ERIC DEGGANS and BABITA PERSAUD
For many in the crowd of 2,400, a day with the TV host is a sacred experience.
TAMPA - There's something that happens when Oprah Winfrey walks into a room.
Grown women fall into a swoon. Hardened reporters ask for autographs and pose with her in photos. Even the security guards seem to turn a smile at the corners of their game faces, amused by the bedlam unleashed when the popular talk show host meets her public.
The screams were deafening inside the Tampa Convention Center on Saturday, as a group of about 100 randomly selected fans were ushered into the lobby to greet Winfrey when the host arrived, 30 minutes before the scheduled start of her "Live Your Best Life Tour."
"First of all, we're in Tampa, so you can expect my hair to droop ... a lot," joked the star, moments after greeting a pressing crowd of women who presented everything from copies of O, the Oprah Magazine to a grocery list for her to autograph.
"Around the country, we've seen there's a common bond: women asking ... "I know I've done for my kids and my husband, but what can I do for myself?"' Winfrey added. "That's what's important: getting people to look inside themselves and truly realize the best for themselves. That's why I'm here."
Inside the venue, she hammered that message home before a sold out crowd of about 2,400, most of whom had paid at least $185 each to soak up Winfrey's words and her contagious charisma. (She also announced a $25,000 gift to a local charity, the Centre for Women in Tampa.)
Before she took the stage, a rice-paper screen flashed the words "Purpose," "Intention," "Believe," "Trust," "Passion," and "Power." The lights dimmed, and the screen flashed snapshots of Winfrey as a little girl, images of her TV anchor days and scenes from her talk show, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Then she arrived, sweeping onstage a little after 10 a.m. to the anthem, I'm Every Woman, and a standing ovation.
And Winfrey began telling stories - tales spun like parables to help illustrate one point or another, each taken from an episode in her life:
The day her unmarried parents had sex beneath an oak tree and created her; the time she watched her grandmother hanging clothes and vowed to do better; the moment her grandmother expressed her dearest hope, that her Oprah might get to work for some good white folks.
"She would be happy to know," Winfrey cracked, "I've got some good white folks working for me."
Like a woman-centered motivational speaker, she invoked the same topics that draw an average 21-million viewers a week to her talk show - speaking of listening to your "inner whisper" and reminding fans of their own divinity.
Then she quoted the poetry of Maya Angelou. "It's the arch of my back, the sun of my smile, the ride of my breasts, the grace of my style," said Winfrey, prancing the stage, arms lifted high.
"I'm a woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that's me."
It was an event tailor-made for Winfrey's target audience: middle-age, middle-class women who came dressed in heels and white suits and hats.
For some, the ticket's cost was just the start. Veronica Nelson, a 32-year-old auditor from Cincinnati, spent $250 on a plane ticket and $100 more for a room at the Marriott Waterside. She wasn't spending all that money on a talk show host, she said: "It's not on Oprah. It is on me."
On the top floor of the Convention Center, Loreal Paris gave minifacials and hair color analysis while Bali offered bra measurements. Lines were long and often blended into one another.
Fans also got a gift bag packed with cosmetics, a car caddy, a copy of O magazine and a Zen garden with sand and rocks, among other things. Lunch was a chicken kabob on a bed of couscous and peppers (with a square of chocolate bearing the slogan "Live Your Best Life").
Winfrey didn't sit with the masses. Instead, she ate her salad with selected audience members, including Clare Galvagni, who received a free ticket to the event from Chris Giblin, a homeless advocate.
Galvagni lives at St. Petersburg Free Clinic's shelter for single homeless women. "It's hard to get yourself up and motivated," she said. Saturday's event gave her a jolt of self-esteem, and she was thrilled to share lunch with the celebrity.
"I sat right next to her," said Galvagni, 62. "She's just a real person."
After lunch, Winfrey changed outfits, into an off-white skirt and a top with flared sleeves. She went through the "Live Your Best Life" workbook, repeating tidbits she touched on before lunch: listen to your whispers, have quiet moments. She also took questions from the audience, acting like a therapist.
She spoke until 5 p.m.
"It definitely gave me the kick in the butt I need to change my life," said Rebecca Lang, a 26-year-old marketing director, walking out of the convention center.
In the midst of all this prowoman furor, a handful of guys also braved the crowd.
Jerry Carroll and Bruce Larson, two retirees from Leesburg, sat at a table while their wives went for a hair color analysis.
"My first reaction (to coming here) was, "I don't think so,"' said Larson, who eventually relented and wound up enjoying himself. "I like Oprah. I have a problem with weight going up and down and so does she."
Before the show's start, Winfrey talked of using her own history to inspire fans.
"I believe my story is one of the greatest success stories in the world," said the host, recently honored as the world's first black female billionaire. "If I'd had somebody tell me 20 years ago, stop trying to be like anyone (else) ... and just fill yourself up with yourself, I might have saved myself about 15 years."
Trailed by longtime pal and former TV anchor Gayle King, she greeted fans before the show wearing a pale green Ralph Lauren jacket and dress ("Bought it in the store, honey," she exclaimed) accentuated with gold sandals.
Quoting Angelou, Toni Morrison and Nelson Mandela, she worked the media with a practiced ease - shifting one TV journalist's microphone down to keep it from obscuring her face on camera.
At times, her patter about spiritualism, personal fulfillment and success seemed a bit contradictory - only a billionaire could shrug off her immense fortune as "just a big attention getter" - but most fans seemed too star struck to notice.
Winfrey's staffers placed three friends, Van Stephens, Maureen Briggs and Joyce Person, next to the entrance so the host would see them first - and enjoy the sight of three African American women in business suits who were unabashed fans.
"This is a dream come true," said Person, who drove six hours with her pals from their homes in Macon, Ga. "She's a billionaire and a sister. It's like meeting Jesus."
In the end, Winfrey said, her show was about teaching others to find fulfillment in what makes them unique.
"I am my own person. ... I learned a long time ago I can be a better me than I can be Barbara Walters," she said, laughing. "And anybody trying to be like me is going to mess it up. Because I've got this gig down."