Oprah’s so-called experts

A spate of new books reveals many of the talk-show queen’s ‘authorities’ are pretty screwed up

Oprah's so-called experts

Getty Images; Cp; Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

Just as the queen of daytime network TV is winding down her 25-year reign, an odd publishing trend is heating up: a slew of memoirs by Oprah-anointed “authorities” confessing that they weren’t quite as advertised or couldn’t fix their own screwed-up lives. Last week, Winfrey devoted not one but two shows to the plight of Iyanla Vanzant, a “spiritual life counsellor” and Oprah Winfrey Show regular in the late 1990s. The Mighty O loved Vanzant’s sassy life truths; she was even grooming the self-proclaimed “Yorùbá priestess” for her own program. Then, in what appears an act of cosmic suicide, Vanzant signed with Barbara Walters’ production company and fell out with Winfrey.

After one season, Vanzant’s show was axed and her life imploded: her marriage broke up; she squandered millions; she lost her house and filed for bankruptcy. Now, harnessing the moxy that fuelled her rise as a self-help guru, Vanzant is flogging a new memoir: Peace From Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through.

Also offering tips on finding inner peace—again—is Sarah Ban Breathnach, who catapulted to fame in 1996 after Winfrey named Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy her favourite book of the year. Ban Breathnach’s bite-sized nuggets extolling non-material pleasures like smelling fresh laundry sold millions of copies. In her new memoir, Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity, the author reveals she ditched her “all you have is all you need” bromides and frittered everything away living a life that involved little sheet-sniffing: she snapped up posh New York real estate and Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in England, and hired nine assistants on either side of the Atlantic. Divorced from husband No. 3, a cad who showed undue fondness for her wealth, Ban Breathnach is now left with her elderly cat, big debts and the prospect of yet another New York Times bestseller.

Oprah's so-called experts

Paul Sakuma/AP

Financial loss also animates Geneen Roth’s new Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money. Roth is well known to Winfrey’s audience for her insights into overcoming “emotional eating”—using food to fill an inner void—a topic dear to the talk-show titan’s heart. Now Geneen shares another “aha moment,” to use Winfrey’s phrase: she used money the same way she used to use food, a revelation she came to after losing everything investing with Bernie Madoff. It’s hard to believe the woman whom Winfrey introduced to her audience as “the miracle you’ve been waiting for” would not have the brains to see the foolishness of considering spending $1,000 she doesn’t have on a pair of glasses she doesn’t need, as she admits in her new book.

But the greatest “Do as I say, not as I do” disconnect will arrive in May with the publication of Sharyn Wolf’s riveting Love Shrinks: A Memoir of a Marriage Counselor’s Divorce. Wolf appeared eight times on Oprah offering advice on attracting the right mate and keeping love alive. Yet Wolf’s recounting of her own relationships makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seem like a romp. One with an alcoholic was so volatile she slept with her car keys in case she had to leave quickly. She was married and divorced four times (twice to the same man). When she told viewers ‘I’m in a long, happy marriage,’ it was with a man who made her miserable; they had sex three times in 13 years.

Wolf weaves disturbing disclosures about early childhood sexual abuse with boyfriend-from-hell stories that are alternately hilarious and horrifying. One, a steroid-addicted weightlifter, would stare at his gonads in the mirror and ask, “They haven’t shrunk that much, have they?”; another threw a big can of V8 juice at her head. Suddenly Wolf’s advice on a show promoting her book How to Stay Lovers for Life: Discover a Marriage Counselor’s Tricks of the Trade takes on ominous new light: “If you fall out of love don’t panic,” she said. “You have to be as comfortable with hate and disgust as love.”

Oprah's so-called experts

Paul Sakuma/AP; John Lamparski/WireImage; Joanne Savio; Jesse Grant/WireImage/Getty Images

Wolf also confesses to seeing 29 therapists since her childhood, a statistic that suggests she was far more troubled than most of the viewers looking to her for advice. On the plus side, the exposure allowed her to be conversant in the “therapy chain” and the lingo that fuels it. Her first appearance in 1989 resulted from a telephone call from one of Winfrey’s producers who’d read an article Wolf, then a social worker, wrote about flirting in The National Enquirer. The next day she was in Chicago taping a show about good “opening lines.” Being an Oprah star gave her purpose, she writes: she became a psychotherapist. Not that her training helped her personally: “Who became a therapist and doesn’t feel better?” she writes. Chasing celebrity didn’t help her imperilled marriage, she writes: “I was too busy writing books about relationships to have one of my own.”

