When Survivor winner Todd Herzog appeared on Dr. Phil in 2013, he was so intoxicated that he slurred his words and needed help from two people just to make it to his seat. A breathalyzer showed his alcohol level to be a shocking .263, and host Phil McGraw, a trained psychologist known for his brash but often successful TV-ready techniques, said that he had “never talked to a guest who was closer to death.”
Herzog, now sober, has just come forward in a joint investigation published Thursday by the Boston Globe and STAT alleging that part of the reason was in such bad shape that day was because of vodka and Xanax supplied to him by the show. His experience, the investigation claims, is indicative of a troubling behind-the-scenes culture at Dr. Phil, which is said to value ratings and the show’s dramatic storylines over the health and welfare of guests who are struggling with substance abuse.
In addition to Herzog, the article quotes family members of two guests who allege that their relatives were encouraged by show staffers to head to L.A.’s Skid Row, a crime-riddled area known for rampant drug use, in order to buy heroin to prevent withdrawals. One of the women quoted, Joelle King-Parrish, says her daughter Kaitlin, who was pregnant, was filmed by a show staffer during the Skid Row drug run. Neither women were supervised by medical professionals during the often-dangerous and deadly withdrawal period, the story states.
For his part, McGraw declined to be interviewed for the investigation, but Martin Greenberg, a psychologist who works as the show’s director of professional affairs, did go on the record to dispute many of the claims in the story. He told the Globe and STAT that Dr. Phil guests have never been provided alcohol or directed on where to buy drugs.
Late Thursday night, a Dr. Phil spokesperson responded to The Hollywood Reporter’s request for comment about the article, and the rep said that the investigation “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.” He added that guests are not given drugs or alcohol and suggestions to the contrary are “errant nonsense.”
“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,” the spokesperson added. “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.”
It’s not the first time McGraw has faced bad press. The host, author and multi-media personality has faced numerous lawsuits over the years, including a 2016 suit by a former staffer who claimed that she suffered distress when she was falsely imprisoned at a meeting during which McGraw threatened employees for supposedly leaking internal information to the press. Still, he’s a dominant force in daytime TV.
A significant portion of the new investigation focuses on the medical supervision that guests receive when they fly to Los Angeles for an appearance on McGraw’s syndicated show. Or, rather, the shifting responses reporters David Armstrong and Evan Allen received from Greenberg when they made inquiries about how the guests were treated by medical personnel. First, Greenberg told them that the show had no responsibility to monitor guests. “No, of course not, it’s a television show,” he told them.
Later, though, the reporters sent specific questions about Herzog and others, only to receive a different response. Greenberg said in a statement that guests with substance abuse problems are medically supervised “100% of the time,” and that if a guest is likely to need inpatient treatment, personnel are flown to L.A. “to supervise and manage any medical needs.” That was the same for Herzog, who, according to the statement, was “medically supervised the entire time he was involved with tapings of Dr. Phil.” (Particularly troubling is that two of Herzog’s family members relayed that he was sober when he arrived to the studio for the 2013 taping.)
However, the Boston Globe and STAT contacted Steve Thomason, who was the executive director of The Arbor in Georgetown, Texas, where Herzog was treated. He disputed the show’s claims. “I was watching them walk him out severely intoxicated,” said Thomason. “That was the first time I ever laid eyes on him.” He added that his staff couldn’t offer supervision in California because they are only licensed in their home state of Texas. “You know, I get that it’s a television show and that they want to show the pain that I’m in,” Herzog said about the medical oversight. “However, what would have happened if I died there? You know, that’s horrifying.”
Another chunk of the STAT investigation also focuses on the ties Dr. Phil has with treatment centers. It states that facilities are offered “valuable endorsements in exchange for buying a new virtual reality product that features Dr. Phil offering tips and coping skills to people in treatment.
Thursday, Dec. 28, 11:48 p.m.: Updated to include statement from a Dr. Phil spokesperson.