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The Weekend Australian Magazine
The secret of Rhonda's success
From: The Australian
August 23, 2008 12:00AM
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The Weekend Australian Magazine August 23-24, 2008
The Weekend Australian Magazine August 23-24, 2008 Source: The Australian
Could the universe be restoring the balance against Rhonda Byrne, the former Melbourne TV producer behind the self-help phenomenon of The Secret? Richard Guilliatt investigates.
Like many of her public utterances, the message that Australia’s platinum-haired self-help guru Rhonda Byrne sent out last November to her millions of followers was a rhapsodic outpouring of goodwill. Thanksgiving Day was approaching in the United States, where Byrne now lives in a Californian celebrity enclave just up the road from Oprah Winfrey’s 17-hectare, neo-Georgian estate, and the creator of the New-Age blockbuster The Secret wanted to remind the world about the crucial importance of gratitude.
“Remember,” Byrne wrote, “if you are criticising, you are not being grateful. If you are blaming, you are not being grateful. If you are complaining, you are not being grateful.”
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Those are worthy sentiments, but it was an odd time for Byrne to be expressing them because her lawyers had just sued two of the very people who were instrumental in launching her book and film The Secret to phenomenal success. Drew Heriot, the Australian director of the movie, and Dan Hollings, an Arizona internet consultant whose “viral marketing” helped propel Byrne to global fame via Oprah, had both been demanding that Byrne pay them a share of the estimated $US300 million ($340 million) revenue they claim she’d promised them. In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Byrne’s lawyers had counter-attacked by launching legal actions against both men in jurisdictions far from their homes, a tactic one judge has since described as vexatious and harassing.
For a woman whose central message is the power of positivity, Byrne has a surprisingly long history of such bust-ups, stretching back to her days as a television producer in Melbourne. But those past disputes pale next to the legal storms swirling around The Secret, a New-Age marketing phenomenon the like of which has not been seen for decades. It’s a bunfight of cosmic proportions that has drawn into its orbit some of the best-known figures and most fundamental tenets of the global self-help industry.
In The Secret, Byrne claimed to have uncovered the key to human happiness, which turned out to be a very simple principle called the “law of attraction” – the notion that if you focus on your desires, the universe will deliver them. And until recently its astonishing success – at least seven million books in print; a best-selling DVD released worldwide – seemed proof-positive of that very beneficence. But now the “most powerful law in the universe” seems to have gone awry, with Byrne’s own former associates accusing her of fraud and hiring platoons of lawyers to pick apart the business machinations behind The Secret.
If there’s a karmic backlash brewing, it’s one that even some alternative spiritual thinkers welcome. “If it is, that won’t be a bad thing,” says Paul Wilson, the Australian meditation teacher whose Calm books have become an international phenomenon. “Because the field you are talking about is New Age self-help, and there’s a lot of nonsense involved in it. A lot of it.”
Not that Wilson doesn’t admire Byrne’s marketing genius. “I just wouldn’t want people to stake too much of their mental health on the idea that there’s an ancient secret that will save them or make them happier.”
Nothing is excluded from the law of attraction. Your life is a mirror of the dominant thoughts you think.
RHONDA BYRNE RARELY APPEARS in public now – her last major interview was with The New York Times a year ago, when she held court in her Santa Barbara apartment wearing a glittering silver circle glued to her forehead. Controversy was brewing at the time over the 57-year-old Australian’s falling-out with Esther Hicks, an American spiritualist who played a crucial role in an early version of The Secret but was subsequently edited out of the film. Not long after that interview Byrne moved into a large home in the nearby hills which has been her refuge as rumours gather about the hugely anticipated sequel to her creation.
In early May, however, Byrne emerged from seclusion when she turned up at a lawyer’s office in Los Angeles to give a videotaped deposition in her company’s lawsuit against Dan Hollings. What Byrne revealed in that deposition was remarkable if only for its all-enveloping fogginess, because over the course of two hours she professed to be almost wholly disconnected from the legal and financial details of the massive multi-million-dollar business she has spawned.
