06/11/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
Phillip McGraw was just 3 years old when he tried to teach his grandmother, who was visiting, how to turn on his family's stove. "He couldn't speak very well," recalls his sister Deana, 58. "Finally our grandmother said, 'Son, I can't understand a word you're saying.' Phil said very clearly, 'What are you, an idiot? He's been telling it like it is ever since."
And bluntness has its benefits. McGraw—who is known to Oprah
viewers as Dr. Phil—has turned his tough-love pronouncements into a self-help empire. His two quit-whining-and-do-it bestsellers, Life Strategies ('99) and Relationship Rescue
('00), have sold more than 3.7 million copies. His Oprah
segments, "Tuesdays with Dr. Phil," allow him to tell crybabies and wallowers to "get real!"
But the most gratifying endorsement of McGraw's methods may be a bestseller that he didn't write: Life Strategies for Teens, by Jay McGraw, his 21-year-old son. Published last December, Jay's first book retools his father's no-nonsense tenets—including, "You either get it or you don't"—for the younger set. Initially Dr. Phil's publisher had asked him to write a book for teens. "Dad," said Jay, then a psychology major at the University of Texas, "you haven't seen hair in 30 years; you don't know what it's like to watch MTV. Let me write a book for teenagers." McGraw père, 50, is happy to share the spotlight. "When Jay was younger," he says, "we couldn't get him to read a book." Now, "this kid gets it."
Late blooming, it seems, runs in the family. Growing up mostly in Oklahoma, Phil too was an indifferent student. But that didn't stop his father, Joseph, a salesman for an oil-equipment company, and his mother, Jerry, a homemaker, from doting on him. "I was treated like a prince," says McGraw, who has three sisters. But when he was a teen, his father left corporate life to become a psychologist, and the financially strapped family sometimes was forced to eat ketchup-and-mustard sandwiches for dinner.
McGraw won a football scholarship to the University of Tulsa, only to drop out as a sophomore after incurring several head injuries. A few years later he turned his attention to psychology, like his father, ultimately earning a doctorate at North Texas State University in Denton. He practiced briefly with Joseph, but the future Dr. Phil wasn't cut out for traditional therapy. Attempting marriage counseling, he says he told one couple, "I can see why you can't stand each other. I've been with you five minutes, and I can't stand either of you."
He managed his own love life far better: In 1976 he married Robin Jameson, now 47, a friend of his sister Brenda, also 47. "He was always wise beyond his years," says Robin. In 1989 McGraw cofounded Courtroom Sciences, Inc., an Irving, Texas-based firm that helps corporations present themselves at trial. He met Oprah
in 1997, when she was being sued by Texas cattlemen enraged at her on-air statement that fear of mad cow disease kept her from eating beef. Hired to help with her defense, McGraw flew to Chicago. Kept waiting too long in Oprah
's office, he told her assistant, "It's not my a—being sued!" Oprah
won the case, and McGraw won a patron. "He is one of the best psychologists I have ever run into," the talk queen said to her audience the first time he appeared on her show. "I told him, 'If you ever did therapy, I'd go to you.' "
She shouldn't hold her breath. McGraw is quite content working on his third book, Self Matters
, doing his TV gig and helping Robin raise son Jordan, 14, at their 8,000-sq.-ft. mansion in suburban Dallas. Recent college grad Jay is home for a while now too, working on three new teen-help books and not feeling reverent. "My dad writes useful stuff," says Jay, "but it's also boring." Should be an interesting summer.
Chris Coats in Dallas