The Famous Suze Orman

Some days I agonize over what to write about. Other days the decision is made for me.  Yesterday’s Sunday New York Times Magazine had a long story on Suze Orman, so this is one of those days without agony.

The genre of the article can probably best be described as celebrity profile.  It’s not quite a puff piece.  It mentions just enough minor flaws to give its NYTimesBldgByLuigiNovi-Nightscream subject some character and the author does her journalistic duty by mentioning that Orman once did advertising for GM and certainly does what she does for the money.

On the other hand, there is not much in the way of discussion of what Orman has to say, other than what is necessary to explain what it is that she does for a living to the few readers of the Times who have not yet heard of her.  Mostly, the article is about the fact that she is wildly popular right now, without much discussion of why.

Which might strike a person as a little odd if they thought of Orman as a writer or pundit.  It would be hard to imagine a story on a spike in popularity of, say, Malcolm Gladwell or Rush Limbaugh, without a few paragraphs on what made them particularly big just now and maybe even a hint of criticism from a responsible third party.

But Orman is no longer, apparently, a mere mortal with a point of view to share.  She is a personality, famous not so much for doing anything in particular as for just being Suze Orman.  The Times does not mention the minor controversy recently around Orman’s new advice on paying credit cards.  (Discussed here and elsewhere.)  But it does talk about her hair, clothes, jewelry, homes in New York and Florida, on-air vs. off-air personalities, and, of course, her love life.  It’s the sort of information you might get if you met a friend of hers and gushingly asked “What’s she really like?”

And the article tells us that she is rich.  How rich? Interesting question. “Orman, who is 57, estimates her net worth at about $20 million (though even a cursory look at the numbers suggests she is worth much more than that).”  Cursory indeed.  For example, two years ago in the same New York Times Magazine she pegged her wealth at $32 million.  But according to Wikipedia, a year ago she described her net worth as “more than $10 million.”

I don’t care how rich she is, but I have a passing interest in her level of candor, particularly given her penchant for preaching the importance of honesty about money.  A quick back-of-the-envelope suggests she is making $10M+ a year and has been doing so for a while, between speaking fees ($80K a pop), royalties on nine bestsellers, her CNBC show and hawking stuff on QVC including a $48 “FICO Kit.” Unless she is giving massively and anonymously to charity (which is possible) it seems that she is habitually low-balling her wealth and how much she is making.

The author of the article doesn’t call Orman on that, but she does point out that Orman now tells a very different story about the end of her father’s life than what she recounted in one of her books.

I asked Orman about the seeming contradiction in facts, and she passed it off blithely, even likably. “Oh, who knows what I said in the book,” she replied.

Again, like her net worth, this is not a topic of great import. But Orman has made her personal story part of her routine patter, and this, rather than more substantive parts of what Orman has to say, is what the Times decided to write about.  The piece ends two paragraphs later, with the reporter weakly weaving the updated, presumably true, and sadder, version of her father’s life into an attempt at insight into Orman.

I have a hard time imaging what other nonfiction writer could be caught more or less making stuff up in a book and be treated so nicely by the Times.  This is the newspaper that once ran a correction because it had gotten the number of possible positions for the Rubik’s Cube wrong.  (It’s actually 43,252,003,274,489,856,000.)

The truth is that the Times just doesn’t consider being in a “unique position as the people’s financial planner” to be all that important.  Orman is interesting in a sort of off-beat celebrity sort of way, but what she says is not serious stuff.  I can easily imagine a more or less identical article being written about a newly popular TV chef or an Oscar winning actress.

I think that Orman’s subject matter should be taken seriously, but she as a personage much less so.

[Photo: Luigi Novi – Nightscream]

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