A growing number of people, mostly young, reject the mega-celebrity’s media empire
A nod from Oprah Winfrey moves best-seller lists. Stocks rise when her name is attached to a company or product. Millions listen when she speaks at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, and millions cheer when she loses 20 pounds.
Forget about her 49 million viewers each week. The real pinnacle of celebrity is attaining single-name status.
But there are Oprah-haters, too: those who speak out against America’s most beloved talk show host. They accuse her of materialism, manipulation, power mongering, arrogance and generally being in love with herself.
As her media empire expands and her billions multiply, anti-Oprah people who resent her wealth and influence are wondering, hasn’t America had enough?
“Oprah Winfrey is not quite one of those people that we love to hate, but there’s a growing membership in the I Hate Oprah Club,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “She was so sanctimonious with the James Frey thing, she lost even some of her loyal followers. I think she skated through this one, but she’s got to be careful.”
Frey’s book “A Million Little Pieces” shot to the top of best-seller lists with an Oprah endorsement, but questions later arose about the truthfulness of his story, which was an account of his years of alcohol and drug abuse and his time in recovery. Oprah brought the author back on the show for a public scolding when it became clear that much of the “memoir” was fiction.
The anti-Oprah sentiment has been stirring, mostly online, for years. Shoppers wishing to show their solidarity can purchase “I Hate Oprah” stickers. Self-proclaimed “anti-Oprah” book clubs and reading lists offering alternatives to her selections proliferate on the Internet. David Letterman spent 16 years cracking jokes at Oprah’s expense until the two talk show hosts finally resolved their feud last December.
“I think of her as the human embodiment of Wal-Mart,” said Kevvy Schlaucher, a 25-year-old engineer from Calgary, Alberta, who used to watch the show with his mother. “The Oprah Empire is everywhere. She makes sure you don’t get out of the system. I think she’s got more influence now than George W. Bush does.”
In addition to the syndicated talk show, the cable after-show, the book club, the diet tips, the lifestyle magazines (with her image on every cover), the self-help online workbooks and Oxygen, the women’s cable network she co-founded, fans can even download audio clips of Oprah reading her favorite inspirational quotes aloud at Oprah.com. XM Satellite Radio recently announced an “Oprah and Friends” channel for September, boosting the company’s stock for a couple of days.
“It’s the cult of Oprah,” Thompson said. “Anyone with that much power, who can make a best-seller overnight, anybody who’s achieved the cultural penetration she’s achieved, you’re naturally going to get resentment. One is going to inevitably produce the other.”
Schlaucher was surprised by the number of fellow Oprah-haters who responded when he posted an online article titled “NOprah” in 2004. He continues to hear from fellow Oprah-haters who agree that, despite her noble charity work, Oprah has an alarming effect on public opinion, particularly among women. Schlaucher refers to her following as a “legion of Oprah clones.”
The Oprah-haters abounding on the Internet are mostly young and of a generation raised not only online, but also on Oprah. For the twentysomethings, Oprah’s been a cultural institution and a public figure since they were small children.
And she has plenty of fans in that age group. “If you don’t like Oprah, there’s got to be something wrong with you,” said Kelly Cook, a 24-year-old from New York City who calls herself an “Oprah fanatic.”
Cook recently bought Oprah’s 20th Anniversary DVD set. “I just cried all the way through it,” she said. “I rarely miss a show and if I do, I tape it,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I read her book club books; I read her magazine; I buy products she endorses on her ‘Favorite Things’ show. She’s like family to me. I view her as a moral and spiritual guider and as a model for the way a woman ought to be in the world.”
Brandon Renken, a Harvard University graduate who wrote an anti-Oprah column for CampusNut.com, takes issue with this view.
“No matter who you are, Oprah is NOT like you,” he said. “The fact that she can convince you that she is should make you even more afraid of her than I am.”
The anti-Oprah contingent feels that Oprah’s preaching from the tele-pulpit is what draws in viewers, show after show.
The last segment of the program, Schlaucher pointed out, tells her audience “how to get soul. It’s like a church following. You don’t really have to do anything, but it makes you feel better.”
Many disdain Oprah for what they consider vapid celebrity chitchat and gossip. “The only difference is that her guests jump on the chairs,” said Schlaucher, referring to the now-infamous Tom Cruise interview, “and on Jerry Springer they throw the chairs.”
Heather Weller, a stay-at-home mom from Worcester, Mass., expressed her views on an Internet message board discussing Oprah’s Book Club. “Does Oprah have some sort of mind-control device we don’t know about?” she asked. “But I have to say anything that gets people to read is a good thing. It would just be nice if it also got them to think.”
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