When the New Year rang in on January 1, 2008, Robyn Okrant, a Windy City yoga teacher with an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, started a year-long project, Living Oprah, in which she literally followed all of the advice dished out by the daytime deity, Oprah Winfrey. Okrant’s plan was to live her Best Life, the overarching theme of Winfrey’s inescapable dictum provided via her TV show, Oprah.com, Oprah satellite radio, O Magazine, Oprah’s Angel Network and other off-shoots of her empire.
She set up a blog to chat with other Oprahnistas and attracted thousands of posts and a publisher. Thus was born, Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk, an Escher-like view of life, as seen on TV, where we watch Okrant watching Oprah who watches over us.
The book spans her year of tackling the Best Life Challenge, a transformative experience where you can go from “shlumpadinka” (oh jargon) to swan. It is not a satire, although Okrant can often be witty and skeptical. It is an earnest attempt to chronicle 365 days of self-improvement, no matter the cost or time needed to do so. This includes tasks such as creating a vision board collage and pledging obeisance to a steady flow of tips, online quizzes, good-for-you-recipes, exercise commitments; acquiring must-have items for the closet and the home, as well as must-do behaviors for the boudoir. There are mandates to watch O-approved movies, read O Book Club tomes, pick a charity, declutter, get a financial life and even explore your most-secret body parts; all part of the Best Life Tao.
In her book, Okrant charts her year-long progress month-by-month. The chapters of “Living Oprah” reflect her growing angst at having taken on this self-inflicted challenge and the mounting costs and time spent following the daytime Svengali. (Spoiler alert: 1,202 hours and $4,781.84.) She expresses a lot of self-doubt over how she will accomplish the compounding mandates, from donating books (her charity) to locating the perfect “crisp white shirt” (one of 10 items every woman should have in her wardrobe), to driving through a winter storm for a Celine Dion concert (GO!, said O) that she doesn’t want to attend, all because Oprah spoke.
She does have backup. Like Julie Powell‘s Julie & Julia before her in the quotidian How-To genre, there’s a good-guy husband, Jim, who “gets it.” And the supportive pet too, Wasabi the cat, later joined by cat #2, Selmarie, acquired when Oprah commanded, like Moses, that her people go forth and adopt a stray.
Living Oprah suffers from an overly dramatic tone. Okrant describes herself as an “emotional wreck” as she bears down on her growing to-do list. In the middle of sleepless nights she consults Oprah’s Web site to search for answers. And every weekday morning her alarm wakes her for the nine a.m. TV show. She gets the magazine (or tries to, the subscription never seems to click in) and that begets more tasks. All this consternation over her forced self-improvement doesn’t exactly flow. It’s hard to cheer for her when the problem du jour is locating a great white shirt (Brooks Brothers). She comes across as having what you could call a “too much cake” problem. You wonder what this material might have been like in the hands of a great cynic/comic like Chelsea Handler or Kathy Griffin, but then that’s not re-preaching to the daytime faithful.
If you can wholly buy into the premise, then Okrant does have tinges of being a Margaret Mead among the living room set. Oprah has millions of followers. She’s spawned the hugely successful media careers of Dr. Phil and Dr.Oz; put her personal trainer and chef on the mass culture map. If she mentions a product–from candles to Kindles–that item vanishes from the shelves quicker than you can say Harpo. Why is that? Why do we care what Oprah says? At the end of the project, Okrant posits her thesis on Oprah, the person. She asks a great question, and this is the take away from the book: why is Oprah still locked in her struggles if she has the power, the money, the access and the perfect white shirt? And why do so many people, mainly women, think she has THE answers?
That’s something we’d all like to know. But, that’s a whole other book.
P.E. Logan is communications professional and a writer in New York. She has worked at various adult trade publishing houses including Random House, Putnam, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for almost three decades. She now works at The New York Times. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and other periodicals.