The story of Oprah
Deprived daughter of a teenage single mother, she endured abuse, hunger and poverty to become one of the world's most powerful and richest women. From rookie reporter to host of her own show in under a decade, the rise of Oprah Winfrey has been meteoric. After 25 years hosting America's biggest show, she has said farewell. So what now for the beloved broadcaster? Julia Molony examines an enigma
Published 05/06/2011 | 05:00
THERE were no prize giveaways, no bouncing on couches as Oprah Winfrey said farewell after 25 years of her show. No audience members screaming. And if there were tears, they were few, and unusually restrained.
Nonetheless, it was great television. Substituting gravitas for high emotion made it no less compelling. For her watershed moment, Oprah rose from her couch and addressed her audience standing, like a preacher, or a stateswoman. And why not? After all, she's regularly referred to as the world's most powerful woman. Her self-defined remit stretches from the spiritual to the political, through celebrity confessions. Commentators have regularly made snide reference to her "messianic" zeal, and coined the term "Oprahism" to compare her global following to both a religion and a cult.
It's true, she commands devotion and influence over ordinary people's lives that would turn the Catholic Church green. Her fans hang on her every word. They send the books she recommends hurtling up the bestseller lists. They buy up unknown brands she endorses on her show with such vigour that they become stock-market listed companies almost overnight. Hell, she's even widely credited with putting Obama into office. If Oprah thinks she's a god, perhaps she could be forgiven.
For 25 years, The Oprah Winfrey Show has been America's emotional valve. She alone developed a distinct style of intimate, confessional broadcasting that has permeated every aspect of the culture. The show's influence has been built entirely on the highly marketable charisma, compassion and character of its host.
"It's no coincidence," she told the audience of family and friends who had gathered on May 25 "that a lonely little girl who felt not a lot of love... it's no coincidence that I grew up to feel the genuine trust, validation and love from you. You and this show have been the greatest love of my life".
For Oprah, the lines between the personal and the public are complex and carefully drawn. Much is made of the troubled personal history, sure. Her triumph over the poverty, abuse and tragedy that defined her early life is an essential part of her brand. But inside the contemporary life of America's richest, and arguably most famous, woman, contradictions abound. She has built an empire on her knowability. Through weight loss, weight gain, friendships, and menopause, we have joined her as she, in her no-nonsense, levelling, way, talks about them all. But outside the Oprah of the couch, she remains an enigma.
Anyone who ever works with her or close to her is obliged to sign a confidentiality agreement, which seems a bit defensive for someone who coaxes confessions out of other people for a living.
In a world increasingly saturated with many different platforms of media, most celebrities endure two public versions of themselves. There is the official version, the one they control, and the other one, that finds expression in the supermarket tabloids and casual talk between people. For Oprah, no such separation between the public face and the private exists.
Many have tried and failed to crack the seal. Even Kitty Kelley, celebrity-scandal bloodhound nonpareil, didn't really succeed. Her tell-all book, entitled simply Oprah, came out in 2010 to breathless anticipation, but was criticised for its lack of groundbreaking revelation.
She managed to dig up some suggestions of diva-ish behaviour, unearthing "a former airfield safety officer who attests that whenever Oprah was due to arrive at her hangar, employees popped bags of microwave popcorn because she loathed the smell of fuel", according to the New Yorker magazine.
Another "bombshell" was based on the evidence of a cousin of Oprah's, Katherine Esters, who did her best to discredit Oprah's triumph-over-adversity schtick. "I don't believe a bit of it," Esters told Kelley of the sexual abuse claims that Oprah has made. "No one in the family believes her stories but now that she's so rich and powerful everyone is afraid to contradict her."
A landscape gardener "who had once worked for the couple" also stepped in to add his voice to widespread speculation on the subject of Oprah's sexuality. Oprah has been engaged to her long-term partner Stedman Graham since 1986, but the pair have never wed.
"He's kind and he's supportive and he's 6'6," an ecstatic Oprah told People magazine at the time. Since then, we've heard little mention of him. According to the landscaper, the relationship is a fraud. "Oprah keeps Stedman around because she wants her audience to accept her as a normal woman with a man in her life," he told Kelley. "From what I saw during those four years, I can tell you there's nothing there with Stedman. Nothing at all. He's simply a fixture in her life -- window dressing."
But despite Kelley's best efforts, the evidence of various estranged family members and the odd disgruntled employee, the mud didn't really stick. Oprah the Legend was more powerful than even millions of people's desire to doubt her.
Reviews of the book suggested that in this case, the claws of Kitty had failed to draw blood. Kelley herself had to admit that her abiding impression was one of "admiration and respect for my subject".
Any revelation that comes directly from Oprah plays determinedly into the redemptive narrative that has become an essential part of her brand. Who better to push the self-improvement principle, to build a media empire on the edict to "Live Your Best Life" than a woman who came from the most underprivileged background to rise not just to the greatest heights of power, but to become also a moral arbiter, a touchstone for contemporary values?
The story has now entered modern legend. She was born in 1954 to a teenage single mother, who left her in the care of her grandmother while she sought work as a chambermaid. When she was a child, the conditions of Oprah's life were so stretched that her grandmother dressed her in sackcloth.
