, was “definitely too young,” and the self-help guru was in a position of power. You’re taking fucking advantage, she thought at the time.
Under the trees with Robbins was Elle, a studious teenager who, along with the other campers, had been sent to SuperCamp by her parents to boost her grades, build self-confidence, and gain new life skills. To protect her identity, BuzzFeed News is not revealing her full name or exact age, but she was under 18 — legally a minor in California — at the time of the events described.
At the end of the last session, the guru had asked her to accompany him on a walk through the trees; they pressed on until they reached a clearing. There, she recalled in a 2,400-word account provided through her lawyers, he forced himself upon her — kissing her and groping her breasts in a prolonged sexual assault.
Nine other former campers and staffers said they were told directly about an inappropriate incident either by the alleged victim or by Robbins himself. Another former camper, Jennifer Munn, provided BuzzFeed News with a diary entry dated August 25, 1985, in which she wrote that Robbins had “basically started to molest” a girl. “It is a completely perverted thing to do,” she wrote. More than 30 others present at the camp that summer recalled hearing secondhand at the time that Robbins had made sexual advances toward a teenage camper. “Everyone knew about it,” former camper Kraig Nicolls told BuzzFeed News. “And everyone was freaking out.”
“No sexual assault happened. Period,” Robbins’ lawyers said.
Robbins adamantly denied kissing or groping the camper. His lawyers acknowledged a “situation” at the camp but said it was a “non-issue,” which was “addressed with the camp attendees, the young woman, and her parents, and no one suggested that there was a sexual assault.”
The lawyers added: “No sexual assault happened. Period.”
California law defines nonconsensual sexual touching as sexual assault.
Two former counselors, both adults at the time, said they had spoken to the distraught girl and reported her claims that Robbins had forcefully kissed and touched her to the camp. The allegations reached cofounders Bobbi DePorter and Eric Jensen, and one of the counselors, Tamara Drean, said that she had told DePorter that the camp had to report the incident to the police.
Elle said that the camp subjected her to a “perverse kangaroo court” in which they sided with Robbins and told her he had simply been trying to hug her.
DePorter and Jensen confirmed that they had received a report of an "inappropriate" incident with a camper, and had held an informal mediation between Robbins and the alleged victim — but DePorter said she could not recall whether she had notified the police. (A spokesperson for the local sheriff’s department told BuzzFeed News they were unable to search for historic records without a case number.) DePorter said through her lawyer that she and the camp’s staff had “acted appropriately upon notification of the incident.” Jensen also defended the camp’s handling of the situation.
Robbins left the camp afterward and never returned. He went on to become the world’s most famous self-help superstar, building a multibillion-dollar business and working with celebrities including Oprah, Serena Williams, the Kardashians, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton.
SuperCamp, which now counts more than 80,000 graduates, has operated across 21 countries and describes itself as “the #1 camp in the world for empowering students to achieve their full potential in school and in life.” DePorter, 75, still runs the camp and has received humanitarian awards for her work and appeared on panels with the rich and powerful, from Richard Branson to presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson.
The episode in 1985 has never been made public — until now.
Earlier this year, BuzzFeed News published a series of investigations revealing how multiple former staffers and fans have accused Robbins of sexual misconduct over three decades. Ten women have said Robbins groped them, exposed himself, or sexually harassed them while they were at his seminars or working for him, and nine of them said they were upset by his actions. Other records showed that he had berated victims of rape and domestic violence. He has denied every allegation and accused BuzzFeed News of “flat-out lying.”
Afterward, former SuperCampers reached out to BuzzFeed News about the 1985 incident. Reporters then contacted other former campers and staffers — dozens of whom independently recalled hearing about it. Many also remembered a heavily sexualized seminar delivered by Robbins to campers as young as 13. Several said they had been waiting years for a reporter to contact them. This is the first time Robbins has been accused of assaulting a minor — and it is also the first allegation of sexual misconduct by the guru that could be corroborated by eyewitnesses.
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Robbins’ lawyers called the new allegations “absurd” and said that they are based on "faulty" and “faded” memories. “This new article is little more than a continuation of your predetermined malicious personal agenda to ‘take down’ Mr. Robbins,” they added. “It is evident that you have attempted to influence and manipulate the memories of persons concerning an alleged incident from nearly 35 years ago.”
