The history of Young Livings Gary Young and his essential oils empire – Business Insider
Young Living founder Gary Young’s official life story is sunlit and ruggedly all-American. The evidence paints a less flattering portrait.
Young’s early career included enrolling at a school dedicated to the teachings of a man who was convicted of practicing medicine without a license after a patient died. Young himself was convicted of illegally posing as a health practitioner. He did time in Spokane County Jail in Washington.
Young’s infant daughter died under his care as he attempted a “water birth” in a health-club whirlpool bath, which he believed would confer immunity from disease. He was given to mercurial outbursts, bizarre tantrums, and paranoid rants.
Insider spoke with more than 80 people with knowledge of Young Living, including former and current members and their relatives, a dozen former employees, multilevel-marketing and medical experts, and two of Young’s children from his first marriage.
In a statement to Insider, a Young Living spokesperson said “the company has evolved far beyond its founder’s unique history.”
It was a grand entrance. Mary Young took to the stage wearing a spectacular, jewel-studded red gown and belted out the national anthem. Fireworks exploded in the clear summer sky above tens of thousands of fans gathered in the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles football stadium. They were there, in July 2019, to celebrate Young Living, the company that Mary Young and her late husband, Gary Young, founded 25 years earlier to spread the gospel that “essential oils” could change your life.
She addressed the crowd with the fervor of a revivalist preacher.
“Young Living is the true life story of one man’s dream, filled with adventure, heartache, pain, triumph, and success beyond measure,” she said. For two hours, she regaled the throng with the thrilling story of how her husband became the modern-day father of essential oils. It wasn’t the story of a businessman, or a natural-health advocate. It was the story of a revolution: “We are the freedom fighters who carry our message to those waiting,” she said.
Ellen Pompeo teamed up with Young Living to introduce the company’s new baby-care line in May 2018.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Young Living
Read our three-part investigation
For Young Living members, the convention — a high-energy spectacle held in downtown Salt Lake City during a few blisteringly hot days each summer — is one of the most anticipated events of the year. It offers the opportunity to connect with other “oilies,” as many proudly call themselves, in person, rather than behind the bright screen of a computer or phone.
They are reliably over-the-top affairs, produced with the sensibility of a circus ringmaster. One year, Gary Young entered the arena decked out in a red parka and riding on a sled pulled by huskies. In another, he dressed up as Indiana Jones in search of the “elixir of life,” complete with a video recreation of the opening cave scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that ended with him sprinting live onto the stage to escape a giant stage-prop boulder rolling down a track behind him. In a third, he dressed in knight’s armor, clutching a sword with a red cape billowing behind him, as a galloping horse delivered him onto the stage.
Later in last July’s opening ceremony, Young and Mary’s two teenage sons, Josef and Jacob, hopped on motorcycles and tore across the stage in a cloud of purple smoke. They lit a flaming display spelling out “25 Years” with torches, and then soared above the stage in harnesses as audience members stomped their feet, clapped their hands, and swayed their hips to the music blasting throughout the stadium.
Opening night of the Young Living convention at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium in July 2019.
‘Every little ailment — you have a headache, period cramps — there’s an oil for that’
The air in the Salt Palace Convention Center was pungent during the four days of the convention, as people of all walks of life — huddled groups of 20-somethings, women clutching babies on their hips, men sporting hats that read “Oil Boss” — covered themselves in aromatic concoctions. Green smoothies, cheerful squealing among friends, and shirts printed with phrases including “People Who Don’t Use Essential Oils Make No Frankincense” or “Peace, Love & Oils” were all common sights.
“Every little ailment — you have a headache, period cramps — there’s an oil for that,” Robyn Burch, a stay-at-home mom with long blonde hair and a kind smile from Arizona, told Insider. “A lot of those over-the-counter drugs kind of buildup in your system and kind of cause more problems and cause more symptoms. And these oils are just so pure, they go through your system, and it’s just natural.”
The idea of purity is a critical component of Young Living’s appeal. It has a “seed-to-seal” commitment, a promise that its oils are sourced naturally from its corporate and partner farms around the world. That promise has helped the company grow from its ma-and-pa roots to a global enterprise with the lofty mission of delivering oils to every household on Earth.
Amber Estok, an Ohio mother with an autistic child, told Insider during the convention that finding oils a year earlier had transformed her life. She swapped all her household cleaners for Young Living products, started her own Young Living business, and introduced the oils to her son, stopping his physician-prescribed medicine in favor of what she viewed as a natural alternative.
“Now to see him skipping through life, literally running outside, playing with neighborhood kids, not having fear, sitting down at the table and concentrating and not having to have fidgets, it’s incredible,” she said, choking back tears. “It’s amazing.”