The early part of her life might have been materially deprived, but it was relatively emotionally secure. Until, that was, her mother moved to Milwaukee to find work, taking her daughter with her, and moving them both into shared accommodation. There, a still pre-adolescent Oprah was subject to a litany of sexual abuse. She was raped when just nine. This tipped Oprah into a destructive spiral. She was, by her own account, sexually promiscuous as a teenager. By the time she was 14, she was pregnant. The, child, a boy, died a week after it was born.
Oprah's own official account of her childhood delivers these facts in quick, staccato sentences. It's an essential part of her story, but not the part she wishes to dwell on too much. After all, Oprah is all about the redemption.
To whit, enter her father. Previously unknown, his intervention at this crucial time marked a turning point in the young Winfrey's life. He was a strict disciplinarian. "He would not accept anything less than what he thought was my best," Oprah has said.
From there, her recovery was, according to all reports, spectacular and rapid. By the time she was in high-school she was running for student body president, with the moxie which the world would come to know, under the slogan: "Put a Little Colour In You Life. Vote For The Grand Ole Oprah."
It wasn't that contest, however, but a beauty pageant that won her her first break. At 17, she was crowned Miss Black Tennessee. The sponsors of the show, Nashville WLAC-TV, were so impressed they offered her a slot on their morning breakfast programme. Her climb to the top from there was vertiginous -- from rookie news reporter to host of her own eponymous show in under 10 years. And then, just three years after The Oprah Winfrey Show launched, it was the biggest show in America.
There were hiccups along the way, sure. Through her 25-year tenure she's been the purveyor of many moments of pop-culture history, from a landmark interview with Michael Jackson in 1993 to that interview with Tom Cruise in which he started jumping uncontrollably on the couch. But not all subjects have been so forthcoming. Early in her career, Winfrey was stumped by a taciturn Elizabeth Taylor who froze out all questions about her tangled love life. "That's none of your business," a frosty Taylor responded, thus closing the conversation.
The failures pale in the face of the successes however, and as Oprah knows, and indeed counts on, it's her compelling rags-to-riches trajectory which captures the imagination of her fans.
She's known for her candour about her own life, true. There have been showdowns of her own, landmark moments of revelation as dramatic as those that come from her guests. But the things we know about her are meticulously stage managed according to the agenda and demands of her show.
Take, for example, her dropping of the bombshell that she had in the past been a user of crack cocaine. Rather than allow it to be a story against her, it became part of an exercise in empathy, not to mention absolutely gripping viewing.
During a broadcast concerned with crack cocaine, Oprah made a dramatic confession that she had tried the drug. "I relate to your story so much," she said to Patrice, a woman on the show who described being introduced to drugs by the man in her life. "In my 20s," Oprah said, "I'd done this drug and I know exactly what you are talking about.
"It's my life's great big secret. It was such a secret because -- I realise (with) the public person I have become -- if the story ever were revealed, the tabloids would exploit it and what a big issue it would be."
She went on to explain, "But I was involved with a
man in my 20s who introduced me to the same drug that you've been talking about and, like Patrice, I always felt that the drug itself is not the problem but that I was addicted to the man. I can't think of anything I wouldn't have done for that man."
Whenever rumours have threatened her reputation, she's tended to tackle them head-on, on her own terms. When speculation about the true nature of her relationship with her best friend Gayle King began to mount, she came right out and addressed it, neutralising the gossip with one simple statement. "I understand why people think we're gay. There isn't a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women."
It's been a long, drawn-out farewell to The Oprah Winfrey Show. The season started with her bringing her entire studio audience to Australia. She's introduced us to a surprise half-sister she only recently met herself. A line-up of celebrity friends helped send her off, and of those, there are no shortage. That was the couch, after all, on which Helen Mirren confessed she didn't wear any underwear to the Oscars, Ellen De Generes came out as a lesbian and that Sarah Ferguson visits whenever she needs to make a public demonstration of contrition. And with a public life as rich, juicy and engaging as this, is it any wonder people are happy to accept her version of what goes on behind scenes?
So where to next? Is Oprah bowing out? Not a bit of it, of course. She's threatened retirement once before, in 2003, though was persuaded to continue for another eight years. Now 57, she seems no closer to the idea of disappearing from our screens and off into her garden.
The truth is bigger, and simpler than that. Her brand has outgrown her show. She's been expanding its various facets for some time now, there's the website, the production company Harpo (through which she has produced various TV shows as well as award- winning movies such as Beloved and Precious) There's the hit magazine, O. Earlier this year, she launched a network under her name, OWN. So far, it's been struggling to pull in the viewers, but Oprah has counselled patience. Especially since she's yet to put in an appearance herself. But she will. She is, after all, chairman of the whole operation, and there are eponymous shows from the personalities who we've come to know best through her (Gayle King, Dr Phil and even Sarah Ferguson) filling up the slots. But make no mistake, that doesn't mean she'll be hiding her own light under a bushel. The Oprah Winfrey Show hasn't died. It's just evolved, and will reappear on her own network under the title Oprah's Next Chapter.
She is, in the end, a consummately public animal. By her own admission, her sense of self has been built on the kind of love, attention and validation she feels only through commanding the attention of her audience. If she stepped out of the limelight, one wonders who exactly she would be.
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