By Maggie Galehouse
Before they saw her, they could hear her.
“The sun will always rise,” Oprah Winfrey’s voice boomed to an eager crowd at the Toyota Center on Friday night.
Already, the wristbands issued to audience members had lit up in anticipation. White lights in the darkness. Then red. Then orange.
Finally, Winfrey ascended from a small platform beneath the stage in a long yellow gown. The star of “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” had arrived.
Winfrey, 60, shared her personal story to a nearly packed house. From her childhood church in Mississippi to her start in television news, from getting a bad perm in New York to cooking a goose for boyfriend Stedman Graham, each anecdote helped shape a life lesson.
“When things go wrong, it’s the universe trying to nudge you in a new direction,” Winfrey said.
“I know the spirit inside me is the same as the one that’s in you,” she said.
“Intentions determine outcomes. That’s the energy — BAM — that’s coming back to you!” she said.
Her energy was everywhere. Not every cultural icon pulls into Houston with a pop-up town in tow, outfitted with soul-inspiring activities and merchandise. But Winfrey does.
Earlier on Friday, ticket-holders flocked to “O Town” — a tented marketplace across the street.
The hundreds of women and handful of men milling around O Town paid at least $99 to immerse themselves in two days of Oprah-ness, including an all-day Saturday session with Winfrey and her high-profile “trailblazer” guests, among them “Eat Pray Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert and mind-body medicine pioneer Deepak Chopra.
Fans stood in line outside the O Shop to buy books, tote bags and T-shirts. Inside the Renewal Lounge, make-up artists did quick makeovers on a steady stream of Winfrey fans. Zarla Williams, 36, of Houston, had her face done. Asked why she had come to see Winfrey, her newly made-up eyes filled quickly with tears.
“I love Oprah,” said Williams. “I’ll get emotional. She’s putting so much good in the world. When I got turned on to Oprah, I was at a low point emotionally.”
In the Reinvention Lounge, visitors filled out whiteboards that finished the phrase “I feel complete when …” and posed for photos with their personalized message:
I feel complete when … I am artistic.
I feel complete when … I protect my inner self.
I feel complete when … my 15-year-old daughter listens to my advice.
Six female friends from Houston, ages 33 to 60, were hanging in the shade, recalling all the phases of Oprah: Oprah with the big hair. Oprah with the short hair. Oprah with the flip hair. Oprah with the long, curly hair.
“We love Oprah! Woo-hoo!” they shouted, to each other and anyone in earshot.
Winfrey’s shift from talk-show host to lifestyle/spiritual guru — she said goodbye to “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2011 and is busy running a media empire that includes Harpo Studios, O The Oprah Magazine and OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network — doesn’t bother this group.
“She’s still a people person,” said Ta Morrison, 36.
Tammy Dillon, 40, who organized this outing with her five friends, added, ” I think she’s a missionary. That’s what I’d call her.”
The last time Winfrey took the stage in Houston was October 2012 at the Hobby Center to film episodes of “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” which airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network. That show was a monster pep talk.
“Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” is that on steroids, with tickets as high as $999 (those folks get a meet and greet with the star).
One thoughtful man, Michael Bennett, purchased two $399 tickets for his wife, Kim, and himself. The couple drove nine hours from Guthrie, Okla.
“It was his idea,” Kim Bennett, 55, said. “I told him, you realize it’s going to be 80 to 90 percent women.”
“Seeing Oprah is on her bucket list,” Michael Bennett, 55, shrugged. “I like Oprah but I love my wife.”
Inside the Toyota Center on Friday night, there were a lot of people who loved Oprah.