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How did Oprah woo suburban women?
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff

Matt Lennert, owner of Moveable Feast in Geneva, with his Deeply Fudgey Brownies that Oprah featured on her "Favorite Things" show.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

The "Deeply Fudgey Brownie" made by A Moveable Feast in Geneva was selected by Oprah Winfrey as one of her "Favorite Things" in 2005.

 

Photo courtesy of A Moveable Feast

Oprah fan Monica Love, 35, formerly of Roselle, holds up an autographed photo she got while visiting Harpo Studios recently. Love says Oprah helped her change her life.

 

Courtesy of Monica Love

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Published: 11/25/2009 12:29 AM

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When Oprah Winfrey suggests a product or a new book, suburban women buy it. We help the charities she chooses, discuss the issues she raises, embrace her "friends," such as Suze Orman and Dr. Phil, making them celebrities in their own right.

The queen of daytime TV forged a special bond in the suburbs, something for which non-fans sometimes criticized her. But others love the way she speaks to them.

"She makes a community for women," said West Chicago mom Kim Lennert, who subscribes to "O" magazine and bought several of Oprah's Book Club picks.

Fans were crushed by last week's announcement that Oprah will end her top-rated talk show in 2011, after a 25-year run. It was hard news to take because, over the years, suburban women have grown to rely on Oprah for entertainment and education. In some cases, her show has changed their lives.

Monica Love, 35, struggled with the change in lifestyle after she moved from Roselle to rural Georgia a few years ago. Love watched "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and listened to Oprah Radio, and the empowering, live-your-best-life messages convinced her to go out and buy a few of the recommended books.

It led her back to school, where the mother of a 6-year-old is pursing a psychology degree and considering a social work career.

"It got me on a whole different path," Love said. "I wouldn't have known of half these people if (Oprah) hadn't mentioned them."

When Oprah went looking for her favorite brownie, she found it in the suburbs. In 2005, Oprah picked the Deeply Fudgey Brownies made by Lennert's catering and restaurant business, Moveable Feast in Geneva, as one of her "Favorite Things."

Within hours, the business amassed more than 1,000 brownie orders. The demand crashed their Web site. Staggering brownie sales persisted for months, with inquiries coming in from as far away as Australia.

"People still come in for it," Lennert said. "They want 'The Oprah Brownie.'"

How did Oprah win over the large and powerful demographic of suburban women? And how did a billionaire black woman from Mississippi with no husband and no children seem to have her finger on the pulse of what interested this group?

Experts cite several reasons. One is that Oprah's show represents what suburban women care about. They want to learn about important health issues and watch Tom Cruise jump on the couch. They want to help charities and see what shoe styles were hot this fall.

So while Oprah may not have much in common with her audience, she acts, speaks and thinks like them.

"Oprah isn't 'like' many of her viewers in terms of income, but she connects to them on a personal level," said Lou Manza, a psychology professor at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. "She has chronicled her own struggles in a very public manner, and this lets people see that while she is wealthy, she also has 'regular' problems and has managed to work through them. This gives people hope - 'If Oprah did it, so can I.'"

"She does a great job of being candid about her issues, while working hard to downplay the icon that she is when on-camera," said Pam Sherman, a fan who owns Chicago Anytime Assistants.

Oprah's authenticity and vulnerability are also a key to her "real person" appeal. She owns up to her mistakes (promoting a book as a memoir when it was fiction), acts silly (a cross-country road trip with her best friend Gayle), cries when her dog dies or she hears a heartbreaking story, gets behind causes she believes in (a girls school in South Africa), and acts like a student and not just a teacher (organizing a 10-week online class to discuss Eckhart Tolle's book, "A New Earth.")

"Moms like me could shut off the TV after an hour of being informed, comforted, and sometimes shocked to make changes in our everyday life that would somehow make it more meaningful," said Terry Starr, who heads up myworkbutterfly.com, a support site for working moms.

Oprah also tries to convince women that they can find value in their lives and make a difference in the world, which is something suburban women want, or at least want to believe.

While The Oprah Winfrey Show may be ending, Oprah won't disappear. Her magazine (featuring her photo on the cover each month), her satellite radio channel and numerous other ventures will carry on. Most fans expect "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to be revived in some form on her new cable network, OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network).

"We're probably going to see a lot of Oprah if she has her own network now," Love said. "We're probably still going to be watching her for a long time."