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The Great Commander

Would your life improve if you did everything Oprah told you to? One local woman gives it a shot.

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Oprah Winfrey loves the turkey burgers at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago restaurant in Palm Beach and thinks everyone should "experience" them. So last week Lo, a blogger whose pseudonym is an acronym that stands for Living Oprah, spent an evening sauteing Granny Smith apples, fresh parsley, and celery and blending the mixture with $28 worth of organic turkey meat. "Usually our dinners take about 30 minutes to make," she says. This one took three hours.

Lo, a 35-year-old actress, writer, and yoga teacher, is trying to do everything Oprah recommends for a whole year. She's listening to recommendations Oprah makes on her talk show, and gathering others from her Web site and magazine, and keeping track of her project at livingoprah.com. She hopes to get a book out of it, but for now she's keeping her identity secret, partly to avoid giving the impression that she's looking for handouts.

Lo and her husband, Jim, ate their green-specked turkey burgers picnic-style, surrounded by boxes. New landlords have raised the rent on their Lincoln Square two-bedroom, so they're packing up. "Our rent went up about 200 dollars," Lo says. "And while we could probably have tightened our belts to make that happen, we didn't know what this year would bring as far as financial demands due to Living Oprah, so we decided it was better be safe than sorry and find a new apartment that we knew we could afford." (For help with packing they refer constantly to the book Oprah recommends for reducing clutter, Peter Walsh's It's All Too Much.)

A longtime member of Chicago's independent performance community, Lo's known for taking on grueling roles—in one performance she played twin sisters who live alone in a cave. This new role has its own demands. Every day, Lo tapes Oprah, even if it's a rerun. She watches each episode at least twice, taking notes and looking for key words—you "gotta" try this product, you "must" read this book, you "should" go out right now and eat this—and then does as she's commanded. She's got about 40 cassettes so far; until she packed them for the move they were strewn around the living room. "It was definitely a little mad," she says. "I'm planning on better organization for our new place."

Living Oprah got its start one day three years ago when Jim came home from work to find Lo, who's suffered from scoliosis since her early 20s, lying on the floor in pain. Doctors wanted to fuse her spine together. "That's Western medicine," Lo says. She began searching for alternatives online and noticed that many holistic methods used the pitch line "As seen on Oprah!" Lo was also noticing how her mother, friends, and yoga students all talked about Oprah as if she were a friend. "Well, Oprah says that we should . . . " they'd say. Even Lo's grandmother was in on it, urging Lo to contact Oprah for help with her career. "My grandmother kept telling me for years to get in touch with Oprah. She didn't understand why I didn't ask her for help. She seemed to think that was all it took."

Lo started watching the show, in hopes of understanding how a media figure could have such a powerful effect on people. When Oprah did an episode about how most women wear the wrong bra size, Lo went out and got fitted for new bras. She filled out a questionnaire at oprah.com and got tickets for a show.

Because she was in pain Lo had been looking for ways to "perform" online. The various themes running through her head congealed last year in mid-December. "I'm interested in seeing what happens when an average American woman tries to keep up with Oprah's advice to 'live your best life,'" Lo wrote in her introductory post. "On one hand, I am concerned about the manner in which power is wielded by celebrities and on the other hand, I am doubly concerned about how willing we are to hand over our power to our gurus."

Oprah tends to order her viewers around because she really thinks she's discovered things that will help others, Lo says. Her viewers trust her, she says, because Oprah came from humble beginnings and struggles with her weight like many women do, including Lo. And Lo knows that Oprah often uses that power for good: on January 4, two days after Oprah told viewers to get all their pants tailored, she instructed them to commit to two ways to make their lifestyles more environmentally friendly. Lo spent almost $60 to replace her lightbulbs with more-energy-efficient alternatives and switched to cloth instead of plastic bags. "Today I witnessed Oprah using her personal power to effect positive change on the planet and I admire that," she wrote.

The same week she completed Oprah's directives to "Quick, name five terrific things about yourself," "Give yourself a time out," "Reinvigorate your appearance with some great advice on how not to look old," and "Rethink your eating habits with some absolutely delicious and utterly original meals."