Young Living members sample products during the International Grand Convention held at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City in July 2019.
More than 32,000 had people traveled to Salt Lake City from all over the world for the convention, eager to learn about new products and sample oil blends with names like Inner Child, Into the Future, and Fulfill Your Destiny (an “aromatic reminder to stay focused on your inner strengths and the path before you”).
They participated in workshops on topics ranging from “Oils for Every Day” and “Alternative Medicine” to “Young Living: The Perfect Side Hustle.” They paid $250 a ticket, in addition to hotel and airfare fees for many, for the chance to hang out with other Young Living members and trade tips on growing the oil businesses that many believed would turn their dreams into reality.
Young enrolled at a school dedicated to the teachings of a man who was convicted of practicing medicine without a license
To understand the rise of Young Living, and how it became what it is, Insider spoke with more than 80 people with knowledge of the company, including former and current members and their relatives, a dozen former employees, multilevel-marketing and medical experts, and two of Young’s children from his first marriage.
Insider also reviewed thousands of pages of documents, obtained through records requests and from sources, related to Young and Young Living. Certain accounts are being kept anonymous to allow people to speak candidly about their experiences without the fear of retribution.
The evidence Insider discovered wildly contradicts the sunlit story Young Living tells about its ruggedly all-American founder and his origins. Young originally enrolled at a school dedicated to the teachings of a man who was convicted on a felony charge of practicing medicine without a license. He was convicted of illegally posing as a health practitioner. He did time in Spokane County Jail in Washington.
An infant daughter died under his care as he attempted a “water birth” in a health-club whirlpool bath, which he believed would confer immunity from disease. He was given to mercurial outbursts, bizarre tantrums, and paranoid rants. His two marriages and eight children before meeting Mary Young, and his frequent run-ins with the law, were omitted from his official biography.
As he led his company from its early 1990s start as a fringe supplier into a powerhouse that claims $1.5 billion in annual sales, Young carefully skirted US Food and Drug Administration rules against making unsupported medical claims. He wrote a book full of scientifically debunked claims that the oils he sold could cure leukemia, congestive heart failure, cerebral palsy, cholera, lupus, and measles, and more.
In reality, according to FDA reports, some patients said those oils caused high blood pressure, a severe rash, vomiting, and hives. In one instance, an FDA report said, use of the oils led to a woman being placed into a drug-induced coma.
Unsurprisingly, Young Living doesn’t see it that way.
“The company has evolved far beyond its founder’s unique history,” the company told Insider.
“To be sure, Gary was a maverick within the industry and had strong beliefs about essential oils and their uses. It is also true that many of Young Living’s members and customers maintain those beliefs today. Young Living does not advocate the use of essential oils outside of the labelled usage instructions and the advice of any individual’s medical doctors. At the same time, clinically proven benefits of essential oils do exist. This all contributes to the demand for the products and why so many other companies market essential oils.” [Read Young Living’s full statement here.]
An adrenaline junkie who liked medieval jousting
Young Living promises freedom through a multilevel-marketing structure, which encourages members to start their own independent businesses directly selling the company’s products to friends and family. The more people they recruit — creating a “downline” — the higher they can rise within the company. The top rank is “royal crown diamond.”
At the center of it all is Young, whose death in May 2018 at age 68 following a series of strokes did little to loosen his grip on the hearts and minds of Young Living enthusiasts.
At the convention, workshop presenters constantly invoked his name. Attendees wore shirts that read “Keep Calm and Gary On.” Young Living’s newly constructed headquarters, in Lehi, Utah, features a replica of the log cabin Young grew up in so that members can catch a glimpse into his Idaho upbringing. On the convention’s final night, one lucky woman won his beloved 2008 Dodge Ram in an auction, inciting a roar of applause from the crowd.
The replica log cabin that Gary Young grew up in outside of Young Living’s headquarters in Lehi, Utah, in July 2019.
“He was an amazing man and a visionary and a trailblazer,” said Carol Yeh-Garner, a royal crown diamond from Southern California who said she makes six figures a month selling oils to 126,000 people in her downline. “He did not take no for an answer. There were lots of people that told him this company would fail over and over and over again, and he persevered and kept going and built Young Living to what it is today.”
Young wasn’t a very tall man, but his presence could fill a room. Sturdily built at 5-8, he was most comfortable in his cowboy hat, faded jeans, and boots. Leathery tan skin hinted at years under the sun, where he spent hours out in the fields growing his plants or tending to his horses, dogs, and elk. He was an avid outdoorsman and an adrenaline junkie, drawn to more extreme activities like riding dune buggies, snowmobiling, dog-sledding, and jousting — actually riding horses with lances. Above all, Young knew how to command a stage, as he evangelized for hours on end about the life-changing properties of his essential oils.
