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Just when you thought you knew all there was to know about talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, WHAM! That closet door goes flying open and out falls-oh, so conveniently-another skeleton for her to weep over on national TV.

And the ratings go up. And the tabloids write it up. And the Cover Story points pile up.

Cover Story is Ad Age's monthly ranking of celebrities' popularity as reflected by their appearances on the covers of more than 30 of the nation's leading publications.

Ms. Winfrey finished second in January polling, tallying 8 points on the strength of 6 covers.

But it wasn't until she admitted to smoking crack-once-on her talk show that her cover count took off, thanks to The National Enquirer and The Star.

Ms. Winfrey's late January surge carried her past '80s supermodel Christie Brinkley and actor-on-a-roll Tom Hanks, tied for third with 6 points on 2 covers.

The clown prince of late-night TV, David Letterman, landed fifth, scoring 5 points with 2 covers. Rolling Stone named him its man of the year for 1994.

Meanwhile, the "prince" of the Republican Party-Newt Gingrich-scored 4 points with 3 covers to take sixth place. Newsweek and Time wrote same-week articles about the resurgent Republicans and tapped the outspoken speaker to serve as the party's face.

The earthquake in Kobe got as many points and covers as Mr. Gingrich, earning a tie for sixth.

A pile-up of celebrities at eighth on the Cover Story superhighway, each with 3 points: "Disclosure" star Michael Douglas; "Little Women" actress Susan Sarandon; and "Nell" star Jodie Foster.

Oh, yeah, we almost forgot: The O.J. Simpson murder case got a lot of points again-12, to be exact, thanks to 10 covers, including appearances on Esquire, Time, The National Inquirer and The Star. Which means 1994's Cover Story champ won the first Cover Story survey of 1995. And it will probably win next month, as Mr. Simpson's trial gets into high gear. And he will probably continue winning, even after there's a verdict. A cycle perhaps never to be broken.

Unless, of course, Oprah's got another skeleton in that closet.M

Joe Mandese coordinates MediaWorks.

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