(The Root) — "This episode is personal for me," explains Yoruba priestess, author and TV host Iyanla Vanzant as she cruises through Los Angeles to meet actress Maia Campbell, the subject of this past Saturday night's Iyanla: Fix My Life series on OWN.
In fact, it's personal for any of us who remember Campbell, 36, as the fresh-faced and spoiled Tiffany on the 1990s sitcom In the House. Or as Larenz Tate's bougie love interest, Nicole, on Fox's short-lived South Central. Remember that brief glimpse of her at the breakfast table in Poetic Justice? That almond skin and those Cher-like locks were unmistakable.
Campbell was a starlet at a time when we had starlets. When there was more than just a stingy pinch of young black girls on television, on the radio and on the big screen. She came up with a class that included Brandi, Countess Vaughn, Tatyana Ali, Nia Long, Tia and Tamera Mowry, Essence Atkins, Reagan Gomez, Kellie Williams and, of course, the entire cast of Living Single. Referred to often as a brief golden age of black cinema, the '90s were Campbell's for the taking. That is, until she disappeared.
Campbell, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had a breakdown on the set of In the House and was summarily fired from the show in 1999. A decade later, she resurfaced as the hapless star of a now infamous YouTube video (NSFW) featuring a much different Campbell.
It was obvious that the last couple of years hadn't been good to her. She appeared drunk, high or both. She was emaciated, ashen and incoherent. It was heartbreaking.
Vanzant repeats often that helping Campbell, the daughter of best-selling author Bebe Moore Campbell, who died of brain cancer in 2006, is personal. "I knew her mother," Vanzant tells us at the beginning of the episode. "Like me, she was a writer. Like me, she was a mom." But I wonder why the starlet's descent is personal for the rest of us.
When news of Campbell's appearance on Fix My Life broke, more than a few of my friends vowed to set their DVRs for Saturday, not because they relished witnessing a train wreck but because they were genuinely invested in supporting Campbell's comeback — if only from their couches.
I'm not sure if we felt the same way for other formerly bright stars who have flamed out publicly, like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. I asked one friend why and she explained it the Paul Mooney way: "We don't have the complexion for protection. When the Lohans of the world are a mess, their opportunities don't dry up at the rate that ours would."
"As someone who also lives with bipolar disorder, my heart goes out to her," said my friend, poet Bassey Ikpi, a mental-health advocate and founder of the Siwe Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting mental-health awareness throughout the global black community. "I understand the challenges to come back after your illness drags you down. I hope that she focuses on her healing and her health and her growth."
To be clear, Ikpi's support extended only to Campbell getting help, not at all for Vanzant's televised tough love, which at moments was hard to watch.
"People who live with mental illness and are still in the beginning stages of dealing with their health need to concentrate on their health," explained Ikpi. "It's like someone with a broken leg being told how to do the Dougie before the leg has fully healed."
Vanzant and Campbell had done most of the "work" featured on Saturday's show onstage at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles. A healthy-looking and makeup-free Campbell "acted" through several scenes of her own life: a 12-year-old girl asking her parents if she can try her hand at acting, a 25-year-old actress who's just blown up on the set and an absentee daughter looking over her mother's grave.
It was beyond bizarre watching an actress shift nervously onstage while auditioning for the "lead role" in her "authentic life." But there were moments when Campbell, who admitted that her medication makes her feel disconnected, seemed to break through, like when she ad-libs, "I miss my kid so much right now I can barely breathe."
By the end of the show, it's unclear where Campbell plans to go now. She's living in a sort of halfway home, her stepfather is still in charge of all her major decisions and her 12-year-old daughter is living with Dad.
There's hope, of course. Campbell looks nothing like the haggard woman in the YouTube video, but she doesn't look like the sprightly star of yesteryear, either. Campbell, like the girls who used to sit on their couches and tune in to her back in the day, has grown up, but perhaps not out of needing the support — even from afar.