But Young also had a domineering personality and outsized ego fueled by Young Living’s rapid growth and the fortune he acquired. As many of his Young Living members sank hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on multilevel-marketing dreams, Young spent lavishly on the company and himself. His family lived in a $1.3 million, 10,000-square-foot mansion in an affluent Utah neighborhood that, according to a former employee, he poured significant funds into rebuilding. He traveled to far-flung countries and bought up properties. And he spent money on bizarre projects like an armory where people made suits of armor, medieval clothing, and a jousting arena.
And, of course, there were private planes and horses.
A class-action lawsuit alleges Young Living is ‘an illegal pyramid scheme’
Young’s multilevel-marketing approach proved devastating financially for scores of members who, drawn to the prospect of starting their own business by selling the products, instead earned either extremely modest commissions or nothing at all, despite putting significant funds into the endeavor.
In April 2019, a former member filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging that Young Living “operates an illegal pyramid scheme created under the guise of selling essential oils for quasi-medicinal purposes. In truth, Young Living is nothing more than a cult-like organization falsely peddling the ever-elusive promise of financial success and an alternative lifestyle.”
“Young Living disputes many of these claims as outdated, misleading, or exaggerated. These allegations simply do not reflect the company that Young Living has evolved to be today, instead referring to events that happened years (and even decades) ago to provide an inaccurate and sensationalized view of Young Living.
“We are saddened that past events and actions by the company founder who is now deceased are being dredged up and mischaracterized. We see many of the points in this article as irrelevant and outdated, and not reflective of Young Living as it is today. We are grateful that our members and customers appreciate Young Living and its products and practices. Young Living is focused on sharing the highest quality, purest essential oils with the world and giving back to the communities in which we operate in whatever ways we can. The company has instituted robust compliance practices and complies with applicable laws. As it is today, Young Living is a health and wellness company that strives to make the world a better place.”
The myth of Gary Young begins with a near-fatal logging accident
Gary Young in British Columbia in the late 1990s.
Source photograph via Shawn Young
Donald Gary Young was born on July 11, 1949, into a ranching family in Idaho Falls, Idaho. His father raised grain, hay, and livestock, and his mother worked part-time for several years at the local drug store. The second oldest of six children, Young grew up in a Mormon household and from a young age was drawn to the outdoors.
After graduating from high school, in 1967, he briefly worked for the US Forest Service. He then moved to Canada, where he homesteaded 320 acres of land for ranching and logging. In April 1968 he met a woman named Donna Jean, and six months later he married her.
While Donna Jean is largely forgotten in Young Living lore, what happened next in Young’s life is not: In February 1973, at age 24, he suffered a near-fatal logging accident.
In a book that Mary Young wrote about her husband’s life, she described the injuries as devastating: Three open skull fractures, a ruptured spinal cord, nearly a dozen ruptured spinal discs, 16 broken or crushed vertebrae, a broken pelvis — 19 broken bones, all told. He was told he’d never walk again. Despondent, Young tried to kill himself three times. The final time, he attempted to starve himself to death, drinking only water and lemon juice. Two hundred and fifty-three days later, the story goes, in a miraculous turn of events, he felt movement in his right toe. He spent 27 months in a wheelchair before learning to walk again, Mary wrote.
The experience, according to Mary, sparked Young’s distrust of the medical establishment. His doctors had consigned him to a life in a wheelchair. It was only through fasting that he found his way back to health.
“Because he couldn’t go back to logging and farming,” Mary wrote, “his mind began exploring different avenues of healing through the world of books.”
Young was hospitalized and used a wheelchair, but for only four months. That December, the same year as his accident, after completing a home-study course in nutrition and herbology, he went back to work as a part-time trucker, in British Columbia. Over the next few years, he pursued odd jobs: hauling cargo from Seattle to Alaska, working on the pipeline in Fairbanks, Alaska, and driving along the Alberta-British Columbia trucking route.
During that time, Young grew increasingly drawn to the burgeoning alternative-health world. In 1979, following another accident, he enrolled at the Burroughs Vita-Flex Institute, an unaccredited school dedicated to the teachings of Stanley Burroughs, who was convicted of second-degree murder and on a felony charge of practicing medicine without a license, in 1981, after a cancer patient died from his treatment. The homicide conviction was overturned on appeal.
A 1981 article from the San Francisco Examiner about Stanley Burroughs.
Young also attended Donsbauch Nutrition University, an unaccredited school, in Huntington Beach, California, from 1979 until 1981, according to court records. On a page listing his personal achievements, he said he earned a doctorate in naturopathy between 1982 and 1985 at Bernadean University, also unaccredited.
