It’s no secret that Oprah Winfrey is one of America’s most beloved celebrities, a lifestyle guru, “queen of all media,” innovator, philanthropist and influential luminary. While her mantra to “live your best life” inspired millions of viewers during her talk show’s 25-year run, she continued to inspire those who worked for her even after the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ended. Four former Oprah employees who live on the North Shore took her advice to heart and parlayed their work for Winfrey into their own business ventures. These female entrepreneurs are superstars in their industries and showing us how Winfrey’s motivation has endured even after the cameras stopped running.
Producer Turned Boutique Owner
Jennifer Stamper is co-owner of Northbrook contemporary women’s boutique Juniper. Prior to owning her store she was a producer at “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for 16 years. While working for the program, particularly during Winfrey’s famed makeover episodes, Stamper’s love of fashion grew.
“Nobody does a makeover show like ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’” Stamper says. “I learned from the best in the business – Tom Ford, Rachel Zoe, Tim Gunn, Cindy Crawford and Bobbi Brown, to name a few – and made TV magic.”
Stamper notes that these makeover shows were based upon one of Winfrey’s life lessons: When you look good, you feel good and you carry yourself differently. Women who got makeovers on the show got to see themselves in a different light. Stamper says many women don’t know how to dress for their body type or have given up on themselves, thinking they are too old, not thin enough or not worthy.
“Sometimes all they needed was someone to show them the way,” she says. “It wasn’t about vanity; it was about taking care of themselves, putting themselves first and showing themselves and their families that they’re valuable.”
When Stamper began contemplating her next career move after the show’s culmination, Winfrey’s advice to follow your dreams and passion loomed large in Stamper’s mind. She says some people doubted her decision to open a brick-and-mortar store in this digital age – but she followed her heart.
“There was a need and we had the passion,” she says.
Stamper says she uses the skills she developed while working for Winfrey every day that she is at Juniper, whether it be helping a client put together an outfit or hosting an in-store event to raise money for a local organization.
“While working at ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ giving back and making the world a better place was second nature, the goal was to equally educate, entertain and enlighten,” Stamper says. “So of course, I take that same philosophy at the store.”
Hair Stylist Opens Her Own Shop
Like Stamper, Vivian Arpino noticed a void in the suburbs and decided to fill it by opening BloOuts Blow Dry Bar in Highland Park and Winnetka. Arpino was the lead hairstylist at the ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,” styling all of Winfrey’s guests, including celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Hillary Clinton, Drew Barrymore and Maria Shriver.
“As we found out that the show was going to wind down, blow-dry bars were starting to open in big cities across the country,” Arpino says. “I thought it was a great concept and one that perfectly married the skills I mastered while working at Charles Ifergan in Chicago and on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’”
Arpino says Winfrey inspired her to become an entrepreneur.
“Oprah’s strength and optimism are infectious,” she says. “She’s an amazing and inspirational woman who motivated me to follow my dreams and create my own success.”
Harpo Spa Manager Builds Lash Business
For over a decade, Gia Amato-Miller was director of operations at the private spa and fitness facility exclusive to Harpo Studios employees and show guests. Today, she has her own business, The ’60s Beauty Lash in Winnetka.
“My role was essentially to provide individuals an experience like no other,” Amato-Miller says of her days at Harpo. “I was fortunate to have a clientele, which was in part our own community, and my team was made up of established, seasoned professionals in the beauty industry.”
Amato-Miller’s experience at Harpo wasn’t just about vanity; the culture emphasized discovering and honoring greater purposes in life. She says working for Winfrey taught her that, with effort, commitment and intent, most things are possible.
“I literally would sit through our company meetings and listen to Oprah Winfrey say, ‘We are all meant to be here together, serving a higher purpose,’” Amato-Miller says. “I was always flushed with a sense of assurance to the core of my soul that it was so true.”
After the show ended, Amato-Miller wanted to continue to inspire beauty both inside and out and connect to women through another platform. She had always admired the grace and style of ‘60s iconic beauties, so it seemed only fitting to open The ’60s Beauty Lash, a boutique dedicated to lashes and brows. Amato-Miller and her business partner, Annette Pecora, have watched the business grow since its launch in 2014.
“Our ambition and determination does not waiver from setting our business apart from the rest, with utmost integrity, quality and attention to detail,” Amato-Miller says.
While the flagship studio is in Winnetka, look for more ’60s Beauty Lash studios, pop-up shops and branded products like BL Lash Lift.
Former Producer Takes a Turn in Front of the Camera
Karen Firsel is an on-air personality and lifestyle expert, but from 2003 to 2005, she was an associate producer at “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” In her role, Firsel pitched show ideas, secured and prepped guests, and helped with shooting and editing taped pieces and writing scripts. One of Firsel’s career highlights? Being a part of the unforgettable “car giveaway” show.
“I was the producer who came up with the now infamous ‘key in box’ idea for the car giveaway,” says Firsel. “I thought of it one night during a bout of insomnia, and the next morning took the idea to my senior producer; a few hours later he came over to me and told me that Oprah loved it and we’re doing it.”
Firsel says it was a rush to create that exciting moment when guests, thinking only one car was being given away – reached under their seats to find they all had a wrapped box with a key to a brand new car.
“Oprah sealed it flawlessly with, ‘You get a car! And you get a car! Everybody gets a car!’” Firsel recalls. “The fact that that moment is imbedded in pop culture history is something that I’ll never forget. And we made so many deserving people happy – that was the best!”
After leaving TV to start a family, Firsel would sporadically do media consulting for brands and companies. When her kids were older, Firsel wanted to get back into the industry, but this time she wanted to be in front of the camera instead of behind it. She says that working for Winfrey made her realize that anything is possible, and the iconic talk show host often reminded her staff to step outside of their comfort zones.
“Oprah would say, ‘If we want to do something, we must do it with passion,’” Firsel recalls. “If I learned anything from my time there, it was to just believe in your talents and to know that you can carve a space for yourself, wherever you want.”
Like Stamper, Amato-Miller and Arpino, Firsel noticed a void within her niche and saw it as the perfect opportunity to realize her dream. Firsel loves nothing more than to share her favorite finds, and she hoped to become an on-camera lifestyle expert.
“In 2011, I started getting myself segments on our local news stations,” says Firsel. “I now own the ‘trends’ category here and I’m often booked as an expert to showcase everything that is ‘this close’ to being hot. It’s always awesome to be the person to introduce Chicago to the next big thing.”
Although these four former Oprah staffers went their separate ways after working at Harpo, the lessons Oprah instilled resonated with each of them as they pursued their own business ventures. And, that’s not to say that the women haven’t been supportive of each other’s pursuits as well.
“Thanks to Facebook and the close, family-like relationships that came out of Harpo, not a day goes by that I am not inspired by one of my former coworkers,” says Stamper. “It seems like everyone is ‘living their best life,’ taking a little bit of Oprah knowledge with them as their journey continues in television and in new ventures.”