Tuned In

Oprah Watch: Surprise!

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AFP PHOTO / Peter Wynn Thompson/Getty Images

The first day of Oprah Winfrey’s three-day send-off began about as low-key as you would have suspected, with copious tears, A-list celebrities and cheering crowds holding up video placards like something straight out of a Super Bowl halftime show. The program of events, a voiceover intoned as the titles rolled, was “One of the best-kept secrets on the planet! Oprah! Has! No! Idea!”

Yes! None whatsoever! I’m guessing that her assistant just told her she needed to go to the United Center to sign some papers, and—look! There was a gigantic crowd, and Tom Hanks and Beyoncé! Oh my God, you guys!

I joke, of course, which is to say, I’m going to hell. The beginning of Oprah’s big farewell was strictly an irony-free zone, in which a cavalcade of stars celebrated 25 years of lavish charitable giving by lavishly celebrating the charitable giver.

Hanks, who served as a sort of emcee of the show, took care to say to Oprah: “You’ve said it over and over again Oprah: It’s all about them.” And his statement was followed by a montage of stories, inspring or heartbreaking, from ordinary people. But it’s also true that the audience watches Oprah for Oprah, and for the celebrities whom she’s turned into a kind of ersatz family through the show.

So there was Tom Hanks Cruise, who didn’t come so much to reminisce about the incident—in which he jumped on Oprah’s couch to express his joy over his bride Katie Holmes—which at the time was taken as a sign that Cruise’s behavior may have become bizarre enough to sink his career. Instead, he said that “I knew when I was coming to Chicago that I was going to see a loving friend.”

Which is true enough: personal or professional, Oprah has been able to cultivate an on-air friendship with celebrities, getting them to open them up by being able to approach them as both intimate counselor and A-list peer. She has also engaged with celebrities for and about charity, which was a focus of many of the tributes she received, eyes welling with emotion.

Madonna, for instance, came out to praise Oprah for having “balls, and a well of compassion.” Lady M and O, Madonna reminded us, have in common more than being known by a single name. They’ve also both been engaged in extensive, sometimes controversial, charitable efforts in Africa. Oprah’s example, Madonna said, encouraged her to stick with building a girl’s school in Malawi “no matter how much resistance I encounter.”

Because that’s how inspirational Oprah does: she teaches us that you can do whatever you set your mind to, even if you’re an insanely wealthy celebrity.

I know, I know: this is about charity! Turn the snark machine off for a day, can’t you! The thing about the Oprah tribute is that—like the works of many great entertainers and inspirers—it’s hard to separate the good works from the aggrandizement, the selflessness from the self-promotion, because they’re so inextricably intertwined.

And look, that approach has done a lot of good for a lot of needy people. John Legend appeared to announce that, in honor of Oprah’s Book Club, Target had rebuilt and was restocking the library of the Believe School in New Orleans, which he was visiting. “Good job, Tar-zhay!” Oprah cheered, using her affectionate pronunciation for the company.

The sponsorship continued: “Oprah’s Surprise Farewell wouldn’t have been possible without United, the airline of our farewell season,” we learned, before hearing about the luxury celeb guests “indulged in” at the Marriott. Like so much of the Oprah Winfrey Show over the years, it was a seamless blend a mix of celebrity, product placement, charity, inspiration and tears —wiped away courtesy of Kleenex brand facial tissues!

That made those tears no less real though. There is, after all, a reason that “Oprah” has become a brand name and icon on par with or greater than Target, United and the rest: because branding and relentless promotion work, and Oprah has certainly used them to do more good than many other such brands. She’s also done a great deal of good for celebrities—hence the A-list sendoff—in a way that’s not likely to be reproduced again, either.

The farewell continues today. I bet there will be stars. Shhh—don’t tell Oprah!