Living Oprah

My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk


By Robyn Okrant

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What happens when a thirty-five-year-old average American woman spends one year following every piece of Oprah Winfrey’s advice on how to “live your best life”? Robyn Okrant devoted 2008 to adhering to all of Oprah’s suggestions and guidance delivered via her television show, her Web site, and her magazine. Living Oprah is a month-by-month account of that year.
Some of the challenges included enrollment in Oprah’s Best Life Challenge for physical fitness and weight control, living vegan, and participating in Oprah’s Book Club. After 365 days of Living Oprah, Okrant reflects on the rewards won and lessons learned as well as the tolls exacted by the experiment.


Please note: For certain devices the font will have to be at the smallest setting in order to view the tables at the end of each chapter.


What have I gotten myself into?

Time spent this month: 98 hours, 46 minutes

Dollars spent this month: $707.01

Advice from Oprah that I've passed on to other women: to Buy Dr. Christiane Northrup's Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. I truly felt more empowered to become my own health advocate while reading this book.

Words that stuck: "You're doing what ?" — Mark Okrant, my dad, when I first told him about Living Oprah

JANUARY 1, 2008

I can feel adrenaline pumping through my body. I'm moving and talking a mile a minute. I've got the same buzz that I usually feel on opening night of a new play, although it's noon and I'm not going onstage. Wasabi, our cat, dashes by me, terrified by the loud noise as Jim turns on our ancient vacuum cleaner.

My husband and I are putting the last-minute touches on our annual New Year's Day foodfest and movie marathon. It's been many years since I've enjoyed a late night party, but I still love to celebrate the dawning of a brand-spanking-new year with close friends. So, while I'm generally fast asleep around 11 PM on the 31st, I wake up bright and early on January 1 to clean the house, prepare mountains of food, and decorate. I realize most people are probably sleeping in and enjoying their day off, but when my alarm rings at 8 AM, I turn into a worker bee. The clock is now creeping closer to 1 PM — party time — and we're almost ready for folks to come over to lounge around our home in their comfiest clothes, drape themselves on the couches that we've finally paid off, enjoy some movies, and chat the day away until long after sunset. Oprah might have called us all "schlumpadinkas" had she witnessed our casual clothing. But how can you enjoy hours of eating without elastic waistbands? As usual, I've put out enough food to sink a ship.

I'm especially excited about this year's event as I'm unveiling my Living Oprah project, which launches today, to those closest to me. I can't wait to hear my friends' feedback, and I've visualized their reactions throughout my morning preparation. In my imagination, their responses run the gamut from impressed to very impressed, and I am feeling confident as I bring a dish of blueberry bars into the dining room to place on the buffet table.

The only problem is, I can't seem to get the dish to fit without making the array look squashed. As I juggle everything to make space for the platter, I start to regret that I don't own an actual dining room table. The old hand-me-down drop leaf that was in Jim's bachelor pad before we were married might not have been pretty, but it did its job — until today, that is. I take a step back to assess the awkward-looking presentation. I imagine celebrity party planner and regular Oprah contributor Colin Cowie shaking his head in disgust. Tension builds between my shoulder blades. I want this day to be perfect, but the table is sagging under the weight of the food and the whole affair looks a little unsteady. I try to chill out. It might not look like a spread in O, The Oprah Magazine, but hopefully (fingers crossed) everything will taste great. Generally confident about the food I present when I entertain, I gasp when I spot the layer of green slime inside the blueberry bars.

I was certain the pureed spinach I folded into the fruit preserve mixture would be invisible to the naked eye after the bars were baked, but there it is, plain as day. That's right, I said spinach. In a dessert. It's not what I'd usually put out as a treat, but when I planned this year's menu, I created it based on recipes and ideas I found on As I clicked through the website, perusing delicious-looking dishes, I happened upon this one for Blueberry Oatmeal Bars (with Spinach) from Jessica Seinfeld. The wife of the famous "have you ever noticed/don't-you-hate-it-when/what is the deal with" comedian appeared on Oprah in 2007 to promote her cookbook and discuss tips for hiding vegetables and other healthy items in comfort food. Oprah gushed over Seinfeld's creations, and although I was wary I followed the instructions to the letter and hoped for the best.

Jim offers a really helpful question. "What if you can't just see the spinach, you can actually taste it?"


"Will you eat one?" I hold a bar up to his face.

