The Celebrity of Andrew Weil, M.D.

America’s Alternative Medicine Man

by Kathy Petreré

 

“Daniels writes: ‘Dr. Weil’s finest argument is not evidence, it is his appearance: could any MD with so Tolstoyan a beard and so simple a mode of dress fail to have achieved enlightenment? In the Gucci-Armani culture, dressing with studied carelessness and indifference is a sign of profundity.’ Those Canon commercials were right – ‘Image IS everything!’”

            Not bitter, are we?

Fortunately, for Dr. Andrew Weil – the author of the huge bestseller “Spontaneous Healing” (published in 1995 by Knopf) and proclaimed guru of alternative medicine -- there are far fewer naysayers than fans. And boy, does he have the fans.

What does it tell you when a New York Times writer says, “I’m addicted to Dr. Weil (most people call him Andy). I can spend hours crawling through his remedies….”?

Or when the New York Daily News offers, “For anyone who has ever been seriously ill, or knows anyone who is seriously ill, [the book contains] valuable information….”

How about when the Village Voice writes, “For those who consider Western medicine to be lacking, if not downright dopey, Dr. Andrew Weil’s home remedies database is a gold mine.”

If you were conscious and the least bit interested in healthcare between 1995 and 1997, you would have had to work hard to miss Dr. Weil. During 1995 alone, he appeared on Prime Time Live, Good Morning America, CNN Sunday Morning (as well as CNN Medical News) among others. Book reviews and personal interviews came out in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Atlanta Journal, Arizona Republic, Boston Herald and People Magazine to name just a few.

Weil is a Harvard-trained natural medicine physician whose goal is to blend traditional, allopathic medicine with alternative medicine. “Combining traditional and alternative medicine can save American health care: That’s the message of Dr. Andrew Weil, one of the most visible spokesmen for the alternative-medicine movement.”

Weil calls this hybrid “integrative medicine,” something he began to practice after graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1968.

Since achieving national recognition in 1995, this only child of Philadelphia millinery shopkeepers has been pitching his ideas to a hungry public.

After Spontaneous Healing was published, he began to produce videotapes, audiocassettes and CDs along as well as launching his own website, www.drweil.com. (A little over a year after it went live, the “Ask Dr. Weil” website was receiving more than 2 million hits a month.)

It’s five years later now and Andrew Weil is still going strong – the initial printing for his latest book, Eating Well for Optimum Health, was 1 million copies – even more entrenched in the minds of people around the world looking for other ways to improve and maintain their health.

Did I mention that all of the customer reviews of Weil’s books on Amazon.com

are four or five stars. All of them.

So what exactly propelled Dr. Andrew Weil into the spotlight after a lifetime of saying the same thing, including authoring five other books on similar subjects?

Three things:

1.      The masses were finally ready for his message in 1995;

2.      His background, appearance and demeanor; and,

3.      His agent and his publisher.

Weil always had the second, but it took the first to create the audience and the third to introduce Dr. Weil to them.

The Message and Its Appeal

The 1990s found a country where mainstream medicine was in crisis. More books on alternative medicine were being published, meeting the needs of the many who were desperately seeking something other than allopathic medicine. Said Abraham Verghese of the New York Times in 1995, “We are in the midst of an explosion of interest in alternative medicine and holistic approaches to health.”

            The stage had been set during the recent years. People had begun experimenting with alternative remedies like acupuncture, aromatherapy, herbs, biofeedback; more and more were convinced of the effectiveness of using non-drug therapies.

By the time glasses clinked, ringing in 1995, the audience had gathered. People were searching for other, more natural ways to take care of themselves when boom, here comes Andrew Weil, M.D., perfectly positioned to show them the way.

Richard Pine, Weil’s agent, said “Like many truly innovative people, [Dr. Weil] was just ahead of his time.”

It looked as though the masses had finally caught up with him. “Weil, it seems, is an industrious prophet with the right message at the right time.”

Weil himself says, “I've long had a certain notoriety, which increased gradually through the years -- I've been appearing on TV for 30 years – it all took a quantum leap after the book. One explanation is that the times caught up with me.  I always felt I was ahead of my time and culture.”

In a 1995 interview with the Houston Chronicle, he discussed how this transition came about.

“’What we now call standard medicine does not have a long history,’ Weil said. He said it originated in the early part of this century when the mindset was that science could solve all problems. ‘Somewhere around 1960, there was a realization that science and technology created as many problems as they solved.’ This attitude combined with added economic pressures has created an openness toward alternative medicine….”