In the early 1980s, Young and Donna Jean moved to Spokane, Washington, where they opened an herb shop and nutrition center, according to court records. While there, Young spent a quarter-semester at Spokane Community College taking premed courses and studying at the American Institute of Physioregenerology. Mike Maher, who founded and operated the institute, told The Spokesman-Review in 1986 that Young had left “after attending only a few classes, doing a third of the homework, and owing Maher $1,800 in tuition.”
Young’s newborn daughter died in a whirlpool bath in a health club
One of Young’s early beliefs was that babies delivered underwater seemed to be immunized against various illnesses. He personally delivered four of his six children with Donna Jean underwater, without the help of a medical professional. In September 1982, their seventh child, a baby girl named Rachael, died in a whirlpool bath while Young attempted to deliver her at a health club he operated in Washington, according to court records and newspaper clippings.
County coroner Lois Shanks told The Spokesman-Review in 1983 that the baby girl remained underwater for almost an hour before she was removed, and that she probably would have lived if delivered under more conventional methods.
“It was a perfectly normal, healthy little girl,” Shanks said.
Young’s son, Shawn, and another son, Mathew, both from that marriage, told Insider that their father never mentioned Rachael.
While Young was never charged in his daughter’s death, which was ultimately attributed to cardiac arrest, the incident did spark alarm among authorities. In 1983, the Spokane Police Department launched an undercover investigation into Young, sending police officers posing as a pregnant couple to seek medical advice. Young offered them prenatal services and told them he could treat cancer.
He was arrested for practicing medicine without a license and pleaded guilty.He received a year of probation and was ordered not to engage in the practice of medicine in Washington, not to violate similar licensing laws in other states, and to serve 60 days in the Spokane County Jail, suspended.
‘He wasn’t there’
Gary Young and his four sons from his first marriage, on his ranch in Utah circa 2003.
Source photograph via Shawn Young
Life was difficult back then, according to Mathew, Young’s youngest son with Donna Jean. His parents divorced when he was an infant, his mother moving back to Canada to raise the children while his dad continued on his alternative-medicine path. He said they lived in low-income housing while his mother worked several jobs to make ends meet. Growing up, years went by without him seeing his dad.
When they did spend time together, it meant everything.
Mathew said he would never forget the summer he spent with his dad and older brother in St. Maries, Idaho, building the first distillery at the Young Living lavender farm. He recalls long, hard days under the scorching sun, farming and peeling logs by hand. Whenever he got sunburned, his dad gave him lavender to soothe the burn. At the end of the day, Young would take his boys for ice cream.
Even today, Mathew said the smell of lavender triggers cherished memories of time spent with his father.
But, he acknowledged, those moments were rare.
“Learning how to shave, he wasn’t there,” Mathew said. “Learning how to drive a car, he wasn’t there. Fishing, camping, he wasn’t there. All I ever wanted was a relationship with my dad. No matter how hard I tried to prove it, it always backfired.”
‘Harassment from the orthodox medical profession’
In 1983, while on probation for practicing medicine without a license, Young established a health company in the San Diego area, selling products like vitamins, extracts, mouthwash, colema boards, colonic tips, and a book written by Burroughs, the quack.
He also opened a clinic, Rosarita Beach Clinic, across the border, in Mexico, that claimed to specialize in degenerative diseases, according to court records obtained by Insider. He listed himself in a clinic brochure as the medical director, adding that he relocated to Mexico following “harassment from the orthodox medical profession.”
Desperate people were willing to take a chance on Young’s alternative methods.
But, again, the law caught up with him. In 1988, California filed a complaint against Young alleging “unfair, deceptive, untrue and misleading advertising and unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices” because he sold and manufactured unapproved medical devices and drugs and advertised that his operation could cure cancer and other diseases, according to court records. Medical professionals also debunked Young’s practices.
Gary Young goes to jail
Scott Browning, a San Diego physician employed at the time at his medical center’s department of hematology and oncology, was one of those professionals.
He reviewed documents and tapes related to Young’s clinic as part of the California complaint. In his 1987 declaration, Browning said “the techniques described have no basis in rational scientific thought and are completely hogwash in my opinion.”
For instance, he said, “the attempt to electricity the body with 15-20cc of reinfused blood has no basis in scientific fact, and the addition of laetrile IV (with the risk of cyanide toxicity) and hydrogen peroxide (a potent chemical that can destroy blood cells) appears associated with some hazard to the patient.”
Young’s techniques “are by far closer to mysticism than medicine in my opinion,” Browning concluded.