Still, Wolf insists her ruinous love life didn’t preclude her from helping others: “It only takes me minutes to understand the heart of a couple and what is messing them up,” she said in an interview with Maclean’s. “Yet I could not do that in my marriage to save my life.” The hypocrisy of her “expert” status bothered her occasionally, she says: “Some days it made me laugh,” she says. “Some days it made me cringe.”

Winfrey, the most trusted woman in television, has raised hackles in the past for handing over her powerful pulpit to people with sketchy credentials—giving former Three’s Company star Suzanne Somers a platform to endorse bioidentical hormones, for instance, or actress Jenny McCarthy a forum to advance her belief that vaccinations cause autism. She also validated James Ray, the author of Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, a book that tapped into the Oprah-endorsed power-of-positive-thinking phenom The Secret. The telegenic New Age shaman appeared twice on her show in 2007; as a result, Winfrey found her name tethered to tragic scandal last year when Ray was charged with manslaughter after three people died in a US$9,000 “sweat lodge ceremony” at his spiritual retreat in Arizona.

Oprah’s own secret is that her vast influence stems from the power given her by the millions who watch her show, read O magazine or surf oprah.com. And much of that draw is not what is said as much as how it is said and who is saying it, a fact Wolf grasped quickly. A former theatre arts major and singer, she was a natural on stage. Winfrey loved her, she writes: “She said she loved my dress, and she loved my hair, and she loved my earrings and she loved my attitude.” Wolf rhymes off the Winfrey TV gospel: “Don’t let the conversation lull for even a second”; “be perky and very well informed”; “wear an attractive outfit”; “speak to 13 million people as if they were the only ones in the world”; “talk in sound bites and know when to shut up.”

This year’s start-up of the Oprah Winfrey Network, a 24-hour cable channel filled with Oprah-approved experts that debuted in Canada this week, puts even more onus on finding telegenic authorities. As of yet, few of the programs benefit from Oprah’s galvanizing presence, which could explain the low ratings. There have also been reported bumps, as when Winfrey is said to have wanted to give a show to Steve Harvey, author of the blockbuster Act Like a Lady, Think like A Man. The radio host’s accessible caveman logic—men are hunters, women have to teach men how to treat them—impressed her, as did his great rapport with her audience. That plan was deep-sixed, however, after Harvey’s ex-wife Mary posted a YouTube video last month slamming the radio host as a “chronic cheater”—the very sort of player he was telling women to avoid.

And if there’s anything Winfrey can’t abide, it’s people who aren’t their “authentic” selves, especially those who make her look like a dupe. Who can forget her flaying of James Frey for fictionizing his memoir A Million Little Pieces with the sort of dysfunctional details destined to make it an Oprah Book Club choice?

She was far gentler with prodigal protege Vanzant, though a definite whiff of karmic comeuppance prevailed. Even down and out, Vanzant hasn’t lost her knack for pithy aphorism: “I had a millionaire lifestyle with a welfare mentality,” she told Winfrey. But ultimately she came off as someone you wouldn’t trust to pick up your dry cleaning. When Winfrey asked about the glaring disconnect between “talking the talk” and “walking the walk,” Vanzant blamed others, including hiring the wrong accountant for her mess. “I didn’t even know I wasn’t walking the walk,” she wailed, adding “I need help, Oprah!” If the deluge of walk-of-shame memoirs are an indication, she’s not the only one.


Oprah’s so-called experts

  1. Ohpra who?

  2. Happy International Women's day Macleans…..

    • OMG!!!………Feschuck couldn't have created a better cast of losers :)………and the sisterhood will just love the timing of posting this article lol

  3. The female 'Jesus', a poster chld for todays plastic society.

  4. IWD is the day the feminazis come out from under the rocks.

    • Uh- oh !

    • You know, people saying stuff like "… the day the feminazis come out from under the rocks" is exactly why we still need to have an International Women's Day.

  5. Ha-ha….jacka**es

  6. heh!

  7. I always wonder why people spend so much energy putting negativity into the world. You can talk for days on end about Ms. Winfrey's choices in self-help gurus but at the end of the day she stands on her own. What she has done for the world in which she lives seems to be more positive than negative. I think about all the lives she's truly saved by stepping in with her charitable endeavors. I remember when Katrina happened and she immediately donated $10 million from her personal account plus flew down to pass out supplies and also through her Angel's Network built over 50 homes in New Orleans. Then let's talk about the countless amount of young men and women whose college education she's paid for, the millions she's donated to several colleges including HBCU and the Oprah Winfrey Academy in South Africa. Wow. Can people really sit back and try to break this woman down. If so ask what you've done for society lately.

    • here, here…lets focus on the positive people! Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones!

