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Rachel Hollis has wooed millions of women with her book. What’s her message?

Author and motivational speaker Rachel Hollis last month in Atlanta. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)
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ATLANTA — The lights were flashing, Macklemore was blaring, and Rachel Hollis — this year’s surprise best-selling author — was telling everyone to get on their feet.

“Do a Wonder Woman pose!” she barked at the crowd, a group of a thousand retailers who’d gathered to get pumped to sell. “I know there are men here, but get woke! Women have been trying to be Superman for 200 years. It’s time. Let’s go!” In a small victory for women everywhere, the men did as they were told.

Rachel Hollis is her own kind of wonder woman. In a year of political blockbusters, her book “Girl, Wash Your Face” — a conversational self-help guide that mixes memoir, motivational tips, Bible quotations and common-sense girl talk — muscled its way onto bestseller lists and hasn’t budged. It’s sold more copies this year than James Comey, Omarosa Manigault Newman, Reese Witherspoon — even Marlon Bundo. That’s about 1.6 million books, including e-books and audiobooks. While “Fear” and “Fire and Fury” ignited big sales quickly then faded, “Girl, Wash Your Face” started slow and picked up with time.

If you have no idea who Rachel Hollis is, you are probably not a woman living in the heartland.

Hollis is a 35-year-old mother of four who’s turned her lifestyle blog — and life experience — into a thriving business as a motivational speaker, podcaster and, yes, social media influencer. With her girl-next-door looks and tough-love message of self-reliance — “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for how happy you are” — she has tapped into a well of female need.

Call it the nonconfrontational wing of the #MeToo movement, or Goop for red-state women. Hollis is carving out a safe place for women who want to be strong and successful but may be uneasy about saying so out loud — or even identifying themselves as feminists. “Girl, Wash Your Face” is published under a Christian imprint and has sold most strongly in the South and the Midwest. Hollis’s most ardent devotees are mothers and female entrepreneurs, many of them working from home.

“I’m obsessed with Rachel Hollis,” Heather Kuhr, a 32-year-old mother of two, said as she eagerly waited for Hollis to speak. Kuhr, who runs a business out of her Cincinnati home, said she felt an immediate bond with Hollis. “A lot of times I feel like I’m failing, letting people down,” she said, “so just knowing that I’m not alone in that is really reassuring and helps me get a different perspective on things.”

A moment on ‘Oprah’ made her a human rights symbol. She wants to be more than that.

Among the confessions Hollis makes in her book: “I shave my toes.” “I used to be really bad at sex.” “I am failing. All. The. Time.”

Kristen Drakely, a 36-year-old work-from-home mom from Pittsburgh, read the book in one sitting on an airplane ride, through tears. “It feels like she’s speaking straight to you. It’s like she is you, and you completely relate to her — as a mom, as a wife, as a 30-something in the world. This is who we all need.”

Hollis has connected with a certain demographic, including women from regions that went for Donald Trump in 2016, even as she uses the language that the right might denigrate as snowflakese. She questions the patriarchy and she advocates for being “woke,” but she also embraces stay-at-home moms and quotes Scripture. “I love Jesus, and I cuss a little,” she wrote on Facebook recently. “I love Jesus, and some of my best friends are gay.”

But she also insists that she’s apolitical — and that it’s a conscious choice. Politics, she says, divides people. She’s more interested in bringing them together. Whatever she’s doing, it’s working.

Hollis has roughly 2.5 million followers on social media, and that number grows with each pithy quote, photo and intimate moment she posts. More than 50,000 people tune in to her daily Facebook Live feeds, where she and her husband, Dave Hollis, a former Disney executive, casually banter about their personal life and take questions from the audience. Often wearing a baseball cap advertising their couples-therapy podcast, “Rise Together,” he is Chip Gaines to her Joanna, Regis to her Kelly. Recorded in their Austin-area home, the show is a casual look inside their life, as Rachel sips smoothies, Dave gets her a coffee; occasionally their 19-month-old daughter makes a cameo.

Rachel Hollis’s idols are Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé, and her stage persona is like all three rolled into your very best friend. Dressed in jeans, black high-tops, a white T-shirt and a long glittery cardigan, she paced the floor in Atlanta energetically, warming up the crowd with self-deprecating jokes about childbirth, breast-feeding and varicose veins before she got to it.

Other people’s opinions are ruling your life,” she intoned. “And the thing is, at least as far as women are concerned, I don’t even think it’s your fault.”

She took a few steps, let us take that in. “I think that most of us as little girls were taught that in order to be a good woman, we needed to be good for other people,” she said. “And that good little girl turned into a good woman, and that was always defined by someone else’s opinion of how you were doing.

“And when you don’t do things because you’re worried about what someone else will think or when you do things because you are trying to please anyone but yourself, you’re falling into a trap.”

“Who out there is struggling under the weight of someone else’s opinion?” she asked. “Shout it out! What’s keeping you back?”

Voices emerged: “Family!” “Friends!” “Haters!” “Social media!”

Brenda Reider, a 53-year-old retailer from Brooklyn was a Hollis newbie and instant convert. "I thought she was amazing. What she says I know in my head but I haven't been able to get through it. . . . She just touched me."