The lawyers demanded BuzzFeed News “terminate any further investigation of Mr. Robbins” and threatened to sue for “significant damages,” including in the United Kingdom or Ireland, where “the defamation law will be much more favorable."
Allegations of historical sexual abuse are notoriously difficult to substantiate — they often concern events that occurred in private, without onlookers, and come to light only after any evidence has been lost to time. Three decades after the incident at SuperCamp, memories diverged over some of the details. Bush could not recall where on the campus she saw Robbins kissing a camper, for example, while Scott remembered seeing him pinning a teenager up against a wall, in daylight, instead of the clearing after sunset that Elle described. But the key points were corroborated by multiple sources and documentary evidence: that Robbins made a sexual advance toward a female camper; the girl was extremely upset afterward; Robbins and the girl gave their accounts of what happened to camp leaders; and the self-help guru never returned to the camp.
Many said that even in 1985, decades before the #MeToo movement, it was clear to them that it was wrong for Robbins to make such an advance, given not just his age but his outsize influence. Robbins was “a power figure that could get pretty much anyone to do whatever he wanted, at any time,” said Drean, who remembered comforting the camper after the alleged assault. "That's the most egregious power differential I've ever seen."
In the process of speaking with more than 100 people who attended or worked at the camp, BuzzFeed News identified the alleged victim. She declined to be interviewed, but through her lawyers from the firm Baer Treger LLP sent a statement detailing her account. The alleged assault and SuperCamp’s response, she said, had left her feeling “threatened in a manner that has traumatized me for decades.”
In 1985, Tony Robbins’ fame was skyrocketing. His seminars and firewalks were drawing large crowds around the world, he was earning more than $1 million a year, and he had recently published his first book. Robbins had just moved his fiancé and her family into a castle in San Diego with 16 rooms and ocean views.
There, he shared a zip code with SuperCamp’s cofounders, who also had ambitious plans for an already flourishing enterprise teaching lofty life improvement ideals.
DePorter and Jensen believed that a progressive summer camp could help children become better learners through skills not taught at school.
Campers practiced speed-reading, learned a note-taking style called “mind-mapping,” and tackled ropes courses. “You feel like you can conquer all your problems,” one 14-year-old camper told the Los Angeles Times. His ambition, the paper said, was to “go to Yale and be a Donald Trump.”
SuperCamp had been around for three years and was open to “teens of all skills and abilities” between eighth and twelfth grade. It charged $1,275 for a 12-day program, attracting mostly affluent families from California and Hawaii — many students came from Barack Obama’s former school, Punahou.
In August 1985, SuperCamp was held at Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts school in the wealthy enclave of Montecito, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, where the air is scented with eucalyptus and roses. Westmont sits on top of a winding canyon road flanked by oak trees and bougainvillea, not far from multimillion-dollar estates owned by Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres.
That year, campers did their speed-reading course on Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. They swung back and forth on ropes between tall trees, and met in small groups where they were encouraged to share experiences of emotional trauma with the goal of pushing past their fears.
SuperCamp was designed to “build trust and confidence,” former camper David Curry told BuzzFeed News. “You’re taking these vulnerable young people and you are teaching them to take chances.”
That’s where Tony Robbins came in. He had previously attended DePorter’s business program for entrepreneurs, “Money & You.” Jensen also knew him in a “professional context,” he told BuzzFeed News.
“I remember we were told it was a big deal he was there,” former camper Peter Hiskes said. Campers were told the seminar would explain how to get what they wanted from life.
On that August morning, dozens of campers filed into a sunlit hall. “Eye of the Tiger” blasted from the speakers, and Robbins strode onstage.
Right away, many of the kids started giggling. Robbins was wearing shorts so tight some campers thought they could see his genitals, five of them recalled. Then there was what he was saying. Seven former campers and counselors independently remembered Robbins delivering an inappropriate, highly sexualized presentation.
Steffanie Scott said Robbins had talked about helping middle-aged couples regain their sex lives. “He was making gestures about getting a hard-on again,” she said. Curry and Tamara Drean, the camp counselor, both remembered Robbins offering an example from his own life where he successfully used “neuro-linguistic programming” techniques to target an attractive woman at a crowded restaurant.
