Chicago Sun Times

Oprah guest can only laugh, wince in recalling moment on couch

By Paige Wiser TV Critic, Chicago Sun Times

chicago1(Chicago Sun Times) — If you lived in Chicago over the last 25 years, you had a better-than-average shot at getting on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

The pleas for guests at often called for locals, and even at this late date there’s a notice saying, “Chicagoland Only: Calling female Ultimate Viewers!”

And then there’s the networking.

“You could be out walking the dog and meet a producer,” says Susan Harrow, a media coach originally from Highland Park and author of The Ultimate Guide to Getting Booked on Oprah. “Or maybe you know connections of connections.”

A big part of Harrow’s business has been the pursuit of Oprah. She’s prepped her clients to be camera ready, and some of them went through five levels of interviews before they got on the show.

But for Nancy Kozlowski, all it took was sending a letter 10 years ago. Her clips have made so many “best of” shows that she’s tied Celine Dion for the most frequent appearances on “Oprah.”

“I wrote and asked if I could ever get tickets if Tom Cruise was going to be on,” says Kozlowski, who owns Dream Vacations Unlimited in Roselle. She shares a birthday with Cruise — and has a small shrine to him.

“They must keep letters in their database or something,” she says. “But one day, at [8:30] in the morning, they showed up at my house — no call or anything. There were two women standing there with a camera.”

For Kozlowski, Oprah wanted to document the staggering surprise: She was going to meet Tom Cruise. And, to be fair, Oprah was live from her studio, wearing her bathrobe and no makeup.

Kozlowski’s reaction was a combination of screaming, hopping and confusion.

Oprah was pleased. “This is better than the sweepstakes!” she said.

After that? “It was like a two-week nightmare,” says Kozlowski. “I think I made my husband go with me to every single store imaginable to try to figure out what to wear.”

Finally, the limo arrived to ferry her family to the famed green room. They did her hair and makeup, but didn’t coach her at all for the cameras. In the middle of Cruise’s interview, Oprah asked him if he knew the effect he had on fans.

“They started rolling the tape, and I was embarrassed because I acted like an idiot,” says Kozlowski. “But he was laughing, too, at Oprah. She showed the part when she was in her bathrobe. And he’s like, ‘Where is she?’ They opened up the doors and they kind of threw me out on the stage.”

After being on “Oprah,” Kozlowski was recognized everywhere. “They’d say, ‘Are you from Minnesota? Did I go to high school with you?’ ” On a cruise, a man ran after her, shouting, “You’re that lady!”

At one point, Kozlowski headed to Woodfield to buy some shoes for a wedding. “I’m in the glass elevator, and someone recognizes me,” she remembers. “A woman with a baby carriage is blocking the door. I could not get off the elevator because they wanted to know the whole story. I was like, ‘I really gotta go get these shoes.’ ”

Kozlowski went through a few tough years after that; her house burnt to the ground. She did save her Tom Cruise movies, though, and the outfit she wore on the show. Oprah’s producers kept in touch with her through it all. “They want to make sure everything’s OK in life, they want me to update them, just in case they want to do future shows,” she says.

They did. When Cruise returned to the show seven years after meeting Koz­low­ski, he wanted to see her again. One of Oprah’s people made an appointment, pretending to be a traveler interested in South America. “All of a sudden, here come these cameras trudging across my floor again.”

Her reaction: “Please do not tell me that Oprah Winfrey is inside that camera again!” she shrieked.

This visit was even better than the first. “They put fake eyelashes on me,” Kozlowski says. “I’ve never had fake eyelashes on in my life.”

Cruise had a gift for her, too: a Tiffany frame with a picture of them together. “I’m getting chills as I’m telling you this,” Kozlowski says.

At this point, Kozlowski was used to the attention from strangers. “When it starts to subside and people don’t recognize me anymore, that’s kind of nice,” says Koz­low­ski. “Maybe you’re not in the mood. I’d be like, ‘My mom’s in the hospital and I don’t want to talk about this right now.’ ”

But it’s happening again. Just a month ago, Koz­low­ski got another call. Her “surprise” video had been nominated for a Lolly Award, an Oprah honor named for the “laugh out loud” abbreviation.

There were no fake eyelashes for this appearance, but the audience voted Kozlowski’s video as the best. “What’s so funny is my feet were hurting so bad that I’d taken off my shoes,” she says. “When they called my name, I went up onstage without my shoes.” The cameras only showed the top of her.

The “Oprah Effect” on Koz­low­ski has been profound. “She has made me such a more positive person,” she says. “Even when something horrible happens, tomorrow is another whole day. Something could happen tomorrow that’s 10 times better.”

And as for the first and last-ever Lolly Award? It went straight to the Tom Cruise shrine.