Hollis has sparked a community of catharsis-seekers. On one of several private “Girl, Wash Your Face” Facebook book clubs, women have confessed that they were sexually assaulted, that they are depressed, that their husbands have cheated, that they are bad mothers. Other readers rally around them in support. At a recent speaking engagement, Hollis asked women to check off a list of hardships they’ve experienced. Every single woman wrote down that she hated the way she looked. “It’s 2018,” Hollis later commented. “How are we still here?”

Hollis understands that women are angry — and frustrated, unfulfilled, fearful. She also understands the particular brand of anger that has set women afire over the past year. “That’s exactly how some people should be allowed to process what they feel,” she said. And even though she says “That’s not who I am,” she also understands that her book — written long before #MeToo came to be — has in some ways benefited from the moment we’re in.

“In a sea of polarizing stuff,” Dave offered, Hollis’s book and her talks are “a respite from having to be pulled into a debate about whose side is right.”

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Hollis has only a high school diploma — a fact she advertises proudly — but could probably teach a course in marketing. The success of “Girl, Wash Your Face” — it’s been licensed for translation into Hebrew, Farsi, Spanish, German, Korean, Turkish, Vietnamese, Serbian, Arabic and Indonesian, among other languages — has been fed not just by Hollis’s magnetic personality but by her brandmaking savvy.

In March 2015, an Instagram of her celebrating her stretch marks went viral. In December 2017, a video called "The Video EVERY Woman Should Watch!" — a series of vignettes that could easily have been a campaign ad ("Go all in. Take massive action immediately," she says with a go-get-'em punch) — popped up on Facebook and nearly lived up to its title. Hollis's audience was primed for more.

Taylor Firmin, a 26-year-old office assistant in Birmingham, Ala., saw the video a few months ago and then picked up “Girl, Wash Your Face” at Target.

“I fell in love with her instantly,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “Rachel was telling her story, her struggles, and sharing what helped her through those hard times. . . . Rachel is a survivor.”

Over a hotel-lobby lunch (quinoa bowl in which she politely — and wisely — asked to substitute chicken for the salami and feta), Hollis was self-effacing. “The word ‘empowerment’ implies that someone is giving you power,” she said. “I hope that if I’m doing anything it’s reminding you that you already had it. It’s like Dorothy and the ruby slippers. I’m not giving you something new. To me it feels like common sense, but sometimes you need someone to remind you: If you don’t like your life, change it. If you’re not happy, do something about it.”

If Hollis has cornered the market on, as she puts it, “people who look like me,” her next book, “Girl, Stop Apologizing,” published under a business imprint, reaches for more. Due in March, the book has a more blatant feminist undertone: “Okay sisters,” she writes. You “don’t have to burn your bra on the streets,” but as a woman you are obligated to consider how our patriarchal society has shaped your view of the world — and yourself. “If you were raised to believe that men know best, that men are the authority, how much faith does that teach you to have in yourself and your opinions as a woman?” she asks.

Hollis grew up in Weedpatch, Calif., the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. “There were big parties filled with family friends, followed by screaming and fighting and crying,” she writes in “Girl, Wash Your Face.”

When she was 14, Hollis’s older brother Ryan fatally shot himself. Hollis found his body. “Amid the anguish and fear and confusion,” Hollis writes, “I recognized a great truth: If I wanted a better life than the one I’d been born into, it was up to me to create it.”

At 17, Hollis set out for Los Angeles, dreaming of becoming an actress and marrying Matt Damon. Instead, she got a job at as an event planner. And while she barely brushed shoulders with her crush, her desire to do so, she writes, is what drove her to succeed. Eventually she met Dave, whom she married in 2004, and struck out on her own as a party planner. She began the Chic Site blog in 2008 and self-published her first book, the novel “Party Girl,” in 2014; more self-published novels and two cookbooks followed.

Hollis has successfully sold herself as both an authentic person who fails like you do and an aspirational figure who looks pretty doing it. "You have to know that I am human," she said while chewing her lunch. "I never want it to seem like my life is perfect. That's why I do live-stream where I look like garbage." But as a role model, "I have an obligation," she adds. "When people went to Jesus when they were sick, they didn't want Jesus to be sick. You want someone who can pull you up, not meet you there. If I was watching Oprah's Instagram story and she was like, 'I can't get out of bed today, I'm too depressed,' I would be like, 'The world is ending!' "

Hollis has lots of what she calls “haters.” Many are moms who don’t like that she works, or that she has household help. Some people just don’t like her book. “Girl, Wash Your Face” promotes “a self-inspired theology, rather than a biblical one,” Christian blogger Alisa Childers wrote in an email. Others question her “authenticity.”

Hollis understands that not everyone will be enamored by her style or message, but rolling your eyes probably won’t make a difference anyway. Her biggest applause line in Atlanta?: “I care more about changing the world than I do in its opinion of me.”

And she’s not slowing down. Her Atlanta gig was her second in 48 hours. She has more than 40 other speeches lined up, including one at a high school, through 2019. Next spring, she’ll release a line of clothing through QVC, and she plans to publish a book about women and health in 2020. As it turns out, outselling almost every other author this year was only the beginning.

Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.

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