Oprah's Final Countdown: Honoring the Host Who Took the High Road

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Oprah Winfrey

Only three shows left. Can you stand it, America?

Even in a pop-culture world oversaturated with grandiose farewells and memorial tributes, the thunderous countdown to the last episode of Oprah Winfrey's 25-year-old talk show is something to behold. For weeks, she has been revisiting old friends, replaying favorite segments, reliving teary memories. On Monday and Tuesday, she'll air two shows edited from last week's celebrity-packed extravaganza taped at Chicago's United Center. Then, on Wednesday, the really, truly last show, its contents still a mystery. Who will be there? Nelson Mandela? The reincarnation of Michael Jackson? God?

Most likely it will simply be Oprah — the only deity her fans will be satisfied with — orchestrating her own finale just the way she wants it. And why not? No personality in television history has had the cultural impact of this former abused child from Mississippi who hosts the most popular talk show in America: a motivational guru and spiritual guide; channeler of inspirational success stories; counselor to recovering addicts and misbehaving Hollywood stars; crusader for social justice and racial understanding; most of all, living proof that a TV celebrity with the highest aspirations can survive in a medium that too often seems to be racing to the bottom.

I first met Oprah back in 1988, when I spent three days reporting a TIME profile of her. It was just two years after her talk show had gone national, and, though well on her way to superstardom, she was still new enough to fame to respond excitedly to fans who yelled greetings on the street, and to make a point of saying goodbye to every member of her studio audience as they filed out at the end of her tapings. She even let me stop by in the evening for a quick tour of her lakefront apartment. I arrived at 8 p.m., on my way to dinner. I left three chatty hours later, one very hungry reporter. Not even a snack or an offer of a drink!

But then, it was a difficult week for Oprah and food. She had just that day begun the first of many well-publicized diets: an all-liquid regimen that left her grumpy, almost hungover, when I saw her in the office the next day. A few months later, the new slimmed-down Oprah made a grand appearance on her show, triumphantly toting a wagon with a load of fat representing the 67 lbs. she had lost.

Oprah's weight problems were always the most crucial symbol of her connection to her devoted, middle-American fans, many of them facing the same body issues. She lost pounds and gained them back again; tried different diets and discovered new slimming clothes; looked smashing one week, frumpy the next. Even now, preparing for the climax of her extraordinary TV run, she's at the high end of her weight-loss yo-yo.

Her audience, of course, related to her on more than just body issues. They read the books she told them to read (getting selected for Oprah's Book Club could turn an obscure novel into an instant best seller). They learned about — and often helped support — her favorite causes, like the plight of abused and uneducated women in Africa. They were empowered by the guests she brought on, people who had overcome even worse adversities than they faced in their own lives. If they were lucky enough to show up at Oprah's studio on the right day, they might even get a new car, or a trip to Australia.

A few minor feuds and some hectoring jokes from David Letterman aside, she managed to avoid the pitfalls of celebrities who stay on top for too long. When a group of Texas cattlemen sued her over a show that warned about mad-cow disease, she fought the lawsuit personally in court and won. When a memoir she touted turned out to be partly fabricated, she brought on the author, James Frey, for a merciless grilling — and then, just a couple of weeks ago, brought him back to apologize for being so rough on him. She withstood the frequent rumors about her sex life — her oddly low-profile boyfriend, Steadman Graham; the suspicious ubiquity of her BFF, Gayle King. Kitty Kelley, the muckraking celebrity journalist, wrote a tell-all biography and barely laid a glove on her.

You could roll your eyes at her maudlin excesses and her spiritual imperiousness, but you couldn't deny her clout, or her courage. It's all but forgotten that Barack Obama's poll numbers were at a low ebb, well behind the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, when Oprah decided to throw her full support behind the Illinois Senator, making several campaign appearances for him in December 2007 that neatly coincided with his climb in the polls and the start of his march to the nomination. Was Oprah the turning point for Obama? I've heard far less plausible explanations.

It's also easy to forget those crazy days of the early 1990s, when trash-TV hosts like Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer and Maury Povich were making hay in the ratings and Oprah's relatively clean-cut, upbeat approach began to look hopelessly dated. She did her own dabbling in tabloid topics, bringing on cross-dressers and neo-Nazi skinheads. But at the peak of the craze, she turned away from the trash and vowed to stick to her positive, empowering message.

Oprah's ratings did suffer for a while. But they settled back on top, and stayed there. She took the high road, appealed to the best in her audience and was rewarded for it. That may be the most inspirational Oprah story of them all.