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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 19:18 GMT
What makes celebrity?
By Alvin Hall
Presenter, World's Most Powerful

Alvin Hall
Alvin Hall investigates: Who is the World's Most Powerful?

Madonna or Oprah Winfrey? Alvin Hall investigated celebrity in the first programme of the series and chose Madonna.

"It wasn't easy", he concludes, pointing to Madonna's "extraordinary ability to re-invent herself
in anticipation of many fashions".

They influence our lives. They reflect and define our culture. But how do they do it?

What factors create and, perhaps more importantly, sustain celebrity?

How did Madonna conquer the world of pop music? And why is Oprah Winfrey the queen of the TV chat show?

"Madonna was willing to do whatever she had to do to become a star". That's what Madonna's first agent, Camille Barbone told me.

Camille didn't find Madonna; Madonna found her. She hired her for a year, learned what she needed from her, and then sacked her.

Camille wasn't the only person Madonna cast aside. Driven, utterly ambitious and fearless - these are the qualities Madonna used to become a celebrity.

I learned by speaking to some of the people close to her, how they felt she used them on her way to the top.

Oprah had to fight

Oprah too has had to fight, but she had to do that just to survive. She was sexually abused as a young girl.

And racial prejudice was a fact of life in 1960s Tennessee. Children her age had to be bussed to school in different neighbourhoods to enforce racial integration. Compared to all that, her media career may have seemed an easy ride. But has it been?

Radio DJ John Heidelberg, the man who first put a microphone in Oprah's hand, told me he saw her talent immediately.

But, it wasn't yet clear to the rest of the media world and it probably wasn't clear to Oprah herself.

She flopped in one of her first jobs as a TV news presenter. However, from the moment she became host of a chat show, "People Are Talking" in Baltimore, Maryland, it was clear she had found her milieu. The fit was so natural that her subsequent success seemed pre-ordained.

Road to power

Oprah succeeded by adapting to what life threw at her, learning from her mistakes, and working to improve her skills at each opportunity.

She did this without always knowing or planning what her next step would be. Her road to power could not have been more different from Madonna's.

Today, Oprah is rich and powerful. She is able to tell the powerful TV corporations what projects she want to do and when she wants to do them.

She has even been able to use her celebrity - and her own money - to get the US Congress to pass a new law on child protection known as "Oprah's Law". That's the power of celebrity.

A limit to Madonna's power

Madonna has it too and she has used it. She told her record company she wanted her own label. And she got it. She was one of the first celebrities to get involved with Aids organizations.

Both she and Oprah, just by mentioning a product - be it a beer or a book - on a TV show, can have a massive impact on its sales.

But I found a limit to Madonna's power. She exists because of her fans. She may want privacy, but she always has to give something of herself away to hold their imaginations. Does Oprah have to do the same?

So, who's more powerful - Oprah or Madonna?

As well as a TV presenter, Alvin Hall is also President of Cooperhall Press, Inc. in New York which specialises in designing and delivering training programmes about the financial markets. His books include "Your Money or Your Life", a practical guide to personal finance which won the WH Smith People's Choice 2003 Business Book of the Year award. His next book, "You and Your Money - A Relationship for Life" will be published in April.

World's Most Powerful: Oprah or Madonna was broadcast on Thursday 27 November 2003 at 2150 GMT on BBC Two

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