In Amarillo, the only folks with a beef against Oprah Winfrey are the cattlemen who are suing her.

DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS

January 29, 1998|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AMARILLO, Texas -- Next on Oprah! Hear what happens when a small cow town falls madly in love with a TV and movie star from the big city. Is this just a Texas fling?

When talk-show diva Oprah Winfrey made a bunch of Texas cattlemen mad, they sued, figuring that would teach her. The court case between them is still going on, but this city has always known how it feels about the celebrated defendant.

"We love you, Oprah!" the knot of fans leaning against the fence outside the courthouse shrieks over and over.

Now, as the cattlemen trudge bravely into court each day -- where they are suing Winfrey for $12 million for allegedly damaging the beef industry with a discussion about mad cow disease -- they hear their fellow Amarilloans calling out support. For Oprah.

"It's been a fun diversion," says Mayor Kel Seliger, who explains that there's no contradiction here: Amarillo can love both the beef industry and Oprah at the same time. "There's no fight going on anywhere but in the courtroom."

The cattlemen may not have expected this. But while they were talking noble talk about protecting their industry, America's favorite daytime talk-show star glided into town -- all glossy hair and radiant smiles and movie-star manners.

Big stars don't often stop in Amarillo, a city of 168,000 up in the Texas Panhandle. So as the trial got under way Jan. 20, residents turned out, shivering on the sidewalk in the early dawn to vie for seats in the courtroom.

The lines outside the courthouse are shorter now that the trial is in its second week. But those waiting for seats still trade the latest Oprah news from around town.

"She travels with her own hairdresser," Keith Grays, who is in real estate, confides. "My wife is so jealous. And everyone wants to know about her diet. Look at how healthy she is. I mean, look at her complexion -- honey-cinnamon."

"You know, she gets up at 5 a.m.," a woman in line adds. "She's already run five miles by the time she gets to court."

"So classy," sighs Claudell Schlegel, as Winfrey, dressed in black and wearing dark glasses, walks out the rear of the courthouse at the noon break. She rolls down the window of her black Chevy Suburban, smiles and waves.

Winfrey began working her way into Amarillo's heart when she announced she was moving her nationally syndicated show from its Chicago base to Amarillo for the duration of the trial. When she aired a toll-free number for people who wanted tickets to her Texas tapings, the city's phone system collapsed under the weight of the calls.

The Amarillo Daily News is running a daily "Eye on Oprah" feature, but scoops are everywhere. A member of Oprah's staff, a woman in the courthouse line reports, shopped at the Casual Gourmet. Oprah herself may be working out at the Downtown Athletic Club. Look over there, another woman outside the courthouse says. That's Oprah's female bodyguard.

That doesn't mean Amarilloans don't debate the details of the court case: Did Oprah cause beef prices to crash when she broadcast a program in which a guest discussed the possibility of mad cow disease spreading through American herds ?

"These cattle people," says Joe Reyes, who's lived in Amarillo most of his life. "She didn't mean any harm. She said what she thought.

"The cattlemen thought they had something. They took it and they ran with it. But you know what? They ran into a brick wall. Everyone thinks she's wonderful."

Even people who have no interest in standing in line to see her think it's fun to have a celebrity around. Who would have predicted that Amarillo -- located on old Route 66, halfway between Dallas and Denver, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque -- would be having such a good time with a defamation suit?

Outside the courthouse each day, in direct range of the TV cameras, stands a protester in a black-and-white polyester cow suit, complete with a head bedecked with horns. He represents PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

This week, the protester in the suit is Stewart David, a semi-retired certified public accountant who has taken a week off and traveled from Asheville, N.C., to take a stand against eating meat.

He removes the cow head for interviews.

"The cattle industry is really desperate here," says David, a soft-spoken man with a trim gray beard. "We see this as an opportunity to support free speech. People who speak the truth about the meat industry should not be on trial. Eating meat is bad for animals, bad for your health and bad for the environment."

And how are the people of Amarillo, proud of their beef business, treating the man in the cow suit?

"They're nice as they can be," David reports.

The arrival of so many reporters is suddenly bringing the city national attention. But Nancy Seliger, wife of the mayor, says being in the spotlight is not all good.

She turned on a network news show to find a shot of the worst part of Amarillo and a reporter explaining that there's nothing glamorous about life here.

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