So Where's the Beef?
Oprah's appearance was merely the high point so far in a visit that has sparked an emotional stampede among Amarillans. Ask Mayor Kel Seliger's wife, Nancy, who picked up the phone one day last month and couldn't believe it was Winfrey calling for shopping and restaurant recommendations. "She said, 'It's Oprah, Oprah,' " recalls Nancy Seliger, 37. "I told her to hold on a minute because David Letterman was at my front door." Now, she says, "if I was any more excited, my husband says I'd have to be medicated."
This Texas Panhandle city (pop. 164,000) has unofficially been Oprahville since Winfrey touched down in her private Gulf-stream jet on Jan. 19. She brought with her an entourage that includes her bodyguard, personal chef, two pet cocker spaniels and a chunk of her staff, on hand to tape five shows a week at the Amarillo Little Theatre. Her boyfriend, entrepreneur Stedman Graham, 46, arrived 10 days later, bearing a pair of diamond earrings—a present for the star's 44th birthday, which was celebrated on the show with a chocolate cake so large it amply fed the 288 audience members. The media have flocked to town, too, along with protesters and supporters. One local woman in a cow suit proclaimed, "We embrace Oprah with open arms."
As well they might. According to the Chamber of Commerce, by the end of Winfrey's trial, which may run a month or longer, her presence is expected to have generated some $250,000 in local business. Commandeering the nine-suite Adaberry Inn for the duration, she reportedly opened a $100,000 account at the Amarillo National Bank to cover local expenses. Her chef alone dropped nearly $5,000 in a one-stop trip to Amarillo's Casual Gourmet culinary store, where he stocked up on pots and pans, cheeses, oils and spices for Oprah's personal kitchen. "They wanted soufflé cups, but we didn't have enough," says co-owner Sheldon Johnston. At the Martha Smith linen shop, the crew splurged on soaps, candles, bedding, coasters. Owner Susan Richardson threw in three linen towels decorated with the state flower, the bluebonnet. "I didn't want them to think they were on enemy turf," she says.
Hardly. "Our No. 1 industry here is people," says welcome lady D.J. Stubben, who sent Winfrey and visiting media 25 gift baskets containing books by local authors and "gimme" caps from Mike Mooney's Carpet Gallery "We're so friendly. If your car breaks down, someone will stop and pick you up, and you'll get to where you're going in one piece. And you won't have to worry about your wheels being on the car when you get back."
Still, Oprah would almost certainly rather be back in Chicago. She's the lead defendant, along with Howard Lyman, a former rancher turned vegetarian activist, in a suit brought by four prominent cattle-feeding families led by Paul Engler, a colorful cowpoke who put up the area's first feedlots in 1962. Under a never-before-tested 1995 state law, the group is suing Winfrey for defaming a perishable product—beef—on her April 16, 1996 "Dangerous Foods" show, which was broadcast during Britain's mad cow disease scare.
That program raised the prospect that the terrifying, brain-destroying illness—possibly linked to consumption of contaminated beef—could break out in the U.S. and trigger an epidemic that, in the words of Lyman (a guest that day), "could make AIDS look like the common cold." Over the protests of two pro-beef panelists, Lyman claimed that American cattle were fed ground-up livestock—a practice, officially banned first in Britain and now in the U.S., that scientists suspect spreads the infection from animal to animal. "Now doesn't that concern you all a little bit right here, hearing that?" Winfrey asked her audience. "It just stopped me cold from eating another burger. I'm stopped."
The next day the price of beef plunged roughly $16 a head and was ultimately devalued 10 percent—the direct result, charges Engler, of a certain talk show host who can make a book a bestseller simply by mentioning it on the air. Engler, whose Cactus Feeders Inc. brings in $650 million a year in revenues, says he lost $6.7 million in what is called, fairly or not, "the Oprah crash." Now, Engler and his co-plaintiffs are asking for more than $10 million in damages. That's chump change for Winfrey, who's worth $415 million, according to Forbes. But so-called veggie libel laws, on the books in 13 states, threaten what she sees as her constitutional right to tackle controversial topics. "The same thing happened to Galileo," says Reggie James, director of the southwest office of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "He said the Earth was not the center of the universe. He got prosecuted by the church."
