With a big smile and "You got the power" as a mantra, Iyanla Vanzant is syndicated TV's next great hope: she is equal parts counselor, spiritual guru, girlfriend and most of all, survivor.
"People say I've had a difficult time in life. I think I've had an exciting time in life," Vanzant told Good Morning America. And now the 47-year-old best-selling author is getting her own talk show, Iyanla, which launches on Aug. 13.
Her straightforward style and dramatic life story have observers touting her as the next Oprah.
The story of Vanzant's life reads like a mini-series.
She was born in the back of a taxicab in Brooklyn with the name Rhonda Harris. Her mother died of cancer when she was only two, her absentee dad was a numbers-runner and her grandmother beat her so severely that it flayed the skin off her back. And it just gets worse. A relative raped her when she was just a child.
Later, Vanzant became a teen mother and gave birth to three more children, each with different fathers. She married one of the fathers, but he beat her too, and she tried to kill herself. All of this happened before she turned 25.
A Sign on a Bus
She was on welfare, with only $5 in her pocket and her children on her mind, when she saw something that changed her life.
"I was sitting on the bus and the sign said if you're ready to better your life, come to Medgar Evers College, and I got off the bus and went to Medgar Evers College," Vanzant said.
She graduated summa cum laude from Medgar Evers and became a lawyer, specializing in domestic violence cases.
"I was going to save the world, I was going to be the black female Perry Mason," she recalled.
But guided by a "higher calling," she instead reinvented herself as "Iyanla," which means "great mother" in the Yoruba spiritual tradition, a faith that celebrates the power of black women. Instead of finding a new career, it found her, as she spoke out at churches and colleges, passing out her lessons in a pamphlet.
A Little Book Got Big
"And the pamphlet kept getting bigger and bigger ... and one day the pamphlet said to me, 'I'm a little book,'" Vanzant said.
She published that little book, Tapping the Power Within, herself and sold it out of the trunk of her car. Eventually, the concepts in that first book grew into 11 books, five of which became New York Times bestsellers. She became a self-help star and a favorite on The Oprah Winfrey Show and The View.
It was Barbara Walters, creator of The View, who asked Vanzant to host her own nationally syndicated talk show.
"Here was this absolutely marvelous person helping people with their problems in a way that was different, that was offbeat ... that was insightful," Walters said.
"Pain is pain, hurt is hurt, fear is fear, anger is anger, and it has no color," Vanzant said.
She has been named one of the "100 Most Influential African Americans" by Ebony, one of "100 Leaders of the New Millennium" by Vibe and one of the "Women of the New Century" by Newsweek.
Her plan is to do a talk show that addresses ordinary people with ordinary problems, an alternative to the sensationalistic topics seen on many other talk shows.