Glossy Talk: O The Oprah Magazine's 10th Anniversary Issue, the unauthorised biography and populist, positive spirituality
Oprah Winfrey is so revered amongst her media peers that Kitty Kelley, the notorious celebrity biographer, was reportedly met with the resounding sound of slamming doors as she went about researching her latest unauthorised tell-all, Oprah - A Biography, which was published in the US on Monday (coming soon to Oprah's Book Club reading list... not).
This is in stark contrast to the impressive names surrounding Oprah's picture in support of the 10th anniversary issue of her eponymous magazine: Elizabeth Gilbert, Eckhart Tolle, Dr. Phil, Diane Sawyer... these are just some of the issue's contributors, who together with other powerful supporters (she backed Barack Obama; Michelle appeared on a cover with her), stand in testament to the persuasive pull of the Queen of Media.
O The Oprah Magazine sells around 2.5 million copies a month. To what can we attribute its success? Well, there's the TV show, syndicated in 145 countries and watched by 50 million Americans each week alone, which winds up production in September next year (she'll host a new show, Oprah's Next Chapter, on her OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network).
Taking the daytime talk-show genre out of the gutter, The Oprah Winfrey Show has catapulted Tom Cruise off a couch, put women's and social justice issues on the agenda (and free things under the chairs of audience members) and laid books like Eat, Pray, Love on the bedside tables of women the world over (coming to a cinema screen starring Julia Roberts soon!). That sort of reach doesn't go astray.
But behind the show, there's the lady, who appeals just as much to high-powered women working in corner offices as her daytime TV audience. Her philosophy of "living your best life" and "living authentically" has an almost universal appeal (albeit indulgently bourgeoisie). "We've just capitalized on what she stands for," Hearst Magazines' Cathie Black told Brandweek after the successful launch in 2000.
O The Oprah Magazine took spirituality mainstream by creating "mainstream spirituality". Her detractors, like the authors of O God: A Dialogue on Truth and Oprah’s Spirituality, have accused her of taking Christian traditions and mixing them with other ideas about spirituality to create "a hodgepodge of personalised faith", as apposed to subscribing to the Bible's teachings. Writing for Brandweek after Oprah gave The Secret airtime, Matthew Grimm said she "never met a hackneyed, feel-good gimmick she could not pimp."
Oprah's focus on personal growth puts women in control of their own lives, and their "inner lives", wrestling away the notion of abiding by didactic religious rules. Instead, her magazine offers a blueprint for living: "I've sometimes thought that our purpose here at O is to offer recipes for living – and this month we've gone all out, gathering advice from ten of our favoruite experts to help you make the years ahead healthy, wealthy and wonderful," she writes in her editor's letter. Health, wealth and joy are all within your reach – you just have to reach harder.
A large part of Oprah's appeal is her willingness to share her battles. The magazine has charted her weight struggles, with the January 2009 issue feature "I'm mad at myself..." garnering the most reader letters and inspiring stories in more than 900 media outlets, including The New York Times, People and Jimmy Kimmel Live. On May 9, she'll be mobilising the masses for a 'Live Your Best Life' walk to raise money for charity, "because giving back should feel good".
Her generous spirit and commitment to altruism underwrites the commercial nature of her media empire. Which is not to say world domination and money making are her motives: far from it. "When we started this magazine, I had no expectations," she writes. "I was clueless about the business of magazine publishing. Sometime during the first few months, I actually said to our then editor in chief, 'Maybe we should lose some of the ads. There are just too many of them.' I was immediately set straight on that point. We exist because of the ads. 'Oooookay.'"
Despite a string of editors, each one navigating their way between Oprah and Hearst, the magazine has perfected its editorial offering of expert columnists (Martha Beck is the columnist 35% of readers would most like to have a coffee with, followed by Dr. Phil), health and lifestyle features, makeover stories, no-fuss fashion and beauty pages, celebrity interviews (often conducted by Oprah herself), tales of heroism and triumph over adversity, uplifting affirmations and product placements. "Oprah's Midas touch turns every product that she recommends into an overnight sensation, every book a bestseller and every product a must-have," wrote Mark Riddix for Forbes earlier this year.
But will her soothing brand of populist, feel-good spirituality, permissive morality, good deeds and self-empowerment through control of one's relationships, weight, career, style, face and bank account continue to resonate with women? In the absence of a more influential alternative, it's likely. But is it enough? Will we ever be enough?
"She rekindles hope and renews the spirit of those who have given up on their dreams, but some women whose attempts at self-reform have fallen short time and time again recognize the limitations of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps," writes Janice Shaw Crouse for Concerned Women for America. "Some women recognize the necessity for a theological framework to ground faith. Those women doubt that "feeling good" is a sufficient roadmap for spirituality."
Girl With a Satchel