Beef, though, remains the lingua franca of the Amarillo area, which provides a quarter of the cattle processed by the nation's slaughterhouses. "There's not a livelihood in town that is not affected by beef," says Mayor Seliger. Engler, who attends court in ostrich-skin boots and a cowboy hat, is a hero to ranchers, says James Hunt, who hosts a call-in show at radio KGNC. "He tried to take on the biggest celebrity in this country," says Hunt, who thinks Winfrey's charisma shouldn't be underestimated. "Oprah may be our Lady Di."
But Winfrey has put on no regal airs. "This is a serious thing to Oprah," says Winfrey pal (and fellow talk show host) Gayle King. "She's not overconfident at this point." Dressed elegantly but conservatively, Winfrey sat impassively as her attorney Chip Babcock assured jurors that she "is not anti-beef...not anti-cattle...not anti-rancher." Stedman, during his two days in court, sat behind Oprah, passing notes to lawyers. He was once spotted putting a consoling arm around her in the corridor.
Taking the stand, of course, Winfrey became her vintage self. Asked whether she believed in the First Amendment, she cocked an eye at the jury and said, "More so now than ever before." Asked about the responsibilities of hosting a talk show, she answered, "I've been successful all these years because I do my show with the people in mind, not for the corporations or their money." (Her friend Maya Angelou sat in the gallery that day. "I'm here to lift up Oprah," said the poet.)
On her part, Mary Lou Robinson, 71, a federal judge who has spent four decades on the bench, runs her show with no-nonsense deliberation. She seated the jury in a day and limited opening arguments to 30 minutes. "The courtroom will always be under her control," says Robert Templeton, a prominent Amarillo attorney. "You would never see anything like an O.J. Simpson case in her court."
But outside the courtroom, Oprah rules. On Jan. 16, when Winfrey announced the Amarillo tapings and the show flashed an 800 number for tickets, the response crashed Panhandle phone lines. The post office has been inundated with letters, and, as Winfrey herself noted on air, "people keep sending stuff to my hotel." Says Gayle King: "Oprah intends to write personal thank-you notes to everyone. She's touched by the kindness of strangers."
Many of them would like to be her friend, says local talent agent Sheryl Anderson, who hired caterers, hairdressers and crew to help out at the Amarillo theater. "I've got one lady who wants to take Oprah to church," says Anderson, "and another who wants her to come have dinner at her house." Ched Ward, a wheelchair-bound artist, hung an 18-foot-long banner (Peace and Love to Oprah) from his condo balcony. Oprah, he says, "is so down-home."
Not that Winfrey has been kicking around town like a tumbleweed. Except for exercising at the Downtown Athletic Club and occasionally eating out (dinner at the Black-eyed Pea Restaurant), she has kept a low profile. The driveway of the Adaberry B&B is blocked, and its doors are draped with sheets. But when fans showed up at the Adaberry on a cold, windy night to sing "Happy Birthday," Winfrey came out to shake hands and mingle. "She was very gracious," says a TV cameraman. "She told them all it was too cold and too late for the children to be out and wished them all good night."
Displaying such simple warmth—and giving her show some Lone Star spice with a tour of Texas mansions and a two-step turn with actor Patrick Swayze—has paid off. "Oprah seems to have won over even the people who were cool to her," says one local observer. Town officials initially refused to welcome her, but Mayor Seliger wants to give her the key to the city. "My wife likes Oprah and believes in her," says Donald Airhart, a rancher in from Lubbock to buy cattle. "I try to keep my mouth shut."
Performing double duty as both star defendant and talk show host, Winfrey, who has taken over the Amarillo Little Theatre indefinitely, must wish for some peace and quiet herself. Her day in court starts at 9 a.m., and evenings at the theater can run from 7 to 10 p.m. Turning up for the trial one morning, a visibly fatigued Winfrey told reporters, "I didn't sleep, so my eyes are all buggy." Even though she got out of town one weekend to visit Dallas, "this is all very draining on her," says Gayle King. "I told her, 'You're not a robot.' " No, she's a major star who has moved into the center of Amarillo's universe—which is why, for all their hospitality, people here may feel a bit burned out also. "The other day," says Seliger, "when somebody told me about a pothole instead of something about Oprah, I was so happy I wanted to fix it myself."
LAUREL BRUBAKER CALKINS, ELLISE PIERCE, MICHALE HAEDERLE, STACY YATES and DAVID BOWSER in Amarillo and CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles