Last month, when Iyanla Vanzant’s Fix My Life returned to television for its fifth season, it marked the second decade of her relationship with America as television’s tell-like-it-is auntie. For 20 years, she’s been offering life advice and therapeutic expertise, perhaps more enduring than any other self-help expert on television. But it’s been a rocky road getting there, and when I spoke to her in September, I wanted to understand why Vanzant has such enduring power—so I asked her to fix my life.
Vanzant first gained popularity as a self-help guru and spiritual advisor of sorts on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show back in the late 1990s, after publishing best-selling, emotional books like 1995’s Interiors: A Black Woman’s Healing... in Progress and 1996’s The Value in the Valley. Eventually, the media mogul even allowed Vanzant to essentially host The Oprah Show, while Oprah herself sat in the audience and listened like a guest.
Then, in 2001, Vanzant got a talk show deal with Barbara Walters and abruptly ditched the woman who helped her become an American household name. The Iyanla Show was cancelled after just one season. When her subsequent talk show failed, she disappeared from television, and Vanzant and Winfrey didn’t speak for over a decade. I still remember her 1998 best-selling book—she’s written 15 in total—called In The Meantime, which was a pep talk to make the best of the crappy times in your life. A college friend tried to get me to read it with her as we “waited on our husbands.” I declined.
In 2011, Vanzant made a comeback—but only after Winfrey made her kiss the ring on national television during an emotional tête-à-tête on Super Soul Sunday, broadcast on Winfrey’s then-new network OWN.
Sitting on my couch, I watched the conversation go down on television and Twitter, where the jokes were flying. It was clear that Iyanla was angling to get back in Winfrey’s good graces. Explaining why she left to produce a show with Walters, she said things like, “But Oprah, I was broken!” It was fantastic television, but it left me wondering if Vanzant ever knew anything at all—if her ideas about healing were just made-for-TV foolishness that she’d do anything to peddle once more.
There have been signs, of course, that Vanzant is not necessarily a truth-teller. During her second season, two guests, Earl “DMX” Simmons and Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Sheree Whitfield were not happy with their appearances. Both said they were sold one concept and then, during filming, blindsided with another. DMX said he was supposed to talk about his addiction to women, but ended up becoming the center of a drug intervention that put him, his son Xavier and his ex-wife Tashera under hot lights. Whitfield said Vanzant was supposed to help her and her estranged husband mend fences, but that she felt attacked the entire show. To be fair, anyone who has an ongoing problem—particularly one worked out on television—tends to play a part in that problem, so we’d be wise to take these complaints with a grain of salt. Still, in America, land of televangelists and fad beliefs, it’s prudent to be skeptical of self-help gurus boasting a bachelor’s in public administration and a masters in spiritual psychology.
It’s hard to make interesting and meaningful television. Iyanla’s Fix My Life uses popular, proven tropes: secret relationship revelations, thunderous arguments, tears, family fights and people storming out of rooms because they can’t handle the truth are all scenes from the show’s many seasons. As a television fixer, Vanzant is great at what she does, which is presumably the reason that Winfrey took her back. When Vanzant tackles salacious stories like the man who fathered 34 children with 17 different women, Fix My Life is a rating juggernaut for OWN—that show alone pulled in 1.15 million viewers. She specializes in situations that inspire uncomfortable judgment—overweight families, absent and incarcerated fathers, cheating spouses, mother-daughter and transgender son-father wars—and she says what the audience is thinking, under the guise that it’s what the subject needs to hear. Watching Fix My Life gives the audience the chance to say “I’m bad but I’m not that bad” while watching Vanzant yell at a stranger.
For example, in a March 2015 show with Chris Brown’s ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran, Vanzant hugged her like a seven-year-old while she told Tran that she allowed Chris to treat her poorly because she didn’t think more of herself, but she should. It was good television. But it still left a bad taste in my mouth, that both fixer and patient were out for something less pure than Karrueche becoming healed.
In a phone interview with Vanzant, I asked her about balancing the line between ratings and respecting her subjects. The first episode of her new season featured closeted black ministers, for instance, an issue which seems, in the shadow of the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage in June, old news and for shock value.
“We have a clear intention about healing, whether it’s these men coming out, whether it’s Debi Thomas’ fall from grace, whether it’s our hip-hop artist falling and can’t seem to get up, these are common issues,” she said. “One of the things I hope Fix My Life shows—because there are so many people who think if I had money or fame, then my life would be what I want it to be—there are struggles at every level. We’re in the same boats, we just have different size oars. Our intention is not to do television but to provide instruction, tools and information that supports people’s healing processes.”
This sounds like a good answer, but the premise still seems questionable. In 2013’s explosive episode intervention, the one about DMX, it was clear that, even if Iyanla could help him, it’d take much longer than an episode. Was what she was doing a public, or even a personal, service? Not to mention—and this might sound like an geriatric question—but what makes people request Iyanla’s help in airing their dirtiest laundry in public anyway?
