Oprah's newest gig: hip Mother Teresa
By ANN OLDENBURG
By ANN OLDENBURG
After two decades of searching for her authentic self — exploring New Age theories, giving away cars, trotting out fat, recommending good books and tackling countless issues from serious to frivolous — Oprah Winfrey has risen to a new level of guru.
She's no longer just a successful talk-show host worth $1.4 billion, according to Forbes' most recent estimate. Over the past year, Winfrey, 52, has emerged as a spiritual leader for the new millennium, a moral voice of authority for the nation.
With her TV pulpit and the sheer power of her persona, she has encouraged and steered audiences (mostly women) in all matters, from genocide in Rwanda to suburban spouse-swapping to finding the absolutely best T-shirt and oatmeal cookie.
"She's a really hip and materialistic Mother Teresa," says Kathryn Lofton, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who has written two papers analyzing the religious aspects of Winfrey. "Oprah has emerged as a symbolic figurehead of spirituality."
Winfrey today shares one of her most ambitious events of the past year, "Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball," letting viewers in on a weekend in which she invited 25 legendary black women and other guests to her home in Montecito, Calif., for a luncheon, ball and gospel brunch in their honor.
It was something she spent a year planning. She describes as one of the "greatest moments" of her life.
"This weekend was the fulfillment of a dream for me: to honor where I've come from, to celebrate how I got here and to claim where I'm going," Winfrey says on her Web site. And now, as Winfrey "lives her best life," as her TV motto says, we get to experience it with her.
Although the concept of the Rev. Oprah has been building through the years, never was it more evident than this season of her talk show, during which she conducted the public flogging of author James Frey. Feeling stung and embarrassed after endorsing his memoir about addiction, "A Million Little Pieces," which turned out to include exaggerations and falsehoods, Winfrey had Frey on the show to do an about-face.
"I left the impression that the truth is not important," she said on the show. "I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not what I believe."
It was a watershed Winfrey moment, showing herself as not only a talk-show host with whom you don't want to mess, but also as someone who is fully aware of the power of her own image.
"She's a moral monitor, using herself as the template against which she measures the decency of a nation," Lofton says.
Love her or loathe her, Winfrey has become proof that you can't be too rich, too thin or too committed to rising to your place in the world. With 49 million viewers each week in the U.S. and more in the 122 other countries in which the show is distributed, Winfrey reaches more people in a TV day than most preachers can hope to reach in a lifetime of sermons.
"One of the things that's key," says Marcia Nelson, author of "The Gospel According to Oprah," "is she walks her talk. That's really, really important in today's culture. People who don't walk their talk fall from a great pedestal — scandals in the Catholic Church, televangelism scandals. If you're not doing what you say you do, woe be unto you."
In a November poll conducted at Beliefnet.com, a site that looks at how religions and spirituality intersect with popular culture, 33 percent of 6,600 respondents said Winfrey has had "a more profound impact" on their spiritual lives than their clergy have.
Cathleen Falsani, religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, recently suggested, "I wonder, has Oprah become America's pastor?"
"I am not God," Oprah said in a 1989 story by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison that ran in The New York Times Magazine titled "The Importance of Being Oprah." But at the time, Winfrey called her talk show her "ministry," Harrison wrote. It remains an interview Winfrey says she hates. In a Los Angeles Times interview in December, the talk-show host said that "at every turn, everything I said was challenged and misinterpreted."