The Oprah Effect in Florida: From Spanx to literature, folks with local ties bid goodbye to the Queen of All Media
How do you bid goodbye to the Queen of All Media?
Judging by Monday's Oprah episode, the first of two mega-parties filmed before 13,000 fans at Chicago's United Center, it's through a heady celebration of the most singular figure in television. Oprah Winfrey is a master of contradictions: a spiritual presence who loves her material luxury; a down to Earth personality who counts some of the biggest stars in show business as her close pals; a champion of family and children who works constantly, has no children and has been engaged to partner Stedman Graham since 1992.
On Monday, a legion of boldfaced names and average fans extolled the charitable and social achievements of Winfrey, with Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Queen Latifah, Halle Berry, Patti Labelle, John Legend, Diane Sawyer and many more celebrating her legend as if she was leaving show business forever -- not just starting a new cable channel. (today, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Jordan and Maria Shriver are expected to rock the house).
But there's an array of people closer to home who count Winfrey as a major inspiration, starting with Clearwater native Sara Blakely, who credits the talk show queen with helping her start a $350-million business.
"I came up with idea for footless pantyhose. I’d never taken a business class, but I figured if I had this undergarment issue, so did a lot of other women...(but) I was hitting nothing but roadblocks. I literally asked for a sign – I was getting ready to give up on my journey – I flipped on Oprah, in that moment she lifted up her pant leg to show she cut the feet out of her pantyhose. The fact that it came from Oprah, who I’d been a fan of for so many years—I’d been watching her since I was in college. I jumped off the couch in the hotel room and immediately – I’ll never forget that moment; I knew I’m absolutely supposed to create this product.”
That product was a new, slimming undergarment called Spanx. And weeks after she made the first prototype, Blakely sent a basket full of them to Winfrey, along with a story on how she inspired them. So the host filmed a segment on her product and her journey to air on the show, choosing Spanx as her product of the year, back in 2000.
"30,000 people ordered Spanx in the next 5 to 10 days," said Blakely, who noted that a mention from Winfrey on her show is still good for a spike of 20,000 sales or so; she's since given $1 million to the host's school for girls in South Africa. "She basically told the world about it. Everybody said 'I want this thing Oprah talked about.' I think Oprah launched Spanx."
Florida-based novelist Connie May Fowler can relate to to Blakely's experience. Back in 1996, she had written an affecting novel about an abused girl named Bird called Before Women Had Wings; a subject which would have been perfect for Winfrey's vaunted book club -- if only it hadn't been published years before the host would start it.
But Winfrey went one better. Jazzed by an early print of the novel, she chose Wings as the first project for her production company's made-for-TV movie deal with ABC, buying the rights to make it into a film for the network. And Fowler wound up writing the screen play herself, for a movie that would earn an Emmy for Ellen Barkin and provide another TV victory for the host.
"I was in my backyard hoeing weeds, the book wasn’t quite out yet and the phone rang," Fowler said. "I picked it up and...this voice that I did not recognize said she was a friend of Bird’s. I tried to think of what lunatic is calling me, and she said 'It's Oprah.' It was crazy. It was literally the phone call that changes your life.”
Once the production was announced, Wings landed on every bestseller list possible. Meanwhile, Fowler, who doesn't watch much TV, was trying to catch up on past episode of Winfrey's show while also tackling what she calls the toughest job of her life -- adapted her own novel for television.
"Because there’s a social message in the book that she was committed to keeping intact in the movie, it brought awareness to issues of domestic violence and child abuse,” Fowler said. "I knew she was smart. But I didn’t know how smart. Her IQ must be off the charts. She’s an extremely smart person, but also a very humane person. And that’s a lovely quality. Even with her success, she hasn’t lost that core of humanity."
That's a quality which proved important to Ken Followell, a Bradenton man who landed on Winfrey's show as part of a landmark two-part episode; 200-plus men who were victims of sexual abuse coming forward to tell their stories.
Followell, who has long been an advocate speaking publicly on this issue, said the website for his support group Malesurvivor.org saw a 50 percent rise in traffic after the shows, which aired in November and featured TV and film star Tyler Perry.
"I don't think anyone else could have pulled it off," said Followell. "Because I don’t think anyone else has the track record, where people would be willing to take a risk, knowing there wouldn't be a tabloid exploitation of it. That’s what got 200 men willing to take a risk to go in a room and say this happened to them on national television."
In one swoop, Winfrey educated the nation about a class of sexual abuse victims hidden in plain sight. "It actually changed the national conversation on topic," Followell said. "Almost everyone you talk to about it would say I never imagined that could happen. The entire focus was females as the only ones that were sexually abused. People now realize children come in two genders. It also increased the awareness, that there are also adult men that have been sexually abused. Before that show, it was almost impossible to get people to admit they have been sexually abused as men.”