Oprah Winfrey reveals the life-changing moment when Joan Rivers called her out for gaining weight on her Tonight Show debut

By Julie Mazziotta
Updated December 13, 2016 04:49 PM
Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/Getty Images

In 1985, Oprah Winfrey knew she was gaining weight — but never expected Joan Rivers to point it out during her national television debut on The Tonight Show.

Winfrey was an up-and-coming star as the host of AM Chicago when she was invited to be a guest on The Tonight Show. But with a busy career, her eating habits had gone downhill ever since she first made headlines as the winner of Miss Black Tennessee in 1971, and she had gained 42 lbs. — something Rivers was quick to notice. The media mogul recalls the incident in an excerpt from her new cookbook, Food, Health and Happiness, out on Jan. 3.

“It was all going smoothly; I was starting to settle in. And then it happened: Joan interrupted with perhaps the only question I hadn’t prepared for: ‘So how’d you gain the weight?’ ” Winfrey, 62, writes in the excerpt, which she shared on her website Tuesday. “Wait a minute — did she just use my national television debut to ask me why I was so fat? The studio started spinning. The word fat…fat…faaaaatttttt reverberated in my brain.”

“Joan sat behind Johnny’s big wooden desk, telling me that she didn’t want to hear my excuses and that I shouldn’t have let this happen. The audience laughed nervously as she wagged her flawlessly manicured finger at me, pointed out that I was still “a single girl,” and challenged me to come back 15 pounds lighter next time she hosted. And the whole time I just sat there smiling breezily, wanting nothing more than to crawl under my chair.”

Winfrey says she went back to Chicago, determined to lose 15 lbs., and started the first of many diets — from Atkins to Grapefruits to Liquids. And while some worked, they were only temporary fixes, and her weight would often soar back up.

She eventually realized that the reason she turned to food for comfort was because of lack of love as a child.

“So many of us just want to fill up on a large helping of unconditional love. When I was a girl, there wasn’t always enough of that to go around. As an adult, though, I came to realize that even when people have the time and strength to care for you, the deepest care must ultimately come from your own self-acceptance, self-respect, and hard-earned truth,” Winfrey says.

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“When I feel emotionally depleted or deprived, when I’m overwhelmed by life’s pressures, food has always been my drug of choice — the way alcohol or gambling or shopping might be for someone else. But none of these are fixes. They’re all just empty promises. They don’t actually fill you up inside. They’re like junk food for the soul.”

“When I manage to nourish myself with the stuff that really matters, food tends to be much less complicated.”