Monday, 20 June 2011

O is for Oprah!

A friend of mine called last week to tell me she was just sat next to Oprah in a hotel restaurant somewhere in the English countryside. As you can imagine we both screamed down the phone as a million and one questions rolled off my what did you say to her? what was she wearing? who was she with? what did she eat? Unfortunately given the casual manner with which Ms Winfrey and her equally high profile friends sat at a table opposite my friend, there was little she could do or say. This was not a 'can I have your autograph' moment because the assumption was that anyone who could afford to stay in this hotel should be accustomed to seeing Superstars of Ms Winfrey's stature. So my friend decided to play along although she admitted to not being able to eat a morcel of food the entire time she was sat just a few yards from one of the richest and most powerful women on the planet.

Although I haven't been a huge fan of Oprah's show since she started dedicating entire episodes to 'comb-overs' and other equally banal topics, when she announced her final season, I felt a little pang of sadness. The first thing that came to mind was the realisation that I would never get to attend a live recording of one of her shows, nor be in an audience that receives a brand new car, or be told by the lady herself 'you're coming to Australia!' I thought back to the books she's recommended and that I've read, from The Poisonwood Bible which I loved loved loved to Life of Pi which baffled me and Say you're one of them which I loathed. I couldn't help but feel like this was the end of an era. As authors like Anita Shreve (remember The Pilot's Wife) know only too well, a mere mention of a book or film by Oprah sends it soaring to the top of a bestseller or box office list. Everything she touches seems to turn to gold. There were even reports that her endorsement of President Obama won him over million votes; I'm sure he's hoping she can work her magic again in 2012.

Over the years, Oprah developed a winning formula of being 'one of us' - whatever problems we had experienced, she'd experienced similar or worse, she would bare her soul, showing us the real Oprah, warts and all. Oftentimes we got to forget our own issues and thought to ourselves 'if Oprah can make it, so can I'. From wheeling the equivalent of the body fat she had lost for an entire audience to gawk at, no doubt in disgust, to revealing herself make-up free  - uneven skin tone, blotches and all. How can anyone not relate to someone so brutally honest about her numerous flaws? Oprah has cried more times than we care to remember and the majority of us loved her for it; with each painful revelation, she gained more and more adoring fans.

Oprah is one of those people I admire for what they've achieved and for how much they give back but do not necessarily understand or agree with the methods they employ. Coming from a culture where we are taught not to air our dirty laundry in public, I'm perhaps more reluctant than most to bare my soul even to people I know let alone complete strangers but then again I realise I am not a public figure known by a single name.  I also find her approach a little vain at times; since Oprah started her magazine O, in 2004, she has graced every single cover. I can't help but find that a little strange at the very least and perhaps it's the American in her that is completely at ease with celebrating her own success month after month for 7 years and counting and I readily admit it may be the British in me that is uneasy with excessive self-praise. I also recognise that her motivation for doing this may be simply because she is the inspiration and the aspiration that her audience need to see; perhaps Oprah reminds them every day of what is possible.

It is impossible to dispute that Oprah is a phenomenon. She is the original rags to riches poster girl; she came from nothing to achieve so much and constantly gives back to communities all over the world. As easy as it would be to hate her for being so obscenely wealthy, we can't help but love her because every so often she's shared that wealth with us. I love the fact that she has managed to reach so many people - especially the often overlooked hard working middle class American who may have a job that covers the bills, if only just, yet is grateful for small miracles like a tax rebate or big ones like Oprah paying their mortgage for a year. You get the impression that beyond the publicity, she really wants to impart something to her fans, and for the most part it's something intangible, it's less about the free gifts and more about the life lessons.

Another close friend and fan recently told me about Oprah's Masterclass series which runs on her newly launched television network OWN  and features people like Maya Angelou, Diane Sawyer, Simon Cowell, Sidney Poitier, and Jay Z talking about their lives and what brought them to where they are - how they acheived 'greatness' if you will. In the pilot, Maya Angelou says "When you get, Give, when you learn, Teach" and this seems to sum up what Oprah has always strived to achieve. She is fully cognisant of how blessed she is and how important it is for her to give back, be it her wealth (in 2009 she donated $40 million to worthwhile causes all over the world), or her influence (she continues to support artists, products and causes that she believes in) or her belief in the Greater Good. She is clearly one of a kind and I'm certain if there were more billionaires with hearts as big as Oprah's, the world would be a much easier place to live in.

Watch the Masterclass episodes on Youtube or here


Anonymous said...

Great article. Oprah has always been, and always will be, one of the most human inspirational human beings... I was going to say "women," but as even Obama learned she's more than her color, her gender, and her nationality. This woman embodies love, and gives it in the form of all types of support... I happily have bought and saved O magazine for years, and her smiling face on each cover, and the rich content within, gives me pleasure.

Ms Afropolitan said...

I enjoyed this discussion on Oprah's contributions. I also went through having different opinions about Oprah eventually coming to the conclusion that I sincerely admire her. She is a charismatic and good hearted leader and indeed the world would be better if more billionaires were similar. I think of her being on the covers of O mag not as a vanity thing but a way for her to show that she is not just the name behind the mag but that she stands for its content. I just thought of how the Dalai Lama for example graces the covers of his works. Maybe not the best example but in a similar vein.