Tuesday 24 October 2017

Review: Living Oprah by Robyn Okrant

Yvonne Hogan on the woman who lived her life according to the chat-show queen's advice

Oprah Winfrey has the ears and eyes of millions of women around the world and when she speaks, they listen. She can turn any book into a best-seller overnight, her endorsement of a film can break box-office records and just one mention of a beauty product on her syndicated talk show causes a buying frenzy.

It's what they call the Oprah factor, and it extends further than the realm of movies and consumer goods. Oprah is on a mission to help women to "live their best lives". In pursuit of this goal, she dispenses advice through her website, her magazine and her talk show, which goes out five days a week. So what would happen if you followed every single bit of Oprah's advice to the letter? Would you finally live your best life?

Not according to 35-year-old writer/performer/yoga teacher Robyn Okrant, author of Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk.

For one year, Chicago-based Okrant blindly followed every edict uttered by the billionaire media mogul via The Oprah Winfrey Show, O Magazine and the website oprah.com. She bought everything that Oprah recommended, followed every diet, every fashion tip, every self-esteem tip, adopted a rescue cat and examined her poo to see which letter of the alphabet it resembled most. (It should be s-shaped, according to Winfrey.)

She set up a blog, livingoprah.com, to document the experiment and detail the costs, both personal and financial. And the results, according to Okrant, were not worth the effort.

Though she did learn lessons that she considered valuable, there was one negative ramification that the previously confident, slim-figured Okrant couldn't seem to shake: "Even though the experiment is over, I continue to be really self-conscious about my physical appearance, my body, my clothes. Every time I get dressed, I can't help but think, 'Does this make me look old, or fat, or out of style?'"

According to Okrant, the purpose of her project was to study the mass media/self-help phenomenon that is Oprah Winfrey, and her effect on the average American woman.

The results are fascinating. Every cent of the $4,781.84, and every second of the 1,200 hours 46 minutes she spent 'living her best life' is accounted for: the money was spent on the ingredients for a turkey burger served in Donald Trump's Florida resort, a pair of leopard print pumps, a white Brooks Brothers shirt, a white denim jacket, Burt's Bees eye cream, 12 O Magazines, The Oprah Magazine Cookbook, vitamin supplements, a panini maker, ingredients for Oprah-recommended recipes, interior design bits and pieces, tickets for a Celine Dion concert, cinema tickets for movies you "must see" (Sex and the City, Marley & Me, Akeelah and the Bee)...

Within weeks of the blog going live, Okrant was getting emails, and visitors to the site reached 500,000 at peak. A local radio station came calling, she was a guest on the Today show with Matt Lauer, which is second only to Oprah in terms of national exposure, and a couple of months before the end of the project, she got a book deal.

Okrant was becoming as famous as Oprah, but the great one was curiously silent. It was not until after the Today show that Winfrey's camp issued a comment: "Her blog takes a novel approach to being a fan. She certainly takes brand dedication to a whole new level."

Was she deliberately missing the point of the project? Oprah, as obsessive as she is about keeping control of her brand, cannot but have been following Okrant's blog as avidly as Okrant was following Oprah.

It would have been hard to miss the fact that livingoprah.com was, whether intentionally or not, parodying the billionaire who preached green living while owning numerous houses and a private jet; who encouraged cash-strapped women to buy expensive trifles, and who preached financial prudence in a magazine filled with ads for luxury goods.

A few months later, Okrant was watching a show where Oprah coaxed her viewers to buy an Amazon Kindle e-book if they could afford to. As the episode finished, there was a knock on her door and a runner from the show was standing on her porch with a package containing said item. There was a note from Oprah, which said: "Wanted to save you a few dollars on this one. Thanks for watching."

In the interests of impartiality, and the fact that she found the gesture weird, Okrant returned the item and she hasn't heard from Oprah since. Nor is she likely to.

Oprah obviously decided that she had nothing to gain by promoting Okrant, and didn't fear her enough to try and silence her. Which may have been a mistake.

Unlike other 'unauthorised' books about Oprah, Living Oprah is written by one of her ordinary viewers and it suggests that the queen of self-help might be out of touch with her audience.

This, coupled with the announcement that her TV show will cease in 2011, could mean the beginning of the end for the billionaire who has carved out an extraordinary career by seeming ordinary.

Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk is published by Center Street

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