Oprah endorsements endure for Canadian artists
The Canadian Tenors, left to right, Clifton Murray, Remigio Pereira, Victor Micallef and Fraser Walters are seen in this undated handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / HO)
Published Friday, May 20, 2011 8:38AM EDT
TORONTO - Waiting backstage to appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was surreal enough for Canadian singer Clifton Murray, but he suspected something even stranger was waiting for him and his fellow band mates onstage.
His "popera" group The Canadian Tenors had been invited to appear on an episode billed as "The Next Best Thing," in which Winfrey would introduce her audience to a hot new fashion designer, chef and singing group.
Murray found it odd that Harpo staff insisted the four crooners stay in one room while their family and other guests were kept elsewhere.
"We couldn't go to the bathroom without security and it was this top secret thing," Murray recalls in a recent interview alongside singing partner Remigio Pereira.
What they didn't know was that Winfrey had also invited their idol Celine Dion, who was about to surprise them onstage as they sang their version of "Hallelujah." When it happened, the crowd went wild, and the tenors were stunned.
"The moment was so big that I kind of just lost reality," Murray recalls of the February 2010 taping. "I just kind of glanced up at her face and it didn't register for at least 30 seconds."
The double whammy of a Dion/Winfrey endorsement catapulted the young group into stardom, generating an instant 10,000 Facebook friends and 50,000 CD sales, says Pereira.
Since then, they've been on a whirlwind of international tour dates, publicity stops and newfound fame.
"It's just been a roller-coaster ride, it really hasn't stopped since that day we appeared on 'Oprah,"' says Murray.
"The reaction was instantaneous, overnight. People obviously watched the show and went online and bought it on iTunes or ordered from Amazon or from the website canadiantenors.com. We saw a definite, tangible change."
The singers are among several Canadians who have benefited from the influential power Winfrey wields on her talk show, which ends Wednesday after 25 years.
Others include authors Rohinton Mistry and Ann-Marie MacDonald, whose respective books "A Fine Balance" and "Fall On Your Knees" were each featured on Oprah's book club and enjoyed sales spikes.
Vancouver company Lululemon Athletica hit the jackpot when it was featured in an "Ultimate Favourite Things" show last winter and had Winfrey crown its relaxed slacks her "new favourite workout pants."
Random House Canada president Brad Martin says scoring a plug from the talk show juggernaut -- often described as one of the most powerful women in the world -- guarantees instant sales.
"She was a sea change," Martin says of Winfrey's influence. "When Oprah picked a book it was worth 100,000 copies in Canada in incremental sales."
Both MacDonald and Mistry enjoyed a spike in that range in the four to six months after their novels were picked, he says. Staff immediately "sprang into action" when they were notified several weeks before MacDonald's official announcement, Martin says, fully aware that it meant an imminent surge in demand.
He credits Winfrey's broad appeal with giving her the clout to single-handedly determine the next hot trend.
"Oprah is Oprah. She means a lot to a lot of people who watch her show. She has a lot of respect from her audience and so if Oprah has said this is a good book then it must be."
Quebec singer Bernard Lachance says his appearance on the show in 2009 led to an unexpected side career as a motivational speaker.
Lachance made the show after he rented out the Chicago Theatre for a concert and took to the streets of the Windy City to sell tickets and lure in his audience one-by-one.
His sheer determination to dream big brought a Harpo camera crew out to meet him as he accosted passersby on the street, and he was invited to sing for Winfrey and her audience.
"I ended up on the front page of all the newspapers here and on the national news and everywhere so I kind of got my 15 minutes of fame, which I enjoyed completely," says Lachance, who is listed as one of Winfrey's "10 Memorable Harpo Hookups" on her website.
"While it was happening, the train was going 300 miles an hour. I (only) realized after what happened."
The notoriety allowed Lachance to helm a concert at Montreal's Place des Arts, and he proudly notes he didn't have to sell a single ticket himself.
"I told (the audience): 'It's the first time that I feel like a real artist, because you guys bought the tickets at the box office," he says.
Several months after the show, Lachance was contacted by a conference organizer who booked him as a motivational speaker. He would go on to tell his story at more than a dozen conferences, where he says he spreads a well-worn Winfrey mantra: dream big.
The billionaire's warm, informal style -- as well as her own rags-to-riches back story -- has endeared Winfrey to audiences in a deeply profound way, says Winfrey expert Lorraine York, an English and cultural studies professor at McMaster University.
"It's a trust that has been earned through a great deal of performed openness and frank talk about struggle," says York, who created a class called "The Oprah Effect."
Longtime Winfrey fan Lori McCrindle says she believes the talk show maven is as genuine as she appears on TV.
The Toronto resident became a surprise Winfrey guest when she went into early labour while attending a taping in February 2010.
Just 27 weeks along, she was surprised when her water broke while waiting to file into the show's studio. She was rushed to hospital where she gave birth to a baby boy roughly 40 minutes later and notes that a show producer accompanied her to make sure everyone was OK.
"There are negative Oprah people and they think, 'Oh, she does things for publicity or she does things to get ratings,' (but) she's a very authentic and real person," says McCrindle, whose son, Justin, had some trouble breathing but emerged relatively healthy.
"She, herself, paid for my hotel room for the four full weeks that I was there.... She also put out to the world that day that Justin was in hospital and how many people watch the Oprah show, right? So there were a lot of people who had prayers for him and he's done amazing. She's powerful in many ways. I will always remember what she did for us."