May 14 was supposed to mark Rachel Hollis’s return to her happy place: a stage in front of an adoring audience.
That was the day that Rise, her self-improvement company’s conference for women, was scheduled to begin in Austin, Texas. At least 100 people would attend in person, and more than 2,000 had registered by mid-April to join online. It would be a fraction of her usual crowd — nearly 50,000 people logged on for a virtual event in May 2020 — but would put her on track to business as usual.
But in early April, Ms. Hollis, the 38-year-old author of the New York Times best-selling books “Girl, Wash Your Face” and “Girl, Stop Apologizing,” posted a video to TikTok that jarred many of her devoted fans.
She recounted that while speaking extemporaneously during a livestream, she mentioned her twice-weekly housekeeper who “cleans the toilets.” One commenter had told Ms. Hollis she was “privileged” and “unrelatable.”
“No, sis, literally everything I do in my life is to live a life that most people can’t relate to,” Ms. Hollis said, relaying her reaction to the commenter. “Literally every woman I admire in history was unrelatable.” She added a caption offering examples: Harriet Tubman, Oprah Winfrey and others.
This didn’t go over well, coming from a white woman who achieved fame in 2015 after posting a bikini photograph from Cancún, Mexico, that revealed her pregnancy stretch marks.
Some followers had already felt betrayed by Ms. Hollis and her husband and business partner, Dave Hollis — close collaborators on daily, intimate, family-focused content — after they announced last spring that they were getting a divorce.
Ms. Hollis and her now-former husband, Dave Hollis, recording a podcast in 2019.Credit…Katherine Squier for The New York Times
Now, online critics began to examine Ms. Hollis’s words, gestures and history in Zapruderian detail.
Reducing a domestic worker to someone who “cleans the toilet,” said Louiza Doran, an antiracism and anti-oppression educator, in an Instagram Live dissection of Ms. Hollis’s TikTok post, was “the most disgusting capitalistic, privileged flex that was so quick, but it said so much about how she as a human being views the power dynamic and the social hierarchy.”
Ms. Hollis, who declined to comment for this article, issued an apology, blaming her “team” for her slowness in addressing the matter. She followed up, more contritely: “I know I have disappointed so many people, myself included, and I take full accountability.”
About 100,000 Instagram followers have dropped her, and Ms. Hollis canceled an upcoming personal development seminar on YouTube. Her company, which also offers podcasts, life-coaching and inspirational products, postponed the May conference until Labor Day. Overnight, its leader had been put in a very unhappy, and unfamiliar, place: of abrupt online disavowal.
HoCo à Go-go
In February 2018, “Girl, Wash Your Face,” a blend of memoir and self-help, was published by Thomas Nelson, a Christian imprint of HarperCollins.
“I absolutely refuse to watch you wallow,” Ms. Hollis, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister who had left home as a teenager, writes in the introduction. “I want to shout at the top of my lungs until you know this one great truth: you are in control of your own life.”
A mother of four, she had become a successful blogger and ran a lifestyle content company, Chic Media. Mr. Hollis, now 46, whom she’d met when she worked at Miramax, was the head of worldwide theatrical distribution for Disney.
But in less than a year, “Girl, Wash Your Face” sold almost a million copies in print, and he leftDisney to become the C.E.O. of what they rebranded as Hollis Co. The family moved near Austin.
Among the offerings of “HoCo,” as it was nicknamed, is a line of journals and planners branded with the same name as the Hollises’ motivational daily livestream program, “Start Today,” and a subscription-based online life-coaching service.
The year 2019 was marked by breakneck growth, according to former employees, some of whom were granted anonymity because they signed nondisclosure agreements.
HoCo went from 10 to 60 full-time staffers, and the company brought in well above $20 million in revenue, said Noelle Crooks, 27, who oversaw the Rise conferences and products.
In 2019, the company staged conferences in Minneapolis, Dallas and Charleston, S.C. Ms. Hollis was getting booked to give speeches around the country, some that paid between $100,000 to $200,000.
The company culture was peppy and scrappy. “Small but mighty” was a phrase invoked often in meetings when the Hollises were pumping up the staff to meet a task. Before the weekly gatherings known internally as “HoCo Convo,” Ms. Hollis would blast a song, like the Whitney Houston/Kygo version of “Higher Love” or “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, and the employees were encouraged to “embrace joy” in a pre-meeting dance party.