NLP is a philosophy modeled on hypnosis that supposedly teaches people how to influence others. Robbins taught the campers how to “mirror” an unsuspecting person by imitating their movements to subconsciously gain their trust, former campers said — and he told them they could use these tools for romance. Even a geeky boy could gain a girl’s interest this way, some recalled him saying.
Some of the teens in the audience were thrilled at the idea. “I had a vivid memory of that because I was excited about using that to pick up girls,” said former camper Mike Bedig. Others in the room were concerned. Drean, who was 31 at the time, said she later complained to DePorter that it seemed like Robbins was “teaching young boys to manipulate girls.”
Robbins denied delivering a sexualized seminar. “There were numerous adults present who most certainly would not have permitted such a presentation,” his lawyers said.
Soon it was time for audience participation, a common feature of Robbins’ events to this day. Two former campers independently told BuzzFeed News that Robbins had invited a teenager onstage and asked if she was attracted to him. When she said “no,” the crowd laughed.
Then Robbins asked her to picture a guy she was attracted to. He told her to think of the guy, close her eyes, then open them again, and look back at him. After Robbins repeated the exercise several times, the girl appeared to go into a hypnotic trance. Robbins asked her whether her feelings had changed.
The girl bashfully said yes. The audience oohed.
"Tony took a girl and made her fall in love with him by asking her to think of an old boyfriend that she really loved,” former camper Jennifer Munn had written in her diary. “He asked her questions about him and pointed to himself. She almost drooled over him and she seemed to be very upset.”
Robbins then snapped the girl back to reality by transferring “her feelings of lust for Tony” into platonic feelings for a relative, Munn had written. David Curry also remembered Robbins asking the girl to think of that relative and announcing afterward that she had been “deprogrammed.”
The girl onstage was Elle, she said in her statement. She had no memory of what she said during the presentation, “except that I remember hearing laughter from other campers” after Robbins snapped her out of her trance, she said.
But she did remember that Robbins singled her out her during the daylong seminar, making sexual jokes around her and telling her that he found her fascinating.
As he stood behind her during a spelling contest, she recalled, he pressed himself against her back, causing her to become so flustered that she misspelled the word “Albuquerque.” Several former campers recalled Robbins paying extra attention to one of the teenage girls during his demonstration.
After dinner, Robbins singled her out yet again to ask how she felt when she orgasmed, Elle said. Other campers started laughing and booing, she remembered.
He smoothly switched topics, she said, and explained that he’d soon teach them how to karate-chop through boards with their bare hands. Then he took the girl aside and said he would apologize to her while the other kids went for a quick jog — campers remembered the run lasting anywhere from five to twenty minutes. Elle felt she had to accept Robbins’ hand and leave the hall, she said.
The two of them stepped outside into the balmy air. At first, there was a group of other campers nearby — which was a relief, she said, because she didn’t feel safe alone with Robbins. But he said he knew another, faster trail with fewer people, she said. That’s when he grabbed her by the shoulders.
Elle said Robbins pushed her away from the crowd until they reached a clearing, where he forced himself upon her. Robbins only stopped when he “got frustrated and realized that too much time had passed,” she said. “Next he tried to manipulate me into believing I had initiated it before taking off at a fast run through the trees and brush toward the gym.”
Suddenly, Elle recalled, she was all alone. She didn’t think anyone had witnessed her ordeal.
“She was helpless,” Steffanie Scott told BuzzFeed News, remembering nearly 35 years later what she had seen. “It was very forceful. His body was so close to hers she could not move.”
Eva Bush said the shock of what she had witnessed has stayed with her through all the decades since: “It was the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen.”
Robbins’ lawyers said that there was no way he would have sexually assaulted somebody within view of so many people: “The entire notion that Mr. Robbins would engage in the alleged conduct in public at an event attended by dozens of persons and while numerous camp participants were present or nearby in the vicinity, is ridiculous and lacks any factual basis or credibility.”
This is not the first time Robbins has been accused of groping women in public. Sophiah Koikas told BuzzFeed News in May that Robbins had pulled her hand onto his crotch to feel his penis and groped her breast at a Hawaii seminar. Another woman, Mary Lantz, said that Robbins had sexually harassed her at an event she attended in Ohio — telling her she was “driving him crazy,” kissing her, hugging her, and touching her breast.
