Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Being Oprah

What would it feel like to be Oprah? No, I’m not talking about living in a fifty-million-dollar house near Santa Barbara (for which she wrote a check), or having a private jet to haul you anywhere in the world, or your own TV show and magazine and cable network. No, I’m talking about something else: the attitude. What would it feel like, to feel like Oprah?

This question occurred to me as I unfurled the tenth anniversary issue of O Magazine. On the cover, Oprah stands next to a giant cake. She’s been on the cover of every one of her magazines for the past ten years – one hundred and twenty issues – the only face of O, blow-dried and airbrushed to within a pixel of perfection.

She’s even on the back cover. In a special nod to her anniversary, and forgoing what must be tons of advertising revenue, Oprah is portrayed in a lovely near-silhouette. She is wearing diamond earrings and a sparkling, sequined dress. The picture lacks any text, as if words simply fall short.

Now, you might think I’m going to say that Oprah’s ego is way over the top, but I’m not. I’m asking you to suspend judgment and think about how it would feel to be that person on the back cover. Imagine you had the power to decide to occupy that space, and then to direct the stylists and the artists and who-knows-who-else to focus on one thing: making you look fabulous. Imagine your one-point-five-million subscribers and countless other readers gape-mouthed in awe when they see you on that page. Can you feel it?

Me, neither. It’s too much of a stretch from my normal life, and the self-negating attitudes many of us struggle with. So let’s do a warm-up exercise, and then I’ll ask you again.

I was dining alfresco on El Paseo recently, El Paseo being the Rodeo Drive of the Palm Springs area. It was high season on this mid-winter day, and when I looked up from my croissant I saw that the Bentleys and Rolls Royces had cruised to a stop, and the shoppers had turned their backs on Tiffany and Cartier. Everyone was watching a tall, thin, forty-something greyhound of a woman, her long limbs clad from shoulders to toes in bronze leather, her coppery hair cascading down her back. Stunning, even for El Paseo, the woman strutted past high-end showrooms, absolutely riveted on her own reflection in the plate glass windows. She seemed oblivious to us, the commoners who had themselves dressed up for this pricey resort area. For her, the only two people who existed on the street that day were herself and her reflection. Everyone ogled her – some scowling, others with mocking grins, some just shaking their heads. Lady Godiva and her horse wouldn’t have gotten a better response. My own reaction was mirth: what a showboat! What an ego! How could a person act like that?

And then I felt a thrilling rush, almost a sense of vertigo as some unpredictable part of my mind took the question literally. Mentally, I left my fellow gawkers behind and hungered to feel like her, even for just one minute – to sit inside her mind and look outward at the world from her vantage point. Was she aware of us and feeding off our reaction? Society teaches us to be modest, and that braggarts and showoffs will be punished, but what if her parents taught her something different? What if she came from a culture where beauty was accepted as a gift from the heavens rather than a sign of conceit? Maybe she assumed that we adored her, and negativity never crossed her mind. How would it feel to stand so tall and strut so proudly, not only not minding the attention but inhaling it, your heart expanding with joy from your own reflection, and from all that human energy focused directly at you?

I ask you, could the sun shine any more brightly?

And then, as I stepped away from judging this woman – as I quieted the voice inside that whispered “narcissist” and instead simply admired the pure brilliance of her self-confidence, I felt freed from the bonds of jealousy, of envy, of competition. I felt like a spectator, admiring a fiery thing of beauty, and more than that, I felt lifted up, equal to that beauty, because I had the capacity to celebrate rather than denigrate.

Now back to Oprah.

We’re all familiar with Oprah’s history, how as a child she lived in a shack without running water, and that she was sexually violated before she was even out of elementary school. You might say she’s overcompensating for a childhood that would have ground most of us into the dirt, that she’s not really happy, and that nobody who is that driven could be, deep down. If she were happy she’d have married Stedman by now, right?

But I asked you not to judge.

Imagine that you built a media empire in which you launched the careers of Dr. Phil, Suze Orman, Dr. Mahmet Oz, Gale King, trainer Bob Greene, and countless other celebrities, authors, philanthropists and do-gooders. She’s won awards - thirty Emmys for her TV show alone. She has created thousands of jobs, given away vast sums of money and helped so many causes, small and large. She is a trailblazer, having been feted for becoming the first of her gender or race in many areas. She has funded schools and built an academy for impoverished girls in South Africa. Nelson Mandela loves her. Maya Angelou writes poems for her. President Obama and his wife consider her a friend. What must that feel like?

Oh, and the money? Oprah earns $385 million a year. Her net worth is upward of a couple billion. Forbes identifies the source of her wealth with this most sterling of American descriptors: “self-made.”

If I were inside Oprah’s head – if I were her – and I looked in the mirror as I got ready for bed at the end of a long day, and thought about the weary necessity of tomorrow’s schedule – a dozen meetings, a hundred decisions, camera/hair/makeup – I might feel lonely. I might feel the burden of leadership at the top of my media empire, and the hard-won distance from my childhood and youth.

But after I washed off my makeup and saw my plain, wide-eyed face stripped clean, my hair unstyled, my earlobes unadorned, I might let my shoulders relax. I might break into a grin. I might even say to the mirror, “Damn, girl, you’re amazing!”

In our own humble (or astounding) lives, we are all accomplishing great things, even if it's only getting out of bed and showing up for work at a horrible job, because our family needs to eat. Even if it's only because we get up before dawn every day to work on our novel before heading for the office. Even if it's only because we manage to keep a smile on our faces when dealing with damaged and demoralized family members. Even if only because we've managed to hang onto our houses for one more day.

We are all Oprah.

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