Oprah's Brand Is Showing Its Age – Just Like Most Of Her Fans


Photo: AP Images

Marie Antoinette’s advice to the poor was “let them eat cake.”Oprah Winfrey’s response to world recession has been to release her own line of organic food.

According to Forbes, America’s Ancien Queen has filed for trade marking “Oprah’s Organics”, “Oprah’s Harvest” and “Oprah’s farm.” Oprah’s products include salad dressing, frozen vegetables, massage oils, skin care products and hair sprays – a little bit of luxury for her millions of devoted followers.

Although, for now, they’ll only be available to acolytes living in Hawaii. The rest of the country will have to eat and wash their hair with things that don’t have a famous person’s name randomly stamped on them.

An article in Sunday’s New York Times suggests that Oprah’s obsessive branding of anything and everything (in a dystopic future, warzones will be dotted with “Oprah’s Landmines”) is actually a sign of panic. Although Ms Winfrey remains insanely wealthy, the power of her brand has diminished since she quit her talk show 18 months ago. Her attempt to turn Rosie O’Donnell into a likeable primetime anchor proved as short-sighted as, well, trying to turn Rosie O’Donnell into a likeable primetime anchor – leading to declining ratings for her OWN network (for a sense of what it’s like to watch the soporifically therapeutic OWN, dip a big cushion in perfume and get a friend to smother you with it until dead). But nothing could top her humiliation after she was invited to the White House and … made to enter through security like everyone else. Oh, the humanity.

Adding insult to injury, the New York Times has filed a report that is about as sarcastic as one can be without simply becoming the New York Post. Christine Haughney writes that Oprah has tried to recreate the glory days of her chat show with appearances before live audiences, photographed kindly by her magazine. As always, her performances blend intimacy, crass displays of wealth and a total lack of self awareness that recalls Mae West at her most overweight. I quote:

She stepped onstage to speak to 5,000 attendees at the magazine’s annual conference, a New Age slumber party of sorts for women held at the convention centre here last month. When Ms. Winfrey confidently strode out dressed in a sea foam green V-neck dress and a pair of perilously tall ruby red stilettos, the audience collectively leapt to its feet and shrieked at the sight of her.

“I love you, Oprah,” some women shouted, while other fans brushed away tears. “I love you back,” she responded in her signature commanding voice. “It’s no small thing to get the dough to come here.”

It’s no small thing to get the dough to come here. Evidently in the strange world of Oprah, love is measured in how much someone’s willing to pay to meet someone else. Next time your girl asks you how much you love her, say, “Well, the cab fare wasn’t cheap…”

Ms Winfrey always looks good, but the Times detects signs of pressure – a point that it emphasises in its bluntly factual way by quoting her age.

Ms. Winfrey, 58, has shown some signs of strain. She arrived at the conference with faint shadows under her eyes and announced to her best friend, Gayle King, and the audience simultaneously that she had a breast cancer scare the week before. (It was ultimately a false alarm.) When Ms. King grew visibly upset, one woman chided Ms. Winfrey for not telling her friend ahead of time and ordered her to apologise to Ms. King — all before an audience. Ms. Winfrey also did not hide her dissatisfaction with the criticism she had faced. She told the audience, “the press tried to cut me off at the knees” in its coverage of OWN, and bristled at questions about the challenges her magazine confronted.

The problem isn’t just a hostile press – it’s that the Oprah brand in general is showing its age. The median age or a reader of her “O” magazine is 49 (Vogue is 35.6). Ms Winfrey insists that she’s trying to reach out to people “in their 30s or perhaps their 20s, to be able to reach people when they are looking to fulfil their destiny.” But the problem is that the content of O appeals more to people who are done fulfilling their destiny and now just want to die with dignity. According to the Times: “Recent articles discussed how tea helps lower blood pressure and offered advice on how to talk to a doctor about medical history.”

It’s wrong to write Oprah off: failure for her would be considered success for most others. Yes, her magazine readership fell by 22 per cent when her show ended, but that’s better than the 25 per cent fall that was predicted and the publication remains hugely popular. Better still, her OWN network is dragging itself up in the ratings, largely helped by big name interviews between Oprah and her famous friends. In the latest one, Justin Bieber tells her about his love for Selena Gomez. It’s hardly Frost/Nixon, but it’ll sure help bring down the median age of the viewers.

The bigger problem is that the Oprah brand belongs to a different, gentler era. In her time, workouts and weight loss milkshakes were all it took to draw an audience. Today’s generation wants to talk more frankly about sex, while lifestyle politics has a more radical edge. Oprah might have helped put Obama in the White House, but his epoch has left her far behind. In the world that Honey Boo Boo made, freak is the real chic.

Read all Tim Stanley’s Telegraph Blog posts here

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