He looks like cornered prey and shakes his head. "I better make sure we have enough ice," he says and skitters off to the kitchen.


I shove a blueberry bar in my mouth and chew quickly, alert to any hint of off-putting flavor. Actually, it tastes pretty good, it only looks unsavory. I close the blinds a bit, hoping it'll be too dark in the dining room to see the spinach. I guess if my friends hate the bars, I can just pass the buck. It's not my recipe, after all.

Wasabi, frightened by the sound of our doorbell, bolts under the love seat as our first guest arrives.

Some time later, plied with Oprah-approved food and drink, my friends seem cheerful and ready to hear my plan for the coming year. I tell them it all started just a few weeks earlier (cue the flashback music) when I was sitting in a cramped video-editing suite with my friend Anthea, who was also my partner on a final project for our graduate school film class. We were trying to make heads or tails of our video, which combined two aspects of our mutual interest in women in pop culture: specifically, my fascination with self-help gurus and their followers, and Anthea's focus on various female stereotypes. We had been discussing Oprah Winfrey for the better part of an hour. Let's face it, we'd have to be living on the far side of the galaxy not to draw a connection between the Queen of Talk and the subject matter of our project. She is at the pinnacle of the self-improvement, popular culture mountain.

We were gabbing about Oprah's abundant advice on how to improve our health, relationships, homes, finances, spiritual lives, fashion sense, and the list goes on and on. Winfrey inspires masses of women all over the world. And yet, it dawned on me, for every Oprah fan I've come in contact with, there has also been someone who can't hide her vitriol about the media sensation. I wondered why.

And more important, why do so many women put an immense amount of pressure on themselves to live up to the Oprah ideal? I was buzzing with excitement (and my fourth extra-large Earl Grey tea) to find out. Could Oprah's guidance truly lead a woman to her "best life," or would it fail miserably? Is it even possible to follow someone else's advice to discover one's authentic self? I told Anthea I thought it would be a great social experiment if someone actually tried to adhere to every suggestion that Oprah offered.

Like many of my ideas that seem brilliant (to me) at first conception, yet impossible and bordering on insanity the longer I think about them, I decided this spark would probably fade into oblivion. But, for the life of me, I couldn't get it out of my head. On one hand, it seemed like an entertaining and somewhat ridiculous challenge, but on the other hand, it felt… important.

In our journey toward a more satisfying existence, we are faced with solutions from many disparate sources, and yet Oprah Winfrey stands out from the rest. Her well-known catchphrase and tagline is "Live your best life." In order to lead us toward this goal, Winfrey's advice is completely holistic. Her television program, magazine, radio show, and website offer a wellspring of guidance for the modern woman. When it comes to suggestions for better living, Oprah leaves no stones unturned.

Later in the year, when I was steeped in this project, folks curious about my experiment would ask, "Why Oprah? Why not Martha Stewart or Ellen Degeneres?" Choosing Oprah was a no-brainer for me. No one else reaches as deeply and thoroughly into every corner of a woman's existence. She does not teach us to decoupage, like Martha, or encourage us to lighten up and dance, like Ellen, but she does teach us how to live.

I've definitely taken her advice intermittently over the years. I poured myself into body-shaping, fat-smashing Spanx after she extolled their virtues on her show. Buh-bye, muffin-top! However, I was not an everyday Oprah viewer. I did not read her magazine or peruse her website. Until I began this project, I would have considered myself only a casual audience member.

Even so, I do have a long history with The Oprah Winfrey Show. When her talk show became syndicated in 1986, I would watch it with my mother. I was comfortable with Oprah's format immediately. After all, I watched her predecessor, Phil Donahue, throughout my childhood, and my mother even recalls viewing his show when she was pregnant with me. Some babies in the womb enjoy the concertos of Mozart and are read the poetry of Robert Frost. I was introduced as a fetus to topics along the lines of extramarital affairs, 1970s sexual taboos, and stunning celebrity gossip. I was trained before my birth to enjoy a good talk show.

Oprah was an immediate hit in our household, in part because of her gender. While Donahue might have been an outspoken supporter of feminism, and his show geared toward women, there was no getting around the fact that the dude was a man. He might sympathize with us, but he could never stand in our shoes. Well, technically he could, but my pink and gray Kangaroos with Velcro closures and side pockets would have looked ridiculous with his rumpled suit and tie.

