Our Best Lives, Even Without Oprah

Posted May 22, 2011, at 7:13 p.m.

Put on your caps and gowns — we are graduating! It’s natural to be nervous. Since 1986, we have lived within the safe confines of the very best televised self-actualization program. We’ve followed the rules and have integrated the rituals into our daily lives. We’ve completed the homework assignments and the rigorous online testing. We’ve read most (well, some) of the books on the syllabus and sat in class with our rapt attention on the teacher. But now class is dismissed: Oprah Winfrey is closing shop on her television show-University of Life. Time to accept our diplomas and brave the world without her guidance.

Some loyal viewers are in a panic about the finale of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on Wednesday, and fret that their days will never be the same.

Back in November 2009, when the hostess with the mostess announced that she would end her talk show in 2011, many of her most ardent fans began to agonize. Just short of slipping on “The End is Nigh” sandwich boards, they chattered nervously over soy lattes and wrung their hands before Zumba class. Who would give them their daily dose of tough-love, celebrity-fawning and makeovers-&-unders? How would they survive a single day without hearing Oprah’s wisdom? It was as if they were reenacting the sweaty withdrawal scenes from “Trainspotting” — except with bouncier hair, thanks to  regular use of Oprah’s favorite brand of keratin shampoo.

I understand and respect the feeling of impending doom that comes with the airing of Oprah’s last show. But I can say with 100 percent confidence: There is happiness and fulfillment on the other side.

Back in 2008 I launched a project called Living Oprah, spending an entire year putting every one of Winfrey’s holistic lifestyle suggestions to the test. Before I began my experiment, I couldn’t understand why people — mainly women — sunk so much energy into trying to live up to Oprah’s advice. Even my smart, independent mother clamored for Winfrey’s favorite bra and kept uttering the phrase, “I have to keep my girls up.”

Millions spend valuable time, hard-earned dollars and copious tears to meet Oprah’s ideal, and I wanted to know why. I respected her business acumen, her skill as a television personality and her ability to build her brand over the decades, but I doubted I’d be susceptible to her charms. After all, she is a billionaire who has her crisp sheets changed every other day while I struggle to make ends meet and barely have energy to make the bed. I was skeptical that she would have practical advice that would positively change my life.

But within weeks of watching her show regularly, I was ensnared by her magnetic personality, her new-and-improved paths to enlightenment and her heart-warming guests. I can honestly say, with only a small amount of embarrassment, that an Oprah episode changed my life. (Don’t judge. Oprah wouldn’t like that.) Her guest was Kris Carr, a woman living — no, thriving — with cancer. Winfrey masterfully guided the interview and drew out the very best in Carr, who disclosed that her dire diagnosis inspired her to live each and every day to its fullest. And Winfrey challenged her audience:  If a patient with inoperable cancer can find a way to live her best life, we can, too.

O’s show promised revelation and motivation. And it delivered.

I also became addicted to the never-before-seen-on-TV secrets that would make me happier, fitter, eternally youthful and more spiritually sound. I found myself part of a clique for the first time in my life and shared a bond with millions of fellow travelers. I was part of the O-crowd and didn’t have to worry about anyone judging my choices in life, because we were all following the same  template.

My husband, though, worried that I was losing my spark, my individuality. And to some extent, I was. Even though Oprah urged us to follow our own truth, I simply fell into step with hers. I grew exhausted as my year wore on — my days were filled with exercising for the BestLife Challenge, redecorating rooms, meditating, making vision boards, completing self-help tests, trying vegan cleanses, seeing Celine Dion live in concert, throwing dinner parties. Anything Oprah told her audience to do, I did without question.

Eventually, I became eager for my yearlong project to end. But when the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, I was surprised that I didn’t want to let her go. I’d become conditioned to need Oprah.

For the sake of my marriage and my sanity, however, I ceased watching the show, and the O-shaped space in my heart faded away. I stopped seeking out her newest advice, and halted almost all past Oprah-mandated projects (although I still take my O-approved handful of anti-aging vitamins and supplements religiously). In time, I stopped hearing Oprah in my head when I made decisions. Instead of searching out a new guru to take Oprah’s place, I taught myself to listen to my own voice again. And frankly, that is exactly what Oprah has prodded us to do. While her show has been successful because of our addiction to it, her message has always been to fearlessly tread your own course. And it’s worked, because I know I don’t need her any longer.

Her best advice has been reflected in her own career, in her trajectory from a poor, abused, downtrodden child in Mississippi to a megawatt international superstar and empire-builder. Her talk show was thrilling because every time we turned it on, she showed us the possibility of attaining the American dream. Oprah’s teachings might not have led me to a better life, but her example has.

Oprah is a master of timing. She’s leaving on top, she’s leaving while we still want her, and she’s leaving before the evolution of infotainment makes her show irrelevant. While it’s true that her ratings have dropped in recent years, she still hovers at more than 6 million viewers a week. That’s fifth among all syndicated programs on network television.

Not too shabby for a show that’s been on the air Monday through Friday for 25 years. When she broke the news of her retirement, Winfrey said: “I love this show. This show has been my life. And I love it enough to know when it’s time to say good-bye.”

We can trust Oprah’s instincts. But for those who have anxiety about her absence from daytime TV, let’s face it: She’s a media magnate. She owns a cable network, she publishes a magazine, she produces television and film, and there’s a rumor that she’s even going to act on Broadway.

She knows we’ll be okay without our daily dose. After 25 years of her uplifting presence on daytime television, we should all be able to find our own path to enlightenment, or at least a better hairstyle, without all the hand-holding. If Oprah’s done her job properly, and if we’ve been good students, we should no longer need her advice.

In ending her show, Oprah is like a mama bird kicking her babies out of the nest so we can learn to fly on our own. Yes, some of us will bounce painfully on the ground, and others will be eaten by predators (or talk show hosts eager to fill Winfrey’s Louboutins), but most of us will spread our wings and take off on our own power. She’s given us the knowledge, the guidance and the kick in  the pants we need to thrive without her. Speaking of pants, don’t forget: Oprah’s advice is to have them tailored.

To Professor Emeritus Winfrey: A heartfelt thanks for the overflowing toolbox, the instruction manual and the encouragement. I will miss the camaraderie of my classmates, and I’ll miss your tutelage. However, I am confident that we are all going to be fine. And maybe we’ll even be stronger now that we have to forge our own trail.

But to be on the safe side, maybe we should renew our subscriptions to O, The Oprah Magazine.

Baby steps, people.

Robyn Okrant , a writer and actress in Chicago, is the author of “Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk.”

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