Coming Home: Iyanla Vanzant's Home Makeover
Before long she was a regular on The Oprah Winfrey Show, a best-selling author, wealthy, famous and happily remarried—her future blindingly bright. Then it all went away.
The millennium ended with Iyanla leaving the Oprah show for greener pastures that turned out to be not nearly as verdant as she'd imagined. And the new century began with her 30-year-old daughter, Gemmia, being diagnosed with a rare form of colon cancer that would take her life 15 months later. Iyanla's TV presence evaporated, her book deals vanished, her marriage collapsed, and, by 2006, she found herself a thousand miles from nowhere—forced to file for bankruptcy.
But eight years after handing over her keys to the bank, she has done exactly what she does best: She's worked through her heartache, inspired others to do the same, and dared to dream another dream. The woman who hits the road week after week on OWN's top-rated reality series, Iyanla: Fix My Life, has gotten her own life back on track.
And Oprah was there to celebrate all that it took for Iyanla to at long last find her way home. "Iyanla was so excited to be able to buy a house again, but as she was telling me all about the vinyl floors and trying to figure out what she should do with the cranberry-colored walls, I thought, It's gonna take this woman until 2022 to get that place together," she says. With her don't-you-just-love-a-good-surprise? smile, she adds, "And then I had an idea."
Housewarming gifts are usually pretty standard: Some people send an orchid. Some people send Champagne. Oprah sent Nate Berkus.
"Welcome to Villa Nova!" Iyanla announces as she takes Nate on the grand tour. "I named her Villa Nova because this"—she waves her hand across the foyer—"is about a new vision." As they step into each empty room, Nate asks Iyanla what she envisions, and she describes book-lined walls, an enormous fridge, a fabulous bathtub, a room for prayer, a room to make the soaps she sells. But before Iyanla can really articulate her ideal future, she needs to tell Nate a little about her past. "Home has been a hard place for me," she says. "Villa Nova is going to be a place of safety and acceptance and love—the things I don't recall experiencing as a child."
Nate is quiet for a minute, taking in the light and the words. And then, as if to signal that life goes on, a family of deer wanders past the window.
Nate breathes deep and squeezes Iyanla's hand—it's time to get to work. They settle in the dated kitchen, and he opens the vision book she sent him in anticipation of their meeting. Filled with images and moods, concepts and colors, it maps the road to her perfect sanctuary. He lays out paint chips and fabric swatches, finishes and fantasies, listening closely, layering textures, collaging patterns, mixing and matching, and monitoring Iyanla's reactions until he becomes a man with a very definite plan.
On the first day of construction, Nate grabs a hammer and hits the corner of the round arch he intends to square off; Iyanla looks as though she might pass out. "She's very sensitive to the spirit of the home, almost like it's a living thing, and I think she finds the idea of demolition a little..." Nate struggles for the right word, "well, disrespectful." He reassures Iyanla that he'll pay very close attention to her wish list and show Villa Nova nothing but tender, loving care. He promises she'll be seeing mood boards and having the backsplash and marble conversations, "but from a distance!" He lets her say her goodbyes to every surface and whisper sweet nothings into the walls. Then he walks her to the door and tells her she is not allowed back until it's time to see the finished product.
It will take several bazillion texts, phone calls, curveballs and mini-crises over the better part of four months for the project to be finished. It will also require the elbow grease and creativity of nearly 150 people. "We all feel like we're part of a gift," says contractor/superhero Terry Barnes of Barnes Builders. "We want to get the job done beautifully for Iyanla and Oprah and Nate. Everybody's heart is on the same page here."
And it shows. On the morning of the big reveal, the driveway to Iyanla's front door is lined with nearly everyone who has poured their energy into Villa Nova—from housecleaners to cabinetmakers, plumbers to painters, drywallers, design team, the crew who hand-forged the banister and the woman who managed the budget. Somebody else is there, too. "Gemmia, she was a butterfly fanatic," Iyanla says softly. "And when I pulled up to Villa Nova—that day, there were five butterflies flying around the front gate. Nobody else knew what that meant, but I knew."
She also knows that Nate has understood her on a deeper level than she ever could have hoped. "The minute I walked through the front door, I knew that he saw the soul of my house. He understood what was possible, and he refused to settle for anything less. This was not just a renovation; it was a transformation," she sighs, a little bit lost in the memory. "I knew I'd finally come home."
See photos of Iyanla's new home