What is it about Oprah Winfrey that draws you in and finds you so interested in her and her work?
I have to admit, over the past 25 years, I’ve been a little obsessed with “Oprah.” Okay, maybe not just a little bit—maybe a lot more than that. To be honest, I have been a major fan of hers from the very beginning.
In 1986, when I saw her on the air for the first time, I connected with her immediately. I couldn’t believe that here, for the first time, here was a woman on television who resembled no one else I had ever seen on network TV. She talked about issues that clearly mattered to her. She showed her true emotions, was overweight—and she was black. Before this, each of these traits by itself might have spelled low ratings and quick cancellation for any TV personality. But not for Oprah—she was authentic.
How come I identified so closely with Oprah Winfrey, especially since we have nothing in common? I’m a gay white Jewish male, now a therapist, who grew up in a lower-middle-class household. She and I didn’t share the same gender, religion, race or profession, yet I felt a kinship with her, an understanding.
At that point, little did I know that we two had a lot in common!
Show after show, she continued to mesmerize me. Enthralled, I watched her tell her audiences about topics that had been stubbornly ignored on broadcast TV—or if talked about at all, then not in the ways she did. I had long been a fan of Phil Donahue, but when it came to Oprah, I perceived something different in what she wanted to leave with her audiences. She confronted them on the real-life effects of bigotry, prejudice and homophobia.
I vividly recall one show she aired—on racism. She invited white supremacists to come on the show and talk about why the world would be better off without people of color and that “all they do is reproduce.” Walking through the audience, she turned to one of them defiantly—and yes, a bit reactively. She whisked by him in her flowing dress and said, “I am black and I haven’t reproduced anyone!”
Right there in my own living room, I stood up and cheered. How I envied her, being able to confront someone like that in a safe environment—and before a sympathetic audience!
My obsession began. I began taping her show every day so that I wouldn’t miss it. Soon, I was impressed at how gay-friendly she was in her shows that dealt with coming out. I loved how, at the same time, she managed to seem down to earth like everybody else (including me).
The year before, in 1993, when I started my own private practice, straight and gay therapists warned me that if I outed myself I would fail—that I’d never be able to make a living as an openly gay therapist. Traditionally, psychiatrists and psychologists had always kept their sexual orientation to themselves, along with nearly everything else in their personal lives.
I didn’t listen. The minute I hung out my shingle, I marketed myself as exactly who I am—an openly gay therapist, interested in treating the gay and lesbian population as well as heterosexuals. In Michigan in 1993, I didn’t know of any other therapists who advertised themselves this way. Yet inside of six months, I found myself overbooked if not overwhelmed, seeing 40 clients and running four different therapy groups. I couldn’t believe I was as successful as I was, particularly since I didn’t look like or sound like any other therapist around.
This gave me something else in common with Oprah.
Eventually, what with my career, advanced schooling and my marriage to Mike, my life became so busy that I couldn’t watch “Oprah” regularly, but did tune in on occasional shows. Then in the mid-1990s came the proliferation of competing talk shows, along with a few trashy “freak shows” like Jerry Springer’s that exploited guests and encouraged the audiences to root and jeer at marginalized people with mental health issues, disrespecting others including themselves.
How, I wondered, could Oprah survive? She’d made a clear decision not to become a trash-talk show with half the dialogue bleeped out, with uniformed guards to keep guests from fighting one another. Could she continue to remain on the high ground and still keep her ratings that would let her stay on the air?.
Back in 1994, I assumed my success was based on my being one of the few openly gay therapists in Michigan. Accordingly, I always worried that if other local gay therapists opened their practices, the competition would make mine fade away. Well, by 1999, there were a number of other gay therapists in the Detroit area, as well as around the country. But my practice remained steady.
Again, I could relate.
Then in 2003, when I published my first book, many people told me that most likely, I was going to be invited to go on “Oprah.” I thought for sure this was my ticket to meet her.
My obsession grew, yet I wasn’t getting any calls from Harpo. I hired many publicists to help me get on the show—to no avail. Colleague after colleague of mine who had written a book were being Googled by Harpo producers and getting on Oprah, it was more than I could handle. I became depressed and knew I had to get hold of myself.
Then I realized something that I knew from my own training as a therapist but had not applied to my own life. What you see in others lives inside you. In my work with clients I would ask them to see how what they hated and were frustrated about with others lived somewhere inside of them.
The truth is that we react to not only the dark things we see in others, but also to their positive attributes. I had to consider how what I admire about Oprah applied to me.
Then it all started to make sense. I saw elements of myself in Oprah. I had seen the radiance in her, and now I saw that light in me. She was a mirror that let me realize that what Oprah was to me, I was to my local gay community and to my clients.
Later on colleagues and friends gave me the playful nickname of “Joe-prah,” and I wore it proudly. Once I was able to connect with my inner Oprah, my obsession with her began to recede.
But sadly, not yet completely over—as I learned one day in the summer of 2008 when Harpo studios left a call on my machine. I immediately called the producer back. He told me that he was interested in having me come on “Oprah,” but they hadn’t definitively decided on the theme of the show. He would get back to me . . .
That left me a basket case. I am so close? Would I get on, or wouldn’t I? How could I detach and let this play itself out? Feeling crazed, I phoned a rabbi I knew and asked for his advice, I entered his office, explained about my Oprah obsession, told him that I was now on tenterhooks, awaiting a call from her producer. I couldn’t relax and let myself find tranquility.
“Well!” he replied, “For years now, I’ve been trying to get on ‘Oprah’ with an idea I have. Maybe can you help me?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. How can this be happening to me? I’d gone to a rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi no less, for peace and prayers, only to find that he was fixated on Oprah too!
But I did decide I wanted to work with him, so he taught me some Jewish passages from the Talmud to find serenity peace and how to put on Tefillin; two small black boxes with black straps attached to them; Jewish men are required to place one box on their head and tie the other one on their arm each weekday morning as they pray.
Months passed, and I heard nothing from Harpo. I left a few phone messages and mailed copies of my books. Still I heard nothing. Then one day, there I was with the Orthodox rabbi, in prayer and in the middle of putting on Tefillin, when my cell phone rang. Seeing who it was, I ignored the call.
“That’s Harpo studios,” I told the rabbi. “Being that we’re in the middle of prayer, I’ll call back later.”
“Are you crazy?” he shouted. “Pick it up, man!”
Tefillin in hand, I did. The discussion went well. They were considering the show. Trying to talk calmly to this producer, I turned around to see and hear the rabbi humming “Hava Nagila” and holding two thumbs up. There I was, after coming to this rabbi for getting prayer and equanimity, and instead he was egging me on!
I didn’t get on Oprah that season. Oprah Winfrey has announced that in a few weeks her show is set to end its run. I’ll miss ‘Oprah’ terribly, but have accepted that I’ll never be on. Even so, I know that the attributes of hers that I most admire will live on inside of me—and that with Oprah Winfrey as a psychological midwife, Joe-prah was born!
Here are some things to consider if you are idealizing and over-valuing someone in your life:
• If you spot it, you got it!
• When having an extreme like or dislike for someone, notice what you have in common with this person.
• Who in your childhood possessed the trait(s) you are noticing so intensely in this person you are disliking or idealizing? Sometimes the trait is not in you but in someone you were close to in childhood or from a past relationship.
• Remember that 90% of your over-reactions to someone is about you, 10% is about that person.