From Tiger Woods to David Letterman, when stars fall from grace, the road to redemption starts with Oprah Winfrey.
The former queen of talk still rules the roost when it comes to celebrity confessions, so it comes as little surprise that disgraced Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong chose her for his first interview on his alleged performance enhancing drug use.
The Armstrong interview will air Thursday at 9 p.m. EST on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Oprah has promised a "no-holds-barred" interview with no pre-arranged conditions, reports CNN.
Following the taping of the interview on Monday, Oprah tweeted, "Just wrapped with @lancearmstrong More than 2 1/2 hours . He came READY!" She's reportedly edited the interview to 90 minutes, which will air over two nights.
There's no doubt that 60 Minutes and other major news shows were clamouring at Armstrong’s door, so why did Oprah land the marquee interview?
“She’s not an investigative reporter and she doesn’t ask questions like an investigative reporter,” says crisis management expert Jonathan Bernstein. The author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay: Media Training, Bernstein says celebrities turn to Oprah because she’s best known for listening and helping guests, rather than attacking them.
“I can’t think of anyone that [repenting on Oprah] hasn’t helped, from Marion Jones to Whitney Houston,” says Bernstein.
That said, Oprah knows that the world is watching, and she doesn’t want to be seen as shying away from asking the tough questions.
“Oprah is conscious that the results of this show will affect her reputation,” says Bernstein. “She doesn’t want to be perceived as going easy on him.”
Bobby Zafarnia is the president of Praecere Interactive, a political crisis management consultancy based in Washington, D.C., and he says that when stars go on Oprah, they know they’ll be talking to one of their own.
“Oprah is one of the wealthiest women in the world. She’s a grade 'A' celebrity and friend to some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry,” says Zafarnia. He says that a news show might cut and paste the hardest questions and answers and repeat the loop to the embarrassment of the guest. Oprah won’t do that.
“She’s a megastar, and she’s interviewing a fallen star. There's empathy,” says Zafarnia.
But while Oprah is not Mike Wallace, she’s certainly not a total softie. She had no problem tearing apart author James Frey after it came to light that he had made up large sections of his supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
Zafarnia says that Frey was the exception, not the rule.
Oprah had backed the book by including it in her book club. She saw the lie as a personal betrayal that could have damaged her brand, and so Frey paid the price.
“There was a clear distinction with Frey — it was personal," says Zafarnia.
To others, she’s been kinder.
“If 60 Minutes is the gold standard, she is silver because she is respected and rather like America’s ‘mother,’” says Rick Amme, the head of media and crisis management firm Amme & Associates. “Going before 'mother' is a kind of penance with a touch of contrition.”
Amme also believes the format of the show makes it a better choice for Armstrong.
“I believe 60 Minutes is the gold standard for truly coming clean but there is more editing and condensing of your interview by 60 Minutes,” explains Amme. “It’s less of a conversation and more of an extended news piece. Oprah is almost the opposite. If you carefully train, you are more likely to get an opportunity for offering context with less chance of your interview being sliced and diced.”
Oprah’s audience, too, is perhaps more likely to forgive.
“This is America and everyone loves a comeback,” says Zafarnia. “We’ve got a long history of famous people who have fallen from greatness and they often get back on that path to redemption on Oprah.”
Tiger Woods chose Oprah after his philandering came to light, and so did David Letterman.
“It’s a way to get everything out there on his own terms, instead of letting the media and his opponents control the narrative,” says Zafarnia of Armstrong’s decision to follow suit.
Bernstein agrees: “Ultimately confessors have control over what comes out of their mouth. His goal is to get his message across, and if he succeeds in that, he’ll have managed the interview.”
The length of time Oprah affords her guests may also make her a more appealing choice for disgraced celebs. Amme explains that while Armstrong might get two segments on 60 Minutes totalling 40 minutes of air time, Oprah is offering him an hour and a half over two evenings.
“Definitely more time to make your case – as long as you have prepared well,” says Amme. Of course, there is also a downside: “The longer you talk, the more opportunity to say something stupid.”
Most PR experts believe that one of Armstrong’s biggest challenges will be appearing sincere after so many years of denying accusations. Whether or not Oprah buys into what he says may play a major role in garnering public sympathy.
“Everyone is going to be watching, not just his face, but also Oprah’s,” says Bernstein. “To see if she believes him.”