“I don’t control anything I create,” she told the lawyers, professing to have little grasp of the legal disputes in which she is embroiled. “I’m not aware of any of these things. I’m not involved.”
This is a very different-sounding Rhonda Byrne from the savvy and ambitious TV producer who worked the phones relentlessly as a producer at the Nine Network’s Midday show in the early ’90s, before going on to create a stream of reality-TV programs about UFO encounters, unsolved murders and near-death experiences. Even then she was an industry veteran, having worked as a producer on The Don Lane Show as far back as 1980. A single mother who was raising two daughters after separating from her second husband, Byrne impressed those around her as a woman of extraordinary focus.
“She knew exactly what was going on around her,” recalls TV producer Peter Wynne, her former boss at Midday’s Melbourne office. “She wasn’t ever caught napping, Rhonda.”
Emma McLean, who worked alongside Byrne at Midday, has claimed that the Nine Network fired both of them after they set up a sideline business in their office selling calorie-counting pedometers which had been featured on the show (they even sold one to Wynne). The two women promptly set up their own company, Prime Time Productions, and created the wildly successful World’s Greatest Commercials series, which led in turn to the reality programs Oz Encounters, Great Escapes and Sensing Murder. The pair were riding high – trips to Cannes and Los Angeles, shopping in Paris – until their relationship began to founder in messy arguments over money.
“She started saying, ‘I’m the creative person and they’re my ideas, therefore I should be getting more of the profit,’” McLean told The Sun-Herald last year. McLean said she agreed to a less equitable split but the partnership broke down in 2000 when she became pregnant and asked for time off; mediators were brought in, and Byrne eventually bought out McLean’s share of the company.
Interviewed for this article, McLean declined to comment further. “I’m not bitter and twisted … I don’t want to be perceived as someone who lets it worry me,” she says. “Certainly there is karma out there and it’s working big-time.”
According to the dramatic narrative of The Secret, it was four years later that Byrne was shattered by the sudden death of her father and the news that Prime Time was effectively bankrupt. In a story she later dramatised in her film, Byrne says her teenage daughter handed her a copy of the 1910 get-rich-quick classic The Science of Getting Rich, a book that led her to a deep immersion into self-help literature and the epiphany that most of these books sell the same message – that positive thoughts yield positive outcomes.
The full story of how Byrne turned that realisation into “the greatest success story in the annals of viral marketing” – to quote The American Spectator – is only now emerging in court papers filed in the US and Australia, and from interviews with the participants. To Byrne it’s the story of a small group of people bringing “joy to the world”; to some of those involved it’s a story of hypocrisy and ruthless double-dealing.
Having discovered the Grand Unifying Theory of the self-help movement, Byrne conceived the idea of making it into a TV series, and turned to a 25-year-old Melbourne director called Drew Heriot. Heriot had worked for Prime Time since 2000, and in early 2005 he began helping to refine the idea into a two-hour TV special. Byrne pitched it to executives from the Nine Network in early 2005, and by July Nine had agreed to stump up $600,000 for filming. Heriot himself contributed $10,000 and flew to the US with Byrne to begin a marathon series of interviews that would eventually incorporate about 60 of the world’s best-known spiritual gurus and self-development spruikers.
It was to be a whirlwind ride for the young director, who in the course of filming became a confirmed adherent of The Secret’s philosophical tenets, and remains so. It’s because of this belief that Heriot has only now agreed to break his silence to The Weekend Australian Magazine.
Now living in Los Angeles, Heriot recalls that early on Byrne promised him a percentage of the film’s profits, but rebuffed his request for a written contract. “Rhonda actually insisted that we not have a contract – she said they limited people’s freedom, that they’re designed to guard against things going wrong, which is not the way of The Secret because it is focusing on the negative,” he says. “That’s when I started to think, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’
“But by the same token, my company and Rhonda’s had worked together for several years, so I had come to trust her. She said we were going to share the abundance.”
