'Iyanla' brings a positive approach
By Frazier Moore
Associated Press Television Writer
NEW YORK Iyanla Vanzant makes soaring propositions in a down-to-earth way.
Iyanla Vanzant, right, tapes her talk show in New York in preparation for today's premiere. The show can be viewed at 9 a.m. daily.
Now, the woman who turned her life around by putting herself through college, then law school, before she embarked on a career as a best-selling author and motivational speaker, has taken the natural next step: a TV talk show.
The syndicated weekday "Iyanla" premieres Monday (check local listings).
"The show is a practical, common-sense approach to common human concerns," Iyanla (pronounced ee-YON-luh) was saying recently at her West 57th Street production office. "This is a show for normal people who have normal, everyday problems and questions.
"We're not coming from the perspective of `This is horrible, this is terrible' but 'Let's take a lot at this, and see if we can do it better."'
And also: see if doing it at all makes sense.
"There comes a point where you should think, 'Boy, I'm really good at this! But is this what I want to be good at?
'"I'm real good at not keeping my money. I'm real good at having the wrong relationships I'm excellent at that! But is what I'm doing getting me what I want?"'
For anyone who may not have heard of Iyanla despite her sold-out personal appearances and 11 books (including her recent best seller "Until Today") she can claim as professional references two of TV's most important women.
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And Barbara Walters, who signed Iyanla for a show of her own and is serving as one of its executive producers.
Of course, leaving her regular "Oprah" forum with its guaranteed huge audience wasn't a snap decision.
"All I had to do was just show up and look pretty," says Iyanla with a hearty laugh. "But I thought, `Why not?' And I couldn't think of a good reason."
For her interview, the 49-year-old Iyanla looks pretty in white slacks, lavender jacket and sweater, and a lacy knit baseball cap.
This coolly elegant style strikes a marked contrast to Iyanla's early history, beginning when she was born Rhonda Harris in the back of a taxi in Brooklyn, then was shuttled between uncaring relatives during her childhood.
Two decades ago she took for herself the name Iyanla (which means "great mother" in the language of the West African Yoruba culture).
What made the big difference in her life? Leaving her first husband, whose physical abuse had put her in the hospital? Her impulsive decision to go to college from which she graduated at age 33?
It's not so simple. For Iyanla, life is a series of incremental steps that, with hard work and good fortune, can add up to great blessings.
"I didn't sit around and say, 'I'm gonna be a famous writer,"' she explains. "I was trying to get the rent paid.
"It's too big a leap to go from dreaming you can pay the rent with a welfare check, to owning your own home. You've got to eat the elephant one bite at a time and you don't start at the butt."
These are the sort of get-with-the-program tips that will fuel "Iyanla."
"We want to deal with anything that maximizes human potential, anything that supports people in building better relationships with one another," she declares.
"We're not extreme. Our guests won't be Michael Jordan. And they won't be sleeping with their sister's cousin's frog.
"There are a lot of people in the middle. But in this society, if you're not doing very, very bad, or very, very good, you can get lost. There are lots of lost people who need to be heard."
One "Iyanla" episode might help viewers deal with their teen-age children. Another might help them deal with their parents.
How do you handle a problem boss? How do you handle a problem employee?
And here's a provocative topic directed toward anyone seeking a romantic partner: Would you date YOU?
"I think the thing about life that's so wonderful is that we have an endless supply of do-overs," says Iyanla. "And just because you gotta do it over doesn't mean you did it wrong the first time. It means you're getting better."
Where it all leads (if you work hard enough) is peace, says Iyanla.
"I'm waiting for the bottom to fall out of my success," she confides. "So the question becomes, what sort of inner resources do I have to sustain me once that happens?
"Today I'm not so much happy as at peace. Happiness," she says, her almond eyes sparkling, "is temporary, based on when I go to the Haagen-Dazs store. That, to me, is happy."
Now have a bowl with Iyanla and enjoy her show.
Elsewhere in television ...
TIME WARP: Avoid the temptation to squirt water at your television screen. American Movie Classics' "Backstory" gives the "untold story" behind the 1975 cult flick "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." It airs Monday at 10 p.m. ET.