How Oprah Winfrey inspired a generation of outspoken women

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Deborah Coughlin
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In this essay, Deborah Coughlin captures all the ways in which Oprah - celebrating her 65th birthday today - has influenced her life, despite never having met her.

Dear Oprah,

I wear a badge with your face on it every time I go to an important meeting. It’s a picture of you with one of your distinctive early Nineties haircuts, and it brings me good luck. If it doesn’t seem appropriate, then I wear it under my top and pinned to my bra, as a secret boob charm.

My friend Sarah bought it for me, because I love Oprah, and so my friends buy me Oprah stuff (which is why my book shelves are filled with unauthorised biographies). Why do I love you? Well, because I can’t think of any one person who has had such a positive formative impact on me as you, and I’ve never even met you.

How did you end up being a key figure in a little white girl from England’s life? Well, you were always there! From daytime telly on school sick days, to watching the Colour Purple on VHS in English lit, to popping up on my Instagram feed just now.

I’ve got absolutely no idea how I watched you as a kid. We weren’t rich: there was no satellite dish, no cable, but somehow you reached across the ocean and on to my telly in the seaside town of Worthing in the south of England, with its nursing homes, arcades on the pier and stinking seaweed. You came into my living room and brought with you the world.

Worthing was very conservative (though we voted Labour). My mum and dad grew up on the fringes of Britain and had found themselves on its most southern edge. Worthing was very, very white, with a far-right presence. There were no out gay people, lesbians, bisexual or trans people at the church I went to . Well, maybe there was one, and they were described as ‘peculiar’. People didn’t talk about their feelings. 

Oprah in the Seventies 

When adults would talk about outspoken women, they would roll their eyes and squawk their hand up and down like it was a beak. Women drove badly, couldn’t handle money, and when they had opinions they were annoying - that’s what we were taught. And this was the neon Eighties and Nineties: we had all the equality laws, but the culture hadn’t changed since the Fifties.

You came into my living room and you offered up an alternative world. A world where women were not only outspoken, they were experts in leading the conversation. Where you could declare your love for each other with pride. Where racists would be confronted and their ideas would fall apart. A world where the most heart-breaking problems could be shared and resolved. It didn’t matter what you came from because you could come from nothing and make yourself a Queen in a republic.

The biggest thing you did for me? You showed me how adults can share complicated feelings, pain and abuse and transcend it all to become something incredible. And, it was because of you that I knew as a ten year old that domestic abuse, racism, sexism and homophobia were all wrong. I knew how unfair the world could be, and that I could do something about it.

You, and the others you inspired, educated a generation in how to care for each other, and express our emotional life. Those values have run through every creative endeavour I’ve achieved, like the words through a stick of Worthing Rock. Fundamentally you showed me the power of telly, which is why I love broadcasting. 

Oprah at a film premiere in 2018 

You modelled the renaissance woman; the woman who can be brilliant in a myriad of ways; and so you’re responsible for my believing me and my friends can do ANYTHING. I learnt from you that I shouldn’t just seek one outlet, that I don’t have to let one label define me, so I don’t - I’m a Composer, Artist, Founder, Broadcaster, Director, Writer and wannabe synchronised swimmer.

Thanks for being there. And if me and one of my besties Gem manage to make it on the Oprah cruise, please can we come have a cup of tea slash bottle of wine with you and your best mate Gayle? I will be sure to be wearing my badge with pride.

Lots of love,

Deborah Coughlin 

Like this? You can follow Deborah on Instagram at @DeborahCoughlin.

Images: Getty