CHICAGO — The ladies had come all dressed up for a few hours out with their best friend. They lined up patiently on the sidewalk of a Chicago warehouse district, bundled in their nicest shopping coats and smartest outfits, eagerly awaiting a sublime afternoon of gossip and enlightenment.
There were 200 of them (along with a sprinkling of men), 196 too many for an intimate table. When you are sitting down to watch Oprah Winfrey dish, you squeeze in where you can.
The 200 who clutched tickets to the recent afternoon taping of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" inside Winfrey's Harpo Studios complex were the lucky few among the estimated 15 million to 20 million viewers who treat their regular dalliance with Winfrey as a treasured moment in their day.
On this uncommonly warm Chicago winter day, many of the women in line carried more than their tickets. Dozens of them held copies of "She's Come Undone," a well-received 1992 novel that Winfrey had asked them to read. These days, the queen of talk is doing more than talking. She is advising her audience on what to read, what to listen to, how to live. And by the hundreds of thousands, Winfrey's devotees are taking her advice.
Talk show pretenders have chipped away at her ratings in recent years, but Winfrey remains at the head of the sofa chatter pack, thriving on her uncanny ability to fuse mundane reality and angst with the remote gloss of celebrity status. To her fans, Winfrey is the understanding girlfriend who knows their hidden emotional scars, their dietary yo-yoing, their love for unabashed romance, seemingly one of them even though she is what they are not--a talk show host-film star-studio executive who oversees an entertainment powerhouse worth $415 million.
"She's like the friend you always connect with, the one who catches you up on her life; you know, the one you confide in," says Maryann Koehl, an airline worker from Palatine, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago, who sometimes tapes the Winfrey show when she is on the job, even on the day she joined the 200 other "Oprah" addicts in line to see the talk show host in person. "She's down to earth, a real natural. When she talks, you just don't listen. You want to listen."
As concerned friends will sometimes do, the nation's girlfriend has lately gone on a reclamation project. Not content with improving viewers' waistlines and taste in bedsheets, Winfrey has asked her audience to join her in "Oprah's Book Club," reading serious literary fiction and discussing it once a month on her show.
The results have been nothing short of seismic since the book club was announced last September. At Winfrey's suggestion, legions of viewers have trooped out to bookstores and bought hundreds of thousands of copies of four recommended novels, catapulting authors Jane Hamilton, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Wally Lamb (the author of "She's Come Undone") and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison onto bestseller lists.
Insisting she is only a "conduit," Winfrey says she is stunned by the results of her reading campaign, despite a documented ability to pump up the sales of self-help, exercise and cooking books.
"It's the most exciting thing in my television experience," she says, "the ability to get people to experience words. Not only do I bring them into bookstores, but I'm hopefully introducing them to new ways of thinking. You have to be grateful to have that kind of impact."
Her overnight success at winning new converts to pedigreed reading--accomplishing what the publishing industry, the public school system and the organs of the nation's literary establishment have failed at in recent decades--has been scorned by some as a new low in the pop culture zeitgeist.
"Doonesbury" cartoonist Gary Trudeau zinged Winfrey for the obvious paradox of a television figure urging her viewers to read more, a practice that, Trudeau needled, might eventually put her out of business.
There has been sterner criticism. "The carpet bombing of the American mind," scoffs New York literary critic Alfred Kazin, dismissing Winfrey's--and television's--effect on the nation's dwindling reading culture. And a recent article in the New York Times Book Review suggested that Winfrey had become one more "gatekeeper" in an increasingly segmented publishing industry.
Despite the carping, Winfrey has found altruism. A two-year ratings slide prodded her to reinvent her show, and the changes have both stabilized her core audience and freed her to experiment with new formats that appear to have magnified her influence. She is no longer merely the nation's most popular talk show host. She is fast becoming a cultural tastemaker, as much a force to be reckoned with in her medium and her time as Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite were in theirs.