Dr. Phil McGraw Changes Lives with Straight Talk

After weathering his own storms as a young man, he now helps others cope.

May 25, 2011, 9:38 AM

May 25, 2011— -- Phil McGraw, known as Dr. Phil, is the self-help guru who prefers straight talk to psychobabble.

"Boy don' let your alligator mouth overload your hummingbird ass," he has said on one occasion. "You're either going to get real about fat, or you're going to get real fat," he said on another.

But it was this candor, in one of Oprah Winfrey's darkest moments, that changed both of their lives. Winfrey was being sued by Texas Cattlemen for $11 million after publicly swearing off beef. McGraw's company was hired by her legal team as jury consultants. She was so discouraged she confided to McGraw that she might settle.

Watch "World News with Diane Sawyer" for more on this story tonight on ABC

"I said, I think you want to fight it to the bitter end," said McGraw. "And when you do, I think the line at the sue window, the sue Oprah window, is going to get a lot shorter."

Winfrey won. The next day McGraw made an appearance on her show. Today, he has been on the Oprah show more times than anyone but the host herself.

"I grew up in Oprah University," he said. "I was the first graduate."

His path was an unlikely one. McGraw grew up in Oklahoma and first became interested in psychology on the football field. His top-rated team was embarrassed by a rag-tag crew that didn't have cleats or even jerseys.

"They beat us like they were clapping for a barn dance. And I thought, if they can do that with so little, because of what they have in here," he said as he pointed to his chest. "I want to know what that is. And that was my first introduction to psychology. It changed my life."

McGraw became a therapist, but he says he wasn't cut out for it.

"I would sit down and say, 'excuse me, let me interrupt here. I just met both of you 10 minutes ago and I can't stand either one of you. No wonder you can't get along, you're a jerk and you're no better.' I would just tell them the truth as I saw it."

That candor comes from being forced to weather a few storms of his own. When McGraw was 15 years old, his family was homeless. They lived at the YMCA.

"When you grow up poor you are very results-oriented," he said. "Intention doesn't play into it."

He recalls collecting money from his paper route in the middle of a sleet storm.

"My mother said 'oh my gosh you're not going out in this weather,' and I said 'oh yes I am, because everybody is home,'" he said.

Today, he helps millions of viewers weather their very own storms. He said that there is one thing we can all do right now to make our lives better.

"You've got to find something you're excited about, where you want to get up every morning and get in the game," he said. "Maybe it's your work, maybe it's a hobby, maybe it's your family, maybe it's your religion. Whatever it is, there's gotta be something that lights you up every day. If you are just going through the motions, you are just cheating yourself and everybody around you."

"But Dr. Phil, I can hear it at home, people are going to say, 'but I have a mortgage to pay, mouths to feed,'" said ABC News' Sharyn Alfonsi during an interview.

"So? Passion doesn't take money, passion just takes commitment."

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