Oprah fans get into the spirit

Her sold-out Tampa show promises to help devotees be the best they can be.
St. Petersburg Times, June 21, 2003
By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic

Ask Chris Giblin why she’s spending nearly $200 of her own money to bring a homeless woman to Oprah Winfrey‘s “Live Your Best Life Tour” stop today in Tampa and she gives a simple answer.

She couldn’t not do it.

“If somebody of (Winfrey’s) stature were to recognize her and say, “Glad you’re here,’ what a boost that could be,” said Giblin, 57, of St. Petersburg, who gave one of her $185 tickets to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic’s shelter for single homeless women.

“People who come to Oprah aren’t coming with a wounded arm or leg, they’re coming with a wounded soul,” she added. “It’s a privilege . . . to take someone who could go and get their life turned totally around.”

Giblin’s gift spoke of a faith in the transformative power of Winfrey’s message – a belief that just seeing the talk show star can lead to the kind of inspiration that changes lives.

Once upon a time, this kind of devotion was reserved mostly for the likes of Mohammed and the Virgin Mary.

But Winfrey – a child of poverty who built a media empire and became America’s first black female billionaire – delivers a message of success through spiritual growth that has inspired near-religious fervor among her fans.

Some fans clamoring for tickets to Winfrey’s long sold-out, eight-hour personal improvement seminar at the Tampa Convention Center seem to be on a pilgrimage of their own – seeking an audience with Oprah in a way that mirrors old-style revival meetings, complete with personal testimony and spiritual healing.

“She gets you to look within yourself . . . to see what you’re really about and connect with your inner self,” said Darlene Greene, 55, a retired sheriff’s officer in Pasco County who spent more than $1,500 buying eight tickets to today’s show, just to make sure all her friends could attend.

“If anything, Oprah enhances (religious beliefs) . . . by talking to women about their inner spirituality,” added Greene, a regular viewer of Winfrey’s show. “She doesn’t go into specific religious aspects, because her audiences are mixed. (But) when you get in touch with your inner spirit, then you find your spiritual self in other ways, too.”

Winfrey’s reputation as a quasi-religious figure grew quickly after 1998, when she focused her syndicated talk show on New Age-y spiritualism and dubbed it “Change Your Life TV.” The host has been called everything from the “new queen of soul” to “America’s inspirer in chief” and an “icon of church-free spirituality.”

Still, it’s a comparison some fans resist. (Giblin, for example, calls the idea of deifying Oprah “almost blasphemous.”) But experts acknowledge that fans often hold a reverence for her message that borders on religious devotion – even if they are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge it.

“That tends to be a characteristic of people of our time. . . . There’s a tendency to veer away from the institutionalized religions of our day because of a lot of corruption and distrust,” said Mozella G. Mitchell, pastor at the Love of Christ AME Zion Tabernacle in Brandon and a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida.

“People want to veer away from those established religions, but they don’t want to veer away from their love of people and spirituality and belief in a God,” she added.

And though some religious leaders have criticized Winfrey’s brand of spiritualism, Mitchell supports her efforts, denouncing those who seem threatened by the host’s popularity.

“She’s a type of guru for people who have this desire, this kind of non-attached spirituality,” she said. “I teach about the common core at the heart of all religions . . . the spiritual hunger (they address). However people make that personal connection, I’m in favor of that.”

Kathryn Lofton, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has written a paper on the religious aspects of Winfrey’s activities, Practicing Oprah.

Lofton found that Winfrey had developed a process – a ritual of behaviors – for helping others achieve personal goals. For example, she urged fans to read, keep personal journals and purchase items as self-indulgent gifts.

But don’t use the word “cult” to describe Winfrey’s following – at least not in front of Lofton.

“When I was teaching this, students started making parallels between her and far more disturbing religious figures . . . (because) there’s this sense that she has a charismatic personality that blinds people,” Lofton said. “But I’m struck by how people don’t necessarily follow her blindly. They accept pieces of what she offers and hammer together a (spiritual identity) they like. Which is something different than what cults do.”

Critics point to Winfrey’s contradictions: She’s a role model for mothers, but doesn’t have children of her own; she’s a seeming workaholic who encourages others to find fulfillment outside of their jobs; she talks constantly about marriage but hasn’t wed longtime companion Stedman Graham.

Elizabeth Coady, a former producer at Harpo (Oprah spelled backward) Productions, lost a legal battle to overturn a lifetime confidentiality agreement barring her from writing a behind-the-scenes book. She said Winfrey is a master manipulator of media whose helpful image is carefully calculated.

“She talks to women who don’t have anyone else talking to them . . . who are dealing with dirty dishes and diapers most of the day,” Coady wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.

“Listening to her talk about living your best life is like listening to a meditation tape: You feel good for a little while afterward, but the day goes on unchanged,” she wrote. “Oprah doesn’t believe what she says. Everything she says is intended to promote herself, not her female fans. She loves that they worship her and she believes they do so rightfully.”

Still, because Winfrey doesn’t hide many of the contradictions in her image, Lofton said, they only wind up feeding her fame. And fans appreciate her woman-centered spiritual message all the more because so much of traditional religion focuses on men, she said.

“Oprah provides a much more pragmatic and immediate answer for women,” Lofton said. “Women come away thinking they’ve made their own lives – not that she’s done it for them.”

Tickets to Tampa’s show, sold only through TicketMaster’s TicketWeb online service, sold out the first day; brokers are now selling them for as much as $550 each (one optimistic seller on eBay is asking $750 for one ticket to her June 28 Philadelphia stop).

When six Tampa Bay area Catherine’s department stores decided to hold a drawing Friday for two tickets – publicizing the contest with full-page ads in the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune – the company was drowned in entries, receiving about 400 per store.

What fans will get today is a daylong seminar filled with lots of inspirational talk from Winfrey herself (according to one press account, she spoke for five hours and changed clothes three times at the Seattle appearance May 31).

Sponsored by Winfrey’s O magazine, the event kicks off at 10 a.m. The price includes a lunch and gift bag for participants (according to a press release from Bern’s Steak House, which is catering Winfrey’s lunch, the star will have sweet pepper wrapped with picholine olives, crispy basil and caper nectar, organic arugula and shaved artichoke and Parmesan salad, among other items).

Because she has scheduled only four appearances this year – including stops in St. Louis, Seattle and Philadelphia – fans fly in from faraway towns to see their idol up close.

Unlike Martha Stewart, whose vision for personal fulfillment is an idealized, upper-middle-class lifestyle, Winfrey exudes a down-to-earth, “I’ve been there” attitude that cuts across class lines. Despite expressing misgivings at times about continuing the show, she recently signed a deal to continue producing The Oprah Winfrey Show through the 2007-08 TV season.

Giblin, who adopted a child from China two years ago, hopes to find encouragement and tips for her role as a new mother.

“Oprah’s the kind of person you see on TV who says, “Go for it. Your age doesn’t matter. The fact that the child is Chinese doesn’t matter,’ ” said Giblin, as her 3-year-old daughter, Julia, talked in the background. “I just know there will be some women there who will have some good advice for me.”

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday June 21, 2003.
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