Oprah Winfrey talks about fame, ego and the Kennedy Center Honors

A look back at the career of daytime talk queen and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 11:36 AM

CHICAGO - To sit in the studio audience of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is akin to having parachuted into an amiable and welcoming cult. It means being embraced in a group hug, swaying side to side, and singing the Oprah song - which involves chirping "O!" an awful lot.

Her acolytes have flown in from across the nation to have an Oprah moment, which generally includes tears, which is why there's a box of Kleenex tucked under every third seat or so. When Winfrey walks into the studio, some folks slip a bit outside the boundaries of reason. A woman standing along the aisle begins to weep, clutches her chest and goes wobbly. "I hope she touches me," whispers another as she stretches her hand out, out, out for contact -please.

"I was walking in and there was a woman reaching for my hands. And I've learned not to try to shake hands because they can pull you off balance; They don't even know their strength," Winfrey says later during an interview in her office. "But I went back. I could feel the energy saying: 'Look at me. Look at me.' I do feel that. I do sense that. I do try to give people what I think they want, if I can."

Winfrey has become our national confessor, our friendly, neighborhood billionaire philanthropist, the wizard who sprinkles magical dust over every author, entrepreneur, do-gooder and politician within her orbit. What Winfrey doesn't do is as powerful a statement as what she does. How dare she not interview Sarah Palin! The culture, it seems, has declared ownership of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Winfrey begs to differ - but only to a point. "I feel it's very much my show in that every decision you see on the show has come from that desk," she says, gesturing toward the pale green, bean-shaped table in her office. "The part that belongs to the culture is every single person who has watched . . . who has found or discovered a piece of light from it. Flecks of light, that's what I call it."

Winfrey, 56, will receive the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday because of the way in which all those sparks of light have dazzled, mesmerized and illuminated audiences over the course of nearly 25 years, more than 4,400 shows and some half-dozen films. She has "impacted nearly every aspect of the entertainment world while engaging, inspiring and enriching the lives of millions," reads her Honors citation.

"What it means to me to be able to receive this award alongside Paul McCartney - my heart cannot express what that means to me," Winfrey says. "When I was living on North Ninth Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a two-room flat, on welfare, the only decoration in a room I shared with a half brother and sister were Beatles posters. I was the only black girl in my inner-city neighborhood who loved the Beatles. And I loved Paul."

While other honorees are notable for the impact their body of work has had in specific fields, Winfrey's citation speaks of an amorphous but profound influence. The Honors are a testament to the power of her charismatic personality, one that generates a near-religious fervor.

"You see daughters my age looking at their mothers with tears in their eyes and you realize the center of their relationship is this woman. They say, 'Did you see Oprah today?' What a powerful effect she has on people's relationship with each other!" says her friend, actress Julia Roberts, in a telephone interview. "She's a remarkable human being."

Not buying the hype

Yet what must it be like on the receiving end of so many strangers' lingering glances - glances filled with hope and need? What does such secular devotion do to your head? What is it like being the beatified, sanctified Oprah?

"Fame is other people's perception of who you are," Winfrey says as she sits on a deep-cushioned sofa in her taupe and brown office at Harpo Studios. "In order to remain true to who you are, you have to be aware of it, but you can't buy into it." She has, however, come to terms with it.

"I used to live above Marshall Field's, now Macy's. And you know how they give out those gifts with purchase at the Clinique counter? I thought, 'I'm going to go back tomorrow and get myself that free Clinique bag' " says Winfrey. "I was bombarded by so many people. I thought, 'Why are they bombarding me?' Well, it was Saturday. And I realized, if you don't want to deal with this, then stay home. For the most part, if I'm not up to dealing with people . . . then I stay in. I stay behind the gates." (And she has many gates, with homes in Hawaii, California and in Chicago, among other places.)

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