Oprah Winfrey’s presence in St. Paul this weekend may no longer justify a ticker-tape parade. But it’s still a big deal.
Last week, she finished just behind Michelle Obama and Melania Trump in Gallup’s annual poll of the most admired woman in America, the 32nd time she’s graced the Top 10 list. Her nine-city arena tour, Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus, is drawing marquee guests such as Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Amy Schumer, with “30 Rock” co-creator Tina Fey joining her Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.
But Winfrey’s power goes beyond persuading Minnesotans to spend an entire day at a wellness clinic. Here are five ways the media mogul has made her mark.
1. She treated daytime viewers like they have a brain.
Phil Donahue deserves a ton of credit for first assuming his audience was interested in more than Burt Reynolds’ love life and cooking tips. But Winfrey took his issue-oriented agenda to the next level. Granted, her most-watched episodes featured makeovers, celebrity interviews and updates on her never-ending battle with weight. But she didn’t shirk from taking on serious issues, most notably when she took the show to a small town in West Virginia that had freaked out when a gay man with AIDS used the local swimming pool.
Racial issues were a constant touchstone. So was lifting her fans’ spirits. On the 13th-season premiere, she announced the show had adopted a new theme: “Together we learn ways to find real joy and real peace in our lives starting from the inside.” Six years later, you got a car! And you got a car! And you got a car!
2. She made reading cool.
Winfrey’s stamp of approval on novels has helped move more than 60 million copies. “And there wasn’t a James Patterson or a John Grisham among them,” Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco told USA Today in 2011.
A 2005 article in Business Week estimated that being selected for Oprah’s Book Club, which started in 1996, has 10 to 20 times more clout than an endorsement from any other media personality. That’s been a boon to both first-timers like Wally Lamb (“She’s Come Undone”) and veterans like the late Toni Morrison (“Sula”), who got more out her famous friend’s recommendations than she ever did from winning a Nobel Prize.
Winfrey’s focus has largely been on contemporary authors — Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Water Dancer” got the nod in Apple TV Plus’ recent premiere episode of “Oprah’s Book Club” — but she’s not opposed to the classics. When she suggested that her followers stop pretending they got through Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and actually dig in, the publishing company had to print an additional 800,000 copies.
3. She anointed a new generation of stars.
What Johnny Carson did for stand-up comedians, Winfrey seems to be doing for everyone else. Just ask Minnesota native Nate Berkus. His frequent appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which date back to 2002, helped make him one of America’s most beloved interior decorators.
“Oprah has always been much more than a media platform for me,” Berkus said in a 2015 Vanity Fair interview. “I consider her a dear friend and a rock-solid sounding board.”
Others who shot onto the A List by being in Winfrey’s inner circle include Suze Orman, Rachael Ray, Mehmet Oz, Gayle King and Phil McGraw.
“When you get into Oprah’s orbit it doesn’t affect your career, it defines your career,” McGraw told CNN in 2018, 16 years after launching his own wildly successful talk show. “I had no desire to be on television before and she made me see the value of it and she made me understand the power of it and without Oprah there would be no ‘Dr. Phil.’ That’s a pretty big impact.”
4. She made it in the movies.
Aside from cameos, talk-show hosts traditionally shied away from appearing on the big screen. Carson famously turned down the juicy role of a fictional late-night favorite, Jerry Langford, in “The King of Comedy.” (The role eventually went to Jerry Lewis.) “Listen, you know one take’s enough for me,” Carson reportedly told director Martin Scorsese. A couple of years later, Winfrey shattered the preconception that hosts shouldn’t spread their wings by accepting Steven Spielberg’s invitation to play Sofia in 1985’s “The Color Purple,” a decision that led to an Oscar nomination.
Winfrey hasn’t done a ton of acting since then, but her impact as part scene-stealing presence (“The Butler”) and savvy producer (“Selma”) helped shatter the firewall between TV and movies. In 2018, she became the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s annual recognition of someone who has made their mark in the film industry. She’s also a member of the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame.
It’s hard to imagine Jon Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell being able to thrive in both worlds without Winfrey first leading the way.
5. She built an empire.
Presiding over one of the most popular and longest-running daytime talkers in history just wasn’t enough. Winfrey earned her title as the Queen of All Media by publishing her own monthly magazine, founding a TV network, serving as a “60 Minutes” correspondent, establishing a satellite-radio channel, spearheading charity drives and throwing around her political clout. Some have argued that her support of Barack Obama in 2008 helped put him over the top. While she’s ruled out a presidential run of her own in 2020, some believe she could be President Donald Trump’s most formidable opponent.
“I am telling you, at this particular moment in history, in this particular election year, she is the only candidate who is a sure-thing winner for the Democrats,” Bill Maher said this past June during an episode of his series, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” “No pressure. I am just putting it out into the universe.”