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Oprah Winfrey's impact felt around the world

The Associated Press, Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 8:40am (PST)

LONDON (AP) -- It's the talk show talked about around the world.

Oprah Winfrey's announcement last week that she will end her daytime TV program after its 25th season in 2011 made headlines from London to Johannesburg. Audiences for the show might be smaller outside the United States, but the whole world knows Oprah — a celebrity ambassador for American culture who has influenced everything from the aspirations of young African girls to the global publishing industry.

In London's Brixton neighborhood, a center for Britain's Afro-Caribbean community, shoppers had warm words Tuesday for the American star.

"I don't watch that often, but she has definitely had an impact on me personally," said Tanya Wallis, 46. "She has helped me broaden my horizons and to diversify to look at others with more acceptance. We are all part of the human family."

Oprah's show is syndicated in 145 countries, and her warm, informal style has been copied by TV personalities around the globe. Few, though, have achieved her connection with a huge audience and easy rapport with guests — or the sort of political clout that saw her endorsement help bolster Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

"I don't think there has been anybody quite like her in history," said Ellis Cashmore, an expert on celebrity culture at England's Staffordshire University. "She's not just an A-list celebrity. Her 'A' has an asterisk next to it," he said. "But the foundation of her extraordinary capacity is her ordinariness."

Trisha Goddard, a daytime TV host sometimes labeled "Britain's Oprah," told the BBC that "there were talk show hosts before her, but they talked. She listens."

That quality endeared her to millions around the world. Many of her most devoted fans are in South Africa, where she put $40 million into the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, a school for underprivileged girls near Johannesburg.

Scandal erupted soon after the academy opened in 2007, when a female caretaker was accused of sexually abusing six teenagers. Her trial is continuing.

Winfrey, who has spoken out about being sexually abused as a young girl, said she was devastated by the allegations.

Winfrey's popularity in South Africa is so great that a motivational talk scheduled for late November in Johannesburg sold out in less than four minutes, according to The Star newspaper. Ticket prices were nearly $100, a large sum for many South Africans.

"It is not just a talk show," said Carla Tamele, a 20-year-old university student in Johannesburg. "Oprah attracts the type of audience that is family oriented, nurturing and always seeking to learn something new, which I relate to."

The show's focus on universal issues such as family, children and women in society has helped make it a hit in the Arab world, despite its occasionally risque and taboo subject matter. The episodes air twice a day on the United Arab Emirates satellite channel MBC4, which is seen across the region.

Iman Bibars, who runs the Arab region's office of the U.S.-based charity Ashoka, said she was disappointed Winfrey was calling it a day. But Bibars said she admired Winfrey's decision to depart while the show was a success.

"She leaves when she is at the top of the pyramids," Bibars said.

Nahla El-Shandwily, a 48-year-old banker, also was a little let down.

"It came as a big surprise to me," El-Shandwily said. "She is an inspiring woman."

Each cited the episode in 2006 when Oprah interviewed Queen Rania of Jordan, a show both women praised for presenting a modern, educated persona of the Middle East to an American audience.

Winfrey's rags-to-riches story and skills as a businesswoman also have won admiration.

Winfrey spent her earliest years in poverty in rural Mississippi, but in 2003 became the first African-American woman to make Forbes magazine's billionaires' list. Earlier this year, Forbes put her net worth at $2.7 billion.

Her business moves have been closely watched, and imitated.

Goddard said Winfrey "was the first person to create a 360-degree approach to television" — with online communities, books, a magazine and women's groups complementing the show and keeping viewers involved.

In 2004, British talk show hosts Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan launched a project reminiscent of Oprah's Book Club. "Richard and Judy's Book Club" turned unknown writers into best-sellers, just as Oprah's had.

Spain's ABC newspaper mused that her decision to leave her show to start her own cable network might mean "that the queen senses the end of conventional syndicated television and that the future is in cable."

Europeans noted that there is something distinctively American about Winfrey — her unabashed emotion and the way she has shared with viewers her struggles with her fluctuating weight. Media from Britain's Daily Mirror to Norway's national broadcaster NRK called her an American "cultural phenomenon."

Correspondent Kevin Connolly wrote on the BBC News Web site that "her honesty and her sometimes painfully emotional directness struck home" with many Americans.

It's not a quality that naturally endears itself to more restrained, or cynical, Britons. But no one seems to have a bad word to say about Oprah.

"She should become a politician, she should become an opinion maker," said Sophia Mwangi, 40, a press officer from Milton Keynes, north of London. "The charity work — she can do more of that as well. Her legacy will be 'Yes we can."

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Associated Press Writer Maresa Patience in London, Nkemeleng Nkosi in Johannesburg and Joseph Freeman in Cairo contributed to this report.

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