NEW YORK – Like any wife who knows her husband well, Nancy Martus knows what will annoy her man. Like when she utters the phrase, “Oprah says…”
“He doesn’t like it when I start my sentences that way,” laughs Martus, a 36-year-old mother of three in Plymouth, Mass. “He says he doesn’t care what Oprah says.”
Good luck with that, Mr. Martus.
For his wife and for millions of women around the country, Winfrey has become, over the years, much more than a regular television date. Talk to her fans, and you hear a familiar refrain: Oprah’s like a favorite aunt, a sister, or a friend. Forget the sprawling media empire and the billions that separate her daily existence from that of ordinary folks. To these fans, she still feels like a BFF.
That connection, especially remarkable for how long it’s lasted, is one reason why you can sense tangible disappointment but hardly anger among die-hard fans that she’s ending her talk show — well, in a year and a half — and moving to unspecified ventures in cable.
Because, many of these women say, you support your friends, even when they’re moving away and you’re mad at them for leaving. You have to be happy for them.
“You know, we’re selfish to miss her,” says Tracy Arenibar, a 37-year-old fan in Homer Glen, Ill. “I’m proud of her because she’s making a decision that she’s earned. She deserves it.”
Just how has Winfrey managed to maintain such a connection with viewers over nearly a quarter-century? Certainly, ratings have declined over the last decade — one reason, some speculate, that she decided to end her show and take a gamble with her new network, OWN (The Oprah Winfrey Network).
But still, Winfrey’s bringing in an average of 7.2 million viewers this season, a number that dwarfs the audience of, for example, the highly likable Ellen DeGeneres, whom some see as a likely successor at the top of the talk-show ladder.
To Joy Behar, the comedian and fellow talk show host, Winfrey’s gift is an ability to make everyone feel like she cares — not just about humanity, but about them.
“You’re home, you’re depressed, and you have the feeling that she really gives a damn,” says Behar, who co-hosts “The View” and recently launched her own show on HLN. “She gives the impression that she knows you personally.”
By contrast, the iconic Johnny Carson, who hosted “The Tonight Show” for 30 years, was cool as a cucumber — witty, amusing, comforting. “But you wouldn’t necessarily want him to come for Thanksgiving dinner,” Behar noted in a telephone interview.
With Winfrey, perfect as her life may seem with her wealth, her philanthropy and her ability to make anything from a pair of pajamas to a new novel a household name, it’s actually her imperfections that appeal to many of her fans.
In interviews, almost all of them pointed to her struggles with her famously fluctuating weight — a problem she shares with so many women. Winfrey has called a 1988 show in which she wheeled a wagon loaded with 67 pounds of fat onstage to represent her weight loss — weight she soon regained — a big, fat mistake.
“But it makes her so relatable,” said Martus, the Massachusetts fan. “She rides the same roller coasters everybody else does. I like that.”
Melissa Betschart loves that she and Oprah share a favorite weakness: Cupcakes. “She and I both have a sugar addiction,” says the 23-year-old from Sacramento, Calif. “I’m always on and off Weight Watchers. She gains and loses too. It just shows that she’s only human — and so raw.”
Betschart was born just as Winfrey’s talk show was debuting. She grew up watching with her mother and grandmother.
And even though this young white woman has little overtly in common with an African-American woman of 55 who overcame a childhood of poverty to become one of the richest and most powerful people in the world, she still considers her “part of my family, like an aunt, who I take advice from all the time.”
What’s telling about the devotion of fans like Betschart is that many of them care less about the content of Winfrey’s show — which is a little of everything — than simply who Oprah is. Betschart herself prefers the shows that are inspirational in nature, as in the recent karaoke challenge, where Winfrey awarded winner Abraham McDonald $250,000 and a chance at stardom. She’s less interested in seeing Tom Cruise declare his love for Katie Holmes.
But mostly, “I watch her for who she is,” Betschart says. “I like what she’s about. I like what she represents. When I have a down day, she makes me feel better.”
To Cathy Peters, what Winfrey represents is proof that a woman can start with nothing and achieve unimaginable success.
“It’s very important for people to see that,” says Peters, 51, a legal secretary in suburban Chicago. She thinks Winfrey is able to maintain her appeal to the average woman because “she’s kinda been there and done that. She’s been in most of our situations at some point in her life. So she can keep it real, and not let the billions get to her head.”
Peters and other fans say they’ll surely watch whatever type of new show Winfrey might appear in — if she decides to appear at all — on her new network, a joint venture with Discovery Communications Inc. that launches in 2011. Just tell them where to tune in, they say.
But success isn’t a sure thing, says TV historian Tim Brooks.
“She’s entering a different world,” Brooks says, noting that her previous cable venture, with the Oxygen network, didn’t pan out. “Still, Oprah is such a major destination for viewers that I suspect they’ll follow her wherever she goes.”
Certainly Arenibar, the Illinois fan, plans to seek out Winfrey in her new incarnation — and it’s fine with her if that incarnation is something totally new and different.
“After all, she thrives on change,” Arenibar says.
“But I’m sure she’s cooking something up. I’m sure we’re still gonna get a piece of her somehow.”