Oprah doesn’t want to be Michael Jackson: the back story

October 4, 2010, 7:58 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

“Oprah’s Next Act,”–the new cover of Fortune–hits newsstands nationwide today. A related Postcard, “Oprah confesses and conquers her fear,” that I posted last Thursday refers to something she said in the profile—”I don’t want to be Michael Jackson”—and wow, has this post drawn a tornado of angry comments.

I’m not sure whether the rancor is directed mainly at me or at the queen of media, but mostly it comes from die-hard fans of the king of pop.

Here’s the line from my post that incites the furor: The late superstar was so paralyzed by the meteoric success of Thriller that he couldn’t risk his celebrity on a next big thing.

Just to be clear, that’s my line, not Oprah’s. So readers, don’t blame her until you understand the context: When I interviewed Oprah two weeks ago in Chicago, she told me that Michael Jackson serves as a lesson to her because he was apparently stunted by Thriller‘s amazing success. You may not agree that Thriller was the peak of Jackson’s super-stardom. Regardless, it’s worth looking at the way I present Oprah’s point in the actual Fortune cover story. Here she’s talking about her decision to end The Oprah Winfrey Show and risk her career on OWN, her soon-to-be-launched cable network:

“My fear about ‘Will the people really follow me?’ — I’m past that,” says Oprah. This past summer, she says, she was reading a magazine article about Michael Jackson and was riveted by a quote from a former colleague of the late superstar. The friend said that after Jackson released Thriller in 1982 and it became the all-time best-selling album, he was paralyzed by the notion that he could never top that. “All the bells went off,” says Oprah. “This is why I lived in fear about this network. I kept thinking I have to repeat the 25-year phenomenon of the Oprah show.” She adds: “I don’t want to be Michael Jackson.”

So, there you have it. Now, on on with the debate about Oprah and Michael Jackson!