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Rachel And Dave Hollis Built An Empire From Scratch. Now They Are Destroying It.

Recent controversies have threatened the careers of this now-divorced influencer couple.

Posted on November 5, 2021, at 10:31 a.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images (2)

On Saturday, lifestyle guru Dave Hollis spent more than two hours on Instagram Live promoting his new book. It didn’t go well.

Appearing from what he called his "patio of peace" at home, Dave said he had gotten up at the crack of dawn to ask his more than 400,000 Instagram followers to buy Built Through Courage: Face Your Fears to Live the Life You Were Meant For, which came out on Oct. 26.

Instead of providing a convincing argument, his Live devolved into a bizarre, rambling, and at times incoherent rant in which he demanded his followers spend “18 stinking dollars” on his book or unfollow him.

“I would prefer to lose all of the people who are not interested in buying the thing that I have dedicated the last 18 months of my life to … than allow you to show up and breach our contract,” he said.

During the next two hours, he spoke in the third person, told followers he would autograph the socks he was wearing and send them to a follower who bought the book (“for finally making a good choice”), and declared his book would change the life of anyone who reads it. When a commenter said they had “no job” and no money to buy the book, Dave responded, “This $18 would be the fastest route to you getting paid.” When his 4-year-old daughter, Noah, repeatedly asked him to make her breakfast and for extra gummy vitamins, he sarcastically told her to “get a life” and told her to “take it down a notch.”

At one point he yelled, “I bled into this!”

The rant, which quickly went viral, is a far cry from the amiable and positive persona he has spent his career cultivating. He and his ex-wife, Rachel Hollis, rose to fame espousing the importance of hard work, humility, and family.

Rachel was the true star of the show. After spending years as a blogger and interior designer, she turned a 2015 bout of viral fame into two smash-hit self-help books (her first, Girl, Wash Your Face, spent 85 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list), multiple sold-out tours, speaking engagements, and spots on shows like Good Morning America and the Today show.

Dave, who once served as president of global theatrical distribution at Disney, successfully built on his wife’s fame, writing his own self-help book (2020’s Get Out of Your Own Way: A Skeptic's Guide to Growth). He also hosted a successful podcast (Rise Together) and couples conferences with his wife. In 2019, the New York Times reported that the couple’s company, the Hollis Co., was a multimillion-dollar venture.

Now, though, the Hollises are cratering. After finding sizable fame preaching that the only thing holding people back were their own shortcomings, they may be becoming undone by their own failings. Their marriage has ended, they have endured scandal after scandal, and the runaway success they once enjoyed seems to be declining significantly.

“You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are,” Rachel writes in the opening chapter of Girl, Wash Your Face. “That’s the takeaway.”

In some ways, this mantra still rings true for the Hollises. Rachel and Dave’s fall from grace is a mess of their own making.

Since the beginning of their rise, the Hollises sold a powerful yet simple message. They were an average couple who had learned from their mistakes, and had chosen, altruistically, to share their lessons with the masses. They weren’t educated counselors or scholars; they were a mom and dad who had taken the circumstances life gave them and turned them into something incredible.

In 2015, Rachel had a lifestyle blog called the Chic Site. She made headlines around the internet with a viral Facebook post. In it, she implored fellow moms to flaunt their “permanently flabby” postpartum stomachs in bikinis — and to do so with pride.

“These aren’t scars ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them,” she wrote on the post, which received more than 400,000 likes.

This message is emblematic of the persona Rachel would go on to embody in Girl, Wash Your Face. She told her readers she was a busy working mom just like them, but she had unlocked the secrets to true fulfillment and happiness. In the book, she walks her readers through a series of “lies” she had told herself for years, which ultimately hampered her growth and success. She was like an older and wiser big sister, humbly guiding her readers through her mistakes so they wouldn’t make the same ones. She wasn’t perfect, but she was real.

“It’s a lifelong journey, but I rest in the knowledge that every day I’m learning and growing, which lets me feel at peace with myself,” she writes in the book.

