Thursday, May 26, 2011

After Oprah, a Civic Soapbox essay by Mariflo Stephens

A woman I hadn't heard from in over 20 years sent me a Christmas card. After two decades of being out of touch, Debbie tracked me down. She’d seen me on Oprah one year earlier, in 1990. Then, my best friend from childhood, Jane, sent me a birthday card that read: "Now you're 40. Only 60 years until Willard Scott announces your birthday on T.V."

"After Oprah," she wrote, "I figure Willard's next".

After Oprah, I acquired an unearned fame, vague in scope. I say “vague” because some in Charlottesville can't quite remember the basis for my celebrity, though they remain convinced of it. "Look," a beaming woman once said to her daughter, pointing to me. "There's Mariflo. She’s the famous...uh, famous famous."
In the even smaller town where I grew up, in front of the courthouse and behind the fire station, there is a creek. I remember the lot surrounding the creek as uncleared and weedy, the kind of place that attracts broken bottles. But community activists turned it into a park and each year it is the site of an arts festival with everything from a literary contest to a doll show. In this town of 5,000, hundreds swarm the park every June. I try to go there almost every year myself for their now-annual Chatauqua festival, there in the town where I grew up.

The June I was on national television coincided with Wytheville’s Chatauqua festival. My older sister told me that someone walked the park, calling out, "Mariflo's on Oprah in 15 minutes," and the park cleared. She estimates that there were 100 video tapes made of the event.

The next year when I went to Chatauqua I caught a little, freckle-faced boy staring at me, staring in absolute wonder. I was the woman he'd seen on the T.V. And because I flashed on the screen of his television for fifteen minutes, I was more real to him than anything he'd ever experienced in his small town.

Most of us don't live where we grew up. The first thing we do to ourselves in this culture is leave. But because I went before an audience of 25 million, I reached people I hadn't seen in years: my old college suite mate, my childhood friend, a kissing cousin.

So how did I end up on Oprah?

The Oprah staff had plugged the "suppport group junkie" idea into their computer service and found my satire “I Was a Support Group Junkie” from The Washington Post. Then they asked me to appear with some real support group junkies. “We need a humorist,” they’d explained.

Not one bad thing has happened to from being on Oprah. Not one negative phrase has been uttered. No one has called me a wet blanket or a spoilsport for saying that I, myself, didn’t really believe in support groups. And after the show taped, Oprah’s people promised to ask me back.

Now this is Oprah’s last week and I’m mad, because that promise was never kept. So what’s the deal with those people? In 21 years, they never had another need for a humorist? I wonder if Ellen DeGeneres would be interested in one? Hmmm.
 --Mariflo Stephens is from Charlottesville. She teaches creative writing at Hollins University.
Oprah says goodbye

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