It’s hard for me to believe that this week O magazine turns 18. It’s strange to see the magazine’s coming of age when it feels like I grew up with it myself, even if I was in my mid-twenties when I read the first issue, thinking to myself, “I should know what it means to be an adult. Clearly I don’t. But if anyone can tell me, that person has to be Oprah Winfrey.”
If my late childhood, teens and early twenties were dominated by Jackie, Just Seventeen and Cosmopolitan, the second part of my life has been entirely guided by O magazine. But in case you are thinking, “What on earth is O magazine?”, I forgive you. It’s a bizarre phenomenon that is not necessarily on everyone’s radar, especially in the UK. Although it has a circulation of over two million (more than US Vogue), it is really the special secret of Oprah Winfrey lovers.
It is a magazine of a very specific nature. Unlike other magazines, which might think about featuring a different model or celebrity every month to boost sales, O magazine always has Oprah on the cover. Sometimes with her horse(s), her dog(s), wearing a Mexican poncho because she is in “ranch” mode or once, completely inexplicably, wearing a Gucci gown next to an actual lion.
The covers are part of the delight that is O magazine – they are always completely inspiring and totally bonkers at the same time, much like the great Oprah herself
The covers are part of the delight that is O magazine – they are always completely inspiring and totally bonkers at the same time, much like the great Oprah herself. The cover is rarely shared, unless you are a favourite animal of Oprah’s. You otherwise have to be Michelle Obama, Ellen DeGeneres or, on one rare occasion, an ordinary reader on an extraordinary weight-loss journey.
Having read the magazine every month for 18 years, I am extremely familiar with its contents and have brainwashed myself to ignore the fact that it essentially is the same every month but dressed up so brilliantly as to appear to be different. Mental-health advice, fantastic book recommendations (seriously the best, virtually anywhere), pep talks on headaches and period pain from the not-always-medically-conventional Dr Oz and a dose of kick-up-the-arse, good-humoured self-help from Oprah herself, dispensed via her monthly one-page sign-off at the back of the magazine, What I Know For Sure. (This month’s message: “I want everyone to feel that they belong and are worth standing up for.”)
One of my favourite columns is the strange but beautiful dollop of common sense from Oprah’s eccentric life-coach friend, Martha Beck, who every month without fail will remind you to listen to your gut. (Recent nugget: “We always think a change in circumstances will transform the way we feel, but it’s our feelings that change our circumstances.”) Many of the authors who have come to dominate the cultural narrative started out in O magazine or were first featured there: Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Glennon Doyle Melton. O magazine spotted “influencers” long before social media existed.
What have I learnt from my long-term indoctrination? That Oprah is just as starstruck as the rest of us. See her recent interview with RuPaul. (“Because eventually you learned that all the ‘I love yous’ in the world don’t fill whatever void is inside.”) That self-improvement never ends: Oprah is still learning and so we must all continue to learn, too. That it’s OK to buy terrible clothes that seemed to be amazing at the time. (The magazine’s fashion is dorkily dodgy and there are regular Oprah Clears Out Her Closet – Again rescue missions featuring shoulder-padded, peach satin jackets.) That it’s OK to diet but also eat a lot of fattening foods. (No one’s perfect.)
The lesson that has really stayed with me: be generous but never more generous than you can afford at the time. Oprah frequently writes about not giving away so much to others (in terms of time, money or attention) that you have nothing left over for yourself. And Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote an extraordinary column in the magazine about giving away huge sums of money when she became an overnight success and later regretting it – because people only come to resent your generosity and there’s no end to what they want. Wise words.
There are always surprises, too. (I’m still recovering from the lion.) This month’s shocker? Oprah’s editor’s letter turns up this gem: “I think we can all agree that marijuana is having a moment.” A feature on California’s pot laws and “high teas” informs us breezily that “weed is in vogue”. Well, it’s one way to celebrate turning 18, I suppose.