Up until about a week before their airing, the content of the last three episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show was top secret. But as the event drew closer, media reports foretold of a star-studded fete, and they weren’t wrong. Tom Hanks kicked off the two-part broadcast at the packed Chicago United Center by introducing celebrity after celebrity, including Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Beyoncé, Michael Jordan, and Tom Cruise (who creepily rubbed her back and shoulders while the “Oprah Show Babies” shared what they learned by watching the show and later, when Beyoncé performed with a gaggle of sexy students).
The audience for this “Farewell Surprise Spectacular!” screamed with excitement at participating in such an over-the-top affair. At times, the fete was reminiscent of a sermon in a mega-church. This is not a new metaphor. In fact, as the end of the show drew near, many pundits and scholars drew parallels between Oprah and religious leaders. It’s an interesting comparison and not without merit. She imparts her own brand of “how to live your best life” with millions of followers who hang on every word. For me, the parallel ends there, however, and I think it speaks more to the pull critics feel—perhaps subconsciously—to compartmentalize and label, not an easy thing to do when describing Oprah’s trajectory and impact. For me, the comparison drives at a deeper understanding of Oprah’s true legacy: being a female icon who has influenced everyone from the President to millions of everyday viewers and audience members. And her very last episode was a love letter to the latter; just her on her stage talking to us, her viewers. Much of it was retread: of her rise to unprecedented success and fame, and of the life lessons Oprah has learned throughout the years. But she did touch on something that hasn’t always been front and center when discussing the extreme success of her long-running show: that she is not her best without the energy of the audience. She said that when she first started the show, 25 years ago, she didn’t really have a plan. “I didn’t have [a vision] when I came here. I just wanted to do a good job and cause no harm…That first day was a shock to me. There was no audience…I needed people. I needed to have you to gauge how things were going during the show, if you were responding, if you were laughing, if you were tracking with me.” In the end, it was an acknowledgment that viewers and audience members laid many of the bricks in the house that Oprah built, and that a welcome mat was always at the door. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Oprah on TV (I know we haven’t, since she has her own cable network) but it’s interesting to reflect back on the past 25 years and the many ways in which she has influenced her audience and vice versa.