What would Jesus do? What would Mary do? What would the saints do? Those are the questions we’re supposed to ask ourselves in tough situations. Those are the people we’re supposed to turn to when looking for answers.
But, for tens of millions of Americans, when a decision awaits, the question isn’t “What would Jesus do?” It’s “What would Oprah do?” Or “What would Martha do?” Or “What would Brad and Angie do?”
In our fame-crazed culture, celebrity gurus, not God, are whom many of us turn to for counsel on everything from how to eat and how to dress to what charities to support, what books to read and what spiritual practices to adopt. All too often, Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Dr. Phil McGraw and their like have supplanted pastors, best buddies and even Mom in the advice-giving business, both setting the standard for how we live and telling us how to meet that standard.
A year of Oprah
So, what’s behind our obsession with Oprah and her imitators? And what is it doing to those who’ve made the famous their most important guides?
In 2008, writer Robyn Okrant set out to answer those questions, investigating the cult of celebrity advice worship by becoming part of it. For one entire year, Okrant lived the Gospel According to Oprah, wearing whatever Oprah told her to wear, eating whatever Oprah told her to eat and doing whatever Oprah told her to do.
Oprah’s word became, in effect, a lamp unto Okrant’s feet. It became law. But, as she discovered, it wasn’t a very consistent law.
In her book, “Living Oprah: My One Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk” (Center Street, $24.99), Okrant described the internal inconsistencies of the World According to Oprah. One day Oprah counseled viewers to live simply and frugally. The next she urged them to buy a $350 pair of Mark Schwartz shoes. One week she asked everyone to commit to following the Best Life Challenge’s diet plan. The next, she commanded everyone to head directly to the nearest Coldstone Creamery without passing go or collecting $200.
The inconsistency of Oprah’s advice confused Okrant, but, as she told Our Sunday Visitor, confusion wasn’t the only consequence of her experiment.
“I’d always been someone who marched to the beat of my own drummer,” she said. “I never thought of myself as someone who was overly concerned about what people thought of me. But, over the course of the year, my ego took quite a blow. And not in a healthy way. I found myself wondering if I was meeting the bar for what Oprah considered beautiful, fashionable, successful. The whole thing left me feeling insecure.”
That insecurity, Okrant believes, wasn’t just an incidental side effect of her Oprah following. Rather, she thinks it’s an integral part of a self-perpetuating cycle that keeps celebrity advice givers in business.
“In order to draw us in, they tell us that we’re broken, and they know how to fix us,” she said. “They give us the solution, and then, after a little while, they tell us about another way in which we’re broken. We’re brainwashed into thinking we’re not enough or that we don’t have enough so that we’ll turn to outside sources for help. It’s a codependent relationship.”
Going with the grain
The reason so many Americans turn to Oprah in particular, Okrant believes, stems in part from her charitable work as well as her “rags to riches” story. There’s also Oprah’s very public battle with weight and her past history of abuse, which Okrant thinks has humanized her and made the public feel like they can relate to her.
But what about celebrities in general? Why are so many people willing to live by their words?
“Because the stakes are low,” said Catholic writer and mother of eight, Simcha Fisher. “It’s very natural to want an authority to turn to, to have someone you can look up to and follow. The appeal with celebrities is that you can follow their advice for a while, and if it doesn’t work out or ends up being too hard, you haven’t lost anything or disappointed anyone.”
“Also,” she added, “the advice they give is usually about something you want to do anyway. It’s easy and appeals to your vanity, where the Church’s advice is usually a lot harder to follow; it asks us to go against the grain.”
Fisher also sees the mobile world in which we live factoring into the equation.
Okrant agrees, noting, “Many of us turn on the computer or the television to find community, rather than finding it in the people who live close to us.”
But according to Catholic writer and mother of six Rachel Campos-Duffy, what we find when we turn on those televisions is rarely real.
She ought to know, having been a regular guest host for over a decade on the morning talk show “The View.” That experience has afforded Campos-Duffy a close-up look at the lives of the stars off camera and taught her that celebrities are not all they’re cracked up to be.
“We have this perception of what it’s like to be a celebrity or be Oprah, and think they must have all the answers because their life is so great,” she said. “But it’s fake. Their life isn’t what it appears to be. They don’t have the answers. All you have to do is look at how Oprah goes through gurus like other celebrities go through boyfriends to see that she doesn’t really know what she’s doing.”
Pick and choose
That’s not to say that all celebrity advice is worthless.
Okrant admitted to learning a lot from Oprah’s urgings to practice hands-on philanthropy, and Campos-Duffy said she picked up a great tidbit of marriage advice from Will Smith and Jada Pinkett when they appeared on “Oprah.”
The trick is learning to differentiate between advice that’s useful — such as Oprah’s injunction against grown women wearing mini-skirts — and advice that’s foolish or wrong — such as orders to read New Age nonsense like “The Secret.”
The way to make those distinctions, Campos-Duffy said, is to have “a foundation from which you decide what’s good advice and what’s bad advice.”
“As Catholics, that’s what we have in the Bible and the Church,” she explained. “The Church is a rock. It’s above trends and changes in the culture. Base your discernment on that and you’ll have the wisdom you need to mine the good information and separate it from the bad.”
It also, she added, is wise to exercise some plain old common sense.
“Martha Stewart has great recipes. Use them,” she said. “But when she starts telling you to label the shelves in your linen closet, turn off the TV.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
If You Must ... (sidebar)
If you’re really hankering after good celebrity advice, try turning to the most enduring celebrities of all time: saints.
“People give the Church a hard time about how long the canonization process takes,” said Catholic author Rachel Campos-Duffy. “But the great thing about the saints is that they’ve been totally vetted. They lived holy lives, and now they’re dead and can’t come back and disappoint us. If we follow their advice, we have nothing to worry about.”
This Lent, for a concise and accessible summation of that advice, put Ralph Martin’s “The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints” (Emmaus Road, $18) at the top of your list of books to read.
For more detailed advice, turn to the saints themselves by reading these spiritual classics. All are guaranteed to put Oprah to shame.
“The Story of a Soul,” by St. Thérèse of Lisieux
“Interior Castle,” and “The Life of St. Teresa of Avila,” by St. Teresa of Avila
“Confessions,” by St. Augustine
“Dark Night of the Soul,” by St. John of the Cross
“Introduction to the Devout Life,” by St. Francis de Sales
“Dialogues,” by St. Catherine of Siena