      • " I think about all the lives she's truly saved "

        How about we think of the preventable deaths due to anti-vaccine queen Jenny M, a frequent "health specialist" on Oprah…

        • Jenny M has been on all the talk shows not Oprah only. She's been on Larry King Live numerous times, the Today show, the View etc. And she has appeared on Oprah as an entertainer, the wife of Jim Carrey and the mother of an autistic child, not as a healh expert. The subject of vaccines hardly came up and when it did Oprah read a disclaimer debunking McCarthy's views. And anti-vaccine views have been given coverage all over the mainstream media and have actually got far more traction in England where McCarthy is not well known, then in America.

          • The anti-vaccine thing has a lot of traction here in Canada. I've run across several examples of it recently.

    • Oh yes…and look at all the ratings and advertising revenue she got out of "saving lives".
      Positive, perhaps, but insidious all the way.

    • There is nothing wrong with negativity when it is called for. That Oprah has donated some money to worthy causes is all well and good, but you also have to consider that it was bilked from desperate housewives (and not the fake hot tv kind), both directly through her empire of products and indirectly from advertisers. If the billion or so dollars that Oprah has earned was still in the pockets of her fans, surely a similar proportion (5%) would have gone to one worthy cause or another.

      However, the real negative impact of Oprah lies in her influence. She has promoted lots of bad ideas and wielded influence on issues about which her influence outweighs her prescience. Thanks to Oprah, the US is currently governed by a former professor who never published, a lawyer who never tried a case, and an author whose books were ghost-written (instead of the first woman president). I'd say the impact of that choice alone outweighs any amount of cheques Oprah could ever write to charity.

      • Actually Oprah has the most literate and intelligent audience on daytime (look at the success of her book club) so they are not bilked by advertisers, they decide intelligently which of the many products advertised to them are worthy of their consumption. And all media makes money from advertisers.

        As for her endorsement of Obama; thanks to him millions of Americans now have access to health care, gays have achieved more civil rights, back representation has been achieved at the highest level of power allowing a positive black image to inspire billions and open minds, and worldwide opinion polls show America is far more respected.

      • Oprah gets paid by advertisers, not fans. Yes advertisers make money off of Oprah's fans, but those fans would still be spending money on the groceries and detergent even if Oprah never hit the airwaves, and they wouldn't have had 25 years of uplifting entertainment to show for it. If the money had not gone to Oprah's advertisers, it would have gone to someone else's advertisers, and since Oprah's one of the 50 most philanthopic Americans according to Business Week (giving over $306 million of her own money to charity as of 2008 and told Pierce Morgan she's giving everything when she dies), it's unlikely that anywhere near as much would have gone to charity. You also have to consider how Oprah has stimulated the economy. She's created thousands of jobs through her talk show, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, her magazine, radio channel. She could retire and count her money but instead she's creating even more jobs by starting the OWN network

        • you do realize that that 306 mil was used as a tax write off so the woman doesn't have to pay taxes on the billions she has, don't you???

          • How do you know, are you her accountant? There are strict limits to how much you can count as tax deductions. And there are a couple hundred Americans with more money than even Oprah but only a few dozen who have given more money (according to Business Week). And if you include all the money she pays to the government in the form of taxes in addition to private philanthropy, her contribution to others probably already exceeds $1 billion (not counting the fact that she plans to give 100% when she dies as she told Pierce Morgan). And it's all the more impressive when you consider she started her life poor, illegitimate, abus, pregnant, overcame drugs, racism, sexism, and fat phobic bigotry to earn all that money in the first place.

  8. I used to be a huge fan of hers BUT I just caught a little bnews item the other day about her starting to hold ' Mass Audience Trances " here is where the drawbridge is raised up – when you start encouraging people to play with mediumship or channeling as it's called nowadays you enter a whole new area where very dangerous things can happen to a person's psyche let alone soul. This is NOT good stuff and I feel that she has been led astray – so sad!

    • I used to like her too because of the book club, but what he did to James Frey was HORRIBLE, who made her hollier than thou, gosh the way she talked to him, was terrible, haven't seen her since!

      • um…he lied…is that okay in your books? She on the other hand stood by her principal and called him out on it. No one made her anything…she did it on her own! What is sad is that you think someone like James Frey even measures up to someone like Oprah.

        • Yes, that was wrong of him, no question about that!

          She had the right to be disappointed and cut ties with him, but what she did on the show was unforgivable, the entrapment to get him there, and then to crucified him that way on live TV was despicable, appalling, I've heard she has had a change of heart and apologized privately, she should do it publicly.

          She might be selfmade, and might have good intentions, but she has cross the line more times than not, her personal quest is wonderful but is hers, not for everyone!

