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Unleash the Power Within

Behind Tony Robbins’ dangerous approach to the pandemic

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Illustration by William Joel, Photography by Jim Spellman/WireImage & Astrid Stawiar via Getty Images

The story Tony Robbins told on his podcast was harrowing — if also a little convoluted. One of his staff members had come down with a fever of 102 when she started watching the news and freaking out. She went to the hospital, presumably with COVID-19, and began to hyperventilate. The doctors put her on a ventilator — then in a medically induced coma. “The doctor said … ‘If she doesn’t wake up in three weeks, we’ll declare her dead,’” Robbins recounted. 

The self-help guru had been researching coronavirus treatments and decided pressure from ventilators could damage the lungs. “I’m not saying these people are trying to harm. I think they’re all trying to help, but the research is now showing a very different component there,” he said on the Tony Robbins Podcast. So Robbins asked a physician friend to call the hospital and convince the woman’s doctors to lower the pressure. “As a result, four or five days later, she opened her eyes, which we’re so grateful for, and she’s still in the hospital but she’s healing,” Robbins said. 

The episode fit neatly into Robbins’ self-aggrandizing coronavirus narrative. Since the early days of the pandemic, he’d been suspicious of the hysteria surrounding COVID-19. He told employees in late March that the flu was worse than coronavirus, adding: “We have lost our minds on this.” He also hosted two events amid the crisis.

Robbins’ spokesperson Jennifer Connelly said that, since February: “Two small, private in-person meetings were held, and those were in compliance with federal, state and local regulations and guidance regarding COVID-19.”

As a coach, Robbins always taught people that they had the ability to change their lives — not their wives or their pastors or their priests. The story he told on his podcast highlighted how little doctors knew about the illness they were supposed to be treating and underlined his own heroism in saving her life. 

But according to a new federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of New York, the tale was largely fabricated. Debbie Kosta, the employee in question, is suing Robbins and his company, Robbins Research International (RRI), saying he lied about his part in her recovery and made it nearly impossible for her to return to work.

She just wanted to help people change their lives

The complaint lays out a starkly different picture of Tony Robbins than the inspirational coach he plays on social media. It says his organization refused to let Kosta return to work part-time while she was recovering from COVID-19 and dealing with a recent cancer diagnosis. Instead, roughly three months after Kosta got off a ventilator, the complaint alleges her managers gave her an ultimatum: return to work full-time or lose her job and her health insurance.

In a statement, Robbins’ spokesperson said: “When we were informed Ms. Kosta had contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized, Mr. Robbins and his organization inquired with compassion and support for her and have treated her fairly and consistent with all applicable laws. RRI answered all of her questions, provided all of her requested accommodations, and did not retaliate against her in any way. Ms. Kosta remains employed by RRI and the organization continues to pay the complete cost of her medical insurance, even though its legal obligation to do so ended in June.”

Kosta had been an employee of Robbins’ for 18 years when the pandemic arrived. She’d started working for him in Europe, then moved to New York and joined the sales team in the United States.

Sales reps at RRI sold tickets to Robbins’ live events — multiday seminars with names like “Unleash the Power Within” and “Date with Destiny.” The world-famous coach taught people to eliminate pain “for good” and urged followers not to “settle for an ordinary life when you can create an extraordinary one.” As such, tickets cost between $600 and $3,000. 

Some of Robbins’ clients were dealing with major life issues. They were drug addicts, alcoholics, or philanderers. To them, Robbins’ philosophy of self-empowerment was entirely new. It allowed them to take control of their lives and transformed them into loyal fans along the way. 

But Kosta wasn’t like that. She’d always had high self-esteem and a relentlessly positive attitude. Robbins’ curriculum reminded her of Greek philosophy, and while she believed in what he was teaching, she didn’t worship him like others seemed to. She just wanted to help people change their lives. 

What stood out to Kosta was Robbins’ delivery. He’d run onstage to pulsing music, high-fiving and shouting like a maniac. And it worked. “I saw it, it was like, ‘Oh, people listen to this,’” Kosta says. “People actually like high-fiving and hugging.” 

Back in New York, Kosta became one of Robbins’ top performing sales reps, according to the complaint. The gig was commission-only, but there were bonuses for people who sold a lot. One anonymous employee who worked on the sales team said they regularly made $80,000 a year in bonuses alone. Kosta liked the hustle and was willing to skip holidays if it meant succeeding at work.

Debbie Kosta in New York City where she moved to from Europe to join Robbin’s sales team.
Debbie Kosta in New York City where she moved to from Europe to join Robbin’s sales team.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Over the next nine years, Kosta made a life for herself and her two young daughters in New York City. She was able to send them to a good prep school in Manhattan and take them to Europe in the summers. But the real money went to Tony Robbins. After a particularly massive event, Kosta says he called her to congratulate her on how much business she was bringing in. 

Then, in early 2020, things started to shift. Robbins’ biggest event was scheduled to take place in San Jose, California, in March. “Unleash the Power Within” was a four-day seminar that taught people to “unlock and unleash the forces inside you to break through your limitations and take control of your life.” Unfortunately, some worried that a 12,000-person event could unleash a bunch of coronavirus.

Less than a week before the event, Robbins was forced to cancel. Attendees started calling to get their money back, sending the sales team into a panic. RRI had a brutal policy that meant each refund came out of employees’ commissions. Some team members went from making well over $100,000 to not being able to make their mortgage payments. 

In late March, Robbins offered employees a stipend of roughly $5,000 a month and urged them to “step the fuck up,” according to audio leaked to The Verge. They were told they’d need to pay Robbins back by the end of the year. The following month, in April, RRI received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from the federal government.

