Off the clock with The Checkout Girl: The United States of Oprah

The Oprah Winfrey Show’s clock is ticking. About a year ago, O announced that the show would only be on for two more years. We’re already halfway there, and I wonder what the world will do, P.O. — that’s “Post Oprah.”

Oprah Winfrey is at it again. Her interview with Barbara Walters a few weeks ago got tongues wagging in speculation of her sexuality. She broke down in tears when she professed her love for her best friend, Gayle, but she claims she is “not a lesbian … I’m not even kind of a lesbian.” Why, I wonder, do so many people refuse to believe her? And why do we care either way? Are we really trying to picture Oprah having any kind of sex — hetero OR homo? I’m not. I will admit, however, that if a Big O/Little G sex tape were to be leaked on the Internet, I’d peek. And by “peek”, I mean “watch until it was over, then watch again”. A sort of lather, rinse, repeat kind of thing.

The interview and ensuing hoopla are just further proof of what some people call The Oprah Effect. According to, “She’s one of the most influential personalities in media that has made (and sunk) many businesses. The so-called ‘Oprah Effect’ can bring fame to an obscure company translating into dramatically increased sales. Even a casual mention of a product, exposed to her 44 million weekly viewers, is a boon for the company that makes or sells that product.” But, it’s more than that. Whether it be a book, movie, artist, product, or charity, if Oprah mentions it positively, it’s gold. If Oprah puts the kibosh on it, it stays, well, kiboshed. That’s a crazy kind of power.

And Oprah has made a real impact on popular culture, in a way that I’m not sure any other one person has. I mean, who could forget “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!”? It’s practically part of the lexicon now. I am a frequent public shouter of “EVERYBODY’S GETTING ONE!”, timed to best embarrass the people unfortunate enough to have agreed to an outing with me.

Being on the air for 24 years means a lot of people have grown up with you, and while I’m a few years older than 24, Oprah has been around for the better part of my life. I’m far from an Oprahphile, but the “Other Famous Moments” section of the show’s wikipedia page reads like a snapshot of my adolescence and adulthood, making me a tiny bit nostalgic.

  • On December 25, 1986, Liberace made his final public appearance on Oprah, dying six weeks later from AIDS.
  • In 1987, Winfrey traveled to Forsyth County, Georgia, which is 95% white and had gained a reputation as being a hotbed for racism. It turned out that a majority of the county actually supported racial integration.
  • In “The Weight Wagon” episode airing on November 5, 1988, Winfrey wheeled out a wagon containing mounds of fat, representing the weight she had lost.
  • The highest-rated single episode ever (36.5 million viewers) was in 1993 when Michael Jackson made a rare appearance on the show, during which he attempted to dispel many of the rumors surrounding him and told Winfrey he suffered from the skin-pigment disorder known as vitiligo.
  • In 1995 Winfrey confessed to previously using drugs as a result of a relationship.
  • In 1996, the surviving members of the Little Rock Nine confronted some former classmates who heckled them on their first day of high school.
  • In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly as a lesbian in an appearance on the show.
  • A. J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys appeared in 2003 with his mother to openly discuss his drug addiction and rehabilitation. Winfrey surprised him with the rest of the band coming out to give him support, making this the first time they appeared together in two years.
  • Also in 2003, Jacqueline Saburido, a woman who suffered burns on her entire body after a car crash in 1999, appeared on the show. The mother of Reginald Stephey, the drunk driver who caused the accident, also appeared on the same show and spoke to Saburido about her son’s mistake.
  • On May 23, 2005, Tom Cruise jumped around the set, hopped onto a couch, fell to one knee and repeatedly professed his love for his new girlfriend Katie Holmes. The “couch incident” was voted #1 of 2005’s “Most Surprising Television Moments” on a countdown on E!.
  • Charla Nash, who was mauled by her friend’s pet chimpanzee, Travis, on February 16, 2009, spoke about the attack for the first time on November 11, 2009, a few months after the attack and revealed her disfigured face to the public and Oprah for the first time.

However, The Oprah Winfrey Show’s clock is ticking. About a year ago, O announced that the show would only be on for two more years; then she’d be moving on to other things. Two years seemed so far away at the time. But it’s halfway over now, and I wonder what the world will do, P.O. (Post Oprah, or how I suspect time will be measured in the distant future: B.C., A.D., P.O.). Who will tell them what to think about importantish (but safe to discuss) topics? After all, there is a whole army of people who haven’t had to form an opinion of their own for years. Can we eat hamburgers or can’t we? Do we hate James Frey or not? If we get on an airplane and it’s NOT piloted by John Travolta, is it still okay to fly? I, for one, am looking forward to the P.O. years, when things are judged on merit. Or excessive marketing and internet buzz. Whichever. What I do know is this, there will never be another Oprah Winfrey, and, in every way, I’m okay with that.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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