          By the way I couldn't find her interview with Frey no where but here is the editor that was there with him.

          • I strongly disagree. Oprah did the right thing by publicly confronting James Frey and his publisher Nan Talese and holding them accountable. Too many people in media are afraid of confrontation and afraid to ask the tough questions, and as a result people are constantly lying with impunity. Frey lied to the wrong person and he and his publisher Nan Talese got exactly what they deserved that day. I wish more people in media would hold guests who intentionally lie accountable, because it's an insult and disservice to the audience, the host, and the show's producers.

          • No she didn't do the right thing! Since when humilliating and destroying one's soul is a good thing?
            No matter how wrong he was, it was even worst what she did, it was appalling and any human being who knows compassion would never done that. Her huge ego got on her way there.

            The right thing to do was to distance herself from him, question his integrity as a writer, diissociate from him, not endorse him anymore.

            In any case, why doesn't she has Sharyn Wolf in her show after all what a big liar, she needs to be called out for being such a big fake and pretend to be one person and turned out to be another, and this is serious stuff because people here is actually doing what she advices. One – I believe Oprah learned a lesson and Two – Wolf made a mistake and it's not big deal, I am sure she learned from it what she was meant to learn.

          • He went on her show and KNOWINGLY lied, betraying the trust of her, her staff, and her millions of viewers. Since he betrayed her forum, I admire her enormously for dragging him and his publisher Nan Talese back to the same forum, confronting them face to face, eye to eye, and publicly spanking them on live unedited TV. That shows a level of skill, integrity and dignity that you almost never see in the media. She's not doormat. When you betray her she stands up for herself. And a lot of women could learn from that. I've never disagreed more strongly with someone than I disagree with you. Oprah deserved a pulitzer prize for the way she confronted Frey and his publisher.

          • For some reason your post shows on my email account but it doesn't show here.

            Here is my reply AGAIN: I never said I was ok with him lying, but I am most appalled by her response (By the way very odd that you can't find it anywhere).

            Also, you've got your facts wrong perhaps you need to read this and go to the controversy paragraph, Miss Winfrey was not only unkind but a total hypocrate who did turn on him when her viewers turned on her, after the Larry King phone call.

            Having said that, I am not discussing this any further do with it as you will. I stand by my previous and this comment.

          • One more thing I have searched James Frey, a million little pieces, on her website too and it doesn't take you anywhere, to be fair, it might not be censorship but she genuinely feels bad about the attack and doesn't want it flying around for his sake, I don't know it could be .

          • You can speculate all day long on why Oprah turned on James Frey but her motive doesn't matter. What matters is that she had the guts and the skills to hold both him and his publisher Nan Talese accountable in a way I've never seen before in media and for that she earned my enormous respect. Telling lies in a memoir you sell as non-fiction is reprehensible and he deserved to be severely punished for that and I'm thrilled Oprah had the skills and integrity to make that happen. I think it was her best moment in 25 years of TV.

    • I agree with you. As they say success has many fathers/mothers. There are some fathers lady O must be careful with- the kind who will stop at nothing to push someone already successful- just because they want to be fathers/mothers of success. The bottom line is that lafy O is a star and a big one for that matter- there is no need for anyone to make her feel that the world will only notice her if she becomes the sun-hot sun scorching all the brilliant things she has stood and stands for. I love lady O and I just want her to stay oe move on like she has always been -a Big Star!

  9. I now have OWN and love it.The one girl that screwed herself up, was out to be the next lady O.There is only one!

  10. Oprah's had over 30,000 guests over the years. It's impossible for any show to book 30,000 guests who are all brilliant, educated, non-hypocritical, scandal fee, as well as telegenic and entertaining enough to hold an audience. You could cherry pick the guest list of any long running talk show and find hundreds of bad guests, especially if you also cherry picked the guest's memoirs looking for anything to discredit them.

    I think some people can't accept the fact that a dark skinned overweight black woman has achieved such spectacular wealth and influence, and when they can't find any dirt on her, they try to smear her through guilt by association. You could diminish anyone through such selective reporting, and Anne Kingston's biased unintelligent journalism seems way beneath Macleans normally high standards.

    If I were to judge Oprah's endorsements, I would judge the ones that actually had a major lasting impact (Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Barack Obama), not these flavors of the week.

    • Great, play the race and gender card.

      Bottom line for me is that old adage that with great power comes great responsibility. Oprah became one of the most powerful and influential women on the planet, with millions of followers who hang on her every word. She has enjoyed the upside of that (e.g., vast wealth), so it only follows that she has to accept the responsibility that comes with that as well.

