July 16, 2001 12:00 PM

As the music of Gloria Estefan and En Vogue blares from speakers and a kaleidoscope of fuchsia, lilac and azure spotlights dances across the auditorium of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, N.C., there is a feeling of revival in the air; While real estate agent Vonda Russell, like 2,300 others in the audience, settles into one of the Center’s red velveteen seats—precious space that, despite a price of $185 a ticket (profits go to local charities), sold out in just two hours—inspirational quotes from Maya Angelou and Louisa May Alcott flash across three outsize video screens. Then, just before 9:30 a.m., the music switches to Kool 8 the Gang’s “Celebration,” pulling a singing, cheering Russell to her feet. When Oprah Winfrey steps onstage and the screams become deafening, Russell, 35, bursts into tears. “I never thought I’d get to see her,” she says, sobbing.

Welcome to the first stop on Winfrey’s “Live Your Best Life Tour,” a June series of four daylong seminars designed by television’s Queen of Talk to deliver her inspirational mix of New Age, New Testament and down-home wisdom directly to fans in Raleigh, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Baltimore. A follow-up to last summer’s popular “Personal Growth Summit” tour, this year’s seminars are again sponsored by O, the monthly magazine launched jointly by Winfrey and Hearst Magazines 15 months ago with great success.

As Winfrey, 47, takes center stage, she tells her mostly female audience, “This seminar is about who you really are, about being more of who you really are.” Swathed in a peach-colored pants ensemble and shod in matching mules, she reaches across the footlights with a heartfelt smile and the message, “I’m just like you. I’m a woman in progress.”

Of course she isn’t like them—or anyone else. Between her syndicated TV show, which draws some 7 million viewers daily, and O, which boasts a circulation of 2.2 million readers, Winfrey has ready access to a devoted audience that modern-day gurus like Deepak Chopra and Stephen Covey can only envy. In recent years, as Winfrey has pushed her message of spiritual growth and personal transformation, she has earned the nickname “Deepak Oprah“—and attracted a slew of detractors. Her to-thine-own-self-be-true message “is candy from heaven,” says writer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. “She thinks she’s the messiah, leading everyone to the promised land.” Concurs Vicki Abt, a Penn State University professor of sociology and American studies: “She oversimplifies the complexities, so people get very disappointed when the solution doesn’t work.”

But on this Saturday in June, her audience is looking to connect, not to criticize. “She’s an everyday kind of person,” says Cheryl Pierce, 36, a sales rep who says Winfrey helped her recover last year from a hysterectomy. “I feel connected to her like a friend.” Gloria Brooks, a retired schoolteacher, credits Winfrey with inspiring her “personal renaissance” after her divorce. “Oprah‘s life is the example,” she says. “If she can do it, anyone can.”

During a 2½-hour monologue laced with humor, singing and church-style oratory, Winfrey shares anecdotes about her own struggles with poverty, weight, career setbacks, relationships—and pushes her antidote for such stresses: “The universe is always trying to get you to honor your calling,” she says. “It’s a matter of peeling back the layers to get to what that is.”

In her case, Winfrey says, “I found my passion” after becoming a talk show host in Chicago in 1984. But first there had been a humiliating makeover ordered by a station manager in Baltimore, involving a ruinous perm that made her long, thick hair fall out in clumps. “Losing my hair was a wake-up call that my identity isn’t tied to what I look like,” she says.

At times she exhorts her fans, many of whom are listing forward raptly in their seats, to “surrender the dream” and let go when hard work doesn’t pay off. At other times, with no apparent sense of contradiction, she suggests that each person is “co-creator” of her own life and that “whatever you believe is what you will become.”

For Winfrey, the connecting thread is “a force greater than your little life,” which on TV she tends to refer to obliquely as a “higher power.” But here on the Raleigh stage, she speaks with a preacher’s confidence of “the Creator,” “the Lord,” even “my blessed savior.” “I can’t help you if you don’t believe in something bigger than yourself,” she warns. The key, she urges, is to be “constantly listening and trying to be obedient to the calling.”

During a lunch break of veggie pitas and grilled-chicken sandwiches, participants compare notes and agree that Oprah‘s delivery is powerful. When Gloria Brooks sounds a note of concern—”I worry about people putting her on a pedestal”—Russell, a recovering alcoholic who not only bought a $24 subscription to O for herself but also purchased gift subscriptions for her mother, her grandmother and three girlfriends, counters, “I believe she’s gonna be President someday.”

After the break Winfrey returns to the stage, hand in hand with Cheryl Richardson, 41, a “lifestyle-makeover expert” who often appears on her show. “If you learn to be still with yourself, you’ll be able to make better choices,” Richardson says, before guiding the audience through a meditation exercise. Then, while she and Winfrey sit in overstuffed chairs, members of the audience ask for guidance on personal problems.

For every dilemma, there is a ready solution. When one woman speaks of feeling guilt for not wanting to spend so much time with her elderly parents, Richardson tells her to take time for herself, that “happiness neutralizes guilt.” When a single 36-year-old explains that, pressured by her family, she recently moved back from Hong Kong but longs to return to Asia, Oprah says, “Bye!” and adds that if she should have a change of heart, “just click your heels and come back home.”

Winfrey wraps up the marathon session by repeating the opening meditation, this time in a solemn monotone. “All that is God, I open my heart to you. Come sit in my heart.” She answers the thunderous applause by pressing her hands together worship fully and intoning, “I pray for you! I pray for you!”

Then it is over. As fans head home Priscilla Gales, 39, a probation officer, complains, “It was too large of a crowd. I wish it could have been more personal.” Reflects Karen Mills, 39, a finance director: “I need to take more time for myself. This will motivate me to do it.” As for Vonda Russell, she didn’t hear anything she hadn’t heard before in Alcoholics Anonymous and psychotherapy, she admits; still, she feels inspired. On the way to the seminar she had decided the time had come to change firms. Now, driving home, she composes a resignation letter in her head and makes plans to explore meditation. “This helped me think about where I wanted to go in my life,” Russell says. “Oprah is a good messenger.”

Jill Smolowe

Sonja Steptoe in Raleigh and Minneapolis

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