Mitsuo Tomita, a family practitioner in San Diego, agreed in a 1988 declaration that “there is no evidence of scientific validity to ‘Dr.’ Young’s treatments.”
Reviewing audio and video tape pertaining to Young’s clinic, Tomita said” “We are led to believe [Young] is a medical doctor. In the video tape he carries a stethoscope around his neck, is said to administer intravenous, intramuscular and radiation treatments, implant catheters, and either grows or surgically rebuilds noses. We are led to believe he is a medical doctor, yet his comments lack a lot of medical or scientific or logical content.
“In summary, the material reviewed is worthless, deceptive, illogical, and dangerous,” Tomita wrote.
That same year, Young faced a third lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of San Diego, brought against him by a former Rosarita clinic employee who alleged he gave Young and his second wife $100,000, intended for clinic development, but that they instead kept for their personal use. The complaint also claimed that the Youngs misappropriated corporate funds and failed to distribute insurance payments that had been made to the clinic and were supposed to be reimbursed back to patients.
Young’s early years as a huckster were marked by run-ins with the regulatory and legal apparatuses designed explicitly for the purpose of keeping people safe.
His breakthrough may have been the realization that multilevel marketing — which relied on personal, word-of-mouth marketing from an army of devoted but independent salespeople to make the health claims — could be his golden ticket to becoming the alternative-health guru he always yearned to become, without having to constantly butt heads with the law. In theory, if other people — who were not Young Living employees — sold Young’s products and pushed out a healing message, he would not be accused of further violations of the laws regulating the practice of medicine.
According to Mary’s telling, Young was first introduced to essential oils by a Swiss woman named Annemarie, who brought her sick sister to his research center in Mexico in 1983 seeking help. She provided Young with an envelope of research, translated from French, about essential oils. Fascinated, he stayed up all night reading and, the following day, said he wanted to know more. That moment, the book said, served as the genesis of Young’s quest.
Essential oils have been around for centuries, with people drawn to their ambrosial smell to scent products and perfumes. In the mid-19th century, early food processors also began to employ them as a flavor additive for drinks like Coca-Cola and even Burger King’s strawberry milkshake. Young, though, believed that the oils didn’t just smell nice; he thought they possessed healing properties.
But, according to experts, there are few studies that have found oils have tangible health benefits. Some oils may help with stress, improve one’s mood, and promote an overall healthier lifestyle. As the experts emphasize, however, oils do not cure cancer or other health ailments.
By the late 1980s, according to court records, Young started a company called Young Life International Inc. It used a multilevel-marketing plan to sell products like Colon Aid (“a combination of herbs, trace minerals and herbal essential oils which work together to help rid the body of toxins”) and Liver Tone (“essential oils, herbs and amino acids [that] work synergistically to provide a highly effective liver detoxification program”). A 1988 pamphlet promoting Liver Tone and Colon Aid referred to Young as “Dr. Young.”
It was when Young met his third wife, Mary, at a 1993 expo in Salt Lake City, that his burgeoning empire began its march toward domination in the alternative-health business. A former opera singer, Mary had previously worked at another multilevel-marketing company called Sunrider International, and brought her direct-selling chops to Young’s operation.
A former Young Living employee told Insider that Mary held herself out as an expert in multilevel marketing.
“I think, in reality, Mary was a little bit more of a manipulator of individuals, but I don’t sense that either of them had a huge skillset other than being able to stand up on stage and kind of tell people what they wanted to hear,” that employee observed.
The couple relaunched Young Life as the more active Young Living a year later, in Utah. Mary, according to one former employee, provided the startup funds, brought in colleagues from Sunrider, and was the majority owner.
Young believed that people who lack a will to live subconsciously choose to get sick
Young’s embrace of essential oils was paired with an increasing distrust of traditional medicine, and he was prone to paranoid rants against doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies. In one lecture, a transcript of which was obtained by Insider through the California court records from the 1980s, Young, during his tenure as director of the Mexico clinic, described disease as tools used by doctors and nurses to manipulate sick patients into being dependent on them. He said that people who lack a will to live subconsciously choose to get sick.
The largest percentage of patients at his clinic, he said, were women between the ages of 25 and 45 who were ill because they had been “browbeaten by dominating husbands” and experienced “a lot of confusing energy” from the abuse.
“So we work both with the husband and the wife if there’s problems like this,” Young said. “And helping them to understand that … this isn’t the way God meant for us to live.”
Young’s demonization of the medical industry over the years had broad appeal among people anxious to keep their families healthy and safe, particularly in a political climate characterized by heightened distrust of the healthcare system and Big Pharma, an opioid epidemic that has ravaged communities, and an anti-vax movement growing stronger and more vehement than ever before.
