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Suze Orman is in a television studio chewing out America. In three hours of satellite appearances, she has scolded the residents of nearly every major city in the United States about what they’re doing wrong — in her estimation, more or less everything. She has castigated the people of Hartford for eating out too much: “You have got to cut back like you have never cut back before.” She has told folks in San Antonio that unemployment is going up, up, up, and that credit card debt is going to bring them down, down, down: “You can’t say the word hope and 2009 in the same sentence.” And as for the population of Phoenix, they might as well start stockpiling the food, because, “The economy is beyond help.”
Each time she does an interview, her sentences become increasingly staccato, her warnings more ominous. “If. You. Don’t. Face. Your. Debt. In. The. Mirror. You. Are. Going. To. Be. In. So. Much. Trouble.”
Mommy still loves us, but we have been bad little kiddies and She. Has. Got. To. Tell. Us.
You’d think all this doom and gloom might not go down so well at a time when there is more than enough doom and gloom to go around. But make no mistake about it — the global economic meltdown has been fantastic for television’s ubiquitous money lady and her brand of perpetual disapproval. Her most recent book, “Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan,” was given away for free on Oprah Winfrey’s Web site for nearly two weeks and still shot to the top of the bestseller list. Ratings for her Saturday night CNBC show are skyrocketing. She has appeared on Oprah, Anderson Cooper and Larry King more than a dozen times over the last three months. Time magazine two weeks ago proclaimed her the “Queen of the Recession.” And then there is the ultimate signal of Orman’s arrival as a full-fledged media superstar: Kristen Wiig’s uncanny impersonation of her on “Saturday Night Live.”
The finance guru calls the impersonation the “greatest honor of my career.”
“I love it,” Orman says. “I was in the audience for it recently. The real problem is that now, I do my own show every Saturday night and I start doing all these things that make me go, ‘Ugh. I’m playing Kristen Wiig.’ I mean, it’s just very good. She has got me down.”
There’s almost no one out there as ripe for parody as Orman, 57. There’s the highlight-heavy blonde wedge haircut, the chunky gold earrings and the way she cocks her head to the left and furrows her brow when asked a question about whether to declare bankruptcy, take a loan out on a 401(k) or switch credit card companies. Then there are her trademark gesticulations and phrases: the wagging of an index finger, the shaking of her head in dismay and her habit of responding to a question with a sentence like, “Are you kidding?” — drawing out the “r” with such flourish that this three-word expression of opprobrium seems to last half an hour. Arrre you kidding? Righteous indignation is almost an orgasmic experience for Orman.
She is shocked, shocked, that we all spent money we didn’t have. “The United States of America is in the situation it’s in because people were spending, spending, spending,” Orman says during her satellite burst. “It was all smoke and mirrors and now the smoke has cleared and the view in the mirror is a horrific one.”
Her populist rage is just as pronounced off-camera. Sitting in a green room after her TV interviews, she lambasts everyone from Alan Greenspan to Larry Summers to the former president of the United States, who holds an especially dark place in her heart. “Commander in Chief?” she says of George W. Bush, with a mix of disbelief and scorn. “You blew up every single financial vessel we had and if you think you aren’t personally responsible, well, the blame starts at the top. There is no higher top than you, SIR! If I were you, I would feel so absolutely horrific that I would take every penny I had and distribute it to anybody and everybody to help them in whatever way I could. You owe the American people every penny of your fortune and your family’s fortune.”
Even the victims of Bernie Madoff don’t get off scot-free when Orman gets going. “You walked right into that financial concentration camp, my loves,” she says later in a regrettable metaphor, given that the world’s most famous concentration camp survivor, Elie Wiesel, was among Madoff’s bilked investors. “I mean, you didn’t have to give 100 percent of everything to him.”
If people love a personality this shrill, it’s partly because Orman appears to be totally — even disturbingly — authentic. She is a paradox — a paradigm of self-branding wrapped around a heart that actually seems to beat.
Orman grew up in Chicago with a father who ran a poultry shop and a mother who was a secretary. “Daddy was a failed man,” she says. “He had a curse on his head. He succeeded as a businessman, then his [shop] burned down.”
What effect did being poor have on her? “I learned that money was the key to happiness. That’s what I learned.”
One New Year’s Eve, at the age of 12 or 13 (“I can’t remember which”), Orman went to a party and hung out with a girl named Susie Kaplan, whom Orman had a crush on. “It was late and Susie had fallen asleep with her head on my lap and my best friend Laurie Brown looked at us, got it, and started a rumor that I was a lesbian. Of course, I denied it. During my freshman year of college, I came back and said, ‘Laurie, remember that rumor you started about me years ago? Well, that was true.’”
At the University of Illinois, Orman majored in social work and worked as a dishwasher and a waitress. At 22, she moved to Berkeley and got a job at the Buttercup Bakery, where she worked as a waitress for the better part of a decade.