On the other hand, Oprah, a plainspoken, strong-willed woman, ruled her own roost. And we suspected she really understood us because she was one of us. In those early years, as she covered the usual sensational talk show topics, she showed amazement when we did. She laughed when we laughed. She seemed uncomfortable when we were. And I held a warm spot in my heart for her because she seemed slightly awkward, not incredibly stylish, and not the stereotypical "beautiful" woman we were accustomed to seeing on TV. I certainly wasn't a beauty at that time in my life (don't argue with me, Dad, I have photographic proof), and I never saw anyone who looked like me on screen. Well, Oprah didn't exactly look like anyone on television at that time, either. She gave me hope. I figured if she could do it, who knows? Maybe I could do anything I set my mind to, as well. I felt a definite kinship to the rising queen of television.

That was many moons ago, and after decades in the business of talk, she's come a long way, baby. She's risen from a talk show host to become a media mogul, a corporate trailblazer, and a spiritual guru. Her fame and fortune shot through the roof, making her one of the most influential and well-known celebrities on the planet. Now I have to wonder, do Oprah and I still have anything in common, or have we drifted apart? While her bank account has bulged and her privilege has expanded into the realm of American royalty, can she still represent the average American woman? While her advice is certainly plentiful, is it still relevant?

I wanted to find out.

Several days after I devised my experiment, my husband and I stood in our pajamas, eating oatmeal in the kitchen. Wasabi was running in circles on the linoleum floor, a brown paper lunch bag over his head. I eyed my husband, trying to guess his mood. I knew that if I were to take on such an involved project, I'd need his complicity.

"How would you feel if — " And here is where I witnessed Jim shiver reflexively, as he usually does when I begin conversations by soliciting his feelings.

I took a deep breath.

"How would you feel if I spent some time doing everything Oprah says?"

He looked confused and gulped down his espresso. "Is this for school?"

"No, it's for me."

Jim slumped in minor disappointment as the cat extricated himself and started strutting around the kitchen, acting as if he'd actually meant to trap his head in a brown paper bag for the past five minutes.

Jim asked, "Would I need to do anything?"

I shrugged. "I doubt it."

And truly, at the time, I didn't think this experiment would impact him very much. I assured Jim that I could compartmentalize my activities by setting a couple hours aside each day to watch and read Oprah, do some Oprah-advised activities, look at her website, and move on with my day as usual.

That night, I was so excited I couldn't sleep. As Jim snored at my side, I lay with my eyes wide open, wondering in what time frame I should complete this experiment. While I'm no natural athlete, I'm no stranger to endurance events. I've trained hard over the years and have (barely) finished a multiple-day 500-mile bike ride, (stiffly) flowed through 108 yoga sun salutations at one time, and spent weeks (huffing and puffing) trekking, climbing, and crawling my way through the Nepal Himalayas. I am drawn to test my physical limitations and have found that long-term events help me discover what I'm really made of. So why not apply the same principle to a more intellectual pursuit?

A month of living according to Oprah's recommendations seemed too easy, and a few months seemed arbitrary. But a full year felt right: a cycle of seasons in which to explore Oprah's influence and my ability to follow directions without question. Could I possibly last an entire year — a leap year, no less — as Oprah's crash-test dummy, placing myself at the mercy of her advice without resistance?

I was certainly game to find out.

First and foremost, I decided on a title for my project: Living Oprah. I wish I had an amazing story about how I came up with that, but there isn't one. It just popped into my brain. It was simple, succinct, and struck the right chord for me.

But how would I keep myself accountable and inform my friends, family and, colleagues about Living Oprah? Although I was gun-shy about blogging, it seemed be the perfect medium. It's easily updatable, accessible to readers, and it's gloriously free. On December 14, 2007, I set up my blog: I was nervous. I felt out of touch because I had no clue what any of the blogosphere lingo meant or what might be construed as dreadful blog etiquette. I already had to google common Internet abbreviations such as DH, IDK, and JMO. To all of these and more, I had to wonder, WTF? But I would learn. And besides, I was certain my audience would be comprised of my mom and… well, that's it… just Mom.

I was also anxious about making all my private thoughts public and I definitely didn't want to embarrass the daylights out of my husband. I decided the perfect solution would be to remain completely anonymous, going simply by the moniker LO, short for Living Oprah. Sure, my friends and family would know that I was committed to the project, but beyond that circle, people didn't need to know my name.

