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Countdown to the last 'Oprah Winfrey Show': Oprah salutes Ralph Lauren and the American dream

Ralph This nation, and the woman who has talked to it five days a week for the last 25 years, have long struggled to feel out the relationship between personal transformation and material acquisition.

The American dream -- a dream that Oprah Winfrey has lived as poetically and fully as any contemporary figure -– is built around the notion that all of us, any of us, may transform our inner selves, our circumstances and our scope of possibility through hard work, discipline, force of will, emotional evolution or other intangible personal qualities. And Winfrey is always eager to talk about the internal mechanisms by which she and those she’s focused on over the years have bloomed into different, and purportedly improved, versions of themselves.

But intrinsic to her show, to her own personal shifts, and to the changes she encourages her guests and audience members to make is the undeniable focus on stuff. In fact, while Oprah is known as the warm encourager of healing and self-betterment, she is just as well known as the giver of gifts, a dispenser of her annual “Favorite Things.”

She’s also long been caught in the endless tussle between the emotional and the material: She has sold us her story of personal growth, of physical and spiritual transformation at the same time that she has been forthright about the privileges that come with being one of the most successful people in the world. This has meant fending off reasonable criticism that her weight-loss boosterism, her belief that anyone can live their best life is all made more possible when you have a phalanx of personal trainers, private chefs and multiple homes.

At the same time, her struggles to keep excess weight off despite the chef and the trainer have provided incontrovertible evidence that all the money in the world cannot in fact fix the things one needs to change inside. But money helps. But it doesn’t fix. But it helps.

It’s always struck me that Oprah gets these irreconcilable truths, and is more honest about them than most.

The famous “You get a car! You get a car!” episode is one of Oprah’s most parodied, for its material-fueled frenzy. But the fact is, the people she’d assembled in her audience that day were in desperate need of cars: to get to their jobs, to get kids to schools, to take care of sick relatives. In short, those cars were part of what her audience needed to change and better their own circumstances. Oprah understands better than many of our policy-makers that grit and gumption take you only so far. Sometimes you also need a new car.

Welcome to America, where it is also true that the easiest way to express that you have successfully transformed yourself is through a display of material wealth.

Which brings us to the sixth-to-last episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," in which Oprah visits Ralph Lauren, formerly Ralph Lifshitz of the Bronx, on his tremendous ranch outside of Telluride, Colo.

The show was practically moving in its ode to striving, to these two exceedingly rare cases of American mobility: the Bronx-bred son of immigrant Ashkenazi Jews, whose artist father painted houses to support his family, and an African American woman born poor in Mississippi and raised poor in Milwaukee.

Together, they rambled around a massive Western ranch in a vintage 1948 jeep, marveled at the ranch’s “cook house,” its “saloon,” and the giant artisan teepees decked out with luxe beds and vintage couches, all covered with Navajo blankets.

Almost touchingly, neither of these two could seem to get over it all. She, the most powerful woman in media and he, the Jewish-born arbiter of WASP style who now spends his vacation days herding cattle, could not stop talking, unshyly, about personal transformation, possibility and how it all connects to material consumption. So few people, in these starkly striated economic times, during which the barriers between classes have become more insurmountable than ever, get to traverse the chasms of culture and economy that have been leapt by Winfrey and Lauren. 

And yet somehow they could both sound unself-consciously childlike about both the opportunities and the opulence. Describing his reaction to first visiting the sprawling land, Lauren told Winfrey, “I just took a deep breath and I said ‘I just can’t believe I am here.'” Winfrey, who would tell any guest any day of the week that money cannot buy satisfaction, murmured in response, “I could be soooo happy here.”

The theme of the show was clearly longing. “Did you always want to be a cowboy?” Winfrey asked Lauren, who replied, “I wanted to be everything all at once. I wanted to be a baseball player. I wanted to be a basketball player. I wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to be Batman.”

Mostly, he said, he wanted to preserve a childhood feeling of hope and excitement. “Well done, sir,” said Winfrey. Indeed.

Winfrey, meanwhile, also positioned herself as coveting Lauren-level success. Confessing that she used to drive by and stare longingly at his ranch fence, Winfrey said, “Like so many people do in neighborhoods growing up, looking at the big house on the hill ... for me it was looking through the fence at your ranch!” She said she counted the miles –- 30 –- that the fence extended, and thinking to herself, “That’s a lot of polo shirts!” But of course by the time Winfrey was in a position to be tooling around the Telluride countryside ogling Lauren’s vacation spot, she had already made it, and had some pretty long fences of her own in place.

Lauren expressed some surprise at the twists of his own life. “I never dreamt I’d be who I am, never thought I’d be a designer,” he told Winfrey, describing how he designed his first tie as a 16-year-old whose job was to hang up returns in a New York department store. But not only is Lauren a designer, he is a designer who -– not just like a Hollywood story line, but like the outsiders and immigrants who created Hollywood to begin with -– has shed both his original name and his outsider status, creating product that has come to stand in for the nation itself. Lauren practically invented American prepster-ism; his clothes and home goods are famously covered with American flags; he designs clothes for the U.S. Olympic team.

“I feel that I represent America,” Lauren told Oprah. “I feel like I’m an ambassador. I’m not President Obama, but I’m his assistant." But, he was careful to point out, the rise was not without internal labor. “There was no miracle, no snap of the fingers. It was confidence.”

And while Wednesday’s episode featured Winfrey back in skillful interrogator mode, another of her personal anecdotes also got at the conflation of internal and external signs of transformation.

“The thing that’s impressive,” Winfrey said, “is that what you’ve created is not just clothes ... but the ideal.... So when I buy a Ralph Lauren towel, which is what I did when I first got money -- I went from little ratty towels to -– one of my first big purchases were Ralph Lauren bath sheets, and I thought ‘Now I have made it.’ And it wasn’t as much about the towel as it was about the ideal of what I thought that meant.”

Listening to these two unlikely (and yet utterly) American icons talk, it was impossible to pick out the point on the majestic Colorado horizon where the money ended and the personal satisfaction began, to know exactly how the power and the trappings of power merged and diverged, to get the handle on which came first, the success or the confidence that they could become more successful.

But the thing about all that is that that’s OK. In fact, it’s honest about America, about what motivates us to long for everything from self-help and spirituality to bath sheets and designer-decorated teepees.

“Now I finally know what’s on the other side of that fence,” Oprah said at the conclusion of the episode. She sure does. She’s been on both sides, and knows exactly how complicated it is to make the jump. 

RELATED:

Oprah countdown day 1: James Frey part 1

Oprah countdown day 2: James Frey part 2

Interview with producer Sheri Salata about the final episodes of "The Oprah Winfrey Show"

Critic's Notebook: Oprah's revolution will continue to be televised

 -- Rebecca Traister

twitter.com/rtraister

Photo: Oprah and Ralph Lauren. Credit: George Burns / Associated Press / Harpo Productions, Inc.

 
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