In September of 2009, former In the House star Maia Campbell made her way to Bossip via a tragic viral video. The daughter of the late, great, Bebe Moore Campbell, who was obviously suffering from mental health issues, was reffered to by the post author as a “ho.” In what was essentially a rant, I wrote a Facebook note on my fan page entitled, “Whitney, Maia and Lauryn: Black Women Damaged but Good for a Laugh?” In it, I asked, “Can all the real men and women stand up for a Black woman (or any woman) that you know is struggling today? If we don’t stand up for each other, who will? Can you be there for her? Or are you still dying / laughing?”
Recent reports indicated that Campbell had been sober and doing much better, so I was worried when I saw her featured in the trailer for OWN’s hit series, Iyanla, Fix My Life. Certainly, Iyanla Vanzant is more than capable as a life coach and en empathetic ear. However, in this era of disaster tourism on television, I wondered how the actress’ issues with bipolar disorder, substance abuse and celebrity culture would be treated and healed within the one-hour segment.
Thankfully, Vanzant began the show by letting us know that Bebe Moore Campbell was her sisterfriend and for this particular journey with Maia, “it was personal [and further], I have no illusions about trying to fix Maia’s mental illness. That’s not why I’m here.” Good for Iyanla. Good for Maia. And good for us.
Perfect for a thespian in need of the healing arts, Vanzant made Campbell play the lead role in her own life, in order to aid her in taking responsibility for her own actions. Previously, she had used quite a number of statements that demonstrated how much she was still projecting blame—“They did this to me,” “They did that,” etc. Iyanla made her take ownership by facing enlarged photos of herself in the various stages of her life, including the one that went viral and brought her the most shame.
When Campbell had to play the role of herself on crack cocaine, looking to get high “on the seedy side” of Wilshire Boulevard, she flinched at the reflection of herself and wanted to stop. “If you can’t face it, you can’t heal it. If you can’t say it, you will never come to grips with it,” urged Vanzant.
Campbell chose to be courageous and, literally, face herself, stating, “You don’t have the right to change my name into shame.” It was good to see Maia with some weight on her body. Her face looked full and she appeared to be a far cry from the emaciated, wild-eyed figure she had become when she was shamelessly recorded for ex-boyfriend’s cruel economic, vengeful gain.
Ellis Gordon, Campbell’s stepfather and conservator, brokered a deal to put Maia in mandatory rehabilitation for two years in lieu of serving jail time for the petty theft charge she acquired while high. Gordon is a man worthy of our appreciation and admiration. Viewers were touched by the depth of his love for Maia, for his late wife Bebe, and even Bebe’s mother, who still lives with him. Of Maia, he stated, “I don’t view her as my step daughter, I view her as my daughter.” He is a beautiful man and while it hurt to see him cry, Maia had genuine love and understanding in her eyes when she thanked Gordon for being there for her, for holding on and for being an ever-present reminder that she did not belong in the streets. She had a hearth and a home; and her “Thank You” to him seemed to heal many nights of worry and broken heartedness.
The former child star is determined to fix her relationship with her twelve year old daughter, Elizabeth Elisha, who appeared on the show. It was beautiful for the girl to say, “I just want you to get healthier so we can be together more and that it comes faster and sooner and I’ll always love you.”
There’s always a danger in displaying our most vulnerable selves but I found myself proud of the humanity Vanzant offered Campbell and to all of us as viewers. As she related, “Everybody has something, so when a star falls in your life, the process for them to rise again has to, it has to be about their needs, not yours. If you want to support them, you have to meet them where they are and not hold them hostage to where they’ve been. In the meantime, stay in peace, not pieces.”
Iyanla Vanzant did “the work” to fix her life and she is a welcome revolution in television to help us do our OWN work. Here’s to hoping Maia Campbell is able to do the same.
Kimberly “Dr. Goddess” Ellis is a scholar, artist and activist who writes on politics and pop culture at drgoddess.com. She also lives in Twitter: @drgoddess.