Oprah on Oprah: Perfectionist. Optimist. Diva. the Woman Behind the Most Successful Magazine Launch Ever Still Cries When She Thinks of Her Failed Project 'Beloved.' Now, Oprah Winfrey Confronts a Crossroads. How She's Changing Women's Lives-And Rethinking Her Own

Article excerpt

It's a Friday afternoon, and Oprah Winfrey is in an otherworldly state of calm. Her staff, however, is frantic. Nelson Mandela is about to arrive for a TV interview, and producers are rushing through set-checks, tightening security and prepping audience members. Behind the closed double doors to her Chicago office, Winfrey is plopped down in a cushiony armchair, a candle burning at her side, talking about the past year, when an assistant calls in a panic. Mr. Mandela is 30 minutes early, and Winfrey is still in her off-air gear--a baggy sweater and a well-worn pair of pants. "He'll just have to see me with no makeup on," says Winfrey, raking a hand through her unstyled hair. At least a little foundation and powder? the caller pleads. "Look," Winfrey replies before hanging up the phone, "he's seen a woman with no makeup on before." Her instincts are right. Mandela is charmed by the casual welcome.

Four days later, Winfrey is in perfectionist mode. Looking back at the December issue of her new magazine, O, she holds up the cover and winces. "Ooh, there's a mistake!" she says, pointing to the word "generosity," which she thinks should have been in bigger type. Annoyed with herself for not spotting it sooner, she grabs a stack of past issues and starts flipping. "Didn't like that." Flip. "Nope. Never got that right." Flip. Flip. Realizing that she's obsessing, she blows out a whoosh of breath and refocuses her energy on pages she likes. After several satisfied nods, she returns to the December issue and declares: "I love everything in this!" Then she turns a page, spots another imperceptible glitch and adds sheepishly: "Except this. We should have moved this."

Hours later, while teaching a business-school class at Northwestern University, Winfrey turns on her down-home charm. The course is called "The Dynamics of Leadership," and the night's topic--adapting strategies of the civil-rights movement to modern business--is heavy. But Winfrey knows how to keep the three-hour class moving. When guest speaker Coretta Scott King talks earnestly of her late husband's belief in service as the key to leadership, Winfrey raises her hand, stands and asks, "I mean, on your first date was [the Reverend King] just sitting up talking to you about service?" Laughter ripples through the classroom.

Down-to-earth diva. Control freak. Silly best girlfriend--Oprah Winfrey can be all three. From her dirt-poor beginnings in rural Mississippi to her iconic status as the "queen of talk," the 46-year-old star has come a long way. Now, after one of the most challenging and exhilarating phases in her long career, she is peaking professionally, spiritually and emotionally. She is a multimedia tycoon, producing film and TV projects, giving away millions to charity and, most recently, putting her stamp on the world of print with a new magazine. Her journey continues to inspire women to listen to their own voices and try to play by their own rules. For the millions of women who read her magazine, watch her show and buy the books she recommends, this is the age of Oprah--and a NEWSWEEK look at her life today suggests that the woman at the center of the empire is herself at a crossroads.

If there was ever any doubt about Winfrey's instinctive knack for taking the nation's pulse, her new magazine should take care of that. Her monthly, O: The Oprah Magazine, launched last April, is the most successful magazine start-up in history. After just seven issues (it started as a bimonthly), O has a circulation of 2 million, beating top sellers like Vogue, In Style and Vanity Fair. Without a single guide to thin thighs or a saucier sex life, O is a glossy rendering of Winfrey's on-air motivational crusade, encouraging readers to revamp their souls the way Martha Stewart helps them revamp their kitchens. With articles on topics like women who rush too much, soul-searching interviews with celebrities like Sidney Poitier and flourishes like pull-out quotes from the likes of Winston Churchill and Deepak Chopra, O is reeling in a whole new breed of Oprah devotees: professionals with little time to watch her show. …