Friday, February 12, 2010

Review: Living Oprah

I have to admit it, I have a book-buying problem. Even now that I have my Kindle Reader and a subscription to audible.com, I still want the real deal sometimes. So when I walked into Barnes & Noble with my husband to kill time before the movie, I might have pretended to be casually browsing the shelves, but I was really hunting for something fun and maybe a little fluffy to help rest my brain between preparing for classes. When I saw Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk, I thought it fit the bill perfectly. I only rarely catch The Oprah Winfrey Show, but I love O, The Oprah Magazine. It's one of the few magazines I can read without being bombarded by 20-somethings in boy shorts and articles about getting "the perfect butt." I always found the articles to be a nice blend of substance and entertainment. I have found lots of wonderful books by reading a review or excerpt in its pages, including Passing for Thin. Still, though sometimes I take some of the advice I read in the magazine to heart, most of the time, I find flipping through the pages to be escapist entertainment, not a how-to manual.

I'm not sure what inspired Robyn Okrant to spend a year "doing everything Oprah says." She does her best to explain it in the pages of this book, but even when I've watched Oprah's show, I've never seen her as "issuing directives" from her couch.

I always got the sense of Oprah as someone who's right in the mess with us. Even though she has fame and money, she still seems to have her struggles like all of us do with the Holy Trinity of womanly insecurities: Weight, Beauty, and Romance. I don't see her as someone who has all the answers, more as someone who is sharing things she finds along her own search for some peace, the way that I tag articles online for my students as I browse the Web, not expecting that they'll read all of them but hoping a few will be helpful. Maybe I just haven't watched enough of the show. I know the magazine has sometimes had little "homework" assignments in it, cards you could fill out about your goals or your plans for reading more books or eating healthier, but I was never very diligent about homework even when I was a student, so I'm certainly not going to be bossed around by a magazine.

I bought the book because just like Robyn, I was curious to see what would happen if someone tried to follow all of this advice. I actually thought that it could be a fun time, if you had enough time and money. I would expect someone who followed all that advice to feel inspired, healthy, maybe even a little more peaceful. I thought the whole thing might be kind of fun in a goofy way.

That's not what happened for Robyn. She defined her assignment thusly:
I decided to turn to the Big Three: The Oprah Winfrey Show, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Oprah.com. If Oprah gave a directive of any kind through one of these outlets, I'd follow it. If one of Oprah's guests gave a piece of advice on her show, I'd act upon it only if Oprah personally backed it up. Additionally, if Opra wrote a suggestion to us in her "Here We Go!" letter or her "What I Know for Sure" column in O magazine, I would take heed. In fact, if she made a suggestion anywhere in the public eye or ear, I latched on. I committed to taking all of her suggestions quite literally and would leave as little to interpretation as possible.

She also used Oprah.com as a place to search for specific advice on fashion, romance, event planning, food, etc. She taped all the shows and watched them over and over again, taking notes. She spent almost $5,000 and more than 1200 hours in her year-long project on a graduate student/yoga instructor's budget (luckily she was married, so there was a second income to help with Oprah-related expenses) while living in Chicago.

At least she got a book contract out of the deal, because it doesn't sound like she had a lot of fun. She bought random items, like a panini maker and a firepit, that she had no use for. She felt ridiculous when she wore white jeans and a white denim jacket because they were on Oprah's list of items every woman "must have" in her wardrobe (Seriously, though, did Oprah say to wear them together? Because wearing matching denim is known as a "Canadian Tuxedo" and is generally seen as a fashion faux pas in these parts). She served her guests blueberry bars with pureed spinach in them because the recipe was on Oprah.com. She probably was the only person in the United States to get through the whole Oprah-approved Ekhart Tolle "New Earth" class. She found herself paranoid that if she didn't wear the right wardrobe, she'd be the victim of an ambush makeover and get to see her "pancake ass" on national TV. Though, thanks to Dr. Oz and Bob Greene, Robyn said her butt never looked better, even if she did have to choke down whole-grain bread with olive oil for a whole week because Oprah and Dr. Oz said so.

