The Relentless Girl Power of Rachel Hollis

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The Relentless Girl Power of Rachel Hollis

“Don’t make me cry in front of you right now,” a woman says into the microphone, her voice breaking as she begins to tear up. She’s standing several rows back from the main stage at Toronto’s Meridian Hall surrounded by 3,000 women who cradle identical pastel pink notebooks, pens hovering above an open page, ready to take notes. The near-silence of the theater is punctuated by thousands of sniffles as the women pull Kleenex from their pockets, purses, and diaper bags like magicians wrenching a never-ending rope of scarves from a top hat. They will repeat this ritual many times over the next few days.

From the stage, Rachel Hollis has opened the floor up for audience members who are desperately seeking transformative changes this weekend, specifically for women who feel that they are “not enough.” Gripping the microphone, the audience member tells Hollis she’s a mother of two, with a successful marriage and a job “she rocks at.” A camera is trained on her at ground level and the live feed plays on the stage, large enough for the audience to watch, but at this moment the thousands of spectators might as well not exist. A calming ambient track starts to ebb softly over the speaker, one that will return to heighten dramatic moments like this one, moments when Hollis is locked in conversation with one chosen woman from the audience. The audience member admits she is not “dependable to herself.” “I don’t follow through on anything,” she says, describing a side project making soaps that she starts but never finishes. Hollis listens intently and then explains to her that if she wanted this job making soaps badly enough, she’d still be doing it.

I’ve come to Toronto along with thousands of women from across Canada and the United States specifically to see author Hollis speak at her RISE conference, a three-day event in early March for “goal chasers, dreamers and hardworking hustlers ready to reach for more.” The seats are filled with aspiring entrepreneurs, small business owners, college students, and stay-at-home moms. The women of RISE are energized. They have businesses they want to start, parenting to perfect, and marriages to work on—and they need Hollis to guide them.

At 37, dressed in a buttery blue suede leather jacket with pretty, uniform beach waves, Hollis doesn’t seem like a woman who has built a small empire as a motivational speaker, author, and life coach. But her nebulous messages of self-love and accountability have reached millions of women across the country. Her books, Girl, Wash Your Face and Girl, Stop Apologizing, were both New York Times bestsellers, the former boasting 3 million copies sold on Amazon alone. Hollis has appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and even spoke alongside Oprah on her 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus tour. She hosts a Quibi talk show and two podcasts; one features interviews with entrepreneurs and speakers about facing their fears and the concept of regaining “financial dignity.” The other podcast is with her soon to be ex-husband Dave, a former Disney film distribution chief who is now a motivational speaker and author. (His book, Get Out of Your Own Way, is the Hollis Co. message retooled for men.)

Between books, podcasts, Youtube videos, a Target line, and an Instagram following of 1.8 million, Hollis is ubiquitous. With her picture-perfect success as a backdrop, she sells women the idea that they are uniquely in charge of their fate. What hinders women’s success, Hollis argues, are the lies they tell themselves. In many ways, her message is typical of the self-help genre just repackaged with the accessible aesthetic of hip mom and, as Buzzfeed noted in 2018, hints of American evangelicalism. Hollis’s books are published by a Christian imprint of HarperCollins but are only vaguely religious, favoring messages that preach self-determination rather than finding guidance through God.

For devotees, Hollis’s gospel of self-reliance is appealing. She talks about not making excuses for yourself, how judgment prohibits women from having life-affirming friendships, and embracing the power of mistakes. In her book Girl, Wash Your Face, Hollis confronts fears about motherhood and body image head-on with startlingly simple solutions: take care of yourself, stay away from Pinterest, the calories you consume in a day need to be fewer than the calories you burn off in a day to lose weight. For the women at RISE, her advice isn’t cliché, it’s a revelation worth the $650 they’ve paid for the three-day conference.

Billed as a “personal growth journey,” RISE attendees spend days hunkered down in a theater listening to Hollis and a handful of other speakers share advice and wisdom on self-improvement. “This isn’t a replacement for therapy,” Hollis tells the audience, in between jokes about how this experience is like joining a cult. Her joke feels resonant as women reach for questionnaires and complete vision-mapping exercises which help them visualize their life goals. The days, divided into the intimidating themes Own Your Past, Own Your Present, and Own Your Future, are filled with meditations, audience member coaching sessions with Hollis, and partnered exercises that teach attendees how to envision their life for the next decade.

