Oprah Winfrey a beacon of hope for many viewers
Two superfans talk about their ‘aha moments’ and ways Oprah Winfrey changed their lives.
On Jan. 24, thousands of fans will get their chance to have an aha moment when Oprah comes to Vancouver.
Renee Lomen tried five times to sober up and straighten out her life. The mother of two had her first drink at 14 and spent nearly two decades in the grip of an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.
More than once she had to hand her kids over to her parents as her life spiralled out of control.
“I’ve seen the dark,” says Lomen.
Her community, Fort Nelson First Nations, “hurting, toxic and negative,” was a sombre mirror.
Light came into her life once a day, so predictable, you could set a clock by it. “I spent a large part of my life watching Oprah on TV, waiting for four o’clock to happen each day.”
Oprah was something she could count on. Oprah brought the light.
Lomen saw the pretty pictures: twinkling celebrities, favourite things, magical makeovers. She also saw stories frighteningly like her own. “The story of Mike and Darla, a couple addicted to heroin hit me hard,” she says. Their children were suffering. So were her own.
Four years ago Lomen decided to go back to rehab, a family program her young children could attend with her. She’s been sober ever since.
Lomen finally had her “aha moment.”
The aha moment made famous by Oprah is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension.”
Coined more than 100 years ago by German psychologist Karl Bahler, the aha moment has gathered meaning through Oprah’s use to include not just epiphany, but a transfiguration replete with spiritual significance, a holy instant by which a person can be transformed, redeemed, born again.
It’s no surprise Lance Armstrong chose Oprah to be his mother confessor. Like Lomen, he needed her.
She is high priestess to all: the exalted fallen, like Armstrong; the unknown fallen, like Lomen.
On Thursday January 24, thousands of fans will get their chance to have an aha moment when Oprah comes to Vancouver.
Lomen will be in the audience at the Rogers Arena. She does not hope or expect to be noticed. Her journey is a pilgrimage, a voyage of thanks, an homage.
If it hadn’t been for Oprah she and her family would still be living the personal hell of full-blown addiction.
Vancouver’s Zain Saraswati Jamal is also hoping to complete her own Oprah journey. The event sold out within days. Jamal missed out.
Still desperately seeking tickets, the self-described superfan talks about Oprah in a heated rush. She calls Oprah’s words “a divine gift” and sprinkles her conversation with phrases like “living your best life” and “speaking your truth.”
The former model and recovering anorexic says Oprah gave her whole family “a language within which to live.” Jamal says she recovered from her eating disorder by crafting a life based on Oprah’s principals. “My spiritual practice was watching Oprah shows and reading her books.”
As she talks about the possibility of seeing her, she becomes overwhelmed and begins to cry. “It would be my ultimate dream come true to be in her presence, hold her hand.”
Jamal, now a nutritionist and “clean food” blogger, longs for a personal experience. It’s the pop culture equivalent of an audience with the pope.
“To share with her my story, to be able to communicate with her on a platform where she would hear me, hear my heart, she’s taken so many women and given them that life. It would give me that motivation to complete my work.”
The Oprah effect extends far beyond the humble workings of the soul. A word from Oprah is the ultimate endorsement. Who hasn’t fantasized about sitting on her couch, bathing in her warm, understanding, forgiving presence?
And if you’ve got something to sell, well, the fantasy comes lacquered with more than just an inner glow.
The superlatives for Oprah — an uncanny ability to read the culture, astounding depths of talent, and an incredible entrepreneurial streak — are backed by the numbers: Average annual earnings of $225 million, a net worth of $2.7 billion, an average of 9 million viewers per show at its height, and 4.3 million viewers tuned in for the first of the two-part Lance Armstrong confessional.
Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Centre for television and popular culture at Syracuse University says, “She really has achieved a status that penetrated the culture in the way few people do.”
In many ways, she reflects the template of a culture built on starting over.
“The history of the European settlement of North America,” says Thompson “is really one big fat makeover show. She took this American notion of optimism, that we can reinvent ourselves, take this mess of our lives and by mere will, sincere will we can become someone else.”
“Oprah,” says Thompson, “is no charlatan.” Her own journey, from disadvantaged childhood to billionaire is authentic, and it’s part of what gives her credibility that’s deeper than just the numbers.
“What Oprah offers is something she really believes in.” The desire to be in her presence, hold her hand is very real. “People spend time longing to be Oprah’s friend, and I don’t think they’re crazy at all.”
Gifted with an ability to bring intimacy to every interview, Oprah makes viewers feel like they are part of the conversation. Whoever sat on her couch achieved for a moment the status of BFF.
She not only reinvented herself, she reinvented the daytime talk show. Her stroke of genius was to “clean up the neighbourhood,” says Thompson. As other daytime talk shows continued to be exploitative, Oprah followed her own sensibilities and brought empowerment and spiritual searching to the format.
“She probably fixed a lot of people’s lives,” says Thompson. “Before Oprah, a lot of people never articulated their lives. She provided a model for that kind of self-investigation and franchised that out.”
Oprah’s philanthropy is extraordinary, having donated close to $500 million of her own money, and promoted countless good causes. Her “favourite things” shows — the famous “you get a car, and you get a car, you all get a car” episode — were more about the pleasure of giving, of being Santa Claus, believes Thompson, than simply crass consumerism.
It was about giving. If you only want to give from a throne of wealth, power and popularity, says Thompson, that could be a problem. The aspiration to do good like Oprah could be achieved even by those of the most modest means, through what she called “everyday giving.”
Her enthusiasm was part of the attraction. “Simply having somebody to observe every day who embraced being alive was a very good thing,” Thompson said.
Dan Rowe, journalism professor at Toronto’s Humber College, has shouldered the challenge of being an Oprah curmudgeon, something that’s sparked a few conflicts with his wife, who’s a fan.
When the subject of Oprah comes up at a dinner party, Rowe says, “I warn them that it’s not going to go well. It definitely gets people agitated.”
Rowe believes the Oprah effect has a downside. “Oprah encouraged magical thinking when she brought on a product she liked or a singer she heard somewhere and they would have immediate success.”
The process, he says, involved seeking Oprah’s approval. “You have to espouse the Oprah philosophy, toe the Oprah line, and it has to fit into this lifestyle and sense of goodness, but at its core it’s still a financial transaction, moving product or opening a movie ... it’s a commercial enterprise, it’s made her rich and successful and enabled her to do a lot of things.”
Rowe points out that at the height of the economic meltdown, Oprah was espousing positive thinking tomes like The Secret. “There was a responsibility on her to raise some of these issues and take them more seriously.”
However, Rowe admits it’s a losing battle.
“You can’t win. People say, ‘But she does so much good.’ How do you respond to that?”
Lomen is, perhaps, the living example of how to respond. She successfully recovered from addiction in a disadvantaged and neglected community plagued with “never-ending grief and loss,” helped her husband to get clean a year later, and now gets up every day to a life that is immeasurably better than before. She has started her own “everyday giving” project, the Fort Nelson Mighty Jug. It’s a small enterprise — a jug people can throw loonies into — but it’s already raised thousands of dollars to help others in her community, including a woman who lost her home in a fire and a man who had to travel for medical care.
“Oprah inspired me to want to change. I used to wake up and say it’s a good day to go drink. Now I get up and look around and see the warmth and the light and the beauty of the world.”
Now that’s an endorsement.
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