For 20 years, the one-time Baltimore newsreader has colonized an empire of healing and hope that bridges race, age and class
In 1984, a 30-year-old local news personality left Baltimore’s WJZ-TV to try her hand at hosting a morning talk show in a bigger market, Chicago. Within a year, A.M. Chicago was renamed for its new host, and by 1986 it had begun national syndication.
Today, The Oprah Winfrey Show marks its 20th anniversary, and its star is one of the most powerful women in the world, a 51-year-old media mogul and billionaire whose influence reaches into nearly every nook and cranny of contemporary life.
The small corner of the cultural landscape Oprah Winfrey staked out 20 years ago has grown into an ever-expanding empire. Call it Oprah Nation, an alternative America with a healing vision for all, presided over by Winfrey, whose appeal crosses the divide between young and old, black and white, rich and poor.
In Oprah Nation, there are departments of Recovery, Self-Discovery and Compassion. Its citizens are the viewers, readers, believers and secret sharers for whom the phrase, “I saw it on Oprah” is gospel, whether the subject is Hurricane Katrina or a diaper rash remedy.
Here, absent fathers, a recipe for sticky toffee pudding and advice on fitting bras are all of a piece. There is no conflict between wearing couture and decrying Rwandan genocide. In Oprah Nation, everyone has known suffering, and everyone knows that Winfrey, a victim of childhood abuse herself, has walked in their shoes. They also know that her own Manolo Blahniks are fabulous.
As the show reaches a milestone, (4 p.m., WBAL Channel 11), Winfrey is a walking, talking brand unto herself, with the clout to bend industries to her will, to partner with government agencies for the sake of children, to dictate the shopping choices of millions.
There is no historical precedent for the role played by Winfrey, who declined to be interviewed for this article. As a full-service celebrity, she has defined emotional and cultural touchstones for millions in the United States and around the globe.
Her power, says Caroline Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University who studies the elixir of personal warmth and strength that composes charisma, lies in a carefully crafted image that inspires trust.
“The way in which we present ourselves can be so ingrained in us that it becomes us,” says Keating, who once appeared on Oprah as an expert on lying. “When you ask, ‘How did she arrive where she did?’ it may well be that her image became her and she became her image.”
Suffering as strength
Winfrey’s season debut comes on the heels of her recent broadcast from New Orleans, where she delivered unflinching accounts of stacked-up bodies, filth and fear in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. “The power of being Oprah gained her access to the Superdome,” Michael Abernethy wrote on PopMatters.com.
That power, says sociologist Eva Illouz, stems from Winfrey’s grasp of what it means to suffer. “I think Oprah has had extraordinary success because she has a provided a platform for discussing and exploring ordinary forms of suffering that, normally in contemporary culture, are hidden from view,” says Illouz, author of the book Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery.
As the nuclear family crumbled in the 1980s, along came Winfrey, a black woman who knew a thing or two about broken families and who also had the moral authority to address suffering, “a central question that haunts Judaism and Christianity,” says Illouz, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Winfrey took that question out of the psychologist’s consulting room and into America’s living rooms, where she offered a solution, Illouz says.
“Her response is therapeutic: You suffer so you can improve yourself,” she says. Oprah’s guiding principles remain at work on screen, in her magazine and throughout the sprawling community spawned by her Web site’s message boards, Illouz says.
Winfrey’s spiritual role is clear, says sociologist BJ Gallagher. “Whatever your burden – whether it be incest, abuse, obesity, alcoholic families, loneliness, abandonment, etc., she is there to minister to you through inspiring stories of hope and healing,” says the author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Other Women.
“She is black, female and overweight,” Gallagher says. “She has been a victim of rape and incest. She has suffered discrimination and prejudice. She is unmarried and childless. Her wounds are there for all to see. And it is through those very wounds that she is most appealing to us.”
Ethel Diamond, a New Jersey-based author, has examined the Winfrey phenomenon through another prism: philosophy. Her book, Aristotle Would Have Liked Oprah, explores relationships between pop-culture icons such as Winfrey and philosophers.
“Aristotle’s main message was the life well-lived – that life should be rounded, well thought-out, that you don’t just wake up in the morning and think, ‘So it turned out this way,'” Diamond says. “That was Aristotle’s message, and that’s Oprah’s message every day.”
Had Winfrey’s Chicago shows not metamorphosed into examinations of personal anguish, “I’m sure she never would have become the empire she has become,” Illouz says.
