Dr. Hollywood

On the Celebrity Rehab set.

By Debby Applegate '89

I first discovered Drew Pinsky ’80—or Dr. Drew, as he is universally known—late one night around 2001. Flipping across the radio dial, I landed on Loveline, his call-in advice show, on which he and his then co-host, Adam Carolla, interviewed celebrity guests and answered questions from young listeners about sex, relationships, drugs and alcohol—the sort of questions you can’t easily ask your parents or friends. I couldn’t turn the dial. The questions were shockingly frank, revealing everything from appalling ignorance to deliberate depravity. More shocking still, Carolla greeted most calls, no matter how humiliating or painful, with a stream of sick jokes and juvenile wisecracks. But each time I’d reach for the dial in disgust, Dr. Drew’s voice would break into the darkness and stay my hand. Combining compassion, good humor and common sense with unrelenting honesty and calm authority, he seemed to inspire trust and relief in even the most frightened or rebellious callers.

In the intervening years, I often noticed Dr. Drew popping up in odd places. He trained in internal medicine at the University of Southern California, but his real talent is for finding the intersection between popular culture and public health. Over the years, he’s shifted his attention from sexuality to addiction to, most recently, the psychological perils of our increasingly celebrity-obsessed culture. He appears regularly on TV, dispensing health advice on the televised version of Loveline, on series such as Strictly Sex with Dr. Drew and on talk shows ranging from Today to The Tyra Banks Show. Odder yet, he’s made cameo appearances on TV shows including Dawson’s Creek and taken small acting roles in movies starring John Travolta and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson. He’s even appeared as a guest voice on the TV shows Family Guy and Crank Yankers.

But Dr. Drew didn’t fully recapture my attention until earlier this year, when I turned on the television to find a marathon showing of his latest series, VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. I was immediately swept up into the saga of nine minor celebrities—musicians, B-list actors, adult film performers, reality TV personalities and one ultimate fighting champion—as Dr. Drew led them through a three-week addiction rehabilitation program, captured entirely on camera.

As with Loveline, the fascination of Celebrity Rehab lies in watching human beings at their weakest—lying, screaming, vomiting, falling apart body and soul—as they are confronted by Dr. Drew’s empathy, candor and unswerving faith in the healing powers of rational thought and hard work. Despite initial fears of exploitation, media critics, addiction specialists and physicians praised the show for its unsparing depiction of both the rehabilitation process and the dark side of America’s obsession with celebrity. The show spawned a second season, which aired this past October, and an upcoming sequel, Celebrity Sober-House.

But out in the blogosphere, on Internet chat boards and discussion groups, many fans have expressed a concern: Now that Dr. Drew is shifting from public educator to “playing a doctor on TV,” from being an expert on celebrities to being a celebrity himself, is he falling prey to the culture of narcissism he condemns? Is he now, as one blogger worried, “addicted to saving people”? Curious to see if they were right, I leapt at the chance to tag along with Dr. Drew for a day. In person, he seemed just he does on TV, maybe even more so. Tanner, fitter and more boyish-looking than the average 50-year-old physician, he radiated intellectual assurance and ambition but also carried himself with an earnest, self-deprecating humility that is rare among both doctors and television personalities. Everywhere we went, from his hushed radio studio, to the rehab facilities he runs at Las Encinas Hospital and the Pasadena Recovery Center, to the bustling set of Celebrity Sober-House, it was clear that his dual status as doctor and celebrity reinforced rather than undermined his influence. His fame added force to his medical pronouncements, while his role as healer enhanced people’s emotional connection to him. Perhaps the two roles have more in common than we’d guess. After all, who among us has not longed for a doctor who “really cares” or secretly imagined that we’d be friends with Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, if only they got to know us?

My theory seemed confirmed as we ended the day at Starbucks. The young manager of the coffee shop, a stranger, approached our table with great excitement to thank Dr. Drew for inspiring her to stay sober for the past two years. When I offered to take a picture of the two of them together with her cell phone camera, in the way of celebrity autograph seekers, she protested with genuine outrage: “Oh, I would never take a picture of Dr. Drew like that! I respect him.”

APPLEGATE  Let’s start with Amherst. How did your time in college influence your career path?
PINSKY  Amherst is the reason I was able to do everything I ever did. That was where my brain was transformed.

