Who Will Be Oprah’s Last Star?
By Stephanie Rosenbloom
EVERY time Stacy Igel concludes a meeting with her staff, she ends it roughly the same way: “O.K., I’ll see you on Oprah!”
There’s just one hitch: Ms. Igel, the founder and creative director of Boy Meets Girl, a clothing company in Manhattan, has not been invited to appear on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Not yet. But “I am always talking about Oprah,” she said the other day. “Over the years I saw her interviewing all of these designers, Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs.”
Ms. Igel, who has adopted the slogan “Passion. Drive. Oprah!” as a personal and professional mantra (you’ll find it on the Facebook page of her company), routinely pitches a producer at the show with whom she went to college. And she is considering having her brother-in-law, who she said lives in the same building as Ms. Winfrey’s close friend Gayle King, slip Ms. King some Boy Meets Girl merchandise — though the idea makes her uneasy.
“That’s a little aggressive for me,” she said.
Aggression, however, is probably warranted. The clock is ticking for those who envision themselves as the next Phil McGraw, Dr. Mehmet Oz, or Rachael Ray — all stars made significantly more luminous by Ms. Winfrey’s enthusiastic on-air endorsement. With the show’s finale at the end of May 2011 (some call it the Oprah-calypse), and only a limited number of guest appearances up for grabs, the would-be chosen have their work cut out for them.
“They’re scrambling,” said Susan Harrow, a California-based media coach who for decades has received so many “get me on Oprah” requests from writers, entrepreneurs, and even a Mafioso’s son, that she decided to write a handbook, “The Ultimate Guide to Getting Booked on Oprah,” which she sells for $99 (you read that correctly).
Desire to be on the show, which will be in reruns from about June through Sept. 9, has intensified since Ms. Winfrey announced in November 2009 that it would end. Ms. Harrow said she hears a lot of “Can you get me on before Christmas?”
“The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which made its debut nationally in 1986, has become regarded as an express lane to the American dream. Sales climbed at once-little-known companies like Spanx, maker of the now-ubiquitous body-sucking undergarments, and at Philosophy, a skin care brand, after Ms. Winfrey mentioned their products on the show, which is watched by about 40 million people a week in the United States. For authors in particular she has been a fairy godmother. Publishers Weekly said last year that Ms. Winfrey “turned 63 books into best sellers” and that “one publishing insider estimated that Oprah’s selections alone generated $500 million in sales for the industry.”
Other beneficiaries include the fitness trainer Bob Greene; the designer Chris Madden; chefs like Art Smith and Rosie Daley; organizational experts, including Julie Morgenstern and Peter Walsh; and countless authors, like Eckhart Tolle. Regular guests of Ms. Winfrey’s show — Suze Orman, Mr. McGraw, Ms. Ray, Dr. Oz and, most recently, the interior designer Nate Berkus — became only more celebrated. They have also become the next generation of talk show hosts.
Ms. Winfrey, 56, is not vanishing. OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, a new cable channel she created with her production company and Discovery Communications, is scheduled to make its debut on Jan. 1. But when her stage goes dark after 25 seasons, so will a spotlight sharply focused on entrepreneurs, writers and self-help gurus, and with it, a method that generations used to calibrate career success.
“When Johnny Carson left, all the stand-up comedians in the world were lamenting because being on Carson was a dream for so many people,” said Cindy Ratzlaff, president of Brand New Brand You, a marketing and media strategy company. “And this is the same thing. Having your Oprah moment is the same as stand-ups wishing they had their Johnny Carson moment.”
And having an Oprah moment has never seemed more tantalizingly elusive.
Like most authors, Rebecca D. Costa — who wrote “The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction” (Vanguard Press, October 2010) — wants to get her book into Ms. Winfrey’s hands. So far Ms. Costa, a sociobiologist in San Francisco, has received testimonials from other bigwigs including Donald J. Trump; Trudie Styler, the actress and wife of Sting; Tina Brown, the founder of The Daily Beast and former editor of magazines including Vanity Fair and Talk; the former senator Bill Bradley; and Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group.
“It was easier for me to get a hold of Sir Richard Branson than it was for me to get my book in front of Oprah,” she said. “Now as I understand it, he’s floating on an island in the Caribbean somewhere!”
Ms. Costa (whose book explores why great civilizations fail and what can be done to stop it from happening again) is hoping Sir Branson will run into Ms. Winfrey and say, “By the way, Oprah, did you read this book?” But she is not overly optimistic.
