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Oprah Winfrey, seen here in June, is headed to Australia.
When Oprah Winfrey announced in September that she was taking her talk show to Australia, the earth did not move on the other side of the world. Aussies responded with a typical range of reactions: from wary derision to exuberant embrace. People joked — sometimes nervously — that Sydney's iconic Opera House would now be called the Oprah House. And why not? She will host her program from there when she arrives in December. She'll sail Sydney Harbor, send her guests to cavort with Koalas, and snorkel past sharks in the Great Barrier Reef.
When I interviewed Aussies on the steps of the Opera House, I met many Oprah fans — mostly women — who don't seem to mind her packaging and promoting their country as if it were the latest diet.
"Oh my God, she is coming to Australia!" says Robin Shipley, as if auditioning to be a fan. "As if that happens, you know? Australia tends to get forgotten sometimes. I don't know if it's because we're so far away or because we have a small population. So it's nice when these big names come to Australia."
But it takes money to bring a big name to a faraway place. Some Australians were angry to learn that their government tourist agencies are kicking in several million dollars to help pay for Oprah's trip. "When I found out Australian tourism was paying for this, I said to myself, 'There has to be a better way to do it,'" says Paul Smith, a skeptical Aussie visiting Sydney from Melbourne. If Australia wants to sell Australia, he asks, why not use Australian notables to do it? (Hugh Jackman, perhaps? Cate Blanchett? Rupert Murdoch?)
But the Australian government is banking that Oprah's odyssey will be the best advertising campaign the country has ever had. Their rationale: Oprah has a huge following worldwide, her fan base consists largely of women, and women tend to make the holiday bookings in a family. But the ever-practical Paul Smith thinks that approach is gamble: "It all depends on the Australian dollar, doesn't it?" he asks.
It's not an idle question. With the Aussie dollar at peak value, foreign tourists are likely to stay away. And Americans — a key tourism target — are likely to stay off expensive Qantas flights until their own economy improves.
But like so many other Oprah doubters, Paul Smith has a wife who is a fan. During my conversation with her husband, Lisa Smith seemed eager to get back on message: "I mean, Oprah's like ROYALTY, isn't she?" she says. "Everybody loves Oprah."
When I remind her Australians have their own Queen, the Real Queen, she looks the slightest bit disappointed. And maybe a bit relieved. Queen Elizabeth II still holds more sway down here than the Queen of TV Talk. It's her face that's on the currency, after all.
Oh. And that joke about the Oprah House? Don't worry about it.
In fact, with the recent death of (native Australian) Joan Sutherland, at least one politician here is lobbying to rename the Opera Theatre after the great opera legend. That's O-p-e-r-a. Short "o," no "h."