I had never thought too much about Oprah. Of course I like her. She's Oprah. Her philanthropy is astounding. Her background and rise to fame equally impressive. Her ability to influence millions around the world can't be ignored. But those things aside, what is it about Oprah that makes women go wild? Especially women who are so different than the woman herself?
Last week I took my mother-in-law and two of my sisters-in-law to a live taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The tickets, surprisingly, weren't hard to come by. A little sleuthing around on the internet, a well-crafted essay about why I deserved last minute tickets, and a phone call later, I was offering one to my mother-in-law. A petite and carefully put together Midwestern woman, she literally jumped up and down and fist-pumped the air. I'm not kidding.
That was my first clue that I was in for something bigger than I realized.
To score myself a few more points with my new family, I invited two of my sisters-in-law. One of them lives in Chicago and has fielded her mother's inquiry about getting Oprah tickets for years, so I was glad to relieve her of such pressure. My other sister-in-law, a marketing exec in Cleveland, was almost as thrilled as my husband's mother. Turns out she records Oprah every day and watches the show as she cooks dinner.
As the date for the show neared, it dawned on me what a big deal this was for these women. My mother-in-law told me that she was waiting until the week before the show to even tell her friends that she was going to it. "I don't want to have to talk about it every time I see them," she explained. And every time my sister-in-law (the one who tapes Oprah) wrote to me about the show, her usually simple and to-the-point emails contained whole sentences full of capitals and exclamations. Both of them conferred with me about what they should wear, presenting options for me to choose from, as though I had some idea that might be better than theirs.
On the day of the taping, the four of us waited in a fairly long line that wrapped around Harpo Studios on Washington Boulevard. We were wearing the advised bright colors. Myself in a green knit top, my mother-in-law in purple and my sisters-in-law in pink and multi-colored tops. Eventually we were guided upstairs to a holding pen full of more brightly-dressed and bubbly women. Out of a hundred or more audience members there were probably only 10 men present (they were wearing bright colors, too). And I would guess that about 15-20% percent of the women present were African-American. The rest of the women looked just like me and my crew: white, American, middle class and educated. All around us clips of past Oprah shows played on flat screen televisions, squeals and claps cascading down on us from the speakers.
An MSNBC article quotes the following demographics regarding Oprah viewers: "Oprah's audience is predominantly female, white, and over the age of 55. Nationally 7.4 million people watch Oprah daily -- about 2.6% of American households. Eleven percent of all older black women watch Oprah, and 7% of all older white women watch the show everyday. Oprah's audience is also predominantly white: 5.9 million of whites watch Oprah, compared with 1.4 million blacks."
Going to the bathroom before the show, I found myself standing next to an overly-excited white, middle-aged woman. She told me she'd flown in from Florida the night before. Just to see Oprah, I asked? "Of course!" She frowned at me and I tried to brighten my smile, nodding at her enthusiasm. "When someone offers you tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show, you get yourself on a plane. I've waited my whole life for this," she continued.
I tried to think of something that I felt this way about. Something that would make me get on a plane, no matter what. Something that I've waited my whole life to do. I couldn't think of anything. What did that mean? I didn't know, but I bet Oprah could recommend a book that would help me figure it out.
Finally, we were taken to our seats. For whatever reason (probably demographics or sweater colors) my mother-in-law was separated from us and led to a front row seat, only feet away from Oprah's interviewing chair. Me and my sisters-in-law were then given pretty good seats just to the left of the stage and when Oprah walked by wearing all gray, only the bottoms of her Christian Louboutin shoes showing a hint of red, my sister-in-law (the one who records the show) could have reached out and touched her. She didn't, but she did tell me later that her cheeks hurt after the show because she smiled so much.
It turned out to be a live taping. We were briefly prepped for this by a handler with a microphone who warned us that if we were going to say anything during the taping it had better be about the show. And. Only. The. Show. We nodded. My sister-in-law smiled. Oprah stood in the center of the stage just before we went live, reading over the teleprompter cues and going over notes with another handler. Her stylist came out and teased more curls into her hair, gently spraying hairspray into his own palm before touching it to the ends of her bangs. She waved at the audience, greeted us. The women went wild. She told us that the shoes she was wearing were not made for walking. We laughed.
And then we went live. My body tensed and I leaned forward watching as Oprah read expertly off the teleprompter. I could see the words too and was impressed with the way she seamlessly interjected her own sentences here and there. She began by following up on some recent shows -- something about child pornography and something else about a 16-year-old girl singing with Celine Dion. She looked serious when she asked us to help pass legislation against the pedophiles. She cried real tears (the camera wasn't even on her) when a clip of the 16-year-old was shown singing at Madison Square Garden with Dion, her idol.
After that she was joined on stage by Extreme Home Makeover's Ty Pennington who plugged his new book before we watched a video of him remaking a pair of twins' bedrooms. At the very end of the show, Oprah announced her new book club selection: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and we were all given hardcover copies. (I'm halfway through and I have to say that it really is a good book.)
I think I spent half of the show watching my mother-in-law. It was fun to see her up there, right near the stage, beaming at Oprah, laughing at Ty Pennington when he joked about how ADD he is, blotting her lipstick during commercial breaks. I watched as she and the woman next to her leaned in together to talk about Oprah's shoes during another break. Oprah noticed them and the woman next to my mother-in-law said, "We like your shoes!" Oprah glanced down at them and wiggled her ankles. "Thank you," she said, "like I said, they're not for walking!" My mother-in-law and her seatmate broke into wide smiles, nodding back at Oprah enthusiastically.
After we left the show that day, retrieving our still-beaming mother-in-law ("Just wait 'til I tell everyone!"), the four of us made the obligatory stop in the Oprah store across the street. I watched my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law (the one who tapes the show) fill up bags with Christmas ornaments and baby bibs. Declining a bag myself, I milled through aisles of sweatsuits and key chains, books and booties, everything covered in an O-shaped stamp of approval. I watched as my sister-in-law considered an "O" dog collar and as my mother-in-law carefully put a coffee mug in her bag.
And all the while, I couldn't help but wonder, was going to The Oprah Winfrey Show everything they wanted it to be? And what was it exactly they wanted it to be?