For much of 2005, Heriot says he pushed aside his reservations as he poured his energies into the film, whose striking visual style – the medieval motifs, the dramatic re-enactments, and the technique of having each speaker talk directly to the camera – he claims to have devised. He recalls editing down 100 hours of interviews over several months, and says he was paid monthly fees which eventually totalled a “five-figure sum”.
In January 2006, executives from Nine watched the film and dropped a bombshell – they had decided against screening it. The indefatigable Byrne then decided to release it via the internet in the US, a high-risk strategy that was undertaken with the help of Dan Hollings, an Arizona-based internet consultant. Like Heriot, Hollings claims Byrne offered him a percentage of profits; in court filings he quotes an email from Byrne which allegedly promised him $8000 per month “plus a share of 10 per cent of gross margins of all revenues from The Secret website”.
“I had seen the trailer and it was remarkably well done,” says Hollings from his home in Tucson. “I said, ‘Holy cow, I don’t know what this is but it looks like it’s going to be good.’”
The Secret had no conventional advertising, and Hollings says he devised viral marketing techniques involving Google adverts and blogs, and also helped Byrne set up her online ordering and customer-support systems. In March 2006 the movie was launched as a teaser-download linked to a $US34.95 DVD, and within weeks it had taken off. Although no verifiable figures have been published, the film was reported to have grossed nearly $20 million in its first eight months.
The disputes about money began almost immediately. When Heriot emailed a request for payment to Byrne the day after the film’s release, she responded that he was being “unappreciative” and that they had “some serious thinking to do” – an exchange she has acknowledged in court filings. Hollings says he put in his claim for profit-share a few weeks later. “Money was flowing in incredibly well during that first month and I fully expected that, as agreed, I’d get paid the monthly percentage of revenues from the site from that point on,” he says. His court submissions allege that Byrne’s Chicago business office issued a succession of false assurances that the money would be forthcoming.
Unbeknown to both men, the corporate structure behind The Secret had changed dramatically, for in late 2005 Byrne had met the man who would become her business manager – Bob Rainone, a Chicago-based executive from the computer and internet industry. Rainone helped Byrne create a new corporate structure around her film and on April 11 they transferred the copyright to a Hungarian company which operated out of a lawyer’s office in Budapest.
Your wealth is waiting for you in the invisible, and to bring it into the visible, think wealth!
IT WAS SHORTLY AFTER this that another dispute opened up between Byrne and Esther Hicks, a 59-year-old spiritual-medium from Utah who had been central to the film. Hicks, who tours the US speaking in the disembodied voice of a spirit entity called Abraham, publishes a range of best-selling New Age books based around the law of attraction. She narrated the film, and in an open letter on the internet has claimed that Byrne contractually agreed to pay her and her husband, Jerry, a percentage of both net profit and video sales, but then asked them to rescind the contract.
“We received an email from the producer of The Secret lovingly explaining (we never have received correspondence from her that was anything other than extremely loving) that the contract that we had all agreed upon and signed was no longer sufficient for their further distribution of the project,” Hicks wrote in the email. The original contract, said Hicks, had been for a TV broadcast, but with the film now being distributed online, Byrne wanted the contract annulled or she would “reluctantly” be forced to edit Hicks out of the film.
Lawyers were called in, and the dispute threatened to derail publication of a tie-in book Byrne had contracted to write. Hicks, who had earned $500,000 from the film in just a few months, agreed to be edited out of the film after consulting her spirit entity, and in October 2006 Byrne released The Secret – Extended Edition, with the Esther Hicks segments replaced in part by similarly worded passages from other teachers. Jerry Hicks has since said he and his wife contemplated legal action but felt it would be a negative use of energy.
