TV's Queen of Talk
For breakfast she ate one boiled egg, and she was proud. Another day, another diet. Oprah Winfrey cooked the egg herself, yet another triumph, and announced plans to hire a personal trainer since her jogging program had failed through no fault of her own. “You can’t expect anyone to run before the sun’s up, the earth’s not awakened properly and you’re out trudging on it,” she explained. Arriving at the studio, she walked quickly through the lobby, without makeup, her hair freshly washed but unstyled, passing lines of startled people awaiting entrance to The Oprah Winfrey Show, live from Chicago five days a week. “I know what they’re saying,” Winfrey guessed. “They’re saying, ‘That her? I think that’s her. Nah. Can’t be her. She wouldn’t be comin’ here lookin’ like that.’ ”
Upstairs, in an office about half her size, she sat at a desk garnished with a four-slice toaster, while her hair was given its bounce, her wardrobe coordinated and checked by a woman hired to do just that. An associate producer squeezed through the cluster, perched herself on a couch cluttered with laudatory plaques, inscribed books, unneeded gifts and other detritus of TV fame. She began a briefing on the day’s show, suggesting a line of questioning that Winfrey “hated,” a word she uses a lot. The associate producer wheedled. Winfrey refused. The associate producer pouted. Winfrey dug in, the big-eyed, girlish smile fading. Finally the associate producer wheeled out her ultimate weapon, the unthinkable reproach. She turned to her boss and said, nodding sagely, “You’ve changed.” Winfrey sighed and asked to hear the questions again.
That night at dinner she had chocolate mud cake topped with fresh raspberries and vanilla ice cream.
In the past five months, since the national syndication of her talk show, Winfrey has become the most endearing voice on television, her show so popular that Phil Donahue must be wondering where he went wrong, watching his weight all these years. She claims not to be in competition with him, although you wouldn’t know it, so great is her delight whenever she looks at overnight ratings and sees her show beating his. They have different styles, of course, Donahue coming at you hard and smart and Winfrey sidling up soft and accessible. You wish you were on her show; you’re relieved that you’re not on his. “He’d do nuclear disarmament much better than I would,” she says. “He’d have all the stats, be very thorough, and I’d be accused of being overemotional.”
She is instinct barely slowed by preparation. She didn’t do her homework when she was a kid, got A’s, and the lesson stuck. She is better at orchestrating than interviewing, better at playing her guests against each other and the audience than at probing one-on-one. She has a mind as quick as any in television, yes, Carson and Letterman included, and she has honed the Carsonian two-step of seeing the obvious, then stating it funnier than anyone else could. On a recent show, after a panel of rich bachelors were dullishly nodding agreement on how they never expected to sleep with a woman on the first date, she turned to the slickest of them and said, “How about you, Jimmy Jams? You don’t look like you say, ‘Let’s wait.’ ”
The ratings of The Oprah Winfrey Show have been almost twice what was hoped for, boosted immeasurably by the recognition that followed her Academy Award-nominated performance as Sofia in The Color Purple, perhaps helped along again by her small role in Native Son, in which she plays the mother of a black man terrorized into murdering a white woman. She complains that her boyfriend, Stedman Graham, missed most of her performance when they went to see Native Son because he was slow parking the car.
At age 32, she lives in an $800,000, four-bathroom high-rise condo, makes movies whenever she gets a little time off, receives 50 requests to speak each week and earns a nice living. She won’t say what she makes, but she does say this: “I have allotted myself to personally only spend a million dollars this year. That’s how much I’m giving myself to play with. I can do that without worrying if this ends, will I have enough to eat.” Is it any wonder, then, that her staff, which consists mostly of women under 30 who seem to be working and dieting all the time, is always saying to her, just teasing but ever alert for warning signs, “You’ve changed.” The difficulty in deciding whether or not she has is knowing what she was to begin with.
She was born at home in Kosciusko, Miss., the product of an unexpected and never-repeated union that she calls “a one-day fling under an oak tree.” Her father was 20, her mother 18, and she spent her first six years with her grandmother, who raised her in classic rural style: “She could whip me for days and never get tired.” At 3, she began reciting in church on holidays, and by 4, the folks roundabouts were proclaiming, “That child is gifted.” At 6, she started living part of the time with her mother in Milwaukee and the rest of the time with her father in Nashville, finally settling in with her mother when she was 9. That was when a pattern of abuse by men and rebellion against her mother began. She says her mother worked hard and wanted the best for her but had little idea of how to achieve it. Winfrey patterned her role in Native Son after her mother, and she says one of her lines in the film particularly reflects her mother’s helplessness: “I did all I know how…and if I left anything undone, it’s just ’cause I didn’t know and ’cause I didn’t see.”
At 9, she was raped by a teenage cousin who was baby-sitting. He took her to the zoo and bought her ice cream so she wouldn’t tell. That year, in the playground, a schoolmate told her how babies were made, and she says the worst horror of the rape was going through the entire fifth grade believing she was pregnant. “Every time I had a stomachache, I thought I was pregnant and asked to go to the bathroom so if I had it nobody could see,” she says. “That for me was the terror: Was I going to have it, how would I hide it, all the people would be mad at me, how could I keep it in my room without my mother knowing?” Throughout the next five years she was repeatedly abused by three other men, trusted family friends. She says she allowed the fondling to continue because she liked the attention and didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. “And,” she adds, “I think a lot of the confusion and guilt comes to the child because it does feel good.”
