Iyanla Vanzant’s tough love resonated over nine years of ‘Fix My Life’

Iyanla VanZant hosted "Fix My Life" in 2019. She shot the final three seasons in Atlanta. Courtesy of OWN
Iyanla VanZant hosted "Fix My Life" in 2019. She shot the final three seasons in Atlanta. Courtesy of OWN

Credit: OWN

Credit: OWN

Her show will end with a two-hour retrospective May 22.

When Iyanla Vanzant made her first appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1998, the author and spiritual coach became an instant hit. Her honest, no-holds-barred approach wowed Winfrey and her audience.

Winfrey brought Vanzant back 20 more times over the next year. Barbara Walters then dangled a talk show for Vanzant. Vanzant said no, but she said her discussion with Winfrey about it took a left turn and Winfrey cut Vanzant off for 11 years.

They finally reconciled in 2011 and Winfrey told Vanzant she needed her own show on Winfrey’s fledgling OWN network.

The result was “Iyanla: Fix My Life,” which debuted in 2012. The premise was simple: Vanzant parachutes in to assess a person or family and provide them tools to resolve a core issue or two, always emphasizing that for that to happen, they have to “do the work.”

“Fix My Life” became a core success story for OWN, drawing an ardent fan base, mostly women of color. She traveled the country the first three seasons, then had clients come to her in Los Angeles, Chicago, then, starting in 2018, a mansion in Atlanta.

Last year, Vanzant decided to call it quits. This final season concludes with a two-hour “Fix My Life” retrospective airing at 9 p.m. Saturday, May 22, on OWN. She’ll finish with more than 135 episodes under her belt.

“I realized it was becoming work,” said Vanzant in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It wasn’t fun anymore. When I prayed about it and meditated on it, the message was: This is complete. If you keep trying to make it work, it’s exhausting.”

OWN couldn’t convince her otherwise. “If I could, I’d keep her on another 10 years,” said OWN president Tina Perry. “It’s more than a show. As Oprah has said before, it’s a ministry.”

Perry said Vanzant “normalized having incredibly tough conversations on television. Her guidance had real impact on viewers.”

Vanzant’s fans lauded her uncanny ability to go behind a client’s facade and pluck out what is really going on inside a person’s head. She herself has overcome her fair share of trauma as a teen mom, a rape survivor and divorcée who lost her daughter to cancer in 2003.

Mona King Austin, a 49-year-old Gainesville, Virginia, reporter, said she could instantly see that Vanzant “cared about the people she counseled and brought personal and professional experience to the table. She was more than Dr. Phil in a dress. Her cultural identity and awareness made a difference because she could relate to the conflicts she was working to resolve, particularly in women.”

Henry Louis Adams, a 49-year-old Atlanta actor, calls “Fix My Life” his own “therapy session. Each episode forced you to look deep into your soul and take inventory.”

Carmencita Askew Poe, a 47-year-old Buford podcaster, said she appreciated how Vanzant tackled specific topics such as the myth of the angry Black woman and generational curses.

“Her methods were not always appreciated or understood, but she remained consistent,” Poe said. “She told people what they did not want to hear and she did it with love.” She could also tell Vanzant treated celebrities and regular folks exactly the same.

In a three-part, three-week “Iyanla: Fix My Life” season premiere, Iyanla Vanzant delivers her first “mega-fix” — traveling to the Atlanta area to help a man reconcile faltering relationships with his huge brood of children, many of their mothers, as well as his parents. Courtesy of OWN
In a three-part, three-week “Iyanla: Fix My Life” season premiere, Iyanla Vanzant delivers her first “mega-fix” — traveling to the Atlanta area to help a man reconcile faltering relationships with his huge brood of children, many of their mothers, as well as his parents. Courtesy of OWN

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

While Vanzant largely worked with everyday folks, production would insert a handful of famous names each season as well, from late rap legend DMX to Olympic figure skater Debi Thomas. She also advised a large number of Atlanta celebrities such as “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast members Sherée Whitfield and Cynthia Bailey, Atlanta DJ Sasha the Diva and R&B singer Syleena Johnson.

Johnson was already a fan of Vanzant’s books when Vanzant probed her personal issues on camera. “I love her honesty,” she said. “Honesty doesn’t waste time. She told me something I had never heard before and has really helped me. She said I was way too hard on myself. It was killing me.”

Shyneka Richardson, a Streetz 94.5 morning host whose professional name is Mz Shyneka, appeared on one of the final episodes this year, ostensibly about why she couldn’t land a steady relationship. She and Vanzant ended up talking about Richardson being molested as a child and not telling her mom, as well as her caretaker tendencies toward her mother and others.

“I’ve worked with therapists before,” Richardson said. “But none of them went as deep as Iyanla. I didn’t realize I had this protective layer. She was able to break me. And I’m not easily broken.” At the same time, she said, “I felt mothered. I felt nurtured.”

Richardson is now dating a man seriously, something she said may not have happened without her time working with Vanzant last fall. “I’m not as judgmental as I used to be,” she said. “I’m now able to open up and give people a chance.”

Vanzant said having celebrities on the show was a way to “level the playing field.” She said she gave every single guest the same speech: “We’re not here to do television. This isn’t even about you. You are just the demonstration for the hundreds of thousands of viewers out there who are watching. You get the immediate benefit but it’s not for you.”

Perry, the OWN president, said despite the speech, not everyone came on the show with the purest of intentions. “Sometimes the celebrity guests were open. Sometimes they weren’t,” she said. “It’s fascinating for people to see the rejection or acceptance of Iyanla’s methods and advice.”

That was the case with non-celebrities as well. Atlanta’s Jay Williams, a man who fathered 34 children from 17 different women, had so many issues that Vanzant aired multiple episodes on him alone. “He wasn’t just there for healing,” Vanzant said in retrospect, stating the belief that he was there to advance his career. “He had competing agendas. That wasn’t always helpful.” We reached out to Williams for comment, but haven’t yet received a reply.

Vanzant has walked away from clients in frustration on camera. For her, it’s when a guest “abandons their own intention or tries to manipulate the process for a hidden agenda. Or they lose trust. Once a guest loses trust in me, there’s nothing more that I can do.”

But she doesn’t feel guilty if a client is hurt by her frankness. Vanzant opted for a metaphor: “The surgeon isn’t trying to hurt you when they cut you open. You may be sore for six weeks but is the surgeon supposed to feel bad about that?”

Vanzant, who is now 67, isn’t sure what her next move is beyond a long summer break.

“I don’t have to work June, July and August,” she said, “I have worked June, July and August the past 40 years. I can go to the beach. I don’t have to wear a bra every day. No make up. Those are the kinds of things I’m looking forward to.”

Iyanla Vanzant gives Neffe Pugh a dressing down on the first episode of season 5 of OWN's "Iyanla: Fix My Life" Saturday, April 15, 2017. CREDIT: OWN
Iyanla Vanzant gives Neffe Pugh a dressing down on the first episode of season 5 of OWN's "Iyanla: Fix My Life" Saturday, April 15, 2017. CREDIT: OWN

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Iyanla VanZant had Atlanta radio personality Mz. Shyneka on a recent show. Courtesy of OWN
Iyanla VanZant had Atlanta radio personality Mz. Shyneka on a recent show. Courtesy of OWN

Credit: OWN

Credit: OWN

ON TELEVISION

“Iyanla: Fix My Life”

Series finale

9 p.m. Saturday, May 22.

OWN

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