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.’”
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.”