Oprah Winfrey's $7 million car giveaway to TV audience – USA TODAY

This story originally published on July 14, 2004. It is being republished as part of the commemoration of USA TODAY’s 40th anniversary on Sept. 15, 2022.
CHICAGO — Oprah Winfrey could just sit back. Relax. Count her millions. Jet between her many fabulous homes. Go yachting whenever she feels like it.
But instead, the 50-year-old icon is starting her 19th season on daytime talk TV. And on Monday’s premiere of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she kicked it off with an Oprah-sized stunt: 
On stage, wearing a stylish red suit, jangling a set of car keys and dancing around while the audience went wild with delight, this was a new Oprah Winfrey.
We’ve watched Winfrey – one of the most influential celebrities of our time – go from Oscar-nominated actress for “The Color Purple” in 1985, the same year she launched “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” to New Age guru for a nation in the ’90s, to a savvy businesswoman who has amassed a $1 billion fortune.
Now, Winfrey’s focus for this new season – of both her life and her television show, it seems – is “Wildest Dreams,” as in making your wildest dreams come true, a ratcheting up of the annual “Favorite Things” show in which the audience gets all sorts of goodies.
Persuading Pontiac to donate the cars was just a start. On Monday’s show, Winfrey also helped homeless Alexandra Molina with a scholarship from SBC Communications, a makeover from Tyra Banks, a Pontiac and wardrobe from Express, and she bailed out a soon-to-be-evicted foster mom with a $130,000 check from her Angel Network charity, throwing in furniture and appliances from various vendors. A Wildest Dreams bus featuring Winfrey’s best buddy and O magazine editor at large Gayle King will hit the road this season, granting more wishes.
“I know people think it sounds ridiculous coming from me: I really think that this is the beginning,” Winfrey says.
The beginning of a move from spiritual mentor to Santa Claus? A fairy godmother for the new millennium? “No, no no!” she says in a lengthy interview in her elegant Harpo Studios offices. “That’s an unfair characterization. I wanted it to be bigger than Santa Claus and not to be an act of a fairy godmother, because that’s not who I am. Who I am is a person who understands what it means to give back. And what I really wanted for myself and the audience was to feel the intention of the giving.”
It sounds like a stock celebrity line – “giving back” – but Winfrey insists that although, yes, the premiere show was about creating buzz, it became something more than just sending the audience into spasms of surprise. “I felt that it was one of the greatest days I’ve ever experienced on television, if not the greatest day.”
The taping last Thursday was truly an experience. At the moment each person realized he or she was going home with a car – even husbands and wives, mothers and daughters – the place erupted. People yelled, cried, screamed, sat down in disbelief, jumped in joy. At times it was like a revival meeting turned reality show. One person shouted: “Oprah, you’re beautiful!” Another added, “On the inside!” And a third screamed: “We’re blessed!”
Oprah had instructed her staff to find people who were deserving. That was important to her. “So last Thursday, I’m coming back from the plant in Orion, Michigan, and they’re on the phone with me saying: ‘We found about 57 people. We don’t know if we can pull it off to get 300 (the maximum studio audience size) who desperately need cars, but we’ve got 57 people who desperately need cars, is that enough?’ I go, ‘OK, I’ll go with 57.’ “
“It’s one of the great promotional stunts in the history of television,” says Frank Brady, chairman of the mass communications department at St. John’s University in New York. “It ranks with Tiny Tim getting married. This launches her season, and it is both beneficent and brilliantly promotional.”
“It makes her look great,” says Jonathan Gray, lecturer on mass communications at the University of California-Berkeley. “You feel ill-spirited to come out and say, ‘how dare you give cars to needy people.’ You feel like a wrong-headed person. And yet, there is that sort of dark, cynical shadow that hangs over it.”
But, he adds, “as much as we can be cynical about a lot of things she does, at the end of the day she’s done so much for particularly women and African-Americans in this country. If she gets a lot of money as a result of this, she still has created good in the world. The net benefit is to us.”
Kellie McElhaney, professor of corporate ethics at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says companies and people who try to better society are held to a much higher level of scrutiny. “Oprah was just trying to have fun. It was a celebratory act for her show.”