There’s a whiplash effect over the course of the conference; one moment I was doing a mini-workout standing a foot from my seat and the next, I was loudly singing “Fight Song,” in unison with thousands of women. One day, we fill out anonymous checklists that include empty boxes for experiences like “I have been raped,” “I have abused alcohol as a way to cope,” and “I have considered suicide.” Once I fill out my checklist, I fold it three times and pass it to the woman next to me, who passes it to another woman, and so on until I have no idea where my checklist was and whose checklist I have in my hands. Hollis reads through the checklist criteria out loud, asking attendees to stand if a statement on your paper is checked off. According to Hollis, it allows women around the room to witness the commonality of these experiences.

One moment I was doing a mini-workout standing a foot from my seat and the next, I was loudly singing “Fight Song,” in unison with thousands of women.

Talking to fans, some of whom have driven hours or flown internationally just to experience her wisdom, the RISE conference can feel a little bit like therapy. “I think it’s something everyone could benefit from, whether they know it or not,” Chelsey Hale, a 22-year-old nurse from Watertown, New York, says. “Everybody raises their hand or stands up for everything, it’s like if everybody is having these problems. Why haven’t they been openly discussed before now?”

“We acknowledge that we could be better versions of ourselves,” says Shannon Hoover, 39, Hale’s aunt from Philadelphia, New York. “Otherwise, if you didn’t have any change that you felt like you needed to make, then why would you come here?” Hoover says that at the conference she wants to acknowledge her past while “knowing and believing that it doesn’t have to change my present or future in a negative way.”

“I want to think about the positive ways that it has changed me and be thankful because I think that’s held me up from moving on,” she adds.

But if the RISE conferences are a place where “women from every walk of life can come together to be inspired, supported and enveloped in community,” the strength of that community feels fragile. For as powerfully communal as RISE feels in the moment, the foundation of Hollis’s message is highly individualist. Women come to Hollis to re-center lives that have been dominated by the demanding forces of work, motherhood, and marriage. But any consideration of the larger structural forces that brought thousands of women to this one room—or any attempt to harness that collective frustration beyond personal, introspective change—is nonexistent. Self-help books already widely stress self-reliance, but Hollis repackages messages of reinvention typical in the genre with a girl power veneer. Finishing that side project making soap isn’t just about personal fulfillment, it’s for women at large.

“This is a self-fulfilling prophecy if she doesn’t make change,” Hollis says to the audience, as she closes the conversation with the attendee struggling to feel “dependable” to herself. Thousands nod in agreement.

Hollis grew up in Weedpatch, California where her grandparents were cotton-picking Okies, her father was a Pentecostal minister, and her mother a church pianist. She wasn’t allowed to listen to anything except Christian music and was forbidden from becoming a cheerleader. Later she wrote that she “spent a good portion of my adolescence despairing over all of these rules and regulations.”

After graduating high school early in 2000, Hollis moved to Los Angeles at 17 with dreams of becoming an actress. She was, in part, guided by the earnest belief that she would marry Matt Damon. “For my last year living at home and my first year in Los Angeles, this fantasy of Matt as my knight in shining armor kept me going,” Hollis writes in Girl, Wash Your Face. She enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts but left after one year to accept an internship at Miramax, later taking a full-time job as an executive assistant with the company. She spent her time working on press junkets and movie premieres and eventually met her husband Dave.

In 2004, after a stint at a production company under “a horrible boss,” Hollis started the party-planning company Chic Events. “I quit my job on a Friday and started my event-planning company, Chic Events, the following Monday,” she told Austin Woman Magazine in 2018. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to start my own thing and see what I can do.’” She chose the word “chic,” she later wrote on her blog, after she “stumbled across the word ‘Chic’ in an old dictionary.” Her first large event was to celebrate a boy who had just become an Eagle Scout. “It wasn’t a career I chose, it was something I fell into,” Hollis said of party planning on her blog. “I was barely out of high school, a little country mouse who moved to L.A. and found myself far far out of my league.”

In 2008 she started My Chic Life which, at first, was just the blog arm for her events company, where Hollis and staff posted recommendations for spin classes and appetizer ideas. By 2011, My Chic Life wasn’t “presented by Chic Events” but instead “presented by Rachel Hollis.” Over time the site began to document Hollis’s shift from a scrappy event planner to a professional blogger and lifestyle brand purveyor; in 2014 the site, rebranded as The Chic Site, hosted several verticals covering food, home, family, and party, each with their own editors. “I hope our content is aspirational. But, more than anything I strive for our content to be achievable,” Hollis wrote on the site. “I want to show you the pretty things—the perfectly styled room or the gorgeous dress and shiny hair. I also want to show you the truth.”

The Chic Site was populated with fluffy content, and Hollis frequently partnering with brands like Keurig, Pantene, Special K to create sponsored posts. By 2016 the site was earning 600,000 users a month, but in her push to become the next great lifestyle blogger Hollis’s brand was a jumble of pursuits. She was writing fiction, publishing the fictional Party Girl series about a small-town girl trying to find her place in Hollywood, and a cookbook. But there were flashes of Hollis’s future empire as a motivational guru with a vaguely Christian filter. She wrote posts about how God has perfect timing (“please remember that by not being where you thought you should be, you might end up exactly where you’re supposed to go) and the importance of showing up for others (“I think I’ve spent a good majority of my life striving for comfort instead of offering comfort to those who need it most”).

But an Instagram photo Hollis posted in 2015 changed her brand significantly. “They aren’t scars ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them,” she wrote in the caption of a photo of herself in a monogrammed bikini, stretch marks visible on her stomach. “Flaunt that body with pride!” It’s the kind of post that wouldn’t make any noise in 2019, but in the golden era of burgeoning online body positivity and mommy blogging, Hollis’s post struck a nerve. It was covered on The Today Show, NBC News, Us Magazine, and more.

“I’m so grateful that it’s a photo that is on brand because I do post stuff like this all the time and I do speak like this all the time,” she told Today. “If it was a picture of $800 shoes that went viral, we’d be in trouble, because they’re never going to see that again!” After years of cobbling together a lifestyle blog, Frankenstein-ing party planning, and high-low dinner recipes into a modest brand, Hollis finally found her niche: making white, middle-class Christian women across America feel seen.

Screenshot:Instagram/Rachel Hollis

Hollis has said that her company motto is “giving women the tools to change their lives.” But the tools she gives them still exist comfortably within gendered ideas of what power and success look like for women. RISE hits at a wide-swath of insecurities its attendees want to work through. There are aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking for business advice, such as a dental surgeon from Montreal who learns how to scale her business with Hollis and the audience’s help. “She has the women’s perspective on self-development,” says Melissa Dietrich, a 31-year-old real estate agent from Barrie, Ontario. “If you look at people like the Rock and Ed Mylett, not saying they don’t have proper messages, they are sending good messages, but for men in business. It’s nice to see a woman that’s successful.”

And then there are women who want to better themselves physically, a sizable feature of Hollis’s conference, likely due to the fact that her most recent venture is fitness programming, including an app with Hollis-led workouts. During the three days in Toronto, I filled out graphs assessing my alcohol and food intake, and at one point Hollis shared her own nutritionist-approved diet, a joyless combination of counted-out almonds and protein determined by the size of one’s hand. She shares it with the caveat that she doesn’t think it’s necessarily helpful, and yet many women in the audience scribble it down quickly.

“I’ve been doing the same job for 13 years,” says Nicole Churchill, 40, an administrative assistant from Newmarket, Ontario. “I’m good at what I do but it’s not my passion. I’m hoping I find my thing I want to be passionate about before it’s too late. I feel like my life is half over.”

“You don’t realize, all the traumas that I’ve suffered… people don’t talk about it because you think people are going to judge you,” Churchill says. “[People will say] you’ve been through this, we can’t trust you, you’re not mentally stable enough because you’ve had such a hard life. But to see so many people stand up for all these things that everyone was struggling with… it means a lot to know I’m not the only one feeling the same way.”

RISE is designed to be cathartic, but here in the audience, sitting among thousands of women eager to hear such a simple message, it felt almost manipulative.

There are nuggets of fortune-cookie ready slogans delivered by the conference’s other speakers, all of which echo Hollis’s message that it’s up to women and women alone to better their lives individually. Speaker Brit Barron asks the audience, “is my life what I want it to be, or is it a reaction to people I don’t want to upset?” Another speaker, Stacey Flowers, tells a story about being a server at a steakhouse and witnessing women order steak but accept incorrect chicken orders so as not to make a fuss. “Women don’t want to wait for steak, so they accept chicken marriages, chicken jobs,” she says. But the biggest tool Hollis seems to offer is simply space to feel things that her devoted fans don’t think they’re allowed to feel.

Like Hollis’s message, RISE is designed to be cathartic, but here in the audience, sitting among thousands of women eager to hear such a simple message, it felt almost manipulative. The first day is the most emotional, as Hollis guides guests to confront their pasts. Hollis speaks about being “herself in the dark,” waking up early in the morning to focus on her writing so she wouldn’t bother anyone at home. She instructs women to tell themselves they “are love,” that they should possess so much self-love they won’t seek it from anyone else.

But nothing happens with the intense release of watching thousands of women stand up in a room to highlight shared connections over addiction and abuse after day one. Instead, over the next two days, women are guided through workbook sheets about emotional eating and little dance routines they can do during the day, as well as the books and life-coaching sessions out in the theater’s hall for sale. At RISE, women are connected by their shared trauma and hardships in a visceral way. But they are then simply instructed to want things enough and to dream bigger in order to change their lives.

