Oprah Winfrey is a name the world won’t soon forget. Once the richest black woman in the world, her career has been going for longer than most marriages. Whether she’s instilling misguided fears into the hearts of overbearing mothers, interviewing deranged pop stars or losing the weight of a small child (and then gaining it right back) it seems like everything the woman does makes headlines.
Her recent interview with Lance Armstrong, in which he’s said to have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his cycling career, will join the ranks of her hugely influential exposés that have spanned a quarter-century. Here are some of her most important interviews and episodes — if you’ve owned a TV in the past couple decades, you’ll recognize at least a few.
1. Tom Cruise
As if the world needed reminding that Tom Cruise was a nutjob, in 2005 he granted us the unique opportunity to see the lunatic in its natural habitat. Cruise, manically in love with Katie Homes, bounced around the set in what would become one of the most famous displays of celebrity-induced insanity ever to grace network television. It could be said that he never lived the experience down.
For reasons that defy logic, many were surprised when Whitney Houston admitted to heavy drug use with her ex, Bobby Brown, in a 2009 interview with Winfrey. The chat with Houston, one of the most decorated and adored musicians of modern times, was one of the most anticipated interviews of the decade. The drug use — mostly marijuana laced with top-notch cocaine — is all anyone seems to remember from the discussion.
Author James Frey essentially had his name dragged through the dirt as a fraud during one of Oprah’s most talked-about controversies. His A Million Little Pieces, which had been presented as a factual memoir, was discovered to have been a fabrication. Winfrey didn’t take too kindly to this news, especially since she’d chosen the novel for an installment of the ubiquitous “Oprah’s Book Club.” The two eventually made nice, but it probably doesn’t feel very good when Oprah is mad at you. It’s probably something like making your grandma cry.
This episode was the first time Winfrey had interviewed a sitting President and First Lady, and it was a hugely anticipated installment. It was a strange coincidence that Obama had just announced Osama bin Laden’s death to the nation just before the episode aired, and not one that went unnoticed. The couple seemed happy during the course of the interview, mentioning how proud they were when their daughter met the Pope. Obama received his share of criticism for taking time from leading the nation to appear on a talk show, but it nonetheless became a timeless piece of American history.
In what became the fourth most-watched television event in history, Oprah sat down with Michael Jackson at the famed Neverland Ranch to discuss his nonexistent childhood and the rumors surrounding his appearance and sometimes erratic behavior. They also made time for Jacko to give the Queen of Talk an impromptu lesson on his signature dance, the Moonwalk. He admitted to getting a nose job during the interview, which seemed to be a burning question in the minds of Americans at the time.
Ellen DeGeneres had been an icon long before this interview took place, but it made her a champion of an entirely new cause. The actress made the very precarious leap of revealing her true sexuality while in front of a live audience and viewers at home, which was a bold move to say the least. The audience seemed divided between supporters and dissenters, and a frank discussion on sexuality followed the admission.
7. Charla Nash vs. Travis the Chimp
This one was pretty horrifying—Charla Nash, a woman who was viciously attacked by a chimpanzee named Travis, was featured on the program. The 911 call placed while Travis was literally eating Nash’s face was played during the episode. Travis’ shrieks can be heard behind Nash’s friend’s panicked sobs. Nash wore a veil over her face in public after the incident in order to avoid frightening people, but during the episode she removed the veil to reveal her disfigured face. Since the show aired Nash has undergone facial reconstruction surgery and looks much more like her old self.
This little kid had a heart of gold, and his message inspired Winfrey and millions of others. Born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, the then-11-year-old shared his upbeat attitude and heartfelt poetry with the audience. This touching moment was just as huge for the little boy as it was for the show—the two people he wanted to meet most were Winfrey and Jimmy Carter. The latter spoke at Mattie’s untimely funeral in 2004. Following the interview, all of his books of poetry made the New York Times’ bestsellers list.
In one of her most extravagant instances of, well, being exceedingly generous, Winfrey gave every member of her 300-seat audience a new Pontiac G6. The video above depicts the joyous, frenetic chaos that ensued. So what if everyone either had to pay $7,000 in taxes or give back the car? It made for some pretty entertaining television. Anyway, you try to find a new G6 for 7 grand—it ain’t gonna happen. Oprah didn’t have to foot the bill for the cars, even though she could have without batting an eye.
Rihanna’s interview with Oprah on her Oprah Winfrey Network was not just a discussion with a pop star — it turned into an open discussion about domestic violence in the wake of Rihanna’s abuse at the hands of her ex, Chris Brown. Winfrey traveled to the singer’s home on the island of Barbados to have an extended chat. Some startling revelations, like the fact that she was still in love with the man who’d beaten her senseless, were reached. It was a controversial moment for Rihanna, but a boon for Oprah—it was one of her highest-rated interviews ever.