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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Relationship expert hosts new TV show

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Andrea Syrtash is host of the TV show Life Story Project. [Tim Leyes photo]

Andrea Syrtash is hosting a new program on the Oprah Winfrey Network that shows how everybody can relate to one another through sharing life experiences.

“We’ve all suffered through loss, and we’ve all celebrated triumphs,” she said.

On the show, Life Story Project, which she co-hosts with Toronto-based psychotherapist Dale Curd, she sits on a couch that is placed in busy locations throughout the city, including parks and bustling street corners. They invite strangers walking by to join them on the couch to talk about events that affected their lives.

The first episode, which airs Jan. 2, features stories about falling in love and heartbreak.

From that episode, there’s one story that stood out in Syrtash’s mind. It was about a young mother of two who lost her husband to cancer. However, before he died, not a day went by when they didn’t express their love.

“Her story was incredibly compelling because she really presented it as a love story more than a broken-heart story,” Syrtash said. “She calls her story a fairy tale even though she lost her prince in the end.”

Another person she found unforgettable was a firefighter who made a mistake early in his career, she recalled. He was deeply affected and had a moment when wanted to end his life. He was in a burning building and he took off his oxygen mask, he told her, wanting his daughter to believe he died a hero.

The firefighter recovered and now shares his story with young firefighters to make sure they have support when they make a mistake, she said.

“These people were incredible people that we literally found on the street,” Syrtash said. “I think really the point of the show is everybody has a story and every story matters.”

The trick to finding these stories is learning to probe people and earn their trust, she said. Syrtash is both a trained life coach specializing in relationships, and a graduate of Ryerson University’s radio and television arts program, so she may be the perfect host for this type of show.

Syrtash is originally from Toronto, but moved to the United States after graduation, following a man she met at a concert in California. She lived with him in San Francisco for five years, but decided to move to New York City, where she has dreamed of living since she was a child.

She said it’s the energy of New Yorkers that really attracts her, specifically their drive and risk-taking spirit.

“My heart still has a place [in Toronto] but this city just gets under my skin,” she said.

Since 2004, she has been featured on various news and entertainment networks as a relationship expert and advice columnist, and she has written two relationship self-help books. Her latest one, Cheat On Your Husband (With Your Husband), aims to help readers create more exciting and fulfilling relationships with their spouses.

She said all of her work is based on research, which she credits to her training as a journalist. Her ideas come from case studies and interviews, rather than simply through personal experience.

Her journey from life coach to TV host grew organically from her career as a life coach, she said.

“I was passionate and I loved it,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to build a platform.”

Nowadays, it’s much harder to brand yourself, she said, adding that she’s lucky to have built her own brand before Facebook, Tumblr and other social media sites became popular.

“The Internet is not where I created my brand,” she said. “It grew from the Internet, but it started with my books and radio appearances and workshops.”

The Internet has brought changes to the dating world, she said. For example, while online dating has become hugely popular and successful, it also has led to new issues.

“Until the end of time, we will want to be with someone who makes us our best and sees us for who we are and all of that,” she said. “[But] when it comes to today, there are issues today because of technology.”

Specifically, people sometimes have trouble balancing their online and offline dating lives.

“It’s just about going out there, and if online helps you get out there more, great, but you have to balance it with real-world interactions,” she said, adding that singles should form platonic friendships with other singles, since it gives each person a wider network to meet people.

Syrtash said she has always been interested in relationships, and even spent a year studying Middle East relations while on an exchange program at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.

She said her father is a Holocaust survivor who taught her the value of taking risks. “He really built something from nothing, so that’s inspiring to me,” she added.

Regarding dating within one’s own religion, she said each person must figure out their own values. One of her books discusses dating outside of your “type,” and in her upcoming book about debunking dating rules, she makes the case to quiet everybody else’s “shoulds” in favour of your own “wants.”

“I don’t want to impose my value system on someone I don’t really know,” she said, explaining that everybody has their own ideas of what makes them happy – some people have open marriages, for example, and some people never want to get married.

Syrtash is critical of the advice many relationship experts offer in the media. She hopes to change the industry through offering positive advice.

As an example of what’s wrong, she said sometimes relationship experts might tell someone they have to be engaged within a year or they should break up. “It leads people to make inauthentic choices in fear and scarcity. I don’t think it’s empowering,” she said.

She hopes to challenge conventional wisdom, such as the idea that you should go for your type. If it’s not working out, try another type, she said.

Ultimately, Syrtash said she hopes her career will continue to grow organically, and she plans to follow wherever it takes her.

“I want to do stuff I haven’t heard of yet,” she said, adding that maybe technology will take her on an interesting career path. “I want to do this on a bigger scale because I’m so passionate about it.”

Life Story Project premières on Jan. 2 at 9 p.m. on the Oprah Winfrey Network for two back-to-back episodes.

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