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OPRAH DIDN'T FEEL LIKE WINNER UNTIL SHE WAS A LOSER

"And the winner of the Best Talk Show Host is. . . ."

I was in the front row trying to keep my too-fat knees together. I was thinking, "(Please,) let Phil win. So I won't have to waddle my way up to the stage with the nation watching my huge behind." I was 237 pounds - the fattest I'd ever been.". . . Oprah Winfrey."

I was stunned. Stedman and my staff were cheering. I wanted to cry. I felt so much like a loser. I was the fattest woman in the room.

Up until that point I had spent a lifetime dieting and depriving myself, then overeating and gaining even more weight. It all started when I arrived in Baltimore at the age of 22 in 1976. I had a new job as co-anchor at WJZ-TV, and I was terrified that I might not measure up. Things weren't working out with my new anchor. He seemed unhappy to have me there.

I lived in Columbia, Md., across the street from the great Columbia Mall. They had some of the best food stalls known to womankind. A whole booth sold nothing but potatoes, any kind you could imagine. And you know I love me some potatoes. On weekends I'd go from stall to stall. Sometimes I'd order something from every booth. I didn't realize at the time that by overeating I was trying to fill something deeper. The fact that I was lonely, somewhat depressed and having a hard time adjusting to the new job never entered my mind.

By that fall I had gained 10 pounds. I weighed a whopping 148! I went to see my first diet doctor, who put me on a 1,200-calorie-a-day eating program and gave me a prescription for diet pills. The pills made me crazy as a betsy bug! I stopped taking them after about a week and tried to cut my 1,200 calories down to 800 to speed up the process. If I only knew then what I know now! Dieting and deprivation only make you gain weight in the long run. By the end of the year I was 150 pounds.

When I moved to Chicago in December 1983 to host "AM Chicago," the local morning show, there was no pressure from my bosses to lose a pound or change anything. Still, I thought this could be a new chance to get motivated and finally get the weight off. I was so excited about my job, the city, my staff. Three or four times a week, we'd hit Rush Street, a great Chicago strip lined with res-taurants.

We'd order margaritas, quesa-dillas and cheese nachos. No burgers for me though; I wanted to keep it "light." So we'd eat "light" cheese nachos and drink light beer and then just split desserts.

A month later, I was shocked to find I weighed 180 pounds. One day while doing a show with yet another diet expert, I just knew everyone else was thinking: Why doesn't she lose weight her fat butt self? So I told the story about the time I'd been trying another diet back in Baltimore.I had been doing very well, then I made the mistake of visiting my old haunts - the food stalls at the mall. But I didn't succumb. Instead, I literally ran out of there. After getting home, I was overwhelmed by a compulsion to eat. As I opened cabinet after cabinet, I found only salt, Tabasco sauce, Argo starch and maple syrup. And in the freezer, a package of frozen hot dog buns. Quickly I turned the oven on broil, threw the buns in to thaw out, and even before they could, I grabbed the syrup and smeared it over the partly burnt, partly frozen buns. Looking back, I see no difference between myself and a junkie, scrambling for a needle and whatever dope might be around. Food was my drug.

The show started on the first day of January 1984. The next four years, I would move from 202 to 218. I'd start a workout program, fail, and gain. By 1988, I'd had it. I was so depressed and sick of myself. I thought I would try anything short of drugs or stomach stapling. Then I heard of Optifast, a fasting and diet supplement program. I saw this as the road to freedom.

The times I was tempted to eat on Optifast were when I felt frustrated or neglected. I remember coming home one day and Sted-man was busy doing something. At that moment, I thought, "I've gotta eat, I've gotta eat." I later realized what I really wanted was the attention.

I was 211 when I started on Optifast in July 1988. By the fall, I was 142 and into a pair of size 10 jeans. I wanted to share my secret with everyone else who'd struggled. So I went on the air and blew out the Optifast lines that day.

It was time to stop the supplement and return to real food. I was 142 for one day. The next day I was 145. In two weeks, I was 155. I felt helpless.

Outwardly I was becoming more popular and successful. Inside, the burden of weight was always there. I tried not to be depressed about it. Maybe I just needed to accept that I would never be happy with that part of myself. I did, however, keep searching for it. I couldn't bear to think of myself as a quitter. That's why standing there at the Daytime Emmys at 237 pounds, I decided to try again. I booked three weeks at a new spa in Colorado.