Oprah Winfrey honors her personal African-American heroines with three unforgettable days of festivities
“This was more than fabulous,” says Oprah Winfrey, summing up her Legends Ball weekend May 13-15. “It was extra. It defined the word ‘extraordinary’—historic.”
If Oprah Winfrey throws a party and says it should be cited in Webster’s, believe her: Her three-day tribute to great African-American women was noble, lavish, starry, giddy, chatty, weepy—and stage-managed by Winfrey, 51, down to the nth detail. The 25 “legends” (including Tina Turner, Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou) were feted by 42 “young ‘uns,” (Halle Berry, Angela Bassett and Mariah Carey). “When I saw the list of names, it just got better and better as I read down it,” says Berry.
But the party was more than just the talk show host’s latest Wildest Dream fantasy and more than a chance to outdo her 50th-birthday lollapalooza, thrown last year with the help of planner Colin Cowie. “It was a divine vision,” says Winfrey. “God can dream a bigger dream for you than you can dream for yourself.”
Working again with Cowie, Winfrey put nine months into creating the event, which began with a Friday luncheon for just the legends and young ‘uns at her 42-acre estate in Montecito, Calif., moved to the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara for the Saturday-night ball and then returned home for a gospel brunch on Sunday, It consumed seemingly every waking moment as she consulted nonstop with best friend Gayle King. “We would go exercising,” Winfrey recalls, “and Gayle would have a cell phone, a Blackberry and the guest list.”
Which was strictly A-list for the main event, the Legends Ball: Usher, Tom Cruise with new girlfriend Katie Holmes, John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston, Barbra Streisand and Barbara Walters. If some details sound excessive—200 waiters for 362 guests special music composed just for the dessert course—the joy as the women met and mingled justified the whole thing. “I hadn’t seen Diahann Carroll in a long time, and I sot her number, said legend Diana Ross “I want to trade numbers tonight, that’s what I want to do!”
For Winfrey, the truly defining moment occurred during the lunch, when the young ‘uns saluted the legends with the poem “We Speak Your Name”, by Pearl Cleage. “It was spoken by Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, Halle Berry,” says Winfrey. “And the chorus was—listen to this!—Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Ashanti, Missy Elliott and Janet Jackson. In the poem they call the name of each woman out loud, and it was the most powerful thing we ever experienced. We were in tears from the deeply rooted, primal emotion connecting one generation to the next.”
Of course, by the time she left the ball at 3 a.m., Oprah had herself basked in the glow of her own recognized role as a black pioneer. “I have to say something to hen tonight,” said singer-actress Brandy, 26. “I have to say thank you. Without her I would not be here.”
Tom Gliatto. Cindy Dampier, Brenda Rodriguez and Jenny Sundel in Santa Barbara
O OPENS UP
Finally resting her feet (“they were so tired, I would’ve shot morphine in them”), she talks about the bash—and that dress
What was the seed of inspiration for this big event?
I got a present from Cicely Tyson—this was when I turned 50—and then I thought, “I’m going to have her up to lunch.” And then I thought who else could I invite? I started thinking about women who had been a bridge to now in my life, and how much they meant to me, and by the time I was done I had 25 women on that list, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to invite them all to lunch.” And then I thought, “Okay, once we have lunch we’re going to need something else to do. Where we gonna go? I guess I’ll have to have a ball!” That was how it all happened.
This has not been a full-time job, because I’ve been in the middle of doing shows—the other day I did a big show on what bra to wear, and all I can think about is “I gotta get to Santa Barbara, I gotta get to Santa Barbara, the tent’s going up, and I’m not there!”
How did you choose the legends?
I remember many years ago in Washington, D.C., meeting soprano Leontyne Price for the first time. It was such an honor for me because I grew up hearing about her. I’m from Mississippi, and she was from Mississippi. Long before I even knew what opera was, I had heard about her—everybody in the South would always pretend to be related to her. So she in many ways helped me to begin to see myself differently as a girl. And seeing Diana Ross and the Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show was a defining moment. Because up until then we were watching “Buckwheat” images and Amos and Andy. That was the first time I had seen beautiful black women, and Diana Ross was at the center of that. I have carried that with me for a long, long time…. And then Diahann Carroll was the first woman to have her own television show, and Delia Reese was the first black woman to have a talk show. So you know I needed to give her a shout-out and a howdy-do.
That sounds like a potential diva convention.
When people were canceling at the last hour and other people were demanding seats at the last half hour—I will mention no names!—Gayle was like, “I am beginning to take this personally because this is so rude!” I go, “Let it all go, because the intention is clear.” [But] there was no diva behavior. Somebody told me Patti LaBelle said, “I don’t call myself a diva anymore because I’m a legend.” You had the greatest amount of star power anybody has ever seen in one place and also the greatest amount of humility and graciousness I have ever seen.
And you were the lady in red—in Vera Wang.
This is the thing: When you have been as challenged in your struggles with weight as I have, that is a glorious moment, to be able to walk down a red carpet in a red dress that you know fits you and you feel great in. I mean, literally, as I put on the dress I said, “This makes getting up at 5:30 in the morning all those days [to exercise] when I didn’t feel like it, worth it.” Because when I put the dress on, as structured and formal as the dress was, it felt like a nightgown—it was so comfortable. I haven’t even had a potato chip in… I don’t know. I used to eat them by the bag—5.oz. bags, not 1-oz. Olive oil and then rosemary, oh, man, I’m addicted to chips. And I can’t have just one chip, and I know it, so it’s like crack. There have been a couple of times I would just go in the store, pick up a bag, smell it and put it down. I know I can’t, I can’t do it.
You and Stedman Graham have been together for 18 years. He’s a successful market consultant and a motivational speaker, but you’ve got most of the fame. Is that still a challenge?
I am not an easy person for anybody to be with long-term. You have to have such a strong personal confidence in order to withstand being with somebody to whom the attention is always directed. We have such respect for each other and for each of our paths in the world. I understand that his speaking to people on a grassroots level and me speaking to the world from the platform that I do, are similar.
But do you argue?
Other people might argue about shoes left on the floor or you didn’t come home for dinner. We argue about vision versus no vision. All the time. There’s not a day that we don’t talk about [imitating Graham] “What you need is a greater vision.” Even when we were teaching our [leadership] class together at Northwestern University, he would stand up and tell these graduate students, “You need to have a vision, there’s a process to success,” and I would say, “Or you don’t, ’cause I didn’t have one.”
I don’t know because as you know I don’t have a vision. [Laughs.] I live in the moment. People are saying to me, how are you going to top this? It’s not my desire to top it, my desire is to keep manifesting for myself the life I was meant to live, and so that could take me anywhere.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MAGIC
How seriously does event planner Colin Cowie take his job? Put it this way: He ensured that servers at Oprah‘s Legends Ball attended a waiter boot camp in preparation for the big night. “The waiters trained for three days,” he says. “They knew exactly how to serve, and there was a drum roll—duh-duh-duh-duh-chhhh!—and as the cymbal went off, down went 400 plates in one moment.”
Such “JDMs [jaw dropping moments],” as he calls them, have made Cowie, 43, the go-to planner of choice for parties that awe even A-listers. But it’s his partnership with Winfrey—including her 50th-birthday fete—that has elevated his sorcery to new heights. With the Legends Ball, he conjured up “a 1940s supper club” feel that included a stage designed “to look like it was wrapped in diamonds,” he says. When lady-in-red Winfrey made her stage entrance, “we pressed a button, and all the white diamonds turned to red rubies.” When the weekend was over, “Oprah said to me, ‘We can never top this!'” he recalls. So can they? “Darling, this was it.”