Oprah Winfrey’s billion-dollar industry is not just an industry based on show business, but also one that has become spiritual. Assistant Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. Kathryn Lofton dissected Winfrey’s philanthropic empire during her lecture yesterday entitled “Missionary Envy: Oprah Winfrey and the Exported Makeover.” Lofton regards Winfrey as a potentially-religious subject, someone committed to spiritual change through material means.

“This talk explores the terms of this particular donation and its self-produced promotion, focusing in particular on the materiality of her mission,” Lofton said.

Lofton’s ideas date back to a 2006 interview with USA Today.

“[Winfrey is a] hip and materialistic Mother Teresa [that has] emerged as a symbolic figurehead of spirituality,” she said in the interview.

“Missionary Envy” focused on Winfrey’s turn to South Africa as an extension of her spiritual industry, beginning in 2002 with her first trip to Africa.

“‘My life was dramatically changed,’ Winfrey said. ‘I realized later from those moments why I was born. I made a decision to be a voice for these children, to empower them, to help educate them, so that the spirit that burns inside each of them does not die.'”

Lofton commented on Winfrey’s experience in South Africa.

“In South Africa, Winfrey claimed to have found students that wanted something more than iPods… something only she could provide,” Lofton said. “A perfectly-produced personal revolution.”

Winfrey’s gift-giving has become known as O-Philanthropy. Money raised through her different charities, including the Angel Network and the Oprah Foundation, is funneled into other non-profit organizations. According to Oprah, the Angel Network has raised over $50 million – more than $15 million raised in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone.

“[However] dismayed at the product obsession of the American impoverished, [Oprah] turned her gaze where many black Americans had before… back to Africa,” Lofton said. “Winfrey saw in Africa the possibility of a fresh start for eventual race triumph.”

Winfrey selected 300 students to attend her Leadership Academy for Girls out of a pool of 3,000. The school, which is set on 22 beautiful acres and cost $40 million to construct, is Oprah’s greatest philanthropic adventure yet.

Oprah found her lifework while returning to her roots. However, Lofton argues Winfrey’s philanthropy is more accurately an incorporated commodity.

Oprah’s Angel Network was established in hopes of changing the world. Through online donations, her American audience can take part in this change. By utilizing Winfrey’s Academic Registry, viewers can donate $100 to the Girl’s Life campaign, which supplies the students with uniforms.

Other categories include a $150 donation for classroom supplies, $20 donation to Wellness and Creativity or $15,000 to sponsor a girl for an entire school year. This last donation allows viewers to shop for a particular girl, from her clothes to school supplies, ultimately creating a virtual dollhouse. However, upon purchase, a disclaimer is made that the donated money does not go directly to a chosen girl.

“Concealing the corporate hole…even philanthropy… is a product of the same producer as Oprah’s iconic face,” Lofton said.

Criticisms of Winfrey’s unique brand of philanthropy have surfaced since the establishment of the Leadership Academy. Many Americans are upset by the exported makeover, one to which they felt entitled.

On the other hand, the South African government fears that such excessive materialism in the Academy is too elitist for such a poor nation. To the dissenters’ dismay, Winfrey is unable to stop her compulsive shopping for her South African venture.

“She’s making over South Africa,” Lofton said.

Some members of the audience disagreed with Lofton and provided support for Oprah’s philanthropic cause, while other members agreed with Lofton’s criticism of Winfrey’s philanthropy.

“All her gift-giving and expectation of gratification is like an egoist seeking to be a God-figure for [the Academy’s girls],” freshman Bridget O’Connor said. “Everything is a reflection of her glory and any failure is like a personal insult.”

Winfrey hopes to create similar academies in other places throughout the world, such as in Vietnam. However, Lofton remains skeptical that Winfrey’s South African venture will see the success Winfrey desires.

“I leave it open whether or not this is all going to go well,” Lofton said.

Lofton’s lecture was the final part of the lecture series “Religious Cultures of the African Diaspora: New Trajectories of Inquiry,” one of nine projects funded by the Humanities Project.

Smith is a member of the class of 2009.



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