Oprah Winfrey: The cult of Oprah

Click to follow

Here's a heretical view of Oprah Winfrey. She is, in fact, a remarkably bland television host whose daily output is the pop-culture equivalent of baby food, designed to soothe everyone and offend nobody; a schmaltzy psychobabble queen with nothing much to say to her frequently troubled guests beyond the clichéd obvious; an arbiter of cultural values whose taste in books favours the reassuringly mediocre, not the bold and the new; a one-woman institution who is, at this point, more brand than human being.

None of that is meant to take away from the fact that she is the single most successful talk show host on the planet, the first black woman to make the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, and a person of more immediate public influence than most political or religious leaders. If anything, it is her very middle-of-the-road blandness that has allowed her to become all these things.

Consider a couple of the more recent things that have put her in the limelight. First, the exclusive interview she landed with Madonna this week to talk about the Malawian baby adoption scandal. This was natural Oprah material, which perhaps explains why Madonna came to her in the first place: a tug-of-love mixed up with money, celebrity, an orphanage and Oprah's pet continent, Africa.

As is now her standard approach, Oprah made sure she would enjoy her share of the limelight but did nothing to stand in the way of the PR message her celebrity guest wanted to impart. On the contrary, she cheered her all the way: "I have to say, Madonna, that's a brave thing that you did. This audience, I know applauds you for it." Oprah might be right or wrong to take that stance. Nobody, though, could accuse her of adopting a position of any great depth or journalistic toughness.

It was a similar story a week earlier, when she talked to her fellow Chicagoan, the superstar up-and-coming politician, Barack Obama. The media subsequently reported that Senator Obama had made her a promise: that if he decided he was running for president, he would announce it on her show.

That, though, was not quite how the conversation went. It was Oprah who championed him as a White House aspirant, and Oprah - ever mindful of her own publicity machine - who asked if he would make any declaration directly to her. All he had to do was take the bait. "I don't think I could say no to you," he said, in a response that was more diplomatic than definitive. "Oprah, you're my girl." Smart man: what politician wouldn't want to cosy up to the media icon commanding the single largest female audience in the United States?

The list of Oprah platitudes goes on and on. This is what she had to say about visiting Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel, whose Holocaust memoir Night soared predictably to the top of the bestseller list on her recommendation: "I still cannot even imagine what it was like to go through a concentration camp and come out alive and sane." Hardly the most piercing of insights.

When Maria Shriver, one of her best friends, wanted to help her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, run for governor of California three years ago, she turned to Oprah to help to deflect accusations that the Terminator was a boorish, sexist prig. Not only did Oprah not ask specific questions about reports of groping and marital infidelity, she went out of her way to portray the three of them as old friends yakking it up on the television studio couch. "You have amazing children," she told her guests. And that was about as tough as the interview got.

As time has gone on - The Oprah Winfrey Show is now in its 20th year - Oprah has become noticeably more regal in her pronouncements. She bestows favour, or takes it away. In the case of James Frey, the author who conned Oprah into endorsing a memoir of drug addiction that he had made up, she actually managed to do both. ("I have to say it is difficult for me to talk to you," she said in interview number two, last January, "because I feel really duped.")

Like real-life queens, Oprah can always count on being deferred to. And, like the best sort of royalty, she does make an effort to be generous with her money. Of the $1.5bn she is estimated to be worth, she has given away $250m - covering everything from scholarships to put black Americans through university to Hurricane Katrina relief donations, to education and health funding for Africa. To mark the 20th anniversary of her show, she personally paid for all her employees - more than 1000 people - to go on holiday in Hawaii. She even bought a retirement home for one of her idols, Rosa Parks, the civil rights heroine who refused to sit at the back of the bus in segregation-era Alabama and eventually died last year.

Like Rosa Parks, Oprah has established some historical milestones. Born into poverty in Mississippi in 1954, she came into this world with every conceivable disadvantage - a broken home, an itinerant childhood, sexual abuse at the hands of more than one relative, and on and on. From an early age she developed a passion for performing. But she also realised that education was her passport out of poverty, and studied hard accordingly, winning a scholarship to Tennessee State University.