The message caught on at a frenetic pace. The success of Girl, Wash Your Face led to Rachel, and eventually Dave, making “encouragement her full-time job,” as the New York Times wrote in 2019. Although Rachel hosted the first Rise Weekend conference for followers of the Chic Site in Austin in June 2017, her fanbase and the conferences exploded after the book’s publication in February 2018.

The conferences, which cost anywhere from $25 to $1,800 according to an event page online, were designed to inspire women by preaching the same ethos she expressed in her book. A website for its national tour describes the conference as “a cultivated space where women from every walk of life can come together to be inspired, supported and enveloped in a community. … RISE weekend will be the perfect balance of loving encouragement and straight-up kicking your butt!” To her followers, Rachel was the ultimate example of a self-made girl boss, someone to emulate because she was relatable. If she could do it, so could you.

The criticisms that soon poured in about the limited applicability and hidden biases in Hollis’s work, including in BuzzFeed News, did little to quell her popularity. Internet claims of plagiarism also failed to make a real impact (her team never responded to the claims in this story), and Rachel blamed another drama, in which she apparently attributed a Maya Angelou quote to herself, on a staffer. Dave left Disney and the couple moved from California to Austin to work on the Hollis Co. full time, hiring dozens of employees.

Soon, Rachel’s Instagram page topped 1.6 million followers, and she began to offer advice in other areas of life. With Dave, she launched a podcast, Rise Together, where they discussed their lives, marriage, and the everyday problems they faced. In 2018, they hosted a couples conference, also called Rise Together. Tickets for the entire weekend cost $1,795.

“RISE Together is an event for couples in a romantic relationship who want to: grow together, work through a rough season, rekindle the romance, have a weekend away to reconnect or learn some tangible advice for improving their relationship,” the promo copy read.

In a promotional video, the couple admit they had no formal training in counseling couples. But that was the point. Fans sought out Rachel and Dave precisely because they were not professionals. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have degrees or qualifications — all they needed was to be living proof that they had a successful union themselves. Since they showed snippets of their happy marriage all the time on social media, they were totally #marriagegoals.

“We decided years ago that we didn’t want to have a good marriage. We didn’t even want to have a great marriage. We wanted to have an exceptional marriage,” Rachel says in the video. Who could argue with that?

It’s ironic, though, that while the Hollises were publicly depicting their marriage as a healthy one, they were apparently under marital duress. In June 2020, the couple announced in an Instagram post that they were divorcing. This sent shock waves through their community precisely because of how the couple had chosen to make their marriage part of their personal brand. In her announcement, Rachel asked for grace from her followers, saying she hoped they “can allow [the two of them] a human moment” of failure.

For the fans, though, it wasn’t about the failure of a broken marriage, it was the apparent hypocrisy. How could the Hollises have a great, enviable relationship one minute and then divorce the next? Did something calamitous happen? Or, even more sinister, had the Hollises not been truthful all along about their relationship?

For influencers in general, being genuine with your followers is paramount. It doesn’t matter if someone is a good or bad person, vapid or serious — but if followers think the influencer is lying about who they truly are, they can turn quickly.

For Rachel, this was even more important. She had not just launched an Instagram account based on her lifestyle; she had made a career out of telling her followers she held the keys to their personal, professional, and marital success. For her fans, like blogger Kalissa Friedman, the realization that the Hollises were selling her something they weren’t practicing themselves was gut-wrenching.“They told me I wasn’t trying hard enough,” she wrote of the Hollises in June 2020 after their divorce announcement. “They told me to work harder at it and they weren’t.”

The announcement of Rachel’s divorce appeared to have an effect. Her September 2020 book, Didn’t See That Coming, which promised to teach others how to overcome hardship, like the one she had just announced, failed to match the success of her previous ones, spending a mere six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Dave and Rachel were also forced to messily untangle their shared business ventures. According to LinkedIn, Dave left the Hollis Co. in December 2019 to be an author and motivational speaker full time, while Rachel launched The Rachel Hollis Podcast and continued on with her Rise brand.

