As a worshipful fan wearing a red cape and tiara brandishes a large sign that says farewell, oprah, the queen of talk, the object of her devotion is across the street on her Chicago set chanting in triumph, "Twenty-five years, twenty-five years, twenty-five years!"
It's eight episodes prior to the finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show and all 315 audience members are supercharged, knowing it's their last chance to attend a taping. During ad breaks, Winfrey — her casual jeans and tee offset by a gold-spangled cardigan and shoes — grabs every opportunity to remind them of the extraordinary number of years the show that changed daytime TV has been on the air. In response, some laugh and clap, while others shed tears because their favorite program will soon be gone. "We love Oprah," says Janice Carlin of Indiana. "She has taught me to be a better person." Julie Adams from Norfolk, Nebraska, adds, "Oprah has inspired me in the way I handle my kids, the way I have friendships, the way I live my life."
And it's not a one-sided lovefest. "It's our audience I'll miss the most," Winfrey insists. "The people we've reached who have responded in kind and in kindness." And so, fittingly, the May 25 finale "is going to be about that deep connection between Oprah and the viewers," says executive producer Sheri Salata. "It's been an unbelievable feat to establish a relationship with millions of people. And she's done it."
That bond, for many of Oprah's viewers, can be a spiritual one. "Oprah is a powerful voice in their lives, not unlike a pastor," says Kathryn Lofton, author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. "She believes her work is a mission, that she was meant to connect her life to theirs for the betterment of the world."
Still, Oprah likes to have a good time. (Those road trips with Gayle! The mind-blowing giveaways!) And we'll see that side of her in full force during a two-part special airing May 23 and 24. Taped at Chicago's United Center in front of 20,000 fans, "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular" will feature a galaxy of celebrities.
"Oprah had killed the possibility of a prime-time special," says Salata. "She said, 'We are not going to sit there and do Oprah, Oprah, Oprah, you're so fabulous.' But the end of the season was screaming for some sort of celebration. I thought she would be more comfortable not being a part of it, not knowing who's being asked or what we're doing, even though she doesn't like surprises. My most compelling argument was that it would be about what the show has meant in viewers' lives for 25 years. She said she'd pray on it, and then she agreed."
Several weeks before they tape, Winfrey is pretending to be angry about the surprise shows. "I started to go into a room the other day and I saw people were doing something," she says. "And I was told, 'You can't come in!' I said, 'This is my studio and I can go anywhere I want, so clean up your stuff and get out,'" she recalls with a smile, knowing full well they were working on the United Center extravaganza.
Although tears may eventually come, for now it's not difficult for Winfrey to smile as the end of her beloved series approaches. "I understand that everybody else is feeling bittersweet," she says. "I'm feeling sweet, sweet, sweet. You know why? Because when you've done something as well as you know how to do it, there's no bitterness, no regrets."
For more about Oprah Winfrey's last show, including the future of her new cable channel OWN, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, May 19!