Friday, April 18, 2008


This deserves a much longer, more delving post—but I confess to being late to the party (in one way, that is, though I do feel entitled to pat myself on the back in another way. More on that in a sec). The topic at hand is really a question, and the question, now on the minds of many social observers, is this one: "Is Oprah Winfrey forming her own cult?"*

It's a serious question, folks, and one deserving of serious analysis. No, it's not a cult in the sense of, say, a Warren Jeffs-style polygamist sect, like the one that in recent days has had the Feds scrambling to find foster parents with service-for-400. And it's probably not a cult in the Jim Jones sense...except that many of us do appear ready to swallow a different kind of Kool-Aid (i.e., the kind that kills only brain cells, particularly those that control volition). But, as is often the case in the SHAMscape, it's precisely the subtlety, the optimism, the seeming harmlessness of it all that poses the real danger. It gets in under the radar. No one is being (outwardly, directly) abused. No one is running to law enforcement with a tale of woe. Rather, it's the kind of cult whose anthem could be the old Roberta Flack hit, Killing Me Softly....

Clearly Oprah has staked out a significant claim in the spiritual end of the self-help movement via her personal endorsement last year of Rhonda Byrne's The Secret (which became the year's runaway success story in self-help) and this year of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth (ditto). Clearly neither Byrne nor Tolle can boast any formal credentials that would give them standing in any acknowledged religion as we commonly understand the term; nor can Oprah herself boast any religious credentials. Clearly Oprah's webinars for A New Earth—an astonishing personal investment in the cause, if you think about it—could be construed as a form of indoctrination in Tolle-speak. Clearly Oprah's near-daily repetition of such notions as the "aha moment" represent a certain shared iconography, a secret handshake, if you will, between the faithful. And last but in no way least, clearly increasing hordes of Americans, chiefly women but also no small number of the men who live with those women, put their faith in Oprah to do their decision-making for them. If Oprah recommends it, they buy it. If Oprah supports it, so do they.

Perhaps more to the point: If Oprah opposes it, so, usually, do they.

Take a look at the identifying characteristics of a cult and then ask yourself how many don't apply to Oprah and the (ever-solidifying) hold she maintains over her audience. Certainly Winfrey qualifies as having a "cult following," as discussed quite intelligently in this entry from Wikipedia.

Now, as to patting myself on the back. It must be said that as long ago as 2005 I was already presaging questions like those now being raised more pointedly; in SHAM I described Winfrey's central role in the rise of modern self-help (Empowerment wing in particular), anointing her the eminence grise of the entire movement**. I've also wondered aloud (or if not technically "aloud," at least "ablog") whether Oprah could effectively elect the next president. This was last April, when a lot of people still hadn't heard of Barack Obama, or, if they recognized the name, assumed he was one of those "top Al Qaeda lieutenants" we keep announcing that we caught or killed because we can't seem to catch or kill bin Laden himself.

Anyway, all of this will bear watching. As will the exact nature of Oprah's role in the next administration (and/or the culture as a whole), assuming her hand-picked candidate, Sen. Obama, prevails.

* The link takes you to one of many such columns now buzzing across cyberspace, which is why I say I'm late to the party.
** See particularly page 43, if you have the book, but relevant citations are sprinkled throughout SHAM.


Anonymous said...

I hope those links come through. They are to Oprah's interview of Esther Hicks and the being she claims to channel ("Abraham") another piece of the puzzle, shows more of what this lady is really into. These were posted on a thread at the Rick Ross site. The thread was about Eckhart Tolle, 'cognitive suicide', and it's under the "Cult's, Sects, and New Religious" category of the message boards.

Anonymous said...

I'm the one that posted the links to the Oprah/Abraham-Hicks interviews. I just wanted to mention as well that I am so glad you are writing about this. I think this is a subject that needs a huge, huge, huge spotlight shone upon it.
And since she's mixing politics with it and endorsing presidential candidates, that makes it everyone's problem...including those of us who do not live in the U.S.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Anon. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ross is also the dude who's gone after Byron Katie, yes?

(And for the benefit of regular readers who may wonder where I find the time to do posts like this one, if I'm still offering excuses about Katie--it's a whole different kettle of foul-smelling fish. If and when I eventually post the Katie piece, it will be sue-worthy. You can bank on that. So, though I continue to plod along, I've got to make sure I've got all the bases covered, and that takes cooperation from others.)

Elizabeth said...

Anon, the links came through -- I'm listening to the interview now.

Abraham?! Source energy?? Vibrational output?! What the hell...

(speechless now).

Anonymous said...

The Rick Ross forum has threads on a lot of different cults, cult leaders, and assorted guru's. There is a 45 page thread there about Byron Katie and Eckhart Tolle as well under the "Cults, Sects, and New Religious Movements" section of the message board.

I see I'm going to have to redo those myspace links and your readers could copy and paste them into their browser address bars or just type them in, that might actually be a lot easier. I tried the copy and paste thing and it was a bit of a pain to manage it:

When this comment goes up, it might show a space between the "cfm?" and the word "fuseaction". There is not supposed to be a space there.
The links for parts 2 and 3 are exactly the same, except that after the "=" sign, the number for part is 779210, and the number for part 3 is 8010849. Again, there is not to be a space between the "=" and the number either.

I understand your caution about being careful what you say about the likes of Byron Katie. I hope you still decide to go ahead with it.

Anonymous said...

I would say she is a cult now and it is getting scary. I use to like the Big O. I thought her magazine offered women something different, but slowly and surely the magazine has changed too. It seems the Big O has been drinking her own Kool-Aid. She is rewriting her biography and hordes of other information about her life like a guru does.

I wonder if she has become a Scientologist, because she is starting to sound like one. She has an addictive personality so she seems to have traded in food and bad men for self-help/New Age psychobabble. The trade-off is not working too well, because she seems to be going through some sort of mental/emotional breakdown that people who need help go through. It could be hormonal or psychological, but she is coming off as whacked. She is definitely living in the Land of Denial.

She has started to face a lot of media backlash though with Dr. Phil, Wretched Ray, and Dr. Jan Adams. Her touch is not so golden anymore. A lot of experts think her endorsement of Obama is hurting him.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Elizabeth! I just sent a comment redoing the links and then your comment came up, LOL! OK, I'm glad it worked.
Yes, it's astonishing, isn't it? When Oprah came out publicly endorsing Obama, I had to wonder if Obama's campaign people knew, I mean REALLY knew,what Oprah is into and what they would think of it if they did. I thought surely they must of have done their homework? I mean, the information is out there, readily available to anyone who knows how to use Google.

I've been watching with interest and concern for the past few months as to where Oprah takes all of this. I am not at all comfortable with what she is doing, especially when she promotes the Course in Miracles to totally mess with people's sense of reality, uses Tolle to destroy ego--or, should I say, get people to destroy their own ego's--and then...fills the vacuum with...what? Whatever she chooses.

The Crack Emcee said...

"Is Oprah Winfrey forming her own cult?"



Anonymous said...

This is 'anonymous #1' (and I'm only giving myself that # because I was the 1st one on the comment list).

To the second anonymous: I had wondered myself about a connection to Scientology. She's got friends in scientology, she's just signed a deal (the word "pact" was used, apparently) with Kirstie Alley to do some kind of show, and if there's any credibility to Andrew Morton's work--he says scientologists have been trying to recruit Oprah. (Andrew is the guy who wrote the latest Tom Cruise biography, which I read, and it is quite interesting.) Boy, wouldn't Oprah be quite the catch for scientology? Considering all the other crazy s**t Oprah believes, ie the Abe-Hicks stuff, the Jane Roberts stuff, and so forth, how much more of a leap would it be to get into the scientology/space aliens/Xenu thing?

Crack Emcee (I really enjoy your blog, by the way), I was imagining your reaction to those interviews, if you listened to them, if you could stand it, LOL!


Anonymous said...

Peter Birkenhead's Salon piece on Oprah was just amazing. I think he will be writing the next book about SHAM land. Here is the link:

Steve Salerno said...

I don't picture Oprah going for Scientology--at least not as a full-time, committed gig--unless they let her be the new L. Ron Hubbard, or the Top Clear, or whatever they call their "pope."

Carl said...

I don't understand Oprah's appeal, and it's not that I don't try. My wife is a regular viewer. To me, don't you have to say something intelligent at least sometimes? EVerything she says strikes me as something where you'd either want to say "no kidding!" or "who do you think you're kidding!" I just don't get it, maybe it's because I'm a man but I just don't get it AT ALL!

Anonymous said...

Steve, you're right. The Big O would have to be as important as their resident alien, Xenu for her to enroll in Scientology. Now maybe Kabballah/Whalla would be an option for her. She has more in common with Madonna and an ego as large. Madonna adopted and African country too.

Anonymous said...

Carl, the Big O's "appeal" when she first started was being like everyone else. Say what you will abou the Big O, but she did come up from nothing. She use to be insperational to women who were just like her or at least thought they were. They were overweight, dated the wrong men, and had various problems like the Big O. When she openly spoke of her sexual abuse was quite shocking for the time. She has now morphed into being some god to her flock. I think a lot of her "appeal" was from her original honesty and now it is gone.

Anonymous said...

Assorted features that show up again and again in persons who drift into cultic careers:

1) Accountable to no one but themselves. Real therapists and clergy are accountable to licensing boards, train for their jobs, have to pass review, and answer to colleagues, such as congregations and professional organizations.

2) Licensed mental health professionals and clergy are regulated both by their own professional codes of ethics, and by the law. Whom is a talk show host answerable to if he or she gives referrals and recommendations to a guru or human potential project that might later turn out to be harmful..or delay someone getting professional care?

3) Celebrities are buffered from reality by entourages. They can hand pick thier entourages, according to whether someone is capable of telling them what they want to hear. Clergy have to answer to their bishops, to their congregations and cope with real world financial pressures, non stop.

4) In cults, the group or leader takes ALL the credit for any success. If anything goes wrong or someone is harmed, the victim takes the blame and the leader's devotees make endless excuses for the leader.

5) Celebrities and cult leaders are the focus of intense idealization. They make us feel as though we are intimate with them, but the truth is, we are only thrilling to a very well crafted public persona.

Very often a celebrity or cult leader's public persona can be very different from how he or she behaves in private. Often it is the entourage that witnesses the childish and hidden side of the leader or celebrity and deals with tantrums.

Celebrities and cult leaders seem super adult and super human but in private they need parenting and protection from entourages, lawyers, accountants, etc.

The entourage members may suffer levels of abuse that are severe and kept hidden from the adoring public who see only the sunny public image.

Ultimately many cults and celebrities reveal an incapacity to reciprocate their admirers' loyalty.

The core of any cult story is that of unreciprocated loyalty. This is different from a true and healthy adult relationship where loyalty is reciprocated.

Anonymous said...

Tip of the day!

Consider using to shorten long URLs for posting.

Elizabeth said...

Anon 1:32 -- thank you so kindly! A much needed tip (of the decade, imho:).

The Crack Emcee said...


My stomach backed up at "Hel-lo".

Steve Salerno said...

Anon (who wrote about Oprah's original appeal), you make a good point, but the amazing thing is the way she's been able to retain her "Hey, I'm just one o' the gals" persona--at least among her flock--while rising to become a $260 million wage earner and clearly the most powerful woman in entertainment. I don't make a practice of watching Oprah unless she's doing a show that I think would be interesting for the blog, but if she happens to be on in the background, and if she goes into one of her eye-rolling fits at, say, the price of gas--as if $3.00 a gallon is a hardship for her in the same way it's a hardship for most of the rest of us! (and as if she routinely pumps her own gas anyway)--I turn off the set. I HATE that kind of humble posing, which, in fairness, is also true of the likes of Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and other prominent women. They act as if they'd actually have you believe they have to think twice before buying that second pair of shoes on sale at Nordstrom Rack.

I honestly don't think this phenomenon is as prevalent among male power brokers, but they have an equally annoying proclivity for flaunting their wealth and power. Perhaps this speaks to gender differences--women want to please and "get along," men want to compete and excel--whether natural or acculturated.

Elizabeth said...

Steve: They act as if they'd actually have you believe they have to think twice before buying that second pair of shoes on sale at Nordstrom Rack.

Second pair? On sale?? At Nordstrom???

LOL and LOL some more.

Oh, you are funny, Steve.

IMO, what they do is display the "mandatory empathy" required of a female TV personality. If they did not, they would not last -- they would be perceived as heartless bitches, the ratings would plummet and they would be given pink slips -- and not of the sexy kind.

Male TV hosts do they same, btw, though they would not be penalized if they didn't. There is a different standard for women: even if they did not give a hoot about others' situations and feelings and etc., they have to pretend they do (that "warmth" has to be there, y'know, in the eyes of the viewers and, therefore, their employers as well). Female TV personalities' "empathy" sells -- this is the bottom line, whether that empathy is genuine or not. See the seemingly endless debates over emotional attributes of their characters and how they translate into ratings (e.g. yada yada Katie this, Meredith that, Diane whatever -- and Oprah... well, Oprah is in a universe all of her own). We, the unforgiving viewers and almighty consumers like 'em sexy AND maternal (yep, good luck -- and go figure :).

Anonymous said...

I think the Oprah (not the Big O yet) circa 1986 is the Oprah women are still responding too. She is the friend you want to remember, but has changed into someone else. I am sure many hope that Oprah is still there. She can never be innocent again, but her audience wants to remember her that way.

Oprah was "everyone's" girlfriend. Everyone knew or was someone like Oprah. She is the dream that Troll and Jolly Green Giant Robbins are trying to sell. Oprah's real story is quite amazing and what myths are made of. She had nothing with only her brains and personality to get her ahead. She is a poster child for education actually. She is not blond, size 0, and yet she is the biggest thing in entertainment. That raises a good question about humility. How does one stay humble with so much success and material wealth? How does one not morph into a guru/god?

This is not a new story. This has been happening since the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. They placed their idols and leaders on pedestalsas too. They created religions out of their success stories too. Do these people like the Big O reshape their realities so much that they believe they are gods/gurus? Why do the masses need or want them to be?

Anonymous said...

You are right about the Greeks and Romans.

There was a fellow who was a late classical version of Steve Salerno. He didnt have a computer, so he had to write using papyrus and ink pens, but he had many of the same concerns and interests Steve has. His name was Lucian of Samosata.

He described the careers of two religious entrepreneurs, a prophet named Alexander who had a talking snake that supposedly worked miracles, and a kind of wandering guru type named Perigrinus who, as a publicity stunt, jumped into a bonfire and burned himself to death outside the stadium at one of the Olympic games.

An even more colorful story is that of a crazy fellow called Peregrinus, nicknamed "Proteus," who set himself on fire during the Olympic games in 165 A.D. to prove his faith in reincarnation. The notion of suicide as a proof of such faith was not new. Indian Brahmans had immolated themselves before Western audiences on several occasions before, the most famous being Calanus, at Susa, in front of Alexander the Great, and Zarmarus, at Athens, in front of Augustus (Plutarch, Alexander 69.8). What is most relevant, however, is the fascinating story told about him by the skeptic Lucian in his satirical work, "The Death of Peregrinus." ...... But his bid for religious glory was not as successful as another man, Alexander of Abonuteichos.

Lucian dedicates an even longer and more vicious account of his personal contacts with this man, whom he calls "the quack prophet." The account alone is detailed and entertaining, but for our present purpose it illustrates how easy it was to invent a god and watch the masses scurry to worship it. His scam began around 150 A.D. and lasted well beyond his death in 170 A.D., drawing the patronage of emperors and provincial governors as well as the commons.

His cult may have even lasted into the 4th century, although the evidence is unclear.

The official story was that a snake-god with a human head was born as an incarnation of Asclepius, and Alexander was his keeper and intermediary. With this arrangement Alexander gave oracles, offered intercessory prayers, and even began his own mystery religion. Lucian tells us the inside story. Glycon was in fact a trained snake with a puppet head, and all the miracles surrounding him were either tall tales or the ingenious tricks of Alexander himself. But what might we think had there been no Lucian to tell us this? So credulous was the public as well as the government, that a petition to change the name of the town where the god lived, and to strike a special coin in his honor (Lucian, Alexander 58), was heeded, and we have direct confirmation of both facts: such coins have been found, dating from the reign of Antoninus Pius and continuing up into the 3rd century, bearing the unique image of a human-headed snake god. Likewise, the town of Abonuteichos was petitioned to be renamed Ionopolis, and the town is today known as Ineboli, a clear derivation.

Even statues, inscriptions, and other carvings survive, attesting to this Alexander and his god Glycon and their ensuing cult (Culture and Society in Lucian, pp. 138, 143).

As for his influence, Lucian tells us that Severianus, the governor of Cappadocia, was killed in Armenia because he believed an oracle of Alexander's (27), and Rutilianus, the governor of Moesia and Asia, was also a devout follower, and even married Alexander's daughter. Indeed, Alexander's "god" was so popular that people rushed all the way from Rome to consult him (30), and even the emperor Marcus Aurelius sought his prophecy (48).

Steve Salerno said...

Um...OK. But thanks, Anon. I think.

--Lucian (?)

mikecane2008 said...

The first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club.

The second rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club.

The first rule of Harpology is not to talk about the digital enhancement Oprah's face undergoes in front of her magicalicious cameras.

My God. Earlier last week she had Maria Shriver on. In the intro footage, Shriver looked like a corpse.

Under Oprah's magic cameras, all wrinkles went away and time itself was turned back about 20 years!