After two decades of searching for her authentic self — exploring New Age theories, giving away cars, trotting out fat, recommending good books and tackling countless issues from serious to frivolous — Oprah Winfrey has risen to a new level of guru.
She’s no longer just a successful talk-show host worth $1.4 billion, according to Forbes’ most recent estimate. Over the past year, Winfrey, 52, has emerged as a spiritual leader for the new millennium, a moral voice of authority for the nation.
With her television pulpit and the sheer power of her persona, she has encouraged and steered audiences (mostly women) in all matters, from genocide in Rwanda to suburban spouse swapping to finding the absolute best T-shirt and oatmeal cookie.
“She’s a really hip and materialistic Mother Teresa,” says Kathryn Lofton, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who has written two papers analyzing the religious aspects of Winfrey. “Oprah has emerged as a symbolic figurehead of spirituality.”
On Monday, Winfrey shares one of her most ambitious events of the past year ‘Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball’ as a special on ABC (8 p.m. ET/PT). It lets viewers in on a weekend in which she invited 25 legendary black women and other guests to her home in Montecito, Calif., for a luncheon, ball and gospel brunch in their honor.
It was something she spent a year planning and describes as one of the “greatest moments” of her life. She appears on The View on Friday to talk about the special.
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“This weekend was the fulfillment of a dream for me: to honor where I’ve come from, to celebrate how I got here, and to claim where I’m going,” Winfrey says on her website. And now, as Winfrey “lives her best life,” as her TV motto says, we get to experience it with her.
Although the concept of the Rev. Oprah has been building through the years, never was it more evident than this season of her talk show, during which she conducted the public flogging of author James Frey. Feeling stung and embarrassed after endorsing his memoir about addiction, A Million Little Pieces, which turned out to include exaggerations and falsehoods, Winfrey had Frey on the show to do an about-face.
“I left the impression that the truth is not important,” she said on the show. “I am deeply sorry about that because that is not what I believe.”
It was a watershed Winfrey moment, showing herself as not only a talk-show host with whom you don’t want to mess, but also someone who is fully aware of the power of her own image. Think back: She appeared in New Orleans to take on the government after Hurricane Katrina hit last August, and she sent a message to us all about civil rights as she stood by the casket of Coretta Scott King in February. Last week, she shed a tear with Teri Hatcher over sexual abuse memories, and she jumped on the Darfur bandwagon, encouraging viewers to support refugees there.
“She’s a moral monitor, using herself as the template against which she measures the decency of a nation,” Lofton says.
But while this past year showed Winfrey at new heights, it also was a year that polarized people, particularly after the Frey incident.
“A self-righteous attack dog,” wrote arts and culture critic Steven Winn in the San Francisco Chronicle.
“A sanctimonious bully,” said media critic Robert Thompson on the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
“She puts the cult in pop culture,” wrote media critic Mark Jurkowitz in The Phoenix
Winfrey was applauded by many for her public mea culpa and for getting Frey to do the same, but her righteous demand for justice also evoked criticism.
“No one person should have that kind of power to affect markets, politics or anything else,” says Debbie Schlussel, a lawyer, conservative columnist and blogger.
Love her or loathe her, Winfrey has become proof that you can’t be too rich, too thin or too committed to rising to your place in the world. With 49 million viewers each week in the USA and more in the 122 other countries to which the show is distributed, Winfrey reaches more people in a TV day than most preachers can hope to reach in a lifetime of sermons.
“One of the things that’s key,” says Marcia Nelson, author of The Gospel According to Oprah, “is she walks her talk. That’s really, really important in today’s culture. People who don’t walk their talk fall from a great pedestal — scandals in the Catholic Church, televangelism scandals. If you’re not doing what you say you do, woe be unto you.”
In Ellen DeGeneres’ stand-up comedy act several years ago, she included a joke about getting to heaven and finding that God is a black woman named Oprah.
Last fall, at the start of this 20th season of The Oprah Winfrey Show, guest Jamie Foxx said much the same thing, but he wasn’t joking. “What you have is something nobody can describe,” Foxx said to Winfrey on the air. Then he explained about how he told Vibe magazine: “You’re going to get to heaven and everyone’s waiting on God and it’s going to be Oprah Winfrey.”
He told her she has “different gears” than most people. “You’re on the top of the world, and we really do watch and listen for everything you do and say to kind of get our lives together. It’s the truth.”
In a November poll conducted at Beliefnet.com, a site that looks at how religions and spirituality intersect with popular culture, 33% of 6,600 respondents said Winfrey has had “a more profound impact” on their spiritual lives than their clergypersons.
Cathleen Falsani, religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, recently suggested, “I wonder, has Oprah become America’s pastor?”
“I am not God,” Oprah said in a 1989 story by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison that ran in The New York Times Magazine titled The Importance of Being Oprah. But at the time, Winfrey called her talk show her “ministry,” Harrison wrote. It remains an interview Winfrey says she hates. In a Los Angeles Times interview in December, the talk-show host said that “at every turn everything I said was challenged and misinterpreted.”
