Oprah’s so-called experts

A spate of new books reveals many of the talk-show queen’s ’authorities’ are pretty screwed up

Just as the queen of daytime network TV is winding down her 25-year reign, an odd publishing trend is heating up: a slew of memoirs by Oprah-anointed “authorities” confessing that they weren’t quite as advertised or couldn’t fix their own screwed-up lives. Last week, Winfrey devoted not one but two shows to the plight of Iyanla Vanzant, a “spiritual life counsellor” and Oprah Winfrey Show regular in the late 1990s. The Mighty O loved Vanzant’s sassy life truths; she was even grooming the self-proclaimed “Yorùbá priestess” for her own program. Then, in what appears an act of cosmic suicide, Vanzant signed with Barbara Walters’ production company and fell out with Winfrey.

After one season, Vanzant’s show was axed and her life imploded: her marriage broke up; she squandered millions; she lost her house and filed for bankruptcy. Now, harnessing the moxy that fuelled her rise as a self-help guru, Vanzant is flogging a new memoir: Peace From Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through.

Also offering tips on finding inner peace—again—is Sarah Ban Breathnach, who catapulted to fame in 1996 after Winfrey named Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy her favourite book of the year. Ban Breathnach’s bite-sized nuggets extolling non-material pleasures like smelling fresh laundry sold millions of copies. In her new memoir, Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity, the author reveals she ditched her “all you have is all you need” bromides and frittered everything away living a life that involved little sheet-sniffing: she snapped up posh New York real estate and Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in England, and hired nine assistants on either side of the Atlantic. Divorced from husband No. 3, a cad who showed undue fondness for her wealth, Ban Breathnach is now left with her elderly cat, big debts and the prospect of yet another New York Times bestseller.

Financial loss also animates Geneen Roth’s new Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money. Roth is well known to Winfrey’s audience for her insights into overcoming “emotional eating”—using food to fill an inner void—a topic dear to the talk-show titan’s heart. Now Geneen shares another “aha moment,” to use Winfrey’s phrase: she used money the same way she used to use food, a revelation she came to after losing everything investing with Bernie Madoff. It’s hard to believe the woman whom Winfrey introduced to her audience as “the miracle you’ve been waiting for” would not have the brains to see the foolishness of considering spending $1,000 she doesn’t have on a pair of glasses she doesn’t need, as she admits in her new book.

But the greatest “Do as I say, not as I do” disconnect will arrive in May with the publication of Sharyn Wolf’s riveting Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor’s Divorce. Wolf appeared eight times on Oprah offering advice on attracting the right mate and keeping love alive. Yet Wolf’s recounting of her own relationships makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seem like a romp. One with an alcoholic was so volatile she slept with her car keys in case she had to leave quickly. She was married and divorced four times (twice to the same man). When she told viewers ‘I’m in a long, happy marriage,’ it was with a man who made her miserable; they had sex three times in 13 years.

Wolf weaves disturbing disclosures about early childhood sexual abuse with boyfriend-from-hell stories that are alternately hilarious and horrifying. One, a steroid-addicted weightlifter, would stare at his gonads in the mirror and ask, “They haven’t shrunk that much, have they?”; another threw a big can of V8 juice at her head. Suddenly Wolf’s advice on a show promoting her book How to Stay Lovers for Life: Discover a Marriage Counselor’s Tricks of the Trade takes on ominous new light: “If you fall out of love don’t panic,” she said. “You have to be as comfortable with hate and disgust as love.”

Wolf also confesses to seeing 29 therapists since her childhood, a statistic that suggests she was far more troubled than most of the viewers looking to her for advice. On the plus side, the exposure allowed her to be conversant in the “therapy chain” and the lingo that fuels it. Her first appearance in 1989 resulted from a telephone call from one of Winfrey’s producers who’d read an article Wolf, then a social worker, wrote about flirting in The National Enquirer. The next day she was in Chicago taping a show about good “opening lines.” Being an Oprah star gave her purpose, she writes: she became a psychotherapist. Not that her training helped her personally: “Who became a therapist and doesn’t feel better?” she writes. Chasing celebrity didn’t help her imperilled marriage, she writes: “I was too busy writing books about relationships to have one of my own.”

Still, Wolf insists her ruinous love life didn’t preclude her from helping others: “It only takes me minutes to understand the heart of a couple and what is messing them up,” she said in an interview with Maclean’s. “Yet I could not do that in my marriage to save my life.” The hypocrisy of her “expert” status bothered her occasionally, she says: “Some days it made me laugh,” she says. “Some days it made me cringe.”

Winfrey, the most trusted woman in television, has raised hackles in the past for handing over her powerful pulpit to people with sketchy credentials—giving former Three’s Company star Suzanne Somers a platform to endorse bioidentical hormones, for instance, or actress Jenny McCarthy a forum to advance her belief that vaccinations cause autism. She also validated James Ray, the author of Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, a book that tapped into the Oprah-endorsed power-of-positive-thinking phenom The Secret. The telegenic New Age shaman appeared twice on her show in 2007; as a result, Winfrey found her name tethered to tragic scandal last year when Ray was charged with manslaughter after three people died in a US$9,000 “sweat lodge ceremony” at his spiritual retreat in Arizona.

Oprah’s own secret is that her vast influence stems from the power given her by the millions who watch her show, read O magazine or surf And much of that draw is not what is said as much as how it is said and who is saying it, a fact Wolf grasped quickly. A former theatre arts major and singer, she was a natural on stage. Winfrey loved her, she writes: “She said she loved my dress, and she loved my hair, and she loved my earrings and she loved my attitude.” Wolf rhymes off the Winfrey TV gospel: “Don’t let the conversation lull for even a second”; “be perky and very well informed”; “wear an attractive outfit”; “speak to 13 million people as if they were the only ones in the world”; “talk in sound bites and know when to shut up.”

This year’s start-up of the Oprah Winfrey Network, a 24-hour cable channel filled with Oprah-approved experts that debuted in Canada this week, puts even more onus on finding telegenic authorities. As of yet, few of the programs benefit from Oprah’s galvanizing presence, which could explain the low ratings. There have also been reported bumps, as when Winfrey is said to have wanted to give a show to Steve Harvey, author of the blockbuster Act Like a Lady, Think like A Man. The radio host’s accessible caveman logic—men are hunters, women have to teach men how to treat them—impressed her, as did his great rapport with her audience. That plan was deep-sixed, however, after Harvey’s ex-wife Mary posted a YouTube video last month slamming the radio host as a “chronic cheater”—the very sort of player he was telling women to avoid.

And if there’s anything Winfrey can’t abide, it’s people who aren’t their “authentic” selves, especially those who make her look like a dupe. Who can forget her flaying of James Frey for fictionizing his memoir A Million Little Pieces with the sort of dysfunctional details destined to make it an Oprah Book Club choice?

She was far gentler with prodigal protege Vanzant, though a definite whiff of karmic comeuppance prevailed. Even down and out, Vanzant hasn’t lost her knack for pithy aphorism: “I had a millionaire lifestyle with a welfare mentality,” she told Winfrey. But ultimately she came off as someone you wouldn’t trust to pick up your dry cleaning. When Winfrey asked about the glaring disconnect between “talking the talk” and “walking the walk,” Vanzant blamed others, including hiring the wrong accountant for her mess. “I didn’t even know I wasn’t walking the walk,” she wailed, adding “I need help, Oprah!” If the deluge of walk-of-shame memoirs are an indication, she’s not the only one.