CHICAGO—The season premiere of The Oprah Winfrey Show unleashed a surprise for viewers Monday, when host Winfrey presented her studio audience with an unexpected gift: eligible men.
"Everybody gets a man! Everybody gets a man!" said Winfrey, almost drowned out by cries of disbelief as 276 men, one for every member of the studio audience, filed onto the Oprah set.
Hoping to top last year's season-debut surprise, when members of the studio audience received free cars, Winfrey watched elated as the men knelt before their awestruck new mates and delivered gallant kisses and professions of undying affection.
"Signed, sealed, delivered… they're yours!" Winfrey said.
Hand-picked by Winfrey and her staff, the men range in age from 29 to 63 and were described by assistant producer Sally Heffernan-Ross as "great catches" with semi-professional to professional careers and stable personalities.
"Oprah showed it can happen: You can get that man of your dreams, or at least of your minimal expectations," Heffernan-Ross said.
The men, dressed in fresh chinos and polo shirts and bearing single red roses and gift baskets from Bath & Body Works, emerged moments after audience members were instructed to reach beneath their chairs, where they found inlaid boxes containing keys.
The keys, Winfrey explained, unlocked the doors to the men's individual domiciles.
"He's yours! He's completely yours!" Winfrey said to one speechless young woman who appeared stunned by what was going on around her. Assuring "no months of awkward dating" or "questions over who's going to make the first move," Winfrey said her man giveaway had totally eliminated the guesswork of romance.
The men Winfrey gave away are guaranteed to enjoy snuggling, to find the few extra pounds gained over time "cute," and to have read at least three books by the poet Maya Angelou.
"Oh, I love Maya," said one of the giveaway men, 32-year-old electrical engineer Doug Jefferson, who also enjoys warm, comfy sweaters. "I think she's very brave. Heck, I love poetry in general. Who doesn't?"
Winfrey had to reassure several of the more timid studio-audience members.
"Don't worry, ladies, they won't be going anywhere," Winfrey said. "Kiss him! Give his behind a little squeeze! It's okay—he's your man!"
As with 2004's Pontiac G6 giveaway, the man giveaway came as a complete surprise to audience members, many of whom said the men arrived just in time.
"I was beginning to think it was never, ever going to happen," said Karla Drozdowicz, 34, an unmarried bank teller from Superior, WI who won radio-sales executive Chris Iredell. "I'm totally thrilled to get Chris. He's not what I imagined from my romance stories, but I'll love him just the same."
Another audience member, Gwendolyn Havers, said her years of watching Oprah instead of dating had "finally paid off."
"My mom says my 'wallflower' personality keeps me from meeting men," Havers said. "Well, if I wasn't such an Oprah fan, I wouldn't have gotten tickets to her show, and I wouldn't have won [part-time assistant tech-support manager] Eric [Fitzgerald]."
Heffernan-Ross said the audience members were selected from a pool of "hundreds of thousands of single, lonely women" who had put in requests for show tickets.
"Unlike the selection process for the men, finding unattached women was very easy," Heffernan-Ross said. "All we had to do was stick our hands in a big barrel of letters, and voilá, our perfect audience."
Harpo Productions, Winfrey's production company, assured the winners that their prizes are guaranteed to "be into [them]" through 2010, and agreed to pay all local and state taxes relating to the men, as well. However, federal income tax and expenses such as meals, movie tickets, motel stays, teddy bears, plush slippers, and commitment rings will not be covered.
Audience member Karen Schoenegge, 38, who was awarded 41-year-old collections-department supervisor John Zimmerman, said several drawbacks have emerged since the show's taping.
"Well, as soon as we got back to the hotel, I found out that John doesn't give backrubs," Schoenegge said. "He's also weird about me walking in the bathroom to pee while he's in the shower. I mean, it's not like I'm looking at him. He needs to loosen up a little. But I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. I really, really needed a new man."
The seven audience members who declined their men, saying that they were too insecure about their weight to feel confident in a romantic relationship, were instead treated to all-expenses-paid weekends at the Omni Hotel in downtown Chicago.