Leaving a void

oprah_rosenberg_400
Elaine Brigandi, who lives in Glassboro, N.J, watches Oprah religiously every day. She even went to the taping of the final show in Chicago last week. ( Michael Bryant / Staff photographer )

In the end, it was just as it had been for 25 years - Karen Williams on her couch in Cherry Hill, Oprah on the screen, the hour spent with the woman Williams unabashedly calls her best friend.

"They laugh at me - 'your best friend,' " she said of her five daughters, two of whom watched with her Wednesday. "I had a dream Oprah was on the other side of the street, she was walking the dogs, she was going to come over to the house. One day I'm going to meet her in person. It's not too late."

Yes, for women like Williams, 59, or Elaine Brigandi, 51, who won tickets to fly to Chicago last week for the taping of Monday's and Tuesday's big arena farewells, for those who watched the final show as usual at 4 p.m., or for those who DVRed it to play after work, or for those who threw an Oprah viewing party and, Oprah-style, turned the event into a benefit for a good cause, the last Oprah broadcast, what Oprah called her "love letter" to her fans, was no aha! moment.

This was definitely oh no ...

"Oh, that's it," Williams said at the close, wiping tears away. Friends were texting her daughter, "How's your mom? This is Oprah's last day!"

"They know," Williams said.

Womentake Oprah personally. They have for 25 years. So, the end of the network Oprah Winfrey Show - the end of a daily ritual of empowerment, advice, compassion, connection, insight, spirituality, inspiration, celebrity empathizing, and, let's face it, company while doing laundry - felt personal, too.

And intimate. For women like Karin Buck Zamborsky, 42, of Ambler, mother of three, marketing director at Devon's Nap Nanny L.L.C. (oh, if only Oprah had put the baby recliner that mimics a car seat on her show, not that they didn't try!), Oprah has been a personal hero.

"I'm totally bummed," Zamborsky said. "I almost took [the show] for granted. It's a big hole for TV and for great inspirational stories. She has been so empowering to women. I feel like any kind of big, successful woman has gained knowledge and insights from Oprah."

Chief among those inspirations was, no kidding, when Oprah introduced women worldwide to Spanx body shapers (and how can we ever thank her enough for that?).

"Here's the owner of Spanx, here's how she came up with the idea, here are the tools you need," said Zamborsky. "I carve time out of my life to watch the shows I feel will make a difference in my life. It's almost like a learning hour, a self-help hour."

For Doneza Smith, 35, it is Oprah's personal story of overcoming adversity and an abusive childhood that she finds most compelling.

And she will never be able to truly thank Oprah for becoming a beacon to her daughter Canoesha V. Nelson, 14, a "safe harbor" Oprah spoke of on the last show. Canoesha, who has cerebral palsy, recently took second place in Widener Memorial School's oratorical contest with a speech on Oprah's place in history.

She and her mother watch after school. "She loves the things Oprah does," said Smith. "She pays attention. Oprah's been through it, but she's not afraid to give a helping hand. She's filled with emotion. Being African American, you go through a lot sometimes."

Smith said her favorite shows were with spiritualist Iyanla Vanzant, one of many Oprah gurus over the decades, and Tyler Perry's visit, during which he, like so many others, felt he could speak of his own abuse-blighted childhood.

The Oprah effect - the firestorms of consumption her recommendations regularly ignite - set the stage for the mommy bloggers to wield their influence, says Jennifer Braxton, 37, until recently an Ikea executive in Philadelphia. Not to mention the birth of everyone's book group.

"Whatever Oprah cares about, everybody literally cares about. The whole mommy blogger thing, I attribute to Oprah. Marketers and advertisers realize what power women have over buying decisions in the household."

For Braxton, Oprah "symbolizes the American dream for so many African American women." Her imperfections, particularly her struggles with weight, make her compelling.

"She's a real person with real issues," Braxton said. "I think she made personal growth something we all now care about. A generation before, it was making ends meet, taking care of your family. Now, it's about living your best life, reaching your inner potential."

Brigandi, of Glassboro, still giddy from her last-minute trip to Chicago, said she hadn't missed a show in 25 years. She works a 26-hour week at the foreign-language lab at Rowan University and can be home by 4 p.m. She's a fan of the celebrity interviews, like the trip to Ralph Lauren's ranch that Oprah somehow managed to turn into a deeply spiritual journey.

"It's going to be kind of sad, I have to say," she said. "My kids laugh at me and shake their heads at me, but it really will. It's been part of my life for 25 years. I really do look forward to it. I watch it while I'm finishing up my laundry, then I start my dinner around 4:30 every day."

Laundry and Oprah also go together for Tarah McLaughlin, 36, a Spanish teacher at Methacton High School in Norristown, who watched as a teenager after General Hospital. "Most topics were over my head during that time, but I can remember vividly epidsodes on racism," she said. "Jungle Fever was a hit movie then, and most of my friends dated interracially."

Oprah's audience has always been about 80 percent white and 80 percent female, says Janice Peck, a professor at the University of Colorado and author of The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era. But her influence has surely been felt by the men in that 80 percent-female audience's life.

"Men needed to see it - what is she saying to these women?" says Desiree Carr, 41, one of Williams' five daughters.

Some women say they are already tuning in to Oprah's new cable channel, while others aren't certain what they'll do. But in Whitesboro, N.J., childhood home of Oprah's pal Stedman Graham, people expect to still see Oprah at reunions, where they say she eats her corn on the cob like everyone else. "She has that warmth," says Shirley Green.

Oprah has a way of making women feel OK about their choices. For Braxton, 37 and childless, "I think about how she felt when she was my age. She never had kids, but I feel like she's fulfilled."

For Williams, a Cherry Hill stay-at-home mom for most of her Oprah years, it was a show she watched when she was 40 that had "her most profound effect."

"She said the most important and yet thankless job is being a mother. Coming from her, not being a mother, it was important. I did do something well. I'm raising five people who go out in the world and they're going to make an impact."

Desiree Carr, her daughter, who is assistant director of development at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing, says the family will gather after church on Sunday to watch the taped final episode together. "I'm so sad, I almost don't want to," she said.

On Wednesday, by the show's first commercial break, her mom was already fashioning her post-farewell strategy.

"Channel 279," she said, referring to the DirectTV number for the Oprah Winfrey Network. "Channel 279."

 


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com. Follow on twitter @amysrosenberg.