But then this spring, Rachel faced her biggest scandal yet.

At the end of March, she posted a now-deleted rant on TikTok. She had apparently taken umbrage with a commenter calling her “unrelatable” for mentioning that a woman cleans her toilets twice a week.

“What is it about me that made you think I want to be relatable?” Hollis said in the video. “No, sis, literally everything I do in my life is to live a life that most people can’t relate to. … If my life is relatable to most people, I’m doing it wrong.”

She then proceeded to list the women in history who she admires but thinks are also “unrelatable.”

“Harriet Tubman, RBG, Marie Curie, Oprah Winfrey, Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai, Wu Zetian...all unrelatable AF,” she said.

Rachel’s apparent hubris, sense of entitlement, and delusions of grandeur were galling. Commenters wondered if she was attempting to imply that she was just as “unrelatable” as the women she listed, or if she thought of herself as just as influential. “Malala was SHOT on the bus by Taliban for going to school. What does this have to do with your little relatability fight on the internet? This is appalling to me,” one person wrote.

#Toiletgate spread like wildfire through the internet, with many bloggers and vloggers railing against Hollis as an out-of-touch phony who capitalized on a cheap message of empowerment while being spoiled and rude behind the scenes. Some said they thought this new scandal revealed the true darkness hidden in her message all along.

“The issue I have with many celebrated white wellness spaces and women’s empowerment influencer or brands is that they oddly seem to equate ‘success’ to getting what white men have and wielding that power in the exact same oppressive inhumane way that white men have been doing for generations,” influencer and activist Rachel Cargle wrote of the incident.

Rachel Hollis apologized in an Instagram post a few days later on April 5, saying she was “deeply sorry” for diminishing the “struggles and hard work” of “many people” and for mentioning “women of color whose struggles and achievements [she] can’t possibly understand.”

However, the damage was done. In that one short video, she revealed a side of herself that fans found hard to reconcile with the image of the loving, positive, and encouraging older sister she insists she is. “I have a feeling you’ve showed your true colours,” one commenter wrote on the apology post.

Couple that controversy with Dave’s recent rant, and the once-mighty Hollis empire might have fallen for good.

It’s unclear how successful either Hollis will be from here. After #toiletgate, Rachel has only posted sporadically on her Instagram account, saying she was “moving slowly” in order to “learn what [she’s] meant to be learning.” (She took a short break from her podcast but resumed on April 23, and new episodes come out as frequently as twice a week.) She began to post more regularly again in early September after the first Rise conference in 18 months, which was held in Austin.

We will see how Rachel’s businesses will continue, or if they will change from their current form. While she certainly still has supporters who will read her books, attend Rise, and gas her up on Instagram, her books are no longer runaway hits, and it seems these days she has more haters than fans on places like Reddit and in her own comment sections.

“You've gaslit for too long, Rachel. You can only keep up the game for so long,” reads one comment on a recent Instagram photo from the Rise conference.

Dave will also likely struggle to convince his followers that his Instagram rant was a momentary blip, not a revelation of his real persona. In a post on Tuesday, he apologized for the video, blamed it on his own fear of failure, and promised to do better.

“I’m not sure I deserve your presence, but know I’ll continue to work to show that unrecognizably scared, exhausted, foot-in-mouth version Saturday is viewed as an exception & sign of my humanness, not by these words but by my actions in the future,” he wrote.

But his apology may ring hollow. The personas the Hollises created for themselves only worked as long as they kept up their appearances, which over the past year have slowly unraveled through their own behavior and decisions.

As Rachel would say, they have no one to blame but themselves. Still, failing and getting back up again is part of their personal brand.

“I’ll keep showing up even when I’m stumbling and getting it wrong…” Rachel wrote in a recent Instagram post, “that forward momentum is the only way I can learn and do better.” ●


A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.