Also that month, at Oprah's direction, Lo switched from overhead lighting to lamps, added something "from the sea" to each room, framed important notes, saw Juno, took an online clutter test, purchased a Post-it highlighter, and cooked mustard-grilled chicken and roast potatoes with lemons.

By January 18, Lo was seeing evidence that Oprah's advice at times conflicted with her own non-billionaire lifestyle. "On one hand, we're preached to live well within a healthy budget and on the other hand, we're shown how much Oprah LOVES her Christian Louboutin shoes and the Bel Air Hotel," she wrote. Later she commented, "I remember an episode when Oprah said she has her sheets changed every other day. This seems pretty wasteful to me. And again I wonder, does Oprah live by different rules than she lays out for the rest of us?"

In February, Lo followed Oprah's directives and saw the movie 27 Dresses, had margaritas with girlfriends, voted for Barack Obama, made scallops in green curry sauce, bought new underwear, went to see Horton Hears a Who, watched A Raisin in the Sun with Jim, went secondhand shopping, and acquired a weighted vest from a friend (as a weight loss aid). She also invited some friends to have pizza and watch Oprah's new Big Give show, but it was too short notice, so she watched it with Jim.

When the Oprah show was looking for audience members for an episode featuring a William Shatner appearance, Lo wrote in about watching Star Trek with her father while growing up and won a seat in the audience. A woman sitting nearby said she'd been waiting five years for tickets, Lo said. Another audience member seated next to Lo screamed "Thank you Jesus!" sporadically. "It was like a church revival," Lo said.

That was a big month for assignments. On February 20, as part of a show about "ten things every woman needs to have," Lo was instructed to buy a trench coat, black trousers, tunic top, white and black turtlenecks, and dark and white jeans. "What?! White jeans? Why? To wear to the Guns 'n' Roses concert in . . . oh . . . 1987?!" she wrote. "If you listen very closely, you can hear my checking account sigh in exhaustion."

She tried on trenches and turtlenecks for weeks but couldn't find any that fit that she could also afford. Readers of her blog advised her to shop online, which she did; $234 later, Lo had new items from Macy's, Victoria's Secret, Target, and Marshalls. "I never choose to dress in this manner, but this year is tossing me into many awkward behaviors," Lo wrote March 10. "One side effect of the leopard print flats is that my cat is ceaselessly attacking my feet."

After reading the O magazine article "How Not to Look Old" and the oprah.com tutorial "Makeup 101" by Oprah's personal makeup artist, Reggie Wells, Lo started wearing makeup. "I've become a lot more self-conscious," she says.

"We have a daily conversation about the way she looks now that wasn't there before," says Jim. "I try to be supportive and answer factually."

Her own project notwithstanding, Lo knows Oprah's followers are in control of what they buy, how they spend their time, and how they feel about themselves. "To anyone who thinks [Oprah] has 'too much' power, I say WE have done our part in giving Oprah her life of abundance," she said in a recent post. But letting Oprah think for her, at least short term, hasn't been all bad. "I haven't had to decide what book to read, what exercise to do, what movie to see, in a long time," she says.

On the other hand, the costs are adding up. Lo estimates that she's spent 440 hours and $1,600 so far following Oprah's advice. In addition, she says, she worries about having enough time for everything Oprah wants her to do and gets headaches from the stress. She acknowledges that no one will know if she breaks the stringent rules she's created for Living Oprah. "But I'll know," she says.

Oprah's producers didn't respond to a request for a reaction to this story, and Lo said she hasn't been contacted by them. But she's received e-mails defending Oprah from what they perceive as Lo's malicious intent. "You have nothing better to do?" wrote Bobbie Jo from Boise. "Why would you try to take someone that is only trying to do good things on this planet and make a mockery of her? . . . I watch Oprah. And take what is important to me and what touches my life. Whether it be medical advice, inspirational stories, her own personal actions or experiences, it's up to you to take from it what you need at that particular time."

Lo said she sputtered when she read that. "I wanted to say, I'm fighting for you—for us—for women! For our identity! That's what this project is about."

Now she's wondering if that should be clearer on her blog. She hopes to redesign it this summer—while reading two Oprah-recommended books, following Oprah's designer's instructions for decorating her new apartment, and raising money for charity by throwing that party to watch the Big Give.   v

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