After Suffering Loss, Iyanla Vanzant Starts Over

Author and spiritual adviser Iyanla Vanzant built a hugely successful career by teaching women how to overcome obstacles in their own lives. But Vanzant recently faced deep challenges herself, with the death of a daughter, a divorce, and the loss of her home to the foreclosure crisis. Vanzant talks about picking up the pieces, starting over, and what she learned along the way.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

We turn now to the story of another woman who transformed a life of struggle into success. But a series of misfortunes has forced her to start over. Iyanla Vanzant became famous as a life coach, bestselling author and regular guest on Oprah. Her rise was even more remarkable given her difficult childhood and the challenges of being a single mother on welfare. Vanzant built a career on teaching other woman how to overcome long odds.

She even hosted the Emmy-winning television reality show "Starting Over," which helped other women break cycles of poverty, addiction and dysfunction. But in recent years her own world has collapsed. She endured a series of personal tragedies, her daughter died, her marriage ended and finally she lost her home to foreclosure. Now by sharing her story, Vanzant hopes to help others who suffer a reversal of fortune. Welcome to the program.

Ms. IYANLA VANZANT (Author, Spiritual Adviser): Thank you.

NEARY: Give us a sense before we start talking about what happened with your home and foreclosure, give us a sense of some of the difficult family issues that you're dealing with?

Ms. VANZANT: Well, in 2002, my daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of colon cancer. And it was such a shock, a surprise to us. Now this was right after my TV show "Iyanla" had been canceled or not renewed. I didn't renew it actually. And that started a 15-month journey of healing for her. And this was someone who never smoked, never drank, was a vegetarian. So most of her treatment that we did, we did natural methods, whether it was oxygen treatment or she changed her diet. She ate macrobiotic foods.

It was just a lot. But she couldn't work. So for the 15 months of her illness I supported my household. I supported her household. I supported my own ministry, which put a huge financial strain on me because most traditional - I mean non-traditional medical practices, A, aren't covered by insurance and, B, are expensive.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. VANZANT: Also during that time I ended my marriage. It was a 39-year relationship…

NEARY: Hmm.

Ms. VANZANT: …although we had only been married for seven years. And that put me in a position where I had to look at choosing between saving my marriage or saving my child. And I'm a big mama bear. So I went with the kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANZANT: He was just out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANZANT: So all of that, the emotional stress of it, the financial stress of it, it was a lot, all at once. And it was happening during the time that I think the recession was just beginning.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. VANZANT: So it wasn't on the news.

NEARY: Right.

Ms. VANZANT: You didn't hear about it on the news.

NEARY: You didn't realize it was happening, you mean.

Ms. VANZANT: I realized it was happening but most people didn't realize it was happening. I mean, because as a self-employed person when there is a recession or a cutback in the economy we feel it first. Because many self-employed people provide services that are nonessential. So whether you get your hair done less or your hair cut less, or your nails done less, as a writer and a speaker I was very clear that corporations weren't being as open and as generous and I wasn't getting the kind of work that I usually got. So it became clear to me real easy…

NEARY: With all these going on, when did you begin to realize that your mortgage was in trouble?

Ms. VANZANT: Well, what had happened was I had bought my house 10 years earlier at a time when I didn't have A-one credit and of course that means you pay more points and you're functioning at a higher interest rate. So I had one of those less than clear mortgage deals because the thing was to get me in a house. So I took a mortgage deal where I would pay interest for a certain number of years and then pay all of the mortgage at the end of that time. And it's called the balloon payment.

And in that moment it looked like something I was going to be able to do because of course I was squirreling away money over this seven-year period where I was paying just interest. I was squirreling away this money so that I could pay for the house at once. My daughter got sick and I got divorced. So here two years out I'm looking at, I've got to pay this house off. I went to every bank, every mortgage lender, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and said, I need to rework this because I don't have that income anymore.

NEARY: And you couldn't rework it?

Ms. VANZANT: And everybody said, no, we won't do it. They wouldn't recalculate the balloon payment. And I had to pay it all at once.

NEARY: Yeah. Now is that something you understood when you first got into this mortgage at all?

Ms. VANZANT: No.

NEARY: Hmm, hmm. It was only when it started falling apart that you understood what it meant?

Ms. VANZANT: When it started falling apart that I understood because actually I went in to refinance my house knowing that I had a lot of equity in it and to get the money to support me financially as I was taking care of my daughter. And that's when I find out, they said no, no, no, you can't refinance this. And I'm like, why? And that's when somebody explained to me what was going on.

