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Oprah is a safe choice

January 10, 2013

AMERICA may not, to its occasional twinging regret, have a royal family, but for the past four decades it has had its own regal mother confessor.

When Michael Jackson, the former sprinter Marion Jones and countless less starry but no less remorseful Americans have sought public redemption, they have all turned to Oprah Winfrey.

So it is entirely in keeping with this, if not noble then at least long-running tradition that for his first TV interview since the alleged doping scandal, Lance Armstrong has sent the Oprah Winfrey Signal. It’s a light that bathes the sky in a sudsy, occasionally saccharine glow.

Yet while Winfrey might not be the hardest hitting of interviewers (except when the interviewee is seeking forgiveness for a wrong committed against Winfrey herself, as authors James Frey and Jonathan Franzen learned to their cost), to choose her is something of a statement from Armstrong.

News that Armstrong is “considering making a public confession that he used performance-enhancing drugs” sounded to many like a confession in itself; the announcement that he is to kneel at the forgiving feet of Winfrey has the decided smack of a man who has lost the bullying defiance that long defined his attitude towards allegations of doping.

You don’t go to Winfrey just to confess: you go to Winfrey to confess, cry and beseech public sympathy (and hopefully pry open some kind of post-scandal career). Going by past examples, Winfrey probably won’t be too tough on Armstrong. But she will, guaranteed, wring tears out of him, however genuine they might be.

It is not difficult to fathom how Winfrey has carved this deified role for herself. The woman positively quivers with warmth and empathy. She exudes a starry, even regal aura, which flatters her guests who feel that, OK, they might have been strong-armed on to the redemption train, but at least they’re going first class.

She has perfected the skill of appearing to share intimate details of her own life while, in fact, revealing nothing, retaining a dignity and reassuring blankness few other American TV chatshow hosts have managed.

Yet while many miserable masses have huddled on Winfrey’s sofa, Armstrong’s decision to turn to her is a huge coup for her. This interview will not be on the accessible TV channels where her successful show ran for a quarter of a century until 2011, but on Winfrey’s cable network, OWN, and her website.

The network has had a shaky first 18 months, with some fans complaining they can’t actually find it. But even if Winfrey’s blue chip quality has suffered, she is still — when it comes to flawed celebrities — the first-class option and, arguably most importantly, the soft and safe choice.—The Guardian, London