It has been a stellar ride: 25 years of nonstop No. 1 TV ratings, history-making interviews, toppling the competition, confounding the pundits, paving the way and proving, in the end, that real power in television resided in the singular force of one Oprah Winfrey during these past 2½ decades.
Now, as she comes into the home stretch, ending her winning run on daytime television on May 25 and moving on to run her own television network, it is worth noting how this powerhouse, the household name we have come to know simply as Oprah, transformed the world of television media almost single-handedly in the space of a generation.
I first met Oprah in 1986 at the starting gate of the ratings race. Her local Chicago TV talk show was about to go national, taking on the formidable Phil Donahue, whose national, Chicago-based TV talk show had been No. 1 in the daytime ratings for just about forever.
Oprah was in New York to host Saturday Night Live. I was in her hotel suite to interview her for an Essence magazine cover story. She was not a happy camper. Lorne Michaels, SNL's producer, wanted her to open the show with a skit in which she portrayed Aunt Jemima about to get laid off from the pancake company. She rolled her eyes as she told me this.
It wasn't the first or certainly the last time that Oprah would have to confront the kind of black stereotypes that always make some white people comfortable. Later that night the show's skit opened with Oprah getting into an argument with Michaels over the Aunt Jemima idea. She put him in a hammerlock, dragged him in front of the television camera and yelled, "Live from New York! It's Saturday Night!"
Score 1 for the Mighty O.
Future victories came just as swift and sure. In less than a year, Oprah's show overtook Donahue's in the ratings. She ran him out of Chicago, then finally off the air. I remember Lillian Smith, a black senior producer on Donahue, telling me when she first saw those early Oprah shows: "I used to tell Phil, 'You think you don't have to worry about Oprah Winfrey because she's black and fat. Well, let me tell you, Phil, you need to worry."
By the time Oprah invited Donahue, along with Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera, Ricki Lake and Montel Williams, to appear together on her show during this final season, she had proved just how worrisome a black, fat woman can be. She alone among these talk-show hosts still had her original show after 25 years, and was still No. 1 in the ratings.
In some ways this last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show has been the best because it shows a woman going out at the top of her game with nothing left to prove, which means she can do about damn near anything she wants — and has. She has tripped down memory lane, bringing on Diana Ross, first with her family, then later in the show reuniting her with Billy Dee Williams after more than 40 years, cementing their status as black romantic icons in American culture.
She has riveted us with confessions by men who were sexually abused as boys, leading with Tyler Perry. She has mended fences with women as prickly as Whoopi Goldberg, during the show that assembled the cast of The Color Purple, and Iyanla Vanzant — in a segment notable for the way Vanzant squirmed, cried and slid off the chair to the floor before admitting her egregious error in permitting Barbara Walters to produce her failed talk show, rather than wait for the show Oprah had promised to produce.
And of course, Oprah has always remained true to her Chicago bluebloods, the Obamas, standing with Barack at the beginning of his own historic run, telling a nation of skeptics during the early presidential primaries, "He's the one, y'all. He's the one." She stood with him again this season — the most powerful woman in the world turning her show over to the most powerful man in the world in order to slap down Donald Trump and all those other silly "Birthers" who would deny a black man his legitimacy.
Even with shows that have been questionable, such as the full hour Oprah gave to an interview with the brother of Oscar-winning actress Mo'Nique — a man whom Mo'Nique said sexually abused her from the age of 7 to 11, and who was later convicted of raping someone else — Oprah finds a way to take the high road to forgiveness and redemption. It is a quality that speaks to the kind of "spiritual wrestling" that Princeton religion professor Cornel West says has always been undertaken whenever black people produce great works of art. Or, in Oprah's case, a great TV talk show.
Oprah is perhaps our champion spiritual wrestler, for her battles have not only been public and raw, up close and unflinching; they have also helped transform a nation. Whether talking about her own sexual abuse as a child, battles with her weight, issues with her hair, or her man or her mother, nothing has been off-limits or sacrosanct.
This in daytime television was nothing short of revolutionary, and would usher in the era of "self-help" to television programming. From Dr. Oz to Dr. Phil, to Nate Berkus and Suze Orman — all experts introduced and launched by Oprah — "service" programming now dominates daytime TV, replacing the soaps with shows on how to live your best life in health and relationships and finance and personal style.
And thanks to Oprah, we now have a bevy of other black women — Wendy and Tyra and Whoopi and Sherri and Mo'Nique — who have their own TV talk shows. Sassy and spirited, groundbreaking and in-your-face, these successors to the Oprah tradition carry on the legacy of Maya Angelou's "phenomenal woman."
Of course, what has always made Oprah a phenomenal woman herself is that she stands steadfast and surefooted in her roots as a black woman. She has made billions planted in this position, launching a magazine and a book club, and producing big-screen films and made-for-TV movies from her own production company.
When I interviewed Oprah a second time eight years ago for another Essence magazine cover, she had accumulated enough wisdom with her spectacular success to make the following assessment: "I think for a culture of people who have been for so many years denied and deprived and lacking in self-esteem, it's very hard to see the possibility of what awaits in your future. It's really hard because the world has given you ideas about who you can be. It takes a lot of courage to be who you really are and not let the rest of the world tell you what that is."
Perhaps only a black woman, rising at the end of a century mired in greed and spiritual decay, could possess the courage and the vision to show the rest of the world what renewed spirit and self-actualized possibility look like. For the last 25 years, it has looked like Oprah Winfrey.
Audrey Edwards is a former executive editor of Essence magazine. She is currently an associate broker and vice president-managing director at Brown Harris Stevens, a New York City real estate firm.