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Oprah's Mission

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OPRAH WINFREY IS ON THE SET OF HER TV MOVIE THERE Are No Children Here, and she is crying. This is not unusual. The 39-year-old talk show host has been running the gamut from sniffles to sobs ever since she began portraying LaJoe Rivers, an impoverished mother trying to shield her children from the violence of life in the Henry Horner Homes, a housing project that is among Chicago’s most dangerous. Now she is sitting in her dressing room at Harpo Studios, where the production has moved after more than a week on location at Horner. With 5-year-old Ashley Magby, who plays Vanessa, one of Rivers’s twin daughters, sitting contentedly on her lap, Winfrey weeps softly as she talks about how her life “will never be the same…. I used to see these kids from the projects walking down the street and think, ‘Oh, my God, is something going to happen?’ Now I look to see if it’s one of the kids I know. That’s the difference.” She is hoping, passionately, that the movie itself will make a difference. Her sights, even for a superstar, are set high: “Some lives,” she predicts, “will be saved.”

That may happen. What is tragically certain is that kids will continue to die in the Horner projects—lost to drugs, gunfire, neglect. “This ain’t nothing but a war field,” says Kareem Wells, a 20-year-old former Horner resident. That’s not youthful hype. In one recent three-day period there were six murders and dozens of other shootings in the West Side neighborhood where the 16 high-rises that make up the Horner Homes are situated. One of the latest casualties was 14-year-old Corey Harris, shot in the back on Nov. 8 as he was entering a Horner building; police speculate the killing was gang-related. Harris was the 58th child under the age of 15 to be killed in the Chicago area this year.

It was the chance to change even a few lives that prompted Winfrey to star in the ABC movie (airing Sun., Nov. 28), which is based on Alex Kotlowitz’s 1991 best-seller. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Kotlowitz spent two years chronicling the struggles for survival of Pharoah and Lafeyette, two of the eight children of LaJoe Mitchell, the real-life model for Rivers. A resident of Horner since age 4, the trajectory of Mitchell’s life paralleled the decline of the once safe and stable development. A mother at 14, she would watch as her three oldest children dropped out of school and into lives of desperation. Her daughter sometimes worked as a prostitute, her sons were in and out of jail. She vowed her five younger children would have better lives.

Deeply moved by Mitchell’s story, Winfrey devoted an Oprah show to the book and bought the film rights. She even asked poet Maya Angelou, who considers Winfrey her spiritual daughter, to play LaJoe’s mother. Angelou agreed without seeing a script. Says Angelou: “I told my agent…’I trust Oprah‘s judgment. And if she goes down, I’ll go with her.’ ”

In June, just before filming was about to begin and a few weeks before Winfrey was about to leave for the French Riviera with fiancé Stedman Graham, a 42-year-old marketing executive, and his teenage daughter, Wendy, she was asked by the movie’s director, Anita Addison, to do more: take on the role of LaJoe herself. Diana Ross, who had first been considered for the role, had declined, finding the script too bleak. So eight days before cameras were set to roll, Winfrey canceled her vacation and started learning her lines. “The most convincing argument,” says Winfrey, “was that if I was in the film it would bring more attention to the plight of people in the projects.”

From the day shooting started, Winfrey was the project’s pied piper. Midway through one all-night shoot, she returned to her trailer at 4 a.m. to take a nap, only to find she been preempted by seven slumbering youngsters from the Horner Homes. “There were three on the sofa, all with a blanket over their heads so they looked like little ghosts,” she says. “Three on the floor and one on the chair. So I sat on the steps of the trailer.”

Wanting to offer something that will ultimately be more useful than her trailer, Winfrey has donated her acting fee—$500,000 (matched by ABC)—to help the children of Horner. Oprah has also tendered the half-dozen or so children she became acquainted with (“my little friends”) a tantalizing deal. Says Winfrey: “If they get their grades up and make all A’s, I’m taking them to Disneyland.” For at least one of these children, 13-year-old Troy (not his real name; his identity has been changed to ensure his safely), the chance to spend time with his new friend is probably as thrilling a prospect as a ride on Space Mountain. “I like everything about her,” he says.

He’s not the only one. Some 20 million viewers have made Winfrey’s syndicated talk show the most widely watched of the slew of daytime gabfests currently on the air, and its host the most highly paid entertainer in the world, with a 1993 income estimated at $52 million. She is also, two months from her 40th birthday (Jan. 29), “happier than I’ve ever been, and healthier.”

