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Part-sermon, part-sales pitch: Oprah tours western Canada

Media icon and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey tells her life story at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana November 26, 2012. The conversation is part of the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series, established in 2008.

Chris Bergin/Reuters

When attending the Church of Oprah, keep up. Things move quickly and there's no margin for inattention. You've "been called," after all. That's why you're here.

You're an energy field and she's an energy field. You have flow and she has flow. Listen for the whispers and those a-ha moments. And have you found your thread yet? There's time for Jesus, of course, but also for spiritual icons of a different stripe: Maya Angelou, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra.

If you're already falling behind, Oprah Church may not be for you. If you can keep up, though, you're in for a ride: This is unfiltered, full-blast Oprah. There are no commercial breaks or guests to interrupt her. It's just the talk TV titan on Canadian tour, delivering a sermon of autobiography, Christianity, new-age divinity and pop-science.

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"I am a whisper on the breath of God. I am a human living within and through divine intelligence," Ms. Winfrey tells congregants, before later continuing: "I am micro within the macro, and I understand that. A wave within the ocean of God. I love standing on the beach and watching the waves. That's a big metaphor for how I see my energy in comparison to the macro. Actually, I'm not even macro, I'm really just a cup of water. A cup of water. Smaller than a wave. A cup of water within the ocean. I come from the power. I recognize that. I come from whatever you call that force-field. I come from that. We have access to the power, but I am not the power. That's how I operate my life."

So go the sermons, a de facto sales pitch for her struggling – a descriptor she loathes – Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). The spiritual leader, media mogul and self-help icon has worn many hats. There's talk-show-host Oprah. Advocate Oprah. Politico Oprah. Interviewer Oprah, on prominent display earlier this month opposite cyclist Lance Armstrong.

And, these days, it's Oprah uncut, the billionaire spiritual crusader searching for what she calls her "next chapter." After all, her empire isn't what it was. OWN, entering its third year, continues to suffer low ratings. Ms. Winfrey hopes to turn it around with the Armstrong interview and a new-age direction to make the network "a force for positivity and raising consciousness in the world."

That's what brought Oprah to Canada this week. She missed Barack Obama's inauguration to tour Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. It was a moneymaker – 43,000 tickets, sold out, overwhelmingly to women, with some fans shelling out hundreds of dollars for a spot in the arena pews – and a promotion, running a network ad on a giant screen.

Ms. Winfrey darted otherwise between life-stories and new-age theories, laying on the encouragement and folksy charm. Whether she inspires or perplexes you, it all fanned the flames of the cult of Oprah. "The Oprah I know is smart," Stedman Graham, her long-time partner, said in introducing her in Vancouver. "But will never let you know how smart she is."

In starting OWN, Ms. Winfrey, who turns 59 on Tuesday, says she was "delusional" and didn't know what she was taking on. And problems quickly piled on – "2012 just kicked my butt," she said. "It was a bloodbath every day in the press." To right the ship, Ms. Winfrey is turning to a trusted strategy: When in doubt, add Oprah. If still in doubt, add more Oprah. She'll rely less on the advice of others. "How do I turn it around?" she said in Calgary. "Switch the paradigm to service." In other words: preach her new-age brand of spirituality.

That's what spurred the mini-tour. Each show was more or less the same, with overlapping, well-worn anecdotes and occasional asides. She mixed in a common touch ("I pee like everybody else") to take the edge off boasts ("… I used to fly commercial. That doesn't happen often anymore."). She bumped into the Tragically Hip and figured they were everyday fans, and was mortified when later informed by her show's co-host, George Stroumboulopoulos. She graciously accepted, in Edmonton, an Oilers jersey and silver "truck nuts," ornamental testicles for a vehicle's trailer hitch.

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She name-dropped stars, insisted she could never raise a baby, said she doesn't cook (in Calgary), does cook (in Vancouver), and tried to bridge the gap between her and the commoners. "Because the calling for you is just as grand and just as powerful and just as noble and just as spectacular. It doesn't mean everybody will know your name." She twice mixes up the cities she's in, and once tells Edmonton it's "colder than Siberia," imploring: "Why didn't you tell me?"

It was a hit. Her iconic talk show may be gone, but her draw hasn't faded. "We'll do a launch with president [George W.] Bush or Arnold Schwarzenegger [and get] 1,000 people. We're filling these stadiums with 15,000 people who come see Oprah," said Andy McCreath, a partner with Tine Public Inc., which produced the tour. That's because so many fans say Ms. Winfrey's inspiration carried them through crisis.

"We've been through a hell of year so we're here to get some inspiration from Oprah," said Kristi Oliver, 42, who was ill for three years suffering from the liver condition PSC. "I was very sick, bed-ridden," said the Port Alberni, B.C., woman. "I watched the Oprah show every single day in bed, trying to get the inspiration to keep going." She had a liver transplant seven months ago, with her husband shelling out hundreds of dollars for Oprah tickets to celebrate.

After more than two hours of worshiping at the altar of Oprah, the well-heeled crowd shuffled out inspired, moved, grateful. "We laughed through the whole thing. She was so personal, I loved the personal stories," said Cindy Oyama-Yeung, who also attended the Vancouver show.

Amid the anecdotes, theories, self-deprecation and OWN pitches, Ms. Winfrey went heavy on the inspiration, flashing the smile and star-power that made her an icon. She urged devotees to find their calling, their passion, their flow and their thread.

"Your real goal is to figure out how to honour your calling, and get paid for it. If you can do that, that makes your life that much easier."

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More


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