She declined to be interviewed for this story, and she declined to allow USA TODAY to cover her most recent, and now rare, Live Your Best Life seminars. Tickets, priced at $185 each, sold out in minutes.
Katrina Singleton, 34, paid $450 each for tickets to the February event in Charleston, S.C., which she purchased through a ticket broker. “For Oprah, nothing is too much,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
At the seminar, according to AP, Winfrey repeatedly spoke of her relationship with God. She even sang a chorus of I Surrender All.
“I live inside God’s dream for me. I don’t try to tell God what I’m supposed to do,” she told the crowd. “God can dream a bigger dream for you than you can dream for yourself.”
Claire Zulkey, 26, an Oprah follower who has written about Winfrey in her online blog at zulkey .com, says, “I think that if this were the equivalent of the Middle Ages and we were to fast-forward 1,200 years, scholars would definitely think that this Oprah person was a deity, if not a canonized being.”
Marcia Nelson says that it’s not going too far to call her a spiritual leader. “I’ve said to a number of people — she’s today’s Billy Graham.”
Nelson said that concept was most apparent when Winfrey co-hosted the 2001 memorial service held 12 days after the terrorist attacks in New York. She urged the people who filled Shea Stadium that day, and all Americans, to stand strong, rousing the audience by repeating the refrain, “We shall not be moved.”
One of Winfrey’s most appealing subtexts is that she’s anti-institutional, says Chris Altrock, minister of Highland Street Church of Christ in Memphis. He says Winfrey believes there are many paths to God, not just one. After doing his doctoral research three years ago on postmodernism religion, a religious era that began in the 1970s as Christians became deeply interested in spirituality and less interested in any established church, he came up with what he calls “The Church of Oprah,” referring to the culture that has created her.
“Our culture is changing,” he says, “as churches are in decline and the bulk of a new generation is growing up outside of religion.” Instead, they’re turning to the Church of Oprah.
“People who have no religion relate to her,” Nelson says.
Oprah’s own evolution
When Winfrey started in the talk-show business 20 years ago, her goal was to beat Phil Donahue, then the reigning talk-show champ. As the Jerry Springer era of tabloid talk shows came into favor, she vowed to use her show to promote good, not sleaze.
By the late ’90s, Winfrey’s focus was Change Your Life TV, and a New Age message was more prevalent. She preached making the message of her life — take responsibility, and greatness will follow — the substance of the show. Keep a personal journal, purchase self-indulgent gifts, take time for you — because you deserve it. The notes rang true to millions of viewers.
Debbie Ford’s book, The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, shot up the sales charts after Ford appeared on Winfrey’s show in October 2000 to talk about aspects of ourselves that we deny but which can be sources of joy and strength.
“I think at the time when she had me and Gary Zukav and a lot of the other spiritual teachers on her show, it was her own journey, and she was taking all of the world on that spiritual evolution,” Ford says.
Lately, Winfrey has seemed to focus more on social issues (along with the inescapable talk-show fare of celebrity guests, home and diet makeovers, and marriage and financial troubles).
“She’s fabulous. She looks great and is not suffering,” Ford says, so it makes sense she isn’t exploring New Age philosophies anymore. Instead, Ford says, people now “look to her to find their greatness. She is so real. That’s why people are attracted to her — for different reasons. Some people will say her brilliance. Others will say authenticity. Others will say her power. They’re seeing part of themselves in her.”
Adds Ford, “We’re all on Oprah’s journey, in a sense.”
Maybe not quite “all” of us.
Schlussel says Winfrey followers “are incredibly gullible, bandwagon-jumping trend-slaves.” Winfrey, she says, “acts as if her show has ‘evolved,’ but in fact, she still has the salacious sex and deviance stories, with a psychologist in the audience to make it seem highbrow and give it the kosher seal of approval. If this is the person whose morals we are putting on a pedestal, then America’s moral compass is in much need of retuning.”
The fact that Winfrey has never been married, never had children and is a billionaire distances her from her audience, Schlussel says. “How could anyone like this be in touch with the average American woman?”
The roots of faith
Lofton points out that any discussion of Winfrey should not be one that criticizes her or how she came to be a spiritual icon for the history books but one that examines how it came to be that way. “Why do we all need her so much? What is wrong with us that we so need this little woman in Chicago?”
Jim Twitchell, a professor at the University of Florida who has written several books about branding and describes himself as a cultural anthropologist, says Oprah reverence makes sense.
“Religion essentially is based on high anxiety of what’s going to happen to you.” Winfrey pushes the idea “that you have a life out there, and it’s better than the one you have now and go get it.”
It’s most apparent in the setting of her show, Twitchell says.
“The guest is sitting beside her, but what she’s really doing is exuding this powerful message of ‘You are a sinner, yes, you are, but you can also find salvation.’ What I find intriguing about it is it’s delivered with no religiosity at all, even though it has a powerful Baptist, democratic, enthusiastic tone.
“It has to do with this deep American faith and yearning to be reborn. To start again.”