Women of the Bible inspiration for religious `diva'

Listen up, ladies: Deep inside you beats the heart of a diva waiting to be unleashed.

Not a sashaying, phone-throwing Naomi Campbell. Or a demanding, spotlight-hogging Diana Ross. (Pardon us, Ms. Ross.) But a spiritual diva who, when nurtured by biblical principles, can lead you to victory in romance and finance.

That's the gospel spread by Chicago-based author Michelle McKinney Hammond at conferences and churches across the globe. Hammond dispenses her lessons on life and love with a blend of scripture and sister-girl sentiment that has propelled her to best-seller status.

Perpetually well-coiffed with nary an eyebrow hair out of place, Hammond shares her "Diva Principle" in workshops based on her popular self-help book. To Hammond, diva means "divine inspiration for victorious attitude." Instead of celebrities, she draws from biblical women such as the Queen of Sheba, translating their age-old stories into simple principles to guide modern-day women.

Over the past decade, the advertising executive-turned-relationship expert has emerged as one of the most visible faces of the Christian-themed advice industry, co-hosting a faith-based TV network show and churning out two dozen books geared primarily toward single Christian women. Her most fundamental piece of advice is: Completeness is not found in relationships with men, but in a relationship with God.

"When we have God in the center of our lives, he fills that hole," says Hammond, 49. "We keep relying on other people to fill this void that they were not created, wired or able to fill, and then we walk around deeply disappointed when they don't."

Hammond has sold more than a million books including, "If Men Are Like Buses, Then How Do I Catch One?" and her most popular title, "Sassy, Single & Satisfied," which has sold nearly 200,000 copies.

Her advice may seem simplistic to some, but thousands of Christian women struggling with the nuances of dating and marriage embrace her, testifying that her candor and unapologetically glamorous persona resonate with their desire to be godly and feminine. Fans don't care that Hammond has never been married, is not an ordained minister or doesn't have a credential in psychotherapy. Hammond says that God "assigned and called her" to her work, which she promotes through HeartWing Ministries.

"What she has in common with all of us, is that she has experienced pain," said Rev. Joan Harrell, a doctoral student in theology, ethics and human sciences at the Chicago Theological Seminary. "And she continues to experience pain, because pain comes with life. That is the connection."

Tennille Power, a divorced mother of three, said what she enjoys about Hammond is that "she presents the why."

For example, Hammond explains the spiritual damage that she believes results from pre-martial sex, instead of blindly promoting abstinence.

"There are fundamental Christians who argue that you're not supposed to date and be a Christian," said Power, 30. "But what she outlines is a way to do that and still maintain a sense of integrity."

Hammond's books routinely break the top 50 list compiled by the Christian Booksellers Association, a trade group of more than 2,000 retailers. But Hammond wasn't always a diva.

Born in London, Hammond's mother (from Barbados) and father (from Ghana) separated when she was a toddler. She was raised in the West Indies and moved to Michigan when her mother remarried. Hammond came to Chicago in 1976 to attend college at what is now the Illinois Institute of Art.

Although she was raised a "good little Episcopal girl," Hammond said she did not seek a deep understanding of God until her live-in boyfriend was gunned down while on vacation. Shortly after his murder, Hammond dreamed that she was walking alone down a street in immense pain, when she came upon a church echoing with the sounds of a choir. Miraculously, her pain subsided. But when she began to walk away from the church, it returned.

"God was saying that I should come back to him," said Hammond, who now attends Park Community Church. Hammond went on to an award-winning career at Burrell Communications advertising firm, where over 12 years she rose to the position of an associate creative director. She later did freelance ad work through her own company, McKinney Creates.

It appeared a glamorous life, but Hammond was secretly miserable.

She searched bookstores to learn how to deal with being single. But the texts she found were "way too spiritual," she said, and made her feel that she was a bad Christian. She thought, "Maybe I just need to get saved all over again."

After another disappointment in love, Hammond realized that the void she felt was a purpose-sized hole, not a person-sized hole. She shared her epiphanies in 1991 with mentor P.B. Wilson, a Christian author, who suggested she write a book.

Hammond, who also sings, put the idea on hold until 1995 when she was struck by a bus as she crossed the street on her way to a voice-over audition for Hamburger Helper. Her right leg was maimed and she was bed-ridden for 18 months.

During that time, a friend encouraged her to finish her book. Harvest House Publishers published her first work, "What to Do Until Love Finds You" in 1997, which has sold 145,000 copies.

"I am not the perfect person. I have not been a virgin or saved all my life," Hammond says. "You share those things so people know that you're real. Then you share what God can do."

She's not ashamed to tell readers that when it came to men she liked "a little trash with my class," or that she once felt that singleness was a burden.

Hammond contends that women perpetually make bad choices, because they have unresolved personal issues.

"We attract what we think we deserve," says Hammond, sitting in the elegant downtown condo she shares with her two Shitzu dogs, Milan and Matisse. "Until our hearts change about us, we continue to invite the same dramas and traumas."

Hammond's "Diva Weekend Getaway" aims to break old habits with a "What's Your Story?" pajama party where each woman examines her life as a plot and a full day of "diva training" that includes sessions on purpose and passion. Realtor Toni Whitaker, 39, plans to fly from Houston to attend the confab where she said she hopes to "identify the junk that may be holding me back."

She already credits Hammond with empowering her to start a business and find Mr. Right, whom she plans to marry in the fall.

Though women credit Hammond with playing matchmaker, she is too busy to find The Right One for her.

"People always ask me why I'm not married and I say, `I haven't made time for it.' That's the part that I have to own: I have not been available for love."