The mostly female audience stands, claps and sways to the pumping R.-and-B. music while the broadly smiling woman onstage repeats her refrain, then breaks into a sermonette. "Have you ever forgotten that you have the power?" she exhorts. They cheer. "How many women here over 40?" Big cheer. "You know, we can't do it with our bodies anymore. We got to slip into our brains, right? That's when we have to remember, 'I got the power! I can make them think that I'm a size 5!'" Bi-i-ig cheer.
It's not a gospel revival but a midtown-Manhattan talk-show taping. But it would not be surprising if Iyanla Vanzant were uttering a silent prayer as she warms up the crowd before recording the third-ever episode of Iyanla. At 47, she has risen from a traumatic early life--poverty, rape, a teenage pregnancy, a stretch on welfare, beatings by the relatives who raised her and later by her husband. She left her abusive spouse, put herself through college, became a lawyer, then a self-help/spiritual guru, motivational speaker, best-selling author and perennial Oprah visitor. Now, with her own syndicated show launching Aug. 13, Vanzant is hoping the same life story, empathy and straight-talking humor that made her the quintessential talk-show guest can make her the quintessential talk-show host.
The catch: Vanzant wants to do a show about ordinary people with ordinary problems that don't involve having their in-laws' babies. She's not alone. On Sept. 10, MTV VJ and former BET host Ananda Lewis wants to bring back Phil Donahue-style social issues on her own syndicated talk show. (Both shows will air in most U.S. markets.) But Iyanla (ee-yon-la) and Ananda (an-on-da; wait till David Letterman gets them in the same room) face the common belief that only one mononym can get away with nonsensationalistic talk.
"There's Oprah [Winfrey], and there's everybody else," says Bill Geddie, who along with TV veteran Barbara Walters is the executive producer of Vanzant's show. "Oprah does the interesting, reasonable people that could be you or me. And everybody else does screaming people." Says Walters, who persuaded Vanzant to try a talk show after seeing her on Oprah and inviting her on The View: "How many times have I seen, 'It's not my baby!' 'Yes it is!'?" But Jerry Springer et al. are thriving, while nearly everyone who has promised an alternative approach to sailor-mouthed moms and their accused babydaddies has failed or gone over to the dark side.
Vanzant does follow the Oprah recipe: a la carte spirituality, advice and above all, confession. It is an understatement to say that Vanzant does not shy away from talking about her difficult early life. And as Oprah has taught us, if not with quite so abject a life story, such been-there testimony is essential to bonding with the talk audience (primarily women 18 to 49). "My life is who I am; it's where I come from," says Vanzant. "I don't know what I'd be doing had I not been born in a taxicab or neglected and abused as a child or a teenage mother. And," she adds without irony, "thank goodness I don't have to figure that out!"
Vanzant positions herself as a counselor and an experienced girlfriend. While some of her topics could be tweaked into scream TV--like one she taped a few weeks ago about talking to your troubled teen--she eases her guests through moments when other hosts would prod a sore spot: "You ask [your daughter] a question," she tells a mom whose 13-year-old has been sneaking out. "She gives you an honest answer. You can't freak out at that moment." (One segment of the episode, in fact, is titled "How to Talk Without Screaming.")
In the early 1990s Vanzant found a following among African Americans with books like Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Color. After 11 books with 8 million copies in print, "her message became more universal," says Trish Todd, her editor at Simon & Schuster, but her core audience has stayed with her. At the taping, Vanzant asks who has read her books; about half the audience, and most of the black women, raise their hands.
Vanzant's books promote an unabashed, if cafeteria-style, spirituality: her New York Times No. 1 In the Meantime asks readers to ascend to the "attic" of their souls, "where the Christ lives...where Buddha lives...where Krishna, Muktananda and the archangels Michael, Ariel, Uriel and Gabriel live." She runs the Inner Visions Institute, an organization based in Silver Spring, Md., that sponsors events like the "Wonder Woman Weekend...centered on the One Mind, One Spirit, One Life of the Creator" ($800 for the weekend, not counting lodging). Call it religion or, as Vanzant prefers, "faith," too much could put off a mass TV audience. She and her producers say her show will tone down the God talk, but she will also have to carry over her fans without alienating them.
Lewis, 28, aims to use a different built-in audience to try what she calls an "educational" talk alternative. Talking in the "library" of The Ananda Lewis Show's set, still under construction, Lewis is intensely earnest--at MTV, she took on sober-minded topics like mental-health awareness and "driving while black," even though the job also required reporting from the Beach House. Her determined high-mindedness extends to the names of her Chihuahuas, Einstein and Mozart.