From there, she began a stellar career in television journalism, becoming the youngest news anchor and first black female news reader at the Nashville station WLAC. From there she moved to Baltimore and, in 1984, to Chicago where she took over as host of a low-rated morning chat show. Within months she had become a sensation, leapfrogging over the then-uncontested king of daytime, Phil Donahue, in the ratings. By 1986, the show had been expanded, moved to a more user-friendly time-slot, and - at the urging of the prominent Chicago film critic and sometime Oprah boyfriend Roger Ebert - syndicated nationally.

Her special talent was to take the sort of subjects anyone might discuss - her first ever show was about marrying the right person - and turning them into compulsively watchable television, complete with personal narratives, confessions, indiscretions and home-spun philosophy about the need for women to be strong and know what they want.

Oprah's talent was to induce people to open up about themselves. As Time magazine once wrote: "Guests ... often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as a group-therapy session."

As Oprah the brand became ever more prominent, she has branched out into magazine publishing, television and film producing and radio - so too did her flirtation with celebrities. In 1993, she landed an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson, who had just been accused for the first time of sexually molesting a pubescent boy. More than a decade and many more celebrity interviews later, she was the TV host for whom Tom Cruise jumped on the studio couch to declare his undying love for his latest fiancée, Katie Holmes.

Curiously, broadcasting was not her first love. As a child she dreamed of being a film star, and it was a dream she managed to fulfil, at least for a while. In 1985, before her talk show had even started, Steven Spielberg cast her in his adaptation of the Alice Walker novel The Color Purple, and she won an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

Many distracted years later, she produced and starred in Jonathan Demme's version of the Toni Morrison novel about the slavery era, Beloved. It was not a success. Conventional wisdom in Hollywood suggests that the studio killed it by opening on too many screens - assuming, wrongly, Oprah on her own could deliver the sort of mass audience as Titanic had a few months earlier.

It was a rare failure. By the late 1990s, Oprah had already accomplished the considerable feat of single-handedly restructuring the publishing industry with her Oprah book club. Her monthly recommendations invariably found their way on to the bestseller lists - even when, as with Jonathan Franzen and his acclaimed novel The Corrections - the author in question bristled at the idea of being associated with such a middle-brow public champion.

The book club went into abeyance for a while, only to re-emerge last year in a new guise as a sort of rediscovery of the classics. (John Steinbeck's East of Eden was the first such to be recommended.) Then, in a typical piece of Oprah magic, she persuaded the famously reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, to write her first published piece in decades for her magazine O.

If Oprah is careful with her words now, it is partly due to the trouble they have got her into in the past. Of many eye-catching episodes, perhaps the most bizarre was a lawsuit by Texas cattlemen who didn't like her coverage of mad cow disease, particularly the line she volunteered at one stage: "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!"

The cattlemen accused her of "false defamation of perishable food" resulting in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue. After a media circus of a trial, however, a jury decided Oprah was not liable for damages. "Congratulations," the television sitcom actress Roseanne Barr subsequently wrote to her in a postcard, "you beat the meat!"

By now, Oprah has taken on the trappings of a religious cult. Onefan has written a book urging her to run for president - a manoeuvre that has clearly left Oprah herself unamused, since she has had her lawyers send cease-and-desist letters.

And there are others not so far off in their devotion. The animated television show Futurama once posited, tongue in cheek, the development of a future religion actually called Oprahism. Does such a thing exist? It's not too hard to make the case. Certainly, it is next to impossible to imagine a universe in which Oprah did not exist. She is, in many ways, a heartening embodiment of the American dream. A pity, then, that she doesn't have just a touch more fire in her belly.

A Life in Brief

BORN: Orpah Gail Winfrey, 29 January 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. She later changed the spelling to Oprah.

EDUCATION: Tennessee State University, majored in speech communications and performing arts.

CAREER: Started broadcasting in Nashville at 17. Moved to Chicago in 1984 to host a morning TV show which in 1985 was relaunched as The Oprah Winfrey Show. After national syndication in 1986 it become highest-rated talk show in TV history. Received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her role in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985).

SHE SAYS: "It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph begins with you."

THEY SAY: "She is the top alpha female in this country. She has more credibility than the president. Other successful women ... had to be publicly slapped down before they could move forward. Even Condi has had to play the protégée with Bush. None of this happened to Oprah - she is a straight-ahead success story." Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist