From tearful on-air interviews and highly anticipated streaming specials, to contentious podcast snippets and, especially, “getting real” Instagram posts, we’ve reached peak celebrity confession culture. Everyone from Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber to Mary J. Blige and Pamela Anderson have poured their hearts out on issues like divorce, addiction, and depression. And while we’re now accustomed to hearing seemingly everyone’s business—celebrities are just like us!—it wasn’t always that way. In order to trace the history of the big, boldface-name-reveal, we need to revert back to a pre-social media, pre-pod era when Ricki, Maury, and Phil ruled the airwaves. Of course, one member of that cohort always belonged in a class of her own: No one is more responsible for bringing celebrity confession culture to the fore than Oprah Winfrey.
One of only three black female billionaires in the world, Oprah grew up poor in the segregated U.S. South. While attending Tennessee State University, she began working in radio and television broadcasting, first in Nashville and then in Baltimore. Oprah was subsequently recruited by a Chicago station to host her own show, A.M. Chicago, which she moved from last to first place in the ratings. On this day in 1986, Oprah would launch the eponymous syndicated show that made her both a star and ultimately one of the country’s wealthiest women. After one year, the show had been seen by 10 million people and had grossed 5 million— million of which went to its namesake.
Full ownership of The Oprah Winfrey Show came next, along with the creation of Oprah’s own production company, Harpo, and starring roles in films like The Color Purple and the TV miniseries The Women of Brewster Place. By the mid 1990s, Oprah had her share of talk-show competitors; yet unlike them, she pledged to keep the trashy drama that might boost ratings off the air. Her viewers wouldn’t be hearing about dubious paternity tests or doomed spousal swaps. Instead, they’d hear authentic stories from real people—many of whom happened to be famous.
Yet in order to ground herself in authenticity, Oprah needed to come clean, too. In the first year of her show, she confessed that she had been the victim of sexual abuse by a family member. Two years later, on a decidedly lighter note, she revealed a major weight loss, telling her cheering, pom-pom-waving audience that this was the first time she had fit into size 10 Calvin Klein jeans since 1981. Clad in the dark denim, coupled with a statement belt and form-fitting black turtleneck, Oprah revealed her newly svelte physique with a flourish—throwing off an oversized magenta coat, twirling and whooping. The audience ate it up.
Both episodes were formative in conceptualizing the persona for which Oprah would become best known. In them, she is candid and matter of fact yet also extremely vulnerable. Despite being wealthy and famous, she is someone who has suffered and still clearly does. She has triumphed over adversity yet continues to meet daily obstacles. On the surface at least, Oprah wasn’t that far removed from her viewers. Her ability to empathize without veering into schmaltz or condescension endeared her to millions, as well as to celebrities looking to share their own struggles.
To wit, everyone from a post-doping scandal Lance Armstrong, and a pre-coming-out Ellen DeGeneres, to a crazy-in-love Tom Cruise sat (or jumped on) Oprah’s couch. It was she who spoke to Lisa Marie Presley about her former husband Michael Jackson’s drug use and she to whom Rihanna confessed her abusive ex was then still the love of her life. Oprah discussed incest with actress Mackenzie Phillips and grilled author James Frey about fictionalizing portions of his best-selling memoir. By the end of her daily talk show run in 2011, Oprah still had one big reveal left of her own: the existence of a half-sister, Patricia, whom her mother put up for adoption and refused to later meet.
Critics claim that Oprah has essentially monetized misery for mass consumption. Others prefer to simply believe that she made it okay to be a little miserable sometimes. Oprah’s penchant for public confession-as-therapy even got a name—“Oprahfication.” Still, others think of Oprah as the O.G. Influencer—someone whose opinions and endorsements matter so much that just about everyone is willing to listen to, if not always embrace them.
That singular power, dubbed “The Oprah Effect,” has colored fields as diverse as publishing, philanthropy, and politics, along with self-help, spirituality, and even the business of being a celebrity has-been. (See “Oprah’s Book Club,” the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Becoming Michelle Obama,” “Oprah’s 2020 Vision” and “Oprah: Where Are They Now?”).
Then, there was “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” which basically belongs in a category all its own. Comprised of stuff Oprah loved, this annual list spanned clothing, cosmetics, cookies, and most famously, cars that were then gifted to her studio audience. Easily the most popular episodes of the year, “Favorite Things” garnered huge ratings and padded the bottom lines of big-name and independent businesses alike. It also spawned an industry-wide yen for copycat sweepstakes and giveaways that continues both on television and online.
Today, celebrities don’t need to have a sit-down to bare their souls—they simply need to craft a lengthy Instagram post that will be liked, shared, and quickly embedded into online news stories, effectively bypassing the once-traditional interview process. Oprah gets this. It’s why she continues to diversify her empire while still doing a sit-down with The Rock or Amy Schumer (posted to Instagram), and sprinkling her feeds with book recommendations, did-you-know posts, and behind-the-scenes snippets. Oprah is still here, as influential as ever, omnipresent across multiple platforms. The indefatigable, larger-than-life role is one into which she settled long ago, comfortably. Perhaps Oprah herself put it best: “You can either see yourself as a wave in the ocean or you can see yourself as the ocean.”END
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