She first revealed that she had been an abused child during an emotional moment on one of her shows two years ago. Now she speaks about those days calmly and distantly, as though she were talking about someone else.
“I saw one of those men the other day when I went to see my mother in Milwaukee,” she said.
Did he have anything to say?
“Nothing. He doesn’t say anything.”
She says she is finally at peace with her mother. She bought a house for her and has begun stressing the good that her mother tried to do. “I forgive her for any anger and hostility, and she forgives me,” Oprah says. Growing up in Milwaukee, she lied, broke curfew, stole from her mother’s purse, ran away from home and tried to date “everything with pants on.” Once, when her mother refused to buy her a fashionable set of eyeglasses, she fabricated a break-in at her home in which she was knocked unconscious, her glasses shattering. Another time, after her mother said her un-housebroken puppy had to go, she concocted another perilous adventure, one in which the intrepid puppy routed burglars. To set the scene, she threw her mother’s jewelry out the window. That did it. Her mother decided to put her in a detention home for troubled girls, but the home was filled, so the 13-year-old went back to Nashville to live in her father’s small brick house.
Vernon Winfrey, 53, is a small, trim man with three jobs. He is a part-time city councillor, a co-owner of a general store and a full-time barber whose shops are located in a tired but respectable neighborhood, one with a little too much trash in the yards and not quite enough paint on the houses. Inside his whitewashed, cinder-block shop a sign reads: “Attention teenagers. If you are tired of being hassled by unreasonable parents, now is the time for action. Leave home and pay your own way while you still know everything.”
Even today Vernon Winfrey—called Mr. Winfrey by youngsters, Winfrey by close friends and relatives—quietly dispenses the same sort of unqualified advice that his daughter learned to obey. He recalls that the first point of business upon her return was ridding her of some peculiar ideas about calling him “Pops” and wearing very short skirts. None of these ideas had much of a shelf life in the Winfrey household, and she quickly returned to respectable manners and dress. He says that back in those days kids would get either a whippin’ or a whoopin’, the whoopin’ being much the more painful, and he never had to whoop Oprah, just look at her the way his daddy used to look at him, dropping his chin to his chest and looking down out of the corner of his eyes. He believes that she still would pay attention to him, if it ever came down to that. “I don’t think she’d want to do anything too contrary to my thinking,” he says. He never did have much luck getting her to do her homework, and that bothered him, but she kept coming home with good grades, saying, “Daddy, what are you complaining about?” He finally gave up.
Oprah was by all accounts a success in Nashville, winning the 1971 Miss Fire Prevention contest and getting a reporting job on a local radio station while still in high school. She wanted to leave Nashville for college, go off and see how other people lived, but her father told her there was plenty for her to learn at Tennessee State, so she stayed at home. College was trying for a young black girl uninterested in the compelling black issues of the day. Winfrey says she retains neither fond memories nor good friends from college. “They all hated me—no, they resented me. I refused to conform to the militant thinking of the time. I hated, hated, hated college. Now I bristle when somebody comes up and says they went to Tennessee State with me. Everybody was angry for four years. It was an all-black college, and it was in to be angry. Whenever there was any conversation on race, I was on the other side, maybe because I never felt the kind of repression other black people are exposed to. I think I was called ‘nigger’ once, when I was in fifth grade.”
She identifies herself first as a woman, next as a black woman, not at all as a black spokesperson, although she is in tremendous demand to be one. “Whenever I hear the words ‘community organization’ or ‘task force,’ I know I’m in deep trouble,” she says, adding, “People feel you have to lead a civil rights movement every day of your life, that you have to be a spokeswoman and represent the race. I understand what they’re talking about, but you don’t have to do it, don’t have to do what other people want you to do. Blackness is something I just am. I’m black. I’m a woman. I wear a size 10 shoe. It’s all the same to me.”
Not so to the viewers, who have found in Winfrey a comfortable and un-threatening bridge between the white and the black cultures. She is equally adept at amusing a black audience with what she calls her “voices from my Negro past” (“Ofray, I would like to say one thing for you. If I do not come home with your autograph, my husband he will keel me”)or at tweaking the la-di-da ladies of an all-white social club with the relentless whiteness of their lives. (“Oh, so you women do know what a switch is. I thought that all of you here had profound discussions with your 3-year-olds: ‘Oh, Jennifer, do you want to tell Mummy why you were bad?’ “) She grumbles often but not very seriously about the quality of her fame, that Diana Ross would never get treated with such familiarity. “People don’t stop me on the street like a star and flutter and ask for my autograph. They stop me and say, ‘Wait right here. I’m gonna get a pen,’ or they see me coming down the block and say, ‘Hey, c’mere.’ ” Several hours after making that claim, she was walking to her seat at a Lionel Richie concert when a teenage girl rushed up to her and screeched, “Stop! Wait right there!” then ran off to get a pen. Winfrey waited, smiling smugly at those who doubted her word.
