It’s not easy to fluster Oprah Winfrey. But that’s exactly what her tense studio audience did during the live taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show Nov. 20. During a commercial break, Winfrey finally laid down the law: “Audience, you can breathe now,” she told the hushed crowd. “You’re making me nervous—and I don’t get nervous!” Well, not usually, but as she gathered herself during the break before the show’s final segment, Winfrey succumbed, urging the audience, “Wish me luck!”
On this particular day, a case of on-air jitters was forgivable. Winfrey, 55, was about to confirm what the world was already buzzing about: that her nearly quarter-century reign over daytime TV would come to a close on Sept. 9, 2011. “After much prayer and months of careful thought, I have decided that next season, Season 25, will be the last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the host, choking back tears, told her viewers.
The announcement wasn’t a complete shock—news leaked out the night before—but that didn’t make the words any less painful for her audience, who quickly emptied the tissue boxes that had been placed under each chair. “It’s heartbreaking. This is a total change for our culture,” says Kim Puterbaugh, 41, of Richmond, Ind. “She gave us a voice.” And a backbone: Puterbaugh says Winfrey gave her the courage to go back to school at 29 to become a registered nurse. “She inspires you to be your best and don’t stop until you get there.” During the past 25 years, says Art Smith, her former chef, “she’s gotten people to care about themselves as well as those around them.”
Why bow out now? What started as a Chicago morning program in 1984 has morphed into a syndicated daytime staple that attracts an average of 7 million viewers who tune in to share famous O-ments (see box). But after more than two decades that include book clubs and big giveaways, Winfrey knew it was time for something different. Her show’s syndicated contract with CBS Television Distribution was coming to an end, but “this is a decision she had been thinking about for years,” says Walt Disney Company president and CEO Bob Iger, a longtime Winfrey friend. “You never quite know when to move on, and I think she was struggling with that a bit.” In the end, “she’s simply tired of doing the show,” says a Winfrey source. “She feels she’s done all she can. Like, what’s left?”
Once she made her decision, Winfrey never looked back. “This show has been my life, and I love it enough to know when it’s time to say goodbye,” she said of her exit. “Twenty-five years feels right in my bones, and it feels right in my spirit. It’s the perfect number. The exact right time.”
So now what? Well, don’t count on her sitting in her homes in Chicago or Montecito, Calif., twiddling her thumbs. “She has a very full life,” Gayle King, Winfrey’s best friend, told PEOPLE. “We don’t need to worry about her filling her time, I promise you that!”
She already has one big item on her to-do list: settling into her role as chairman of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which she created with Discovery Communications. Set to launch in January 2011, it will feature shows starring Oprah regulars like interior designer Nate Berkus—and yes, even Winfrey herself. “There will be more prime-time specials,” says the Winfrey source. “More or less, the only change will be that the show will be on Oprah’s new network.” And maybe in a new zip code: With OWN based in Los Angeles, the Chicago resident could split her time between the Windy City—where her Harpo Productions company will remain—and California.
The question then becomes: Who will assume Winfrey’s position as the queen of daytime? “The closest to her is Ellen DeGeneres,” says New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta. “She has that empathy gene, and it’s very rare.” Still, “there will only ever be one Oprah!” says Winfrey protégé Rachael Ray, another rumored on-air apparent. “I’m going to enjoy every episode between now and 2011.”
Better stock up on tissues, Rachael. Winfrey promised viewers that her final episodes will “knock your socks off. The countdown to the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show starts now.” But who are we kidding? “This is not an ending,” says Berkus. “I think this is a new beginning.”