Brian Stewart: My turn on Oprah's couch

Brian Stewart recalls the day, and his attack of nerves, as he took his turn as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Brian Stewart, former senior CBC correspondent, now Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs talks about his turn on Oprah Winfrey's couch in 2004 6:41

During a winter week six years ago I experienced the odd sensation of going straight from interviews at the Pentagon with Washington's mighty to appear as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago.

Though it was a bizarre contrast of worlds, each had about it the unmistakable air of power.

What first struck me was that the security surrounding the Oprah studio was even tighter than that at the hyper-vigilant Pentagon. And this was after 9/11!

Yes, really. Oprah's world was sweetness and warmth on the inside of the barrier but no-nonsense security on the perimeter.

Even the show's chauffeur, who picked me up at my hotel, was a grim-faced former Chicago detective who seemed suspicious of my every move and utterance.

Was he secretly tasked, I wondered, to scout out the guests who might be high on drugs or drink?

Then, when arriving at the famous converted warehouse that Oprah owns to house her sprawling studio, I went through one of the most intense electronic screening and pat-downs that I had ever experienced anywhere.

All this was just for the show's guests. Those people asked me to appear on Oprah's iconic yellow couch. It wasn't as if I had just dropped by.

The slippery couch

In fairness to Oprah, my irritation was due to my own naiveté about her stature.

I of course did realize she was a huge star. But not having watched much daytime TV, I had underestimated her status as a veritable national institution. When I finally grasped that fundamental truth, the security made more sense.

Once inside the Oprah bubble — for so it seemed — I was impressed by the professionalism of her staff.

Although the corridors were cleared the moment Oprah was "on the move"  — not unlike what happens in the White House or No. 10 in Britain — there was no cult atmosphere that I could detect. No sense of Oprah lording it over her employees.

The CBC's Brian Stewart appears on Oprah's famous yellow couch in 2004. (Photo Oprah Winfrey Show)

Oprah's famous yellow couch — actually an uncomfortable and slippery one — was the last place on Earth I expected to be. I was there because of my involvement in a story that, 20 years earlier, had shaken the world.

Longtime CBC viewers will know the story of the small girl, Birhan Woldu, whom my CBC crew and I found near death at the height of the great Ethiopian famine of 1984.

My reports on her survival, along with the fact that her image had an enormous impact on the Live Aid concert of 1985, turned her into the "face of famine" in Africa of that period.

Strange destiny

Over the years I became a close friend of Birhan and her close-knit family in northern Ethiopia.

Then, on the 20th anniversary of Live Aid in 2005, its creator, rock star Bob Geldof, flew her to London to appear onstage with Madonna before a televised audience of nearly a billion worldwide.

This propelled her fame into the stratosphere. Given Oprah's keen sense of drama, she asked that Birhan and I reunite yet again, on her stage, for a special show on children whose images came to define some of the world's more dramatic events.

Birhan agreed, though a bit reluctantly. She had no clue who Oprah was, and while she was always anxious to please, she was also concerned all this unasked-for celebrity would cause her college marks to dip.

Our Chicago reunion, our fifth since the famine, was emotional and also gave us a chance to discuss her future college plans along with her strong desire to work among the poorest of Ethiopia's children.

I also interviewed her for a short documentary that CBC producer Carmen Merrifield was crafting about Birhan's amazing fate, called Strange Destiny

Nervous, me?

Meeting up with Birhan I marvelled yet again at her remarkable serenity, which so many who have met her, from Geldof to Tony Blair, have commented on.

Birhan Woldu, in 2002, a young woman attending college. (CBC)

Before the show I had a case of nerves, she none at all. She dealt with all the many changes in her life with exactly the same degree of fortitude and calm.

The plan was for me to go out into the studio, talk with Oprah for two or three minutes, and then Birhan would join us. The music swelled, an excited introduction was delivered, and I was led to my entrance spot, seeing for the first time the live audience of dozens, almost all women, who had already been revved up as if for a rock concert.

"Are you ALRIGHTY," a concerned looking floor manager whispered. I must have been sweating, or looking as if I was about to keel over.

I nodded that I was fine. I received a gentle shove forward and joined the long and wildly mixed line of guests over the years to deliver themselves up into the on-screen hands of Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah's gift

It all turned out well. Her questions were crisp and to the point. Birhan mesmerized the audience with her life commitment to help suffering children as she had been helped so vividly 20 years earlier.

Later, she and I sat in the audience for another portion of the show. When we left, during a commercial break, the audience rose to give her a standing ovation, the only time producers had observed such a reaction to a guest.

After the taping, Oprah and I talked briefly in the corridor about Ethiopia and its relentless poverty. She was just about to fly out there to open her own hospital for women. I was impressed.

My quick take was that she's pretty much as she seems in public — sincere and empathetic in the way that people who have endured great hardship as children, as Oprah did, often tend to be.

She also seemed luxuriously comfortable with the responsibilities of her own power and influence.

As I left, her staff said, "Don't forget your guest gift at the door."

I confess I felt a slight twinge of excitement, for only three days earlier Oprah had given away a car to every school teacher in her audience.

What surprise, I wondered, awaited me? Would it be too grand to accept as a CBC employee?

I needn't have concerned myself. My wife still uses the ladies' pink pyjamas and shawl for reading that were the lone objects of my Oprah gift bag.

Oprah always knew how to bring people back to Earth. It's a terrific talent.