Then, at 30, Orman pulled together $50,000 from friends and customers to start her own restaurant, but she parked the money with a broker at Merrill Lynch who put it all into oil futures. In three months, she was wiped out. Today, Orman calls losing the money “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Her hopes of opening a restaurant dashed, she decided to apply for a spot in a training program at Merrill Lynch. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she says. “I owed all these people money. I was never going to be able to pay back $50,000 on $400 a month.”
Though she made it through the training program and earned a spot as a broker, her superiors at Merrill were hardly encouraging about her prospects at the firm: “I was told that I’d be out of there in six months because women didn’t belong.”
Instead, Orman lasted three years before going on to Prudential, where she sold insurance to retirees. From there, she started her own financial services firm and nearly wound up penniless at the beginning when an underling who left Prudential with her walked away with Orman’s client list.
During all of this, Orman turned to Siddha Yoga, a meditation practice which involves chanting and self-help tapes. “The mantra is ‘God dwells within you as you’ and that you need to see God in every other person,” Orman says. “So the basic thing is that you are perfect like you are. It was a tremendous thing for me to learn.”
After her business took off, Orman was introduced to the book agent Linda Mead at a cocktail party. Orman suggested she write a book of advice regarding the dreary subject of long-term care insurance. “It wasn’t a book,” says Mead, who was nevertheless impressed by Orman’s effervescence. “So I sat in her office and I said, ‘Tell me what some of the things are that you do with your clients.’” Eventually, they came up with the idea to gear the book toward older Baby Boomers and sold it to Newmarket Press for $10,000.
“I later found out that it had been turned down by over 30 publishers,” says the company’s president, Esther Margolis.
Prior to starting Newmarket, Margolis was the publicist behind Jacqueline Susann, an author who (like Orman) had a promotional savvy second only to her preternatural affinity for the tastes of middle-American women. When Orman’s book, “You’ve Earned It, Don’t Lose It,” came out in 1994, Margolis put her on a never-ending book tour. After a year, they hit the mother lode with a half-hour special on the now-defunct Q2, the sister channel of QVC. There, Orman’s dual approach of plain talk and self-empowerment resonated with the station’s largely female viewership, and the book went on to sell over 700,000 copies.
One day, at a friend’s suggestion, Orman went to see Binky Urban, ICM’s legendary book agent. “I didn’t want to see her and she didn’t want to see me,” says Orman. “She didn’t need a financial author and I didn’t see why I needed a [new] book agent. Especially with a name like Binky. So I go into Binky’s office in jeans because I didn’t care about it. She had her back turned and was talking to somebody on the phone and she said, ‘Well, you can just go tell that person to go f–k themselves.’ And I thought, ‘That is a great woman.’ Then she turned around, looked at me, and said, ‘Kid, those eyes of yours will make us millions of dollars but you’ve gotta lose 30 pounds.’ And I said, ‘OK. Done.’”
“She looks fantastic now,” says Urban, who had no trouble auctioning Orman’s second book.
“The bidding was going up and up and up,” says Orman, “I said, ‘Stop the bidding, Binky. I can’t take it anymore. Somebody’s going to pay me $800,000 to write a book. I can’t write. I’m a finance person.’” She continues: “I told Chip Gibson [then the head of Crown Publishing], ‘Sir, before I sign this contract I have two things to tell you. Number one: I don’t know how to write. So I don’t want you giving me $800,000 to write. And number two: Are you aware that I’m a lesbian?”
As it happens, neither turned out to be roadblocks. For one, Orman was a personal finance expert, not a movie star. And for another, Gibson says, “We weren’t hiring Suze to win the Nobel Prize in literature.”
Urban seconds that. “I just thought, ‘Great. Finally an author who knows she can’t write.’”
Orman’s book was called “The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom”; it drew heavily on her New Age sensibility and sold over three million copies. From there, shows like “Today” and “Oprah” came calling and money began to pour in.
Getting rich brought all sorts of perks: property in New York, California and Florida; the ability to fly private, and the opportunity to give money to causes she liked. One day, the author went to a Hearst-sponsored conference where “The Vagina Monologues” guru Eve Ensler was speaking about violence against women. “It was amazing,” says Ensler, recalling their meeting. “She came up to me and said, ‘I see my money the way you see your vagina. I need to know it, I need to touch it, I need to not be afraid of it. And I’m going to give [your foundation] $100,000.’” Which Orman did, along with investing over $200,000 in Ensler’s next play.
These days, Orman gives money to everything from breast cancer research to Democratic political candidates to gay rights. She also has a habit of getting attached to people who write her letters asking for help. For the last two years, Orman has sent gifts and provided free financial advice to an 81-year-old woman in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., named Miriam Finkelstein, who found her address in the Boca Raton, Fla., telephone book and sent a letter asking for assistance.
