On September 23, 2001, thousands of traumatized New Yorkers gathered in Yankee Stadium to pray for the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Present were leaders from every major religion—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. But the master, or rather mistress, of ceremonies was not ordained in any faith. Neither was she a politician, pundit, or CEO. She was television talk show host Oprah Winfrey: the only person in America, writes one observer, with the right combination of “spiritual leadership, celebrity recognition, and consumer popularity” to preside over such a momentous occasion.

Since May, when The Oprah Winfrey Show aired its final episode, a passel of mid-size celebrities—Phil McGraw, Suze Orman, Rosie O’Donnell, Mehmet Oz, Ellen Degeneres, Gayle King, Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper—have been jostling to fill the vacuum. This is hardly surprising given Winfrey’s longevity and success. Her program was rated number one in the United States for 23 of its 25 years, and in 2010 it was being aired in 149 countries. But none of these aspiring hosts will succeed, because Winfrey is a unique, at times indigestible, blend of distinctively American ingredients that nonetheless resonates with people, especially women, in every corner of the globe.

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