Just finished reading Oprah: A Biography by Kitty Kelley, an oversized tome, befitting a mega-watt personality. I wasn’t inclined to read it when it first appeared in bookstores. It was too pricey at $30, and what more could I learn about the woman whose presence is literally everywhere. I know her better than the Pope, and I’ve been a Catholic for 61 years. But browsing the biography section of my favorite “Half-Price Books,” I spied Kelley’s book for less than half its original price. That sold me. And I’m very glad I bought it. I think I can now “close the book” on what I think about the reigning queen of day time talk shows.
Throughout Kelley’s book I vacillated between throwing myself solidly in Oprah’s camp or remaining at arm’s length, a stance I’ve maintained for years. I can safely say that after reading her biography, Oprah is just living up to the job description she’s written for herself, and continues to rewrite every day. Suffice it to say, there’s no other like it, in the whole wide world. And with her lofty career comes a lot of stuff that lesser humans like me, couldn’t begin to fathom, not in a billion lifetimes.
Kelley has unearthed 495 pages worth of facts, good and bad, about Oprah. At first these seemed to offset one another, leaving me in limbo as to how I felt about her. Oprah is better than the Great Oz, for she has been adept at keeping her true identity secure, despite having openly lived in front of the cameras these last 25 years. How does she do it? With Herculean strength I would offer.
“Will the real Oprah Winfrey please stand up!” Remember the TV show “What’s My Line?“ Even for a kid like me back in the days of black and white television, I was always fascinated by the give and take between the mystery person and the celebrity panel doing the questioning. As good as they were, their questioning did not always render successful endings. That’s how I felt about Kelley’s trying to discern the “real” woman behind the woman, Oprah.
Reading between the lines, I think Kitty Kelley feels Oprah presents herself as magnanimous, when in fact, she is not.
Oprah became so accustomed to rapturous audiences that she reacted negatively if she saw someone not standing to applaud her. “One time she spotted a young black man who just sat there,” said the publishing executive. “She began heckling him. ‘I see someone here who is very brave.’ She began shuckin’ and jivin’: ‘Oh no. I don’t have to stand up and cheer for Oprah. No, sir. Not me. I’m the man. I won’t bow to Oprah.’ She did her whole ghetto shtick. It was ugly, very ugly for about four or five minutes while the poor guy just sat there as she mocked him. She wouldn’t let up….She was pissed that he was not giving her the adoring routine that the rest of the audience was….Turned out the young man was mentally challenged and severely disabled.”
On September 13, 2004, Oprah proclaimed the year her best, except for the year she started her talk show. The reason for her elation was that “she opened the season by giving away 276 brand-new Pontiac G6s, worth more than $28,000 apiece, for a collective total of $7.8 million.” Unfortunately the recipients, “Teachers and ministers and nurses and caregivers who had been walking to work for years or taking buses and having to transfer three times…,” were ill-prepared to pay $7,000 in taxes for the prizes, as the cars were deemed. In answer to their request for assistance from Oprah, her publicist “said they had three options: They could keep the car and pay the tax, sell the car and pay the tax with the profit, or forfeit the car. There was no other option from Oprah, and Pontiac already had donated the cars and paid the sales tax and licensing fees.”
Author Kelley highlights a particular show where Oprah “was barely civil to Hazel Bryan Massery, who as a young white student had yelled at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Central high School in 1957 after President Eisenhower sent federal troops into Arkansas. ” Probably unbeknownst to the public, including me, Massery had apologized to Eckford “for her hateful rants,” the two becoming very close friends. When they were invited to appear on Oprah’s show, the talk show host was “highly skeptical of their friendship and would not accept that Hazel’s remorse had led to reconciliation.”
“They are friends,” Oprah told her audience in disbelief. “They…are…friends,” she repeated with obvious distaste. She then showed a massive blowup of the photograph taken that historic day, showing Elizabeth, silent and dignified, carrying her books into school as a crowd of screaming white students taunted her, the most menacing being Hazel. Oprah was icy as she asked Eckford why that photo still upset her so many years later.
“She (Oprah) was as cold as she could be, ” Eckford told David Margolick of Vanity Fair. “She went out of her way to be hateful.”
Margolick, who spent time with Eckford and Massery to write their story, added, “Characteristically, though, Elizabeth felt sorrier for Hazel. She was treated even more brusquely (by Oprah).
