Like every writer on the planet, I fantasized about appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show. But my Oprah adventure turned out to be unlike anything I ever imagined. Last spring, I had the amazing experience of writing The Oprah Winfrey Show: Reflections on an American Legacy for Abrams. Of course, I knew that she was a living legend whose show was coming to an end, and that viewers and journalists the world over were questioning if life would have any meaning after the final episode aired on May 25, 2011. But I wasn’t a “regular” and hadn’t seen many shows — writers who work at home spend more time standing in front of the refrigerator than watching television. It wasn’t until after I started researching — and viewed twenty-five years of pivotal episodes –, that I truly understood what the fuss was about. Quite simply, Oprah transformed lives, and always for the better. Now, thanks to this project, it was about to change mine. I made many discoveries and learned many lessons during my feverish race to meet the deadline.
First stop, Chicago, where I attended one of the last Oprah tapings. I sat in the studio with hundreds of adoring fans, chanting “We will rock you, rock you,” and stomping our feet as guest Chris Rock (making his 26th appearance on the show) walked on stage. I interviewed producers who couldn’t imagine a job that didn’t involve performing daily miracles, such as the time they closed Michigan Avenue and taught a twenty-one thousand-person flash mob to perform orchestrated moves to the music of The Blackeyed Peas. I dined at Oprah’s favorite restaurant, RL (yes, that’s research, too!). I sampled one of Chicago’s best creations, the outrageous, artisinal doughnuts at the city’s famed Doughnut Vault (get there early: when they sell out, they close). And I was at Harpo, amidst tearful employees, during the taping of the historic final show.
The dvds I watched at home enabled me to experience a condensed quarter-century of Oprah magic. I saw a young, defiant Oprah deftly wrangle a panel of arrogant white supremacists who ended up walking off the show because they couldn’t bear being outsmarted by a black woman they called “a monkey” – yes, they really called her that on-air, and she handled it with aplomb.
I watched a concerned Oprah dedicate innumerable shows to health issues, including the ongoing story of her struggle to manage her weight. She was fearless, I decided. No subject — even the proper consistency of poop — was off-limits if it could lead to enlightenment.
I learned that philanthropy can start with one little penny, and that those pennies really do add up to millions of dollars. As Oprah would say, there is no excuse for not giving when every contribution, however small, counts.
I learned that tolerance can begin with the simple act of seeing a smart, exceedingly powerful, influential, and yes, fabulously wealthy African American on your television screen every day. Eventually, it sinks in that skin color is irrelevant. Oprah taught millions of viewers that differences in color, gender, sexual preference, and sexual identity were irrelevant. Inside, we are all the same.
I learned that heart-wrenching stories of human error and loss (such as the one involving a busy father who inadvertently left his infant locked in the car, with deadly results) can help others to avoid making the same tragic mistakes.
I learned about the evils of puppy mills. After Oprah’s eyes were opened to the plight of abused and homeless dogs, she said ”I am a changed woman.” From now on, she promised, all of her pets would come from shelters. Thanks to her, my brand new puppy is a rescue dog, and I couldn’t be happier.
On a lighter note, I watched Oprah’s Bra Intervention show and can now walk into a department store knowing exactly which foundation garment is right for me.
While I was writing the book, my family grew used to the sight of me watching Oprah dvds and laughing, crying, and sometimes doing both at the same time. I started making heartfelt, Oprah-like pronouncements such as “Life never gives you anything you can’t handle” — and I meant every word. The new me was a little less cynical, a little more open-minded, and definitely more empathetic and informed.
Essentially, I attended Oprah University… and I think I got an “A!”
Deborah Davis is the author of Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X(Tarcher/Putnam, 2003), Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball (Wiley, 2006), The Secret Lives of Frames: 100 Years of Art and Artistry(Filipacchi Publishing, 2007), Gilded: How Newport Became the Richest Resort in America(Wiley, 2009), and the upcoming Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner that Shocked a Nation, which will be published in Fall 2011 by Atria/S&S. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.