One New York Times writer concurred, “Weil’s sudden, astonishing fame says…something about changing attitudes toward alternative remedies….  

America was ready for a new approach to health and well-being.


Changes in the Media and the Affects to the Publishing Industry

As the public was getting fed up with HMOs, high insurance costs, expensive medical procedures and the like, book publishing was in the midst of great change.

In the “old days” of getting a book to market, publishers treated writers more like family than commodities and books were treated as intrinsically valuable rather than pluses or minuses on a profit and loss statement. With publishers being swallowed up by megacorporations in the recent past, the focus seems be on getting books off the shelves and into people’s hands as quickly as possible (cha-ching!). The print media was once the primary way to have books reviewed and brought to the public’s attention; now television, radio and, of course, the internet, have become the vehicles publishers need to use to keep their books on shelves (including e-shelves) and stay competitive.

Paul Bogaards, Executive Director of Publicity for Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, says in the past twenty years, “The changes in the industry in general have been seismic, everything from the retail end of our business to the way we manufacture our books, the digitization of text, the changes affecting our industry have been profound.”

These changes – the use of television especially – helped contribute to Dr. Weil’s sudden and immediate success. It afforded him a huge opportunity to be seen by millions around the country at the same time.

Says Weil’s agent, Richard Pine, it wasn’t just the book that made him famous. It was television and many appearances on talk shows. “Asked why Weil suddenly got so popular, writing the same stuff he’s always written, Pine says simply, ‘Prime Time Live.’”

Bogaards agrees:

In terms of the celebrity aspect of authors, in terms of creating an awareness of books in the marketplace, the general approach…they’ve changed somewhat. Years ago, books were essentially published, brought to market and the publisher would hope that the book would be reviewed and that reviews would in fact drive sales. I think that in years past there were far more outlets available to publishers, at least on the review side, in the newspaper world


and in the magazine world. There were more daily newspapers, there were more magazines in circulation. So what’s changed is that you’ve had the penetration of broadcast media; you’ve got radio, you’ve got television and now you’ve got the internet. What’s changed is how people live their lives…how they get information. That’s what’s changed.

The audience was primed and the “multi”-media were available and waiting for their next big story. The only thing missing was a credible and convincing leader.

Enter Dr. Andrew Weil.

The Man with the Message

With his “Buddha-like countenance, complete with bald dome and bushy white beard,” he quickly became an alternative medicine icon for people. Weil was the future of medicine.

Weil’s beginnings were humble. The only child of Daniel and Jenny Weil, Philadelphia milliners, Dr. Weil had what he called an “out-of-body” experience during a reaction to allergy medication. It was that experience that sparked Weil’s lifelong fascination with drugs and how they effect the mind.

After graduating from high school, he traveled around the world for a year on a scholarship from the American Association for the United Nations. It was during this time that he learned a “respect for native traditions.”

Upon his return, Weil went on to Harvard where he majored in botany and was later accepted into the Harvard Medical School.

“In 1968, Weil convinced Harvard officials and the federal government to let him conduct the first-ever double-blind human experiments on the effects of smoking marijuana. His conclusion was that pot was a mild intoxicant with few significant side effects. When the study was published in Science, contending that marijuana use did not lead to addiction to harder drugs, it provoked a national controversy.”

New York City’s Institute of Current World Affairs awarded Weil a scholarship and he used it to travel extensively in South America and Africa between 1971-1975. He spent that time studying medicinal plants and natural healing techniques as well as trying to find shamans to learn from. Weil wrote about these adventures in his book, “The Marriage of the Sun and Moon,” which was published in 1980.

His first book, “The Natural Mind,” was published in 1972 and promoted his theory that “human beings have a natural drive to alter their consciousness, and that all ‘highs’ come from within the body and therefore outlawing drugs makes no sense.”

Weil moved to Arizona in 1975 and began to practice what he calls integrative medicine. In 1977, he began lecturing at the University of Arizona Medical School and eventually joined faculty in 1983. In 1994, he founded and became the Director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, whose first class of Fellows began its two-year program in 1997.

Because of his credentials, background in natural medicine and commonsense approach to health and healing, as well as his personal appeal, Weil has been labeled a “guru,” a title he quickly tries to cast off. Weil sees himself as a doctor and teacher. Paul Bogaards says of the physician:

“…he’ll say that he’s not a celebrity, he’s not a guru…what he is, is he’s a doctor…the two things he’s been trying to do throughout his life is he’s been trying to educate Americans about their own health and wellness so they can make informed choices about their own health and wellness. The second thing he’s trying to do is change the face of medical education in this country, to create a kind of, a new kind of doctor, a doctor that is responsive to the needs and wants of patients.”

