BOSTON — Her first name is a household word. Beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, and funny, Oprah has built an empire as a talk-show host extraordinaire, producer, and actress. Now she is extending her fame by playing a starring role in the movie "Beloved," which opens next week.
This month Oprah is adding another line to her impressive rsum: supermodel. She appears on the cover of Vogue - gorgeous, voluptuous, wasp-waisted. In what the magazine calls "an amazing makeover," Oprah, already thinnish in recent years, looks positively sylph-like, her figure molding the $6,300 navy cashmere dress into sinuous curves.
Yet the cover, however beautiful, raises an unsettling question: What's wrong with this picture? The face is familiar, but the real Oprah seems strangely absent. Other photos inside, highlighting her chiseled profile, only add to a reader's mixed feelings of admiration and confusion.
And no wonder. Vogue editors decreed that Oprah must shed 20 pounds before her date with the photographer. As she admits to Vogue's interviewer, it is "the same 20 pounds" she lost last year before filming "Beloved." She agreed to the request, she says, because she would "do anything" to promote the movie.
On the positive side, this latest weight loss attests to Oprah's impressive self-discipline and determination. She endured an arduous regimen of dieting, workouts with her personal trainer, and climbs in the San Juan mountains near Telluride, Colo., where the interviewer struggled up an "unrelentingly steep" hill with her.
Yet there is a down side too. What message do these pictures of the "new" Oprah send to legions of viewers and fans who love her not because she is a sylph but because she is Oprah - the Oprah they loved when she once weighed, by her own admission, 237 pounds? The photos appear to ratify the maxim "You can never be too rich or too thin."
As one of the most influential and admired women in the country, Oprah wields power - megapower. Imagine the constructive message she could have sent if she had persuaded Vogue's editors that readers might welcome a "real" body on the cover for one issue. Surely Ralph Lauren didn't design the dress Oprah wears only for the leanest and leggiest Cindy Crawford figure.
Self-acceptance is an ongoing challenge. The tyranny of the mirror and the scale - the obsession with physical perfection - exacts a terrible price.
A friend who sells designer clothes has become accustomed to hearing customers talk proudly about their surgical makeovers. "It's liposuction here, liposuction there," she says sadly. "It's face lifts, eye jobs, tummy tucks, breast implants, and collagen in their lips. It's everything." And this is in conservative Boston, not flashy Hollywood.
No wonder cosmetic surgery procedures have, by one count, increased 70 percent in the past six years, with men becoming eager patients too.
Where does it all end? In a culture where even preschool girls are known to peer at themselves in the mirror and complain "I'm fat," and in a decade when nutrition experts warn against yo-yo weight losses and gains, the need for new, more tolerant attitudes is clear.
Oprah herself, with her changing size over the years, serves as a perfect reminder that beauty comes in many shapes, not all of them Size 4. Now that her Vogue photo shoot is over, perhaps she could become another kind of supermodel, encouraging women to replace a self-deprecating "I'm fat" with an accepting "I'm me." That could be the most "amazing makeover" of all.