Retire in peace, Oprah

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-06-04 11:03
Large Medium Small

When the editors at China Daily Website asked me if I would be willing to write an article about the Oprah Winfrey phenomenon and her retirement, my initial thought was that I really didn't know anything more about her than the average man on the street.

The editors told me they were interested about Oprah's personality and especially the cultural significance of the long-running show, since they surmised that Oprah was really not understood very well in China.

That was fine but being an American expat still didn't make me an Oprah expert.

Sure, I could google Oprah and get a few clever anecdotes and write as if I had some special insights but, heck, I've probably seen all of about fifteen minutes of her show over the years and anyone could do a google search. Writing about Oprah as if I were an insider would make me an even bigger fraud than usual.

Then I had a sort of lightning bolt moment. I am the average American man on the street when it comes to clarifying Oprah and that is a valuable perspective. Most Americans don't watch her show. They are at work or school or shopping or watching something else on TV. Sure, Oprah has a big following, but it is still a minority of Americans who watch Oprah, say once every couple of weeks, and even fewer who watch her show consistently. So, I can comment on the Oprah phenomenon as the ultimate insider- part of the American majority.

Here, then, in no particular order, is my top ten Oprah phenomenon and Oprah cultural significance list.

Oprah is one of few Americans recognizable by only her real first name. Think, Barack, Britney and Kobe. That is true first-tier celebrity. The next rung on the American celebrity ladder is becoming known because of a nickname such as "the Donald" (Donald Trump) or Tiger (Eldrick Tont) Woods.

Oprah is more than a person. She is a communications industry that includes a magazine and now some sort of telecommunications venture.

The woman was involved in a beef lawsuit in Texas, I think. Maybe one in Australia, too. Not sure. Remember, the idea here is off the top of my average man's head, not necessarily accuracy. Oh, and she won whatever lawsuit (lawsuits?) with which she was involved.

Oprah started a school in South Africa.

Oprah was involved in a movie project that produced a movie about black girls in the ghetto that won an Academy Award or two.

Oprah makes people. Appearing on Oprah's show has often been a path to Easy Street. Just ask Dr. Phil, the essentially talentless performer who has become famous for dispensing common sense homespun advice with no more qualifications than I have for saving people. Oprah "discovered," or more accurately, created, Dr. Phil on her show.

Oprah also immortalized authors. A book mention on her show meant that the book would automatically end up on The New York Times bestseller list.

Oprah burnt people and books too, like she did with that phony author whose book she had at first promoted. He turned out not to have lived through the experiences about which he was writing. I think Oprah and whatever his name was later had some sort of reconciliation on the show. Could be wrong about that though.

Oprah's weight. I couldn't tell you if she's fat, slim, or in between right now but I know her weight is always on the move.

The Tom Cruise moment. Tom was talking incoherently about Dianetics, depression, drugs, and Brooke Shields when he inexplicably jumped up on Oprah’s chair or couch. Some piece of furniture anyway. I think Tom came back to the show and gave a muted performance.

That's it. That's my man-on-the-street average American view of Oprah. Hopefully, some of the regular cast of critics here will jump in (think Tom Cruise) to fill in what I really should have written.

The author recently wrote the “Expert's Take” on the media for the 30th Anniversary Edition of China Daily.