“You are the only person I can think of who understands people and money,” Finkelstein wrote, explaining she’d just lost her life partner and was confused about what to do with her inheritance.
A week later, Orman called Finkelstein and, among other things, put her in touch with a man who got her on a fixed annuity better than anything she’d been offered by five previous financial experts. “It was beyond the call of duty,” Finkelstein says to me. “I think Suze saved my life.”
Nine months ago, Orman was contacted by Natalie Davis, a 47-year-old freelance journalist in Baltimore who was struggling to make ends meet. Davis found her by e-mailing Orman at every possible address at Suzeorman.com until she got through.
In her email, Davis wrote about the lack of jobs in her field and said “What happens when friends and family can’t help? Do poor moms and kids land on the streets and die?” Soon after, Orman began sending her food, and did so every month for six months. “It literally kept me and my family going,” Davis says.
Orman also provides free financial advice to other celebrities. One of them is Kathy Griffin, who says of her friend: “While I’m optimistic about President Obama, I think we missed the mark. We need a good sturdy lesbian in the White House, and Suze could move in, renovate it, flip it and sell it to China for a profit. She would turn around the fiscal crisis in about eight days.”
Until Orman lands in the Oval Office, she will have to make do with the five homes she shares with her partner, Kathy “K.T.” Travis, 56. The two met eight years ago when Travis, a former advertising executive at Ogilvy & Mather, moved back to the Bay Area from Hong Kong. “We had mutual friends,” Travis says. “They said, ‘She writes about money.’ I said, ‘That sounds boring.’ I’d been in China. We didn’t have CNBC. I didn’t watch Oprah. But Suze is electric. Within a week, she made me throw out all my credit cards and things I didn’t need.”
Travis now runs Orman’s company, a burgeoning media empire that includes books, tapes, the Saturday night CNBC show, a column for O, the Oprah Magazine, and a partnership with credit reporting agency Fair Isaacs Corp.
Fair Isaacs’ credit model, known as a FICO score, is the most widely used in the United States and the arrangement between them and Orman has been a source of controversy in the financial press, since Orman promotes the importance of a good FICO score in her books at the same time she is earning money from the very company that sends that score to potential lenders.
Another source of controversy is Orman’s relationship with TD Ameritrade, with whom she has a business partnership. To convince viewers of her show to begin saving, Orman has suggested going to Saveyourself.com (a Web site she set up) and opening an account with that firm. If you deposit $50 a month in each of the first 12 months, the bank will match you — up to $100. “It’s a savings rate of 15 percent,” Orman has said repeatedly. The trouble is, after the first $600, the interest rate drops to an ordinary one, making the offer more of a marketing ploy for the bank than anything else.
Recently, Orman has also come under fire for not anticipating the meltdown of the financial system and for being a sometime cheerleader of investing in real estate. For her part, Orman says, “I still believe that real estate purchased at the right time, when it made sense, is one of the best investments you will ever make. You cannot live on a stock certificate.”
Orman also pooh-poohs the notion that her own $3.6 million purchase of an apartment in the Plaza hotel at the height of the boom was less than sound. “If I wanted to sell that right now, I could,” she says, adding bullishly that she would “probably” break even on the purchase price, the building’s lawsuits and negative publicity aside. “I gutted it; I put money into it. I think somebody would come and see it and love it and buy it. People who have money, they don’t care.”
She does acknowledge she failed to see rampant corruption in the financial system but says it wasn’t completely her fault. “How do you call a market when the people that are running the banks and the brokerage firms are lying to you through their teeth?” Orman says. “How do you call anything? I was naïve enough that I just believed them all.”
Of course, there were a number of people — from economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini to financial writers like William Greider — who predicted the financial crisis would unfold almost exactly as it did. “Yeah, but I wasn’t listening to them,” Orman says.
If the author’s supposed shortcomings and potential conflicts of interest haven’t unleashed a backlash à la Jim Cramer, it’s probably because the core message of her philosophy was eerily prescient. For years, she warned that chronic overspending was going to come back and bite consumers in the butt and advised they cut back on everything from magazine subscriptions to vacations to having the windows cleaned.
Orman is proud of her own financial investment strategy. In 2007, she told Deborah Solomon of The New York Times Magazine that she was keeping most of her fortune (estimated then to be around $25 million) in municipal bonds with just $1 million in the stock market.
At the time, a number of her peers pounced, asserting this was an overly conservative game plan and wouldn’t work for people less wealthy than herself who rely on higher risk investment strategies to reach financial security later in life. “You see?” Orman says. “I was smart. I put most of my money in municipal bonds. The so-called financial writers said, ‘How can Suze Orman tell you what to do with your money when all of her money is in municipal bonds?’”
She pauses, takes a sip of water, and then delivers the parting shot at her critics: “Well, guess who won?” she says. “Guess. Who. Won.”