article

05.24.11

Oprah's Super Sad Superfans

Oprah Winfrey has inspired her fans and changed their lives—and now she's ditching them. Tricia Romano talks to the bereft.

After 25 years on air, Oprah Winfrey bid a teary farewell to her viewers today. Watch a clip from the last show. Plus, Tricia Romano talks to the most traumatized superfans. Related: Watch Oprah’s 5 biggest giveaways.

The phrase "No. 1 Fan" conjures many images—most of them terrifying. From obsessive squealing girls who plaster their walls with pictures of their heartthrobs to creepy stalkers who believe they are really in a relationship with Miss Aniston to the most chilling No. 1 Fan of all— Misery's Annie Wilkes, who hobbled and poisoned her favorite writer so they could be together forever, the super fan gets a bad rap.

But Oprah Winfrey's No. 1 fans are of a different sort entirely. While fans of other celebrities just want to be near their idol, Oprah fans seem to pay homage to their idol by modeling their lives after Oprah's sage advice.

Who else could have the power to inspire a woman to read all of her Book Club recommendations and start a career in publishing, including her own book-publicity company? Who else could inspire a former math teacher living in Kansas City to start an online campaign to convince the talk-show host that she should run for president? Who else could propel a single mother of three with no college education to become a writer and run her own nonprofit? Or an Australian mother to lose 150 pounds and pen four books based on her diet and exercise plan?

Jocelyn Kelley was a junior in high school when she first started watching Oprah seriously—getting hooked on the Book Club. Ever since that day in 1996, Kelley doggedly read every selection—there have been 67 in all—starting with the first book, Jacquelyn Mitchard's Deep End of the Ocean, up to the last choice, a doubleheader of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.

"It really changed the way I looked at reading. I saw it as a very personal connection that you could have with these books and these discussions that people could have and how you could relate it to your own life," she said.

And Kelley, now 32, credits Oprah with more than just introducing new books to her life—Oprah's Book Club inspired her to pursue a degree in journalism and go into publishing. She worked at Little Brown and later left to start her own business: a book-publicity firm, Kelley and Hall. Her first client? Jacquelyn Mitchard.

"She really did put me on this path toward publishing, publicity, talking about books, being excited about books, and relating books to your life," said Kelley of Oprah.

Kelley's been on the show—via Skype—six times. And at the beginning of the final season, Kelley was tapped as one of the No. 1 fans and flown to Australia in December. But the icing on the cake was when she went up to Oprah after that show. "We were at this restaurant. I went over to her. Before I said anything, she said, 'My Book Club girl!'"

“I am a perfect example of Oprah’s teaching, by putting her words of wisdom into practice and achieving results,” said a woman who lost 150 pounds after Oprah opened up about her weight struggles.

In 2003, Patrick Crowe, a former math teacher in Kansas City, made national news when he launched his one-man campaign to get the talk-show host to run for president. "It was seen by at least 20 million people," said Crowe, 73. Crowe says he was interviewed by the BBC, Good Morning America, and the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show. "I probably did more than 100 talk radio interviews all saying, 'Here is a person that could make a difference, that stands for generosity, kindness, compassion, and is in effect the opposite of what we had in President Bush.'"

Though Oprah had been on his radar for years, he was mostly too busy teaching and running his car wash business to pay attention. But when Oprah offered $100,000 of her own cash to catch a wanted child molester and opened schools in Africa (which have since become the subject of abuse controversy) with her own funds, Crowe became a superfan, convinced that President Oprah would be the best person to undo the Bush years.

Watch: Oprah Bids Farewell

Video screenshot

"When she takes on a cause, you better watch out because she's going to get it done," he said, calling her, "a woman of fierce determination."

Though his campaign to get Oprah to run was unsuccessful and cost him a pretty penny (reports put the figure as high as $60,000), he did get the chance to speak to her for 20 minutes when she called and talked to him about supporting Barack Obama, even sending him a copy of the book The Audacity of Hope, which she signed and inscribed her phone number. (When Crowe was convinced there was no convincing Oprah to run, he then backed Obama.)

Crowe has published one book, Oprah for President: Run Oprah Run, and plans to publish a second one in July. "Her effect on my life is inspiration," said Crowe.

Across the globe, in Australia, Karen Gatt was 150 pounds overweight and miserable, but was so moved by the program that aired in 1999 when Oprah discussed her own personal weight issues that she was inspired to drop dress sizes, too. She spent 13 months pacing around her clothesline and lost all the weight. She credits Oprah as the source of her motivation: "She has taught me to be strong, confident, to believe in myself and has taught me to be a leader." One of her four books, The Clothesline Diet, was also published in the U.S.

"I have always felt that Oprah is like a guardian angel of mine and when she speaks whether in person or on screen, it feels as though she is speaking to me," Gatt said. "I am a perfect example of Oprah's teaching, by putting her words of wisdom into practice and achieving results."

Gatt met her idol once when she was in the audience, but she was flummoxed and unable to speak. She has spent $80,000 flying back and forth to America to publicize her book in an attempt to get the talk-show host's attention, so far, to no avail.

Like Kelley, Gatt, and Crowe, the trajectory of Cheryl Jackson's life has been shifted by Oprah's influence. Jackson was only 17 when she first saw Oprah on her television and she was transfixed. An African-American woman was on TV: she was not playing a maid or some downtrodden character. She was just Oprah—confident, warm, funny, smart. "The first time I was thinking, well, you know, she's my color, and I was thinking, she's not going to make it," said Jackson. "She embodied everything we needed on TV, especially the African Americans at the time. We needed motivation. We needed someone, especially in the African American community, to give us hope."

Though she had no college education, Jackson took Oprah's advice: "She said, 'You know what? Get somewhere, write what you want to do, and then check it off one by one on the list.' So I was crying and I was like, 'I want to be a writer. I want to interview Oprah. I want to have my own radio show. I want to be on TV.' I mean, just everything that I wanted out of life, I wrote it down.'"

Not long after that while attending a Live Your Best Life seminar, Jackson voiced her dream while in the audience—interviewing Oprah—and her request was granted. She was escorted backstage where two chairs were brought out for her to talk to Oprah one-on-one. "When I interviewed her, I said, 'Why did you give me this interview?' She said, 'Because our spirits connected.' She looked at me and she said, "Cheryl, you've got me. So if anybody else tells you no, just know you got to me."' And she goes, 'So keep on walking.' I mean, and I'm just crying. I mean it was an opportunity of a lifetime."

Since then, Jackson has put out a book and become a motivational speaker herself, and runs a nonprofit to feed the hungry in Texas, called Minnie's Food Pantry, named after her mother.

Jackson has met her idol 11 times, and even made it into one of the last few shows, where she was picked by producers to sit behind Oprah and the guest stars, including Maria Shriver, Steadman Graham, and Gayle King.

"There was one point in the show where Aretha Franklin was singing 'Amazing Grace.' Oprah turned around and looked at me and said, 'This is amazing.'"

With The End here—or at least in this current form, where she shifts from a single talk show to OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network)—the No. 1 fans are thinking about an Oprah-free future, one that doesn't have teary-filled afternoons.

"You know, I'm going to miss her," said Jackson. "It's like I told someone, she made us laugh during the time of war. She challenged us almost on a daily basis to do better, to be better, and to become more and not to have those daily lessons come into our house. She's going to be missed. I don't know that there's anybody else. There's nobody like Oprah. Nobody."

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Tricia Romano is an award-winning writer who has written about pop culture, style, and celebrity for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Spin, and Radar magazine. She won Best Feature at the Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award for her Village Voice cover story, about sober DJs and promoters in the nightlife industry, "The Sober Bunch."