Pop Culture

It’s Oprah’s America

Oprah has finally come out of the real closet. She is, at long last, ready to speak the truth about her private life. And that truth is one that America might not be ready for. Here it is: Oprah Winfrey, once and for all and make no mistake about it, can be kind of a grump. And not one single bit like you. Or me. Or anyone else you know. Unless you’re John Travolta or Julia Roberts. And then you know Oprah.

Anyway, this announcement was made on Monday, during the 21st season’s first episode, the one called “Oprah & Gayle’s Big Adventure,” in which our heroines decide to see the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet. So they begin driving cross-country.

And that is when we learn, in word and in deed, that Oprah prefers not to be near us — her fans and our lesser diners and our gas stations and cheap motels and noisy hysteria when we glimpse her in the rare moments she’s out amongst us — much at all.

Because, really, lesbian schmesbian: All that chat this summer about how Oprah and Gayle were going to finally “address the rumors” about being longtime companions with benefits in the August issue of O magazine, rumors that have become as much a part of our national urban mythology as that story about the Coke and Pop Rocks? That silliness pales in comparison to the shredding of the “I’m Just Like You” veil.

It was a pretty flimsy veil, to be sure, and she’s alluded to it coming down for good more and more of late, with offhand comments like “Y’all know I have some money, right?” and “Yes, I have celebrity friends.” But she’s always said these things with a smile that told us, “But don’t worry, I’m still down with y’all and your barely-making-ends-meet lives. I used to be you and I haven’t forgotten what it’s like. We’re still the same.”

She was so good at it that we bought it even as she passed out Burberry sweaters to the audience on a “Favorite Things” episode and talked about owning one in every color or, during an episode on household cleanliness, to having her bed sheets washed, pressed and changed every three days. When the cleanliness expert said, “Well, that’s not realistic for most people,” Oprah just smiled and shrugged and laughed, like Oh silly me. I forgot. I’m crazy rich!

But no more. In what is to be a multi-episode tracking odyssey, her adoring fans are soon to be systematically stripped of their belief that Oprah is anything less than the Queen of the United States of America.

The season opener and its subsequent installments are meant to do a few things: put Oprah in touch with her fans in a real-time setting, solidify the O magazine “Seriously, We’re Just Best Friends” interview, freak out unsuspecting highway motorists, shill for Chevrolet and Kodak — the words “I love this camera” were heard no fewer than three times Monday — and give the woman a chance to check out real estate that might be up for grabs.

But something happens when Oprah is taken away from her carefully constructed comfort zone. She gets surly. After two days in a car with Gayle you realize once and for all that they couldn't possibly be in a lesbian relationship. Oprah would have Gayle killed, stuffed and mounted and put in a foyer somewhere if they had to spend long stretches of time together. Steadman must have his own wing of their Chicago home and have “Yes, dear,” on the autospeak function of his programming chip.

Gayle, however, has no such chip. She is, in fact, Oprah’s best asset, her one link to something resembling normal life: the best friend-as-thorn-in-side, providing comic relief and genuine annoyance.

The pair are seen pumping gas, something Oprah admits to not having done since 1983. Then they go to, in Oprah’s words, “a place called Albertsons.” Albertsons is a supermarket chain. A huge supermarket chain featuring “Everybody Loves Raymond” star Patricia Heaton as their spokesperson. And Oprah has never heard of it. This is cute. But it’s not enough to base a media personality paradigm shift on.

What is enough are the words that come straight from the O Herself during and after their journey, one that was supposed to be relatively free of celebrity treatment: “It’s really fun being a celebrity.” Well, yeah. Another good one was, “I’m used to being met at the door” (after not being able to find a hotel check-in desk). And, best of all, “I’m not a people person.”

Then, to ice the sweet red velvet cupcake from Sprinkles bakery in Beverly Hills — shipped overnight by good friend Barbra Streisand — there’s the haughty, huffy, daggers-for-eyes expression Oprah puts on when their entourage of crew and camera equipment is denied entrance to Las Vegas’s biggest buffet. It’s a buffet that’s not going to get Oprah. And that, says O’s face, is punishment enough. “Let’s just go,” she says, coldly staring straight into the camera. It’s a TiVo rewind-and-pause moment, if not for the ages, at least for an episode of “Best Week Ever.”

And this is just the season opener.  A Fun Episode, to be sure, and clearly the audience’s favorite type of her three main episode styles (the other two are “Scold The Cheating Husband/Gay Senator” and “Julia Roberts Is Here!”) but it’s a far cry from giving away a car to everyone in the studio.

It’s Oprah’s way of shifting Chevrolet gears a little bit, to help everyone adjust to the idea that, though she still loves us all as much as we love her, the cracks in the “Just Folks” veneer were not only showing, they were blinding us with her privilege. She knew she had to show us her grumpy, prickly side, to be even more honest and lay it bare, like she’s always done in her own strange, controlling way. It’s more than we get from our own president or any other bubble-dwelling famous person, that’s for sure. And it’s why we voted her Queen.

Now, when do we get to see her and Gayle rough it at a Motel 6 outside of El Paso? Because that’s going to be good.

Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at .

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