Sometimes company activities were mined for HoCo content. Former employees said that they were excited when the company announced a daylong leadership summit for the staff, until they saw the room was lined with video cameras.
The gulf between Rachel Hollis, online persona, and Rachel Hollis, boss, grew increasingly wide, employees said. The bubbly woman who appeared weekday mornings on “Start Today” was not the one who arrived at the HoCo office just hours later. “She would go from being silly and talking about peeing in her pants to walking into the office in sunglasses, not saying hello to anyone,” said Ms. Crooks, who has written a novel, “My Life With the Mogul,” about a young woman whose idealism is crushed by the experience of working for a personal-development celebrity.
By 2020, Ms. Hollis had crossed over from Instagram influencer to something more. In this community composed largely of white suburban mothers, thousands of whom were showing up for her Rise women’s conferences, she was a Tony Robbins-level star.
At the company leadership summit in early 2020, former employees say, she addressed her staff to say, “I am so rich, I could just retire to Hawaii and never work a day again, that’s how wealthy I am.” (Her point, they said, was that she loves her job.)
At the Rise Business conference in Charleston, two attendees said that Ms. Hollis gave a speech extolling her own influence over her followers. “I own you,” two people recalled her saying, in explaining that her endorsement meant so much to her followers, she could compel them to buy anything.
Ali Mudano, 29, the former executive assistant to both Mr. and Ms. Hollis, watched her boss’s evolution. “When Rachel wrote her books, she was a mom struggling through it like the rest of her base, it was authentic,” Ms. Mudano said. “But at some point in her rising stardom, it shifted from her wanting to be relatable to her wanting to exist in a different category.”
She said she does not fault Ms. Hollis for wanting to enjoy the wealth and fame that she worked hard to create. But problems arise if “what got you there” — meaning, being just one of the moms — “is not what you want to keep you there,” she said.
Tomatoes as Metaphor
Money and fame couldn’t protect HoCo from the havoc brought by the coronavirus. The company, which in April 2020 received a P.P.P. loan of $998,700, was reorganized to accommodate new goals of introducing a Rise fitness app, selling off the existing inventory of physical products and pumping out podcasts to guide followers through the pandemic. “Today on the podcast @mrdavehollis and I are talking about how quarantine has affected our, ahem, ‘make out sessions,’” Ms. Hollis alerted her social media followers.
Bigger problems began in late April 2020, when a post appeared on Ms. Hollis’s Instagram account which said: “Still … I RISE.” The post failed to attribute the line to Maya Angelou, whose poem “Still I Rise” was published in 1978 as part of her book of poetry “And Still I Rise.”
The internet demanded an apology. Ms. Hollis posted one. “This morning I found out that my social team posted” the quote without attributing it to Dr. Angelou. “While I didn’t create or post the graphic, I am the leader of the team that did and so I accept full responsibility for their actions,” she wrote. The employee who made the post was terminated.
Then, in late May, George Floyd was murdered and Black Lives Matter grew into one of the largest movements in American history. Employees had previously been authorized to post without oversight to Ms. Hollis’s Instagram account, to help her reach a goal of three million followers. Now, mindful of the Maya Angelou debacle, they waited for guidance from their leader.
“The whole world is going through a social justice movement and we are supposed to exist to provide guidance to our community about how to improve yourself and meet the moment,” said Ms. Crooks, who was laid off from the company this past July, one of around 30 to be let go since the pandemic. “So many of us wanted to show up for our community.”
For her Instagram followers, Ms. Hollis posted in early June a photograph of tomatoes she said were grown in her garden, which led her into a winding meditation on racism and how Americans are a product of the gardens in which they are grown.
Internally, Ms. Hollis engaged her best friend, Brit Barron, the author of “Worth It” and a speaker at Rise events who works as a diversity, equity and inclusion educator, to lead antiracism workshops for company employees. Mr. Hollis attended those virtual seminars, but Ms. Hollis did not, former employees said. (Ms. Hollis had previously gone through the training, a HoCo spokeswoman said.)
If the Hollises seemed distracted at the onset of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, their employees and social media community soon learned why. On June 8, Mr. Hollis revealed in a companywide Slack message that the couple was getting a divorce.
“We are choosing joy,” Ms. Hollis wrote about an hour later in an Instagram post, “even though, I’ll be honest, the last month has been one of the most awful of our lives.”
Employees were shocked. “I truly did not expect it or see it coming,” said Ms. Mudano, the Hollises’ executive assistant. “Looking back, everything in the company shifted after that point.”
Some followers, many of whom are religious Christians, felt bamboozled. The divorce announcement came about a month after the Hollises’ make-out advice podcast. “Y’all are as fake as they get,” one person commented on a post.
Through the summer, Mr. Hollis, who declined to comment for this article, shared his pain online. He wrote on Instagram that it was Ms. Hollis who told him she no longer wished to be married to him, and that he spent two days drinking after more than a year of abstaining but then regained his sobriety.
He later spoke out against the “polls, hashtags, videos & intermittent dumpster fires in the comments taking sides” and asserted himself “a supporter and defender of my kids’ mama.” He now has a girlfriend, Heidi Powell, a fitness influencer. The author of the New York Times best-seller “Get Out of Your Own Way,” Mr. Hollis also has a forthcoming children’s book, “Noah Builds Her Dream!” He no longer works at HoCo.
After the divorce announcement, Ms. Hollis continued filming “The Rachel Hollis Show” for Quibi, the short-lived app-based entertainment company, started her fitness app (subscriptions are $9.99 a month), and published another best-selling book, “Didn’t See That Coming.”
Her next big move was supposed to be the May Rise conference, for which she had booked speakers like author Gretchen Rubin, Trent Shelton, a former N.F.L. player who is a motivational speaker, and Amy Porterfield, an online marketing educator.
But after the toilet cleaner video went viral, the enthusiasm of some of Ms. Hollis’s longtime contributors began to wane. “I let the Hollis Co team know that I will not be speaking at the event,” Ms. Porterfield said in an email in early April. Mr. Shelton’s name disappeared from the promotional material as well. (He declined to comment.)
Then Hollis Co. announced the conference would be put on hold so Ms. Hollis could rethink her content.
Among the disenchanted followers is Jen Hirst, 39, a mother of two in Victoria, Minn., who first read “Girl, Wash Your Face” in 2018. “The way she talks to women was different,” said Ms. Hirst, a sobriety coach who also sometimes works as a Beachbody fitness trainer. “I felt like she was my personal cheerleader.”
Inspired, Ms. Hirst began to tune in each morning to “Start Today,” the livestream morning program Mr. and Ms. Hollis made. She arrived at Target before it opened on the days that new journaling products from the Hollis Co. would drop. She attended two Rise conferences and tried to cajole her husband to buy into the Hollises’s advice to commit to make-out sessions and “Sexy September.” She also listened to the Hollises’ podcasts as soon as each new episode came out.
“There was always something she said that I needed to hear,” Ms. Hirst said. Since the TikTok video, “my opinions have changed.” Last week she expressed the ultimate disapprobation of unfollowing Ms. Hollis on Instagram.
Vivian Kaye, the owner of KinkyCurlyYaki, a company that sells textured hair extensions for Black women, has watched the drama unfold since first being introduced to the Rachel Hollis brand when she was provided a free ticket by HoCo to attend the Rise conference in her hometown, Toronto. “I was there as seasoning,” Ms. Kaye, 43, said.
Even before Ms. Hollis invoked Harriet Tubman in her TikTok, Ms. Kaye thought her message was problematic, as is her tendency to co-opt Black vernacular terms like “girl” and “sis.”
“I should pull myself up by my bootstraps?” Ms. Kaye said. “Do you not know the system is rigged against me? That’s not feminism. That’s just putting lipstick on the patriarchy.”
Sarah Kennedy, a paralegal and blogger, used to watch “Start Today” every morning and traveled from her home outside of Des Moines to the conference in Toronto. She does not approve of Ms. Hollis’s appropriation of Black women’s words and images, but she is not giving up on her yet.
“If in a strange world Rachel Hollis came to me for advice,” Ms. Kennedy, 34, said, “I’d say, ‘Girl I believe in you, but you need to keep working at it and get it right.’”