Drew Heriot, meanwhile, had moved to California. About a month after the film’s launch, he says, he met Byrne over lunch at the Santa Monica restaurant Shutters to raise the issue of his remuneration, and by the end of lunch Byrne had fired him. “Essentially, she said my company wouldn’t be working with her again and they’d be using another writer and director for the sequel. I said, ‘I can’t believe you are doing this. Are you saying there is no profit-share?’ She said, ‘Yes, but I can return the $10,000 you gave me.’
“The money was returned but at this point I had moved to America to be part of the expansion; I didn’t have a proper working visa so I had no other income. It was so hard to believe, because it was counter to all the principles of The Secret and our working relationship. Basically, she had got what she wanted from me. It really felt like a betrayal.”
All good things are your birthright!
IN THE SECRET, a succession of American personal-development gurus explain that by really focusing on what you want, your positive energy flows out into the universe and is rewarded. Intercut with this mantra are dramatised scenes of this “law of attraction” in action: a little boy visualises a brand new bicycle and gets one from his dad; a woman focuses on ridding herself of breast cancer and is cured. At one point the “miracles coach” Joe Vitale likens the universe to a giant shopping catalogue.
It’s a message of self-gratification that’s been promoted by thousands of motivational spruikers for many decades, but when Byrne repackaged it as an ancient secret with a red wax seal, she hit the holy jackpot. Ellen DeGeneres, the American talk-show host, told her audience that Byrne’s book was so profound it would change their lives. “So many people are worrying about not being in debt that that’s all they attract!” DeGeneres said. “So you think you are asking for something but, like, ‘Oh please, don’t let this happen.’ The universe here is, y’know, this one thing.”
By February last year Byrne’s book was number one on The New York Times’ bestseller list and she had appeared before the 23 million viewers of Oprah Winfrey, whose personal endorsement launched The Secret into the sales stratosphere. “I stand in awe at the magnificent intelligence that is this universe,” Byrne told one interviewer, “as I watch it fulfil the intention of joy for billions that I held deep within my heart.” Time magazine subsequently named her one of the world’s most influential people.
Even alternative spiritual teachers such as Paul Wilson have criticised the book’s message as simplistic and contradictory. If the law of attraction was a centuries-old secret, how could Byrne find two dozen hugely popular “teachers” to talk about it? And does this universal law mean that the Jews who died in the Holocaust brought their misfortune on themselves?
Byrne herself sounds equivocal on this latter point, telling one interviewer that “many factors” cause millions to die in tragedies such as the Holocaust, but “if their dominant thoughts and feelings were in alignment with the energy of fear, separation, powerlessness and having no control over outside circumstances, then that is what they attracted”.
One person who was profoundly affected by The Secret was its director. Like Esther Hicks, in fact, Drew Heriot was reluctant to engage in litigation with Byrne until he realised that taking a stand would not conflict with the film’s philosophy. He was stunned, he says, that Byrne did not invite him to the film’s world premiere at the 2006 Tahoe-Reno International Film Festival. And in court submissions he has alleged that Byrne’s book was based substantially on the script documents he prepared for the film.
Last September Heriot contacted an attorney and filed a copyright claim on The Secret in the US. Dan Hollings, meanwhile, had hired a lawyer to negotiate his pay dispute after Byrne’s company fired him in February 2007. On October 18, Byrne’s lawyers issued a lawsuit against Heriot in the Australian Federal Court disputing his copyright claim. A month later they issued a lawsuit in Illinois against Hollings, alleging he had improperly taken side-commissions, marketed an unauthorised music CD linked to the film and consequently contravened “the philosophy of The Secret”.
“In my opinion it’s a bogus lawsuit merely constructed to make me fold and go away,” says Hollings, who denies the side-commission claims and says Byrne gave her personal blessing to his music CD. “If you were to hire me and I help your company make $50 million or $200 million or $300 million, whatever figure you want to pick, would you mind if I actually got paid a small percentage, which is chump-change in the scheme of things? Would you risk the reputation of what your movie is about? It’s pathetic, that’s the only word I can think of.”
