America is in tears today as it watches the last Oprah Winfrey Show of all time (probably – she’s launching her own cable network).
For a quarter of a century, Oprah has been a fixture of mainstream American telly, representing everything that we love it for. Shameless emoting, silly celebrities and jaw-dropping real-life stories – Oprah virtually invented them all.
First, let’s give Oprah her due: she’s naturally empathic, an inimitably smooth presenter and a humanitarian who’s done a lot of good by raising awareness of everything from child abuse to the Holocaust, from educational standards to racism, from poverty to politics. She’s built schools, changed minds, changed lives.
Well, forget all that. Here are our 10 favourite moments from Oprah’s career, with an emphasis on the other thing that’s made her a megastar: shameless vulgarity and unintentional intrigue…
1. Tom Cruise bounces up and down, attacks Oprah (2005)
Oprah’s most famous celebrity love-in featured Tom Cruise, just after he started dating Katie Holmes, the actress and woman. Tom put on a simply terrifying display of emotion, including bouncing on Oprah’s couch, dropping to one knee to punch the floor and, for some reason, repeatedly grabbing Oprah’s hands to engage in the playground bully’s favourite game, Mercy. For the finale, Tom sprinted to the green room and dragged Katie out.
2. Dr Oz’s guide to plop-plops (2005)
In 2004, UK viewers were shocked by the sight of sour-faced alfalfa-sprout saleswoman Gillian McKeith forcing fatties to poo into Tupperware, before confronting them with the words, “Your POO STINKS!” A year later, Oprah tackled the subject herself in a caring way with the help of resident medical expert Dr Mehmet Oz. Dr Oz was more concerned with sound than smell: “If it sounds like a bombardier, you know, ‘plop, plop, plop,’ that’s not right because it means you’re constipated. It means the food is too hard by the time it comes out. It should hit the water like a diver from Acapulco.”
3. Oprah gives everyone a car (2004)
Oprah is famed for her onscreen generosity – paying people’s bills, buying them a house, giving them the gift of literature via her Book Club. The most notorious giveaway came when audience members were each given a gift box and told that one charmed box contained the key to a Pontiac G6. Cue pandemonium as everyone finds a key and Oprah goes berserk, roaming the studio pointing at people and shouting “YOU get a car! YOU get a car! YOU get a car!” Only later did the lucky recipients find that Oprah wasn’t paying the income tax on the gifts, thus landing them with a bill of up to $7,000. Some were forced to sell up.
4. Hugh Jackman smashes his own face in (2010)
Oprah conducted an official visit to Australia last year, celebrating with an alfresco show at Sydney Opera House. X-Men star Hugh Jackman was a guest, but proved not to have any physical powers himself when his entrance went hilariously wrong. Hurtling down a zip-wire from the top of the Opera House, Jackman waved casually to the crowd before failing to apply his brakes and crashing into a lighting rig. “Let’s take a break,” said Oprah as blood dripped onto the floor.
5. Oprah loses a trolley-full of weight (1988)
America’s struggle with obesity has been mirrored over the decades by Oprah, whose size changes as often as her hair. Oprah later admitted it was a mistake to cart 67 pounds of fat into the studio to represent the amount of weight she’d recently lost – within two days the size 10 jeans she wore no longer fitted, because the weight was going back on. Had Oprah jinxed herself? Not really – after four months of eating nothing but vitamin supplements, when she started on food again she found “my metabolism was shot”. Oprah had a long way to go before becoming a national role model.
6. Oprah interviews a murderer, then reconsiders (1989)
You’d think an interview with a serial murderer guilty of killing eight people would be classic Oprah, but as Oprah herself says on her website: “I once interviewed a murderer—a guy who’d killed eight people. In the middle of my conversation with him and the families of some of his victims, I had a flash: ‘I shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not going to help anybody.’ That’s why we never aired that show.” Despite arguably all failing on the same criterion, her other 4,559 shows did air.
7. Kirstie Alley strips to her undies (2006)
Having topped 200 pounds in the early 2000s, Kirstie Alley chose Oprah as the person to confide in about her dramatic weight loss, strutting across the stage in a cranberry bikini that was visibly designed for someone announcing an even more dramatic weight loss. Her explanation? She’d carefully stipulated that no photographs would be taken, forgetting that The Oprah Winfrey Show is a television programme watched by tens of millions.
8. Oprah recommends the wrong book (2003)
Oprah is immensely powerful in US publishing thanks to her book recommendations – yes, even more than Richard and Judy over here. James Frey benefited from the Oprah boost for his drug-addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. The problem: it turned out that quite a few of those pieces were fictional. Oprah ripped Frey a new back cover when he appeared on the show three years later. “That’s a lie. It’s not an idea, James. That’s a lie!” Don’t mess with her.
9. Oprah dances with Tina Turner (1997)
A lifelong dream fulfilled: at a Tina Turner gig, Oprah emerged onto the stage, wearing an astounding pair of high-waisted PVC trousers and clutching a mic. It was less of a dream fulfilled for the people watching who, had they heard Turner’s backstage comment to Oprah (“You really don’t have any rhythm, do you?”) would have known that this was the time to stampede for the bar.
10. Oprah says goodbye (2011)
A low-key farewell this week, after 25 years at the top: Oprah bowed out with a three-day spectacular at a Chicago stadium, with guests including Aretha Franklin, Tom Cruise, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Simon Cowell, Michael Jordan and Madonna. Then back to the studio for today’s last studio show. “I cried for the whole hour,” a satisfied audience member told American TV after the taping.