Oprah’s High Priestess of Public Shaming

Iyanla Vanzant has created a reality series fit for a secular culture that loves spirituality lite.

OWN / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Iyanla Vanzant can make a grown man cry with very little effort. The reality-television host, whose eponymous show runs on the Oprah Winfrey Network, has an aura of emotional seriousness about her: a penetrating, hellfire-and-brimstone stare; a booming, movie-announcer-style voice; the body language of a diva. Surely she has emotional fluffers who sit with her interviewees before taping, holding their eyes open Clockwork Orange-style as scenes from Steel Magnolias stream by. It’s uncanny. They just melt.

Iyanla—and she’s definitely an Iyanla, just like Oprah is an Oprah and Madonna is a Madonna—didn’t invent the genre of “fix my life” reality television, but she’s elevated it to an art form. She has Dr. Phil’s tough-love self-righteousness and Oprah’s no-nonsense questioning skills, but with a twist: Her sheen of authority comes not from psychology or journalism, but religion. She is a Yoruba priestess—the tribal rituals of Nigeria’s Yorubaland are part of her ancestry. She was raised in a Pentecostal church, but later gravitated toward New Thought, a strand of Christianity related to Christian Science that emphasizes the immaterial nature of the self. She has done, in her own words, “an investigation into the metaphysics of spirituality.” This spiritual-ish-ness makes her show distinctive: When people bring her their problems, she’s not just examining their lives; she’s peering into their souls.

After five seasons, Iyanla: Fix My Life is still somewhat niche—it’s only available on OWN, which is a premium-cable channel. It’s fairly popular, though: According to OWN, this season is averaging 1 million total viewers, and is consistently among the most popular cable series watched in African American households. It’s centered on a deep human need: People are broken, and they want to be fixed. Sometimes, this is a matter of common sense. Stop fathering babies with handfuls of women; stop cheating on your spouse; stop crutching on meth. More often, though, it takes the pattern of a spiritual healing: confession, penitence, absolution. This emotional performance is a reminder that religion has never faded from American culture; its rhythms echo everywhere, even reality television. The satisfying spiritual flayings of Iyanla: Fix My Life embody a specific kind of secularism: light on metaphysical details, but still deeply yearning for meaning, morality, and salvation.

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Usually, when Iyanla tackles people’s problems, they’re fairly run-of-the-mill: mother-in-law conflicts, relationship drama, marital boredom. In season five, though, she took up a complicated religious problem in a three-part “mega-fix” of two gay pastors in Louisville, Kentucky, who had not yet come out to their congregations. Homosexuality is “a secret that’s been buried in the African American community for far too long,” Iyanla says in the intro. The goal, as she says repeatedly, is to get the men, Mitchell and Derek, to “tell the truth.”

Iyanla’s method is a little reminiscent of another throw-back reality-television giant, Supernanny. She meets people in their homes; she sits in their living rooms and grills them on their deepest, darkest secrets; she tells them, solemnly, that they must change their ways. Soon into the “mega-fix,” we hear a lot of dirt on the pastors: how Mitchell married a single mom even though he knew he was attracted to men and soon started having affairs (tear count: moderate). How Derek fears that God doesn’t love him (tear count: astronomical). Iyanla has little patience for Mitchell, who gives her some ’tude, so she hazes him a little: She makes him look into a pink hand-mirror labeled “man” and tell her what he sees in it. It takes her a while, but she finally breaks him down; he retreats to a bed, bawling, and in a solemn voiceover, Iyanla details how this vulnerable state requires him to be swaddled and massaged, to “move the energy out of his body.” Derek’s big bombshell comes later, when Iyanla forces him to confront his family about his sexuality; he confesses that he was sexually assaulted by an older man when he was a child, as if this were a normal thing to share for the very first time when you’re on national television.

If confessional narratives make for great reality TV, then some 15th-century Spanish Inquisitors at least deserve a line in Iyanla’s credits. Public expressions of brokenness, of being essentially flawed in a way that has led to wrong-doing, have long been a central preoccupation of organized religion. Confessions take different forms across faiths, but they often involve symbolic rituals (like the mirror), physical components (like the swaddling), and verbal professions (like the family confrontation). Iyanla’s show depends on the idea that confession brings absolution; the “fix” she provides is a highly stylized airing of dirty laundry, followed by a hug-it-out round of benediction.

People go through ritual rounds of tension and resolution all the time—that’s one of the core parts of having human relationships. That these performative confessions are on television, though, makes things complicated. “I don’t go into my work and my ministering to people with the thought that this is public and this is on television,” Iyanla told me in an interview. “In fact, one of the first things I say to my guests is, ‘I’m not here to do television. I’m here because you wrote me. The fact that these cameras are here is not our concern.’”

