The Inside Scoop

Katy Koontz

Iyanla Vanzant’s life has been one wild roller coaster ride. Born as Rhonda Harris in the backseat of a taxi, she grew up in the Brooklyn projects (low-income housing known for its rough environment). Her mother died of breast cancer when Vanzant was only 2. After that, she shuttled among family members. An uncle raped her when she was 9.

Her challenges didn’t dissipate in her teens. Vanzant was an unwed mother at 14, although her baby died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She had a second child at 16 and then married very briefly at 19 and again at 21—both times to abusers. At 25, she’d had enough. She left to raise her then three children as a single mother.

That’s when she found New Thought, she told me in our interview for this issue’s “Listening in With …” Technically, New Thought found her in East Village Books in Manhattan by way of a used Ernest Holmes book that fell from a shelf and hit her on the head. She took the hint—and began an earnest exploration.

Vanzant’s life began to change. Inspired by an ad on a city bus, she attended Medgar Evers College at 30 and then earned a law degree from the City University of New York. She took a job at the Philadelphia public defender’s office.

After two years, Vanzant left without a plan. Then a local radio program invited her to speak about how welfare women can turn their lives around—and that guest stint turned into her own weekly show. A book contract for Tapping the Power Within (Writers & Readers Publishing, 1992) followed, and by later in the 1990s she was a regular on Oprah. Vanzant and her daughter, Gemmia, cofounded Inner Visions Institute for Spiritual Development (innervisionsworldwide.com), offering courses, workshops, and spiritual life coaching. Vanzant thought she’d finally made it.

But the roller coaster soon hurtled downhill—upside down in the dark. Vanzant’s relationship with Oprah dissolved when she left to do her own talk show, Iyanla, which was cancelled after six months. Her daughter developed a rare form of colon cancer and died on Christmas Day 2003—after which Vanzant couldn’t get out of bed for six months. Then she lost her home when a failed real estate investment left her bankrupt. Her seven-year marriage ended. Vanzant considered suicide.

She looked at the chaos as a divine opportunity to walk her talk and reexamine her life. Relying on affirmative prayer and forgiveness, she made a comeback—winning an Emmy, healing her relationship with Oprah, and hosting the No. 1 reality show on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Iyanla: Fix My Life.

“I want everyone to remember how powerful we are,” she told me. “We are so powerful, and every time we allow ourselves to be talked out of it, we give away our power.”

Katy Koontz, Editor
umageditor@unityonline.org