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Here ends the gospel according to Oprah, the richest black woman

Date

Lisa Pryor

Once upon a time, before the infiltration of the internet and cable television, the sauciest age-inappropriate viewing available to a teenage girl featured sofas, pot plants and roving mikes.

Back in the gentler times of the early 1990s, my friends and I spent many sick days and school holidays relishing the adult themes of daytime chat. We marvelled at the white supremacists, abuse victims and sufferers of multiple personality disorder on Oprah, Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael.

Then everything changed. Jerry Springer (''Midgets Fight''), Ricki Lake (''My Sister Has No Class She's a Hoochie'') and Maury Povich (''Is My Man the Father of My Sister's Baby?'') arrived. The genre skewed gutter, Oprah skewed inspirational and the rest was history.

This month Kitty Kelley, noted shoveller of celebrity dirt, published a biography of Oprah Winfrey - inspirational leader, media mogul, world's richest black woman. It charts her ascent from her Mississippi roots, roots which are depicted as modest but not quite as modest as Oprah has made out, with her claims to having nought but a pair of cockroaches named Melinda and Sandy as pets.

The biography is no masterpiece. The great wordsmith the book uncovers is the Nashville barber Vernon Winfrey, the man who raised Oprah as his daughter: ''I felt like my daughter dusted her shoes with my white hankie and stuffed it back in my pocket''; ''Listen, girl, if I say a mosquito can pull a wagon, don't ask me no questions. Just hitch him up.'' (Compare this to the lacklustre imagery of Kelley who at one stage describes platters of ''shrimp the size of iPods'' at an event in 1993.)

Still it is an illuminating read for anyone interested in unpicking the tenets of the self-help gospel that Oprah espouses. Kelley notes Oprah's frequent attacks on welfare mothers from the earliest days of her talk show. In one episode she tells the assembled guests: ''I was a welfare daughter, just like you . . . How did you let yourselves become welfare mothers? Why did you choose this? I didn't.'' Then there are the comments Oprah made when visiting her home town in 1998. Speaking of her wealth and power: ''You receive in proportion to how big your heart is and how willing you are to extend yourself to other people.''

Years later in 2007 when Oprah discovered The Secret, a self-help book that is to psychology what The Da Vinci Code is to literature, she told CNN's Larry King: ''The message of The Secret is the message that I've been trying to share with the world on my show for the past 21 years.''

The Secret is about the supposed law of the universe that positive attracts positive and negative attracts negative, which will come as a surprise to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the habits of electrons and magnetic fields. The ''law of attraction'' means that if you send out positive vibes, you succeed. If you send out negative vibes, you fail.

It comes very close to laying the credit for all success, and the blame for all failure, at the feet of the individual, ignoring luck and circumstance. This gospel is in many ways the opposite of Christianity; it is about blaming victims rather than lauding them, or even providing them with comfort. It is a philosophy that suits the successful.

This is not to say Oprah does not do good. She has championed victims of sexual abuse and racism; she has been a generous philanthropist and promoter of reading among those who wouldn't ordinarily. Ultimately though, disappointing as it is for a closet fan like myself to admit, Oprah is not the messiah, just a very successful businesswoman.

The Oprah Winfrey Show winds up in September next year after 25 years. Already it is a relic of a time past. Now that I have reached the target demographic for such shows - a mother at home - better distractions are on offer, like podcasts and Facebook.

But I will always have a soft spot for her brand of inspirational daytime television, in which motivation serves as a kind of sensory thrill rather than a precursor to action, in which all the talk about marathons and living your best life is just enough to spur a flurry of leg lifts on the couch, until the ads come on and it is time to head to the kitchen for more ice-cream.

 

6 comments

  • Just out of curiosity who is the richest white woman?

    Commenter
    cnk
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 01, 2010, 11:18AM
    • cnk @11:18am

      I think it's the French woman who owns L'Oreal. But you can always check out Forbes' rich list... they seem to devote an inordinate amount of time researching this kind of thing!!

      Commenter
      millionaireofthemind!
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 01, 2010, 11:46AM
      • Oprah is a narcissistic bore, it's all about her and her nauseating life, and what she thinks and what she eats etc etc blah blah blah. Her shows where she gives away swag to her stupid fans are the worst. "I'm Oprah, the African Queen, and I've got lots more money than you, here's a car, aren't I a great and wonderful person?"
        Elvis had more class.

        Commenter
        Dr Strangelove
        Location
        NY
        Date and time
        May 01, 2010, 1:55PM
        • That whole comment to welfare mothers is so condescending of Oprah and shows her lack of real empathy. As for extending yourself to other people? Until she's actually been a mother or primary carer for another person she will never understand just how much "mothers on welfare" extend themselves and receive so little in return. I lost connection with Oprah years ago when I realized I was not the middle class privileged demographic her show was targeting.

          Commenter
          suze
          Location
          Victoria
          Date and time
          May 01, 2010, 1:57PM
          • I first saw the Oprah phenomenon in Hawaii where I was on holiday back in 1991. I would have to agree with you Dr S. She was a catalyst for opening up peoples' awareness of certain fads and foolish beliefs. How she galvanized the populaces to vote for the Bro Barack made me queasy. No one person should have that much sway.

            Commenter
            Dr Strangelove's receptionist
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            May 01, 2010, 3:51PM
            • "Power of attraction" Ego Style:
              Think vacuum cleaner and sucking jobs and vampires; yes, basically anti-Christ all the way NOT HOME.

              This is the world of imaginary "images" created by "mankind" (huh!). And no one bothers to wonder why Earth blows her stacks, it shooting black bile BACK!

              Just as the "most intelligent" creatures have poisoned our children with black slime via every thought blanketing their worlds. All suffer; a few of us cry ... alot.

              Commenter
              Kristine Suprise
              Location
              US
              Date and time
              May 01, 2010, 4:09PM
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