If Oprah says so

A Chicago woman followed the queen of talk’s advice religiously. For a year.

If Oprah says soWhile preparing for her role in a satirical performance about self-help gurus, actor Robyn Okrant kept bumping up against one name: Oprah Winfrey. Her mother, friends, students, all the women she knew, were continually citing the queen of talk’s advice. “I just felt like Oprah was setting this bar for women to live up to and I was a little, I don’t know, defensive,” Okrant told Maclean’s from her home in Chicago, where she also teaches yoga. “I thought, how come she gets to do this? Does her advice really work? And why are we putting ourselves under so much duress to live up to that model?”

And what would happen if a woman did everything Oprah said she must for one whole year? Two weeks before the start of 2008, Okrant decided she would find out: her new book, Living Oprah, recounts the experiment, which was originally documented on a “Living Oprah” blog. For 12 months, every time Oprah implored her TV audience, magazine readers or website visitors to do something, Okrant obliged. Vote for Obama. Stop drinking diet pop.

Take 10 deep breaths every morning and night. Get a mammogram. Dump toxic people. Consider: what can I live without? Forgive.

All told, Okrant spent 1,320 hours that year, or 6.6 hours a day, paying attention to and then executing Oprah’s advice. She refers to those 365 days as “boot camp,” and admits, “Had I given myself one more week to think about [this project] before I started, I probably would have talked myself out of it.”
The worst thing about living according to Oprah’s rules was how much it took away from Okrant’s own life. She hardly had time to see her friends, save for a few Oprah-approved girls’ nights out. This was difficult for Okrant to accept, especially because she so admires Oprah’s relationship with her best friend Gayle King.

The project also put stress on Okrant’s marriage. Sure, she and her husband had a weekly date night to have sex and sure, they kissed for 10 seconds daily, as per Oprah’s advice. But Okrant was still too busy for the couple to really connect.

The other trouble with living like Oprah was how much it cost. Okrant forked over more than US$4,700 for self-improving products that included ergonomic tools for a garden she doesn’t have, a panini press that takes up counter space; a white denim jacket, white jeans, a crisp white dress shirt, dark jeans, leopard-print flats, plus anti-aging vitamins and supplements.

She also found hearing about Oprah’s constant battle with her weight exhausting, and it made Okrant, who once weighed over 200 lb., overly conscious of how she looked. Still, she slimmed down during 2008, thanks largely to Oprah’s “Best Life Challenge,” which mandated regular exercise. Also, Oprah told her viewers to “savour every meal” by eating slowly. “I’m always in a rush,” says Okrant, “so that was a life-changer for me.”

The project has changed much in Okrant’s life. Before 2008, for instance, she was petrified to find out her credit score. At Oprah’s insistence, she looked it up, and it’s fine. After Oprah called for more civic engagement, Okrant organized a charity book drive and donated the money to women in prison. She’s also sent letters to senators in support of stronger legislation against online child predators.

But did Okrant ever defy Oprah and cheat? “No. Not. Even. An. Inch,” says Okrant, punctuating each word with breathy indignation. She concedes she was tempted more than once (skipping a few of Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth webinars, for instance). But “there was this sense of paranoia throughout the whole project,” recalls Okrant, “like what if Oprah knows?”

In fact, Oprah did get wind of Okrant’s endeavour. In mid-October of 2008, Okrant received a package in the mail. From Oprah. Inside was a Kindle, the pricey e-book reader Oprah had christened her “favourite new gadget” for 2008, plus a US$100 gift certificate for e-books. Okrant reluctantly sent the gift back with an apologetic but appreciative note, saying keeping it would compromise her integrity. But she did hold on to one thing: a bronzy-gold note, addressed to Okrant (though her first name was spelled wrong). It read: “Enjoy Robin. Wanted to save you a few dollars on this one. Thanks for watching.” Oprah signed it. Okrant framed it, just like Oprah had said people should do with important letters. “Little did Oprah know,” laughs Okrant, “that she actually did one of my assignments for me.”

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.