(In a statement emailed to The Verge, Robbins’ spokesperson wrote: “RRI properly and legally applied and received PPP support and has used those funds in compliance with the program’s rules.”)

The news wasn’t great for Kosta, but she was dealing with bigger problems. She’d developed a high fever and was having a difficult time breathing. Her daughter Stella, a 19-year-old film student at Hunter College, had never seen her mom so sick. On April 12th, when Kosta’s fever had been hovering at 104 for three days, Stella decided to call an ambulance. “She’s very strong and upbeat, so seeing her so weak, barely able to string sentences together, not breathing, it was very mind-boggling to me,” she says. 

Stella had watched the trucks of dead bodies lining the streets in Manhattan. Everyone she knew either had COVID or knew someone who’d died from it. “I was just like, ‘My mom cannot become one of those people,’” she says.

But Stella says none of that is true

At the hospital, doctors put Kosta on a ventilator, then in a medically induced coma. Robbins called Stella to see how her mother was doing. This is where Robbins’ telling of the story really diverges from the truth, according to Kosta.

Robbins said that Stella did her research and found that the longer her mom was on a ventilator, the more likely she was to die. “The daughter went crazy,” he said on his podcast. “She said, ‘You put her in the coma. She came in with a cough and a fever and shortness of breath…’”

But Stella says none of that is true. “I’m not knowledgeable enough,” she says, bewildered. “Whatever the doctors were telling me, I was believing it.” At one point, she says she asked the doctors how much longer her mother would have to be on a ventilator. “But I was never like, ‘Take her off right now,’” she adds. “Why would I ever do that? I was just asking, ‘How can you make her better?’ But I never went against the ventilator. The ventilator is what saved her.”

The complaint also says that Robbins told Kosta’s clients he was the one who convinced the doctors to take her off the ventilator. And, it alleges that Sage Robbins, Tony’s wife, called Stella to “pry information from her regarding Ms. Kosta’s condition.” Kosta’s attorney, Chris Albanese, of the employment law firm White, Hilferty and Albanese, says: “Tony and his wife went out of their way to harm her, what kind of person would do that?”

(Robbins’ spokesperson says the “allegations concerning RRI, Mr. Robbins and his wife, are false.”)

Robbins took advantage of Kosta’s situation for his own benefit, the complaint adds. He made it seem like she was overreacting about her symptoms because of the news. “I talked to him personally and told him about the 104 fever and how she couldn’t breathe,” Stella notes. “For him to turn around and say, ‘Oh, she had 102 fever and then watched the news and started hyperventilating’ — it was just so shocking. It’s a betrayal. I took lessons from his events at heart and tried to change my life with them. Now I’m just wondering, ‘Well, how much have you been lying then? How many of your stories and how many of your experiences that you used to teach us are lies?”

Kosta stayed in a coma until early May. Then, miraculously, she started to get better. When she finally got home from the hospital on May 5th, she could barely walk around the block or speak a full sentence without losing her breath. But she was alive. Then her doctors discovered a growth on her chest. They said said she’d likely need six months to fully recover, according to the lawsuit.

Debbie Kosta and her two daughters in New York City. 
Debbie Kosta and her two daughters in New York City. 
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Kosta was on New York State Paid Family Leave, but it was set to run out at the end of June. She knew she wasn’t well enough to return to work; she still needed surgery to remove the growth. Talking on the phone all day with her voice ravaged from the ventilator seemed impossible. 

According to the lawsuit, she emailed HR to see if she could have more time off. They said no. If she didn’t return in July, she’d lose her health insurance. Kosta asked to reduce her hours. She was a commissioned-based employee who worked from home, so the request seemed pretty reasonable. But RRI refused, the complaint says. They offered her $15,000 in severance and encouraged her to go on disability. 

“Debbie Kosta was at the peak of her sales career when she contracted coronavirus,” said Vincent White, Kosta’s other attorney. “Instead of supporting a woman who had not only supported his organization but enriched him personally, Tony Robbins left her without reasonable accommodation for her disability. She has lost a tremendous amount of earning potential during this time, and frankly it is impossible to put a number on the emotional damages Ms. Kosta has endured at the hands of a company that claims to lift up, not break down, the human spirit.”

Kosta’s complaint, which was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ahead of its filing in federal court in New York City, says that her request to reduce her hours was a reasonable accommodation, and RRI’s refusal to grant it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I’m done with this Guru!”

Robbins had been walking a thin line between COVID-19 skepticism and denial. He didn’t doubt that the disease existed, but he hinted that the news coverage surrounding the death rate was exaggerated. Then, in August 2020, he started promoting a coronavirus vaccine on Facebook, designed by his friend and longtime collaborator Peter H. Diamandis. Diamandis’ company, Covaxx, is backed by Prime Movers Lab, a venture capital firm where Robbins works as a business strategist and partner. 

Jennifer Connelly, Robbins’ spokesperson, said: “Mr. Robbins has invested in one of several companies working on the development of an effective COVID vaccine.”

The perceived change disappointed his followers. “I can’t believe what I am actually reading from Tony Robbins who said during 7 day challenge that Covid 19 equivalent of the Flu,” one wrote on Facebook. “What a sell out Tony Robbins turned out to be promoting a ‘safe vaccine’ by one of his Business partners. I’m done with this Guru!” Another wrote: “No thanks Tony how much cash do you have invested in this vaccine?!?!” 

The answer, according to Pitchbook, could be close to $2.85 million, which is the amount Covaxx raised in May, in a funding round led by Prime Movers Lab. It might help explain Robbins’ core philosophy — not self-empowerment, or personal growth, but capitalism. America’s number one coach might say his mission is to “help individuals and businesses succeed.” But according to some employees, the individual he’s most interested in helping is himself.