That empire is breathtaking in scope. The Oprah Winfrey Show is viewed weekly by an estimated 30 million Americans and is broadcast internationally in 117 countries. Winfrey’s holdings include the Harpo Entertainment Group with television and film divisions; and O, The Oprah Magazine, which has grown to a circulation of 2.6 million. Oxygen, the women’s cable network Winfrey co-founded in 1998, is also thriving.
Her influence is felt far beyond her own enterprises. When Anita Shreve’s novel The Pilot’s Wife was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1999, it was soon catapulted to the top of best-seller lists, just as books by Wally Lamb, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Ernest J. Gaines, Andre Dubus III and others tapped by Winfrey had.
Her decision in 2003 to feature classics instead of popular fiction dismayed untold authors. A letter written in the spring and signed by writers including Mary Gordon, Jane Smiley and Amy Tan fruitlessly begged Winfrey to return to the old format as a way to stanch the decline in new fiction sales.
Together, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and Oprah’s Angel Network have contributed millions of dollars of her own money and audience donations to causes such as Hurricane Katrina relief, making her one of the world’s most visible philanthropists.
Such actions can move ardent fans to extremes. Rocky Twyman of Rockville, who runs a small public relations firm, heard her speak at a charity dinner last May and felt called to honor her.
“She talked about how this was a mission God had given her, to use television to help the downtrodden,” Twyman, 56, says. So he founded the Oprah Winfrey for Nobel Peace Prize Fan Club.
At WJZ, Winfrey arrived in the mid-1970s, a young, serious newsreader who, on the air, betrayed no sign of her future magnetism.
When Richard Sher co-anchored People Are Talking with Winfrey from 1978 until 1983, they became close friends. She would jog from her Cross Keys home to his Mount Washington residence, where the Shers kept an “Oprah drawer” filled with snacks, Sher says.
To Sher, Winfrey’s ambition was apparent even then. “She told me early on that she wanted to become the first African-American female co-host of Good Morning America,” he says.
It took a while for Winfrey to develop a more engaging television persona. Sher, who has returned to reporting on WJZ, remembers how Winfrey would respond on air to heartbreaking stories. “I’d be thinking about where the interview should go; she would be thinking about what she could do to sympathize [with a guest], to hug them and embrace the person and their problems.”
In Baltimore, Sher says, Winfrey learned to laugh. “She was very serious. … I helped give her a sense of humor and a wit, which she certainly has grown into wonderfully.”
Not everyone, of course, is in thrall of Winfrey.
Johns Hopkins University sociologist Katrina Bell McDonald is one. Her book, Embracing Oprah: The Contemporary Challenges of Black Sisterhood, will be published next year.
“What I feel strongly about personally, and a number of African-American women often feel,” says McDonald, “is that in spite of her amazing success and how proud we are of her, we have not seen ourselves in her work.”
Winfrey has highlighted African-American female legends, such as Maya Angelou, “But we don’t often see the everyday African-American woman” represented on her program, McDonald says.
Winfrey’s long shadow hangs over Stephanie Pedersen and other nonfiction writers, says the author of Shoes: What Every Woman Should Know, due out next month.
“Our agents and our publicity people are trying to get us on Oprah,” Pedersen says. “A lot of us have been asked to write our next books in certain ways to increase our chances of being asked to come on Oprah’s show.”
The “cult of Oprah” – particularly among women – is frightening because of its sway over consumer decisions, says Brooklyn-based Rachel Weingarten, author of the forthcoming book, Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America, ’40s-’60s. “”Many women have stopped thinking for themselves,” she says. “It’s easy to let Oprah do it for them.”
Yet, Weingarten admits, she admires Winfrey’s genius. Her image succeeds because it is not perfect, she says. “She put a dreamlike quality into ordinary women’s lives without making them hate her.
“America loves the fact that her weight went up and down,” Weingarten says. “And we can forgive the fact that she’s in her 50s now and thin and gorgeous. They think, ‘OK, yeah, she worked hard for it.’ “
Winfrey by the numbers
19: Winfrey’s age when she became the youngest person and first African-American woman to anchor the news in Nashville, Tenn.
22: Age she became a newscaster at WJZ-TV in Baltimore in 1976.
$275 million: Estimated annual revenue generated by Winfrey’s businesses.
30 million: Average number of Americans who view her show each week.
$30 million-plus: Amount Oprah’s Angel Network has raised for nonprofit groups since 1998.
19: Number of years the Oprah Winfrey Show has been the top TV talk show.
12,000-15,000: Number of e-mails Oprah.com receives weekly.
55 million-plus: Number of U.S. homes in which Winfrey’s Oxygen cable network for women is available.
1 of 100: Ranking of Winfrey by Time magazine among most influential people of the 20th century.