For one thing, Winfrey has turned her weight problems from a lifelong struggle with the scale into a triumph of the spirit. In eight months, she lost 60 pounds—dropping from a reported 210 to 150—adopting new, healthy eating habits (her low-fat meals are prepared by a private chef) and rigorous, twice-daily workouts; she logs eight miles a day on an indoor track or around her 160-acre Indiana farm, does 350 sit-ups at a time, lifts weights and puts in 45-minute sessions on her in-office Stairmaster. The result: a stronger, not just slimmer, Oprah. In August she ran a half-marathon (13.1 miles) in San Diego in 2 hrs., 16 mins. and 3 secs.; now running a mile in just under eight minutes, Winfrey hopes to complete a full marathon next year. Meanwhile, she’ll be devoting two shows this week (Nov. 22 and 23) to her new fitness regimen. “My weight was always my apology to the world,” Winfrey told Ebony magazine. “It was my way of saying, “Okay, I’m rich. I’ve got a good-looking boyfriend, and I’ve got a great life but, see, I’ve got this big weight problem, so you can still love me.”

Make no mistake: Oprah is done apologizing. Fully feeling her power, she is willing to cash in on her clout to create what she hopes will be a legacy of “enduring projects.” There Are No Children Here is just one such endeavor. She regularly gives millions to help battered women and abused children, to fight AIDS and support education. And since 1991, Winfrey, who herself was sexually abused as a child, has been vigorously lobbying for a bill, which she helped write, that would establish a national data bank on convicted child abusers. The bill is before Congress now with good chances of making it into law.

If Winfrey’s energy seems limitless, her patience is less so, especially when it comes to the endless curiosity over her romantic life. Ask her when she and Graham are going to turn their one-year engagement into a marriage, and she’ll tell you, albeit kindly, that it is none of your business, “The truth is, I’m in no hurry,” she said recently. “In spite of all the worldly pressure for me to have a wedding, I no longer feel what I felt many years ago—-that I have to have a man in order to make myself whole.” She also will not be rushed into publishing her autobiography. Last June she announced she was postponing—indefinitely—its fall publication because, she explained, “I am in the heart of a learning curve,” and committed to waiting until she had a book that “would empower people.”

She was, by all accounts, a powerfully soothing presence on the Children set. LaJoe Mitchell, who was an adviser on the film, says her “heart almost stopped” when she heard Winfrey would be playing her. The nervousness evaporated after a few minutes with Winfrey. “She’s like a friend,” Mitchell says. “When a hand reached out, it was Oprah‘s. If she sees your head down, she pulls your chin up. She motivates me.”

At times Winfrey herself needed motivation. Playing Mitchell turned out to be painful. “The story of her life is far more devastating than anything I could have imagined,” she says. Winfrey sought inspiration from Troy, the youngster she had invited into her trailer for a pep talk after spotting him staring at her shyly from the sidelines. “You’ve got what it takes to get out of here,” she told the above-average student. “You can make it.” Her voice giving way to emotion, Winfrey recalls, “You should have seen him. His whole face lit up….You can’t save the world, but you can save a Troy.”

Three months after the movie wrapped, Winfrey was trying to save a few more Troys when she attended a fund-raiser for Chicago’s Providence-St. Mel High School. Stedman Graham sits on the board of trustees of the innovative high school, which is located in a neighborhood with an unemployment rate of more than 60 percent, but has for years had every one of its seniors accepted into college. Standing before the crowd of 800 in a clingy purple Claude Montana suit, Winfrey was proof that it’s possible to look great while doing good. She had been cleaning out her closet, she told the audience, and decided to sell her designer footwear at Harpo Studios instead of giving it away. Shoes went for $10, sneakers $5. Within 10 minutes, she had sold out. Winfrey handed the school’s principal, Paul Adams, a shoe box containing the $670 the sale had brought. Tucked alongside the $5 and $10 bills was a check for $1 million.

Winfrey’s commitment to children doesn’t necessarily translate into an eagerness for motherhood. At nearly 40, she’ll quip that the ticking of her biological clock has become a “gong.” Then deadly serious, she will add that “having a child come from my body isn’t as important to me as being able to change the life of a child.”

She means the saga of LaJoe Mitchell and her brood to be an object lesson. When There Are No Children Here was published, Mitchell was forced to flee the projects. Gang members, enraged that she had provided descriptions of their activities, shot at her second-oldest son while he was silting in a car. She now lives in a five-bedroom town house she built herself through a community-development program and has just completed a training program in grassroots organizing. Still receiving some public assistance, she hopes to start a parenting-skills class for the women of Horner Homes. Lafeyette, now 18, is studying for his high school equivalency diploma; Pharoah, 15, is an honors student at Providence-St. Mel’s. When Mitchell walks through the Horner Homes a few weeks before the movie is scheduled to air, one woman shouts out, “It’s going to be a beautiful movie, girlfriend.”

In its dark and shocking way, it may turn out to be just that. At a church near the Horner projects, the pastor thanked Winfrey “for coming and bringing a little hope.”

“I just wanted to weep when he said that,” says Oprah, “because I realized, looking at the faces of those children, that’s exactly what we had done.”

SHELLEY LEVITT

LUCHINA FISHER and BARBARA KLEBAN MILLS in Chicago