It's 6am on a warm Saturday morning in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Already the queue of women snakes around the block as far as the eye can see. The dress code is smart casual ('Wear your favourite outfit') and there are quite a few spangly tracksuits in evidence. Whenever a particularly glamorous lady walks past, the shouts ring out: 'Woo-hoo! You go, girlfriend!'
This is the O You! Conference, a one-day annual event in celebration of the cult of Oprah Winfrey, attended by 5,000 fans whose £80 tickets buy them a few hours in the company of Oprah's lifestyle gurus and a chance — however slim — that Oprah herself might just make an appearance. Every car that slows down is scrutinised. Is she here? Is that her? This event sold out months ago and fans have come from every corner of the United States. Imagine a rock concert crossed with a hen party and a group therapy session and you get the idea.
Oprah, 57, is in a transition phase. From 1986 to 2011, her TV show was the highest rated in history. Ranked as the richest African American of the 20th century, for a time she was the only black billionaire in the world. She regularly tops polls of the world's most influential women. But when her last show aired in May 2011, the knives came out: the launch of her own TV channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), showcasing the gurus discovered by the original Oprah Winfrey Show, is seen as something of a damp squib. This event is a chance for the faithful to restore Oprah's faith in herself.
Like many of the excited ladies here, I've been up since dawn. I am staying a few blocks away at the Hyatt Regency, a glittering tower that feels very American Dream. The breakfast bar is packed out with Oprah devotees ordering pancakes and raspberry smoothies.
I skip breakfast because I am too excited. I'm as big a fan of Oprah as everyone here: I find her both inspiring and fascinating (and a bit weird, but that's part of the appeal, too).
The Oprah fans' annual jamboree moves from city to city and Atlanta has been waiting its turn for a few years. As well as finding their 'best selves' with Oprah's people, all the women are doing the same things I spend the weekend doing: hanging out at the hotel bar 22 Storeys, eating fried green tomatoes and blackened catfish at Pittypat's Porch (a fantastic restaurant dedicated to the cuisine of Gone With the Wind — Margaret Mitchell wrote the novel here and you can visit her house). Atlanta is all about hospitality and food: if you order anything in a restaurant, the first thing they will bring you is a plate of breads and grits (a kind of ground-corn porridge), a meal in itself.
As no one seems to walk anywhere (downtown is near but it's wall-to-wall skyscrapers), the only exercise I get is window-shopping at the sprawling Lenox Square Mall, where I can't get enough of J Crew and Club Monaco (labels yet to transfer to the UK high street).
Now, as dawn breaks, I'm regretting that I didn't go to bed earlier. The doors of the Georgia World Congress Center spring open and the crowds pour in, almost sniffing the air for freebies. Oprah events are renowned for free gifts (mostly through generous sponsors, but she has been known to pay for them out of her own pocket). When I get to my place in the conference hall, I immediately feel underneath the seat for car keys. Oh well, not today. (In 2004, she gave 276 audience members a free Pontiac G6 car.)
Way to go
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