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COMMENTARY

Pop icon Oprah's amazing reach

January 19, 2007|Joann Klimkiewicz | Hartford Courant

I was bent over a food processor at a Saturday afternoon cooking class in Hartford, Conn., a few weeks ago, toiling on my assigned recipe of baba ghanouj, when a fellow student came up behind me and asked:

"You really like Oprah Winfrey, huh?"

How, I wondered, did this woman know? Could she see inside my soul? Was it written on my forehead?

Close.

It was written on my back. I was wearing the long-sleeved, black T-shirt recently given to me by my sister, who had bought it in support of the talk-show host's philanthropic Angel Network but found it ill-fitting.

Printed on its front, in white lettering: "What Have You Done Today?" On its back, the looping O of a signature that requires no more than a first name -- and that, apparently, gave me away.

"Umm," I stammered, not only thrown off by the question but also uncertain how to answer such a complex one, all the while fumbling with roasted eggplant chunks in front of me.

"Uh, yeah. She's OK. I watch her sometimes," I said, brushing it off. "This? Oh, this is just some old T-shirt." I then busied myself on a hunt for tahini.

I also played it down because I knew what might be coming. Oprah Winfrey? So preachy, so pushy, so touchy-feely. She wields too much influence. She flashes her wealth. She inexplicably sends grown women gasping for air in her studio audience just by giving them a pair of plush pajamas.

But I will admit it. I do really like Oprah. More than a little.

Here is what it comes down to: I grew up watching "Oprah." From the time the show launched nationwide more than 20 years ago, I literally was raised on it. Every day, come 4 p.m., this elementary-school girl pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter TV set, sitting transfixed by this curious woman with floppy black hair, clutching a microphone.

I watched, my mother cooking dinner while I took in the words of a woman who, it is not a far reach to say, became like a second mother to me. A TV mom. A mom I only kind of knew. Whom I only saw for an hour a day between commercial breaks.

A mom I not only grew up watching but also watched grow up herself: her public struggles with weight and some very unfortunate hair and makeup choices. Her commercial successes and failures. (Remember the beef lawsuit and the film "Beloved"?) The transformation of her show from junk-food TV to "live your best life" TV.

In a very real way, watching Oprah's evolution helped shape my own. And in a very real way, I'd say she had a hand in raising me and my sister -- and, I would argue, a whole generation of American women.

Now, with the opening of Oprah's $40-million Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, the cultural icon will raise up a generation of women who will raise up their own country. The school, in a small town just south of Johannesburg, will initially enroll 152 students and eventually swell to 450.

"This academy will change the trajectory of these girls' lives," Oprah said at the opening recently.

I don't think she's overreaching. Just consider the impact she's had in the United States. A 2004 survey from Beliefnet.com found 33% of 6,600 people polled said Oprah had a more profound impact on their spiritual lives than their clergy persons, USA Today reported.

Add me to the list. Because over the years, through college woes and first-job jitters, angst over career paths and broken relationships, I too would classify Oprah's impact as profound.

I didn't know how to explain it to my fellow cooking student those few weeks ago -- because so much of what I've learned is intangible. But as I've thought about it, I can best explain that Oprah is like "Sesame Street" for adults -- a show that gives us the tools to get through the messiness of life with some sanity:

You teach people how to treat you.

You have to believe people when they tell you who they are.

Doubt means don't. (Which is to say never make a decision in fear or uncertainty.)

Instead of trying to emulate someone else, aim for the best version of yourself.

Every woman would do well to visit a lingerie shop for a professional bra-fitting.

Now in my late 20s, I'm only a little bashful to admit that my New Year's Eve with my older sister in New York City was spent not frolicking in Times Square. Not clinking champagne glasses at a hipster party in her East Village neighborhood. But parked comfortably on her couch, sipping tea and catching up on the "Oprah" episodes she religiously records every day.

This is, frankly, how we usually spend our evenings together on my visits to the city. It's not particularly hip, not very "Sex and the City" of us.

But there we were, my reaching for the tissue box, her clutching for the remote control so we could pause, discuss, have a good cry and go back for more.

I can only imagine what's in store for these 152 girls on the other side of the world.

Joann Klimkiewicz is a staff writer for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.

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