She says there is another common reaction she dreads: “Women, always black women, 300 to 400 lbs., waddle up to me, rolling down the street and say, ‘You know, people are always confusin’ me for you.’ I know when they’re coming. I say, ‘Here comes another woman who thinks she looks like me.’ ” For the record, Winfrey weighs 190 lbs., is almost 5’7″ tall and wears a size 14, although she purposely (and joyfully) ate her way up to a size 18 for the role of Sofia in The Color Purple. Her size is such a significant topic in Chicago that a local newspaper columnist recently called the station to check out false rumors that she had dropped to a 12.
She has indisputably changed physically since moving to Chicago almost three years ago. She gained 20 lbs. in the first two weeks, nervously snacking from room service, and then went on a diet with the intention of losing 40 pounds. Since starting the diet—actually, many, many diets—she has picked up another 25. “I say losing weight is very, very important to me, and I think it’s very, very important to me, but I really, really like food. It’s my comfort, my warm hug,” she says.
If she has changed since syndication and stardom, it is not in her desire to accommodate. She signs autographs endlessly, silently reciting Bible verses when her patience deteriorates. She still tries to skim and sign all replies to fan mail prepared by her staff—she has been known to take suitcases filled with letters on trips—but in recent months her mail has doubled and doubled again, to about 2,000 letters a week. She is falling desperately behind, and the staff has ordered an automatic pen. Nor is her fortitude in the cause of self-promotion as limitless as it might seem. During a recent promotional trip to Houston and Dallas that began with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call and continued with appearances and interviews throughout the day, she made an announcement to her staff just prior to the start of an evening reception. She said, giddily, “If you don’t stop them, I’m going to run naked and scream.” She hates what she calls “teeny, tiny talk,” and claims that at cocktail parties, “I always find myself idling toward the shrimp bar.” She gives herself away when bored, lapsing into a condescending lady-to-the-manor-born tone of voice that she never uses on her show or in normal conversation. She says that was the voice she used in her days as a Baltimore TV anchorwoman, which is probably why she never became a network TV anchorwoman.
At home she is one of those anxious women who cleans before the housekeeper arrives, just to make sure the housekeeper doesn’t get a bad impression. “I don’t want her to think a pig lives here.” Her apartment is continuously undergoing renovation, but that barely hinders her life-style, since she hates to cook and is almost never at home. When she is there, she is either sleeping or rushing out the door eating her favorite room-service breakfast of toasted bagel, cream cheese, avocado and bacon. Stedman Graham, her boyfriend, sometimes stays over, but Oprah would like it pointed out, in case her father is reading, that the apartment has three bedrooms. Also for her father: “I always say my prayers at night on my knees. Stedman does, too.”
Graham, 35, a former Hardin-Simmons basketball player with a graduate degree in education, is the director of a fledgling program called “Athletes Against Drugs.” He is 6’6″ and so good-looking that her staff warned her against going out with him. “They figured if he looked like that, he had to be either a jerk or want something,” she says. She has never been married, although she dramatically threatened to throw herself off a bridge about a dozen years ago when William “Bubba” Taylor, now a Nashville mortician, refused to marry her. (“I’m not a marrying-type person,” says Taylor, 40, still a bachelor.) Her relations with men, skewed in childhood, remained unstable for years as she went through a series of boyfriends who mistreated her, emotionally rather than physically. She says, “Someone tells you that you’re wonderful, you wonder what’s wrong with them. Somebody tells me I’m horrible, I’d say, ‘This is wonderful. He understands me. I can grow.’ I’d have some arrogant egomaniac dog telling me I was too self-centered, and I’d be thinking, ‘Thank you so much for telling me. I need to work on that.’ ”
She calls Graham “the kindest man I’ve ever met,” and he does seem to appear unexpectedly on her worst days, when she most needs comforting and support. She often works days when she is scheduled to do a live show, tape a second show, give several interviews, then fly off for a promotional appearance at a mall. Graham seems amazed that she would desire such a frantic life-style, deliberately avoiding normality. When she is surrounded, as she seems to be constantly these days, by reporters, photographers, retainers and fans, he wonders if she can differentiate between the people who are meaningful in her life and the people who only want to be around a celebrity. “Who’s here after all these people are gone? Who really cares about her?” he wondered one afternoon, slumped in a seat in Vernon Winfrey’s barber shop, while people from the neighborhood came by to congratulate her, photograph her, touch her, even sing to her. “I don’t think she really understands,” he continued, “or maybe she understands and hasn’t let that understanding affect her. But Oprah has been through so much, a tough childhood, a broken family, that it’s kind of hard to say this is something she shouldn’t enjoy.”
Sometimes, when she is talking about her childhood in Mississippi, she remembers how it was to sit in her grandmother’s lap on the front porch during a thunderstorm, smelling the dust, unafraid because Grandma was holding her tightly and explaining softly that “God don’t mess with his children.” That isolated rural life seems, in the recalling, almost idyllic, filled with a serenity she never finds in Chicago. She is asked whether those might have been the best days of all, and she replies without hesitation, “Who are we kidding? These are.”