Ellen Rakieten, the executive producer who took the job last season after being with Winfrey for 19 years as a producer, says: “Everyone thinks we have a big master plan, but we don’t. We throw out ideas until something feels good. It really needs to feel right to Oprah. This just spoke to us and set the tone for the whole season.”
This new focus on fun kicked in when Winfrey turned 50 in January, she says. She remembers hiking up a mountain in Sun Valley one day with Diane Sawyer, who told Winfrey she would “love” being 50. And Winfrey’s longtime friend Maya Angelou told her, “The 50s are everything you were meant to be.”
Says Winfrey now: “It’s very interesting because it’s true. I think it’s because there’s a realization that you’ve already spent more time on Earth than you have left to spend. And also, everything that you have built for yourself, spiritually, emotionally, financially, all comes full circle for you.”
Looking at her, this seems to be true. She has battled weight all her life, and since the start of 2002, she has been losing. “I weigh 160 pounds today.” At one of her heaviest times, in 1992, she was at 237.
This time, she’s doing it for her health. “This is what I know: If I go two days without working out, I’m in trouble.” She does a half-hour of aerobic exercise every day and alternates Pilates and weight training after it. “I treat myself like the food, sugar, carbo addict that I am. I have to. It’s still such work.”
So while she was working hard on her health back in January, she says, “I decided at my birthday that I was going to have more fun. I wanted to kick it up because I wanted to live on the edge of my life – right out there traveling on the edge of it – not play it so safe that you’re predictable. That’s how you age.”
She realized she had been “settling” a bit. “And it’s very easy to do when you’re surrounded by every comfort, and everybody and everything at your disposal.”
She could, after all, do whatever she wants. “I could yacht daily,” she says. “It’s actually my favorite vacation in the world, and I haven’t done it since 2000. But it’s one of my favorite gifts to give to other people.”
She barely gets through an idea without it coming back to giving; maybe because her life is so rich. “I have been beyond blessed,” she says. “Sometimes I am sitting at my home in Santa Barbara, which is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and I’m in awe of my own life. Just really in awe.
“I have a little ritual: Every time I pass the front of my house I sing Jesus Loves Me, and the other day I remember I was jogging past – and now it’s like a superstition – I had gotten past without saying it and went back, ‘Jesus loves me! Jesus loves me!’
“But I’m in awe because I keep thinking 1954 Mississippi” – the year and place of her birth – “who would have thought? Nobody could have imagined.”
Yet these days, fans and the media are always imagining things about Winfrey. The speculation about the opening show and the promised “big announcement” had been wide-ranging: She was overseeing a debate between John Kerry and President Bush. She was adopting a baby. She was, finally, marrying her longtime fiance, businessman Stedman Graham.
But she has said many times that her relationship with Graham “works.” Because they’re not married, however, the question of when they’ll marry always looms.
“The only thing that would answer it is if we split,” she says, “and then people would say, ‘Well, I guess they’re not getting married. Maybe they’ll get back together and then they’ll get married.’ “
She laughs and acknowledges that she wanted people to guess about the show. “I knew people would probably think that – and adopting a baby.” But, she says, “that is the antithesis of who I am. I would never make an announcement – ‘Hey, everybody, these are the children I have adopted. I wanted to make sure you see them and identify them and recognize them everywhere.’ “
Besides, she says, her cocker spaniels, Sophie and Solomon, are her children. “When Stedman’s away – and he’s away a lot – the first thing he says when he calls is, ‘How are the kids?’ And I think, ‘God, we’ve become one of those couples.’ “
As for what the future looks like, she doesn’t like to speculate beyond the recent extension of her contract through 2011, making it 25 years of Oprah on TV.
Now, instead of doing 100 shows a season and going off the air in 2006, she recommitted herself and will do 140 shows this season. The Oprah Winfrey Show is seen in 109 countries and reaches nearly 30 million viewers every week. Last season, she averaged 7.2 million viewers a show. She has been No. 1 in the daytime talk show market since she started.
Winfrey says she intends to use the seven years ahead to “find other ways to create programming for other people,” as she did for Dr. Phil McGraw, who has been an instant success. “Television is in bad, dire need of meaningful programming,” she says. “We would need lots of yacht time and tequila to discuss that.”