One former employee described the company’s target audience as people who were sick with no alternatives.
“He really didn’t have any educational training to speak of,” a former employee said. “He always used to like to call himself an ‘ND,’ a naturopathic doctor, but he had a degree from a diploma mill. We always removed that from anything that he would write. He loved to be called ‘Dr. Young,’ and we wouldn’t allow him to do that.”
Staff work tirelessly to turn Young’s chaotic impulses into a stable business
Detail of pages from “Seed to Seal: D. Gary Young.”
Photographic illustration by Hollis Johnson/Business Insider”; Source photograph via “Seed to Seal: D. Gary Young”
With Young and his wife at the helm, Young Living grew substantially throughout the 2000s, as essential oils transformed from a fringe curiosity to a mass-market product. Oils leap across political boundaries, attracting everyone from liberal coastal yogis to religious conservatives in rural communities across the middle of America.
The people Young hired to administer his growing empire — marketers, accountants, executives — worked tirelessly, often against their employers’ wishes, to create a legitimate business out of Young’s chaotic impulses. Several employees told Insider that Young had the presence of a cult leader, creating an erratic corporate environment in which employees had no choice but to accede to his wishes, no matter how ill-advised.
“Young Living really ran on this one guy’s personality,” a former employee told Insider. “More than in a way that anybody would be used to in a serious company. There is something oddly charismatic about the guy. People followed him like he was a God.”
‘You can’t just stop a Royal Caribbean — they’ve got places to be. They don’t care if you’re Gary Young.’
Among the lavish projects Young poured funds into was a jousting arena at his lavender farm in Mona, Utah. Young, decked out in medieval armor, wanted to ride against opponents carrying lances.
He once proposed building a $3.5 billion amusement park and five-star hotel that was to be a “quasi-religious/essential-oil experience.”
At one point, he developed a love for airplanes and bought several small ones, even though aides told him that the company couldn’t afford them, one employee said. Another employee also confirmed that Young purchased a number of airplanes.
Former employees recalled Young often demanding extensive changes to the yearly convention just weeks before the event was to take place. By then, the team had already been planning the event for about a year, and his demands would significantly increase costs, they said.
One source summed up his demanding personality: “Last-minute fireworks in an impossible area in France where it was extraordinarily expensive,” the former employee recalled. “Just blowing the budget out of the water, just because he wanted fireworks.
“Everybody was just kind of expected to move mountains in order to make it happen,” this person said.
On another occasion, Young ordered his staff to delay an entire cruise ship so that he could stay at a location longer, a former employee said.
“You can’t just stop a Royal Caribbean — they’ve got places to be. They don’t care if you’re Gary Young,” the source told Insider, adding that Young was eventually helicoptered to the next stop.
Young Living pleads guilty to illegally trafficking rosewood, an endangered tree from Peru
Young could also be paranoid at times, like when he diffused oils at headquarters following the deadly 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. According to two former employees, he blasted the oils in the office out of fear that, despite being thousands of miles away from the blast site, they could be affected by the radiation.
“Genius or madman — I think that most people would have that kind of perception of Gary,” a former employee said.
His presence was so disruptive that, according to three former employees, the executive management team prevailed on Mary for a few years in the 2000s to get him out of the country so that they could focus on creating a business.
Young went down to Ecuador, where the company has a farm, school, and clinic, to pursue his passion for farming. “Employees breathed a sigh of relief,” one former employee told Insider about that period. “During those years, the company ran so smooth.”
Young’s domineering style occasionally steered the company into unlawful territory, sources told Insider.
In 2017, Young Living pleaded guilty to illegally trafficking rosewood, an endangered tree from Peru, and transporting it to the US. The company was ordered to pay $135,000 to the Peruvian government, in addition to a $500,000 fine and a $125,000 community-service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, according to court records.
“Once he made a decision, Gary’s wisdom was superior to what laws may have been out there,” a former employee told Insider.
A stunt with a grizzly bear
Young also had a propensity for not paying bills.
Multiple federal tax liens and a civil judgement were filed against him between 1995 and 2004 by the Internal Revenue Service and Utah’s Office of Recovery Services totaling nearly $80,000, according to tax documents reviewed by Insider. It’s unclear in the records if any of those liens were duplicitous.
As recently as 2016, a state tax lien was filed against Young Living by the Utah State Tax Commission, for $117,127, according to tax documents. That lien was withdrawn.
A former employee told Insider that when he joined Young Living, in the early 2000s, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy despite its growing revenue. That person said that every time Young Living dug itself out of a financial hole, the Youngs would only spend more, on some harebrained project.
