The Contender

A vibrant television host, dressed in red, is giving advice to Nancy, a member of the studio audience who says she's so involved with her children she doesn't have a life of her own. One time, Nancy tells the host, she did her daughter's entire paper route on a bike just so the girl wouldn't have to miss a school event. "[You] need to figure out what you want. Tell your daughter, 'It's your paper route'," the host instructs. The adoring audience applauds.

The host isn't who you might think. It's Iyanla Vanzant, a motivational guru who's being groomed as the next Oprah Winfrey. For years the now 48-year-old best-selling author, with playful eyes and a 150-watt smile, was a regular guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," helping audience members solve problems with girlfriend humor and inspirational advice. Then Barbara Walters spotted her and persuaded her to go solo. Disney's Buena Vista Productions signed her up and made a pilot. The syndicated show, "Iyanla," will launch this fall, with Walters executive-producing; it has already been picked up by stations in more than 60 percent of the country.

Vanzant has plenty in common with the reigning queen of daytime. Like Winfrey, she grew up poor (in Brooklyn, N.Y.) and suffered sexual abuse as a child. Also like Winfrey, she turned her own experience into a lightning rod for millions of women. She has more than 6 million books in print, mostly daily meditations. On camera and in person, Vanzant has an easy manner and a self-deprecating sense of humor; her advice often moves listeners to joyful tears. "I don't mind being compared to Oprah," says Vanzant, sitting in her Silver Spring, Md., office, where candles adorn every surface. "Compare me!"

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Iyanla will have her predecessor's broad appeal. Julie Tache, an Oprah fan and sports broadcaster from Charlotte, N.C., says, "I don't think [Iyanla] could ever be as big because she's not as universal." But Iyanla insists that she took on the show not for ratings but for personal growth and to help others. "I hope to give people back their power," she says. Oprah couldn't have said it better.

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