When Oprah first came to Chicago more than two decades ago, she told her boss that she couldn't do The Oprah Winfrey Show without an audience. Back in those days, the staff rounded up metal folding chairs and filled them with a few dozen people to watch the show.
"I used to go out on State Street, where we were, and offer coffee and doughnuts just to get people in the building," Oprah recalls. "We've come a long way from State Street!"
Since then, more than 1 million people have sat in The Oprah Show's seats. They've hopped on trains, planes and automobiles, traveled across the country and across town, waited out in the cold Chicago weather, and donned their Sunday best to be a part of The Oprah Show's audience.
Whether they've helped the show make history or given us some of our biggest laughs, our audience members have been with us since the beginning—and have given us some of the most memorable moments season after season.
Many times after a show tapes, Oprah settles in for a chat with the audience members. One audience member she says she'll never forget is Tommy, who told her his hilarious story of facing down his childhood bully with nothing but his pink Cinderella lunch box.
After posting the clip of Tommy on Oprah.com, it went viral. Since then, Tommy says he has had a wild ride and has turned a childhood memory into a catalyst for change. "I've been speaking to different groups since that time and with the gay community," Tommy says. "We're trying to get a halt to this bullying."
What's more, Tommy says he ran into the bully at a recent high school reunion. "He apologized, and I accepted his apology," he says.
Oprah says when she told Tommy's story to filmmaker Tyler Perry, she said everyone needs a pink Cinderella lunch box in their life. So, Tyler sent a pink Cinderella lunch box to Oprah.
"I'm going to send it on to you," Oprah tells Tommy.
When audience members Will and Marcus stood up to ask a question after a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009, they never dreamed where it would take them—and neither did we.
As two Mariah Carey superfans, the men asked Oprah if their idol would appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show that season. After hearing that Mariah would indeed appear on the show, Will and Marcus asked if they could attend the taping to watch her sing...but Oprah said she could do better than that!
Now, Will and Marcus say that meeting Mariah and appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show changed their lives in ways they never expected.
First, Marcus reveals that he lost 65 pounds. "I guess TV really is life's mirror because when I saw myself, I was like, 'Is that what I really look like?'" he says. "I started eating really healthy and started doing a lot of things. I've done a couple of 5Ks, I swam in the Iowa Games last summer and now I'm training for a triathlon."
For Will, he says seeing himself on the show literally saved his life. "I was watching the show and ... said [to myself], 'Will, there's something wrong with your neck," he recalls. Will saw how swollen his neck was in the clip and decided to go to the doctor.
After several tests, Will got the news: He had cancer.
"I did chemo from January to July of 2010 [and] I am cancer-free now!" Will says.
Before any audience members can even sit in their seats at Harpo Studios, they are taken care of by Harpo's Sally Lou Loveman and her team in the audience department. This team makes sure each audience member makes it to the show, knows where to go, knows what to wear, is excited for the taping and more—and they always seem to do it flawlessly. "They treat every audience member like gold," Oprah says.
Even though they make it look easy, Sally Lou says that it isn't always smooth sailing. One of the audience department's biggest challenges was a few months ago when a huge blizzard swept through Chicago. It was the only time in Oprah Show history when Harpo shut down—but Sally Lou and her team were still hard at work informing and rescheduling the audience members who were supposed to come to that week's tapings.
"The blizzard happened on a Wednesday," Sally Lou says. "[That Tuesday], we're preparing. We're talking to people who really can't get out of their flights and they have to come, or their flights were cancelled. ... We talked to about 1,800 people over a three-day period."
After making tons of phone calls, spending nights away from home and their families, and changing many travel plans, the audience department had everything worked out. "To date, all the [audience members] of that week have officially come to The Oprah Winfrey Show," Sally Lou says.
In addition to leading the audience department, Sally Lou is also in charge of revving up the audience before each Oprah Show taping—she gets them singing and dancing in their seats before each taping, talks with them, encourages them to share their stories and more. She says it's one of her favorite parts of her job.
"I love it. It's like breathing to me! It's just fun," Sally Lou says, turning to the audience. "You're our family. ... Really, truly, you all become our family, and you become each other's family. You're just one big—we say 'one people.'"
"You are the real PR for our show," Oprah says to the audience department. "You are the first line for people's real engagement with anybody or anything to do with The Oprah Winfrey Show, and every one of you represents me and the rest of us so well."
"It's very easy to represent Oprah Winfrey because there's so much joy and love that we have in our hearts—that you [audience members] have, that we all have," Sally Lou says. "You make it very easy."