Well, that was quite a ride.
Twenty-five years ago, many expected "The Oprah Winfrey Show" would be big. No one anticipated Planet Oprah. Over a quarter century, "Oprah" -- which airs its final episode Wednesday -- and Oprah became worldwide phenomena that breached lives, cultures and -- most unexpectedly -- whole industries. But there have been other talk shows and other hosts. What made this one so outrageously different?
Where to begin? With Winfrey herself, of course. The show and Winfrey were one, as if a moving, talking image on someone's TV could somehow be turned into flesh and blood.
She was all there, right there, fully present on the screen every day for 25 years, and absolutely relentless in conveying the sheer force of her humanness: the appetites, fears, insecurities, joys and triumphs, often refracted even further through the battles with body weight or dress size. Her past became present, and a bandage ripped from a still-raw wound, with stories about childhood poverty and abuse, adolescent promiscuity and an unplanned pregnancy. Winfrey's life was her material, and the subject she knew best.
While she pored obsessively over this life, the lessons became apparent to fans who embraced them as well. The universe was not indifferent but had a plan for her, and for them. No one had ever heard Johnny Carson talk about the universe's plan. But Johnny was detached, cool and ironic. Oprah -- and "Oprah" -- were not.
As a blend of inspiration and aspiration, her show was something that had never been seen on daytime TV. Here was an African-American woman from the Jim Crow South who had been raised in poverty and became one of the world's wealthiest people. Winfrey's singular "aha" moment -- repeated mantra-like through the years -- was that life was about redemption, salvation and (most of all) personal fulfillment.
But if "Oprah" occasionally took on the aura of an old-time revival meeting, it also was yoked to a distinctly secular and even consumerist worldview. "Thin" was usually better than "fat." Fashion mattered, really mattered. And things, especially nice, expensive things, were good. "EVERYBODY GETS A CAR," she bellowed repeatedly over the hysterical din of an adoring studio audience in one of the most famous moments in TV history. In another time or place, she could have just as easily been saying, "Everybody gets to heaven," but in that wild, ecstatic, made-for-TV moment, a free new car seemed much better.
In fact, had Oprah Winfrey been just another Elmer Gantry in pumps, her show would have disappeared years ago. Other TV preachers had come and gone. She was not a preacher, but a BFF, who cared deeply -- boy, did she care. No one on TV -- maybe with the exception of Mr. Rogers -- had ever seemed to care so much. When she cried hot tears, then looked deep into the camera, it was like she was looking right into viewers' souls. Then Winfrey would invariably say something absolutely perfect to the moment, such as these Oprahisms from various shows: "If there is one message, it is that you are not alone. . . . To be embraced, and feel part of other people's lives . . . I don't know of another human being who has appreciated [this] more than I have. . . . I preach gratitude . . . it changes the way you see the world . . . the great lesson I have learned in all these years is that every person matters."
That's right. You matter. You, sitting there in the solitude of your living room trying to navigate life. You are hearing from your Best Friend Forever that you matter. And you believed her. What's more, she truly seemed to believe what she was saying, too.
It was quite a performance over 25 years, one that changed millions of lives, altered the culture, made her a billionaire and even landed her a cable network cast in her own image.
10 ways Oprah changed pop culture
Books have been written about how Planet Oprah managed to do all of this. But we don't have time for a book, so here are 10 ways Oprah Winfrey changed American popular culture:
1. BIRTH OF THE TV CONFESSIONAL Other broadcasters, from Jack Paar to Jack Benny, had, of course, deployed some aspect of their life story for their TV act, but no one had ever elevated it to the level that Winfrey did. This was almost like TV emerging from the confession booth, with Winfrey setting a new standard for intimacy (she out-"Donahued" Phil Donahue) on the tube. In 2011, the TV personality as your pal and confidant is standard fare, from "Live! With Regis and Kelly" to "The View." In 1986, when "Oprah" began, it was revolutionary.
2. SELF-HELP TV "Oprah" evolved from the often lurid so-called "schlock talk" of the late '80s to TV that was all about uplifting lives and personal fulfillment through the '90s. "Change Your Life" was even a popular segment that was a road map to said fulfillment and occasionally a punching bag for critics who deemed the star "Deepak Oprah" or a New Age quack talking about "The Secret" (a book that literally espoused good vibrations) or the psychic efficacy of bubble baths. But self-help is also now a standard feature on the talk-show landscape, and it came into full force with this show.
3. OPRAH INC. More than any other personality in history, Winfrey would turn the trappings of great fame into the trappings of a media empire. Harpo, her production company, branched into TV movies ("Their Eyes Were Watching God"), specials and miniseries ("The Women of Brewster Place"), alongside a range of retail and specialty brands -- Oprah Boutique, Expert Minutes, Oprah's Favorite Things, Oprah's Book Club, Oprah.com, Oprah Radio and so on. Winfrey became omnipresent throughout the world, and the show was only the most visible facet.
