Culture

The beguiling appeal of Iyanla Vanzant’s TV therapy

How the premise of “fixing” someone’s life often turns into something else.

Culture

The beguiling appeal of Iyanla Vanzant’s TV therapy

How the premise of “fixing” someone’s life often turns into something else.
Culture

The beguiling appeal of Iyanla Vanzant’s TV therapy

How the premise of “fixing” someone’s life often turns into something else.

Cardi B famously got her start on Love & Hip Hop: New York, where amid the drama she edged her way into the music industry and found popularity outside the show. But for every Cardi B, who takes an unconventional path to stardom, there is a Hazel-E. Hazel-E, or Arica Adams, who first appeared Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood in 2014, is Cardi without all the appeal: She raps like she just woke up from a nap, and she’s constantly saying things like gay people should “burn in hell” and dark-skinned black women look like monkeys. Her behavior caught the attention of life coach and self-proclaimed “living testament to the power of acting on faith,” Iyanla Vanzant, who invited her onto her show, Iyanla: Fix My Life.

In a clip that made its rounds online, Vanzant brings Adams into her “legacy room” which is adorned with pictures of trailblazing black women, like Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ruby Dee. “You stand on all of these women’s shoulders,” Vanzant says. She directs Adams to recite the lyrics to one of her songs, while standing in front of a photo of Dorothy Dandridge.

Adams reluctantly reads the lyrics from her 2014 single Pop My Butt. “Pop my butt, pop pop my butt,” she says. “Pop my butt, pop pop my butt.”

“Do you know what pop my butt meant to Harriet Tubman?” Vanzant asks. “It meant a whip.”

Adams continues, now facing a picture of Rosa Parks and Septima Clark. “Everything I want I have,” she says.

“You know what she wanted?” Vanzant says. “A seat on the damn bus.” Vanzant’s voice, steady and serious, Adams’ dumbfounded look — all punctuated with the added gravity of classic reality show sound effects. It’s a moment of television genius.

The self-help genre of TV has existed for far longer than when Vanzant first arrived on the air, but it was more functional than for pure entertainment. Ruth Westheimer, a sex therapist who made regular appearances on daytime talk shows and gave advice to viewers, rose to fame in the 1980s, and had several shows of her own. “When she gave advice over the telephone, she was very careful adhering to a kind of professional code,” said Mimi White, professor of film, television and media culture at Northwestern University. “She would often recommend that people seek therapy.”

When Oprah Winfrey first invited Iyanla Vanzant onto her talk show back in the late 1990s, it was to give women dating advice. In one of her earliest appearances on the show, Vanzant delivers charismatic one liners, and engages the audience like a preacher delivering a sermon. “If you see crazy coming, cross the street,” she says, to cheers and laughter, and approval from Winfrey. Vanzant quickly became a regular, making appearances every other week. So Winfrey knew exactly what she was doing when she gave Vanzant her own show in 2012. The show is now the most popular one on Oprah's cable network, OWN.

Today’s television therapists want their patients to get better — as long as it happens on the air, of course. Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab made a spectacle of substance abuse and mental health issues and resulted in two spin-offs. Dr. Phil, who worked as a clinical and forensic psychologist, has had his show on the air for 16 years.

In the context of her peers, an episode of Iyanla: Fix My Life feels anything but clinical. Instead of sitting on a couch in a office or on a stage, the show makes you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into a family’s living room, while Vanzant wags her finger and doles out wisdom. Some write letters asking for help, and others she requests to come on after hearing their story.

Her authority, which is often rooted in the spiritual as opposed to the medical, comes from her personal life and faith. Vanzant, whose real name is Rhonda Harris and was born in Brooklyn, fled an abusive relationship with her husband and raised her three children on her own. Afterwards, she went to college and went on to earn her law degree. And sometime around then, she became interested in the Yoruba faith and adopted the name Iyanla which means “great mother.”

She credits a religious epiphany for her ability to have insight into other people’s lives. “I give myself away moment by moment. There’s not intellectual definition for that depth of spiritual unfolding,” Vanzant said on one of Winfrey’s Super Soul Sessions. “I just make myself available to God. I’m just used as the vessel.”

Each episode of Iyanla:Fix My Life starts with the guest sitting across from Vanzant talking about what brought them to her. But for Vanzant, an emotional breakthrough can’t happen without an emotional breakdown. A guest must be hiding something if there aren’t tears and snot. “The intention behind Iyanla: Fix My Life is not to create television,” Vanzant says. “It’s to save lives.” Often, she insists on breaking them down before building them back up.

On Hazel-E’s episode, it’s revealed that she was molested as a young girl, by a woman who happened to be of a darker complexion than her. Vanzant credits this for her derogatory comments about dark-skinned women, and blames Adams’ sexual trauma for her sexual openness. The episode could have been a nuanced discussion around sexual assault in the black community, and how so many women, like Adams herself, are forced to keep quiet about it. But instead, Adams was humiliated, and the conversation stopped there.

For Vanzant, an emotional breakthrough can’t happen without an emotional breakdown.

For many black people who make up a number of Vanzant’s viewers, myself included, older black women carry a certain infallibility. It makes her authority more uncomfortable to question, and it also explains the connection her most devoted fans feel: This isn’t a cold medical professional offering his opinion, but an aunt or a grandmother. In a 2014 Facebook post, Iyanla requested that people reach out to her if they were in a heterosexual marriage, and were hiding their sexuality from their partner. What followed was hundreds of people sharing their stories, all of them writing as though they were speaking to Iyanla directly, even though it’s probable a producer or social media editor was filtering the results.

Plenty of studies have explored the prevailing cultural belief that black people don’t trust therapists, which is why Iyanla’s homey approach resonates. That doesn’t mean she’s been spared criticism, which focuses on her relatively conservative approach. “I’m so damn tired of Iyanla bullying and slut shaming women under the guise of ‘fixing’ their lives," goes a representative tweet. And if there’s a large chunk of viewers who find comfort in her approach, another contingent is simply paying attention to see what wildly entertaining television she’s going to create next, under the guise of “fixing” someone’s life.

At the end of the Hazel-E’s appearance on the show, Vanzant sat down with her for one last talking to. She firmly clasped Hazel-E’s hands, looked at her squarely in the eyes and said, “You have a responsibility to Ruby Dee. You have a responsibility to Harriet Tubman. That’s who you open your mouth for.”

In an Instagram post, Hazel-E responded by thanking Vanzant for inviting her on the show. “Thank you for allowing me to right my wrongs,” she said. This week, she celebrated her 38th birthday by posting a teaser for her new song “Hasta La Vista,” and a video where she dances in between some cars. You can imagine Iyanla wouldn’t approve, but either way, it sure was a good episode.

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