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ALEX BEAM

Say good night, Oprah

Celebrities swoon and money talks as America’s favorite narcissist bids farewell

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / May 24, 2011

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Surely you have noticed that this is Oprah Winfrey Week. Her Farewell Season ends tomorrow, in a predictable orgy of glitz, tears, and celebrity-studded tributes to the portly little pepperpot of daytime broadcasting fame. As if with one voice, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Aniston, and Hugh Jackman are singing the same tune: Everyone Loves Oprah.

Why wouldn’t celebrities lick Oprah’s boots? She’s been pumping their gaudy movies, their unrevealing memoirs, and their vacant personalities for a quarter century. It seems almost inevitable that one of the Obamas will make a “surprise’’ appearance this week, bidding farewell as their fellow Chicagoan leaves broadcast TV to explore the Ultima Thule of cable-land, on the already-floundering Oprah Winfrey Network.

Like the movie stars, President Obama has a debt to America’s afternoon sweetheart. Remember how she half-filled Manchester’s Verizon Wireless Arena in 2008 and rescued the New Hampshire primary for Obama? Wait. You say he lost the New Hampshire primary? Never mind.

Everybody loves Oprah, of course. I don’t love Oprah, not by a long shot. Her vulgar, consumerist (“Everybody gets a car! Everybody gets a G6!’’) Elmer Gantry act leaves me cold. I prefer my fake empathy straight, no chaser. If I want to watch a rich person affecting concern for the Little People I’ll tune into Jerry Springer. Every time I see Oprah, I remember that wonderful aphorism: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’’

I caught some choice moments of the farewell blubberfest. Dr. Gary Neuman, a younger, hairier version of the odious Dr. Phil McGraw, was practicing child psychiatry on a couple of cry-on-cue children. “Daisy, I know you’re having a hard time,’’ Neuman said to a young teenager. “What do you need to make you heal?’’ A national television audience, I guess, and maybe a couple of signed copies of your latest bestseller, Gary.

One must have a heart of stone to watch this rubbish and not break out laughing — Oscar Wilde, paraphrased.

Of course “Oprah’’ isn’t just Oprah; it’s a full-bore traveling medicine show staffed by notorious carnival barkers such as Dr. Phil and, more recently, the telegenic Dr. Mehmet Oz. Dr. Oz likes to preen on TV in his scrubs, as if he’s been called away from the operating room for just a brief moment to plug . . . women’s underwear. Yes, I saw the famed Columbia University faculty member and cardiac surgeon at New York Presbyterian hospital holding forth on panty lines recently, in between plumping for such miracle foods as the exotic acai berry.

But wait. Didn’t Oprah and Oz famously file suit against Internet retailers that suggested the duo “[had] ever sponsored or endorsed any acai, resveratrol or dietary supplement product’’? Yes, but here is the good doctor gassing on Oprah.com: “Dr. Oz is ready to introduce a new entry to his hall of fame — the acai (pronounced ‘AH-sigh-EE’), a small fruit from South American rain forests that is often found in the United States in juice. ‘It has twice the antioxidant content as a blueberry, so it’s a wonderful alternative,’ Dr. Oz says.’’

So sue him. McGraw, a clinical psychologist, ran afoul of the Federal Trade Commission for pushing diet supplements, which he later took off the market. In 2009, Newsweek cruelly mocked Oprah’s penchant for touting bushwa folk medicine in a memorable cover story, “Crazy Talk: Oprah, Wacky Cures and You.’’ The magazine’s account of actress Suzanne Somers injecting her private parts with “bio-identical’’ hormones is not for the squeamish.

The good news is that Oprah seems headed for the glue factory. Her fledgling Oprah Winfrey Network has been plagued by staff turnover, and the Wall Street Journal recently reported that “its audience even fell below the audience for the little-watched Discovery Health, the channel OWN replaced.’’ I dialed up Comcast to find out where the heck OWN was. “That’s on our Digital Preferred Service,’’ a staffer explained. “Right now you are paying $65.25 for our Digital Starter Package. You could get Digital Preferred for just $5 a month more.’’

Tempting! I’d get access to the Military Channel, MC MixTape, Contemporary Christian, and Throwback Jamz, to say nothing of Cristina Ferrare’s “Big Bowl of Love,’’ an OWN staple. Yet I had to decline, exercising the sometimes underappreciated Power of No.

In her final week, Oprah has been plugging the tagline “Where will you be?’’ as if you will always remember where you were on the day of her final show, the way most people recall the day President Kennedy was shot. A better question is where will Oprah be, marooned on Channel 257, beaming treacly messages of narcissistic self-improvement in the hope that someone, somewhere may be watching.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.