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Saint Oprah

An application to Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy For Girls

"The 28-building campus and landscape ... has state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science laboratories, a library, a theatre, a gymnasium, sports fields, a wellness center, modern dormitory facilities and a dining hall. ... The curriculum will include math, natural science and technology; arts and culture; social, economic and management sciences; life orientation and leadership; and languages. ... For its first year, the Leadership Academy distributed approximately 5,500 applications throughout the nine provinces seeking girls entering grades 7 and 8 in 2007. ... For consideration, applicant learners needed to be girls of the right age and education level to enter grades 7 and 8 who demonstrated both academic and leadership potential, with a total household income of no more than R5000 per month."
--From the official description of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls-South Africa, which opened earlier this year.

To: The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls
Personal Statement: Why I love Oprah

It may seem strange that I am applying for admission to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa for the fall semester. It's true; I am not South African. But, as the great Dr. Maya Angelou once said, "Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it." And I think you'll find that my zeal to be taught by Ms. Winfrey is unparalleled and knows no borders. Though, at 33, I am a smidgeon older than the seventh- and eighth-grade students currently at the Academy, I have waited years for this day to come: Oprah Winfrey is teaching a class and heading up a school! Besides, am I really so different from the Academy's students? As the brilliant Toni Morrison once wrote, "Beloved, you are my sister, you are my daughter, you are my face; you are me." I am an Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy girl.

And so, I humbly propose that the admissions committee consider making me the Leadership Academy's first international exchange student. What elite boarding school doesn't have exchange students? The other girls could teach me about the differences between the $40 million Academy and their last homes; and I could teach them about high schools that serve Sloppy Joes and make you cover your textbooks in brown grocery bags. Or, at the very least, I could fill that vital exchange-student role of hapless naïf: I'll let the other girls teach me wildly obscene phrases in Xhosa, assure me it means "Good day, professor," and make me shout it to every passing teacher. Besides, I perfectly fit the other criteria for entry. I am academically talented (say the word and I'll take on your best eighth-grader); I am a demonstrated leader (just ask my live-in boyfriend); and I come from a woefully underprivileged community: Neither my home town's junior high school nor high school features a state-of-the-art spa facility.

I am mesmerized by Ms. Winfrey. Her brilliance is nothing short of, well, confounding. She has at once selflessly spent staggering amounts of money on the lavish Leadership Academy and yet limited its population to just 450. Where some would say, Why not try to help as many children as possible?, Ms. Winfrey sees the value of an opulent setting--because "beauty inspires!" I couldn't agree more; I also find deep-tissue massages and pedicures inspiring. Some of my greatest moments of insight have come after a good night's sleep on luxury linens or while cuddling by the fireplace. I also find nothing more enchanting than the idea of "reading trees" and organic dining. The truth is I completely admire Ms. Winfrey's unabashed talent for spending. It is, you might say, one of my "favorite things."

Oprah Winfrey is the American Dream. She is the coolest nouveau riche in the world. She is an incredibly good person--one who makes your "wildest dreams" come true, who sends dozens of kids to college each year, who gives makeovers to special moms and teachers even though looks don't matter, who showers audience members with expensive gifts, and who even puts $100,000 bounties on the heads of alleged child molesters (money gets results!). It isn't her fault that her poverty-stricken inner child is shackled by the need to consume and spend. Plus, Ms. Winfrey's embrace of materialism is totally matched by her embrace of spirit. For example, I learned the laws of the universe not in a physics class, but from The Secret, the Winfrey-endorsed self-help book, which taught me that wealth is just the byproduct of a successful soul. Critics of Ms. Winfrey's money are just negativists who don't understand how to manifest the positive.

It's like when Kenneth Pollack was on the "Oprah" show a few years back to justify the Iraq invasion. When an audience member questioned the existence of weapons of mass destruction, Ms. Winfrey shut her down, proclaiming that WMD in Iraq was "just a fact," not something up for debate. It's that lack of critical thinking that I would like to really devote myself to at the Academy. So much in this world is "critical" and "criticized," and sometimes it's nice to just go with the positive flow and not care about mixed messages or contradictions. For example, Ms. Winfrey inspires me to search for the best cheeseburger in the country by day and read health tips from You! The Owner's Manual at night.

It's like what Ms. Winfrey did with the environment. One year, she gave away cars; this year, she celebrated Earth Day with green giveaways. And I can think of no better way to embrace the positivism of the environment than with great products--because, as Ms. Winfrey often tells her audience, "When you know better, you do better." Frankly, outside of Ms. Winfrey, I don't think celebrities are doing enough for the world. Sure Ms. Winfrey has multiple fossil-fuel-consuming mansions that she flies to on her private jet, but that's nothing compared with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Not only was Ms. Winfrey unmarried to her life partner first; she isn't hauling a few dozen energy sucking street urchins around the globe with her. It's no wonder Ms. Winfrey sided with Jennifer Aniston.

In short, there is so much I really must learn from Ms. Winfrey. In the immortal words of Tyler Perry's Madea in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, "Girl, you crazy as hell!" And I want some of that crazy. I want to make fudge with Rachael Ray and still "be healthy for life." I want to hang out with Kanye West one day and still condemn the n-word the next. I want to be on a responsible "debt diet" and still buy all my "favorite things." I want to take a multi-vehicle cross-country road trip and still feel like I'm making a difference with my Energy Star light bulbs. I want to condemn sexual harassment with fury and still interview Arnold Schwarzenegger without asking a single tough question. I want to read Tolstoy and still call "Desperate Housewives" brilliant. I want to be a size ten and still have Valentino design couture for me. I want to attend "an extravagant, glitzy, glamorous black-and-white gala" that calls Mariah Carey a legend, but not, say, Gwen Ifill. It's that kind of unconventional, out-of-the-box thinking, which makes me believe I can be a part of the Leadership Academy.

In conclusion, I think our next president, Barack Obama, said it best: "That is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles." Oprah Winfrey is the miracle; I merely have a simple dream to attend her school--let's call it my "wildest dream."

By Sacha Zimmerman