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Lessons from Oprah's Lifeclass: sensitivity sells and high heels hurt

A woman tapped me on the shoulder from behind.

"Put down your BlackBerry!" she admonished. "You should stand up and be a part of this!"

I was tweeting live for Globe online about Oprah's Lifeclass: The Tour, which touched down on Monday to a sold-out audience at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre at the end of a six-week road show that included stops in St. Louis, Mo., and New York. The tweet I'd just sent read, "Wild in here. Women jumping up and down, arms waving, screaming yes yes yes. Like a massive group orgasm." The moment had come at the hands of Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker who looks like a robot excited to have discovered that his equipment comes with a heart.

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And that was before the wireless network in the convention centre slowed to a halt as many of the more than 8,500 participants took to social media to revel in the greatest of all Big Os, Oprah herself. She hadn't even arrived yet.

This was her first televised event in Canada, and the mood was more frenzied than you'd find at a discount sale at Holts. People had come from far and wide to see their goddess, paying ticket prices ranging from $49 to $395, some lining up outside as early as 4 a.m. (Overnight camping on the sidewalk was prohibited.) Many women – there were only sporadic sightings of the male species – were beautifully dressed in heels and bright spring colours. Paramedics had to be called in for one woman with a swooning spell in one of the bathrooms.

"I will never have the financial resources of Oprah," gushed Jan, a 54-year-old mother of three from Pickering, Ont., who had come with her 26-year-old daughter, Kim. "But what appeals to me is her sensitivity and compassion. That's still there, even when the cameras are off."

For all her deification, Oprah still has feet of clay, and they even hurt. At one point, during a break from filming, she complained that her Christian Louboutin high heels were killing her. She took them off and passed them to an assistant.

If the event was an effort to shore up the Oprah brand and remind everyone why she's a media power to be reckoned with – despite the wobbly start of her year-old cable channel, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) – Lifeclass: The Tour was a success. She hugged strangers. She quipped about her yo-yo weight. "Do I look good?" she asked with a perfect tinge of insecurity. She ventured into the crowd with security guards, holding out her hands like a messiah. The Oprah Effect was in full swing.

She knows what she has to do. The Oprah Winfrey Network debuted with great fanfare in early 2011, the same year she abdicated her iconic role as the queen of daytime talk after 25 years. But her cable specialty channel has floundered with a grab bag of programming that has failed to catch on. Within months of its debut, its CEO, Christina Norman, was dismissed and Oprah herself stepped in. Last month, OWN cut 20 per cent of its staff (30 people) and cancelled Rosie O'Donnell's talk show.

Her Lifeclass show in Toronto featured her safe, bread-and-butter content: all about gratitude and how it transforms lives. Her "spiritual squad" onstage doled out psychobabble like candy to unsuspecting children. In addition to Mr. (Robotic) Robbins, there was Deepak Chopra, bestselling author and spiritual guru, Iyanla Vanzant, a teacher, inspirational speaker and bestselling author, and Bishop T.D. Jakes, a pastor who is touted as the next Billy Graham. Mr. Chopra appeared as though he, too, was a bit bored by his now predictable offerings.

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Bishop Jakes was by far the goofiest, even if he didn't intend to be funny. During his solo segment, he strutted across the stage in his light grey suit (with a pink pouf in the breast pocket), mimicking the head wobble and gait of a chicken. They eat stones, sticks and feces, he pointed out, booming, "We are like chickens if we eat stuff from the past, if we take in what we should excrete!" Far better to be eagles. "They make love in the air," he said. And, like, they soar. Get it?

Of them all, Ms. Vanzant came across as the most authentic and helpful, an Oprah-in-the-making who has a bit of the gospel singer in her. She talked about truth. But people should also remember that what they perceive as truth is not always correct, she added with a cheeky look, going on to explain how women should admit to their husbands that they were wrong about something. "Put hand on heart, look at him in the eye, and say, 'Oh sweetie. I just love it when you're right.' "

An "emotional flooding" exercise was the pinnacle of the day, led by Mr. Robotic. He asked the crowd to jump up and down to get the blood flowing and then, with hand on heart and eyes closed, bring into their minds a moment in their lives when they were grateful. Feel it, he bellowed. Sappy, spiritual-esque music boomed through the windowless bunker. Women swayed. On one of the huge flat screen TVs near the podium, we could see Oprah in her red dress, positioned among her acolytes in the middle of the congregation, hands on her heart, eyes closed, her head titled up to the concrete ceiling. Maybe she was thinking about Stedman Graham, her boyfriend of 25 years, who appears to be top of her mind these days. The April issue of O featured him on the cover with her, a sign of something in Oprah-world.

If OWN lost the magic connection Oprah once had with her audience, the 58-year-old star, worth an estimated $2.7-billion (U.S.), knows exactly how to re-establish it: bromides wrapped in saccharine passion. Will it be enough to reinvigorate her network? On the floor of the convention centre, the sentiment was clear. People were un-Canadian in their effusion. "Oh, that was life-changing for me," said Debbie, a 39-year-old mother of 13-year-old twins, who had come from Ottawa. "It was surreal," she continued after the "flooding" had ebbed. A self-confessed "huge Oprah fan," she had travelled twice before to see the talk-show host in Chicago. It didn't bother her that the message about gratitude is ubiquitous in a popular culture hooked on happiness. "It's good to hear it again. It's reinforcement. I don't see it as a negative."

Who would when you're there to be positive? Well, maybe only a reporter.

Highlights from the Toronto Lifeclass event are slated to air on OWN Canada on Monday night.

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