Why did Oprah matter? Will she ever again, on her OWN?

Unlike so many trumped-up celebrations of famous people, the three-day farewell to Oprah Winfrey taking place — where else? — on The Oprah Winfrey Show can scarcely be dismissed as self-congratulation or hype.

Well, it can be: You don’t throw yourself a “surprise” party, park yourself next to Tom Cruise in the audience to listen to Tom Hanks tell you you changed the course of literacy in America, and watch Beyonce shake her booty while singing, “Oprah, your persuasion/Can build a nation” without succumbing to a wee bit of hype. Winfrey may give off a queenly air much of the time, but she’s as susceptible as any of us regular folks to flattery by compliment or world-class rump-shaking.

Nonetheless, Winfrey has accomplished a helluva lot more than most TV personalities over the quarter century of her talk show.

On Monday’s Oprah salute, Hanks ventured the figure 30 million as the number of books “Oprah’s Book Club” has sold, and even if you take into account the fact that some of those volumes were written by Maya Angelou, that’s still an awful lot of literature that would not otherwise have been consumed by mass America.

Winfrey has encouraged more different sorts of people to feel better about themselves — to solve their problems in ways both practical and spiritual, with greater, demonstrable effectiveness — than any TV personality in the history of the medium this side of Ed Sullivan, and Sullivan did it on the backs of Elvis and the Beatles, not on the strength of his own personality.

When Winfrey started out of Chicago 25 years ago, her seemingly insurmountable competition was Phil Donahue, the silver-white-haired white man who was the class act of daytime television, his syndicated show a mixture of hot topics and serious social-issue discussions. Winfrey might have gone — did go, for a while — the tabloid/cheeseball route as a way of differentiating herself from Donahue. (Sample early show title: “How to Marry the Man/Woman of Your Choice.”)

But then she realized what others knew about her: that she was innately different, distinctive, original. She didn’t have to use Donahue or any other talk-show host as her model, or rebel against those models. All she had to do was understand herself (that is, figure out what it was she wanted from life and trust that those desires were also what millions of other Americans wanted, too) and then be herself. And being herself on camera is one of the greatest talents Winfrey possesses; she’s right up near the top of naturals when the red light goes on; Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite were her equals, not her superiors.

There had never been anyone on TV like Winfrey before: a woman whose body shape didn’t conform to conventional notions of TV-personality attractiveness. A black woman whose interests, ideas, and curiosity cut across racial lines to appeal to the widest possible range of demographics. A star who pulled off a contradiction that is always at the heart of American stardom: being wealthy, powerful, and willful while coming through the TV screen as frequently humbled and always in touch with ordinary citizens’ lives and needs.

She used her show to express unabashed empathy. (Has any great TV performer shed more spontaneous tears than Oprah?) She used her show to enlighten viewers about American history. (In 1996, her reunion of seven of the Little Rock Nine, black students who had helped desegregate a high school in 1957, was shattering television.) She gave instruction on everything from diet to personal finance.

She used her intense interest in high culture to¬†introduce or shame or charm those viewers, for whom non-pop culture was ignored, into its precincts. Some have rightly twitted her for her excessive awe and her instinct to bend every work of literature or art into therapy — a series of teachable moments — rather than opportunities to lose oneself in a healthily disturbing or rewardingly confusing immersion in stories and themes that should not be reduced to mere life-lessons.

Certainly, she could go over-the-top with her influence and her largesse. Unleashing Dr. Phil upon the world was initially an act designed to share common-sense wisdom she admired only to have the disciple become a king boor. (And don’t even get me started on Deepak Chopra [New Age alt-medicine guru] and Suze Orman [the Bride of Frankenfinance].) Winfrey’s giveaway stunts (“Everybody gets a car!”) were crass but never craven, and so gleefully executed, how can you hold them against her?

I don’t think Winfrey is either a saint or a model of transparency. You’re deluded if you actually think her OWN series Oprah: Behind the Scenes isn’t edited within an inch of its life, and filled with employees who know what to say and what not to say about the boss on camera. But let’s face it: Whose boss is a model of transparency?