With a demeanor that is authoritative but open, sincere, warm, he is convincing.  Dr. Weil isn’t pushy about his ideas – he utterly believes in them, though – and can be very persuasive, especially to an audience that is open to them.

 Bonnie Rubin, in Good Housekeeping, said of Weil’s delivery, “When he talks about the healing powers of green tea and meditation, he makes them sound about as exotic as aspirin and cough syrup. His manner is comforting and his suggestions are sensible.”

Even Weil’s agent, Richard Pine and publicist, Paul Bogaards, sound like genuine believers. During a conversation with Bogaards, he gave me a brief  course on the different qualities of green tea. Since meeting Weil, Bogaards has laid off coffee and taken up brewing the earth-flavored leaves instead. But the tea has to be from a Japanese store and brewed just right. It’s hard to imagine a New Yorker in the publishing business living without Starbucks…but he does. Happily.

So if Weil can change the habits of a busy publisher, it’s not such a stretch to a lot of other people following him.

Steve Wilson, of the Arizona Republic, was not far off when he said, “His thoughtful voice is nudging American medicine in a promising, alternative direction.”  

Weil’s critics aren’t quite as persuaded. Some believe that Weil and others like him are hucksters just in it for the power and money.

Dr. Saul Green, a cancer researcher, said, “Right now the country has been brainwashed where all natural is concerned, where alternative is concerned and these guys are smart enough to know what to say to what audience in order to make themselves popular and also profitable.”

But even his opponents had to give some credence to American’s movement toward alternative medicine. Arnold S. Relman in a 1995 Wall Street Journal article had to acknowledge, “Judging from the booming sales of Dr. Weil’s book and the success of others working in this genre…many Americans resonate to this message.”

Relman continues to protest Weil’s success, “Dr. Weil radiates such enthusiasm and bonhomie that one feels almost churlish in criticizing him. Yet the sad fact is that this is simply another one of those shoddy books selling unsubstantiated claims of miraculous healing.”

And then he attacked the people who think Dr. Weil isn’t a quack. “’Alternative healers,’ by contrast, are less expensive, more accessible and seemingly sympathetic. They employ low-tech procedures that patients can understand.” ,

Weil’s ideas aren’t that wacky. After all, he never says throw out the traditional medicine baby with the bathwater, he just thinks that there are better ways to maintain health than popping pills for the sniffles or treating a symptom without looking at the overall picture first.

Jeffrey Kluger of Time wrote, “Where Weil wins many of his critics back, however – and where the genius of his appeal may lie – is when he avoids straying from the medical fold at all. Throughout his books he concedes that for all the promise of her alternative cures, sometimes the best answer is the one consumers are most familiar with: the high-tech medicine of the industrialized West.”

In other countries, Weil isn’t considered a quack at all – or a novelty. In a Sunday Times article, the author writes, “Other classically trained doctors also accept Weil’s spiel, although his high-profile evangelism grates.” Dr. George Lewith of the Centre for the Study of Complementary Medicine said, “‘Integrative medicine may be the flavour of the month in the United States but we’ve been doing it here in Southampton for a long time.’”

There does seem to be something special about Dr. Weil beyond his television appearances, his agent, his marketing people, his website. In 1997, Time Magazine named him one of “TIME’s 25 most influential people.”  This is how they describe how they choose:

These are people who have accomplished something subtle and difficult. They have got other people to follow their lead. They don’t necessarily have the maximum in raw power; instead, they are people whose styles are imitated, whose ideas are adopted and whose examples are followed. Powerful people twist your arm. Influentials just sway your thinking.”

(When the that list came out, Time admitted that its cousin, Time Inc. New Media, was “negotiating with Weil regarding an affiliation with his website….”)

That balanced approach is another part of Weil’s appeal to the masses. He’s not just an herb-eating (or smoking) middle-aged hippie; he believes that conventional medicine has its place…and so do alternative therapies. Put them together to create his dream goal of integrative medicine. Most people can wrap their brains around that.

Conventional Treatment Warranted: ‘Oh, I have cut my leg off -- take me to the emergency room.’

Alternative Treatment Useful: ‘My hayfever is driving me crazy. Where did I put those stinging nettle capsules….?’  

