On a brisk, early December night near New York City’s Union Square, 300 people lined up outside the Strand bookstore to hear Jen Sincero tell them they’re badasses. Tickets for the reading and Q&A were capped at 200, so the remaining third waited outside, allowed entry only for the book signing that followed. The attendees, mostly entrepreneurial-spirited women between the ages of 25 and 50, were asked to purchase a copy of Sincero’s newest in what is now a trilogy of “Badass”-branded self-help guide: You Are a Badass Every Day.
Their author is a sassier, funnier, more self-aware Rhonda Byrne (author of the self-help religious text The Secret): at six-foot-one, with a nose piercing and glossy brunette bangs, Sincero, 53, looks less like a self-help guru than the friend you’d get wine-drunk and make fun of a bookstore’s self-help aisle with. By her own, oft-repeated admission, she used to think all this manifest-your-dreams stuff was bullshit, too. Until, she says, it started working.
While the Strand audience waited for Sincero to emerge from backstage, they exchanged business cards, and pitched each other their business ideas. Somewhere behind me, one woman asked another, “Can I ask you a question? What’s the biggest thing holding you back from your business?” (From what I could gather, the answer had to do with starting it.) To my right, another woman told her seatmate that she was feeling good about the coming year because she’d just turned 33, and 33 is tied (two times over, really) to the Holy Trinity. Someone, somewhere, uttered a distinctly Tony Robbins-y Tony Robbins quote like a prayer: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” The room was full of hustlers, waiting for their hustler in chief to emerge from backstage and show them the way.
Jen Sincero is morning-show magic, a charismatic dispenser of encouraging soundbites. When I meet her and her publicist at Rockefeller Center, where she’ll tape a segment for CNBC’s “Make It,” she has just arrived from the airport, in New York for a day before flying to Asheville, North Carolina, for another reading. Later that afternoon, she’ll tape a segment for NowThis. The 40-odd minutes between those press stops are all mine, and we spend most of them in the backseat of the town car hired by Sincero’s publisher to shuttle her between her events and her room at the swanky Dominick Hotel, formerly known as Trump Soho.
To promote her newest Badass book — a slim collection of inspirational paragraphs and affirmations — Sincero is in the midst of a 17-city book tour, meeting and greeting thousands and thousands of devoted badasses, and the friends and family they bring with them. This is how the Badass empire was built, Sincero says. Though sales of the original manifesto, You Are a Badass, published in 2013, were steady, they were also slow. Then they snowballed. Sincero’s editor called her up to ask what she was doing to market the book so effectively. The answer? Not much. “I think people kept buying it for their friends,” Sincero says she told her editor. It’s easy to see how it might make a good, last-minute bridal shower/birthday/breakup/you-just-got-laid-off gift: the jacket is an unignorable McDonald’s-arches yellow, and there’s a compliment right there, in caps, on the cover.
Years after publication, You Are a Badass moved into the New York Times best-seller list, and stayed there for months. It currently has more than 4,000 glowing ratings on Amazon. (At the time of writing, it is also ranked No. 83 in Books on Amazon. Like, all books.) YAAB and its successor, You Are a Badass at Making Money, have sold more than 5 million copies combined. In collaboration with Zazzle, she has a custom line of Badass-branded merch, including a bumper sticker that reads “Feed fear a SUCK IT sandwich,” and a Badass-yellow flask that reads “Go BADASS or go home,” her website printed under each slogan.
The Badass message, if I can sum it up in one aphorism, is this: Everything you want, you can have. And mostly, what you want is money. If you don’t have money, you secretly think you don’t deserve it, or you’re in your own way, or you don’t want it as much as you think you want it, or you’re vibrating at the wrong frequency. Sincero is only lightly spiritual, preferring “The Universe” over “the G word,” but her philosophy relies on a renewable resource she calls “Source Energy,” which you connect to in order to raise your frequency, which you do in order to get rich.
In her 40s, Jen Sincero decided to get rich. At the time, she was a broke freelance writer living in a converted garage by the beach. “I really felt like, ‘if I don’t get it together now, I’m in my damn 40s, when the hell am I going to do it?’” she says. “So I made the decision to start making money.” Sincero turned to self-help books, despite her initial feeling that the genre was “so dorky and woo-woo.” After reading dozens upon dozens of self-help best-sellers like The Science of Getting Rich and Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, she realized she spotted an opening: none of them were funny. She thought, “I could do this,” she tells me.