NEARY: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in for Michel Martin. And I'm speaking with inspirational author Iyanla Vanzant about losing her home in the foreclosure crisis. When did you decide to go public about all this and why?

Ms. VANZANT: I never decided.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANZANT: It just fell out of my mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANZANT: Really, you know, I've always told the truth. I think that's been part of the foundation of my career. I don't put myself above people. I don't put myself different than people. And I for one know that none of us is immune. You know, if you're a human and living on the planet it doesn't matter what you do, you are not immune to the challenges, the trials, the difficulty. And that fact that I happen to be a coach and a minister and a spiritual teacher doesn't mean anything. I'm still human. So, I actually was at a public address and I always center and ask my higher self, what is that I'm supposed to speak about today?

And this was a huge event being televised. And when I closed my eyes and I took a breath and I said, what am I supposed to speak about today? What I heard in my heart was, tell them you lost your house. I said, what, who are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANZANT: Where did that voice come from?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANZANT: And I've learned to be obedient.

NEARY: Now tell me what this event was.

Ms. VANZANT: It was the "State of the Black Union" hosted by Tavis Smiley every year.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. VANZANT: And I was on a panel with Congressmen, Senators and journalists and, oh, my god, the Reverend Jesse Jackson Senior and oh, it was just when I woke up from the stupor…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANZANT: …of telling the truth I was horrified.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Well, what was the reaction? What kind of reaction did you get immediately?

Ms. VANZANT: I got a stand ovation because there were many people, I didn't know it then, there were many people in that audience who were facing foreclosure the next week. There were many people in that audience and also listening who were self-employed. And we don't hear about the self-employed people. We hear about the people losing their job in the auto industry or the closing of stores. But there is a huge community of self-employed people who are struggling and suffering.

NEARY: Have you gotten any criticism from people who say, you had money, you had access to expert advice, you had the resources…

Ms. VANZANT: I had a daughter who was dying of cancer, who had mortgage and a child in school and who had incredible medical bills. I spent $750,000 in 15 months providing care for my daughter. So, I don't think anybody really wants to criticize me. And we shouldn't criticize. You don't know the makings of my life, you know. For 15 months I carried my household and her household. I'm not an endless pot of money. The money that I had I worked for and was saving to pay for my house and for my retirement. A catastrophic medical condition wiped me out.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. VANZANT: Wiped me out.

NEARY: And you have a sense that that's something that can happen to anyone.

Ms. VANZANT: Anybody, absolutely anybody, anybody at all.

NEARY: Has what happened to you affected the kind of advice that you give to people now? Has it changed the way you look at things or…

Ms. VANZANT: No.

NEARY: …what you tell people?

Ms. VANZANT: I survived that. I survived my daughter's death which, you know, I think about every day that I open my eyes as a mother. It is unspeakable to have to bury your child. And I survived that. I survived the disintegration of my marriage right before my eyes. And all that went along with that. There was so much more that went along with that because I have a solid spiritual foundation which is what I've always said to people. So, I got a divine opportunity to walk my talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. VANZANT: And it wasn't easy.

NEARY: Well, how do you stay so positive?

Ms. VANZANT: I think my daughter's death taught me that. She had the opportunity to take her last breath in her home that she bought, surrounded by people who loved her. And I think that that mattered more than her car in the driveway or my car, or my house. What it - her death taught me was what really matters. So, a year-and-a-half later when I had to give up my house, I said this is a house, my daughter gave up her life. This is not an arm or an eye. And even if it were, if I only had one arm, write with the other one. You only got one eye, look out the other one, you only got one leg hop on the one you have, you understand?

Because if you're still here and if you have an opportunity and the chance to continue to do good and to be good and to live more you want to do that. It was a house, it wasn't a heart or a kidney. I'll get another one or not.

NEARY: And that's what you take away from all this.

Ms. VANZANT: Hey, I'll tell you what. I would have given that house away to save my daughter. I would have given it to you or anybody passing by in the street if I thought it would have saved my daughter. So, when the bank took it, why should I be upset? And that's how we have to look at things for all of the people who are going through this incredible difficulty. Who loves you, hold on to that.

NEARY: Iyanla Vanzant is an author and spiritual mentor. She joined me in our studio here in Washington. Iyanla, thanks so much.

Ms. VANZANT: Thank you.

NEARY: And remember, at TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. We'd like to hear your story of overcoming financial hard times. To tell us more call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Remember to tell us your name. You can also go to our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page of npr.org and blog it out.

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