I wrote a 15 Great Oprah Moments piece for work – but here are MY favourite moments. Now, I don’t particularly like her (though I don’t really dislike her either) – but there’s no denying what she’s done for women in the industry. With the final ever episode airing in the States today (here in South Africa we’ll probably get the final episode in about 5 years time!) I decided to take a look back at some of the many, many moments that made Oprah Winfrey an icon.
America’s most racist town: In 1987, Oprah travelled out of her studio to Forsyth County in Georgia, where white residents had made it known for years that black people were not welcome. One man, Dennis, said he was “afraid” of blacks coming to the county. He also used the word “nigger” repeatedly as he spoke to her. Oprah was hailed for remaining calm at the meeting and not being drawn into responding. Years later, the man contacted Oprah – saying he was “the bearded man” from Forsyth – and told her that he no longer uses the word. Defending his use of it, however, Dennis said, “I spoke from what I had lived and that’s all anybody can do.”
The Wagon of Fat: Oprah’s struggle with her weight has been famously documented. In 1988, Oprah tried “Optifast” – a fasting and supplement programme – which she thought would be her “final answer” to her diet battle. For four months she didn’t eat a single morsel of food – and dropped around 30kg to just under 66kg. She squeezed into a pair of tight jeans, pulling a wagon full of fat – representing the weight she had lost – onto the stage. However, two weeks after starting to eat real food again, she had picked up almost 5kg again. How she didn’t realise that the weight was going to spring straight back is beyond me – but I suppose it was the 1980s and dieting pretty much equalled starvation at that point.
An eye-opening experiment: I love this idea so, so much. I would have loved to have been there. In 1992, Oprah set up an experiment with diversity expert Jane Elliot to prove the power of discrimination. When the audience arrived for the taping, they were separated into two groups based on their eye-colour – although they weren’t told why they were split. The blue-eyed people were pulled out of line, told to put on green collars and were treated badly by show staff. The brown-eyed people were asked to step to the front of the line, given coffee and doughnuts and treated respectfully. The segregated audience was then told that brown-eyed people were smarter. The blue-eyed people were visibly upset at being discriminated against, while the brown-eyed people became smug and bought into the idea that they were superior. The idea behind the experiment – to prove how arbitrary judgements based on skin colour are, and how susceptible we are to prejudice and misinformation.
More after the jump…
Oprah interviews Michael Jackson: In February 1993, Michael Jackson gave his first televised interview in 14 years at his Neverland Ranch. A record (at the time) 90 million viewers watched the interview across the globe, where Oprah tackled the topic of the pop icon’s rapidly-lightening skin – prompting him to reveal he suffered from vitiligo. She also asked Jackson if he was a virgin (which, let’s be honest, we’d all pretty wondered at some point or another), to which he replied, “I’m a gentleman. That’s something that’s private, that shouldn’t be spoken about openly.” Fair enough. Michael Jackson the gentleman.
Oprah’s big beef: In 1996, former cattle rancher Howard Lyman told Oprah about allegedly unsafe practices – in particular, feeding processed livestock to cattle (a practice linked with an outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe at the time) – Oprah was horrified and said that she wasn’t sure that she’d be eating any more hamburgers. After the show, cattle prices dropped, and a group of cattle ranchers sued her for $10-million, claiming that she had defamed the industry. She later won the lawsuit. One of the first clear examples – you don’t fuck with Oprah. Ever.
Oprah and Mary Tyler Moore: Oprah had often said that Mary Tyler Moore was an inspiration to her – and in 1997, she got the chance to meet her idol. She had spoofed the opening to The Mary Tyler Moore Show during an episode, and the actress then called her live on air. Oprah remembers saying, “Mare, if you would have shown up here, I’d have just died.” The theme song to the sitcom began to play, and Mary walked on stage – a complete surprise for Oprah, who described herself as a “basket case” and went into an “ugly snot cry”. (I don’t get this one – but I guess the MTM Show was way before my time).
You get a car!: Another iconic Oprah moment – and one that has become material for endless parody – came in September 2004, when Oprah gave away 276 Pontiacs, worth $30,000. Her audience that day had been specially picked because each member needed a car. She called 11 members of the audience on stage, telling them that were each receiving a Pontiac G6. She then told the rest of the audience to look in their gift bags and see if one of them could find the key to the 12th Pontiac. However – every audience member had a key, and Oprah screamed “Everybody gets a car!” She later said that they had paramedics on standby in case anybody got to excited. However, each audience member had to cough up $7000 in taxes – or forfeit the gift. I would have been pissed.
Tom Cruise’s Couch Jump: Tom Cruise – a regular guest on Oprah’s show – made an appearance shortly after his relationship with Katie Holmes went public. The stars had been suspected of merely dating for the publicity – as they both had major movies to promote at the time. On <i>Oprah</i>, after being questioned about Katie, Tom jumped around the set – on the couch and coffee table, shouting, “I’m in love! I’m in love! I can’t be cool! I can’t be laidback!” When Oprah said, “I don’t know what happened to you boy!” he replied, “I don’t either”. It’s become an iconic moment in the Oprah history – and I’m pretty sure that Tom Cruise pretty much facepalms every time he looks back on that moment. Poor Katie, I think she realised then she was dating a lunatic – but it was too late.
Oprah and James Frey: A Million Little Pieces is one of my favourite books of all time – although, to be fair, by the time I read it I knew he’d fabricated some of it. And so I didn’t go into it thinking, “Oh, wow, this is all real and it’s amazing”. But when James Frey published his memoir of addiction and recovery, Oprah was so impressed that she touted it as one of her book club picks. But when it was revealed that Frey had made up some of the events in the book, she was furious. In 2006. she invited Frey to defend his work – but then spent the episode mercilessly attacking the books’ lies and half-truths – saying, “I acted in defence of you… but now I feel that you conned us all.” Two years later, Winfrey called Frey to apologise – and sat down with the author again as part of her final season.
Oprah’s family secret: In January this year, Oprah revealed her “bombshell” family secret – she had a half-sister, whose existence she only discovered in November 2010. She revealed that her mother, Vernita Lee, had given up her daughter shortly after giving birth because she couldn’t afford to raise the baby. Patricia – now 47 – was born while Oprah was living with her father, and went into foster care before being adopted aged seven. Patricia revealed that she realised Oprah could be her sister in 2007, but hesitated on approaching the family because she didn’t want to cause any “hurt”. This is my favourite thing about the whole saga – that, for once, the motivation was not money-grabbing or media attention. Good on you, Patricia.