Robyn goes through her tasks systematically, but seems almost determined not to enjoy any of them. She buys the panini maker but doesn't use it for almost a year, instead of taking the opportunity to try some fantastic creation from Oprah.com. I mean, if Oprah said the panini maker is "the thing to have," she didn't think anyone would purchase it for the sole purpose of having another useless piece in the Oprah-Says-So Museum. She shops joylessly for clothes she doesn't like and wouldn't choose to wear. She doesn't even allow herself to accept the gift of a Kindle when Oprah catches word of her experiment and tries to save her a few hundred dollars. She returns it with a very earnest note. My guess is that is where Oprah said to herself, "OK, crazy white lady. I tried," and resolved not to pay any further attention to the project.

Robyn doesn't really examine the whole race thing, maybe out of a sense of politeness or some idea that Oprah "transcends race." But one of the most interesting things about the Oprah phenomenon is how diverse Oprah's audience is. I have heard my wealthiest, Whitest cousins quote Oprah, but Oprah also does shows, like the special with Dr. Oz on diabetes, where she pointedly focused on the prevalence of the problem in the Black community. Among the "animated kids' movies, so-called chick flicks, and two-hour dramadies about misbehaving dogs," Oprah has managed to drum up a mainstream audience for worthwhile projects like "Precious." I also think there's something potentially subversive about Oprah's seemingly blander suggestions on fashion and lifestyle: If you're an upwardly-mobile woman of color trying to figure out how to fit in with White upper-middle-class America, Oprah's various media outlets would be a good place to start. I'm not sure that Robyn got that part, though she did say that "Oprah's entire program is political." She just doesn't spell out what those politics are.

I'm not saying it wouldn't be expensive, though. I was actually shocked that Robyn's required purchases only totaled $5,000, because I tend to skip right over the "O Style" pages because of the crazy prices of the things on them. I don't need to spend $7 each on monogrammed cocktail napkins. I also wouldn't spend $41 on a box of adorable chocolates. Part of the reason that Oprah and her editors think these things "are just great" is because they get them for free. Still, aspirational prices are the price of admission for all magazines. At least the $98 jeans are modeled by a woman who looks like a woman I can relate to instead of on a 6' tall 19-year-old with hips like a 14-year-old boy's.

I liked that Robyn admitted that the reason the project became so oppressive to her was not the fault of Oprah, but because "This project was a magnified version of my existing daily behavior." She, like many of us, doubted herself too often and looked around for some indication that she was "normal" or "authentic." This project helped her realize what she was doing to herself with this kind of behavior, which is a pretty worthwhile lesson (though maybe not worth $5,000). She also didn't stop watching the show. She still taped it on January 1 of 2009, when her project was supposedly over. In fact, she is still watching. My biggest surprise: When I checked out her blog today, I realized that she is still blogging about Oprah! I suppose, though, after she created an audience for "Living Oprah," she didn't have much choice.

3 comments:

  1. I like Oprah but it would never occur to me to live all of her advice. It seems a bit stalkerish, though in some ways it reminds me of Julie spending a year channeling Julia Child. Maybe that's where she got the idea.

    I like the "O Style" pages partly because they ARE such a crazy mish-mosh of some practical and affordable things and those outlandish deals that look cute but cost the earth and/or are completely useless in my life.

    Thanks for the book review!

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  2. You sound kind of like you didn't enjoy this book much - and I like that. When I find book reviews from anyone but professional book reviewers, they tend to only be for the books that person is crazy about.

    It sounds like the author had an agenda from the start, to hitch their star to a marketable pop-culture gimmick...altopower's likeness to Julie Powell is pretty astute. To Julie's credit, she didn't begin with the intent to get rich following recipes.

    Maybe it's this "doing something for a buck" mindset that made some of the assignments so joyless. I haven't read the book and don't plan to - and maybe I'm being overly critical or suspicious - but from reading her blog she doesn't seem to have enjoyed the experience.

    Thanks for saving me the $15 or whatever this book costs. :)

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  3. I am wondering how many of these "I spent a year doing x," where x is something weird, blogs and book projects actually are hits and how many weird misses there are out there. I saw a blog once where a guy was going to try to eat nothing but Monkey Chow for a year -- he got less than a week in and gave up. After a while, I would think the blog-as-experiment thing has to lose its sense of newness.

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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07