Oprah is everywhere. She’s on TV selling Weight Watchers. She’s on the big screen in movies like “Selma” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” She’s on the cover — every cover — of O magazine. And for the next year, she’s in D.C. “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture,” the newest exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, chronicles Winfrey’s life — both before and after her groundbreaking talk show — to examine the effects of her childhood and adolescence on her remarkable career, as well as her impact on American culture at large. The first part of the exhibit, “America Shapes Oprah, 1950s-1980s,” focuses on Winfrey’s upbringing in Mississippi and Tennessee and her early work as a newscaster in Nashville, Baltimore and Chicago. The second section, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” looks at the 25-year run of her nationally syndicated TV show, where she tackled topics as varied as racism, AIDS and literature and, yes, gave stuff away. The final section, “Oprah Shapes America,” is about the lasting legacy of Winfrey — who, with a $21 million gift, is the museum’s largest donor — as an actor, political activist and the first self-made black female billionaire. Oprah, it seems, can do anything. But we knew that already.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; through June 30, 2019, free.
The queen’s first crown
In 1971, Winfrey was the first black woman to win Nashville’s Miss Fire Prevention pageant. Winfrey, who was sponsored by a local radio station where she worked, told the pageant judges she wanted to be a television journalist like Barbara Walters. She would move on to other radio stations and, eventually, television. This photo shows her with those who dared to challenge Oprah at anything.
The chub flub
Part of Winfrey’s appeal during her talk show’s reign was her honesty about her personal life, including struggles with her weight. In 1988, after a four-month liquid diet, she appeared on her show not only 67 pounds lighter, but sporting this figure-hugging pair of size 10 jeans and hauling a wagon full of animal fat that represented the amount of weight she lost. She later said she considered the stunt a huge mistake, since she regained the weight after returning to solid food.
A key outfit
Some of the most popular episodes of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which ran from 1986 to 2011, were the ones where Winfrey gave away high-end — sometimes VERY high-end — items to audience members. She wore this red outfit for what’s arguably her most popular giveaway ever. You know the words to this one: “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!”
The look of a leader
One of Winfrey’s more permanent legacies and an example of her charitable work is the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a boarding school near Johannesburg, South Africa, for students in grades eight through 12. Winfrey says she’s covered every cost for every student since the school’s founding in 2007, to the tune of $150 million or so. That includes the school uniforms, one of which is on display.
Binders full of woman
Much of the exhibit is a behind-the-scenes look at Winfrey’s talk show, with artifacts including her desk, a guide for staffers on how to brainstorm topics and a wall displaying the subject or celebrity guests of every episode. (Ah, Tom Cruise. And, yes, the couch is there too.) Of course, someone had to keep track of the clothes; this reference binder made sure Winfrey never repeated an outfit.