Robyn Okrant has a complicated relationship with the most powerful woman in the world. She says she isn't an Oprah hater or a superfan - she's simply intrigued by the mogul's influence on American women.
In 2008, Ms. Okrant abided by all the advice the icon doled out on her show, in her magazine and on her website.
Along the way, she spent $4,781.84 - plus 1,202 hours and 1 minute - as she followed the lifestyle guru's instructions including taking a 21-day vegan cleanse, buying a crisp white Brooks Brothers shirt and seeing Céline Dion in concert.
The Chicago yoga instructor recently published a book about the experience called Living Oprah. By the end of the year, she told The Globe and Mail in a phone interview, she was unable to distinguish her own point of view from Oprah's and felt unclear on whether she really was living her "best life."
You mention many times in the book that you were on a tight budget. How did you deal with all of the things that you needed to buy for this project?
Oprah might think everyone should own a pair of Michael Kors pants because they look great on a woman with a booty, so she can just send her people out to get a pair of pants for her. I had to bargain shop and basically look in Marshalls [a discount chain]until I could find [them] For someone with a budget like mine, it takes a lot of time to live up to these ideals of beauty set by someone else.
You noted that you "appreciate when different pieces of Oprah's advice fit together rather than conflict." Tell me about that side of it - that idea that so many of her teachings are conflicting with others.
The biggest conflict for me is where spirituality and consumerism converge on her show. As you've probably read her saying, "You have to read [Eckhart Tolle's] A New Earth, where we learn to separate from material things, and you have to read it with a 3M Post-it flag highlighter pen." The other thing is you know Oprah talks a lot about not wasting, not having things you don't need in your life ... and that's so ironic because so much of her show is about decadence.
When you got to be there for a taping of the show, you seemed shocked by the audience response. You wrote, "I'm wondering why everyone is falling over themselves to be seen by Oprah." But you found yourself acting the same way around her.
I'm so embarrassed by that. I knew it was going to be crazy because I'd seen the show a lot. I knew how excited they were going to be. But it's so different to be there in person. Yet again, there was another example of me trying to be Margaret Mead and then all of that fell apart.
This whole project was about living your "best life." But by the end of the year, you write, "I haven't felt this much pressure to look and act a certain way since high school." What specifically triggered those feelings?
I think it hasn't been since high school that I've felt so much part of needing to meet up to a group of women's expectations, or needing to fit in with a very specific culture of women. Part of it was Oprah saying, "You need to wear this, you've got to go out and get this," but part of it was also this group.
After completely immersing yourself in her world, did you find it difficult to relate to the friends that you had that weren't part of that club?
There were certain times, especially when people told me that they thought what I was doing sounded like fun, because they weren't involved in it - like the shopping or the going to see certain movies or planning certain events that Oprah told women to plan. I sort of wanted to throttle them because I thought, "No, this isn't fun; this is torture!" After the smoke cleared, I just thought, "Oh boy, what have I done to all the people in my life?"
You praise your husband numerous times for being so patient and understanding. What kind of toll did this project take on him?
I think the time issue - that's what he speaks to the most; the fact that he felt not only was he not seeing a lot of me, but when he did have me around, he never for that year had my undivided attention. Sometimes I was thinking, "This is how Oprah's guest told me to interact with my husband and this is how Oprah's guest told me to redesign my sex life with Jim." I felt like I was always communicating with him through a filter, and I think he was sort of disappointed not to have the real me with him.
What's the biggest thing you've gained from this project?
I think it is that Oprah always talks about clarity - not sticking your head in the sand when it comes to finances, your health, your relationships. Have I heard that from other sources before? Absolutely. But it was in doing that project that I have felt less incapacitated about certain fears in my life.
Did you go through Oprah withdrawal when it was all done?
Oh yeah. It took me a few months to stop watching the show. I don't feel this way now, but I certainly felt like it was risk-free to live that way. I couldn't possibly make a mistake because I wasn't accountable for my choices. I could always pass the buck and say, "Oprah told me to do this." Or "I read it in a magazine." But then it came back to me again. It was like being slapped in the face with reality. I'm now happy in that reality but it took a few months.
Oprah has millions of fans, but you say she doesn't have a single peer because of her status. Do you think that you're happier than she is?
Clearly this all conjecture, but I think I have it easier than she has, which is crazy. I'm packing up my tiny apartment, everything is a mess, my cats are going crazy, there's cat hair everywhere, we're going to be lugging boxes soon to my new apartment and still, I think I have it easier than she does. I don't know if I would say happier, but I think I know I would rather have my life than Oprah's. I think there are times when we all joke, "If I had Oprah's money things would be much easier. True, true, money would make things much easier. But it doesn't look like it makes you much happier, frankly.
How much Oprah do you have in your life now?
Very, very little. I watch infrequently and occasionally. She's gone back a little bit to being that sort of aural wallpaper - just some noise in the background sometimes when I'm packing. I'm more convinced than ever that her ratings may be sliding downwards but Oprah as a personality, as a fixture in American culture certainly isn't going anywhere.