APPLEGATE  You’re a Californian, born and bred. What did you think when you arrived as a freshman?
PINSKY  I walked in with linen pants and flip-flops and no winter clothes—and no understanding. I got good grades my first semester, but then I looked around and thought, “I am not this smart.” I just announced, “Even though I’m doing well, the price is just too high. And I’m only being a doctor because everyone wanted me to be one, and that’s not my choice.” So I actually left college for a semester and went back to California.

APPLEGATE  What was the rest of college like for you?
PINSKY  I was very depressed through a lot of college. Very severely depressed. In fact, I’m pissed to this day that people didn’t treat that right. I started having panic attacks. I think this is what draws me to young people a little bit. I was so poorly handled that it makes me want to pay attention to that age group.

There used to be a little medical clinic down by the tennis courts; I went down there. My head was spinning, I didn’t know what was going on, I’d never heard of a panic attack before. I’d actually had the insight to go to the mental health services, and they sent me down to the doctor to make sure I wasn’t having a seizure or some hyperthyroid problem. The doctor, some old-timer, looks at me and says, “You need to take some long walks. Young man, you need to get your act together.” It was so demeaning.

Thank god I didn’t have the addiction gene, because it would have turned on right then.

APPLEGATE You arrived at Amherst in the fall of 1976, in the first full co-ed class. What did you think about that?
PINSKY  Most of my female peers were very unhappy that year. There was a small group that I knew very well that was very happy, but there was a large group that was very conflicted. I think at the time a lot of them felt sort of ignored because there was such a record of socializing at Smith and Mount Holyoke. There was no dating, and on weekends you just went away.

[Later], I ended up hanging out with a class about two years behind me, and that was a class that was already fully assimilated and happy. So by the time I was a junior and a senior it was a different campus than when I was a freshman and a sophomore.

APPLEGATE  In retrospect, did the transition to coeducation affect your later thinking?
PINSKY  It made me aware of how clueless we were about one another’s motivations—not only about what each of us was experiencing but [about] how different our experiences were. We were deeply indoctrinated into, “We’re all the same. There is no difference. We just want to have sex, and let’s get on with it.” That was the deep indoctrination of the sexes then. That was such bullshit, so that did affect me. When I grew up, I thought, “Oh, my god. I’ve been sold a bill of goods.”

APPLEGATE  Do you think that’s still true of college kids today?
PINSKY  No, it’s not nearly as true today. There’s a different thing. Now, there’s an indoctrinated hook-up culture: “Have a good time and don’t worry about what we’re all experiencing; just have fun.”

APPLEGATE  What was your favorite class?
PINSKY  Hadley Arkes—"Political Obligations," I think. He got me going on politics and philosophy, and that’s really where my reading started as an adult, post-post medical education. When I went back and started reading again, I started reading Kant, reading Aristotle, reading Abraham Lincoln, like a maniac. I know a lot of his speeches nearly by heart, that’s how many times I’ve read them. And that’s all Hadley Arkes. I didn’t care as much about where [Arkes] went with all of it; he just got me thinking. That’s the thing about Amherst: if you get me thinking, thinking carefully and critically, and expose me to all these ideas, I’ll keep going.

Arkes actually called me once, because his son wrote a screenplay about Loveline. I was so deeply moved. He goes, “I think I’ve seen your show; I think it’s good. You’re teaching people.” And I go, “Yes, yes! You’re my hero!” [Laughs.] The kid was great—a bright kid, of course. I couldn’t do anything for him, though; nobody would take the pitches.

APPLEGATE  What about in the sciences?
PINSKY  Neurosciences and biochemistry really turned me on. I’m still in neuroscience—addiction is neuroscience. Dr. Steve George was a new professor, and he taught the first neuro­science course at Amherst. I think I took the first one. It was a big deal for me—and it is still not as important to me as Hadley Arkes’ class.

APPLEGATE  Any regrets?
PINSKY  One of my big regrets was not playing football for Amherst College.

APPLEGATE  Why didn’t you?
PINSKY  Because I was so caught up in “What am I going to do with my life?” I couldn’t have pulled it off, given how pre­occupied I was with academics. I did track one year—a desperate attempt to have some fun. I did theater in high school, and that kind of came back toward the end of my freshman year and energized me. I played John Proctor in The Crucible at Mount Holyoke College. I was in Godspell in 1977.