Robbins dismissed those allegations in a YouTube video in which he accused BuzzFeed News of "flat-out lying." But he added that he was a "better human being than I was in my twenties and thirties" and apologized for any offense caused by his actions at that time.
When the other campers arrived at the gym, Robbins was nowhere to be found. “We come back inside and Tony’s gone,” camper Rashi Jackman remembered. “Someone just announced that whatever Tony is doing, it’s over.”
Behind the scenes, SuperCamp counselors — some of them no older than 17 themselves — were already scrambling to get a handle on the situation.
Elle had returned in a state of distress and confided in a male counselor, she said in her statement, while a second SuperCamper stood nearby. The male counselor told BuzzFeed News he had spoken to Elle immediately after the incident, and that she had told him that Robbins had kissed her, put his hands underneath her sweatshirt, and groped her. “She was very distraught,” he said, on condition of anonymity to protect Elle’s privacy.
"What came next," Elle said in her statement, "was nearly as bad if not worse" than the alleged assault.
Another counselor, Amy Zaborek, told BuzzFeed News that she remembered a girl running into the building “all upset.” Zaborek recalled her saying that Robbins had “grabbed her and pulled her into the bushes and fondled her.” Three campers — Brett West, Ian Mackinnon, and Erica DeGroot — also remembered the teenager telling them what had happened to her shortly after the incident. Drean, the former counselor, told BuzzFeed News, “I believe she told me he touched her breasts and tried to kiss her.”
SuperCamp owners DePorter and Jensen were soon told about the incident. “What came next,” Elle recalled in her statement, “was nearly as bad if not worse” than the alleged assault.
Elle was led to the side of the gym where, to her terror, Robbins was present, she said. DePorter began to interview her, she said, but she didn’t remember “much” of that conversation, as she was “too busy keeping my eye on Tony who was watching me from across the gym.”
But she did remember describing the alleged assault to DePorter, who suggested “that I just misunderstood his intentions.”
DePorter told her she needed to get Robbins’ side of the story, Elle said, and then the camp’s cofounders peeled away to huddle with him privately while she looked on. Jensen then returned and told her that she was “confused,” she said, and that “Tony wanted to apologize” for a “misinterpreted hug.”
Robbins came over to join them, she said, and Elle felt surrounded by “big, grown men with an agenda to coerce my silence one way or another.” She began to panic.
Campers Deborah DeGroot and her older sister Erica, Elle’s roommate, said they recalled the commotion well. Elle was “crying and upset” when they returned to the building, Deborah said, and Erica tried to console her. Next Elle and Erica spoke to a camp counselor together at the back of the gym, the sisters remembered. “I remember her being super upset when we came back round, and then after that she was whisked away,” Erica said.
DePorter first told BuzzFeed News that what happened “wasn’t a big drama,” as it had been “just a hug” during a run that had only lasted “10 minutes.” Pressed further, she said she wasn’t sure exactly what had happened between Robbins and Elle, but said in a later interview that the camp had taken the incident “very seriously” and that she had personally contacted the girl’s parents to tell them what had happened. In a letter through her lawyer, DePorter changed her statement again and insisted the incident centered on hugging that “was considered inappropriate.” She added that she had spoken again to Elle’s parents weeks later, and that the parents “considered it resolved,” so she took “no further action.”
DePorter also said she was “impressed” by Robbins’ response during the mediation. “Tony said he would do whatever it took to make her feel comfortable,” she said. Her lawyer added that student safety “is and always has been” her company’s “first priority.”
Jensen only heard about the allegations “secondhand,” he told BuzzFeed News. “All I heard was that there was hugging going on that seemed inappropriate, and I can tell you for some kids it can be off-putting,” he added. “I never heard anything that got me to say ‘yikes.’”
“This continuously unfolding print drama is a never-ending unfurling of lies, hearsay and, second-hand recollections of 35 YEARS ago.”
