As fans applaud honesty, others wonder if ratings prompted admission Oprah's Drug Story

January 14, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Is there any indignity that Oprah Winfrey hasn't suffered -- or inflicted on herself?

She's been fat, then thin, then fat again. She's been raped, abused and sent to a juvenile detention center. And yesterday, she tearfully told a national television audience that she once used cocaine.

Her admission left her fans praising the one-time Baltimore anchorwoman and Academy Award nominee for her candor. But critics and some media analysts were less than moved by her confession, which comes at a time when her ratings are dropping and her talk-show dominance is being threatened by such energetic young upstarts as Ricki Lake.

"Clearly, it's a ratings ploy," said Neil Alperstein, a professor of media and popular culture at Loyola College. "If you don't perceive this as show business, then one is really misunderstanding what is going on here."

Ms. Winfrey, one of the richest entertainers in the country, revealed that she had used cocaine while in her 20s and working as a television news anchorwoman. She had just finished listening to one of her guests, a woman addicted to crack cocaine, praise the talk show host for being so honest and straightforward. The guest, Charmane Brown, had written to Ms. Winfrey asking for help in kicking her drug habit.

"This is probably one of the hardest things I've ever said," said Ms. Winfrey, who spent most of her 20s working for WJZ (Channel 13) in Baltimore. "I have done this drug. I know exactly what you're talking about."

Ms. Winfrey, who has made personal revelations an important part of her image, said she used cocaine to please a man she was seeing at the time. When he left her life, she said, so did the drugs.

"That is my life's great big secret, that has always been held over my head," a teary-eyed Ms. Winfrey told her studio audience during a show taped Wednesday in Chicago.

Ms. Winfrey, who worked at WJZ from 1975 to 1983, was unavailable for comment yesterday. Officials at her Chicago offices said she believed the show spoke for itself.

While he didn't question Ms. Winfrey's sincerity, Dr. Alperstein found her timing curious.

"Why didn't she tell us this 10 years ago? Or five years ago?" Dr. Alperstein asked. "She has certainly done other shows that have dealt with drug abuse in the past."

The answer, he says, is ratings. Between October 1993 and October 1994, Ms. Winfrey's national ratings fell 10 to 12 percent. During the same period, Ricki Lake's ratings jumped by 126 percent, making her the second most-watched talk show host in the country.

But Vicki Abt, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University, said yesterday's admission was Oprah being Oprah.

"I think she's convinced herself that what she's doing is OK because it's helping people," said Dr. Abt, who has criticized her show and others for trivializing complex social problems.

It certainly helped Ms. Winfrey, whose story made headlines throughout the country. WMAR (Channel 2), which carries Ms. Winfrey's show in Baltimore, made her drug use the off-lead story on its 5 p.m. broadcast, running it immediately after a report on Ellen Sauerbrey's unsuccessful attempt to be named governor of Maryland by the courts.

"She's an unpredictable person," Joe Lewin, WMAR's general manager, said of Ms. Winfrey and her latest revelation. "It was a surprise. I don't think anybody expected it."

Mr. Lewin said his station received 45 phone calls concerning Ms. Winfrey's admission. Half praised her for being honest, while half condemned her for using drugs in the first place.

Not all audiences were so supportive. Yesterday morning, callers to Alan Prell's radio show on WBAL almost universally panned Ms. Winfrey. Out of about 30 callers, only two praised her. Most everyone else, he said, thought Ms. Winfrey was using the opportunity to bolster her ratings.

"I was fairly surprised, I thought there would be a lot of defense of her," Mr. Prell said. "I was surprised by the overwhelming number of people who basically agree with me. I just get sick and tired of high-profile entertainers and professional athletes placing themselves upon a pedestal because they took drugs and got off of them."

Many listeners, he said, feared Ms. Winfrey was sending a message: that you can use drugs, stop, and still become rich and successful.

"If only it were so easy," Mr. Prell said.

Michael M. Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, said Ms. Winfrey's admission was a uniquely '90s phenomenon. Many men and women who grew up in the 1960s and used drugs are now faced with the problem of warning their children to stay drug-free.

"The big question comes up: How do I tell my kids about my drug use . . . in the '60s?" Mr. Gimbel said. "They used drugs, but they didn't turn out to be murderers, they didn't turn out to be drug addicts. They're confused about how to tell their children about what they did."

Ms. Winfrey, he said, revealed her drug use in a way that could do some good.

"Oprah being who she is, I think it will help. With the power that she has, I would imagine, knowing her audience, that she will get 1,000 let

ters from crack addicts and drug addicts saying, 'Oprah, I need help.' My hope is that if she gets those letters, she will be able to get those people help."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.