In the planning stages of Living Oprah, if you can call the last 17 days of December 2007 "planning stages," I thought I'd apply for grants and sponsorship to support my project financially. My husband and I weren't exactly rolling in dough, and we had to be careful and wise with our budget. He's an artisan who works for a tile manufacturer and I am a yoga teacher, and during the first half of 2008, I'd also be working on my graduate thesis at a very pricey art school.

So patronage seemed like the right way to go. Did I mention how expensive art school is? It costs a fortune to hone one's craft and earn a degree in a vocation almost guaranteed to provide a life of barely making ends meet, frequently doubting one's career choice, and taking a day job simply because it offers health insurance. I know many of you folks in the arts can relate. And if you aren't in the field, please tip your barista well.

Sponsorship and advertising for a Web-based project inevitably require banner ads and wacky animated links. I know they are a necessary evil on some sites, as click-thru advertising generates revenue, and while I could have used the money, I really didn't want the distraction. Also, I thought advertisers would have an impact on my project. What if a sponsor wanted to have some say in the content of my site? I couldn't allow that. Most important, since I would be attempting to determine how Oprah's advertisers impact her message to us, it seemed mighty hypocritical for me to use them.

I came to the conclusion that it would be too easy to have financial help. One of the reasons I decided to spend a whole year Living Oprah was to see if it's remotely feasible to live entirely as a celebrity guru says the average Jane should. To draw the most honest conclusion about whether the benefits outweighed the costs, I had to use my own means. I was interested (and a little scared) to see what psychological impact this would have on me, and felt I would be deviating from my project's intent if I avoided its financial demands.

With the decision made to fund this project on my own, I clarified exactly how I'd follow Oprah's advice for the year. I decided to turn to the Big Three: The Oprah Winfrey Show, O, The Oprah Magazine, and If Oprah gave a directive of any kind through one of these outlets, I'd follow it. If one of Oprah's guests gave a piece of advice on her show, I'd act upon it only if Oprah personally backed it up. Additionally, if Oprah wrote a suggestion to us in her "Here We Go!" letter or her "What I Know for Sure" column in O magazine, I would take heed. In fact, if she made a suggestion anywhere in the public eye or ear, I latched on. I committed to taking all of her suggestions quite literally and would leave as little to interpretation as possible.

I would use in a slightly different manner. As it contains all Oprah-approved material, I'd refer to it as my encyclopedia for living. If I planned an event, desired advice on fashion, required remedies for stress, or even if I needed a way to ease strife in my marriage, I'd search Oprah's website for solutions and guidance.

Armed with my rules, my blog, and my remote control, I was ready to roll. The year 2007 was coming to a close. I bade a fond farewell to free will and embraced Living Oprah with open arms.

Back to my New Year's Day party (fade out the flashback music, bring the lights up to full).…

I've detailed the whole Living Oprah project to my guests and am witnessing a moment that harkens back to the old opening of the Richard Dawson version of Family Feud. My friends are frozen in a vignette: mouths full of Mushroom, Goat Cheese, and Caramelized-Shallot Pizza, looking alternatively distraught, anxious, and uncomfortable. Luckily for me, they could all win awards for their sense of humor, and the room soon erupts into laughter. But the hilarity too soon devolves into cautious giggles. They're worried about me. Will I have enough money to make all the purchases Oprah asks of her viewers? Will my marriage last? Jim busies himself with refilling people's drinks so he doesn't have to answer any questions that start with, "Jim, how do you feel about…"

My friends voice concern over whether there are enough hours in the day to live under Oprah's rule.

"That's one of the reasons I am doing this project," I tell them. "If it runs me ragged, then so be it."

There are many women in my life who look up to Oprah and feel inadequate in comparison to her. But why should we compare our lifestyles to that of one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the public eye? I remember an episode of Oprah about germs and cleanliness. The TV hostess mentioned she prefers her bedsheets changed every other day. At that point in my life, I was digging around in the cushions of my sofa for enough quarters to do my laundry. I vividly remember wondering, while watching that show back in 2004, if Oprah could empathize with my priorities.

It's clear to me that she very much wants to share with her audience what she's learned over the years. She offers herself as a guide, a teacher, a role model. But is Oprah's ideal possible for women who don't have domestic help, who have families to manage, and who can barely make ends meet? Her show is filled with "musts" and "gottas" and "can't live withouts." These are incredibly strong words coming from such an influential media figure. Let's face it, when Oprah says jump, millions of people — mainly women — ask, "How high?"