Speaking of OWN, it’s Winfrey’s next act in life, as she might phrase it, and, typically, a risk. By removing herself from syndicated TV, she’s jettisoning her role as Mighty Culture-Maker. She’ll now be, unless or until she decides to return to broadcasting, a niche cult leader for goodness. Which is the next evolution of Oprah: She’s right-sizing herself at a time when she feels she needs it. Rarely has self-absorption had such an effect on TV, and come across as so benign — even, impossibly, self-sacrificing. Who among us does not wish her well?

In the early days of EW, I went on her show once as a guest. During a commercial break, she squeezed my arm, smiled, and said, “Honey, you gotta just loosen up!” To Oprah I now say: Honey, let The Oprah Winfrey Show go, and feel free to loosen up to your heart’s content.

Twitter: @kentucker

Comments (183 total) Add your comment
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  • Me

    Love her. She will be missed.

    • ghostlight

      Now that she’s off TV, she’ll have lots more time to for lady-loving the night away with Gayle King….

      Poor Michael Stedman. Your lonely life must continue…

      • kc

        It might pay to be the beard.

      • Judy

        Are you so spineless, that you truly just don’t get it! If she was gay, she would proudly admit. Get over yourself and come out of the closet already.

      • VW

        Umm, I believe that “Michael Stedman” was a character on the 80′s show “Thirtysomething”. Steadman Graham is Oprah’s fiance.

    • ghostlight

      Judy, do you want ME to come out of the closet, or Oprah? I wasn’t the one who burst into hysterical tears and became suspiciously emotional when interviewed about my “close friendship with Gayle”. That was Oprah. The lesbian.

      • J

        Wow. You must be a man.

      • Jen

        Seriously. Has to be a man. A woman would understand what it’s like to have that kind of friendship.

      • bootsycolumbia

        He’s definitely a man, or more likely, a 12 year old boy.

    • Beauty

      I LOVE OPRAH! Wish her all the best!

    • ghostlight

      @VW. Hey, you’re right. Thanks! STEADMAN GRAHAM is the man currently serving as Oprah’s beard.

    • Truth

      Al Bundy is partying and strumming an air guitar at the Jiggly Room.

    • To all Oprah Haters

      You trifling hating people. Steadman Graham is as much of a beard to Oprah as Kurt Russell is to Goldie Hawn and Brad Pitt is to Angelina Jolie. WTF?!!!

      My best friend & I have a relationship as close as Oprah and Gale. We have known each other for over 20 years. We’ve gone thru everything together. She’s been married twice. With her second husband, she just had her first child. She’s happy and doing well.

      I’m single and loving it and never want to be married. When we go back to college events, people see that we are just as close as we were 20 years ago.

      We’ve done the same crazy things Gale and Oprah have done. Travelled, partied, even coached and judged competitions together. Frick and frack! There’s nothing a women can do to make me EVER be sexually attracked to them. I love men too much.

      Oprah and Stedman have been together for probably 20 years. He was just on the Gale King show this morning and they were talking about his and Oprah’s relationships.

      Why is it that if two men are friends for years they’re not gay and if women are long time friends they have to be lesbians? It’s mysoginitic at best!

      As for this trash article about Oprah, just sounds like haters jealousy to me. Men can’t stand powerful women. God forbid a powerful African American woman at that and who was loved by all types of people. Cult? You may have Oprah mixed up with the Sarah Palin nuts. Now that’s a cult.

      Cults try to drain and take from you. Oprah only gave and asked us to be giving to others. Now if that’s a bad thing or a cult, I guess sign me up. Because every church I know asks this of it’s perishioners. I guess all religions are cults.

      Boy, I guess there are just some people who are mad they didn’t get a car! LOL!!

      • To all Oprah Haters

        That would be “mysogynistic”. Should have proof read before posting. Whatever, you know what I mean.

      • To all Oprah Haters

        Darn, too fast, here it is correctly because I want the men to clearly understand what I’m saying to them. “Misogynistic”.

  • Strepsi

    Wonderfully written, Ken. You pinpointed the flaws, but overall the goodness and desire to help people (or raise them up) wins out.

