Iyanla Vanzant, self proclaimed “inspirational speaker” and Oprah protégée, has been enjoying the major success of the the second season of her OWN network docu-series, Iyanla, Fix My Life. Since its ratings high April 13 premiere, Iyanla has steadily been outperforming its first season numbers. But do the trademarks that are making Iyanla more popular come at the expense of the stated goal of the show? A few episodes into the season, the answer is a resounding yes. Iyanla Vanzant’s pursuit of higher ratings has rendered the “fixing” she promises her guests a secondary concern, if a concern at all.
Producers of Iyanla, Fix My Life have been accused of manipulating guests and luring them onto the show under false pretenses. In this season’s premiere, Iyanla narrates that her guest, multi-platinum rapper DMX was under the impression that he was appearing on the show to fix his addiction to women before she surprises him with a discussion of his addiction to drugs.
DMX is visibly on guard once he realizes there has been a change in the episode’s focus, and loses his patience entirely when Iyanla leads him to a wall on which she has posted blown up mugshots from DMX’s various drug arrests. The rapper tries to end the visit with Iyanla then, and only agrees to return for a second day of filming because he is convinced to use the opportunity to talk to his estranged son. In an interview with JET magazine, DMX reveals that though he agreed to fulfill his 2-day commitment to film with his son, he had no knowledge prior to filming that his son was in communication with producers at all. He only expected to discuss his addiction to women, and did not know that any members of his family had been contacted.
Similarly, former Real Housewives of Atlanta star Sheree Whitfield is unhappy with her appearance on the show, saying she also felt misled. Sheree, who appeared with her ex-husband former NFL pro Bob Whitfield, said in a press release issued after the airing of her episode, “I thought it was an opportunity to inspire single parents in our situation. However, once shooting began, I felt misled because the line of questioning was centered more on accusations of my shortcomings as a wife versus how we can begin to resolve our issues.”
Sheree was so upset with the production team, she refused to provide them with an update to include in the airing of the episode. That this new season’s first three guests were celebrities (in addition to DMX and Sheree Whitfield, local Atlanta radio DJ Sasha the Diva sought Vanzant’s help) is no accident, and that two of those celebrities spoke out against the producers’ manipulative practices speaks to the show’s interest in using the celebrities and predetermined narratives for the purpose of drawing larger audiences. Sheree goes on to say that she “was caught off-guard by what felt like a very one-sided and judgmental approach to therapy,” and it’s clear that bringing Sheree and Bob together to discuss how to successfully co-parent their children took a backseat to production's angle.
Admittedly I am biased, as I have a general discomfort with televised therapy, especially if led by individuals like Iyanla Vanzant who haven't had any formal training as mental health professionals. (There’s also the matter of DMX being a national treasure.) It’s hard to believe that a television personality can work with the best interests of their guests in mind at all times, when there is an audience of millions watching and a brand to protect. Iyanla is very brand conscious throughout her show. According to the bio on her personal website, Iyanla “embodies a no-nonsense approach in her message and teaching style” and is described as “out-spoken” and “fiery.”
In the preview clips of this weekend’s episode of Iyanla, Fix My Life, Iyanla is working with a family of gospel singing sisters. After a group discussion during which Iyanla calls one of the sisters “dead from the neck down,” that sister makes production aware that she takes exception to the way she has been spoken to. A producer is filmed relaying to Iyanla the message that the woman feels “attacked” — at which Iyanla lets out a hearty chuckle — and reminds her “which we know is part of the process.” Iyanla then goes to address the woman, who lists the ways in which she felt disrespected by Iyanla and Iyanla dismisses the woman’s discomfort as being part of the process. She advises, “Instead of pointing at me, ask yourself, ‘Why am I uncomfortable with this?’ Because that’s where the healing is.”
She does not apologize to the woman for making her feel disrespected, but stays on message and shifts focus in a way that highlights the process she and her producers are so committed to. She holds maintains her "no-nonsense" style when dealing with the more defiant DMX, who walks out on in frustration when Iyanla keeps interrupting a conversation between him and his son.
“This man is getting ready to die,” she says passionately to a producer. “You know how we can accommodate him? Put him in detox. Because until his body is completely detoxed from the year and years of drug abuse, this is what we’re gonna get.”
Iyanla, who is not a licensed health professional nor has she counseled DMX before their non-starter of a session the day before, takes no consideration of her part in eliciting this anger, reducing the rapper and his complaints to the outbursts of a man with addiction. By her telling, she’s an outspoken truth teller, and not at all at fault when her guests are upset. It’s no matter that she may have insulted or agitated them — it’s a part of the process.
When she’s not dismissing her guests’ complaints, Iyanla is making sure isn’t upstaged by them. In the season premiere battle of egos, Iyanla prepares to accomodate DMX's demand that she leave him and his son alone to talk. “Here’s a compromise I will make to keep him [Xavier] safe: I’ll sit here and shut my mouth,” Iyanla offers, but immediately her ego pokes through, when she says, “It’s something I’m willing to do on my show, shut my mouth. I’m willing to do that,” before she looks around at the producers standing off camera to give them a laugh of disbelief.
After a very long and tense conversation during which DMX disappointingly rejects his son's request for a relationship with him while “clean,” Iyanla tells Xavier he does not have to hug his father when DMX asks for a final hug. DMX begins to address Iyanla but stops himself, after which Iyanla stands up from her seat and bellows, “You don’t get to speak to me, EVER AGAIN!” and replaces DMX in the seat in front of Xavier, having dismissed his father, proud to reclaim her dominance over the situation. Iyanla’s egoist antics also exist in the absurd. On the third episode, Iyanla takes her guest Sasha into the bathroom so that they may chat and have tea.
Sasha begins to tell of her relationship with her husband when she is interrupted by Iyanla, with “Cookie? Would you like a cookie? I love tea and crumpets.” Iyanla then fakes a British accent, “Have a crumpet why don’t you?”
Eventually Iyanla explains her odd behavior. “Do you get why we’re in the bathroom?” she asks. “It’s a demonstration of how inappropriate your relationship with your son is. It’s like tea in the toilet.” A simple explanation of that observation would have worked, but Iyanla’s desire to be an entertaining personality made her opt for the unnecessary charade.
Iyanla Vanzant, though experiencing new success, is ultimately a television personality whose concerns with getting ratings takes precedence over giving her guests a fair shot at the fixing they’ve gone on the show to receive. Iyanla is exploitative and subjecting yourself to exploitation is not the way to fix your life.