Oprah has openly spoken about being sexually abused as a youngster, beginning with her experience at 9 years old with a 19-year-old cousin by marriage. According to Kelley,
Oprah appeared to be so open with revelations about her intimacies on television that no one suspected she might be hiding secrets. Like comedians who cover their darkness with humor, she had learned to joke away her pain, and keep what hurt the most stuffed deep inside. She knew how to give just enough information to be amusing and to deflect further inquiry, which is one reason she insisted on taking control of her own public relations when her show went national. While she looked like she was telling the world everything about herself, she was actually keeping locked within more than she would share on television. She felt she needed to present herself as open, warm, and cozy on the air, and conceal the part of her that was cold, closed, and calculating. She was afraid she wouldn’t be liked if people saw a more complex dimension to the winning persona she chose to present. “Pleasing people is what I do,” she said. “I need to be liked…even by people I dislike.”
While Oprah has bestowed a good life upon her mom, Vernita Lee, buying her “a fur coat, a new car, a new house, no bills,” doubling her salary in retirement, and even gifting her with $100,000 one Mother’s Day, ” Oprah “really didn’t like her mother at all.”
…she was still bitter toward Vernita for “giving me away,” and she ricocheted from resentment to gratitude over those motherless years. She understood that the lack of her mother’s unconditional love drove her to develop skills to get praise from others, but she also saw that she tried to fill her motherless hole with food as a substitute for love and comfort and security. It would be many years before she reckoned with the depth of her psychological damage. …
Oprah goes on to say:
I don’t feel I owe anybody anything but my mother feels I do….She says, ‘There are dues to pay.’ I barely knew her (when I was little)….That’s why it’s so hard now. My mother wants this whole wonderful relationship. She has another daughter and a son. And everyone now wants this close family relationship….They want to pretend as though our past did not happen.”
Because she feels far removed from her birth family, several close friends are Oprah’s family of choice. Among them are poet and author Maya Angelou, of whom Oprah has said she ” ‘…was my mother in another life…I love her deeply. Something is there between us. So fallopian tubes and ovaries do not a mother make.’…Oprah carried Maya’s monthly itinerary in her purse at all times so she could reach her morning, noon, and night.”
“Once Oprah met Sidney Poitier, she bound him to her like a kind and loving father. ‘I call Sidney every Sunday and…we talk about life, we talk about reincarnation, we talk about the cosmos, we talk about the stars, we talk about the planets, we talk about energy. We talk about everything.’ “
Quincy Jones is a beloved uncle, in Oprah’s mind. ” ‘I truly learned how to love as a result of this man…I unconditionally love him and…I would slap the living shit out of somebody who said anything bad about Quincy.’ ” And Gayle King was the adoring sister, and John Travolta the brother, whom Oprah didn’t realize in her own kin, her siblings by birth.
” ‘…My friends are my family.’ Oprah frequently mentioned on her show how disgusted she was with all the beggars in her life. ‘I’m hearing from so many people now who want me to give them money, or lend them money. I say, “I’ll give you the shirt off my back, as long as you don’t ask for it.” ‘ “
We’ve all got “baggage” that we cart around throughout our lives. When and how we acquired it, with how much we’re saddled, and how we deal with our lives because of it, are questions only we can answer for ourselves. I’ve set my course in life based upon my own personal deprivations and disappointments, as well as my accomplishments and joys. I think laying expectations upon one another has the potential of backfiring. If people don’t measure up, our perceptions of them are muddied. But worse, I think we are hurt because of our emotional investment.
I’ve not felt inclined to invest in Oprah, because I was too busy investing in myself. I tend not to follow other’s advice, unless I can own it for myself. It amazes me that someone, like Oprah, can convince legions of people to hang upon her every word. But she has a gift, she’s even said so. What more telling event than her influence to get Obama crowned President.
With tears streaming down her face she rejoiced, standing on the right side of history and knowing that she just may have had a role in shaping it.
“My job was to make people, or allow people, to be introduced to Obama who might not have been at the time,” she said. “I wanted him elected, and I think I did that.”
I’ve decided that Oprah is doing a job for which she is well suited. She has positioned herself as Chairman of the Board/CEO and President of all she surveys. She’s paid her dues, and continues to do so. I say let her do with her life what she will. I had nothing to do with its creation; I have nothing to say about its evolution. She will answer to her Maker, as we all must. It’s between the 2 of them, and perhaps all those who have placed Oprah upon a pedestal. After all, they have a great deal to do with the billionaire she has become.
until you walk in someone’s shoes…hugmamma.