But performing wasn’t making me happy. When I decided to go back to science, things just cleared up for me. I had a purpose. I felt so much better. I was even going to be in an opera; a guy named Jackson, for his senior thesis, staged a rare Mozart opera, and I was going to sing the lead. I had to turn all that stuff down to go back to science.

When I came back to medicine, it was now my thing. That enthusiasm carried me all the way through medical school. Once I came back here to USC [for medical school], I had nothing but fun.

APPLEGATE  That’s not the usual pattern.
PINSKY  I know. Amherst training was so much more rigorous than what I was dealing with in medical school. Medical school was more time-consuming, and there was more to do, but it wasn’t as rigorous. It was like a giant language class or something. And because of the Amherst training, when I got to the wards, I could think on my feet 10 times better than any of my peers. I was a star all of a sudden.

APPLEGATE  You didn’t aspire to be “a TV personality”?
PINSKY  I wasn’t thinking that way then. I was just enjoying medical school. There was obviously some part of me that wanted to come forward, that needed an expression, and radio did that for me. Still, the whole performing instinct—it’s got to be pathological. There’s something not good about it.

APPLEGATE  Do you really think that performing is, by nature, unhealthy?
PINSKY  Well, let’s put it this way: if I had just done [performing], it would have been the most unhealthy lifestyle. It would have been horrible.

APPLEGATE  How did you end up on the radio?
PINSKY  I had zero interest in radio. My only experience was a single broadcast at WAMH in college: I filled in for a friend who used to read the news off a Teletype. One of the things I read—I made sort of a joke out of it—was about Elvis Presley being found down in his bathroom, you know, on his rug. I thought it was so funny.

I was living in Pasadena and going to medical school near this radio station. I had friends who socialized with guys who worked there. There were two guys who realized they spent all their time obsessing about relationships. They asked for a time slot where they would just turn on the phones and give friendly advice about relationships. The program director said, “Great, but figure out how to make it community service.” Someone said, “Well, Pinsky is in medical school; maybe he can help.” They had this crazy idea: they wanted me to do something called “Ask a Surgeon,” where I’d use big words and it’d be so funny. Their idea was, “We’ll make fun of you for using big words.”

APPLEGATE  Did you have a genuine interest in the show?
PINSKY  I loved medical school, but I was restless. The first night I got [to the station], I went up with my gynecology textbooks, my infectious-disease textbooks, and I was freaked out. I wanted to do a good job. I was worried what people would think about me. I remember that night like it was yesterday. These kids were coming out of the woodwork, and it was like, “Oh, and by the way, kids, there’s this thing called GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, that you’ve never heard of and you need to know about.”

APPLEGATE  This was in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, in the 1980s?
PINSKY  I was one of the first to talk about these issues and make them public. I really thought it was important, but it was also fun. I thought I was doing community service. It was another way to ply my craft. But I was also a little embarrassed. That was why I didn’t use my last name: I didn’t want anyone to know I was doing it or to be seen as self-promotional.

The show very quickly moved from the middle of the night to a better time slot. It had a crazy following very fast. It clearly met some need in this town.

APPLEGATE  Wasn’t that the heyday of Dr. Ruth, the famously frank sex therapist?
PINSKY  Dr. Ruth was on radio, but she was not a physician. She really had no idea what she was doing. And she was 75 years old. I was 24, 25. I remember thinking, “God, this woman doesn’t understand. Kids do not need to know how to have good sex; they need to know [about] the consequence of [sex].” I knew what kids were doing; they did not need to be encouraged to be more sexual.

APPLEGATE  Then what?
PINSKY  I went on to residency. We got some press. And my resident director found out and became enraged with me: “Who are you to be doing this? I should be doing this. I’m the director of a program. You’re a little peon.” Medicine is a very militaristic system. As a private, you don’t step out of line.

But also, it was: “This is sick, what you’re talking to young people about.” And I thought, “Maybe there is something wrong with me for having this kind of discussion in public about this kind of material. Maybe this is not right. Maybe my instincts are bad.” So I actually stopped doing it for a while. Then he came back to me a few days later and said, “I’m worried about your career.” 

