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

Her book, “Girl, Wash Your Face” — a conversational self-help guide that mixes memoir, motivational tips, Bible quotations and common-sense girl talk — has sold more copies this year than James Comey, Omarosa Manigualt Newman and Reese Witherspoon’s respective blockbusters.

(Thomas Nelson)
(Thomas Nelson)

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. Her book has sold roughly 1.6 million copies, including e-books and audiobooks.

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 love Jesus, and I cuss a little’

At a recent event in Atlanta, Hollis told 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 tells her audience to believe in themselves. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)
Rachel Hollis tells her audience to believe in themselves. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)

“I’m obsessed with Rachel Hollis,” Heather Kuhr, a 32-year-old mother of two, had said before 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.”

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 snowflakes. 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.”

Women in the first row listen of an Atlanta conference take notes as Rachel Hollis offers advice. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)
Women in the first row listen of an Atlanta conference take notes as Rachel Hollis offers advice. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)

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.

A community for catharsis-seekers

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.”

For many women, it seems, Hollis is able to tap into something deeper. 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.

The woman behind the brand

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 and her husband and sometime podcast co-host, Dave Hollis, in Atlanta. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)
Rachel Hollis and her husband and sometime podcast co-host, Dave Hollis, in Atlanta. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)

Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé are Hollis’s idols, 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.

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.

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.

Rachel Hollis gets her makeup touched up backstage at an event in Atlanta. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)
Rachel Hollis gets her makeup touched up backstage at an event in Atlanta. (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)

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!’”

She also 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.”

What’s next?

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 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.

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