4. OPRAH AND O Much has been said about Winfrey's impact on the book-publishing industry (see story on C18), but her effect on magazines was almost as electrifying. The launch of O in April 2000 was the most successful magazine takeoff in history, and if the show was a refraction of All That Was Oprah, the magazine was a high-gloss distillate. There was the "O List" of all the stuff she loved (Fendi sunglasses); favorite recipes; interviews with extraordinary people and personal heroes (Nelson Mandela); and life strategies for success, health and happiness ("9 things weight loss winners know -- and you don't").
5. OPRAH AND RACE That Oprah's an African American woman from Kosciusko, Miss., is the bedrock fact of her entire life, and a core part of her message. But she was, and is, also a so-called "crossover" personality who appealed to white viewers almost more than to black ones. There have been many theories about Oprah's impact on race relations, such as a 1989 essay by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison that even claimed that "in a racist society, the majority needs and seeks from time to time proof that they are loved by the minority" they've oppressed. Oprah, "a one-person demilitarized zone, has served that purpose."
6. OPRAH AS A SELLING MACHINE Winfrey's ability to sell products was as great as her ability to sell ideas. Everything and anything mentioned on her show, from diet fads to soap, was sprinkled with marketing magic dust, while to be one of "Oprah's Favorite Things" was to be conferred a status that no amount of advertising or paid publicity could hope to replicate.
7. OPRAH AND THE TALK BOOM "The Oprah Winfrey Show," later shortened to "Oprah," arrived in a crush of daytime talk; there were to be dozens of shows over the years jostling for attention, influence and fortune, and they are mostly all gone now -- except for the ones she developed. She used her considerable influence and fortune to launch some of the most successful daytime talkers now on TV -- "Dr. Phil," "Rachael Ray," "Nate Berkus" and "Dr. Oz."
8. OPRAH AND POLITICS For the first 15 (or so) years of "Oprah," she kept the show a politics-free zone, on the assumption -- certainly reasonable -- that politics tended to be divisive, while she had carefully crafted a vision of unity and fulfillment of life goals. That would change because Oprah came to obvious realization that her show tapped into the national dialogue on any number of subjects. Oprah left her show for a brief period to help Barack Obama's candidacy, but some believed her sabbatical hurt the show as well by alienating Hillary Clinton or Republican supporters. Nevertheless, her role as a political power broker -- when she chose to wield her power -- was undeniable.
9. OPRAH AND HOLLYWOOD Stars beat a path to "Oprah," believing that not only would an appearance sell tickets, but that the approval of the show's host could almost beatify a career. Dozens of stars appeared over the years, and the show became a Hollywood force unlike no other. "Celine Dion, Halle Berry and John Travolta really became friends of mine" through the interviews, she said. Tom Cruise would appear nine times. They became friends, too -- couch-jumping and all.
10. OPRAH AND GIVING Central to "Oprah" was charity, and its star gave. In 1997, she launched the Angel Network, saying she was inspired by the "little girl" who collected 400,000 pennies. The Angel Network collected millions of dollars in change that went to student scholarships over the years, and giving has likewise become a part of many other stars' personas.
Oprah moments we'll never forget
BY FRANK LOVECE, Special to Newsday
Many Oprah moments got people talking. And a few got people, the press, the Internet and maybe even aliens monitoring our broadcasts talking. Here are five of Oprah Winfrey's most widely discussed moments.
CRUISE COUCH-JUMPING On the May 23, 2005, show, Tom Cruise couldn't seem to control his ardor for actress Katie Holmes, whose relationship with him had recently become public. Maniacally grinning, laughing, restless, he twice jumped up on the sofa, and into TV history.
FAT ON A WAGON In Nov. 15, 1988's "Diet Dreams Do Come True" -- the highest-rated episode to that time -- a skinny Winfrey in size 10 jeans pulled behind her a wagon with 67 pounds of animal fat, representing her four-month weight loss from 212 to 145 on an all-liquid diet.
CAR GIVEAWAY For 276 audience members hand-picked because each needed a car, Winfrey gave each a GM-donated Pontiac G6 on the Sept. 13, 2004, season premiere. Her excited announcement, "You get a car! And you get a car!" became a catchphrase.
OPRAH'S HALF-SISTER On Jan. 24, 2011, Winfrey revealed that unbeknown to her, she has a younger half-sister, Patricia, born while Winfrey was living with her father and unaware her mother was pregnant by another man. Patricia had discovered the relationship in 2007, and just before Thanksgiving 2010 finally reached out to Winfrey to tell her.
AUSTRALIA-TRIP GIVEAWAY On the Sept. 13, 2010, premiere of her 25th and final season, Winfrey told her delighted audience she was giving them a free, eight-day trip to Australia, where she was taping a series of shows. Their pilot? Well, John Travolta was supposed to fly one of the two Qantas 747s that arrived in Sydney on Dec. 7, but that didn't happen.