My friend Joe looks concerned for me and offers his help. I've worked with him for years creating ensemble-based theater projects, and he knows how much I thrive on collaboration. I thank him but tell him I want to handle this one alone. "So many women around the world allow Oprah to dictate what we should read, watch, listen to, how we should cook, exercise, organize, and how we should vote. I want to find out if Living Oprah is actually the road to happiness and fulfillment. Besides," I tell him, "it's something I need to try on my own or else it'll feel like cheating."

Oprah is admirable. I find her career path from rags to riches awe-inspiring and can understand why many want to be just like her or at least learn how to put her secrets to success to work in their own lives. In the earlier years of her syndicated television program, women were able to relate to her struggles, her excitement at meeting celebrities, and her amazement at coming into contact with those living on society's fringe. We imagine that she can relate to us and we to her. However, with her overwhelmingly privileged lifestyle, can she still be the voice of the everywoman? Surely she can sympathize, but can she still speak for us? Well, she does. And we listen. We fall in love with her decorator, her doctor, her chef. Oprah defines how high we set the bar for ourselves, and based on her suggestions, we challenge ourselves to meet tough expectations.

It's vitally important for women to question the sources of influence and persuasion in our lives. We are inundated with get rich/get thin/get married suggestions every time we turn on the TV or walk by the magazine rack. And sadly, we tend to judge ourselves against seemingly impossible standards. I want to get to the bottom of why this cycle exists and find out how I'm complicit in it. I spend a lot of time worrying and bellyaching about it, but that's just a waste of time and energy. I want to better understand myself, other women, the self-help entertainment industry, and Oprah Winfrey.

My friends munch thoughtfully on their blueberry bars and I cringe to see Joe begin to inspect the layers of his.

One friend pipes up, "If this project kills you, can I have your kitten?" (Note to self: Adjust guest list for next year's party.)

We all laugh, turn the subject away from Oprah, and begin to debate which film should kick off this year's movie marathon. It dawns on me that I should have Netflixed The Color Purple.

Joe places his half-eaten bar on the edge of his plate, turns to me, and repeats quietly, "Seriously, if you need any help on this, let me know."

I can't understand why everyone is so anxious.

Jim puts his hand on my knee reassuringly.

"This is gonna be a piece of cake," I whisper to him. But my friends have me wondering if it'll be less like angel food cake and more like Oprah's 400-pound 50th birthday cake.

It's about five minutes until the start of the first Oprah show of 2008. I know it's going to be a rerun, but still, I sit bolt upright on my couch with my laptop, notebook, pens, pencils, highlighters, remote controls, and a nutritious snack. I could be mistaken for the suck-up student on the first day of school who sprints into the classroom, breathless, in order to sit in the front row and impress the teacher. Actually, if memory serves, that is what I did in high school. I can't imagine why I wasn't very popular.

My husband, rushing to leave for work, hurries back and forth in front of the TV. He keeps blocking my view and it's driving me crazy, so I'm forced to pull out that oldie but goody: "You make a better door than a window." He rolls his eyes at me and I remind him I'm not sitting around enjoying morning talk shows while he heads out to bring home the bacon, I'm doing research.

"This is going to be a long year," he grumbles but smiles sweetly before kissing me on the head and flying out the door.

I sigh out all my tension. Alone at last. Just me, the television set, and Oprah Winfrey.

Like I said, today's episode will be a rerun, as will the next couple of weeks' shows. No matter. If the show is on, I'll be watching, taking notes, and following directions. Just because an episode has had a previous airing doesn't mean I'm off the hook. It's possible that I'm a glutton for punishment. As I watch the show, I want to be slammed with Oprah's assignments, as if being swamped will prove my commitment to the experiment. And yet the thought of being bombarded by a steady stream of Oprah's directives produces a stubborn streak in me.

As if she senses my rebellion, I receive my first bit of advice from Winfrey: "You have to get things tailored. This whole idea that you can buy things off the rack… and they're supposed to fit you perfectly… It's ridiculous."


On Sale
Jan 4, 2010
Page Count
272 pages
Center Street

Robyn Okrant

About the Author

Robyn Okrant is a writer, filmmaker, performer, and yoga teacher. A graduate of Bennington College, she also holds an MFA in performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She lives with her husband and two cats in Chicago.

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