The Great and Powerful Oz
Dr. Oz is going to live forever.
It’s not because he eats Greek yogurt with berries and nuts for breakfast, or because he does a seven-minute, yoga-based workout every morning. It’s not because he never takes elevators, or because he always gets a minimum of seven and a half hours of sleep. It’s not because he is in a healthy marriage.
No, he is going to live forever because he appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” 55 times. Because Time magazine named him one of the “100 Most Influential People.” Because nearly 3 million people tune in to each of the approximately 175 episodes of “The Dr. Oz Show” a season.
Oz is going to live forever, because even after he is physically gone, he will live on – on camera, and in the people who watch his show, read his new magazine and look to him for advice on how to live healthier lives.
As someone who spends every day educating the public on how to live longer, Oz has pulled the ultimate “gotcha” on the entire system – he has made himself into someone who can never truly die.
Oz is in an extra good mood today.
Not only is he about to speak before a crowd of South Floridians at the WPBF 25 Health & Wellness Festival 2014 at The Gardens Mall, but his wife, Lisa, will be joining him onstage this year.
He can’t stop talking about Lisa. In a private hospitality suite on the mall’s second floor, he grins at a small crowd of fans. She comes up in every conversation he has with them, in between advice about dietary supplements and medical ailments.
Lisa doesn’t usually come to these things, he confides. But today is a special occasion – the couple is about to present their latest collaboration: The Good Life, a bimonthly health magazine published by Hearst Magazines, which features Lisa on the masthead as editor-at-large.
The first time Lisa met Oz, she thought he was a waiter.
Introduced by their fathers at a dinner party, Oz offered to take Lisa’s coat for her. “I thought, ‘this waiter’s so handsome,’” she says.
Waiter or not, Lisa, who is three years younger than Oz, says it was “all over” in that moment. She saw him and was immediately smitten – not unlike much of America.
Lisa’s father, Dr. Gerald Lemole, was a surgeon who was part of the team that performed the first successful heart transplant in America in the ’60s. She had met her match in Oz. Not at all a waiter, he would go on to become a heart surgeon, too.
Less than a year later, they got engaged. Oz was 23.
Now married 29 years and with four kids, Lisa and Oz are more than just partners in parenthood. They are business partners in just about every major endeavor. They co-write books, and often co-host Oz’s TV show and radio show.
While Dr. Oz takes care of the rest of the country, Lisa takes care of him. Oz gives Lisa the credit for encouraging him to step out of the operating room and in front of the camera to go on “Oprah” and later start his own show. She is also the one who got him interested in alternatives to medicine.
“She does all the heavy lifting,” he summarizes.
He gives her so much credit you almost wonder – if Oz had never met Lisa, would he still be the superstar he is today?
Tell South Floridians Dr. Oz is speaking at their shopping mall and they will come. More than 8,000 of them fill the first and second floor of The Gardens Mall, spilling around the barricaded seating area, over the balcony and stair railings, hopeful for a glimpse at America’s most trusted doctor.
By 10 a.m., as the first speakers of the health festival are about to take the stage, an older woman confronts the guard blocking the entrance to the seated area by the stage. She wants to know why she can’t go in and sit closer to the stage where Oz will appear.
While the event was free, he explains sternly that people began lining up before 6 a.m. to claim their seats. They’re taken. It is clear by his tone it’s not the first time he’s had to explain this today. It probably won’t be the last, either.
At 11:30 a.m., it’s Oz’s turn to take the stage for one of two presentations of the day. The crowd counts down to his entrance. “5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”
Heeere’s Oz. With a roar as loud as crowds at a SunFest headlining show, the audience cheers.
“Oh, I love coming here,” Oz says, beaming up at the crowds of people hovering over the edge of the upstairs balcony.
A PowerPoint-esque presentation fills the massive screen behind him, and he begins flipping through slides. Just like an episode of his show, the slides are full of good information, and Oz is frank as always. The audience learns that breakfast is crucial to a healthy diet but that Pop-Tarts never count, that they should never drink skim milk, and that most Americans will get cancer at some point in their lives and survive it.
The audience drinks in every word because it’s Oz speaking. He is just as engaging here as he is on TV. Dressed in a black suit, pale pink shirt and purple printed tie, he paces the stage. He waves his hands to punctuate important points and breaks up the slides with video clips from his show – including one of himself learning to rap – and tidbits about his own dietary habits (he loves nuts, spicy foods and green tea, FYI).
He has the energy and stage presence of a politician and the likability of a superhero. Hands fly into the air as Oz throws pairs of his signature purple gloves out to the crowd. The audience is pumped.
Oz has a strong relationship with WPBF 25, and that’s part of what brings him to this festival for the second year in a row. But he also just has a connection with South Florida. Lisa’s family has been in Palm Beach for more than 80 years, and Oz has been visiting the island since he was 23.
This year, the couple has already traveled from their New Jersey home to Palm Beach four times, in part to visit Lisa’s family and in part because they love the area. Before today’s show, Oz went running on a bike path on the island. And the health-conscious pair can’t get enough of the downtown West Palm farmers market.
South Florida is a community that cares about health, Lisa says, and her husband adds that the questions he gets during the Health & Wellness Festival each year allow him to harvest new ideas for his daytime show. The pair has an appreciation for teaching people how to live the good life, and it is clear looking around at the crowd of Oz’s health-conscious fans today that South Floridians already know how to.
In his spare time, Oz performs more than 100 heart surgeries a year. He directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. But if given a choice between working in the OR full time and working in TV and media, he would probably choose TV. After all, it’s not possible to reach a few million people every day in a hospital like he can on TV.
He puts a lot of weight on the power and trust his viewers give him when they tune into his show. “I’m actually a guest in your home, in your most private place,” he says.