The Marketing of Dr. Weil

For years, Weil published book after book after book. All were interesting, but none were stellar. So what was it about Spontaneous Healing that put Dr. Weil on the map? Was it the message or the marketing?

His previous five books, The Natural Mind (1972, rev. 1986), The Marriage of the Sun and Moon (1980), Chocolate to Morphine (1983, rev. 1993), Health and Healing (1983), and Natural Health, Natural Medicine (1990), were all originally published by Houghton Mifflin. Spontaneous Healing was the first book published by Knopf. This was due to a change in agent. Weil, looking for someone with a broader view of his work, dropped big-time New York literary agent Lynn Nesbit and hired Richard Pine of Arthur Pine Associates.

In a 1997 New York Times article, Larissa MacFarquhar writes about what made the difference between all those books and Spontaneous Healing. Primarily, she credits Richard Pine.

 “[Richard Pine] is also the person in large part responsible for Weil’s current success. Before ‘Spontaneous Healing’ was published in 1995, Weil was just another alternative-health guy whose books did O.K. but never spectacularly. His agent was Lynn Nesbit, who is one of the best-known literary agents in New York, but to her Weil was a niche author – not the type to make it big. ‘If Andy Weil really wants to make it,’ she used to tell people, in what must be one of her more embarrassing misjudgments, ‘he’s got to shave off his beard.’”

Pine, on the other hand, downplays his role. He said recently:

 “Dr. Weil's *the man*, (sic) not me. Like many truly innovative people, he was just ahead of his time. In 1995, consumers and the mass media were ready to hear and read what he had to say. It wasn't me that made him viable in a big way.  It was the crisis in mainstream healthcare. Dr. Weil is a good and important man -- a true pioneer who deserves all the attention he gets...and then some.”

MacFarquhar goes on to say, “Pine saw Weil the way Weil saw himself – as someone destined to change America – and so he took him to meet the editor in chief of Knopf, Sonny Mehta. Mehta got the point at once, and thus was born the Dr. Andrew Weil of PBS and best-seller lists.”

The folks at Knopf knew a good thing when they saw it – Weil had passion, he had credentials, he had the ability to communicate and, importantly, he had “magic,” that intangible characteristic that makes celebrities who they are.  

Paul Bogaards described those initial meetings with Weil and what followed:

So what happened in 1995…the world essentially caught up with Dr. Weil…to the messages that he’d been pushing out. His message hasn’t changed…it’s always been the same. What did change was the way people were listening. People were beginning to respond to Andy’s message in a way that they had not before.

Because of his earlier books, Weil had always had a certain amount of notoriety and had been appearing on television for thirty years.  But it wasn’t just Spontaneous Healing that made him famous; it was television and many appearances on talk shows. Bogaards explains:

“One of the reasons…that happened was because we were able to find outlets for Dr. Weil that a previously publisher might not have been able to. We were able to get a commitment early on from some very influential television programs. Very specifically…Prime Time Live…I had a meeting with the producer for Prime Time Live early on, where I gave her the manuscript of Spontaneous Healing and I basically said to her, “Look, this is an important book, this is a book that the country is ready to embrace, and will embrace, and Dr. Weil is just amazing with the work he’s doing out there at the University of Arizona. [He] was unique at that time…and would make a great story…and the producer read the material, thought it would make a great story and Dr. Nancy Schneiderman flew out to Arizona and spent a couple of days with Andy Weil and they had a segment on him and on the book. What you had there was the beginning of the consciousness-raising about Dr. Weil and the work he was doing, and we just kept building from there.”

Once the publicity ball was rolling, there was no stopping it. After the book(s) came the videotapes, audiocassettes, CDs, his monthly newsletter, scientific journal and the website – all of which prominently feature Andrew Weil’s smiling face. After all, Weil’s visage fits what one would expect a modern day prophet to look like.

“His picture seems ubiquitous, a trim, balding man of 55 with dancing eyes. A mirthful smile embedded in a flowing salt-and-pepper beard gives him the look of a New Age Santa Claus.”

“…there is something avuncular about him, having to do with his beard, of course, and his enormous, ursine chest. He is not especially tall, but exudes an intangible quality of bigness, as an adult does for a child.”

“The cover photo of Dr. Andrew Weil, looking robust and healthy as a bull moose, tells the story: He is a living example of his theory that the body is basically in charge of healing itself.”

