CHICAGO -- Years ago, I proposed that the Chicago Tribune institute a monthly contest: Guess the cover of each upcoming issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
The suggestion got a laugh, but no one thought it actually was worth devoting print space every month to the same punch line: The cover subject is ... Oprah!
Oprah Winfrey certainly has proven herself a master of branding over the years, and O Magazine, launched in 2000 (she finally shared covers with Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres in 2009), can be seen as an effective extension of that strategy. But it also gets at a point about her that drives some people crazy: the notion that Oprah put the "O" into "ego."
Not everyone feels that way, of course, as the past few weeks of gushing farewells and tributes have demonstrated. Amid the parade of stars -- and those hundreds of Winfrey-funded Morehouse College students -- who bore witness to her tremendous generosity and influence last Tuesday night at the United Center, a negative word about Winfrey would have been as welcome as Mace in a puppy shelter.
Yet venture onto the comment boards attached to online stories about Winfrey's departure from her long-running talk show, and the vitriol pours forth:
"Now will that egomaniacal, narcissistic, self-adoring, media-attention-hogging gasbag PLEASE disappear and never be seen or heard from again?"
"Our 25-year ego trip nightmare is finally over. Or should I say O-ver?"
"What a barge load of self-aggrandizement this woman exhibits. Go already!"
Granted, comments boards tend to be petri dishes of negativity. That said, if Oprah were presiding over a public farewell to
Tom Hanks rather than the other way around, would the response be similar?
These feelings aren't new.
In 2005, I wrote a column tweaking Winfrey for what seemed like an overblown reaction to her being turned away from after-hours shopping at Paris' Hermes boutique; pal Gayle King called the incident "one of the most humiliating experiences of her life," which seemed to trivialize the truly serious obstacles Winfrey had overcome.
The reader response was far more vehement than what I wrote; of the couple of hundred emails, fewer than 10 defended her, and the bulk hit on the theme that she'd lost her connection with everyday reality.
Again, Winfrey can point to many successes that indicate she did not lose touch with her audience, but the naysayers have remained prominent and vocal.
Facebook features multiple "I Hate Oprah" pages and groups, one with more than 1,300 "Likes," another with more than 4,000 members.
Jennifer Simon, in a 2010 article on the relationships/culture website Nerve, listed "10 Good Reasons to Hate Oprah." Among them: "Her idea of happiness involves a lot of spending," "Her perceived infallibility," "She treats celebrities as medical experts" (such as giving Jenny McCarthy a platform to link childhood vaccines to autism), and, "She endorsed 'The Secret' and other pseudoscience."
Not all celebrities are fans, either. After complaining that she rarely invited rappers on her talk show, 50 Cent named his dog Oprah Winfrey and tweeted that he'd broken her leg.
"Any person at that level is going to have detractors," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and author of the 2007 book "Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own." "I don't see that Oprah catches more flak than any of her real peers."
He stressed that "her real peers are the geniuses of our generation," people who have "tapped into the zeitgeist of our time," such as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Apple CEO Steve Jobs. "People sniped at Einstein. It comes with the territory."
And those guys weren't on television every day for 25 years.
"My experience of Oprah is that there's always been huge numbers of passionate fans and then people who critique her no matter what she does," said Mimi White, a professor at Northwestern University's School of Communication.
She viewed this dynamic as a natural outgrowth of the dramatic cultural change she spurred.
"I think there are just people who are very suspicious of feminized mass culture, and what she did is really galvanize the female audience and take TV over for that," she said.