Tuesday, January 18, 2011
It was an unexpected dream vacation.
For 10 days in December, Fulton couple Michael and Robert Stieber were part of the lucky 302 “ultimate viewers” Oprah Winfrey treated to a trip to Australia.
“It was just phenomenal. It really was the trip of a lifetime,” Michael Stieber said. “It was amazing.”
Area residents will have the opportunity to see clips from that trip of a lifetime when the four episodes taped during the trip air starting today.
The Stiebers’ journey began last summer when Michael — a self-described “Oprah freak” — filled out an online questionnaire to prove he was, indeed, the ultimate viewer.
A couple months later, Michael received a phone call that he at first thought was a prank from one of his friends.
“We had just come home from the dentist and my mouth was numb, so when the phone rang Robert went to answer it,” Michael said. “All of a sudden he screams and he tells me it’s the Oprah Winfrey show.”
The disbelieving fan said it took several minutes for the woman on the other end of the line to convince him she was with the show. Following a later phone interview, Michael said the couple still was not fully aware of what awaited them.
“I thought we were just going to get tickets (to the show),” Michael said, noting he and Robert had tried many times to get tickets. “That’s all we wanted.”
It wasn’t until the couple was safely seated in the audience that reality started to sink in.
“It just dawned on me that Oprah was on the other side of the door,” Robert said.
Then a day that already was a dream come true got even better.
“(Oprah) came back from commercial, and showed a clip of when she took her audience to Philadelphia to get cheesecake,” Michael said. “She said we should do something like that again. Then she said, ‘No, let’s do something bigger, what about New York?’”
As the audience erupted into screams of excitement, Michael said Oprah continued to list destinations until finally informing them she was taking them to Australia.
“It was amazing,” Michael said. “The hardest part was not saying anything — we taped Thursday, flew home Friday and it didn’t air until Monday.”
In the two months between the airing of the show and departing for Australia, he said he walked 11.5 miles every day to get in better shape for the trip — ultimately losing 30 pounds.
The couple said the trip itself was a dream and a whirlwind.
“Right off the plane you walked the red carpet,” Robert said. “The media was crazy. You felt like a superstar — you would come out of a restaurant and they’re there.”
From the moment they arrived, the audience members included in the trip (they referred to themselves as the 302) were busy. Scheduled activities included kayaking in the ocean, climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, a star-studded red-carpet dinner, a concert by Jay-Z and U2 and a show taping at the famous Sydney Opera House.
“They made sure we did and saw as much as possible,” Robert said. “It was the trip of a lifetime. We were in awe every day.”
Although she was not with the group the entire time, Michael and Robert said host Oprah was very gracious when she was interacting with her fans. They cited a group picture taken during the red carpet dinner as an example.
“Our friend Liz was so excited she was shaking, and Oprah just grabbed her hand and told her, ‘It’s okay,’” said Michael, who was standing right behind his talk show idol for the first picture. “They took the picture and showed it to her and asked if that was okay and were ready to move on, but she said, ‘there are a lot of people in the back who you can’t really see.
“‘This is a memory everyone’s going to want to remember. We’re going to rotate until everybody has a chance see themselves in the picture.’ She wanted everybody to be able to experience the moment.”
Partway into their stay, the 302 were broken up into smaller groups and sent off on different three-day mini-trips. The Stiebers’ excursion was to Byron Bay.
“It absolutely made me realize you need to live and love every day,” Michael said. “It makes you really appreciate and love nature.
“It was absolutely wonderful. Every day was literally breathtaking.”
One of the highlights of the trip for Michael was a visit to Gaia Retreat and Spa — co-owned by Olivia Newton John — in Byron Bay.
“They walked up to the arch and trees (near the entrance) and we were in the back of the group, and out of the corner of my eye I saw this door open on a cabin and there she was,” Michael said. “My mouth dropped open and I grabbed Robert’s hand and was squeezing it so hard — all I could think was, ‘I am not going to be the first person to scream ‘Olivia, I love you!’”
Once inside, Newton John greeted her guests, at which point Michael said he was too star-struck to think straight.
“I’m trying to think what I’m going to say and then Robert says ‘I’m Robert and I’m from Fulton, Missouri, and this is my partner, Michael,’ and then I didn’t know what else I could say,” Michael recalled. “I don’t even remember what I said.”
He might not, but Robert certainly did.
“He looks at her, and she reaches out and he shook her hand and said, ‘We’re going to have to sing and dance sometime,’” a laughing Robert said.
Later that evening, during dinner, the star called Michael on his statement.
“She pulled out a mic and started singing ‘Xanadu’,” Robert said, noting Newton John was giving the microphone to guests to get them to sing along. “She put the mic in (Michael’s) face and he pushed it back and said, ‘No thank you.’
“She handed it back and said, ‘You wanted to sing and dance, so now you’re going to sing and dance.’”
After gifting her “ultimate viewers” with these varied and unique experiences, the Stiebers said Oprah had only one request for her guests that she made during a speech at the red carpet dinner.
“She said ‘The one thing I want from you is to pay it forward. Just give back somehow,’” Michael said. “So what we did was, we took a large collection from everyone from the 302 and donated it to the flood victims.”
At home, Michael said he and Robert always try to help with SERVE’s Christmas toy drives, and he is active with Relay for Life.
He said the Australia trip was life changing — attributing that in part to the experiences, and in part to Oprah.
“She told us to keep our hearts open, be good to other people and good things will come to you,” Michael said. “I tried not to cry the whole time, but this speech made me cry, because everything was so fantastic I couldn’t understand why I was chosen to go.
“The speech made me realize I am a good person, and I do deserve to be happy and have my dreams come true.”
He said ever since returning home, he has seized upon Oprah’s idea to make a vision board on which he has pasted inspirational quotes and pictures of some of the things he wants to accomplish, as well as pinpointing places he would like to visit one day.
“I try to find something in every day, so that I can say it was a good day. Even if it was a bad day, I can at least say the weather was good,” Michael said. “This trip really, really changed me, made me appreciate the life I have every single day.”
It also has firmed his resolve to have children one day.
“The only thing I could ever dream and want for is to be a father,” he said.
Michael said that after years of trying, only to be disappointed by things such as mothers changing their minds about adoption, he and Robert had started to think they might not achieve that dream. Then one of Oprah’s producers, upon finding out about their desire to be parents, gave them a website to go to that she said could help them with surrogacy.
“She said, ‘Her name is Mindy and if anybody can help you, she can,’” Michael said. “Mindy actually worked with us and got us accepted into an embryonic program in Florida, and we have our own surrogate.
“We’re saving money now. This dream is very possible, and I’m so eternally grateful.”