“I’m standing in line next to a guy that has a cookbook and somebody that’s got an exercise video,” Ms. Costa said.
For Tina Marie Frawley, a novelist in Mount Pleasant, S.C., the wake-up call came in November 2009. “The news was out that Oprah was going off the air and total panic set in,” said Ms. Frawley, 29, who has been plodding along on a work of historical fiction for six years in between college and two waitressing jobs. “I said, ‘I need to get myself on the couch with Oprah,’ ” Ms. Frawley continued, “and I had at that point just over a year to do it.” She began chronicling her efforts to swiftly finish her novel, tentatively titled “The Princess of the Underground Railroad,” on a blog with a name that says it all: Oprahby2011.com.
Another author, Tchicaya Missamou, a former Congolese child soldier who found asylum in the United States in 1998 and became a United States Marine in 2000, is hoping to get on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with his memoir, “In the Shadow of Freedom: A Heroic Journey to Liberation, Manhood, and America” (Atria, August 2010). Recently, Mr. Missamou, who lives in Santa Clarita, Calif., with his wife and three children, mentioned Ms. Winfrey on CNN.
He owns a gym called the Warrior Fitness Camp in Valencia, Calif., and he says is working to bring attention to the need for education in Africa.
“I need Oprah to help me help the people of the Congo,” Mr. Missamou said. “Women in Africa look at her like an idol. She is person from America, from a different continent, and she is investing a lot of time and passion in Africa. And here I am, a son of Africa, fighting for this country called America because I believe freedom is not a privilege. Freedom is a right.”
Many slots on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” alas, are already booked. And with recent guests like the former president George W. Bush, Ricky Martin, and Michael Jackson’s parents and children, it might appear that boldface names receive priority over unknowns.
But Angela DePaul, a spokeswoman for Harpo, Ms. Winfrey’s production company, said there is still hope. The show will be taping episodes in the studio from January through May.
Those who are overlooked might reassure themselves that while Ms. Winfrey has the Midas touch, not all of her guests strike gold.
“I’ve had a frequent number of authors and books on her show and some of them have gone on to have become enormous best sellers and some have not,” said Ms. Ratzlaff, the media strategist, who worked in publicity for Simon & Schuster and Rodale. It’s not necessarily as helpful to sales, for example, if an author is merely part of a panel. “She really has to hold your book up and say, ‘This book changed my life, I highly recommend this book,’ ” she said.
Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, co-founders of KIPP, the network of free college-preparatory public charter schools, did not become household names when they were interviewed by Oprah in April 2006. But the effect on KIPP was nonetheless dramatic. About 36,000 people visited KIPP’s Web site in the 36 hours after the episode was shown. The typical number of visitors to the Web site in a 36-hour period? Two thousand.
“It was unbelievable, the impact,” Mr. Levin said. “People knew about KIPP in a way that hadn’t ever happened before.”
In April 2005, the year after Ms. Burch, the fashion designer cited by Ms. Igel, founded her company, she was invited onto “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Immediately afterward, her Web site received eight million hits. “From one day to the next it was a very different story,” Ms. Burch said. “That can give you the magnitude of how she really helped us launch our business.”
There is no heir apparent to Ms. Winfrey; while Ellen DeGeneres is beloved, her tone is wrier. And industry professionals say “the Oprah effect” is matchless.
“I have spoken to some women who cried telling me about the show ending,” said Robyn Okrant, an actress and yoga teacher whose blog about living by Ms. Winfrey’s lifestyle suggestions led to a book, called “Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk” (Center Street, 2010). In March Ms. Okrant told readers of LivingOprah.com that she was taking yet another page from Ms. Winfrey’s book.
“She’s moving on because her show has run its course,” Ms. Okrant wrote, “and I think I should, too.”
But Emmanuel Lopez, 47, of Toronto who writes a film blog, Movies That Motivate, and leads seminars teaching people to follow their passion, has not given up on his dream of appearing on Ms. Winfrey’s show. For years, Mr. Lopez has been practicing the “law of attraction:” a belief that one must visualize goals to manifest them, put forth in the 2006 movie “The Secret” (yet another Oprah show topic).
This explains why he has captured screen grabs of guests on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” then pasted a photograph of his head on their bodies. In 2006 he pasted his face atop the comedian Jim Carrey. Last year, he stuck it on Brad Pitt.
“For me the biggest gift would be sitting in front of Oprah,” said Mr. Lopez, who likes to go by the moniker Motivatorman, “sharing my story, and having my mom in the front row.”