“Everything is public now, we’re living in a society where everything is public,” Vanzant said. “People reveal themselves in tweets and Facebook posts, people meet people online so we just live in a society where the standards have shifted and people are more willing to come forward than they were years ago. Just because mama told you not to tell your business in the street don’t mean you can’t watch everybody else’s.”
In the spirit of so much being public, I asked Vanzant about a few professional and personal problems of my own. While I might not be like some of her other clients—say, Reverend Derek Anthony Terry, the secretly gay male pastor presiding over a church in Louisville, Kentucky who didn’t know his truth, the subject of several recently aired episodes—I’ve got some issues which could use fixing.
Sometimes, as a writer just expressing my opinion, strangers rise up from the dark web to call me a “cunt,” for instance; or I can’t dislocate my hand from my iPhone when it’s time to live in the real world; or I work so hard, I forget to call my mother who lives across the country. So I asked Iyanla herself How To Fix My (Blogging) Life. If she can save all of these other people with serious issues like leaving their husbands after he’s knocked up a stranger, or healing Basketball Wives star Evelyn Lozada of her anger issues, my problems should be a piece of cake, right? Not to mention, I wanted to see if the healing guru was doing more than selling snake oil.
But when I asked her to fix my life, it turned out differently than the lighthearted, funny experience I expected.
What do I do when internet trolls attack me for writing my opinion and my feelings are hurt?
“You have to be clear with your intentions. If you’re clear about what your intention is, what people call you doesn’t matter. Of course we’re human. There are different tastes in the world, different experiences, understandings and exposures but that doesn’t have anything to do with you when you’re clear about your intention. Then whatever you write or do, what people call you will not be your concern. You have to know that everybody is not gonna agree with you, you have to know that everything is not for everybody. If that was the case, we’d have one candidate running for president.
“The bigger question is; why does it bother you? What they’re saying isn’t the thing, why it impacts you is.”
Iyanla’s right, I shouldn’t care if commenters call me a “cunt” or “white,” which is a way some have moved to discredit my opinions on race and culture despite my being African American with a black, afro-haired avatar accompanying each article I write, because I am adult who doesn’t really care what strangers think.
How do I create work-life balance when my work and life bleed together on the internet? My husband and I will be at home, both on our separate devices, and barely talking. I gotta log off Iyanla, help.
“It doesn’t matter where your job is, you don’t have any more difficulty than an OBGYN doctor or a police officer. It becomes a question of priorities and time management. If you work eight hours a day or in an emergency occupation, you must carve out time for yourself, your relationships, your spiritual life. It’s about just being in balance no matter where you work and that’s about choices you make. How do you make choices that honor and support yourself?
“Teachers go home and mark papers, doctors go home and worry about patients, trash men don’t worry about what they picked up during the day. I don’t know if it’s because your job is online or if it’s because, I would say a large portion of our community today is addicted to the electromagnetic waves that come through the TVs and phones. People are walking with their phones, tweeting or facebooking because we live out in that world now but you have to focus on your priorities. Why are you choosing not to choose those things for yourself?”
Damn, right again. I gotta log off. Though, addicted to electromagnetic waves? I don’t know about that.
I live in New York City and my mother lives in Northern California. I get home a few times a year but when I’m there, I’m trying to see her as well as the rest of our family and friends. She doesn’t think we spend enough time together and every time I leave, she picks a fight with me, though I feel like she’s wasting the time we do have by fussing.
“I could be very wrong but I’m hearing a number of things, most notably that you don’t have time for one another. I hear your mother saying she doesn’t feel your presence because if you’re standing in front of her and she’s complaining about why you’re not there, the only thing you can do is ask her why. When people seem to be unreasonably upset with me, one of the things I do is ask them, ‘How can I make this better?’ Where I can comply, I do.
“What I’m hearing is that your mother doesn’t feel that your relationship is important to you. Fixing that is going to require you asking her what she needs from you to feel that it’s important and telling her what is and isn’t doable for you.
“But I heard the same conversation with your husband, where you have to request face time. You can be some place and not be present, it’s about your energy. Your mother may feel that you’re squeezing her in and you don’t really want to be there. What if you just went home and crawled up in the bed with her like you used to do? Then, as a mother, she’s probably being neurotic and doesn’t know how to let go but it all requires a conversation.
“I don’t know your mother or how she’s feeling, but the best way to do that is to ask her how can I make it better? What is it that I can do so that you will know how important you are to me because it upsets me when you’re upset.”
Yo, Iyanla is right again and I think I’m a terrible daughter?
Iyanla might seem to shill a dime-store made-for-television version of therapy, but she offered me plausible and sensible solutions to situations that routinely drive me crazy and I’m grateful. None of it was rocket science, of course, but like when your horoscope echoes something you’ve been thinking about, I actually heard the solutions—her practical approach is her gift. As for me, I’m going to call my mother.
The next episode of Fix My Life, “Fix My Delinquent Daughter,” airs Saturday on OWN.
Contact the author at Hillary@jezebel.com.
Image via OWN.