Recently, Iyanla Vanzant has been given the task of fixing all things broken, from minds to marriages, on her OWN show “Iyanla, Fix My Life.” (Saturdays at 9:00 p.m. ET). This is usually the job of a therapist, but as far as I can tell, the closest Vanzant comes to having those particular credentials is being the author of piles of self-help books, the recipient of a masters degree in spiritual psychology, a Yoruba priestess, and an ordained New Thought minister (yes, those are things, I guess). She calls herself a spiritual technician, which means she’s about as qualified, at least on paper, to fix your car as she is your mind.
But none of that matters, as Vanzant has been touched on the shoulder by the mighty one, Oprah Winfrey, and that’s as good as a doctorate, at least in TV terms. Still, even She can change her mind, and when it comes to Vanzant, She did.
Some fans of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show might remember Vanzant being a weekly presence in the late ’90s, using her plain-spoken methods to shake up audiences and inspire them to change. Then, she disappeared, later to be replaced by equally plain-talking Dr. Phil. Vanzant went on to helm a misguided talk show and served briefly on the life makeover series “Starting Over.” It was only when Vanzant came crawling back to Winfrey during the last season of her talk show that the whole horrible truth came spilling out.
Vanzant, impatient for Winfrey’s people to set her up with a show of her own, took an offer from a competitor. The disastrous “The Iyanla Show” quickly disappeared, and after a stint on the life makeover show “Starting Over,” it seemed Vanzant did as well. After leaving Winfrey’s nest, Vanzant lost her marriage, her book deals, her money, her home and finally her daughter Gemmia, who died of cancer. She contemplated suicide. It’s not overstating it to say Vanzant hit bottom.
But as Vanzant says in the intro to her new show, life “left her broke and broken,” but she did the work needed to make a comeback. Despite the total lack of school-taught credentials in therapy, she has had a thorough education in the school of hard knocks. Before Winfrey’s show, her story was focused on another climb up from the depths: motherless at age 3, raped at age 9, a mother at age 16, the mother of three by age 21. Married and beaten from age 22 to 30. A college graduate at age 34, a law school graduate at age 38, and the author of five best sellers in her forties.
Having watched Vanzant on “Starting Over,” I’ll admit to being a fan of Vanzant’s, though I can’t always support her methods. There are a lot of punny sayings, a lot of God talk, a lot of New Age babble about transformation and accountability. But along with that, there’s keen insight, a sense of humor and a willingness to let things get messy, even if that doesn’t make for the tidy resolutions TV usually demands.
Given that 3.3 million people tuned in to see Vanzant take a stab at helping DMX face his problems, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who likes to see the spiritual technician do her stuff, especially with celebrity subjects not used to truth-telling. On this episode, Vanzant wasn’t able to cajole the rapper into seeking help for his addictions (he hoped to cure his addiction to sex while Vanzant wanted to work on his drug problem). After a long monologue from DMX defending most of his choices and denying the others, Vanzant started pushing his buttons. There was a lot of yelling, and not just from DMX. DMX seemed entirely startled that anyone would have the temerity to talk back to him, much less a woman.
When he went storming out of the room, only to return twenty minutes later with a non-apology (he was sorry for yelling at Vanzant, but a woman had “never made him” act that way before). she sat quietly while he tried (and ultimately failed) to make amends with his adult son Xavier. But when the rapper tried to pick another fight, Vanzant exploded. “YOU DO NOT GET TO TALK TO ME EVER AGAIN!” she said in a booming voice one doesn’t usually hear from, you know, therapists.
It was good television, gripping television, but was it therapeutic? I’m not sure anyone could reach DMX, honestly, but I’m pretty sure getting into a battle of egos wasn’t going to help matters. Still, Vanzant was able to make headway with both Xavier and DMX’s estranged wife Tashera, helping them see patterns they were repeating in their lives. In the show’s afterword, both claimed to be feeling better about their troubled family dynamic. DMX, on the other hand, got arrested for driving without a license with his 5-month-old daughter in the car.
This week’s episode, in which Vanzant tried to iron out the fractious relationship between former “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Sheree Whitfield and her ex-husband Bob, wasn’t any more successful, but really, one episode of TV show pseudo-therapy wasn’t going to fix that ugliness anyway. Still, “Iyanla, Fix My Life” did a far better job of showing both sides of this battle than “Real Housewives” ever did, which seemed to piss off Sheree to no end.
When Vanzant pointed out that Sheree building a mansion had less to do with her kids than her own ego gratification, the housewife reacted as if she’d been smacked. The next day, she even complained that she’d been expecting Vanzant to support her and help her become a better parent. Despite Vanzant’s best efforts to explain that working on her own stuff might be a good thing, it’s pretty clear she never thought that she might be held accountable for her part in her awful divorce.
To her credit, Vanzant zeroed in on many of the things wrong between the Whitfields — but finally, when it was clearly impossible to keep either of them calm enough to have a civil discussion, she conceded defeat. “How long is it gonna take for you to say I was a knucklehead, bobohead fool?” she asks in, um, therapeutic terms. After thanking both of them, she wraps up the episode with, “For the first time in the history of my show, I can say my work here is not done, but I’m leaving anyhow cause you all have worn me out.” No kidding.
Vanzant is a big, brassy personality whose tough love approach to helping others makes perfect sense from a TV perspective. It seems Oprah Winfrey has a penchant for experts who aren’t afraid of ruffling feathers and talking honesty with people (Dr. Phil is another proponent of tough love). Whether this results in actual change or really helps anyone is another question. Still, it’s a thrill to see reality TV stars like Sheree Whitfield put into her place, even as she refuses to see it. Vanzant may not offer a lasting cure, but for the time being, she’s producing some pretty good TV.