Richard Horton, in The Lancet, said, “Weil’s face has become a metaphor for a new specialty – integrative medicine.”

Early on, Knopf used that image to their advantage. “Yes. Dr. Weil is iconic and when we knew early on in the process that we were going to have a lot of penetration…in the television community…that we would be using him on TV, yes, absolutely, we put his mug on the book jacket.”

With his picture featured on the book jackets, video- and audio cassette boxes and his website, Dr. Weil has been promoted as the icon of alternative medicine.

Celebrity is not without its price – or interesting twists. Dr. Weil talked about what being famous has and hasn’t done for him and who some of his most surprising fans are:

The celebrity that first came with Spontaneous Healing has been a prominent theme of my life since. It certainly has facilitated my ability to develop and promote integrative medicine, both within the academic world and with the public. So much in our society is celebrity-driven, I guess it's not surprising that academic medicine would be also. I remember one scene in Boston during the book tour for Spontaneous Healing -- I was lecturing at a professional conference on alternative medicine sponsored by Harvard Medical School. When I finished, I was mobbed by doctors wanting my autograph and photographs with me (emphasis added). Anyway, I'm grateful for the opportunity to advance the cause.

While he’s not crazy about celebrity, Weil is devoted to teaching health and healing. Less than a year after the book was published, he took another giant step toward educating the world when he put his message on the World Wide Web.

www.drweil.com

Richard Pine and Weil’s lawyer saw the future on the web and were instrumental in getting Dr. Weil and his message to the public online. Traffic was still rather light on the internet in February 1996 when the website was launched by HotWired. Despite the vast numbers of people not yet online, the response to drweil.com was tremendous.

            Weil and his marketing team took utter advantage of the new media, breaking new ground with a live, interactive health clinic webcast mid-year. “The clinic became one of HotWired’s most popular sites the day it opened for business.”

In August of 1996, Anne Raver of the New York Times dubbed Weil, “Rebel on the Web”  and the biweekly health talk was proclaimed “one of the Web-zine HotWired’s biggest draws – and one of a growing number of sound programs luring Web enthusiasts.”

At that time the website offered a rich, interactive environment that included a Q&A section, the DocWeil Database, a physician referral database, even a recipe-of-the-week. Today, it has even more for visitors to look through, including community boards. This is part of the whole picture in Andrew Weil’s vision: to get people – his audience as it were – talking about the idea of health and healing.

“As Richard Pine puts it: ‘Our mission to make America Andy’s classroom. That’s what this whole Internet business is about. Our dream is to establish a community of people who are informed about his writing and can then form their own communities.”

On the partnership side, www.drweil.com, is sponsored by vitaminshoppe.com, one of the most extensive and visible health and vitamins websites online. It is fair to assume that as part of Amazon.com’s associates program, www.drweil.com also takes a percentage of the book sales clicked through Weil’s website to the e-bookseller. These kind of connections only serve to create and reinforce the strong associations between the three giants. While Dr. Weil doesn’t promote products per se, just having links on his site to these businesses is no doubt recommendation enough for his followers.

It didn’t hurt his popularity either when Time Inc. New Media acquired the website in May of 1997 for its Pathfinder Network.

 

* * * * * *

Andrew Weil, M.D. is a wonderful example of celebrity who was created (and has incredible staying power) by a number of things, several only available starting in the 1990s.

Dr. Weil was brought to the country’s attention at the right time; people were ready to listen. Secondly, he wanted better exposure and hired a new agent who in turn got him a big-time publisher. Using their extensive resources, Knopf was able to catapult Weil into the spotlight with the help of a television news magazine that was considered “destination programming.” The sizable audience was already sitting in front of their TVs just waiting to be educated.

Weil and his marketing team pressed forward after the Prime Time Live appearance to maximize the building momentum, taking full advantage of print media, radio, personal appearances and eventually the internet. If any of these had been absent, would it have made a significant difference? He was so well covered by the others, it’s doubtful.

            Weil had the experience, the credentials, the persona; and at the right time – 1995 – his marketing team launched him into celebrity where the audience has kept him ever since.

Despite his mainstream popularity, most likely it is Weil’s fellowship program for doctors at University of Arizona’s Program in Integrative Medicine that will give him a place in medical history.

As Larissa MacFarquhar of the New York Times augurs, “This program may turn out to be the most important thing Weil does. If it works – it generates research that is both solid and interesting, and if it manages to integrate alternative concepts into the standard curriculum – then Weil will have changed American medicine.”