    You also missed a great moment — her battle for Freedom of Speech against the Texas cattle producers who tried to publicly punish her for her OPINION that she didn’t want to eat a hamburger! Who would have thought that America’s wealthiest, most powerful woman would barely barely prevail against its corporate fat cats?

  • LA

    I was never part of the cult. I’m glad she’s finally off my television.

    • Steve

      Amen! I Always thought that her influence on America was pointless and overbearing.

    • Tiffany

      :) lol

    • urbangulfguy

      couldn’t agree more

      • kc

        Maybe Phil Donahue can rightfully reclaim the format he originated and that this overrated blimp got rich off of. She should pay him royalties.

      • hobbes242

        @kc: Okay, you don’t like her and you no doubt have your reasons. But why take shots at her weight? Is that what makes a person good or bad?

      • Sand

        Plain and simple.. People don’t have metanl issues because there is a lack of Prozac in their brain..Prescription medications may help with a few symptoms but the problem that they are address are still there. Medications have never been intended to cure but rather generate revenue by the patient being forced to take a medication for life.This also comes at the cost of countless side effects. Sure you may not been feeling the effects of an emotional disorder.. But have you prepared yourself for that kidney transplant your going to need in a few years because of the medication side effects?And guess what? Your going to pay for that too or die..Look for alternatives to prescription medications . Hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies don’t make any money from healthy people.Its not in their best interested to make you well.Greed rules all.. And your foolish to think it don’t rule your health-care professionals too.

    • MI

      Ditto. My first thought when I saw the headline was, “DID she matter?”

    • Olivia

      YOU GET A CAR! YOU GET A CAR! YOU GET A CAR! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH

      • Bobs

        Wham bam thank you, ma’am, my questnios are answered!

    • Amy

      I tried to like Oprah, but in the end, it just didn’t happen. It boggles my mind how people put her on this pedestal that makes her seem god-like.

      • LillyCB

        @Amy: I agree with you on that completely; but I do like her… It is kind of off-putting how these millions of people make her seem like a god or something, it borders on idolatry… I give her credit and props for what she has achieved in such little time, but I don’t put her in a pedestal…

    • Tina

      I’m not a fan of Oprah myself but I have to wonder why you care if she is on YOUR TV or not? Is that the only channel you get? I don’t watch her show and it makes absolutely no difference to me if she is on or not.

    • Dorimifah Solatido

      Absolutely agree. Her sign off was a self-aggrandizing, a$$-kissing festival. This columnist glosses over her tabloid TV years and doesn’t doubt in the slightest Tom Hanks’ literacy BS, which he pulled directly out of his a$$. As for her next venture, she thought she could slap her name on a “Lifetime” network clone & not do anything but reap in the money. She’s going to have to get back into the grind in some way to make that venture work or it’s going into the toilet.

  • well

    Her warmth, humor and intimacy has been on my TV since I was 10 years old. I’m in my mid 30s now. I grew up with her and grew old with her and loved her the whole time. She’s like a mother/sister/best friend/teacher all rolled up in one. Never seen anyone who could connect so well. I wish her well. She’s earned it.

    • nemo

      Sounds like you watched too much TV.

      • @nemo

        and you spend too much time on the internet.

      • Daniel

        She is rich and powerful,and accustomed of being in the mind and lips of Americans, As soon as she feels she is falling out of the spotlight.. She will re-appear like a bad dream.

    • mccliza

      Honey, you’re in your mid thirties. Where the heck did you get the idea that that is OLD? Geez… What does that make the rest of us?

    • terri

      Did you ever watch her show? Yes,she has an ego, but who on t.v. doesn’t? Oprah has done more for people and humanity than you ever will. She got people to read again, and that is monumental. Oprah also helped many to heal from the shame of sexual abuse. As one who has worked with survivors, I cannot tell you how much it meant for clients to hear she was abused herself. That lead to so much healing for so many women AND men. She also put so many people through college. Did you see the number of men from Morehouse College to show up to say thanks for a degree? People are so quick to hate and criticize anonymously, like you. I would love to know what YOU have done to change the lives of others and how much money you give away to charity. I doubt not much. Oprah never claimed to be perfect, but she is worthy of all the fanfare and more. Twenty five years on 25 says a lot…she put on great t.v.

