This happened during lunch at a mercifully air-conditioned sushi restaurant, where I sat with friends trying to fight off the Toronto summer heat and get my tempura fix at the same time. The conversation quickly turned to celebrity gossip, including the disputed speculation that Uma Thurman may or may not have some sort of body image disorder. Then it happened to me again. In between sips of miso soup I casually looked up and said, “You know, I think I heard about that disorder on Oprah once . . . ” And, there it was; the Oprah reference.
Whenever I’m in a conversation and confess that I’ve been educated on some particular topic by The Oprah Winfrey Show, my companions usually snicker, “Oh, you were watching Oprah, eh?” I’m aware of the stigma attached to being an Oprah viewer. People think only middle-aged soccer moms or “you go girl!” spouting BAPs (“Black American Princesses”) watch Oprah. Stereotypes aside though, what’s so wrong with watching Oprah once in a while? It’s not as if I’m holding the program up as a beacon of scholarly thought or journalistic excellence. If more pressing issues are the order of the day (like say, a woman requesting a paternity test to find out who fathered her 14 kids) I know The Maury Povich Show) is on the case. But, after 18 years on television Oprah has gone from gutter shock talk to secular spirituality and everything in between. Love her or hate her, she is still a big cultural figure; still very much master of her domain. And, her domain encompasses a number of successful ventures.
This year Oprah Winfrey was ranked number three on Forbes magazine’s 100 top celebrities. Last year, she revived her book club, which in the past made superstars out of writers. Her monthly, O magazine now brings her parceled wisdom onto coffee tables at home and reception room tables at countless doctor waiting rooms. She also wised-up to the cocooning trend and launched her own bi-annual shelter book, O at Home. The Oprah name is behind movies, television series, and the estrogen-friendly cable network, Oxygen. With Martha Stewart on the way to the big house and Rosie O’Donnell off the air for two years, the remaining “grand dame of daytime talk” now reigns as the queen of brand extension, too. Oprah has not only built an empire on her name, but others have profited by association, as well. Her personal weight issue became yet another avenue for profit when her chefs, Rosie Dale and Art Smith, and trainer, Bob “Get With the Program” Greene, were able to turn their successful work on Oprah into a branding opportunity for their own talent, and now they’re ringing in the revenue, too.
Some have actually tried to emulate Oprah’s success, albeit with mixed results. Like Teen Vogue and Teen People in the publishing world, TV execs thought they could develop a younger, hipper Oprah with The Ananda Lewis Show (2001-2002). Hosted by former MTV VJ Ananda Lewis, there were big hopes put on the project, but the program never made it to season two. Same deal with Iyanla (2001-2002) with host Iyanla Vanzant, who was a regular self-help guru on Oprah’s show. Even best gal pal Gayle King had her own talk show in 1997. But the half hour program was quickly yanked. Things finally stuck by breaking the mould with Dr. Phil, hosted by Phil McGraw, a white, male psychologist with a “tell it like it is” demeanour. He seems to be going strong although he, too, has gone through a few PR snafus; including the discovery that the good doctor, who espouses family values, had actually gone through a divorce in the past (but to that I say, “big deal.”).
South of the border, Cuban born Cristina Saralegui, has become known as the “Latin American Oprah”. Her hugely successful program, El Show de Cristina is in its 16th year with no signs of slowing down. Saralegui also moonlights as an actress (The George Lopez Show) and publishes her own magazine, Cristina, La Revista. And, then there’s Canada, where unfortunately (or fortunately depending on who you talk to) no Oprah equivalent exists. The closest thing we have to Oprah, here, is the Vancouver-based Vicki Gabareau Show, with a smart and dry-witted host. The program regularly showcases Canadian talent and topical subject matter. There’s also Cityline, a Toronto-based production hosted by the wisecracking Marilyn Dennis, who also does double duty as a radio personality. She rules her roost daily while a revolving panel of regular guests are delegated to themed days like “Therapy Tuesday” and “Fashion Friday”. We’ve also had our fair share of talk shows in the past like The Dini Petty Show (1989-2000), The Shirley Show (1989-1995) and the Camilla Scott Show (1996-1999), a Ricki Lake clone.
As my lunch companions can attest, a new Canadian-ized Oprah probably wouldn’t fly here anyway. To young, jaded Canadians, Oprah’s earnestness probably wouldn’t register. So, why not toss caution to the wind and turn convention on its ear by finding someone who has their own vibe and could attract that lucrative younger demographic, too? The first person that comes to mind is former Much Music VJ Master T (AKA Tony Young).
Young was born to Caribbean parents in England and then immigrated to Canada as a youth, eventually landing a job on Canada’s music station in the ’80s. He stood out from day one with his signature dreadlocks, big jewellery, and creativity in developing side kicks like Roxie (a talking synthesizer) and alter egos like the Scottish, kilt-wearing “T McGee”. His connection to fans was in part due to his tireless efforts to bring urban music into the station’s regular rotation in the days when hip-hop was not playing in every club, on every station and in the background of every television commercial.
He’s already used to interviewing celebrity guests like Jennifer Lopez and Madonna, but he’s also in tune with the issues of the day having hosted many special Much Music forums on topics like race relations and the use of sex in videos. After his Much days he went on to host his own radio show (Master T’s Wall of Sound), branded a number of Dance and Reggae Mix CDs as well as developed his own production company, Fullsteed. T is smart, he’s urban and if someone doesn’t put him back on Canadian TV it’s seriously going to be a travesty. So, let me use this forum as the first stop on the official “Master T For TV Talk” campaign.
Still, there is only one Oprah . And, although daytime TV talk in general is seen as a lowbrow form of edutainment, her appeal is less about her program and more about the woman. Her charm comes from the fact that she’s relatable: she has weight issues, she goes through bad hairstyle choices, and she’s had a tough life and lived to talk about it. It’s inspiring to turn on the television and see a black woman who started from humble beginnings and is now a multimillion dollar global phenomenon. Oprah is one part entertainment, one part business savvy, and one part black girl who made. So, at the risk of destroying my jaded, hip, 20-something persona I’ll admit it; I like Oprah. And, I don’t care who knows it.