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Church of Oprah

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

There were a few men in line at the cavernous Washington Convention Center the other day, but they were corks bobbing in a sea of estrogen. It was basically a crowd of women, all colors and all ages. They all seemed to have a certain light in their eyes as they waited to see a woman who comes into their lives daily through her talk show and monthly through her eponymous magazine, whose every cover she glamorously graces.

Oprah Winfrey's "Live Your Best Life" 2005 tour had touched down in the nation's capital, and at midmorning Saturday the line stretched around the block. Those in the well-behaved, beautifully dressed crowd had paid at least $185 apiece for the chance to bask in the lady's presence -- all 5,000 tickets had sold out within minutes of their offering, and in the days before the event, scalpers on the Internet were asking up to $715.

The scene was the same when the Oprah show hit Denver a couple of weeks ago and doubtless will be the same when it hits Dallas later in May.

A little voice in my head started murmuring, "Cult of Oprah, Cult of Oprah, Cult of Oprah. . . . " But the little voice had it wrong. Martha Stewart has a cult, with rituals and fetishes -- applying the sprinkles to a frosted cupcake one by one with tweezers, that sort of thing. Oprah presides over something grander and more significant. It's more like a church.

"You really could put 'Reverend' in front of her name," said Brenda V. Johnson, a former librarian who had come with her friend, Marvel L. Smith, an elementary school principal. Both women were from suburban Prince George's County, one of the most affluent majority-black jurisdictions in the country.

"She just has the ability to connect on so many levels -- your emotional needs, physical needs, psychological needs," Johnson said. Smith added: "It's her humanity. Everybody goes through the same things she goes through, but she has the willingness to share it."

It's easy to make fun of what amounts to our great national quest for "empowerment" or "self-actualization" -- the terms themselves sound slightly ridiculous -- but that search is a great force in modern American life. We worry about our families, about paying the bills, about balancing work and home, but at the same time we all look for an inner balance that allows us to feel right about the many choices we make.

Oprah's great gift, and the foundation of her lay ministry, is her understanding that even women who have enjoyed great success in their personal and professional lives can still struggle to find meaning and fulfillment, and that they can learn from Oprah's own search for the same things.

Oprah gets fat, Oprah goes on a diet, Oprah loses the weight, Oprah gains it back, Oprah loses it again, maybe this time for good. Oprah fights an ongoing battle with her hair. Oprah's relationship with her significant other seems to lack something, since she and Steadman never get married, but she hangs in there with him anyway. Oprah has a best friend, Gayle, who sticks with her through everything. Oprah makes charitable gifts. Oprah promotes books, mostly by women writers or with strong female characters, many of them difficult books that offer not comfort but more questions.

She is not only the most powerful woman in television but also the most powerful woman in American publishing. A recommendation from Oprah creates an instant bestseller, a subject for discussion at thousands of no-husbands-no-kids book clubs coast to coast.

Oprah is far from a completely open book herself, but she reveals more than enough of her life to let her followers see a reflection of their own uncertainties, their own insecurities and, ultimately, their own strengths. She gives them resilience, a second or third or fourth chance at love, happiness, contentment, enlightenment.

Inside at the "Live Your Best Life" extravaganza, attendees heard Oprah speak of her own life experience -- how everyone counted her out, how no one thought she could make it, how she believed in herself. They heard her talk about spirituality. They heard Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman." After the liturgy, the women in attendance went forth renewed.

Thus went the services at the Church of Oprah, which is the church of possibility.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

© 2005 The Washington Post Company