NEW YORK – On her television program, in her magazine and on tour, she moves audiences to tears with stories of spirituality, strength and the liberating power she's found within.
Scores of fans — mostly women — follow her across the country, live by her words and practically worship her. They listen to the self-help gurus she interviews, read the books she suggests and stick to the diets she swears by. They even want her to run for president someday.
"Dear Oprah, I believe in your spirit. You are truly a wonderful woman who has made me laugh, made me cry, made me open my eyes to many things," writes fan Lissa Pitcock on the "Gifts From the Heart" Oprah tribute Web site. "You have saved my life without ever knowing it. ... You are my hero, to be sure!"
There's no doubt Winfrey has become a powerful influence in her fans' lives. But has the sensation evolved into the Cult of Oprah? Some cult experts say that's not such a stretch.
"The definition of 'cult' as 'harmful group' doesn't apply to Oprah," said Joe Szimhart, a cult-information specialist and former exit counselor. "But certainly 'cult' as 'devotional activity surrounding a charismatic person' does."
Winfrey was mentioned at a recent national cult conference in Connecticut, according to Philadelphia-area expert David Clark. A former Bible-based cult member who later worked as an exit counselor, Clark said attendees recommended Winfrey get cult-awareness training so she would be attuned to how people can be brainwashed.
"My main concern is Oprah's long history with New Age people," Clark said.
Clark remembers Winfrey criticizing brainwashing early in her TV career. Since then, he said, she's been associated with New Age spirituality gurus whose messages and tactics have some cult-like qualities.
Guests who have appeared on Oprah to promote mystical philosophies include Gary Zukav, who offers "spiritual guidance," and self-proclaimed "lifestyle-makeover expert" Cheryl Richardson. Winfrey has also been aligned with New Age-religion author Marianne Williamson and celebrities who promote similar beliefs, such as actress Shirley MacLaine and spiritualist Deepak Chopra.
"She definitely has a New Age cocoon of sorts," Szimhart said of Winfrey.
"Oprah includes her personal, spiritual philosophies in her messages and programs," Clark said. "If you listen and don't have the critical-feedback loop going into it, you will be very affected by the selective nature of how it's presented. It's not just the information itself; it's how it makes you feel."
Winfrey was unavailable for comment on this story. Lisa Halliday, director of media and corporate relations for Winfrey's Chicago-based company, Harpo Productions, declined to speak to Fox News for this story.
Fans certainly aren't shy about expressing their opinions.
"She was a mother, a teacher and a friend," writes one fan, Sean. "Oprah not only educated me for that hour I shared with her through a glass window, but her warmth made me care for her. It made me want to make her proud." His comments are posted on his tribute Web site to Winfrey: www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Studio/6950/oprah.html.
Janet Williams, on her "Gifts From the Heart" site, www.geocities.com/rainforest/1078/oprah/heartgifts.html: "I saw your show the other day and bawled like a baby to know that so many people cared about each other."
Critics' comments are a far cry from supporters' gushing, feel-good praise.
One, listed only as "Jayjilla" on an "Oprah for President" Web site (www.dreamagic.com/oprah/oprah.html), griped about the spiritual thinking Winfrey promotes.
"I can't wait until you finish your run on television!!" Jayjilla wrote on the site's message board. "You have polluted the airwaves with you [sic] 'New Age' garbage long enough!"
Another opponent with the chat-room name "muhammed ali" calls her a "holier-than-thou hypocrite" and writes: "Oprah is not our saviour, but an entrepreneur who knows what sells and how to sell herself."
Still, Winfrey inspires 22 million weekly U.S. talk-show viewers, 2 million magazine readers and 115 million visitors to her Web site (www.oprah.com) with philosophical insights and suggestions to practice meditation, yoga and online journal-writing.
"This place of ... connecting to something deeper within ourselves is available at every moment," Winfrey writes in one of her Web journal entries. "The more stressful and chaotic things are on the outside, the calmer I have to get on the inside ... I can just go inside myself ... go back to my center — and remember what is most important."