“You can be cripple, you can be a whoremonger, you can be a lot of things in the black church. But Lord, do not be gay.”

This is, of course, debatable. Iyanla is a Brand who profits directly from the televised confessions of others, and this show is the culmination of a long career aimed at finding her spotlight. In the 1990s, when she was giving relationship advice on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she and Oprah hit a rift: Iyanla wanted her own talk show, but Oprah didn’t think she was ready. Iyanla jumped ship for a short-lived show on another network, and the two didn’t talk for more than a decade—until, appropriately, they went through a very public, televised reconciliation in 2011. Now that she’s back in the queen of media’s good graces, Iyanla is one of the top stars in the OWN universe.

On the show, the cameramen do their part to keep the drama going; in one scene from the gay pastors special, we see one of them slowly, steadily pushing open a door, behind which one of Iyanla’s subjects has retreated to cry in private. It’s a moment almost worthy of pity—except the people who go on her show aren’t dumb. They know they’re signing up for a public flogging. The draw of this is inexplicable, but also nothing new in the reality-television universe; Jerry Springer was getting messed-up people to spill their stuff way before Iyanla came along. The difference with Iyanla, though, is that the callback to religious ritual is more explicit.

This is due in part to the religion and spirituality references Iyanla likes to pepper into conversations. “We are not to be in shame,” she told me, speaking about the pastor Derek. “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a sound mind, and power, and strength. To thine own self be true, you know?”

Ok, so, one Shakespeare line misattributed to God, no big deal. The more interesting references aren’t Bible fact checks, though—they’re the vague spiritualisms. After growing up Pentecostal, “I really became more interested in the metaphysics of spirituality rather than the dogma of religion,” Iylana said. “Spirituality, for me, is about what goes on beyond the physical. Whereas I find religion, while they teach you the tenets and the dogma, they don’t teach you the intangibility of spiritual principles.”

These principles, presumably, are where much of Iyanla’s vocabulary comes from—“oneness,” “energy,” and the like. They are, admittedly, a little hard to pin down. Here’s a chunk from our interview, for example:

It’s not a method. It’s a way of being. And when you understand the metaphysics of spirituality—what is beyond the physical—I mean, quantum dynamics and psychology, we all know that thoughts have energy. Thoughts have energy. And energy can never be destroyed once it’s created. It can transformed, but it cannot be destroyed. So if you have repetitive thoughts, which is what consciousness is, and if you have repetitive habitual thoughts that are negative, unproductive, unsupportive, unloving, unaffirming—you create an energy.

Theologically, Iyanla is equally hard to pin down. Even though she pushed the gay pastors to publicly confess their sexuality to their congregations and family members, she wouldn’t say in an interview whether or not she approves of homosexuality, or thinks it’s morally wrong. “I’m not for or against—I’m not saying do it or don’t do it,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re going to have to pay on the other end, but I do know this: that God already knows their heart, and when they get to wherever they’re going, they’re still going to meet a forgiving God.”

This ambiguity is a little ironic, given how hard she rides black communities for gay-shaming. (“You can be cripple, you can be a liar, you can be a whoremonger, you can be a thief, you can be a lot of things in the black church. But Lord, do not be gay,” she says in the show.) But maybe something in the topics she picks, and the way she talks about them, speaks to her specific audience appeal. Her subjects tend to be black, although not exclusively, and she said that’s not an accident.

She pushed the gay pastors to publicly confess their gayness, but she wouldn’t say whether she approves of homosexuality.

“It’s more frequent in the African American community that everybody in the family knows of me, and they trust me,” she said. “I don’t enjoy that same privilege in the white community.” Her show’s vague spiritualism may very well appeal to religious black Americans, who tend to attend services, pray, believe in God, and say they value religion more than whites, Asians, Latinos, and other racial groups.

Iyanla has tackled race on her show in the past. Last fall, she visited Ferguson, Missouri, during the weeks of protest following Michael Brown’s shooting death by a police officer. “When God puts something on my heart, I do it; I don’t question it,” she said. These big, cultural conflicts—racism, police brutality, violence—also fit into the Iyanla narrative arc of confession and absolution.

“We’ve got to call it what it is. It’s racial division. It is racial superiority. It is racial insensitivity, on both ends. But we haven’t told the truth about what it is, so we cannot address it and we cannot solve it,” she said.

No doubt, she is right: America has failed to adequately confront the depth of its structural racism. In her own way, Iyanla is addressing a microcosm of the tangled issues that have come with this racial division: addiction, broken families, tensions surrounding identity. The need is real; the method, though, is a little fuzzier. If Iyanla’s “fixes” help her subjects live better lives and entertain her viewers, that’s well and good. But they also suggest a deep cultural desire, and a deeper absence—a collective callback to old methods of coping with chaos, even as the knowledge and specificity of those methods dim.