Winfrey and Armstrong: when tarnished halo brands collide

Forget “no-holds-barred,” this will be a staged cage-match

Lance Armstrong’s face-off with Oprah Winfrey this week (airing Thursday and Friday) promises to be the most calculated comeback since Cheap Trick dusted off the Lycra. And not only for the disgraced cyclist, who’s obviously using the manufactured platform to try to beat the odds facing him, just as doping once did. The sit-down between the two formerly invincible halo brands is clearly synergistic: Winfrey needs the ratings boost, and to reclaim her spot as America’s go-to confessor for lapsed celebrities; Armstrong, shunned by former sponsors including Nike, and by his “Say it ain’t so, Lance” apologists, desperately needs to tap into what’s left of the “Oprah effect.”

There’s an innate conundrum here, of course. Halo brands are conferred on institutions and people (Mayo Clinic; Mother Theresa) with a unique ability to inspire and perceive unimpeachable credibility. Armstrong, for a time, held the world in thrall with his seven Tour de France wins (all now stripped), beating cancer and, in 1997, founding “Livestrong,” his once-venerated, now disgraced charity. Winfrey, meanwhile, inspired the masses “to live your best life” wearing a Livestrong bracelet. That shared ability to uplift transformed both into commercial juggernauts; people bought whatever they were selling.

But now those halos are tarnished, Armstrong’s far more than Oprah’s—a calculus that means he has far more to win, she more to lose. Despite his repeated claims of innocence, he was outed as a liar, manipulator and user by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency last year in a damning, 1,000-page report that accused him of masterminding a long-running, labyrinthine doping scheme. Winfrey’s sway, specifically her hold over the cultural zeitgeist, has also sagged since she stepped down from her daily pulpit in 2011 to run the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Ratings have been poor; the enterprise has been plagued by bad press; the “Oprah effect” never kicked in. There have been no defining moments for which she is famed—Tom Cruise couch-jumping, visiting Michael Jackson in Neverland, Jennifer Hudson forgiving the man who killed members of her family. Now the few people who subscribe to OWN are stuck with interviews like a recent emotional chit-chat with Rihanna who described her former, physically abusive boyfriend Chris Brown as the “love of her life.” (Winfrey didn’t even bother to talk some sense into her.) To top it off, there’s the growing blowback (complete with evidence) that the anointed “experts“ Winfrey unleashed on the world, among them Drs. Phil and Oz, are quacks.

In wrangling Armstrong, Winfrey might have met her nemesis—if only because their fame is derived from the same inspirational, “live-every-day-strong” wellspring. It’s unlikely we’ll see a repeat of Winfrey’s 2006 smack down of James Frey for fabricating parts of his memoir. At the time, her lacerating fury was widely celebrated as triggering some sort of national catharsis, a necessarily proactive “truthiness” blood-letting.

This highly anticipated sit-down, however, looks more like a WorldWideWrestling staged cage-match. Billed by OWN as Armstrong’s “first no-holds-barred” interview, it now looks like Winfrey’s been co-opted as the final stop of his week-long Apol-alooza. It was originally scheduled for one night; now allegedly there’s so much material, it has morphed into two 90-minute segments aired over two nights to milk primo ad revenue. Whether they’ll get what they paid for is doubtful. When Winfrey was promoting the show on CBS earlier this week, she coyly hinted that she hadn’t gotten the full goods: “I would say he did not come clean in the manner I had expected,” she said. “It was surprising to me.” Considering that Armstrong was surrounded by lackeys and lawyers choreographing his every move, it would seem entirely predictable.

What Armstrong wants is simple, if not easily obtained. He wants back on his bike to regain his money-making mojo. There’s also a lot to pedal from. He’s facing a mountain of litigation—from his former cycling team, from people who lost libel judgments after daring to suggest he used performance-enhancing drugs. Then there are regulators who want him under oath on the stand. For some reason, they don’t see a chat with the once-Mighty O as the equivalent of a real-world admission. It’ll be fascinating to see how many others agree—and just how transcendent a halo brand can be.

 




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Winfrey and Armstrong: when tarnished halo brands collide

  1. Looks like an editor or writer forgot to finish their job…

    • I guess if you don’t know how to spell labyrinthine, you can just take a wild stab at it.

      • We’ve corrected the typo. Thank you both for pointing out

  2. Then get back to work.

  3. I enjoy reading Anne Kingston’s work here, but it’s always disconcerting to see glaring factual errors in the writing — and since I’m neither an Oprah or Armstrong fan, if I can spot a couple of errors, they should have been pretty easy for a researcher to have spotted before publishing. Jennifer Hudson did indeed forgive her family’s killer; however that was just last year and so it was on an OWN show, not the old daily show (where indeed the Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise interviews took place.

    As for using MacLean’s writer Julia Belluz’s article about Dr Oz — Belluz’s article, as linked, does not reveal Oz so much as a “quack” as it does a marketer — in an article published here in MacLeans by Belluz (2012, I think, whenever he was in TO) — he admits he gives fairly broad and benign advice because one cannot really do any kind of diagnosis on TV to thousands of people. He, Oprah, Dr Phil (blech, horrid man): they are TV personalities more than they are any kind of actualy scientists, life gurus more than anything. As for Oprah having a “tarnished halo:” reality is that Oprah made a bad business decision, but likely a good one for her life, and nobody can stay on top for much longer than Oprah reigned. But she has not damaged her reputation — she managed to hold a couple of generations of women in her thrall, and sooner or later, that has to give way to someone or something new.

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