So what’s the most reprehensibly ignorant thing Oprah’s ever said? The competition is incredibly steep, even if you’re only counting what’s been said on-air. If you go ahead and allow in all that Winfrey’s said off-air, too–much of which we’re treated to in Kitty Kelley’s Oprah: A Biography–the winner, it turns out, is still something that played on TV. Whenever you’re on television talking as much as Oprah, you’re guaranteed to drop some doozies, but most of us could talk every waking and sleeping moment of our lives and never say anything so repulsive or stupid as what Oprah said on the day the parents of the late Ron Goldman came to visit, and talk about what O.J. Simpson had done to their son. “We as a country have been able to move on,” Oprah admonished Fred Goldman. “I would hope you would [be able to move on and] get peace.” “It’s insulting to believe we would ever be able to get peace,” Kim Goldman said back to Oprah, who replied, “I did not mean to be insulting.” Which only goes to show what we already know: the truly obnoxious do it without even meaning to.
Kelley has well established herself by now as an avid traveler of the low roads, and she travels them here: from Oprah’s dirt-poor childhood in Mississippi, to her early sexual m0lestation by an uncle, and then teenage pregnancy and sexual promiscuity (perhaps even prostitution, if her sister is to be believed), and then on into her early career in Baltimore, where she had a traumatic affair with a married man that scarred her deeply, and became one of many Worst Moments of Oprah’s Life. (Even earlier in her career, in Tennessee, she had had an affair with John Tesh, who was not married but who still had the signal disadvantage of being John Tesh. One night, according to the testimony of a later confidant of Tesh’s, he “looked down and saw his white body next to [Oprah's] black body and couldn’t take it anymore….He told me later he felt very guilty about it.”)
Oprah has always refused to identify the man she had an affair with in Baltimore, disclosing everything, it seems, except his name. (And when you look at her self-described suicidal depression resulting from this episode, her choice of Anna Karenina as a book-club selection, decades later, makes a much more poignant kind of sense.) But that’s what friends are for, and back in Baltimore Oprah didn’t have the kind of muscle that can get your friends to sign non-disclosure agreements. So we know he was a Baltimore DJ named Tim Watts, and Oprah, according to Kelley, “was so obsessed with the six-foot disc jockey that she once ran after him in her nightgown and threw herself on the hood of his car to try to make him stay with her. Another time she blocked the front door of her apartment, screaming, ‘Don’t go, don’t leave,’ and then threw his keys down the toilet.”
Oprah has given similar details about this affair herself, on her show and in interviews–it’s part of how she’s built her constituency of mistreated women, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. And if Tim Watts is kicking himself about having discarded a future billionaire, maybe he can find some solace in the knowledge that if it hadn’t been for his rejection of Oprah, she may have never become a billionaire at all, because she may have never left Baltimore for Chicago and national syndication; and then, once there, she may have never tapped so deeply into the confessional-inspirational mode that made her such a success.
She had already done daytime TV in Baltimore, having been taken off the newsdesk for general incompetence and un-likability. But Chiacago is where she really found her voice, and it’s where she found her national audience, too. She made her claim as Everywoman, long before it became the refrain in her theme song, and yet there is little about her life as it’s been lived after Baltimore that remotely resembles that of most women, and not just because it’s a life so lavishly funded. As one of her longtime acquaintances caustically notes, “She figured out early that the only way to have a successful career and make money–big money–was to delete husbands and children and carpools from life’s agenda. None of those problems touch Oprah in the golden sphere in which she lives. Yet she still addresses our issues of husbands and children and carpools as if they were her issues, as if she really is Everywoman….It’s quite amazing.”
But Oprah does have a husband, of course, even if many assume Stedman Graham is just an elaborate beard standing in for her “best friend,” Gayle King. You can be sure Kelley devotes plenty of space to this matter, none of it conclusive, of course. One friend talks of nearly “faint[ing] the first time I saw a picture of Stedman Graham, because he looked exactly like Tim [Watts]….I thought, ‘Wow. Oprah has found a replica for Tim in Stedman.’” Meanwhile, there are many who believe “that her tormented four-year affair with Tim Watts, who was married at the time, plus seriously involved with another woman when he was seeing Oprah, had so blindsided her that she was wrung out, emotionally and sexually, that she was never able to make herself vulnerable to any man again. Instead, she poured all her sexual energies into her career.”
None of this privacy-invasion would matter with the same kind of meaning if it weren’t for Oprah having sold herself as the sum of her personal struggles–as someone whose tragic-triumphant life qualifies her to help shape the lives of others, the whole enterprise driven by “her philosophy of life with its perplexing mix of crass materialism and uplifting spirituality,” to use Kelley’s perfectly apt phrase. In light of this, it’s interesting to track, over the stretch of Kelley’s pages, all those aforementioned Worst Moments of Oprah’s Life. Her weight struggles are one chronic moment, the ongoing moment that she has learned to live with, but then there are the set pieces. She once called the trial in which she was sued by the beef industry the worst moment of her life, and about the sex scandals occurring at her school in South Africa, she said, “This has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating, experience of my life. When I first heard about it, I spent about a half hour crying, moving from room to room in my house. I was so stunned, I couldn’t even wrap my brain around it.” When her movie adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved failed at the box office, she said, “I was beyond hurt. I was stunned. I was devastated by the reaction.” Then she said:
Like a heroin addict goes to heroin, I went to carbs. I tried praying about it and I gave myself a 30-day limit: If I didn’t feel better, I was heading to a psychiatrist. I asked God what this experience was supposed to teach me. Eventually I realized I was allowing myself to feel bad because of my attachment to an expectation that 60 million people would see the film. When I let go of that, I was healed.
In other words, it’s been a charmed life for Oprah since she became a billionaire. (And one of the most fascinating hard facts in Kelley’s book, something I’d had no idea about, pertains directly to her becoming a billionaire. What are the chances that the first female and male black billionaires–Oprah and BET founder Robert L. Johnson–would both, aside from having made their fortunes in television, have been born in the same podunk town in Mississippi, eight years apart?) She’s cracked the pandora’s box of her private life wide open, and yet she wants to control the terms by which it’s glimpsed, making virtually everyone who enters her life sign a legally binding non-disclosure agreement: not just those who work for her on her show and in business, but everyone from her caterers to her florists, her party planners and her interior decorators, her upholsterers, painters, and electricians, her plumbers and gardeners and pilots, her security guards, her veterinarian.
This is what Kitty Kelley has been up against, and she’s done an admirable job putting together the dossier on Oprah. (And dossier is the right kind of word for the kind of book you go to for every reason except the quality of its prose. Kelley is an author who will describe “platters of shrimp the size of iPods,” and even though you understand that it’s the shrimp and not the platters that are the size of iPods, the question of what kind of iPods is left wide open. As for what kind of writer would dare write this way–that’s a question that perhaps Kelley’s own biographer can answer.) Her book has sold less than it would have without Oprah’s power suppressing it, but more than it would have if it were about someone less powerful. Talk-show hosts wanted nothing to do with Kelley’s book, but the movies, apparently, do, and we’ll see if such a project can be brought off free of stifling interference. Meanwhile, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) is now live and real, and it’s based out in Hollywood, half a continent away from Chicago. Kelley’s got a pull-quote on that, too, and it’s coming straight from Oprah, who never did sign a gag agreement toward herself: “Why would anyone stay in Chicago? It’s freezing here, and I have a mansion in Montecito that I haven’t been able to enjoy.”
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