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The Search for the Next Oprah Inspired My Reinvention: Part Two

When Emily called me later that night, after that first successful audition of Finals Week, she said they wanted to go with the reinvention show rather than the lifestyle/home show—both ideas I’d pitched as my program idea for OWN. She said I’d gotten a “hall pass” on day two, but on day three to arrive with a play-by-play, well thought out treatment for my reinvention show as I’d be expected to make a presentation in front of OWN executives. She didn’t mention Mark Burnett, the friend of mine that also happened to be Executive Producer on Your OWN Show, so I thought I was safe.

From that moment, I morphed into an obsessed woman. I sat at my computer and worked on my reinvention show non-stop—only breaking for a brief shopping excursion. Now, I really needed to look great. My friend Linleigh Richker is a wardrobe consultant. Together we picked out a killer Mad Men type dress. And for my boys, I picked out some heels—not too rad. No matter how sexy Vogue (and my husband!) thinks platforms and four-inch heels are - they still make me feel like I’m dressing up to be a hooker for Halloween. I wanted to look nice, but like myself.

When I arrived back at the hotel for Day Three, I was ushered up to a conference room filled with rectangular tables that seated two contestants each. Everyone brought books and magazines to fill the time as we’d been warned it would be a long day. I quickly took stock of my fellow competitors. There were exactly nineteen. Ahhh, so we’re down to the top twenty. Several were eccentric. There was a man who looks like a shorter version of the American Idol winner Ruben Stoddard. Another man who, with his towering afro (with a hint of grey—yippee I’m not the oldest person here!), must have been six and a half feet tall. He had a sour expression and was dressed in a silk suit with red roses and a black and yellow print on it. The tutu and boots gal was wearing the exact same outfit as the previous day—and carrying the same book. I could now read the title, Women, Food, and God. Another guy had a Bob’s Big Boy inspired hair-do that stood straight up at the center part. There was one—only one—very pretty girl. She had long dark hair and very high heels. Another thirty-something girl had very long, straight hair. I noticed in the bathroom she was wearing a wig.

“Okay we’re going up to the fourth floor where Mark Burnett wants to talk to you all.” My heart sank. Bummer. He’s here. Despite my concern about getting nuked by Mark, I chuckled to myself at the elevator. We went up in two groups—everyone squished together in the elevator—peering close up at each other—but unable to talk. As soon as we entered the suite, Mark hopped up a chair. I had another private laugh. Is that really necessary? We’re all scared shitless anyways. As the undisputed king of reality TV do you really need to tower over us? He immediately launched into a rather harsh soliloquy. “When you make your presentation to us you’d better be ready. I don’t want to see any shit and I don’t want to be bored. I’ve seen some real crap over the past couple of days. People who haven’t really given their show much thought. Well you’d better be thinking about it now. Because the minute I’m bored I’m throwing your ass outta here!” The contestants all looked paralyzed with fear. I thought it was all pretty funny—so campy theatrical. As Mark rambled on and on, I tried to catch his eye to judge his reaction. He looked at each contestant as he spoke, but never at me. I was in trouble.

Four hours later, I returned to the suite, now packed with executives, to pitch my show. A spotlight was on my face and a camera was rolling. I launched into my show idea; “My show is about inspiring women in the second act of life to dream big …” I felt confident and enthusiastic. Again, I was overcome by an inner strength that calmed me. And again, no one was laughing. No matter what the industry pundits told me, no matter what how remote the odds were, I knew now without question I had something to offer. It was my moment and I owned it. I glanced at Mark a few times and he had reading glasses on and seemed to be shuffling through questionnaires. When I finished, a few of the OWN executives asked some questions. They nodded in agreement and one quipped “right on!” as I spoke of how we need to share inspiring reinvention stories with women—from the multitudes of women who have successfully done it—instead of knocking them down in the prime of life. The women’s names—who we could use as mentors to other women—rolled off my tongue—Arianna Huffington, Joy Behar, Gwyneth Paltrow, Condolezza Rice, Ina Garten, Tory Burch, etc.

Mark remained silent. Finally, I addressed him. “Mark, you haven’t said anything. Did you hate it?” An OWN executive quipped, “You don’t want Mark to say anything! Nothing is good. You should have heard him go at some of the others!” Laughter erupted. Finally, Mark, who was not laughing, looked up at me. “I have two problems with you being here. First, you are a professional. Your presentation was good and I told everyone before you came in that it would be. You are an anchor for god sake Linda. The second issue is more problematic. I know you. I’ve been friends with you and your husband for years.” Mark added that ultimately it wasn’t his decision and that the network would discuss it after I left. 

A few hours later, as I suspected, I was cut. The really pretty brunette girl with the high heels and the gal with the wig got told to go home too. We could all finally talk to each other but we rode down the elevator in complete silence.

I ran into Mark at the valet. “Too problematic Linda. Can you imagine if you’d won the thing and got your own show and the press got wind of the fact that we were friends? What a mess! OWN has spent too much money on this show to have that kind of egg on their face. How’s Charlie (my husband)? How are the boys?”

I drove home silently. I just couldn’t call home. The kids—particularly Nick—would be so disappointed. Sure enough when I walked in the door Nick ran to hug me and burst out in tears, “Mom, I feel so bad for you. I could tell how much you really wanted this! You seemed so happy working on your show.” I hugged him tightly and stroked his hair. To be honest with you, I had to fight to hold back my own tears. And even though my heart felt heavy—it lifted for a brief moment as I realized the man I was helping to raise—sensitive enough to cry not for his own pain, but for someone else’s.

I looked at the People piece for a long time. Most of the contestants have had serious makeovers. The blonde has traded her tutu and boots for a shiny black mini with high heels with platforms. The black man’s Afro has been cut into a stylish short “do” and he’s now letting his gray to come show. I see a small shot of Nancy O’Dell, one of the show’s hosts, in the feature and it makes me smile. She’s only a few years younger than me. Good for her! I hope that jerk TV executive gets People.

I didn’t win a contestant spot, but I’m also different. On the inside. I still have my moments of doubt, but the experience gave me confidence. And, it’s made me live up to my words to my son, Nick. The worse thing that can happen is not losing. It’s not even trying. I’m getting out there and pitching my Reinvention show, which I’d still like to host. I’ve also pitched some other ideas—all shows I’d like to produce. If not at OWN, then elsewhere. And, if not in my second act, in my third.