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Saturday, February 06, 2010

The United States of O-merica

My interview with Robyn Okrant, author of Living Oprah, in today's Irish Examiner

When it comes to advocating lifestyle transformation, few public figures are as effusive in their encouragement than talk show titan Oprah Winfrey. For years, the Almighty O has embodied the modern belief in the power of perpetual reinvention and self-advancement, her philosophy encapsulated in her website and magazine mantra, ‘Live Your Best Life’.

This was enough to propel fellow Chicagoan Robyn Okrant to spend an entire year following Oprah’s recommendations and confident self-help tips to the letter in order to gauge if her life tangibly improved as a result.

Okrant, a performance artist and yoga teacher, made 2008 her Year of the O, and kept a blog for 365 days as she followed the advice the billionaire dispensed on television, in her magazine O, and on her website.

The deal was that Oprah had to specifically endorse the product, event or advice, rather than merely feature it or mention it in passing, but this was still enough to have Okrant spend 1,200 hours and $4,781 reading the books, buying the foods, clothes and furniture, and practising the spiritual exercises espoused by Oprah. The project even took over her marriage to the ever-patient Jim, as Okrant sought to follow Oprah’s sex tips in the bedroom.

Those experiences form the basis of Okrant’s new book Living Oprah: My One Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk. “I had always questioned whether or not someone of Oprah’s economic status could possibly relate to ‘real’ woman,” the cheery author tells the Irish Examiner.

“I was a little bothered by the fact that she was giving so much advice, and that there were so many ‘must-haves’ and ‘gotta-dos’. I could see that the women in my life, whom I adore, were getting so stressed that they weren’t able to do all of this. I don’t think Oprah really wants us to do everything; however, she’s such a powerful force that there are women who blindly follow.”

Okrant’s tasks throughout the year ranged from the easy and fun (getting her clothes tailored so they fit properly; watching the TV show 30 Rock) to the downright mad (going on a 21-day ‘vegan cleansing’ diet). Then, of course, there was the marital advice and tips for greater romantic intimacy.

“The sex stuff was really not fun,” she says. “Towards the end of the year, Oprah said we had to shower before we had sex, so anytime things would get romantic between us, I’d say, ‘Hold on’ and I’d run and take a shower. By the time I got back, Jim was either asleep or fixing things around the house. He’s used to me taking part in crazy schemes, and he’s normally happy to come along for the ride, but usually it doesn’t take a full year. I think Jim’s patience was definitely tested towards the end.”

Of course, throughout 2008, Oprah became overtly political, publicly endorsing Barack Obama throughout the primary battle against Hillary Clinton. This posed a big philosophical problem for Okrant.

“I’m very respectful of my right to vote in this country which is why that was so uncomfortable for me,” she explains. “In one way, the point of this project was to show how celebrity forces our hands in this country, so it probably would have driven my point home even further if she’d, say, backed John McCain, and so then I’d have to vote for him. Would I have been able to do that? I don’t know. I’m from Chicago so I certainly would have voted for Obama in the general election; whether I would have voted for him in the primary is a different question.

“There were studies done here in the States that showed that Oprah garnered one million votes for Obama during the primaries which is what helped him to beat Hillary. But I think that political stance, along with the spiritual side of things she’s being pushing, has caused Oprah to lose a lot of support.”

Indeed, it’s a point not lost on the talk show queen herself: she announced before Christmas that she will end her show in 2011 to focus on other projects, namely her own channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). That aside, Okrant has found that Oprah is a much more divisive figure than one would think. “I’ve done some interviews recently where, off camera, people will say, ‘I think Oprah’s evil’ or ‘I think Oprah’s the devil’ or ‘You know what I hate about Oprah…’ It seems to be one way or the other with her.”

The experiment did reap some positives for Okrant, however. “The best advice I got from Oprah was about doing hands-on philanthropy,” she says. “So instead of just writing a cheque, I did a book drive for women in prison. Actually putting time and energy into something, even when it’s inconvenient, was a great lesson.

“Also I now find myself able to disconnect much more from the messages that I get via commercials, TV, and magazines. I’m 37 years old now; I don’t need to buy every magazine and watch every show that tells me things about my body and my sex life. I know enough. If I don’t know the information by now, then I’m in trouble.”

In that vein, Okrant dismisses the Oprah-mantra that inspired the experiment in the first place: ‘Live Your Best Life’. “I don’t believe in that language anymore,” she says. “I believe I’m a happy person; I believe I’m enough as I am; I believe I can still work towards goals and get better. But I’m done with using ‘best’ because the only thing you can do is fail. You can never reach ‘best’, so then you have to keep buying into the whole thing all over again.”

What everyone wants to know now is whether Oprah has read Okrant’s work. Is she expecting an invite on the show? “I know that her staff have my book, because they requested copies from my publisher,” she replies with a laugh. “One of her staffers gave a quote to The Today Show at the time saying that I was taking brand dedication to a new level! I’m just curious to know what her staff think. I haven’t heard from Oprah herself, but I’ll be waiting by the phone in my armor just in case.”


Some of Oprah’s “must haves” and “must do’s” that will improve your life, according to Living Oprah:

-Only write one page notes to people in case they want to frame them (as recommended to Oprah by Bill Clinton)

-Buy sexy new underwear

-Buy a ‘weight vest’ to burn off more calories as you go about your business

- Eat a slice of whole grain bread with olive oil before dinner (so as not to overeat)

- Buy the Planet Earth DVD

-Use Donald Trump’s recipe for turkey burgers from the Oprah website

-Every woman “must” own a trenchcoat, white denim coat, white jeans and a crisp, white blouse.

-Make a “vision board”

-Declutter your home and go through old photos to remember what’s special to you.

*Living Oprah: My One Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk by Robyn Okrant is out now published by Little, Brown Group.

1 comment:

bren said...

Most of Oprah's stuff is harmless but she has endorsed some dangerous pseudoscience in her day. Positive thinking is not going to cure your treatable disease, but there are plenty of people who will try it and other quack treatments before seeking real help. Her influence is too great - she should be more careful about what she promotes.