Graceful Exits: Knowing When to Move On

With great fanfare, we recently said goodbye to two female media icons, Oprah Winfrey and Meredith Vieira. As they retired from their current roles on television, I wondered if others admired their farewells as much as I did.
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Is there ever a right moment to step out of the spotlight -- if not for the long term, then just for an intermission? How do we know when the next act beckons and when it's time to move on with style and grace.

With great fanfare, we recently said goodbye to two female media icons, Oprah Winfrey and Meredith Vieira. As they retired from their current roles on television, I wondered if others admired their farewells as much as I did. While I would never suggest that anyone (celeb or non-celeb, male or female) disappear from sight because of their age -- in fact my work focuses on helping people shine in their roles on and off screen throughout their lives -- there is something to be said about knowing how to make graceful exits when the time is right.

I know neither Ms. Winfrey nor Ms. Vieira personally, but we all know that they were under constant public scrutiny, watched daily by millions of viewers for many years. Oprah's body -- the added and lost pounds -- was discussed ad infinitum. Vieira's face -- with and without makeup -- was the focus of more than one Today Show segment. There seemed to be no end to the constant chatter about their clothes, their hair, their relationships -- and yes, their aging appearance.

I had the fortune to be interviewed by Meredith Vieira on the Today Show last year to talk about my book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change." Right before going on air, I asked how she managed to look so great, day in and day out. From my work as a model, I knew how much effort can go into maintaining an on-screen presence. She answered, "Honestly? It's really hard!" Being 57, Vieira said she could relate to the women in my book. Even with the help of good lighting and makeup, aging in the public eye was challenging. We both agreed that our generation hadn't expected to be thinking about our appearance at this stage of life, and yet we are, as we deal with a youth obsessed culture. She, like many others at midlife, seemed to look toward the years ahead and wonder, "Is it time for the next phase?" A few months later, Vieira announced that she was leaving the show.

Oprah, following a three-day grand finale that ended her quarter century-long TV show, seemed to come to a similar conclusion. No doubt she could have continued being the on-screen inspirational leader for at least another generation or two. But she seemed to feel her time had come, explaining to her adoring fans, "25 years feels right in my bones and my spirit. It's the perfect number, the exact right time." Her emotional, but tasteful exit, was just another expression of Oprah's life long classy style.

Clearly, this is not a gender-specific issue. Tom Brokaw is considered the ultimate role model for how to maintain a visible presence after phasing gracefully out of a daily role on television. Following 21 years as anchor of NBC Nightly News, he continues as a special correspondent and has become a best selling author -- remember life before "The Greatest Generation?" Another well-liked broadcaster, Regis Philbin, is also going out on top at age 79. He recently announced his farewell saying, "There is a time that everything must come to an end for certain people on camera, especially certain old people." While many believe his goodbye to ABC is not his "final answer" -- a phrase he made popular as host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- clearly Philbin feels the time to move on has arrived. Larry King, also in his late 70s, may have stayed longer at the party -- longer than most thought was possible given his multiple ailments -- but after 25 year he bid adieu to his CNN talk show. Not ready to leave the spotlight entirely, King already has plans for a different kind of live show -- on stage doing stand up comedy!

The Butch Cassidy Kid
s, Paul Newman and Robert Redford are examples of Hollywood icons who transitioned from leading men to leading roles in other ways. Redford turned to directing, while Newman took on the kind of character parts he always coveted. Both went on to have life long philanthropic interests as well. Jane Fonda, another film star who has made several transformations over the years -- from actress to fitness guru to political activist -- is now back on stage. She has been very open about her struggles aging in the public eye and now seems more comfortable in her skin than she had been during years she spent getting there. Marlo Thomas is another actress who has gracefully exited and re-entered new roles throughout her life. From That Girl in the 70s to "That Woman" in her 70s, her active support for children and women's rights are well known and written about here on Huffington Post.

Of course, athletes probably deal with this issue more often and earlier than others. Derek Jeter's baseball career is being watched with the kind of scrutiny that Nicole Kidman's face has been for years. Between the nonstop buzz about his recent calf injury and loss of power are hopes he will last long enough to celebrate his 3000th hit. Anyone else wonder how and when Tiger Woods, Venus Williams or Jason Kidd will make their exits? Will they avoid Brett Farve's fate, who went from football paragon to a national punch line with his never-ending retirement drama? While professional athletes find it hard to resist trying one last time make it big, sometimes even they know when the time is right. Think Magic Johnson or Phil Simms -- the epitome of aging athletes who found new ways to remain in the spotlight and make a difference.

Politicians face these exits too -- and I don't mean the kind of premature one Anthony Weiner made so ungracefully this month. I'm referring to political figures like Christopher Dodd and Byron Dorgan, Senators who chose to step down to focus on other areas of interest. Evan Bayh, a potential rising political star recently opted out of seeking re-election in spite of pleas by his party to stay on. He spoke about possibly teaching and philanthropic work, saying he hoped to do something "worthwhile for society." There are those who know when the time to step down is right for them, even if we may not understand why. While others -- Arlen Specter and Robert Byrd come to mind -- hang on after the spotlight has dimmed around them.

Well known figures can serve as inspirations -- or not -- for the rest of us. As we are living longer lives, eager to remain vital and active well into our 70s, 80s and even 90s, we also have to learn how to let go. We have to know when it's time to mourn the loss of who we once were. We have to let go of aspects of our identities tied to our youth to make room for others to develop. If we learn to move on, we can pass the torch to the next generation, yet stay involved and engaged in ways that have meaning for the rest of our lives.

And while there may be lots of unknown reasons behind Meredith's and Oprah's retirements, we can only imagine that at some point the efforts to sustain the daily routines of an on-screen presence took too much time and effort -- usurping the kind of energy they may have wanted to spend on other important parts of their lives. They are, and will remain, admirable and visible figures who knew how to generously share themselves with millions of viewers for many years. They were role models not only when the spotlight was on them, but when they chose turn the lights off as well.

Next up will be a post about how to know when the time is right to make life transitions. Meanwhile, tell us who you think has moved on with grace and style?


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my websites at and Friend me on Facebook (at or continue the conversation on Twitter.

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