WASHINGTON—Stripped of his Tour de France titles, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong is banking on “the Oprah effect” to help get his life, career and public image back on track.
He can expect not only tough questions, but also a generous dose of empathy when he sits down with talk show icon Oprah Winfrey at his Texas home for an interview going out on her OWN cable channel and website next Thursday.
“Oprah is not flying down to Austin and airing a prime time special to hear another denial (of drug use) from Lance Armstrong,” veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com, told AFP on Wednesday.
“This is part of a very sophisticated PR effort to get a confession out there and change hearts and minds,” said Bragman, who has known Winfrey for 30 years and placed some of his celebrity clients on her show.
“Lance certainly has a previous relationship with Oprah, number one,” he said, referring to a 2004 interview in which he spoke of his struggle with cancer but avoided the doping allegations that were just starting to emerge.
“But number two, she is extraordinarily empathetic — and I think that’s where he felt he was going to get his best hearing and it makes it a quote-unquote special event.”
Winfrey, 58, born into poverty in Mississippi, became one of the richest and most powerful figures in US popular culture over 25 seasons of her eponymous weekday syndicated talk show aimed at women viewers.
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” made a virtue of intimacy, emotion and the power of persuasion — and over 4,561 episodes it reshaped the national conversation on such issues as literacy, obesity and homosexuality.
Some claim Winfrey’s support for Barack Obama swayed enough votes in 2008 among her estimated 44 million viewers to help put him in the White House.
“The beauty of Oprah is that she’s able to be an icon and, at the same time, very, very approachable and very real,” said Chicago ad executive James Lou in the CNBC television documentary “The Oprah Effect.”
“It makes her so relevant as a brand to consumers,” he said.
Her endorsements lifted sales of such products as Ugg boots, Fat Witch Brownies and Kindle readers (“absolutely my new favorite, favorite thing”), which she discovered before the iPad (“my number one favorite thing ever”).
For celebrities with something heartfelt to say, Winfrey’s studio sofa has been the go-to place to bare their feelings before a boisterous live audience.
Tom Cruise famously jumped up and down on it in 2005 as he professed his love for fellow actor Katie Holmes, who he married the following year. The couple divorced in 2012.
In 2008, former Olympic track and field champion Marion Jones, out on probation after doing prison time for perjury after lying to US prosecutors about her use of steroids, shed tears as she told Winfrey her story.
“I didn’t love myself enough to tell the truth,” Jones confessed. “I’m trying to move on. I hope that everybody else can move on, too.”
The following year, Mike Tyson broke down as he told Winfrey about the accidental death of his four-year-old daughter — and apologized for biting off the ear of boxing rival Evander Holyfield in their notorious 1997 “bite fight.”
Winfrey lowered the curtain on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in May 2011 amid much fanfare to focus on the Oprah Winfrey Network channel, on which she appears less frequently on an interview show called “Oprah’s Next Chapter.”
That is the program on which Armstrong is to appear, on the heels of such other recent guests as pop idols Justin Bieber and Rihanna and London Olympics gymnastics champion Gabrielle Douglas.