In May this year, Hollings accompanied his lawyers to Los Angeles to obtain a deposition from Byrne in the lawsuit. During that meeting, Byrne said she could barely remember her email exchanges with Hollings and knew almost nothing about the business behind The Secret. Asked whether she had any family in Illinois, where the lawsuit was initiated, she replied: “I don’t have blood relatives living in IIIinois. I just – I just consider us all one family of humanity…”
Byrne said she knew nothing about the Hungarian company and regarded the business as merely “a channel for it (The Secret) to go out into the world”. When it was suggested that the business was also a channel for money to flow to her, she replied: “I receive revenues from some entity somehow. But you see, that isn’t important to me. Ask me how many people’s lives have changed and I’ll talk to you about it.”
Both Heriot and Hollings are now suing Byrne in the US, alleging fraud, with Hollings claiming he could be owed $US3 million plus damages on top of the $US194,000 he has already been paid. Byrne, who once thanked both men in her book, recently filed a counterclaim asserting that Heriot’s role in the film was merely that of “supervisor”, and that she exercised complete creative control over the film. She also claimed that Heriot’s mismanagement had nearly been a “disaster” for her company, and that his presence during the filming of The Secret had been a hindrance. She likened his role in preparing the script to that of a stenographer taking notes of her ideas, and denied promising him a percentage of profits. Contacted by this magazine, Byrne’s spokeswoman released a brief statement from her company, Prime Time Productions, which denied that its dispute with Esther Hicks was over money and said it would “vigorously oppose” Drew Heriot’s claims.
All of which seems to contradict the law of attraction – unless you believe the universe is trying to restore balance by undermining the entire glittering edifice of self-help entrepreneurialism. Unfortunately, the teachers from the film who were contacted by this magazine were reluctant to discuss the current litigation, including Rhonda Byrne herself, who declined repeated requests for comment. The one exception was Jack Canfield, “America’s #1 Success Coach”, who believes that the bad publicity generated by the lawsuits is merely a “blip” in the reentless global spread of The Secret.
Like all of those who appeared in the film – except Esther Hicks – Canfield received no payment, but says he has benefited many times over from the exposure. And Byrne, he says, has since donated $400,000 to the Transformational Leadership Council he runs with several teachers from the film. “I think all of us … thought that was a generous amount,” he says.
Whatever you sow, you reap!
FOR HIS PART, Drew Heriot’s faith in the law of attraction remains unshaken. He now believes it was Byrne who contravened that law when she refused to sign a contract, and that his current legal action will correct that.
“Rhonda and I were good friends – she trusted me to execute the vision, and I trusted her to share the profits with me as co-creator,” he says. “We have not spoken for over a year so I honestly can’t tell you what is currently going through her mind, although I do know that people are capable of justifying any action. I have obviously been profoundly disappointed because I feel there’s been a betrayal of my trust. But I believe this is an opportunity for everyone to understand and live the principles of The Secret on a deeper level. I agree with Einstein who believed that we live in a friendly universe – a universe that wants people to live in balance – so I look forward to everything finding its balance in the end.”
If bad energy is floating The Secret’s way, there is no sign of it yet – the book and film are so popular that bootleg versions are appearing as far away as Iran. But Dan Hollings – who never did believe in the law of attraction – is not so optimistic about what the universe might have in store for Byrne. “I wouldn’t trade places with Rhonda at this point for any amount of money,” he says. “I just don’t think success has enriched her life. It’s like lottery winners who win the lottery and discover their life is worse and they wish they had never won. I remember having some pretty lively conversations with her early on by telephone. I met a different Rhonda in that deposition room.”
Staff writer Richard Guilliatt’s previous story was “Solitary man” (July 26-27), about Australian film and stage director Jim Sharman.