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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.’”