    • Ahmad

      Wow I am surprised at Erin’s nmcmeot above comparing multiple marriages (state sanctioned or not) the commitment of children, and individual(s) supporting the entire group, emotionally, financially, health-wise, the sharing of resources, mutual care-taking of children:yours. mine, ours- etc., with swinging’ which from what I have heard does not encompass or even approach the same kind of scenario at all, let alone assume any kind of family, l;et alone marriage. I mean, there may be other scenarios that while they still are not reflective of the Darger family could be historical , various cultures or biblical that would even be closer than this strange comparison. Even the logic is wrong in comparing whatever swinging’ is with infidelity, which at the very least suggest sneakiness , while with with swinging’ , I have heard that is something any kind of couple(s) enter into together, as one-dimensional as it may be, and certainly does not necessarily imply or contain all the commitments listed above, let alone love, whereas simple infidelity could be anything from a one night stand’ to what is called an affair’ or even something longer-term and more complex- but none of these are comparable to the Darger’s or what could be termed modern-day polygamy’, whatever the configuration happens to be, the assumption is family and committed relationships, the physical side of it probably not being the foci , whereas in swinging, it appears from every TV, article, etc., that appears be the foci, and any kind of family or emotional stuff is kept separate or reserved for the individual couple outside the swinger’ activities.So while the poster Erin certainly has the right to her opinions, I believe I have effectively destroyed the argument/comparison she made. She also makes the assumption that the man is constantly shopping around’ while that may not be the case at all. Just because it is possible doesn’t mean the man is looking to marry, or otherwise, every woman he finds attractive. Intellectually, the argument can also be made as to what is considered infidelity. Some believe it is simply physical, but there are unfortunately many forms of betrayal that can far outstrip something simply physical. Even in the law what is considered fiduciary duty’ , if one explores that, it is far more all-encompassing than that. Without trying to sound like either Andrea Dworkin or Ayn Rand (the latter of who had very complex relationships), the essence of the law of fiduciary duty is that one is not supposed to act or leverage power/advantage against the other, whether it be regarding things financial or children or threats, etc.

  • Other Mel

    “can scarcely be dismissed as self-congratulation or hype.”
    It can be, and I did. Oprah herself came off as rather humble, but the guests themselves seemed rather smug and proud of themselves. (I’m talking to you, Jada Pinkett. And you too, Chenoweth.) I couldn’t get through five minutes before feeling major ill will towards all involved in that fiasco.

    • Pickles

      I agree. I had to leave the room when Jada Pinkett Smith was being so over-dramatic! I also found that ALL of the “surprise” guests were speaking “from their hearts” by reading off a teleprompter. It was waaaaaay too much saccharine for me. I would watch Oprah when her guests were people who I was interested in, not because of her. I think that, yes, she has done some wonderful things but she definitely lets us know of each and every wonderful thing she has done. I do wish her well but I will not miss her.

  • Shiny

    It’s easy to dismiss her with all the giveaways and trips to Oz. But then there were eps like a reunion with a West Virginia town that had driven a young man out of town for being HIV positive, or her reunion last week with former Skinheads who had changed so much in 20 years later they expressed revulsion at their behavior. Oprah showed the ugliness that was going on then, and that led to real change, and see the formerly hateful townspeople apologize to the family of the young man was riveting. The show was a 25 year long case study on America, warts and all.

    • Jen

      Agreed! I wasn’t much into Oprah’s celebrity worship, or the favorite things (the fluffy stuff). I appreciated that she brought to light tough topics such as race, sexual abuse, and addiction, in a way that did not condescend or titillate. I don’t know who will fill that role now. Certainly not Dr. Phil or Tyra!

      • Dorimifah Solatido

        C’mon, Phil Donahue did it first, Geraldo Rivera copied it, too. She was more relatable to women, that’s what pushed her over the top. And she was often criticized as being “too white”, pandering to middle American housewives & hating most rappers. The “Queen Oprah” stance she took on in the last decade was very hard to stomach, even if you liked her. The weight loss roller coaster she finally gave up on was a distraction. Oprah deserves plenty of credit & earned her millions, but this idolization garbage is (hopefully) over & done.