Jensen denied taking part in the informal mediation. “This continuously unfolding print drama is a never-ending unfurling of lies, hearsay and, second-hand recollections of 35 YEARS ago,” he told BuzzFeed News in an email. Jensen cited multiple academic studies on the unreliability of old memories — including research on how people remembered 9/11. But he did say it was his role to make sure all sides were questioned and to “listen to the people who were accused and the accusers.” He added, “We let it all play it out, and we didn't hear anything afterwards, so that was that.” Jensen said he is no longer associated with SuperCamp.
Robbins’ lawyers said that SuperCamp’s “owners and operators,” who were “present and recall the event,” had informed them that “they distinctly recall the alleged incident, and that it did not involve or include any sexual assault by Mr. Robbins.” Jensen and DePorter both declined to respond to questions about whether they had been in communication with Robbins’ lawyers about this story.
The morning after the incident, Elle sat frozen in silence as SuperCamp staffers announced to the campers that Robbins had made unwanted sexual advances toward an unnamed peer, she recalled in her statement. They told them he would never return to the camp and asked whether anyone else had experienced the same behavior, she said.
DePorter said that she didn’t remember such an announcement or whether she ordered Robbins to leave early, although she added that he did not have further contact with any minors after the incident. But 13 former SuperCampers independently recalled he was asked to leave early, and seven former campers remembered a similar announcement.
“They didn’t go into great detail,” said camper Bridget Forrest, “but they said it was taken care of; he’s never coming back to SuperCamp.”
Former camper Jennifer Munn didn’t speak to the girl directly, but provided BuzzFeed News with a diary entry dated August 25, 1985.
“Well, Tony Robbins won't ever come back to SuperCamp again,” she wrote. After describing the presentation, Munn wrote that Robbins had taken a girl on a “short cut” where “he promptly began kissing her and basically started to molest her.”
“It really irks me that he exploited his power like that,” she wrote.
Robbins never taught at SuperCamp again. One former SuperCamp counselor who worked alongside him told BuzzFeed News that the self-help guru had confided in him shortly afterward and acknowledged that he had done something that wasn’t right.
“He simply said to me and another staff person, ‘Yeah, it happened, and when it happened I immediately knew it was wrong,’” the counselor said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of professional repercussions.
Robbins did not respond to a question about the counselor’s allegation.
The year after SuperCamp, Robbins’ second book, Unlimited Power, became a bestseller. By 1991, an estimated 100 million people had seen his infomercials. That year, Robbins launched the charitable arm of his business aimed at helping “youth, seniors, the hungry, homeless, and the imprisoned population.” He would go on to set up a youth program, a “leadership” event for 14- to 16-year-olds, which still runs today.
This summer, after BuzzFeed News published its series of stories regarding sexual misconduct claims against Robbins, former SuperCampers reached out to ask reporters to look into rumors that Robbins had “sexual interactions with one of the campers” in August 1985. Two others tweeted and wrote Facebook posts about the alleged incident before speaking with any BuzzFeed News reporters.
“It’s been part of our history,” she said. “We didn’t forget what happened.”
Using a SuperCamp alumni list, BuzzFeed News then contacted hundreds of campers who were there that summer. Through that process, reporters connected with a relative of Elle’s who said she had had a bad experience with Robbins. After reporters contacted Elle directly, she provided her account of the incident through her attorneys.
To this day, Elle continues to grapple with what she went through that August, she said in her statement.
Other SuperCampers do too.
“It's been part of our history,” Amy Zaborek said. “We didn't forget what happened.”
It’s been decades since Tamara Drean said she comforted a terrified camper on a wooded Montecito hillside. When a BuzzFeed News reporter contacted Drean, she said she knew what the call concerned — before Robbins’ name was even mentioned.
“I’m so glad that’s what you’re getting in touch about,” she said. “Because it was a really big deal and it was minimized.”
She said the girl had called her a few times after that summer. Once, the girl had reached out in a panic after bumping into Robbins at a fancy hotel in Southern California, she recalled her saying. The girl described how she had opened glass doors and walked into a room where she came face-to-face with the increasingly famous and powerful guru. The girl hadn’t called Drean to ask her to do anything, Drean said — she just seemed like she didn’t know who else to turn to.
“She all of a sudden got shaky and basically fell apart,” Drean said. “It immediately traumatized her, just seeing him again.” ●
Opening images: Lynn Goldsmith (Robbins); courtesy of Polly Cosson (SuperCamp).