  11. I was disappointed to see this article. Do we constantly set out to bring people down? Oprah has given so much-hurrican Katrina-she donated $10M of her own money! Millions of dollars in scholarships, donations, etc. Can any of us say we have done a quarter of what this woman has done? Isn't there someone in this world worth attacking…um…Gaddafi…anyone remotely connected to the Rwandan Genocide?
    I am very disappointed that a Canadian source brought something like this to the table. Lets focus on the real issues of the world people.
    Oprah is not responsible for the bad behaviour of some people who cannot control their lust for money. Back off and put the strength of your words somewhere where it has some use!

  12. Oprah Winfrey most trusted woman in america?
    Who's been doing too much crack?
    She's nothing but a charlatan selling snake oil and parading herself as much as possible
    Ever see her magazine cover with her on every one of them
    She surrounds herself with a bunch of toadies who will spout any piece of crap just to curry her attention.
    Most trusted woman in America.
    Didn't you listen to your mom when she said that stuff will fry your brain

  13. Oprah's shows were always so superficial, including the so called "experts"-but that's what the TV viewers want-some brainless and empty minded chatter to fill their afternoons. Put a little spin on all this and you become a millionaire

  14. I have to admit yes, Oprah has done some good deeds, but I do know she's extremely spoiled! I read some place she wanted to go to this fancy store somewhere in, Chicago and because they were closed for some special event she had a temper tantrum over it!

    • It was in France

    • The great O was in Paris, France and wanted to go shopping at Hermes. She and her entourage showed up at 6:45, the store closes at 6:30. The clerk refused her admittance. The temper tantrum was evidently about how famous and important a person she is.

  15. I am glad this article sheds some light on this topic.

    This woman has long influenced society. Anything she touches becomes gold and I have long wondered why she has the influence that she has had for so long.

    A 10 million dollar donation from Oprah is like a $500 dollar donation from a regular Joe like myself. However, no one will ever know about the 500 I donate. Everyone will know about the 10 million she donates and it's because she does not wish to remain anonymous. What does this tell you?

    • It's absurd to compare a $500 donation from yourself to a $10 million donation from Oprah. For starters, $10 million helps 20,000 more people than $500 does, regardless of how rich the person donating is. Second of all, Oprah's given over $306 million as of 2008 (according to Business Week's philanthropy list). Third of all, the reason Oprah can afford to give all that money is because she put in the time, effort, and talent to generate such wealth in the first place. She had every disadvantage (poor, very black, sexually abused, pregnant at 14, illegitimate, drugs, obesity) yet manged to totally dominate the highly competitive talk show industry for 25 years. There are a lot of people who are raised with every advantage, and could give $306 million to charity but are too lazy to work for the extra cash. Oprah by contrast goes above and beyond her needs and contributes to others by stimulating the economy, creating jobs, and generating tax revenue and funding charities.

      And by definition, you're not aware of the money Oprah gives anonymously. And why should she give anonymously? It's much smarter to give publicly because it inspires millions of others to give and gives the charity much needed media coverage. You could argue that she's seeking publicity, but society should reward big donations with big publicity because they deserve it, and because it will encourage more rich people to give.

    • Wow…I love Oprah for many reasons but that IS something I've always wondered…why must celebrities share publicly the $$$ they donate to charitable causes. Hmm..definitely something to think about. She has done a HELL of a lot of good for this world..can't take that away from her…but gotta admit you're right: 10 million bucks is more like 50 dollars for an average jane like me..lol. Not even $500. Lol! Have a great day folks and to Oprah..thanks for the years!

  16. "I read some place she wanted to go to this fancy store somewhere in, Chicago and because they were closed for some special event she had a temper tantrum over it! "

    I read about that too. She is very arrogant.

    I remember seeing her in an interview talking about her interpretation of God being a jealous God – (meaning god is jealous of other things in people's lives, like money etc, if they take precedence). Oprah's response? "God is jealous? Jealous of me?" ??????

    Yes Oprah, you are so high and mighty that God is jealous of you. PUUUUULEASE!

  17. "Oprah conducting "mass audience trances"! Oprah sold her soul to the devil a long time ago when she began to embrace the denial of JC and has been using her platform of "public generosity" to gain the hearts of millions to ultimately lead them to perdition. However, "what does it profit a man/woman to gain the whole world but lose their soul!

  18. So she doesn't bat .1000 – big whoop! Who does, and especially what talk show host does?

    She, and the guests on her show, are just flawed human beings, like us all.

    Are you perfect?
    Are the people you admire perfect?
    Has no-one you trusted ever let you down?


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