No, for the millionth time, Oprah is not running for president. And neither is her guest of honor that day, Michelle Obama, the nation’s most famous empty-nester, who told Winfrey she’s trying to figure out “how I want to spend the rest of my life.”
“President!” came a shout from the audience. “White House!” yelled some others.
The not-“Oprah 2020” event could have been a political rally from an alternate dimension where two of Blue America’s most beloved figures have teamed up to take back the country from President Trump. The Vision tour was, in fact, an event from this dimension, where Blue Americans, anxious and exhausted and restless, have directed some of that energy toward better governing their own bodies and minds.
They filled out self-assessments of their mood, relationships and health.
They meditated to the tune of sound bowls played by a blond woman in a traffic-cone-orange suit.
They cheered for New York City police officers who participate in Weight Watchers.
They listened to a “Transformation Talk” by “Girl, Wash Your Face” author Rachel Hollis, who told the story of the time she forgot to take out a tampon for three weeks, which eventually segued into a pep talk about how every woman is capable of greatness.
Attendees seemed engaged with this version of the Oprah-Michelle event, far from Washington, farther still from Iowa and New Hampshire and FiveThirtyEight.com.
And yet . . .
“They would be my dream ticket,” said Jennifer Hall, 51, who wore a cashmere sweater embroidered with the phrase “I miss Barack” to the event.
“I think the nation is looking for a healer,” said Liane Matti, 36, during intermission. “They see that in Oprah. They see that in Michelle.”
“People of color would come out for her in a big way,” said Mickey Boardman, 53, editorial director at Paper Magazine and Vision tour attendee, of Winfrey. “And, you know, I think I know Republican women who are obsessed with her, too.”
It can be tricky to separate the way we feel from the way of the world, and for some attendees, life goals and political goals cannot help but overlap.
“I made a vision board with ‘Oprah 2020’ on it,” said Debbie Anastasio, 34. “I would love to see her [as] president and as the first female president.”
So, how does one make one’s visions come true?
A dance party, to start. Daybreaker’s Radha Agrawal began the day by leading an energetic one to the tune of songs such as Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” telling the audience that when they “awaken our seven energy centers, this is how our vision manifests.” Okay. And, by the way, our energy centers? Each one is a color of the rainbow. (Number six, indigo: “This is our third eye, our intuition.”) The colors, projected across giant screens, flashed upon the exuberant faces of thousands of middle-aged women shaking their hips.
Every seat in the Barclays Center had a jute, Oprah-branded gift bag, with some shampoo and conditioner, lotion, Weight Watchers granola bar (Winfrey is the face of the brand), and 2020 Vision Workbook with a pen. There were other goodies in the hall: “I’m going to get in line to get a hand massage,” said one woman to her friends, near a Vaseline-sponsored “activation” (i.e. an activity station, i.e. a place where you grab swag and snap selfies). Merch tables sold Oprah-branded beanies and phone kickstands that said “Radiate Joy.”
“I need two more poses!” said an employee whose job was to take smartphone photos of people in front of a giant picture of Oprah. She was directing a duo who were pointing at the host’s face. “You look good!”
When Oprah strutted out on the stage — camel-colored jumpsuit, rimless glasses, “Hello, New Yooooooooorrrrk” — the sold-out crowd of approximately 15,000 people, who paid anywhere between $69.50 and $299.99 to be there, stood and screamed their lungs out.
The universe in which Winfrey runs for president has been heavily theorized, going back decades. In 1992, Newsday ran a short story, noting that more people watched her interview with Ivana Trump than a debate for the Democratic primary between Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown. The subhead: “Maybe she should run for president?”
More recently, the idea of President Winfrey has been dubbed highly plausible by Bill Maher, among others. Two years ago, at the Golden Globes, Winfrey inspired a new wave of buzz with a speech in the wake of #MeToo. “I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you,” she said then, accepting a lifetime achievement award and speaking with a my-fellow-Americans kind of gravitas, “but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning — even during our darkest nights.” “Oprah 2020?” wondered a headline on NPR.
Nope. Vision tour.
And so instead of listening to Winfrey wax democratic about America’s social contract, attendees picked up their Vision Workbooks and filled out “contracts” with themselves. These were supposed to help them stick to their goals, whether they were professional, emotional or physical — and, if they happened to be physical, there were Weight Watchers sign-up stations all around the arena. A decent chunk of the day was dedicated to Weight Watchers-related videos and conversation.
After a mob scene to grab the Panera boxed lunch — each choice with the number of Weight Watchers (which, FYI, has rebranded, as “WW”) points labeled on the voucher — there was more dancing. Julianne Hough of “Dancing with the Stars” led the audience in something called “Kinrgy,” a dance workout supposedly based on the four elements of earth, water, fire and air. (The near-anagram of “cringey” was not on purpose.) “Activate that water energy!” she told the audience, which was frantically body-rolling. “Now is the time to change the world!”
If you stripped away the WW pitch, the gift bags of deodorant and shampoo, the cultish fitness dance routines, Saturday’s gathering did bear some resemblance to a political rally. There were stories about overcoming personal adversity. There were acknowledgments that everyday Americans were struggling. There were the kind of statements that wouldn’t have felt out of place at a stump speech in New Hampshire, in some alternate timeline: “Everybody just wants to be heard,” Winfrey said, “and to know they matter.”
And, of course, there was Michelle Obama.
The former first lady — forever first lady, for this audience — tiptoed around the topic of politics during her onstage conversation with Winfrey.
Winfrey brought up her famous quote, “When they go low, we go high,” and remarked that it must not be easy “when the lows have taken new lows.” Obama responded by walking a line: “Our leaders are not paving a good path for what we want our kids to do, and I’m sorry to say that.” Then she added, “I don’t want to make this political in any way.”
Not being political — or, at least, not making a career of it — has worked out for her so far. Post-White House living has been great, she told Winfrey and her Vision tourists. She’s trying yoga. She’s watching “Schitt’s Creek” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Her book, “Becoming,” has become one of the best-selling autobiographies of all time. Why would she ever want to give that up to go back into the political arena, where she would inevitably be subject to viciously racist and sexist attacks?
“When you’re in politics,” she said, “you get the venom.”
You also get asked uncomfortable questions. For Oprah, that could mean having to explain during a nationally televised debate why she recently pulled out of a documentary alleging sexual abuse against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (who has denied the charges). Or why she gave a boost to “American Dirt,” a novel about Mexican immigrants that has faced criticism for perpetuating offensive stereotypes.
For Obama, it could mean facing scrutiny for how she and her husband have spent their time, and newfound wealth, since leaving the White House. The former first lady admitted last year in an interview with Conan O’Brien that she no longer felt in touch with everyday Americans. “You can’t experience life behind a tinted window in a car,” she told O’Brien.
In the alternate universe, the one in which Obama and Oprah are running for office together, calling yourself out of touch would be considered a gaffe.
Would there be free hand massages in that universe? Maybe, but there would also be stress. Would there be dancing? Maybe so, but there would also be a sense of emergency. Fewer personalized workbooks, more generalized wonkiness.
In the Barclays Center, Winfrey let loose a rallying cry — an alternate take on President Obama’s “Yes we can,” with a key pronoun changed.
“I can!” she shouted. “I will! Watch me!” The crowd echoed it back to her.
The same crowd cheered at the mention of Barack Obama presidency, but the former first lady didn’t give them much hope that there would be another.
“Just vote, y’all!” said Obama, and she didn’t say for whom. That was someone else’s problem.