Call it an occupational hazard. For Iyanla Vanzant, star of OWN’s top-rated reality show Iyanla: Fix My Life, it’s not at all uncommon for strangers to ask her for some words of wisdom. But the self-help guru, who got her start on The Oprah Winfrey Show in the ’90s, welcomes it. “So what do you want to ask me?” she asks, flipping the script on her interviewer. “Everyone’s got something.”
After a string of crushing losses, Vanzant should know. Ten years ago, following a falling out with Winfrey, the failure of her first TV show, the breakdown of her marriage, the loss of her home (after filing for bankruptcy) and, worst of all, the death of her daughter Gemmia at 32, Vanzant hit her lowest point. “It left me with deep sorrow and grief,” Vanzant, 59, recalls. So deep that in May 2004, she was nearly driven to take her own life. Instead she fixed it – and found her way back to Winfrey’s network OWN. “Iyanla is very gifted at taking her own mess and turning it into a message that empowers others,” says her friend, TV personality Tavis Smiley. “She’s authentic. People relate to that.”
No stranger to hardship – she was born in the back of a cab and survived rape at age 9 – the former single mom of three (Gemmia, Damon, 43, and Nisa, 39) started out as a public defender and then parlayed a radio-hosting gig into a recurring guest spot on Oprah. With a series of books and fans devoted to her tough-but-soulful style, she spurned Oprah‘s promise to produce a show for her in the future and instead launched her own talk show Iyanla in 2001. “It was a misunderstanding,” Vanzant now says. Still, she and Winfrey stopped talking, and after a season the show was canceled.
Things only got worse when Vanzant’s daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of colon cancer in 2002. “I knew she was dying, but she didn’t know,” she says. After Gemmia died on Christmas Day 2003, “I washed her, dressed her and put her body in the bag,” Vanzant recalls with tears in her eyes. “Every day for 15 months I’d cared for her. After that, what do you do? For six months I didn’t get out of bed.”
After paying Gemmia’s medical bills and losing money on a real estate investment, Vanzant – who’d once been making more than $3 million a year—filed for bankruptcy and was forced to give up her home. Around the same time, her husband of seven years, motivational speaker Adeyemi Bandele, filed for divorce. Suddenly Vanzant was alone – and on the verge of homelessness. “I was driving around with my belongings in black trash bags,” she says.
Shattered, Vanzant considered ending it all. “I thought about taking the leftover drugs from Gemmia’s chemo,” she says. “And I took out my pink pistol with the pearl handle.” One thought stopped her: “I imagined my grandson finding me. A voice in my head said, ‘Stop being so dramatic!'”
Relying heavily on her faith, Vanzant recovered “with prayer and forgiveness,” she says. A stint on the reality show Starting Over helped her get her footing – and being invited back to Oprah in February 2011 cemented her comeback. “It was a supernatural thing,” says Vanzant, who tearfully apologized to her former mentor. Today “we’re sisters. Our relationship is built on trust.”
Now she’s back to doing what she does best: helping people, including celebs like rapper DMX, repair relationships by drawing on lessons learned from her own life. “I’m truly grateful,” says Vanzant. “I’m honored to be part of the healing in people’s lives.”