And she intends to use her own show to continue to inspire. It’s all about living up to your potential.
“My dream for myself is to not die a moment too soon before the potential has been fulfilled. I do not feel like I’m there. I have worlds, worlds of good to do, worlds of good.”
Pilates exercise: “I started Pilates, cuz I’m always looking for the deeper meaning in everything – in everything. The deeper meaning is that everything does operate from your core. It’s not about the pain and the 100 breaths; it’s about moving out from the center.”
Movies: Her next TV movie under a deal with ABC will be “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God,” from the Zora Neale Hurston novel about a woman who is tried for the murder of her husband. It stars Halle Berry and will air in Spring 2005. “Whoa!” she says, leaning back in her chair. “Is that fantastic! Boy, am I proud of that! It should have been a feature but I had an obligation.” She says she’ll do “movies for other people” and is planning to produce a film with Denzel Washington.
Acting: “It would have to be a role that not only knocked me off my feet, but knocked me off my feet and gave me a better pair of shoes, for me to act again. I was pretty scarred by (1998 box office disappointment) “Beloved,” (which she produced and co-starred in). I was really depressed. I told myself if this lasts another 30 days, I will seek help.” Still, she sometimes thinks about acting; she was nominated for an Oscar for 1985’s “The Color Purple.” “I tell you, I get pings. When I saw The Hours and those girls, those women, gave such a stunning performance, in moments like that I get a little soft ache.”
Oprah’s Book Club: She started it in 1996, put it on hold in April 2002, and revived it in June 2003 with classics. The current book, Anna Karenina, is the 51st selection. “Gayle (King) said she ran into people in the mall who said, ‘Why is she doing this to us?’ ” She laughs. But says of reading classics: “I think you feel better when you’re done.” Nevertheless, she’s thinking of changing it again. “I’m thinking I may need to open it up to air it out.”
O, The Oprah Magazine: “I have ‘a-ha!’ moments all the time. I am O, reading O, and I’ll go, ‘I need to write that down!’ O – it is now an A+ magazine. It is so intelligent, as well as fun. In the beginning, it was very stoic and earnest – ‘We have a message for you.’ That was part of my own learning curve. It’s got to be fun, too.”
Best friend Gayle King: “I love Gayle. She feels so at home in my life.” Winfrey laughs, teasing her buddy who plops down on a couch in her office. “We’ll be like at some event and we’ll have the double suite and she’ll say, ‘Oprah and Stedman, am I bothering y’all? Are y’all busy?’ ” King says: “Oprah will go to her room and say, ‘I’d like some privacy, everybody out.’ And I’m like, I know she’s not talking to me. I’ll sit and talk.” What do they talk about? “Everything and nothing,” they both say.
Sometimes good deeds just don’t work out.
Don Hultman of Racine, Wis., got a call the Sunday before Labor Day from a woman named Tina Yee asking about the impending foreclosure on his home.
Hultman, a 40-year-old security guard, was suspicious of the caller’s personal questions and went to the police. Police checked out Yee, who, it turned out, works for The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Yee was looking into possibly surprising Hultman, wife Marion and their two daughters by buying the house and preventing eviction, slated for Sunday.
It was all in response to a letter that Hultman’s neighbor had sent to Winfrey with the hard-luck story, but the neighbor wasn’t available, so Yee called Hultman directly. And at that point, the surprise was ruined.
On Monday, Hultman said, “It totally ripped our hearts out. That would have been so wonderful.”
Now, although he’s extremely disappointed, he doesn’t blame Winfrey. “Oprah’s cool. I bet she doesn’t even know anything about this. It’s the bozos who work for her.”
In response, a spokeswoman for Winfrey issued a statement: “‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ receives hundreds of letters and e-mails each week that are reviewed for potential show ideas and then researched by our production team. The purpose of the call to Mr. Hultman was preliminary research for a future show. No offer was made.”
In this case, a foster mom in Schenectady, N.Y., got the deal instead. Her story aired on Monday’s show.
As for Hultman and his family? “We’ll live in our van,” he says. “We haven’t got any place to go.”


Leave a Comment