In 2004, I took part in a BBC documentary series called Black Ambition, which documented the lives of six black students, including myself, in our final year at Cambridge University. My most memorable line in that documentary, and the one for which I got the most stick, was the one in which I said that I wanted to be like Oprah.
I’ve been enthralled by Oprah Winfrey for a long time. Although her daytime talk shows started to become a little too middle-aged for me some time ago and I admittedly don’t watch them very often now, it is the woman herself as well as what she represents that continues to inspire me.
Oprah is probably the most recognised and influential black woman in the world. She’s the world’s first black female billionaire, a major philanthropist, an award-winning actress, a massively successful talk show host, a magazine publisher, and a film producer – to name just a few of her many achievements. That is not the future that was expected of a someone who was raised on a farm in the deep South and then in inner city Milwaukee. It is not what was expected of a girl who was raped at the age of nine and became a mother at the age of 14 to a child who died in infancy.
In every way, from the start of her life until now, Winfrey has defied the odds. Her ability to do the unexpected has shown many other women, like myself, that you can have it all on a material and career level. However, more importantly, in a world which carries unrelenting pressures for women to look like airbrushed, glossy, stick-thin female celebrities, singers and models, Oprah also made it cool and important for women to accept their own humanity, imperfections and flaws.
Oprah showed us that “having it all” is about accepting yourself, warts and all, and being ok with who you are. She may be rich and powerful, but one thing Oprah isn’t is perfect. She’s not a traditional beauty, nor a size zero. In fact, Oprah has made no bones about her weight problems, her past and the various issues that she has gone through in her life. She has revealed her fears and to her flaws and it is the sharing of her vulnerability and authenticity that has arguably made her the global phenomenon that she is.
Celebrity culture is based on an illusion of perfection. It is still rare in this day and age to have a high profile person – unless they are caught doing something they shouldn’t have done – publicly admit, especially on a regular basis, that despite their riches and fame, they are really just human, dealing with their life and its baggage like everyone else. Oprah not only does that herself but has an amazing ability to get the guests who appear on her show to do the same.
With her Best Life programme, which is based on taking a holistic approach to life and focuses on emotional and spiritual success as well as financial success, Oprah brought to TV and eventually to print and online, the notion that people – women in particular – need to look at ourselves in a way that goes much deeper than the superficial. There’s no other mainstream talkshow host who will do an entire season of shows about spirituality, as Oprah did with Eckhart Tolle’s New Earth series. That series, which featured audience participation from around the globe via Skype, had people “ah-ha-ing” all over the place as they discovered new insights and experienced breakthroughs in all areas of their lives. Oprah emphasized that life isn’t just about what you do, but about your being.
The message that success in life means being whole, healthy and complete internally rather than just on the outside is one that is otherwise missing, not just from the media but from modern society as a whole. It’s a message that many desperately need to hear. Thanks to Oprah for bringing that to the world. Long may it continue as she starts her OWN cable TV channel in 2011.