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Oprah Is the Original Celebrity Influencer

In November of 1996, nearly a million new copies of the book Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, suddenly appeared on bookstore shelves all across America.

At the time, Morrison was already an acclaimed novelist. She had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1998 and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, and chaired the humanities department at Princeton. Song of Solomon had also been published 19 years earlier. So why were stores suddenly scrambling to restock the title? Two words, or better yet, one name: Oprah Winfrey.

The talk show host had just launched her popular book club as an ongoing segment on her nationally syndicated program, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and per USA Today, Morrison earned more sales from Oprah’s list than from winning the Nobel Prize.

Over the 15 years Oprah’s book club ran (it ended when The Oprah Winfrey Show went off the air in 2011), she helped sell 55 million books, according to the estimates of a Fordham University marketing professor. As the New York Times wrote in 1997, publishing houses were “delighted by the sales she stimulates, awed by the control she exercises, and obsessed by how to find ways to whisper in her ear.”

When it comes to impact, Oprah’s certainly didn’t stop at books. After officially endorsing Barack Obama for president in 2007, for example, academics credited her with 1 million of his votes in 2008’s Democratic primary election. She’s made the list of Gallup’s “Most Admired Woman” every year since 1988, and her Hearst-owned magazine, O, has 2.4 million subscribers, a whopping 98 percent of whom are paying subscribers.

In some ways, the business mogul’s impact can best be understood in dollar signs: Oprah has been masterful at getting people to buy things. Before style blogs, affiliate links, or the Kardashians, there was Oprah. For all intents and purposes, she is the original celebrity influencer.

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What Will Happen to The Mall Walkers?
Mall walkers

It’s 8 a.m. and peppered throughout The Westchester shopping mall in White Plains, New York, are maintenance workers, store employees, and a handful of speed walkers with their arms pumping and hips swinging like they’ve got somewhere to be — but they don’t. They are mall walking, the suburban phenomenon of exercising in one of America’s large consumer venues.

The walkers, a mix of elderly couples and new moms, start trickling in at 7, some solo and some with a partner. After signing in and checking their coats, they make their way down the wide, carpeted walkways. Their outfits are a combination of running shoes, statement scarves, and chunky jewelry, with light jackets tied around their waists. Top-40 pop, the babble of fountains, and just-out-of-earshot chatter create an echo chamber of white noise, one any suburban kid would find comforting. The Westchester has hosted mall walking every Tuesday and Friday for more than a decade, with anywhere from 50 to 70 people attending. It’s one of many shopping centers across the country that opens its doors early for this activity.

Mall walking is exactly what it sounds like — a form of exercise where people walk in shopping malls. According to a resource guide created by the CDC, malls are the second most frequently used venues for walking, right behind neighborhoods. Why do people prefer them over parks and gyms? A few reasons: roomy corridors, a weather-proof environment, close parking, proximity to bathrooms, ample amounts of benches and fountains for resting, and, of course, it’s easy. Most of its participants are elderly, but some are new moms with strollers who find the wide walkways optimal for exercising.

One of the authors of the CDC guide and a member of the Healthy Aging Research Network, Dr. Dori Rosenberg, says the goal of the study was to create a resource for older adults who want to live more active lives, but don’t like the obvious options. Mall walking is lower-pressure than joining a fitness class, as anyone who has accidentally stepped into a high-intensity hip-hop lesson can attest to. And with other unorthodox options, like the zoo walking program in Seattle, participants must mind the elements, whereas a mall is open in almost any weather. Malls also have large spaces like food courts where groups can serve breakfast or host speakers, something that many mall walking groups like to do.

The Westchester’s mall walking program is put on by the Westchester Parks Department and hosts speakers who address different health and wellness concerns on the first Friday of each month. On January 12th, they hosted a financial specialist from GreenPath Financial Wellness, and they want their next speaker to be “about yoga.”

However, with malls closing at a rapid rate and online shopping (i.e., Amazon) becoming the norm, the question is, “Where will mall walkers go?” and even more broadly, “What is like a mall?”

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