Recently, this feel-good story started cracking like a corn chip. But millions may continue to gobble up whatever Montañez dishes out, still addicted to his deliciously simplistic inspirational tale.
Montañez has written not one but two books (the second, “Flamin’ Hot,” is scheduled for release next month). Eva Longoria has signed on to direct a biopic based on his life. He charges up to tens of thousands of dollars to give motivational talks extolling the value of hard work, perseverance, overcoming emotional and human obstacles — all mixed in with anecdotes from his hardscrabble childhood, raised by Mexican immigrant parents.
So where exactly is the Cheeto crumbling? A Los Angeles Times investigation says this story isn’t correct. Yes, Montañez never graduated from high school and worked his way up from janitor to high-ranking corporate executive (a remarkable accomplishment in our income-stratified and credential-obsessed society). But Flamin’ Hot Cheetos were cooked up by a collaborative corporate effort, the paper reported, and the lion’s share of the credit belongs to a former company executive, Lynne Greenfeld.
Montañez, the Times says, entered the process late. The newspaper points to a 1993 U.S. News and World Report article giving Montañez, identified as a machinist, credit for … Flamin’ Hot Popcorn. (The paper also finds discrepancies in Montañez’s timeline of events.) For her part, Greenfeld knew nothing about Montañez’s tale until she read about it online in 2018 and realized he was claiming credit for her initiative, according to emails reviewed by the Times.
Frito-Lay, citing a loss of “institutional memory,” has released multiple statements adding zero clarity. The company told the Times that Montañez was not involved in the testing phase of the popular snack and that “the facts do not support the urban legend.” But it told NPR’s Planet Money that he did work on the product.
Whether the story Montañez told is an accurate account of how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos arrived in supermarkets might not matter to his success on the self-help circuit.
More than a few motivational speakers and books are the intellectual and social equivalent of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: The cloying taste is all but addictive. But they often have artificial ingredients. The wealthy father of Robert Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad Poor Dad” personal-finance and investment empire is almost certainly largely fictional. Donald Trump was not a self-made entrepreneur but born into family wealth.
Others traffic in tropes that, while not untrue, make success seem easier than it actually is. Saving $1 million for retirement is a lot harder than giving up one latte a day. Sheryl Sandberg was correct that it is harder for women to succeed. But refusing to give up and making men allies were far from the only answers when “Lean In” was first published, and in 2021, the landscape for female workers — down almost 2 million jobs — is even worse.
Self-help stories appeal, and fuel an industry raking in $10 billion annually, not simply because they proffer do-it-yourself solutions to economic and social problems but also because they play to our societal belief in the individual’s ability to triumph over obstacles. They are, in ways, fairy tales for adults, with hard truths often secondary to the instructional morals. By motivating but not filling consumers, that content is also like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. One taste is almost never enough.
Fans are likely to get many more chances to snack on Montañez’s tale. His publisher, Portfolio Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, has questioned the timing of the allegations but has no plans to postpone or cancel Montañez’s forthcoming book. (Disclosure: Montañez and I share a publisher.) The people behind the movie project remain on his side. “The heart and soul and spirit of the story is true,” the screenwriter told Variety. “We’re not in the documentary business.”
Lucky for Montañez, customers of self-help products are similarly uninterested in hard facts. They remain hungry for hope.