If Oprah Winfrey were a top government official–and a fair bit of America probably wishes she were–she would be Alan Greenspan. When Greenspan speaks, he roils financial markets. When Oprah speaks, she roils–well, everything else. Consider the trial she is now enduring in Amarillo, Texas: Cattlemen claim that, upon learning the dangers of mad-cow disease, Oprah uttered a single on-air sentence–“It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!”–that punctured America’s irrational exuberance for beef. Beef prices reeled, and cattlemen lost millions of dollars. (Oprah’s lawyers claim that the beef swoon was the product of droughts and high feed prices.)
Perhaps book publishers should foot her legal bills in the beef trial: Each time Oprah selects a new novel for “Oprah’s Book Club,” a publisher blesses her name. A word from Oprah, and a novel sells 1 million copies rather than 100,000. On Jan. 16, Oprah picked Toni Morrison’s Paradise for the club. The novel shot to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, just as several club selections before it had. Three previous picks remain on the paperback-best-seller list. When Oprah went fitness crazy, books by her chef and her personal trainer became nationwide hits. Marketing experts now routinely refer to the “Oprah Effect.”
The effect is felt not only by blessed merchandise but also by the star herself. Oprah has owned the No. 1 talk show in the country for more than 10 years. Her movie debut in The Color Purple netted her an Oscar nomination. She’s the highest-paid entertainer in the world, worth well over $400 million. And she’s thinner than you.
But of course, she is a daytime-talk-show host, and it’s conventional wisdom that daytime talk shows are deplorable. The shows parade freaks in front of the viewing public. Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer have hiked their ratings by showcasing increasingly repulsive molesters, abusers, adulterers, and pederasts, all of them eager to tell the world about their loathsomeness. Talk shows are the zenith of America’s nauseating confessional culture.
Among those righteous folk who don’t watch the shows, Oprah is lumped with the garbage. But she doesn’t belong. Two years ago, Oprah stopped booking freak guests. It was a huge ratings risk, but her audience stuck with her. Springer has resorted to hawking Too Hot for TV videotapes featuring awkward nudity and grim violence–Oprah, sans freaks, continues to win handily in the ratings.
Oprah is Oprah and, according to critics, this is the problem. She is indeed the leading practitioner of confessional television. When she lost weight, she rolled a representative wagon of pig fat onstage. She routinely breaks down in tears, and she never hesitates to let us know when things go wrong with Stedman, her longtime beau.
So what redeems Oprah? How does her confessional television differ from Phil Donahue’s and Springer’s? Oprah is the confessor, that’s how. The Donahues and Springers of the world remain aloof, above and separate from guests. Their guests confess, the hosts oppress, and the audience laughs its head off. The host and audience are judge and jury for the miserable, benighted guests. It’s the zoo theory of television: Let’s make fun of these stupid animals.
But Oprah doesn’t condescend to guests. She couldn’t possibly: When her show featured victims of sexual abuse, Oprah revealed that she’d been abused, too. When she talked to cocaine addicts, she admitted to having tried the drug herself. Imagine Donahue revealing his drug habit or his scarred emotions (“Is the caller there? We’re talking about my junkie days”). Oprah is one of the very few celebrities who owes her fame not to her superhuman qualities (beauty, athletic ability, etc.) but to her human frailties. Oprah has said, “One of my greatest assets is knowing I’m no different from the viewer.” For female fans, Oprah is a girlfriend.
O prah is also one of the very few celebrities who hasn’t forgotten where she came from. She identifies with underdogs because she was the underest-dog of them all. She came from less than nowhere: In 1954, she was born illegitimate, poor, female, and black in Jim Crow Mississippi. Several male family members sexually abused her. Overcoming these obstacles has lent her street cred with guests and fans. They make her success always astonishing and rarely begrudged.
Oprah lends her fame and fortune to the right causes. She mentors girls from the Chicago projects and endows scholarships to Morehouse College and Tennessee State University. Some black female celebs (Dionne Warwick) shill for phone-psychic scams that exploit poor black women. Oprah? She started a book club. (Her taste, incidentally, has been impeccable: No John Grisham or John Gray; lots of interesting, underpublicized novels. Alfred Kazin jowled that Oprah’s club represents the “carpet bombing of the American mind,” but even a stuffed shirt like Kazin can’t complain when 15 million TV watchers are urged to read Toni Morrison and do.)
Despite the ban on cameras in the courtroom, Oprah’s beef trial is starting to resemble an episode on her show. Last week, a witness collapsed in tears while apologizing to the ranchers. My hunch is that Oprah will win over even the cattlemen, eventually. During the trial, Oprah is recording her show in Amarillo, a town supposedly devastated by her beef-bashing. Locals have been lining up for tickets.