And so Oz creates a relationship with his viewers that many doctors will never have with patients whom they see once a year for 15 minutes.
“I always joke Marcus Welby is dead,” he says, referencing a kind doctor who was the main character of a medical drama from the ’70s. “The show works because that’s a problem.”
But unlike many stars on TV, Oz is not an actor. The do-good persona he wears onscreen does not seem to have an on-off switch. Sure, he mingles with celebrities, interviewing First Lady Michelle Obama and getting Paula Deen to open up about her cigarette smoking on his show.
But he also includes the everyman, the everywoman. The overweight man who has been told he will die if he doesn’t lose weight. An audience member who uses her boyfriend’s razor to shave and wants to know if that’s OK. Even a group of children who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre appeared on his show with their families just three days after the tragedy. He looks at each individual who appears on his show with the same empathetic eyes and listening ears.
He’s always been this way. Dr. Michael Gleiber, a local spinal surgeon, worked under Oz as a general surgery intern at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
“One of the things I remember most about him is how engaging he is with patients,” Gleiber says. “Before he was a celebrity he was just simply a great doctor, a great surgeon. Talented.”
In addition to Oz’s rapport with patients, Gleiber mentions that Oz was (and still is) a well-respected clinical scientist who has done a tremendous amount of research to improve the field of cardiac surgery. He has impacted several surgical generations.
Maybe even more importantly, Gleiber adds, “He’s been responsible for training hundreds of surgeons, and I think you would be hard-pressed to find one of them who would utter a negative word about the man.”
Oz was 7 when he declared that he wanted to be a surgeon. At an age when most children are daydreaming about being superheroes and princesses, he was already thinking about organs and incisions.
Oz was getting ice cream with his father at Peterson’s ice cream shop in Wilmington, Del. – the town he grew up in – when Dr. Mustafa Oz asked the boy in line in front of them what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I don’t know,” the boy replied. “I’m 10.”
Later, Mustafa would tell his son that he never wanted to hear him answer “I don’t know” to that question. Even if he changed his mind over and over, he should always have some direction for what he wanted to be.
So Oz found his direction: he’d be a surgeon. Most 7-year-olds fear going to the doctor and getting shots, but Oz’s father was a surgeon at Wilmington Medical Center, so he grew up around hospitals.
“A doctor comes in and puts needles in you,” Oz says. “But I would see my dad go into the room and see people smiling – he would give them hope.”
Once Oz made his decision to pursue the medical field, he never wavered, and he always held himself to high standards. Harvard came first, where he earned his undergraduate degree. Then he moved on to University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, where he was student body president. As if med school wasn’t enough of a challenge, he decided to earn an MBA at The Wharton School at the same time.
And then the moment he’d been waiting for since he was 7 finally happened: he performed his first surgery.
“Oh, I remember it vividly. There was a young man who needed heart surgery. I was petrified,” he says. “His heart was like a serpent waiting to strike me.”
But once Oz reached out, put his hand on the man’s heart and caressed it, his nerves calmed and allowed him to perform a successful surgery. The moment taught him that surgery could be chaotic or it could be controlled – it all depended on perspective.
“It was the first time someone trusted me with [their] life,” he says.
It would not be the last.
At age 36, Oz assisted in a heart-transplant surgery on Frank Torre, the brother of then-Yankees Manager Joe Torre. The high-profile operation gave him his first taste of fame. Afterward, he appeared as a medical expert on major networks like CNN and ABC.
In 2003, he and Lisa teamed up to produce Oz’s first show, “Second Opinion with Dr. Oz.” The first guest they invited on the show was none other than Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey enjoyed the experience so much that the following year, she invited Oz to appear on her own show.
Oz walked onto the “Oprah” set with a suitcase of organs. He sliced them open and showed the audience the difference between an organ that was healthy and one that was not.
Winfrey was captivated, and so was her audience. So she invited him to appear again. And again. And again. Oz would appear on “Oprah” a total of 55 times.
“When he made it OK to talk about the shape of a good poop, I knew he could talk about anything,” Winfrey told The New York Times years later.
Winfrey wasn’t the only one charmed by Oz. In 2008, Time magazine named him one of its “100 Most Influential People.” In 2009, the time was right to launch “The Dr. Oz Show,” co-produced by Winfrey’s team.
The show freed Oz to talk about poop as often he wanted – and in 2010 he even documented his own colonoscopy on his show.
More than 800 episodes later, the rest is history.
Oz says your happiest year is when you’re 50 – it’s when you settle into yourself and stop worrying as much.
He turns 54 in June, and today, sitting on a couch before a crowd of fans at The Gardens Mall, he couldn’t be happier.
Lisa joins him onstage to present The Good Life magazine. She wears a flowy top and pants in a shade of dark blue that almost matches the color of her green-blue eyes, paired with classic, nude Christian Louboutins and a long, gold pendant necklace.
Her serene beauty balances the boyish charm Oz emits when she’s around. Like a fifth grader hoping to impress a crush, he can’t stop making jokes. Sometimes Lisa laughs; sometimes she snaps back with her own joke.
When the topic of acne comes up, for instance, Oz tells the audience that Lisa loves popping his pimples for him. She gives him a look. “You haven’t had a pimple in 30 years.”
After nearly 30 years of marriage, it’s clear their relationship just works. And in February, they embarked on a new journey together: they became grandparents. After talking about Lisa, gushing about his new granddaughter, Philomena, is Oz’s second favorite topic of the day.
As he ends his presentation, he pauses for a moment to reflect on his latest visit, beaming at the crowd. “The real reason we come to the Palm Beaches is the people,” he says.
Before exiting, he leans over the stage to sign autographs for a crowd of fans that has rushed the stage. “Blow me a kiss,” an older woman shouts.
He does, of course. Oz is never one to disappoint a fan.