“It was quite an effort on the management team’s part to try and help him understand where the company was financially,” the source said. “It was a continual process of managing his passions and interests and what he wanted to do, because he felt that he always had kind of this divine mandate, versus the reality of ‘let’s do things in a smart way that will build the company.'”
If staff couldn’t appease Young, several former employees said, they could find themselves out of a job.
In conversations, Insider was repeatedly told that Young fired people if they disagreed with him, surrounding himself with yes men who could validate what they saw as his nonsensical ideas. They said employees deliberately tried to keep their heads down and off Young’s radar, fearful that they could be the next ones out the door.
“I sense that I kind of understand what goes on inside the White House,” said one former employee, referring to President Donald Trump’s tantrum-driven management style. “You have a little bit of an egotistical person that, when they say stuff, that’s the way it is, and to some extent the ends justify the means if they really believe what they’re saying.
“That kind of summed up Gary. Whether it made sense or not, or whether it had a basis in fact, was somewhat irrelevant.”
Young relished his time in the spotlight, regaling Young Living enthusiasts with tales of his adventures around the globe and the miraculous properties of the oils he found, even if those product claims were unsubstantiated. Former employees told Insider that his staff gave up on trying to control what Young said onstage or to members, and instead concentrated on cleaning up his excesses after the fact. For instance, a former employee said, they edited video recordings to remove questionable claims.
One former employee told Insider about a time he was filming Young interacting with a grizzly bear for a promotional video. He described the entire shoot as safe: Young never got within 15 feet of the animal, which was trained and kept behind an electric wire. The wire was later edited out of the video.
Yet when Young told the story to members, he said the bear had licked oils off his hand. “He is just full-on lying,” the person said. Young was extremely charismatic, the source said, but he was “just kind of full of shit, to be honest. I liked him personally, but he was just a snake-oil salesman.”
Backstage, anointing babies with frankincense oil
For Young Living’s 6 million members, however, Young’s outlandish stories cemented an almost religious devotion to him and the company.
A former employee recalled how, during a convention, Young was anointing babies backstage with frankincense oil. “Women were just fawning over him and handing him their babies and he would dump some frankincense on their heads and he would place his hands on their heads,” he said.
A deeply religious man, Young was involved with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but decided to part ways because he felt he had his own personal guidance and didn’t need to rely on organized religion, a former employee told Insider.
He heavily incorporated religion into the company — he sold an “oils of ancient scripture” set for over $200 that included 10 of the most significant oils from the bible — and seemed to believe he was on a mission from God to bring essential oils to the world.
“There was definitely a cultish following around him,” one former employee told Insider, describing Young’s message as “We are here to heal the world, this is what God used to heal mankind for thousands of years, this is what prophets used in the Bible, and we are here to bring back the wisdom of God’s medicine on Earth.”
While Young portrayed himself as the patriarch of a wholesome, loving, Godly family knitted together by the healing properties of his oils, former employees said Young and his wife behaved differently behind the scenes.
According to one employee who was close to the Youngs, they often slept in separate quarters. The couple claimed to live an alcohol-free lifestyle, but staff frequently cleaned up their empty wine bottles, this person said.
“They had in some ways a relationship of convenience because they had a very valuable asset together,” observed a different former employee. “They knew they needed to protect it together.”
Young claimed his oils cured cancer, but he died of cancer
Young’s death, in 2018, was yet another instance where the truth threatened to undermine the edifice he’d devoted his life to building. While Young never claimed that his oils conferred everlasting life, he did claim they prevented and cured most major maladies — including cancer.
After his death, in Salt Lake City in May 2018, Mary announced to the world that he had succumbed to complications from a series of strokes.
But, according to Shawn Young, his son from his first marriage, Young died of cancer.
In the months leading up to his death, Mary lied about his health improving as he grew sicker, Shawn and his brother Mathew said. As a result, they never got to say goodbye.
Mary Young did not respond to specific claims made in this story. Instead, the Young Living spokesperson referred Insider to the company’s statement, adding that it “does not contain specific comments from any one executive.”
Some family members say they were barred from the funeral
On a cloudy Friday afternoon in May 2018, at Young Living’s lavender farm in Mona, Utah, the world said goodbye to Gary Young.
Young’s funeral was an elaborate affair, a nearly three-hour dedication to his life that included a procession of cowboys on horses, five bagpipers and three drummers wearing plaid kilts playing a solemn tune, and Young’s mahogany casket, with his cowboy hat placed gently on top, on a purple cart drawn by his eight Percheron horses.
Family members, friends, and Young Living employees and members gave speeches, with one royal crown diamond observing that “this man has been touched by the hands of God in a very unique and different way.”
The service also featured a musical number delivered by Young’s son Jacob, a closing prayer from his son Josef, and some words by Mary, who at one point crooned a song called “I Know My Redeemer Lives.”