Around the same time, Sincero was dipping a toe, and then a whole foot, into personal coaching. First working with writers hoping to publish a book, Sincero offered eight-week courses for about $350 a pop. Soon, book coaching morphed into life coaching. “When you’re coaching people on writing, it’s not that they don’t know what they want to write about, or that they don’t know grammar,” says Sincero. “It’s that they don’t think they have the right to an opinion, it’s that they have a fraud complex, that they are scared of being visible. So I started learning how to life coach just working with the writers.”
Life coaching, it turns out, is even more lucrative than working with writers who want to get published. Sincero began offering virtual group coaching sessions to as many as three or four hundred students per class. Students called into a conference number, and could virtually raise their hands by pressing a particular button. One-on-one calls with Sincero cost extra. “That’s how I tripled my income back in the day, was starting an online company,” she says. “It almost felt illegal, [making] so much money so fast.”
Now, though Sincero often encourages her adherents to seek personal coaching services, she doesn’t do it herself. “I don’t have to anymore,” she says. “I don’t miss the one-on-one. The one-on-one wasn’t really my sweet spot anyway.” Sincero says she might eventually do a little group coaching again, based on one of her books, but for now, she is happy to let the Badass brand keep building upon itself. (You Are a Badass Every Day was her editor’s idea.) These days, she is more interested in writing comedy. She calls the screenplay she’s writing with a successful screenwriter friend “very feminist, very political, and extremely funny, if I do say so myself.”
It’s not exactly a rebranding — there will almost certainly be a fourth Badass book, maybe a fifth, as many as it takes until all the marketable ways one can be a badass have been discovered — but it is something of a pivot, something Sincero has done several times over. Before the Badass books, she wrote a pair of confessional, service-y memoirs called The Straight Girl’s Guide to Sleeping With Chicks (“I was in such deep doo-doo with that title. I had no idea what I was getting into,” says Sincero, who identifies as “pretty straight”) and Don’t Sleep With Your Drummer. Before that, she was a musician — first, in a punk band called Crotch, whose video “Power Tool of Love” you can still find on YouTube. There, too, Sincero found speedy success. “I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 25, 26, and we had a demo deal with CBS Records within like, nine months,” she tells me. “But, me and the bass player worked at CBS Records, so that might have had something to do with it.”
You could call that nepotism, or, at the very least, incredibly good fortune, and you wouldn’t be wrong, exactly. But there is something to be said for the ruthless determination with which Sincero takes to each reinvention. Not everyone can sit through countless self-help books only to write one that outsells them all. Even rarer than those who can are those that do. Sincero saw an opening, and, as all self-help authors do, she claims to provide her readers with the directions to find it. (Less like other self-help authors, she also encourages readers to buy self-help books written by other people, and life coaching services from other coaches.) In most matters unrelated to money, she is unspecifically encouraging, as in, “Take care of yourself as if you’re the most awesome person you’ve ever met.”
In the financial realm, though, Sincero is more emphatic, if not comprehensive: getting rich is not only a very good idea, but an imperative. In You Are a Badass at Making Money, she writes: “If you are here to become the grandest, most generous version of yourself, which you are, and if that costs money, which it does, it is your duty, as a hallowed child of Mother Nature, to get rich.” The how is less clear. Usually, her advice entails quitting your boring day job in order to dedicate yourself to monetizing your hobby, and/or spending large amounts of money. In YAAB, she describes her decision to purchase an Audi Q5 (her dream car) over a Honda CRV (a car she can actually afford). She tells us she almost bought the Honda, because it was the sensible thing to do, but she “knew that adventure, true love, and a whole new way of life awaited me on the other side of [her] comfort zone.” So she bought the Audi, and, in doing so, “made the decision to become the kind of person who can make the kind of money to buy that kind of car.” (Sincero writes she “almost instantly” came up with a way to pay off the Audi, though she does not disclose how.)
This advice — to spend money you do not yet have, but really want to have — is perhaps the singular financial ethos behind all three Badass books, like many other in the self-help genre. Spend money to make money, in so many words. Sincero makes it hard to argue it hasn’t worked for her. In You Are a Badass at Making Money, she describes hiring a life coach for $85,000, a figure she describes as “serious cheddah!” (“It was actually a hundred,” she tells me.) When she’s initially given that fee, she balks, and decides, reasonably, that she cannot afford it. But the great lesson of the chapter is that she later decides she can make the money to pay that personal coach, and comes to “manifest” that very amount — by which she means that she asked someone for $85,000, and they gave it to her. (Sincero does not disclose who this apparently very wealthy lender was, and when I ask, she declines to answer. She’ll say only that she knows the person well, and she’s since paid them back. With interest? I ask. “Uh, no,” she says.) Though she goes unnamed in the book, that coach was Gina DeVee, a self-described business and empowerment coach with a master’s degree in clinical psychology who, in addition to year-long private mentorships, leads six-month “Divine Academy” mostly virtual group programs ($7,500) and one-day “Queen Retreats” in Santa Monica ($5,500 a head, ten women per retreat). Working with DeVee, Sincero came up with a plan to pay off her $10,000 in credit-card debt by doubling the fee she charged writers to help them with her proposals, then doubling it again. They also came up with a plan to charge a previous client of Sincero’s $12,000 for a six-month life coaching package. A year earlier, she’d charged him $25 an hour. In 48 hours, she says, Sincero made $15,000.
This all sounds like a very good deal, provided that initial $85,000 comes from someone else. But, Sincero insists, it’s not really about that $85,000. “The price tag is irrelevant,” she writes. “Transforming your life is about your desire and your decision, it’s not about what solutions may or may not be right in front of you.” The presumption here is that the very act of spending money is high-frequency, a moral good that will result in a karmic return on investment. To have more money you must simply think of money as God. “Thinking money is bad or dirty … is one of the leading causes of serious brokeness,” Sincero writes. The early pages of You Are a Badass at Making Money, in which Sincero implores readers not to judge rich people for being rich, are the ultimate self-defense, reminiscent of the NRA’s “guns don’t kill people, people do”: If you are shot, it’s because you didn’t protect yourself. If you are poor, it’s because you failed to respect those who have more than you do.
Sincero’s is a dreamy, individualist economy in which everyone can make more money and no one will suffer for it. There is no systemic anything, here, and perhaps that’s why she appeals to a largely white, female, working- and middle-class fanbase. It’s lovely to think you can get rich outside a corporate workforce designed to suppress your success while enriching a handful of old guys at the top. It is also self-serving, a dream reliant on the unacknowledged money and labor of the underclass. Nobody gets rich without someone — usually many someones — being set back. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could change our whole lives, all by ourselves?
This is what Sincero’s readers want, or maybe it’s what we all want. At the Strand event, during the Q&A, one woman rose her hand to ask Sincero for strategies for “ripping out a wealth block,” and the audience murmured appreciatively. What the woman meant, in Sincero-speak, was that her new, unspecified business wasn’t making her any money, and she knew it was her fault. Sincero asked the woman if she was working with coaches. Yes, the woman said, several. Group or individual? Sincero asked. Group, the woman replied. Sinceo nodded. You’ve gotta go one-on-one, she said. They’re expensive, but so worth it.
Soon after, the Q&A was called to a close by an industrious Strand employee, and it was time for the meet-and-greet, during which fans were called up by a “zone number” printed on their receipts. “This could take hours,” Sincero’s publicist told me, so with that gentlest encouragement, I left.
Sincero’s model is much like that of the multi-level marketing companies a number of her fans join and/or leave their full-time jobs for. (In You Are a Badass at Making Money, Sincero includes a “success story” written by a woman named Jill, who says she started out making $2,500 a month for her direct sales company before deciding to make $45,000 a month.) It is possible to earn wild, almost-but-not-illegal riches by selling patterned leggings to everyone you know on Facebook. It is not likely: 99 percent of people who join multi-level marketing companies lose money. It is possible to become a self-taught life coach, sell millions of self-help books, and quit life coaching to write comedy. It is not likely. But it doesn’t have to be, if the Badass-in-training believes herself the exception. And Sincero’s message, to every one of her millions and millions of fans, is that they are all the exception.