PINSKY  Yeah. About a month or two later, the New England Journal of Medicine published its first article on the term “safe sex,” and the whole thing broke about giving public information to young people about protecting themselves. I’d gone back to do the show when I ran into [the resident director] in the hall. He said, “You still doing that radio thing? How about I do it now? I’ll just take over now.” I remember not having words to express my righteous indignation. I’ll never let go of that. I was so angry about that.

APPLEGATE  What did you do after your residency?
PINSKY  I was a hard-core internist. I’d practice 14 hours a day, leaving at 5:30 a.m. and struggling to get back home by 10 at night. I wanted to be the best doctor. I was doing radio one night a week, but it was way in the background.

But after five years of that, I started to experience really serious dread. I dreaded going to work every day. I would see up to 60 patients a day—really sick people. I was running the medical department at a psychiatric hospital. I was seeing lots of drug addicts and became an expert in detox.

When they decided to run that radio show five nights a week in 1995, I decided to do it, and it forced me to rearrange things in a good way.

Then the TV opportunity came up in 1996, and they asked me to do some screen tests. They tested me with Adam Carolla, who was doing a character on the morning show here in Los Angeles. And it was like, Boom.

APPLEGATE  You’re referring to your former co-host. You hit the big time when your radio show with Adam Carolla, Loveline, went into national syndication and then was picked up by MTV. I’m sure Carolla is very nice personally, but professionally, these shows were a risky, occasionally appalling combination of shock-jock jokes and sober medical advice.
PINSKY  The guy I was working with throughout the ’80s as my co-host was way worse. He was like a train wreck I was always trying to contain. But I always felt like whatever he did, it gave me the opportunity to strike. He was like my blocker. Me by myself is not very interesting, especially to young people.

About 1996, I started to think that maybe this is what I’m really meant to do. I spent the next 10 years shrinking my practice, getting partners in place, finding a balance.

APPLEGATE  May I presume that media pays better than medicine?
PINSKY  Medicine, pfffft. I do not make money practicing medicine. I practice because I love it and it is the right thing to do and it gives me the opportunity to do everything else. The radio is enough money to keep my kids in private school and pay my mortgage.

imageFilming the second Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew (at far left)
with patients (from right) Jeff Conaway, Steven Adler
and Rodney King.
  How did your reality TV show, Celebrity Rehab, come about?
PINSKY  Somebody came to me with the idea. I thought, “Yeah right, that’ll never happen.” It was pitched for a long time. VH1 showed some interest, but still I thought, “It’ll never happen.” And I was ambivalent about it. Then Bob Forest, an addiction counselor and 20-year sobriety guy, said to me, “I’m so sick of how our work is portrayed in the media as a joke and a vacation. These celebrities, we know how sick they are. It’s time we did this on television.” I said, “Well, funny you should say so….”

All the stories about addiction that are out there are distorted because they’re from the patient’s perspective. This is the medical team’s perspective. That’s a more accurate representation.

APPLEGATE  What is it like to combine the glare of TV with the privacy of a rehab ward?
PINSKY  The first go ’round, it was a completely empty set. It was really of an experimental nature. You could make the case that to make this ethical, we should have had an internal research board to review and make recommendations and treat the show like an experiment, like research. The practical reality is: impossible! Television owns this. We all signed a contract. We’re actually employees of a TV company. Talk about serving multiple gods—I mean, it’s crazy-making.

I agreed to do the TV show provided I could just do my job as a doctor and they’d document it. Now, I’ve done enough TV to know [that] when you get in and executives start monkeying around, there’s no telling what they’ll do. VH1 sat in a locked room, watching the first four days of shooting. We were wringing our hands wondering what was going to happen: What if they shut us down? What would happen to these patients?

And, by the way, we had multiple problems.We had one guy who got so sick I could not admit him, and he became homicidal. I can’t tell you who he was—a celebrity who had to go to the psych hospital in Las Encinas. VH1 agreed to pay for a month to treat him. And the guy did great.

APPLEGATE  How do the TV cameras change the rehab experience?
PINSKY  The moment you walk onto that set, there’s an intensity. Everyone feels it, but none of us can quite describe what it is.

And I have to sort through such a morass. Addicts are always bullshitting me anyway, so I have to figure out what’s addict bullshit and what is them posturing for camera.

APPLEGATE  Does it matter what sort of bullshit it is?
PINSKY  Yes, it matters. Lying for addiction: I’m used to reading that. But lying for camera is self-editing. How hard do I push? I don’t want them to expose themselves on camera in a way that would be shaming.