“There was only one Galileo, there was only one Einstein, there was only one Michelangelo, there was only one Mozart, and there was only one Gary Young,” Mary told the audience. “No one will ever take his place, no one will ever walk in his shoes.”
Later, she said that, through the grapevine, she’d heard whispers of people wondering: Why didn’t he use the oils? Why couldn’t he heal himself? Why is he gone?
Mary couldn’t answer that question. But she did say that, after his near-fatal accident when he was 24, he was supposed to die. But he didn’t.
“I believe that by the grace of God, we were given another 40 years to be with Gary Young,” she said. “We were given the opportunity to be blessed with the knowing that he had, with the knowledge that he had.”
The funeral, livestreamed on YouTube, had over 100,000 people tuning in from across the world.
Two people who weren’t allowed to attend, though, were Gary’s son and daughter from his second marriage, according to Mathew Young. He said he had no idea why his half-siblings couldn’t go to their father’s funeral.
According to documents obtained by Insider, Young filed a petition for a protective order against his son, Adam, in March 2018, months before he died. The reason for requesting the order is unclear, and court records indicate it was denied.
Looking back on his father’s funeral, Mathew described the event as grand and very public. He said it felt more like a display, and he wished it could have been a bit different, perhaps more formal.
He added that, during the funeral, some people who were close to his father approached him and said his dad had spoken highly of him. That, he said, made him feel good during those difficult times.
Young’s biggest regret
A few years before he died, Young made the trek up to Quesnel, a small town in the heart of British Columbia surrounded by miles of lush forest, and he spent time with some of his children from his first marriage.
One night, during dinner, he divulged that his biggest regret was that he didn’t spend enough time with his family, telling his kids he wanted to make it up to them.
Less than a year before he died, Young asked Mathew to move to Utah and, finally, work in the family company. Mathew said he persuaded his wife and son to leave their life in Canada to start anew at Young Living.
“I keep telling my wife that I want to start doing something, I want to start getting into it, I want to carry on my dad’s legacy — and not as a distributor, actually carry on with it the way he intended,” he said.
But, right before they were about to move, Young died.
“I have a lot of frustration and anger towards my two brothers down there,” Mathew told Insider about his father’s death. “They were all standing around our dad’s bedside while he was taking his last breath, and they couldn’t pick up the phone and tell us until after he passed away, and they were standing there for weeks.”
“[Mary] is such a shady person that she would rob us of the opportunity of being with our dad the last few moments,” he told Insider. “I think she lied to the public because of the way they claimed Young Living can fix everything. She was worried it would ruin Young Living.”
‘When the legend becomes fact’
An image of Marc Schreuder’s passport from when he traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, with Gary Young in 2008.
Source photograph via Marc Schreuder
Years earlier, in 2008, Young and his colleague, Marc Schreuder, who worked at Young Living for almost two decades until his 2015 departure, were in Nairobi, Kenya, when Schreuder asked Young a rather perplexing question.
“Gary,” he recalled asking, “where do you draw the line between family and your mission? Right now, we are sitting here in this café in Nairobi. You haven’t been home in three weeks. And don’t tell me your family doesn’t miss you. How do you cope with that?”
The question hung in the air, and, at first, Gary didn’t respond, instead looking down as if he were ashamed, Schreuder recalled.
“You’re right,” he finally said, before adding: “It’s about weighing the importance of each one, and I don’t have an answer.”
Gary Young was a passionate man. He loved his oils, and he loved his company. He lived life on the edge — traveling the world, relishing his time spent outdoors, and building an empire around his eccentric personality and unquenchable desire for greatness. And for the company’s millions of members, Young did accomplish everything he strived for. He is revered, he is beloved, and, in their minds, he will forever be the father of essential oils.
But, for scores of people who were involved with Young and his company over the years, that drive for fame came at a steep cost.
As his sons acknowledged, while Young loved his family, his work was his life.
Doug Nelson, a close friend of Young and a former CEO of Young Living, said in an email that Young’s life of poverty to riches, of fortune, fame, and a great deal of loss, in some ways mimicked that of a Western dime novel.
“Fact, truth and myth are often blurred, going both ways,” Nelson said. “I think Gary wanted it that way. He had an amazing and interesting life but always wanted it to be more, more of everything! He wanted and perhaps needed to be everything his mind could imagine and his heart desired.
“All was possible to Gary because he became a master at creating his own reality. It might have been an imaginary world to his critics and a rational person but it was real to him and that was all that mattered.”
He recalled a quote from the 1962 Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” delivered by the actor Carleton Young: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Nelson thought Young would have liked it that way.