My love for Oprah is a running joke among my friends.
About ten percent of my sentences start with “I was watching Oprah a few days ago, and I saw…” They roll their eyes; I laugh. Yeah, yeah, yeah… Lauren is obsessed with Oprah.
The truth is—it runs a lot deeper than that. I’ve been watching Oprah since I was about 8 years old. In those days I sometimes watched with my mom. Other times, I watched with my best friend, Kelly. We knew all the Oprah Show theme songs and happily sang along at the start of each show.
But mostly, I watched alone. Me, the couch, and Oprah.
In the sixth grade, when I’d lost all my elementary school friends and had yet to make new friends, I came home after school every day and watched Oprah. She felt like a friend to my chubby, awkward, and often sad 12 year-old self. From middle school through high school, I must have written her seven personal letters, none of which ever made it to the mail. I wrote her letters because I thought she would understand me, and that meant I wasn’t alone.
It’s hard to explain why I love Oprah so much. She’s all the things that make up a phenomenal woman: smart, thoughtful, interesting, generous, passionate, talented, compassionate, beautiful and funny. But these adjectives are so boring in comparison with Oprah herself.
Some who watch Oprah can name the show or moment that transformed their lives. Examples of life-changing, “Ah-ha!” moments prompted by the Oprah Show surely number in the thousands. A woman who was abused as a child sees a show about sexual abuse and finally realizes it wasn’t her fault. A teenager sees a show about kidnapping just months before someone attempts to abduct her, and the self-defense strategies she learned from Oprah save her life. A gay man sees someone come out on national television and musters the courage to come out to his own family.
For me, there was no single life-changing moment. But the series of small revelations I’ve experienced over the past 20 years as a result of her show is the reason I call Oprah one of my greatest teachers. Most of what I learn from Oprah does not come directly from her mouth. I learn by her example and through her gift for the art of interview. She leads me to understand, and often feel compassion for, her guests. In turn, I reach a more compassionate understanding of myself.
Oprah’s interview with Dr. William Petit is one of the most moving pieces of television I’ve seen. Petit’s wife and two daughters were chained to their beds, raped, tortured, and burned alive as he tried desperately to escape and get help. He survived, but his wife, his daughters, and his home did not. I cannot imagine a more soul-crushing loss. Oprah’s interview with this man taught me more about the human spirit and the value of life than a lifetime of church services ever could.
One show led to my Attention Deficit Disorder diagnosis. Another—her interview with JK Rowling—inspired me to start writing again. And yet another taught me why Justin Timberlake might just be one of the most adorable creatures on Earth.
Oprah brought me Dr. Oz, who held up on television an obese person’s omentum—a mental image I will never be able to delete from my brain’s catalogue. She got me interested in Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least 15 books on her recommendation.
I’m not the only one. Oprah has been an informal teacher to millions. Incredibly, she is also responsible for the formal education of 64,688 people. Yes, sixty-four thousand went to school thanks to one person.
Watching Oprah is a treat, a gift to myself. One hour to think, laugh or cry (sometimes all three at once). And it’s a bond I share with my mom. I can’t begin to count the number of times we’ve called each other to say “Did you watch Oprah today?” And for the past 11 years: “Did you read the latest copy of O yet?”
Not everyone likes Oprah. That’s okay—we are all entitled to our opinions. But nothing makes my O-loving blood boil more than men who proudly proclaim that they “hate” her. (I say men because I’ve never actually heard a woman make this statement.)
My immediate response is always: why? Among the answers I’ve received: She’s annoying, she brainwashes people, she’s too powerful, she makes too much money, and considering how much money she makes, she doesn’t give that much to charity.
I respond to those first four inane criticisms by pointing out the irony inherent in them. Here’s a woman born to a poor, unwed teen mom in Mississippi, who was sexually abused for four years by three different people. When she was just six years old and first arrived to live in the home where her mother worked as a maid, she was made to sleep on the front porch, by herself, because her skin was deemed too dark. Now she’s being criticized for being too successful? Silly me, I thought her’s was the quintessential, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American success story.
The last criticism, about her charitable donations, is laughable at best. However, it is a particularly fun one to dispute. The Giving Back Fund has been releasing a list of the 30 most charitable celebrities for the last four years. Oprah has topped the list for three of those years. (The only year she didn’t was 2009, which ranked Paul Newman first for all the money he gave to his foundation the year before he died.)
In 2010 Oprah gave $41,000,000 in charitable donations. That’s approximately 26 percent of her after-tax income. Not to mention all the money she raises using her enormous platform. Uncharitable my ass.
Oprah is phenomenal woman, indeed. But my favorite thing about Oprah hasn’t won her any accolades and isn’t frequently discussed by the press. To me, it’s what says the most about her character.
Oprah is self-aware enough to recognize when she is wrong and humble enough to admit it to the world. Two examples come to mind.
First, her infamous dispute with Jay-Z over the use of the word “nigger” in rap lyrics. In case you’ve been living under a rock: Jay-Z is for it, Oprah against. They discussed the issue on the show and in an O magazine interview, respectfully disagreed, and that was it. Until this winter, when Oprah read Jay-Z’s new book, Decoded. She announced on her Favorite Things show that she’d chosen the book for this year’s list because it inspired an Ah-Ha! moment. In the book Jay-Z says, “Rappers are young black men telling stories that the police, among others, don’t want to hear.” This line made Oprah realize she was one of “the others” and the book helped her understand why younger generations use the n-word in rap lyrics. She admitted she was wrong.
More recently, she interviewed James Frey, who famously admitted to her that large parts of his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces had been fabricated. Back in 2006, Oprah skewered him for lying to her and millions of readers in an interview that was so uncomfortable to watch, it made my ex-boyfriend break out in a sweat.
In the latest interview, just last week, Oprah admitted to Frey and the world that she had made a mistake. She allowed her ego to control her, and she failed to have even an ounce of compassion for Frey. While interviewing rapists, murderers, and child molesters, she explained, she’d always brought a sense of compassion to the table. Not with Frey, though, because her ego got in the way. So she apologized to him on national television (she actually called him to apologize personally when she first made this realization a few years back).
If a woman as powerful, as rich, as successful, and as beloved as Oprah can recognize when she is wrong and admit to it, then surely we are all capable of doing the same. It takes one huge helping of humility, grace and self-awarenes, a combination to which we should all aspire.
Yesterday, on the second-to-last Oprah Show, Jada Pinkett Smith told Oprah: I know you don’t have children of your own, but you have mothered millions.
So thank you, Oprah, from one of those millions. On every step of my journey from insecure 12-year-old child to strong, phenomenal woman, you have been there to encourage, challenge and teach me. As all great mothers do.
With elephant’s thanks to Cheekie: A lifestyle blog for smart women., where this “Ode to O” originally appeared.
Cheekie was born of frustration. For years I’ve struggled with the often-futile content of women’s magazines and blogs. Where are all the magazines and blogs for smart women? Shoes and sex tips are fabulous, but we know our rivers run deeper than that.
The young women I know are intellectually curious, savvy and yes, cheeky. Cheekie blog is for women who love their lip gloss and their boyfriends, but are not defined by them. From book reviews to wellness tips and inspiring interviews, Cheekie offers substance and fun for smart women.
Cheekie would be nothing without you, the reader. We would love to have your input. Read a great book that we should feature? Let us know! Your story ideas, suggestions and questions are welcome and important to us. We look forward to hearing from you.
-Lauren Constance, [email protected]