Last night’s Oprah Winfrey show at Vector Arena was more akin to a religious revival than a speaking engagement. Anny Ma tells how she felt the full force of the Oprah Effect.
Oprah has God, but I have Oprah. Sorry, Jesus.
An Evening With Oprah was the single most inspiring 2.5 hours of my entire existence. Yes, this has nudged past Beyoncé’s 2013 Mrs Carter Show World Tour, which also took place at Vector Arena and also did powerful things to my soul.
From the second I heard Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” filling the arena, I knew we were in for something truly magical, as did the other thousands of women and begrudging husbands in attendance. Oprah later told us we had the highest male attendance for her tour, and I like winning so that’s nice. As Parnell Princesses tottled along to their seats, chardonnay in hand, the air was thick with excitement and anticipation. The DJ warmed the crowd up with “Slice of Heaven” and “Poi E”, while roaming cameras showed fans getting down in the crowd. The camera panned to the cool dad of the nation, Mike McRoberts, who had a calm, happy demeanour as he played chaperone to the child beside him, which I assume was his.
For 20 minutes I waited, dancing in my seat while rattling with nervous excitement. At 7:48 they played an ad for Oprah on Sky’s TLC Channel and I started weeping. At 7:59 my heart was beating rapidly. The stragglers ran in and desperately sought out their seats while balancing hot chips and cuvee, looking like lost little sheep who really did need Oprah’s hand to guide them.
Eight o’clock arrived, but Oprah did not. A showreel of her accomplishments and travels kept us enchanted, and when that final cityscape flashed on screen, we were reaching peak elation. When the crowd recognised the scene as Auckland’s firework-spattered Waitemata Harbour, the hollering reached fever pitch, like in a movie where the camera tracks out to show screams audible from space.
The time was 8:26 when the Queen of Talk finally floated into the arena, descending through the clouds while playing the harp, before coming to rest on a golden throne crafted entirely from fan letters. That’s a blatant lie, though how I wish it were true. I was once told there is nobody louder than a crying drunk white girl, but I can now confidently attest that there is nothing louder than hysterical menopausal women tiddly on sparkling wine. The room suddenly erupted, the crowd so in sync I half-expected we would all spontaneously start the “Single Ladies” dance.
Her opening words were lost on me as I was hyperventilating and crying but I feel like she said “AUCKLAAAAAAND, NEW ZEALANNNNNNNND!” There was also some delightful chat about how appreciative she was of her welcome from Ngāti Whātua and how spiritually connected Māori are, a fact she greatly admires. I was still crying and was just getting my breath into a steady pattern when she said how touched she was by the hongi, and even more so when she found out it represented the exchange of the breath of life. Cue patriotic blubbering meltdown.
Mid-wheezing I caught her musing how New Zealanders seem so content and in touch with our well-being. Hmmmm. Pro-tip for Oprah: don’t read the Herald or Stuff comments. Following this was the obligatory All Blacks mention because it wouldn’t be New Zealand otherwise, and she showed off her ABs jersey signed by however many jocks are in that team.
With the sporting pleasantries out of the way, it was back to the important stuff, such as trying to will a childhood hero into making eye contact with me. Oprah’s eponymous talk show was something I grew up watching on our little CRT TV when I still thought watching too much TV would give you square eyes. She was a huge part of my formative years, especially on when I was skipping school. I know now that she is an advocate for staying in school, so my bad.
Oprah’s a powerhouse. A religion. An empire. But most of all, she’s a black woman who defied social norms and the oppressive southern states to become a name more recognisable than Madonna. I, too, have goals to blow this small-town pond in search of greater things, and I, too, don’t let the haters stop me from doin’ my thang. As such, our connection was instant.
Given that I used to record Oprah on VCR, you could say I’m a mega fan. My favourite Oprah fact is that Tom Cruise made carbonara on her show but it was raw because the stove wasn’t functional, and my favourite YouTube video is Beyoncé surprising Oprah with “Run the World” at her end-of-Oprah-show party. I already knew what a glorious entity she is. I knew that her soul is a beautiful bouquet of seasonal sprigs delicately weaved together by angels to spread cheer on Earth. But it wasn’t until I was privileged enough to be in the same room as her that I truly felt the Oprah Effect.
For the uninitiated, the Oprah Effect meant her endorsement of products would cause them to sell out immediately, and it was a publicist’s dream to be able to put that gold Oprah sticker on books. Naive young Anny would be all like “Oprah is v cool but u really wanna buy pyjamas cos she said so? K”. Instead of being the ratings driver I assumed it was, she told us she gave those millions of items away (“YOU GET A CAR! YOU GET A CAR!”) because she truly loved them and everything, happiness included, is better when you share it (NB: I did not get a car, just a bottle of water, which I paid $4.60 for). She seemed genuinely passionate about other people’s happiness and I was immediately hooked on this philanthropic concept until I remembered that I don’t share food, make-up, clothing or pretty much anything. Her ‘sharing is caring’ sentiment, admirable as it is, will have to be a secondary objective in my life. The Oprah Effect almost sold me on Christianity too, but I saw a Bible once and I’m over that now.
If God wanted to take some pointers from her, I’d note that her amazing powers of persuasion lie in a few key traits: enthusiasm, optimism and determination. As she told seminal stories from her childhood and adolescence, you could see a strong character coming together like a winning garment on Project Runway – there were tears, shocks, failures, and then finally, the magical success. Every experience (or “thread” as she calls them) contributed to the fabric of her life and taught her something the universe needed her to know, such as being FLAWLESS as her good mate Beyoncé (who apparently taught her how to twerk) would say.
Growing up a black illegitimate child in Mississippi was by no means an idyllic “thread”, and a far cry from her life sitting on thrones with Beyoncé. Oprah’s grandmother, her primary caregiver, was working as a maid for a white family, and would tell her to pay attention to her work, because that was Oprah’s future too. Na-uh Grandma Winfrey, your granddaughter went on to be the first black girl to win Nashville’s Miss Fire Prevention (what even is that?) at 16, and also got herself a job on the local radio station that same day. Sheer determination, a desire to win, and giving zero fucks about going up against two white girls in 1969 Nashville enabled Oprah to “honour her calling” – which was not washing sheets for white people.
She said a lot of fruity phrases and words that normally I’d mock or turn into faux-inspirational Instagram tiles – stock image of the sunset, white italicised text – but her wit and effervescence sold me on those spiritual concepts too. I now want to: co-create my life, be the master of my own fate, take responsibility for my intentions, only release positive energy, listen to the whisper of my life, learn to surrender and accept my failures, and repeat a list of mantras longer than the queue at the supermarket on Christmas Eve. I was utterly powerless against her charisma and Pinterest-packaged wisdom, but I ain’t mad at that. There was as little room for disbelief as there was standing room in the packed arena.
I went into An Evening With Oprah expecting enlightenment, empowerment and tears of joy. She provided all of that and more. I learned how to let things go, how to take control of my fate, and hysterically wept into my poor mother’s mohair cardigan-covered shoulder. Not only is Queen Oprah a goddess that we must all listen to, her Te Reo pronunciation is at least 26 million times better than John Key’s (Keep the flag, lose the Key and put Oprah in the Beehive pls).
Beyoncé’s persuasion can build a nation, but Oprah’s persuasion can turn a cynic into a Christian. Oprah may have just learned what a hongi is, but she damn well gave me the breath of life too. An Evening With Oprah – that’s something definitely worth jumping on some couches for.
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