While ‘mainstream’ audiences were first introduced to the genius of Iyanla Vanzant via her appearances on The Oprah Winfery Show in the late 1990’s, Black folks came to know the author/spiritual via her popular motivational books (remember the days when it was more common to see a sister on the bus reading Vanzant’s Acts of Faith or The Value in the Valley than Every Gangsta Needs a Boo?)
After a short-lived talk show (executive produced by Barbara Walters, who simply didn’t seem to know what to do with a sister like Vanzant), the Brooklyn native found television success with the transformative Starting Over. The daytime reality show, which featured troubled women (including Towanda Braxton)living together and working through their issues with the help of Vanzant and others, ended in 2006.
The healer had been largely absent from television since then, until a surprising reunion with Winfery during the talk-show queen’s final season. The reunion would prove to be a watershed moment for television, as the sister-friends have now partnered to bring the powerful Iyanla: Fix My Life to the OWN network. Here, Vanzant discusses the historic mending of fences and why her new show is must-see-TV.
EBONY: It’s been almost ten years since your first talk show and about six years since Starting Over. How does it feel to be back on television this way again?
Iyanla Vanzant: It is humbling. You know, as a woman of color, we don’t always get another shot, so it is a major source of gratitude for me that a place like OWN exists [and] that I can continue to do my work reaching the largest number of people with what would be the least amount of effort. It is just exciting. It is exciting to be a part of this new wave of television.
EBONY: Watching you and Oprah go through your healing process and you all coming back together and rekindling your relationship…that was just such a powerful Black woman thing to witness.
IV: Yeah, it really was. What you saw is what happened. There was no more. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t planned out, it wasn’t rehashed, and it wasn’t discussed. That was it. I mean, of course we taped for about two hours and you saw an hour—and the [studio] audience got to hear every word of course every word didn’t go on television— but that was it. It was real, it was raw, it was cathartic…Unlike some of the properties that are being portrayed on the television now, to see two women of color have a difficult conversation publicly, I think was a blessing. It was a blessing for me.
EBONY: Did it even cross your mind that it was going to end up with you having a show on the network or was it simply something that needed to happen?
IV: It was something that needed to happen. Having a show on the network was no place in my brain…That wasn’t what it was about it all. What was important and is important to me is my relationship with my sister. That’s what is important and that was what was broken, not a television career. What was broken was my relationship [with Oprah.]
EBONY: Is there any one person or one family that has come to you, that has had just a particular profound effect on you or impacted your view of how this show is going to work?
IV: Every show has had a profound impact on me. Every show, I’ve learned something about myself, I’ve learned something about life, but each show for me is a demonstration of the pain and suffering that silently exists in our society today. Because any time a relationship is in break down, there is suffering. Any time there is ‘un-forgiveness’ between people who love each other, there is suffering. Any time people face challenges that they really don’t understand…there is suffering. For me, each set of guests, each show says to me ‘Oh my God, people are suffering.’
EBONY: We certainly see suffering all over television. We see it on Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop and all these other reality programs, particularly those featuring women and men of color that are stars on cable television, but are not getting help.
IV: Yeah and that is the distinction in OWN in general and for Iyanla: Fix My Life specifically. We look at what people do, how they do it, why they do it and we offer them an opportunity to address it. The ‘Fix My Life’ is not what I do; the ‘Fix My Life’ is what [my guests] do based on skills, tools and information I provide. We identify the problem, identify the solution then provide people with the opportunity to implement the solution on their own. I don’t do the fixing, I do the identification. I interrupt the story, I provide them with a new perspective and that is the distinction.
EBONY: When you have that moment where you see that something is wrong and people in your life are hurting, what is the most important thing someone can do to work towards fixing it? What should viewers do when something on the show rings true to life?
IV: Write it down! This is not a passive show. A lot of television is passive, you watch, you gawk, you observe, you go away and enjoy or horrification, depending on the show. This is a show you have to come with your notebook and your pencil. This is a workshop, not a passive experience. Because even if you don’t need it, you know somebody who needs it. So there’s going to be a line, there’s going to be a scenario, there’s going to be a situation—‘Oh God, let me write that down. That’s my sister, that’s my brother, that’s my mother or that’s me.’ It’s interactive. I hope people talk to the screen. I am encouraging people to have viewing parties. Invite over your family, invite over your posse of girlfriends, invite over your sports buds. Watch this, and when it goes off have a discussion. Have some food of course, but have a discussion. You can’t heal without a little food!
EBONY: Speaking of the ‘sports buds,’ how do we get men, particularly Black men to sit down and say, ‘I have had some hurting, I have has some issues, I need to be watching a show like this and reading these books. I need to address my hurt?’
IV: Well the beauty of Iyanla: Fix My Life is that men are in every show. To our surprise some of the deepest healing demonstrations have been with the men. The sons, the fathers, the husbands because they agree to participate with the wife or the daughter or whatever it is we are looking at and it is there. What we have to remember is many of the shows that are presented are presented from a woman’s perspective. Our shows are presented from a community, a family perspective. Everybody is involved. We haven’t done one single show that focuses on one person. It focuses on an individual and how their challenge has affected those they love. So I think as men begin to see things that address them, they will feel that they can relate. They can’t relate to Basketball Wives, Housewives of Atlanta. I am not judging or criticizing those shows at all, what I am saying is the perspective is not necessarily the male perspective. Iyanla: Fix My Life is inclusive of everyone.
I am just honored and privileged to have this opportunity to be of service in this way. I have to say the world is ready. There wouldn’t be an Iyanla Vanzant if these issues didn’t exist. They exist. I just happen to be on purpose at this time to provide support, insight and healing.