Oprah Nation

For 20 years, the one-time Baltimore newsreader has colonized an empire of healing and hope that bridges race, age and class

September 19, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun reporter

In 1984, a 30-year-old local news personality left Baltimore's WJZ-TV to try her hand at hosting a morning talk show in a bigger market, Chicago. Within a year, A.M. Chicago was renamed for its new host, and by 1986 it had begun national syndication.

Today, The Oprah Winfrey Show marks its 20th anniversary, and its star is one of the most powerful women in the world, a 51-year-old media mogul and billionaire whose influence reaches into nearly every nook and cranny of contemporary life.

The small corner of the cultural landscape Oprah Winfrey staked out 20 years ago has grown into an ever-expanding empire. Call it Oprah Nation, an alternative America with a healing vision for all, presided over by Winfrey, whose appeal crosses the divide between young and old, black and white, rich and poor.

In Oprah Nation, there are departments of Recovery, Self-Discovery and Compassion. Its citizens are the viewers, readers, believers and secret sharers for whom the phrase, "I saw it on Oprah" is gospel, whether the subject is Hurricane Katrina or a diaper rash remedy.

Here, absent fathers, a recipe for sticky toffee pudding and advice on fitting bras are all of a piece. There is no conflict between wearing couture and decrying Rwandan genocide. In Oprah Nation, everyone has known suffering, and everyone knows that Winfrey, a victim of childhood abuse herself, has walked in their shoes. They also know that her own Manolo Blahniks are fabulous.

As the show reaches a milestone, (4 p.m., WBAL Channel 11), Winfrey is a walking, talking brand unto herself, with the clout to bend industries to her will, to partner with government agencies for the sake of children, to dictate the shopping choices of millions.

There is no historical precedent for the role played by Winfrey, who declined to be interviewed for this article. As a full-service celebrity, she has defined emotional and cultural touchstones for millions in the United States and around the globe.

Her power, says Caroline Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University who studies the elixir of personal warmth and strength that composes charisma, lies in a carefully crafted image that inspires trust.

"The way in which we present ourselves can be so ingrained in us that it becomes us," says Keating, who once appeared on Oprah as an expert on lying. "When you ask, `How did she arrive where she did?' it may well be that her image became her and she became her image."

Suffering as strength

Winfrey's season debut comes on the heels of her recent broadcast from New Orleans, where she delivered unflinching accounts of stacked-up bodies, filth and fear in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. "The power of being Oprah gained her access to the Superdome," Michael Abernethy wrote on PopMatters.com.

That power, says sociologist Eva Illouz, stems from Winfrey's grasp of what it means to suffer. "I think Oprah has had extraordinary success because she has a provided a platform for discussing and exploring ordinary forms of suffering that, normally in contemporary culture, are hidden from view," says Illouz, author of the book Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery.

As the nuclear family crumbled in the 1980s, along came Winfrey, a black woman who knew a thing or two about broken families and who also had the moral authority to address suffering, "a central question that haunts Judaism and Christianity," says Illouz, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Winfrey took that question out of the psychologist's consulting room and into America's living rooms, where she offered a solution, Illouz says.

"Her response is therapeutic: You suffer so you can improve yourself," she says. Oprah's guiding principles remain at work on screen, in her magazine and throughout the sprawling community spawned by her Web site's message boards, Illouz says.

Winfrey's spiritual role is clear, says sociologist BJ Gallagher. "Whatever your burden - whether it be incest, abuse, obesity, alcoholic families, loneliness, abandonment, etc., she is there to minister to you through inspiring stories of hope and healing," says the author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Other Women.

"She is black, female and overweight," Gallagher says. "She has been a victim of rape and incest. She has suffered discrimination and prejudice. She is unmarried and childless. Her wounds are there for all to see. And it is through those very wounds that she is most appealing to us."

Ethel Diamond, a New Jersey-based author, has examined the Winfrey phenomenon through another prism: philosophy. Her book, Aristotle Would Have Liked Oprah, explores relationships between pop-culture icons such as Winfrey and philosophers.

"Aristotle's main message was the life well-lived - that life should be rounded, well thought-out, that you don't just wake up in the morning and think, `So it turned out this way,'" Diamond says. "That was Aristotle's message, and that's Oprah's message every day."

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