Small dreams like drinking enough water each day and big dreams like starting a small business are equally important and achievable in Hollis’s world, a testament to the accessibility of her style as a self-help author. The self-help genre as consumed by women, once dominated by Oprah Winfrey-approved pop psychology books like The Secret or optimistic dating and weight loss bibles, is experiencing a tonal shift. For the past several years the self-help industry has been inundated with memoir-driven books about unapologetic female ambition. 2013’s Lean In gave way to books like Sofia Amoruso’s Girlboss, The Confidence Code, and Arianna Huffington’s Thrive. But recent self-help books for women have taken those messages about ditching “likeability” and given them a saucier makeover: Jen Sincero promises to makeover readers into “badasses” with a focus on making money, Sarah Knight instructs women to “get their shit together,” and Erin Falconer wants you to “get shit done.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election and Women’s March, the publishing industry churned out books like The Gutsy Girl Handbook, The Myth of the Nice Girl, and How Women Rise, each urging women to ask for what they want and never apologize.

Hollis, however, doesn’t want you to “get shit done,” she simply wants you to wash your face. She’s capitalizing on a decade of self-help writing aimed at comfortable white women, but repackaging it for an audience that may not have their sights set on nabbing a CEO title and find the idea of being labeled a “badass” slightly inappropriate. Onstage Hollis sounds less like a stuffy TED speaker and more like a funny, intimate friend, regaling stories about sleep-training her daughter. A small-town girl who built a successful business, a mother of four who advertises at every turn how imperfect and “gross” she can be, Hollis’s girl power is approachable.

“We’re not supposed to want big,” Christian author and speaker Jen Hatmaker says during her talk about her desires versus the “approved” desires of husbands and communities. “Women cede the microphone to less capable people because we’re expected to.” She stresses that one woman’s success chips away at the ceiling for all women: “A rising tide lifts every one of us.” “There are corrupt systems that keep women down,” Barron says during her talk but quickly brushes aside the enormity of those systems. “But what would it look like if you acted like you deserved those things?” she asks instead.

Many of the women at this conference found it difficult to just get away from their lives for even a few days; a woman from Calgary tells me this weekend is her first time sleeping by herself since her 3-year-old was born. There are also discussions of “mom guilt.” Hollis jokes to the audience that it’s finally time for the dads in the room to figure out what to do with the kids. Even the conference acknowledges that whatever changes women will want to enact when they go home, there will likely be resistance, especially from assumed male partners. At one point Hollis’s husband Dave maps out a game plan based on his own experience learning to love Hollis’s ambition. “Rachel is modeling for her kids what it’s like for women to pursue their dreams like men do,” he says. His talk seems designed to showcase the couple’s perfect unity, a model for women in the audience whose husbands may resist their newfound ambition, but in June Rachel announced on her Instagram that the two were getting divorced.

“They’re letting us know that this is going to be hard, when you leave here and go back to your situation,” Debbi Giroux, 61, from Ottawa tells me. “They’re giving us some tools to help us through that and to help the people in our circle through it too. It’s going to be difficult not just for us but for them too. Not necessarily in a negative way, but it’s going to be a change, a change is always challenging.”

There’s a girl-power ethos to RISE, but it’s more of an idea than action. Hollis largely avoids talking about politics. In Girl, Stop Apologizing she lays out what feminism and “the patriarchy” are, but with delicate caveats. “It doesn’t matter whether you believe this is good or bad, natural or misguided—girl, you do you!” she writes. In an interview with The Washington Post, her husband said that his wife is “a respite from having to be pulled into a debate about whose side is right.” It’s a message so vague that it borders on unoriginal. In fact, she’s been called out several times for appropriating or plagiarizing quotes from other sources. In April, for example, she had to apologize for her social media team posting the Maya Angelou quote “Still… I Rise” without proper credit.

That doesn’t seem to matter at the RISE conference, where maxims free of context are valuable currency. They are part of what fuels the sense of mass vulnerability—and shared vulnerability—that suffuses the conference, treated as inherently radical. “If you don’t transform your pain, you transmit it,” Barron says to the crowd. And for many of the women who’ve come to RISE, it can genuinely seem that way, that any discussion of wanting more is like a whispered secret. The personal, the shoulder of childcare and housework, the inability to find financial independence, the shared experiences with violence, could be political. But neither the conference nor Hollis are interested in anything other than acceptance—the only option is to move forward as women who must change themselves.

For as much as Hollis preaches to dream big, the blueprint she provides for those dreams is surprisingly small.

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