    • terri

      Could not have said it better. That’s the memories I will have of this show. I will never forget Jacqui, the burn victim from Columbia. She came back for the next to last show, and that moved me like nothing else. This girl was burned beyond recognition because of a drunk driver. If that doesn’t remind people of what could happen while driving drunk, nothing will. That show had an impact on me, and also reminded me that beauty truly is skin deep. That’s a lesson that many of you on this panel could benefit from.

  • Lily

    Whereas I wasn’t a regular viewer, it is her daily presence that I will miss. Just knowing she is out there daily shining her dazzling light. Her intelligence, wit, warmth, humor, struggles with her body that every woman I know including myself can relate to, her passion for education, reading, the Arts. She is inimitable and I will miss her very much but I’m glad for her that she can step out of the daily grind. Best of luck to her next chapter which is bound to be exciting!

  • Tom

    The preacher who predicted last Saturday as the end of the world was off by 3 days. Here in Chicago…(where the show airs at 9am)…it’s been raining like doomsday throughout the morning with the sky cracking and gray clouds hovering all about. It downpoured throughout the 1 hour show (is that You crying God-Oprah singled You out…) Is it any surprise that tornadoes are ripping through the Midwest as the show aired? Twice, the local newscast broke into the show bleeping severe tornado alerts throughout southern IL and IN and twice I (surprisingly) snapped at the TV “Shh, Oprah’s talking! How dare you interrupt her on her last day! The twister alert can wait…people are glued to their couches and who rather get rather get catapulted away in a funnel cloud than go hide in the bathtub and miss Oprah’s final hour. This coming from someone who never watches the show!

  • UGH

    Ding dong the witch is dead!

    • CTlady

      Why would you comment so negatively about someone who has financially helped 63,588 with their school expenses. What have you done except complain?

      • UGH

        Nothing but I will be happy for the millions of hard working husbands who will come home to find the household chores done!

      • @UGH

        What kind of reactionary, Beaver-Cleaver-trip-back-to-the-50′s world do you live in?

      • Mainer

        @ugh: you made me laugh…and not in a good way. What a cretin you seem to be! I hope your wife has it better than your comment would indicate.

    • terri

      When is your time up?

  • Tina

    To me she’s a Phenomenal Woman”. No one comes close to doing what she’s done. She’s one I’d love to have dinner with if I ever got the chance. Can’t wait to see OWN flourish once it gets her full attention.

  • jen

    Enough with this woman and her massive ego. Just go away already!

    • @jen

      If anyone should/can have an ego, it would be Oprah, don’t you think? Considering all the good work she has done over the years and the lives she has changed, having an ego is an expected trait. And it’s a trait that isn’t wholly offensive when it comes from someone who has actually earned it.

  • Jefffro

    Of course with all of the attention to the end of the show there have been critics out there who intend to disparage Oprah, I guess just for being as wildly successful as she has been.

    No where in our History of television has there ever been a personality who has reached out to more people. And never has there been one that has done so much for so many.

    Oprah used her platform to shed light into the dark corners of our world. She brought the pain of abuse out into the light where it can finally be addressed and heal.

    She took on far too many causes to mention here and in most cases improved things on what ever topic she highlighted.

    So, those who choose to be hyper critical of Oprah in these final moments….do so out of ignorance and jealousy.

    • jen

      ummm,yea. If she managed to do any of that without patting herself on the back the entire time and using it to canonize herself I might be impressed.

      • panda

        good for you. did u get anything than laothing urself.

      • jen

        panda – I actually do not loathe myself. You, however, might want to invest in an english class.

      • Jefffro

        She neither “patted herself on the back” nor “canonized herself”….she did not need to….she was genuinely appreciated by her millions of fans around the world.

      • jen

        Jefffro – are you serious? She has spent the last 20 years canonizing herself.

      • Jefffro

        Why do you think that? Because she had a show of her own? She took an existing medium and raised the level of discussion to topics that were both informative and entertaining.

        She would be the first to admit that she makes mistakes and is not perfect.

        Why do you think it is so wrong to admire and celebrate the accomplishments of this woman?