APPLEGATE  Do the cameras change the transference between doctor and patient?
PINSKY  Oh, absolutely. Profound, profound. I was almost in an altered state, the situation was so stressful and so constantly conflicted [between the protocols of rehab and television].

We just finished filming another cycle, you know. And this one was way more intense than the last one. This was a sicker group. It became harder to cast. The people have much more psychopathology. I get my breath taken away thinking about it. It’s a high-wire act for me.

APPLEGATE  Recently you found yourself in a tempest when you mentioned the actor Tom Cruise in an interview with Playboy, suggesting that his faith in Scientology was likely a sign of childhood neglect. You’ve been around the media long enough that I couldn’t help wondering whether you were simply speaking unusually frankly or were more calculating, knowing that sort of statement would attract attention.
PINSKY  I had no idea. I was shocked at the response. It taught me a huge lesson: there’s a gigantic difference between print and radio. I’ve spoken frankly about things like this a million times on the radio.

APPLEGATE  Radio hosts seem to get away with a lot more than other people in the media.
PINSKY  What you say on radio just goes in the vapor. It doesn’t get re-quoted. But once it gets into print, well, the Lord has spoken, thus sayeth the Lord.

Remember: my credo is “do no harm.” So if I hurt Tom Cruise, I am deeply sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I meant to talk about what the public can learn about his behavior as a public figure.

APPLEGATE  In 2006, you published the first empirical study of celebrity personality. You began the process years ago, before Americans became so obsessed with celebrity culture. Do you attribute that to good instincts, or do you aggressively look around for upcoming trends? [The study showed an unusually high correlation between celebrity status and narcissistic tendencies, especially among reality TV performers. Pinsky compiled the statistics by asking a random selection of Loveline guests to fill out the standard Narcissistic Personality Inventory test.]
PINSKY  I have a great instinct that I’ve learned to trust. It seems to push me toward what I perceive is the problem. I can really trust my right brain. I smell stuff. I can read minds a little bit. [Laughs.] It comes through talking to people on the radio—hundreds of calls a day—and talking to drug addicts who lie and bullshit and obfuscate all the time. I have to trust what I’m feeling about what they’re saying rather than what I’m hearing.

APPLEGATE  What do you see as the next big cultural/medical issue for your audience? Perhaps the soldiers returning from Iraq?
PINSKY  I’m already into that. The biggest surprise of my career is that I’m talking to kids every night who are going to war or coming back. Every night, it’s PTSD, disrupted relationships, horrible traumas, people dead, grief—just horrible stuff. I guess I’m getting used to it, but at first I was blown away. I can’t believe that this is where we are, back at war.

APPLEGATE  Why don’t you have more competitors, more physicians in the public eye?
PINSKY  Because they’re too busy practicing medicine. You know, it is hard to get up in the media as a physician and suffer the scrutiny of your peers. Everybody’s an expert, and who are you to be speaking?

The skills that are required for doing media are anathema to the skills of being a physician. First of all, we think that to entertain is beneath us. So that’s strike one.

Strike two: In order for us, ethically, to begin discussing a topic, we need to discuss it in complete detail. So it takes us 10 minutes on any topic. TV will not allow that.

Strike three would be that it’s not an innate skill to be on TV. I’m still developing it. I got to sit in [for Larry King] and host Larry King Live; it was the greatest thrill of my life. There were so many mechanical media beats that had to be met, and I thought, “There’s no other doctor on earth who could do this.” You have to get out just when the satellite breaks, you have to know where your cameras are. Larry looks like he’s doing nothing; he’s doing a ton.

APPLEGATE  What would you say to students who are pre-med, pre-law, pre-professional, but who want a form of success that goes beyond “making partner”?
PINSKY  That is the great gift of an Amherst education: you will solve that conundrum. There was a famous psychologist named James Masterson who thought that one of the greatest solutions to the human existential crisis is the creative solution. He suggested that by creating, you will solve many of life’s problems, not just for yourself in terms of integrating who you are, but you’ll also make a difference. Don’t just do what you’re supposed to do, what people think you ought to do. Trust your instincts and look for the creative synthesis.

Applegate is the author of The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Photos courtesy VH1.