There are celebrity chefs, celebrity event planners, celebrity hairstylists, and even a celebrity dog trainer. It’s understandable how some notoriety would boost the careers of dancers and designers, but celebrity doctors are a puzzling and thought-provoking bunch. Surely a real doctor doesn’t go to school for a dozen years just so he can sit down with Oprah, but are these people even real doctors in the first place? The truth is that some of our most famous advice-dispensing professionals are just like many other celebrities in Hollywood—not always what they seem.
Dr. Phil McGraw, the nation’s most visible proponent of “getting real” about problems, does have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in experimental psychology, and a PhD in clinical psychology, but what he doesn’t have is a license to practice those healing arts. McGraw started in private practice, but after just a few years, he became embroiled in a mini-scandal involving a young female employee (who was also his patient), who alleged that they had conducted an “inappropriate relationship.” McGraw never admitted any wrongdoing, but the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists levied some serious penalties against the doctor, including court-ordered counseling, a public letter of apology, and ethics classes. Soon after, McGraw quit counseling altogether to start a firm advising witnesses in litigation. After Oprah Winfrey hired his company when Texas beef producers sued her, she began inviting him onto her show as a relationship and life-strategy expert, and eventually helped him get his own show in 2002. He never applied for a license in California, and in 2006, he retired his license to practice in Texas as well; he has remained unlicensed ever since. Despite conducting on-camera interventions and encouraging people to face their problems, he has always maintained that his business is to entertain, not provide any sort of therapy or counseling.
Although he’s become synonymous with strung-out celebrities, Dr. Drew Pinsky is actually a highly qualified medical doctor, a board-certified internist who specializes in treating addiction, and he’s certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine. He became part of pop culture while still doing his residency, when he was asked to co-host a call-in radio program that would eventually morph into the MTV hit Loveline. He still co-hosts the program, along with maintaining his private psychiatric practice, working as a professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, and hosting VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Until March 2010, he was also the director of the Department of Chemical Dependency Services at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena. He authored a definitive paper on celebrities and narcissism, which was published in the Journal of Research in Personality, and continues to specialize in celebrities and mass media. He told the New York Times in 2008, “My goal was always to be part of pop culture and relevant to young people, to interact with the people they hold in high esteem.”
Dr. Laura Schlessinger has been advising callers on her radio program for over thirty years, making her one of the country’s most popular talk-radio personalities, despite the fact that her doctorate is in a completely unrelated field: Schlessinger earned a PhD from Columbia University in 1974, in the field of physiology. She has been hosting her own advice show since the mid-1970s, and in 1980, she received a license to practice marriage, family, and child counseling in California. She has written over a dozen books, including Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, and Parenthood By Proxy: Don’t Have Them If You Won’t Raise Them. Her advice solidly advocates personal responsibility and traditional values, and she has come under fire for suggesting that homosexuals are “biological errors,” advocating that mothers of young children should not work outside the home and blaming women for their husbands’ infidelities. Despite her focus on family relationships, Dr. Laura has been quoted as saying, “My show is not about mental health. It’s about moral health. I don’t give advice. I give my never-to-be-humble opinion.”
Dr. Ruth Westheimer has made it her mission to empower and enlighten on the subject of sexuality, but her actual PhD is in the field of education. German-born Westheimer studied psychology at the Sorbonne, and, after moving to the United States, she received a master’s degree in sociology from the New School, and her EdD from Columbia. In the early 1980s, Dr. Ruth was asked to present a show on local New York radio about sexuality and sexual health, and eventually that show, Sexually Speaking, became a national television program as well. She has written and lectured on sexual satisfaction and reproductive health for over three decades, she writes her own sex column, called “Ask Dr. Ruth,” and she’s the author of over thirty-five books on sexual health, promoting freer, franker discussions of sexual issues and encouraging everyone to enjoy sex safely and regularly with her trademark phrase, “Get some.”
Oprah’s go-to guy for information on poop, weight loss, and every health concern in between earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard, and his MD and MBA concurrently from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Wharton Business School. Although he now has his own television program and radio show, on which he addresses lifestyle and health concerns, Dr. Mehmet Oz still maintains a private practice in which he performs about 250 cardiovascular and thoracic surgeries per year, and he’s the vice chair and professor of surgery at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. In addition to his best-selling You: The Owners’ Manual series of books, Oz has also authored and coauthored medical textbooks and scholarly articles.
Whether the doctor’s credentials are impressive or inconsistent, you should accept advice “experts” dispense on television only for its entertainment value. (The same goes for advice dispensed over the Internet.) If you have real medical or psychological issues that need to be addressed, see a doctor. In person.
Photo Sources: Dr. Phil (Jerry Avenaim), Dr. Laura (Philkon Phil Konstantin).