Reality on TV

With ‘Fix My Life,’ Iyanla Vanzant Opens Next Chapter by Helping Others

Triumph, tragedy—even an Oprah feud. The new TV host talks to Allison Samuels about beating hard times.

Peggy Turbett / The Plain Dealer via Landov

As the Oprah Winfrey Network continues to churn out provocative celebrity interviews with Oprah Winfrey herself asking the tough questions, a familiar face will make her debut this weekend.

On Saturday, author, Yoruba priestess, and life coach Iyanla Vanzant returns to television in Iyanla: Fix My Life, a show that aims the camera at those struggling with the everyday issues of life, surviving family strife, and managing love.

While this type of on-air entertainment may not chart new territory for the television audiences, Vanzant’s own life journey—filled with heartache, betrayal, and loss—effortlessly gives this tried-and-true theme a more authentic, polished, and updated look.

Vanzant, born Ronda Eva Harris, was already a beloved African-American writer when Winfrey invited her to be a guest on her talk show more than a decade ago. Her feisty, no-nonsense approach to the most mundane problems of life brought her countless fans, and she sold more than 8 million books. Titles such as In the Meantime and One Day My Soul Just Opened Up made the New York Times bestseller list and put Vanzant front and center as a foremost inspirational speaker and ordained New Thought spiritual leader.

“I’ve always wanted people to know who they are from the inside,” says Vanzant. “Then they can create the life they desire and deserve. I’ve always believed that my job was to facilitate the evolution of the human consciousness. If you don’t like your sister or don’t get along with your father, let’s find out if you like yourself. Let’s not sugarcoat anything about it.”

Sugarcoating was something Vanzant never had the opportunity to experience. Motherless at 3, raped at 9 years old, and a mother by age 16, Vanzant would also become the victim of domestic violence. She fought to survive with welfare checks and public housing until she one day figured out a way to turn her life around. She put herself through college, then law school, and eventually created the self-help empire that made her a household name.

Suddenly she was receiving million-dollar book-royalty checks and appearing regularly on the most popular talk show in the country. Vanzant says she was living a life so amazing, she had to pinch herself daily to be sure was real. It was real—and unfortunately short-lived.

“I wasn’t ready for fame and all that brings to your life,” remembers Vanzant. “It was an amazing experience, but so overwhelming, because no one can tell you beforehand when it will happen or how it will impact you. So no one can tell you how to handle it, being stopped everywhere you go because people saw you on Oprah. It took me over, and I wasn’t ready.”

After appearing on Winfrey’s show numerous times in one season, Vanzant seemed destined to walk the same path traveled by the likes of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz.

“That’s not quite the way it turned out, of course, for me,” says Vanzant. “I wanted a show sooner than Oprah and Harpo [Productions] thought I was ready for. I went with another female powerhouse—Barbara Walters—in the business, and it didn’t work out. That’s life in many ways, and I knew that.”

Vanzant’s itch to strike out would ultimately derail her relationship with Harpo and Winfrey for years. Her decision also led to yet another painful chapter in her life, beginning with her Walters-produced show being canceled after just one season.

Soon afterward, she faced a surprise divorce (via email notice no less), lost her home to foreclosure, and cared for her 31-year-old daughter as she succumbed to a rare form of colon cancer. Her daughter’s health-care bills depleted her book earnings, and Vanzant says despair left her on the brink of suicide.

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“Watching them put my daughter in a box and put her in the ground really made me know there was nothing that could kill me if that didn’t do it,” she says. “I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Lived it and I’m still here to talk about it and help someone else if I can.”

Vanzant said she picked herself up as she’d done in the past and mended fences with Winfrey in a brutally honest two-part on-air interview with the talk-show icon. As a result, Iyanla: Fix My Life was born. The new show regularly finds her confronting her clients and encouraging them to face the same fears, insecurities, and shortcomings she’s conquered, but all before a national television audience. Vanzant had a short-lived reality series, Starting Over, which attempted to the do the same thing with women all living in one house.

The first episode of Fix My Life features basketball wife Evelyn Lozada, estranged spouse of NFL star Chad Ochocinco Johnson. Lozada is known to reality-TV fans as an attractive bully with a penchant for throwing wine bottles and stiletto pumps. Vanzant initially spoke with the reality star months ago, but reinterviewed her after Johnson was arrested for domestic violence just last month, only weeks after their elaborate wedding in St. Martin. Winfrey told morning news shows that Vanzant is able to reveal a much more sympathetic side of Lozada.

“I’m doing real work with people who need real help,” says Vanzant. “So many people live with anger in their lives that then manifests itself in other negative ways that also impact their family and friends. This is an example of that, so we have to get to the core of why she is so angry or anyone. But the key is I don’t do the work for them. They have own up to it. It doesn’t turn out well otherwise.”

Still, the majority of Vanzant’s client list won’t be famous faces. Most of the show’s 12 episodes will focus on average people just surviving the ups and downs of an average day.

“Life is hard. We all know that,” says Vanzant. “You don’t like your boss, and he doesn’t like you. Or your kid made you mad. That’s the reality we all live with. The key is to figure out how you can enjoy where you are right now in life. How you face what’s out there and keep it moving the best way you can. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.”