What She Did for Love

updated 01/30/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/30/1995 01:00AM

HER VOICE TREMBLING, HER EYES welling with tears, her heart (she would later say) "beating fast," Oprah Winfrey stood before her studio audience in Chicago on Jan. 11 and revealed what she called "my great shame." Twenty years earlier, encouraged, she said, by a man "I was so in love with I would have done anything for him," she had smoked cocaine. The audience listened raptly. A few minutes later, cutting for a commercial, Oprah, 41, put down her microphone, sat on the edge of the stage and silently wept.

The reason for her confession, she explained, was the nature of the show, which had featured four mothers, including Washington Post reporter Patrice Gaines, who had been sharing their own painful histories of drug usage. Had she not disclosed hers, "I would have felt like a hypocrite," Winfrey later told Gaines, author of the memoir Laughing in the Dark.

If confession is good for the soul, that may be Winfrey's main solace, since cynical observers have questioned her candor and suggested that the motive for her revelation was a matter of some calculation. Though her spokeswoman, Deborah Johns, insists Oprah's disclosure was "totally spontaneous," some TV columnists, including Bill Zwecker of The Chicago Sun-Times, reported the bombshell may have been a premeditated ploy to boost the show's ratings, which have dropped by 13 percent in the previous two seasons. That charge is supported by an ex-staffer at Winfrey's Harpo Productions who says the confession "had definitely been discussed days before the taping." (Though highly publicized, the drug-abuse show, when it aired on Jan. 13, actually drew below-average ratings in many major markets.)

Oprah herself declined to comment. Recently, though, she said she cares less about ratings than about using her show to "lift people up with me." By that measure, she may have succeeded. Among those attending the taping was Cindy Benson, a counselor at the Lake-side-Milam Recovery Centers in Seattle. "What Oprah did was spread a feeling of healing," says Benson, who has heard from several drug abusers—men and women—who say they were inspired by the show to seek help. It has also made a difference to Kim Davis, one of Winfrey's four guests that day. Davis, 35, has been fighting drug addiction for 22 years. "Oprah," she says, "gave me a little bit of hope."

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