      • Reeeeeally

        All you Oprah haters out there… spreading negativity. Doesn’t she deserve to pat herself on the back? After all, I think she has earned it. What have you done in your life? Have you done anything that even comes close to touching as many lives in a postive way as she has? If you have (which I doubt), than you should have the right to share it, and to give yourself as much credit as you believe you deserve. Anyone who disagrees that Oprah is someone who look up to, and someone who has changed lives for the better is obviously someone who just wants to disagree for the sake of disagreeing. And I would bet you hate on a lot of other people also… Quit finding things to be pissed about, when there isn’t anything.

      • Marlene

        Jen. I completely agree with you.

      • terri

        Sound kind of jealous there Jen. So what she had an ego, but she did tremendous work on t.v. I bet if you were asked to be on her show, especially the Favorite Things Show, you’d jump at the chance.

    • ghostlight

      Every single good thing she did, she turned into an opportunity to self-aggrandize herself. Or name drop her famous friends. No piece of information or learning EVER came from Oprah without her telling you that “this info is coming from Oprah, so ya’ll better listen.”

      Her fans and supporters are mostly the ones crying hysterically and wetting themselves as they were given free vacations… those are the people who love Oprah to pieces, and I don’t consider them in any way objective.

      • Jefffro

        She only took and gave credit where credit was due. Her fans do not feel she was ever “self-aggrandizing”….

        She has a moral and ethical code that surpasses almost anyone who has ever been on television at here level before….

      • nah

        Actually Oprah’s only publicized a tiny fraction of the good she’s done. For example I didn’t know she helped over 63,000 people get through school. All I ever heard about was the 300 girls at her school in Africa. Who knows what other good deeds she’s been hiding? And what’s wrong with publicizing your good deeds? She’s earned the right to do so and it inspires millions to do good.

    • Maria

      Hi Tracy,Sorry to hear about your Mother’s plight with Cancer. I renectly lost a cousin named Marilyn who died of lung cancer. Er, to anonymous…she was not a smoker but her Mother and sister are. I will never forget the day my Mother called to tell me the terrible news of her passing. And no exaggeration here, but this once vibrant, fun-loving person died in her bed while watching her beloved horses prancing about just outside her bedroom window. They were a big part of her life and she wanted to see them one last time. We all called her Barbara Streisand because she looked just like her and loved to sing too. We will miss her forever. I feel deeply that she could still be alive today if it weren’t for the years of being subjected to second-hand smoke. Again, anonymous…it’s carcinogens for crying out!I’m fortunate that I never took up the habit. But my youngest sister and brother are habitual smokers and it’s worrisome to know that they will without a doubt should nothing else get them, die of lung cancer. I rarely see them and fortunate that the times I do, they don’t smoke around me. Well, Tracy sorry for the long comment and terrible writing today due to lack of sleep. Anyway, best wishes for your Mother’s health.

  • rosmarie

    do we have to pay for her new channel,or can we see the new show with out paying,we like her show.
    but when you retired thats not good

    • Tom

      This is the EW website not your local cable company. You might want to call them. My guess, you’ll have to pay for at least more than basic (10 – 12) channels. I’m honestly not sure where it is on my cable line up but I suspect it requires digital.

    • Jen

      I have basic cable and OWN isn’t available — it’s way up in the 200s in my area. I wonder, is it actually low-rated compared to other premium cable channels?

  • AnnaR

    Well her show is certainly heads above the crap that passes for t.v. today. All these so-called reality shows – garbage. Oprah is and always will be a leader among women for me. Thank you Oprah for bringing some light into world we live in.

  • panda

    the world is going to end now. She was the best to make fool of ordinary people.

    • LOL

      Oprah never mattered to me. She was never on my radar.

    • Josiane

      yes, it’s a great natural prcudot that is high in anti oxidants and other things. They are a really great way to help augment a solid a exercise and diet program if you are looking to lose weight.They also help combat fatigue and other things. I have been using them for a couple months now and noticed a difference. The best bet from my own opinon is to take advantage of the free trial bottle offer that many of the companies selling acai berries offer that way you can decided if you really like them without having to buy.I got mine from here

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