Dialogue: Oprah Winfrey
For Winfrey, understanding the human common denominator is key to inspiring others.A MIGHTY HEART: Winfrey built a global empire by choosing passion over profits.
When the phone rings, there's no assistant, no publicist -- it's just Oprah Winfrey, calling directly and dead on time. That directness proves to be her hallmark, off-camera as well as on. For the next 45 minutes, she speaks with remarkable candor, never weighing her words or giving the impression that she in any way is censoring herself. Her conversation with The Hollywood Reporter's Christy Grosz and Stephen Galloway started with a discussion about her laser-sharp punctuality. When asked about it, here's what she said:
Oprah Winfrey: Well, I work in a business where so many people make these random decisions to just change their minds at the last minute. And you know, a couple of times I've been stood up for a show. Years ago, I was stood up by a famous person whose name I won't mention. But if I tell you I'm going to do something, even if it means flying all night to do it -- I committed to do something for Quincy Jones in Rome, and (as) the time got closer, I really was just overwhelmed, and it was just going to be impossible for me to get to Rome. But I did it! I flew to Rome. I was on stage for 46 seconds and got on the plane and flew back.
THR: Were you always like that?
Winfrey: Yeah. If you would go back and look at my school records, I was one of those (with) perfect attendance. I learned the meaning of excellence in the third grade because I turned in my book report early to my teacher, Mrs. Driver, and she was so impressed with it she told all the other students. They hated me every day afterwards, but it worked wonders with the rest of the teachers.
THR: And then you had to live up to that.
Winfrey: Then I had to live up to that. Hated by the other kids, but, you know, did pretty well with the teachers. So anyway, of course I'm going to keep the commitment.
THR: Did you become more like that, as you grew older?
Winfrey: I just finished doing a seminar downstairs with a guy who teaches people to play with their strengths, and he was saying that you don't change your personality as you get older -- you just become more of who you are. You really are the same person you were in the playground in third grade.
THR: As you grew up, did anyone mentor you, especially in the business arena?
Winfrey: I didn't have a lot of mentors, you know? I happened into being a businesswoman. It has never been a goal of mine, and I wouldn't necessarily even say it's a strength of mine.
THR: But you've been so successful in business.
Winfrey: I have to really work at it. I have to work at disciplining myself. The business of the business tires me out. What I would rather do is just stand out there, in front of the camera -- or not in front of the camera, 'cause it doesn't matter to me if I'm talking to a flight attendant or an audience of 10 million people -- about concepts, ideas, principles that cause people to have these "Aha!" moments. That is what I am. At heart, I am a teacher. But I've made a lot of mistakes.
THR: Can you name any?
Winfrey: The biggest mistake in the beginning was not understanding that you need infrastructure and systems in order to run a business. And that there's a reason why there's a hierarchy in reporting systems in business. You can't handle a business like friendship. I started out with four or five of us, and then there were eight, and then there were 22. And I kept trying to manage it as though there were still the four of us. And it wasn't until 1994 that I actually brought in someone to be president and organize the systems. I was a crazy person, trying to do it all.
THR: How do you find the right people?
Winfrey: I used to do for every employee -- now I have 700, so I can't -- but I used to do what I call "the gut check." I would just spend a few minutes doing my own emotional check of how I felt about this person, whether I sensed their honesty. Now, honestly, there are people in the company I probably haven't met. Our building, Harpo, is like a campus. We have a main building where the studio is, and then I have five other buildings. So it's possible that you're working in the dot-com (Oprah.com) and I'd never see you.
THR: How do you keep good people?
Winfrey: People tell me the reason they stay here is because of, uh ... me. And also because of the mission. A vast majority of the people understands that we're not just doing television and haven't been for quite some time. And a vast majority of the people is here because of the principles by which we do television.
THR: Do you have an inner cabinet?
Winfrey: Well yeah, I call it my kitchen cabinet, composed of people who've been here over the years, who have grown to be more than employees. People whose opinions I trust. Maybe six or seven people. Whenever there's a major decision to make, I gather those people in the conference room.
THR: Have you been in a situation where one of them really strongly disagrees with you about the direction of the company?
Winfrey: No. Because, there really is only one direction, and that is to keep getting better. (Pause) Well, let me think about that. ... Well, you know, we're constantly debating around here (about) the balance of the shows. For example, I'm not keen on celebrities, and celebrities sell. That would be, probably, in terms of disagreement (the main arena). My whole career has been based on being truthful in the moment. And if I have to pretend to be interested in something that I'm not interested in, it doesn't work. Many years ago, I'd flown to California, and we were doing a show in California with Tom Cruise on a movie he did about a vampire.
THR: 1994's "Interview with a Vampire."
Winfrey: So we're just all so excited about the Tom Cruise booking. And I didn't see the film until I got to California. And I saw the film and hated it. I mean, I had an abysmal reaction to it! It felt dark and oppressive to me. And this is now two hours before I'm supposed to tape the show there. So we called Tom's publicist, Pat Kingsley. God, nobody wants to call Pat Kingsley! And we say, "You know what, I've seen the movie, and I don't really like it, Pat." And to Tom's credit, he said, "Why don't you just say that?" But my Tom Cruise lesson was this: Never, ever, put yourself in a position where you're going to be promoting something and you don't know what it is. And so, we now have a Tom Cruise rule. No movie gets put on this show, no book gets put on this show to be promoted, unless I've had the opportunity to review it.
THR: Were you surprised at the fallout when he jumped on the sofa?
Winfrey: I was really surprised. Because I thought he was just in the moment.
THR: Going back to the book issue, you had a celebrated case with James Frey, the author who later confessed to making up parts of his memoir "A Million Little Pieces." When it turned out he'd lied, you brought him back on your show. Why?
Winfrey: I felt that I had been had. (After he was accused of lying), I felt passionately about standing up for him, because it had not even occurred to me that the whole book couldn't have been true. And I stood by him, and stepped out on "The Larry King Show." (Later) I felt badly. And I felt that he owed the audience to tell us what was true and what wasn't true.
THR: Even before the Frey incident, you closed the book club down and then revived it. Why?
Winfrey: The responsibility got to be too much for me. I couldn't let somebody else read it (a book) and tell me they thought it was great. And my life just kept getting in the way. The schedule had become too difficult for me. I was doing it every month, and I didn't even realize, "Hey, I'm Oprah! I can change it!"
THR: How do you handle things when they get to be too much?
Winfrey: I've gone back to meditating in the morning because, ah, it was getting a little out of control, to tell you the truth. Just a little out of control. As a matter of fact, a couple of weeks ago I did 11 shows in one week. I did 11 shows! Normally I'm scheduled to do six, but I did 11.
THR: You mentioned responsibility. How much does the responsibility of your show weigh on you?
Winfrey: The show is the least of the responsibility for me. I mean, what you actually see on the air takes the least amount of my time and the least amount of my energy. The (Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa) is a huge, huge, huge responsibility. These are my daughters. Try having 150 adolescent daughters. It is a lot and more than I imagined it to be.
THR: How much has it impacted your life?
Winfrey: As I get off the phone with you, I have six girls waiting in an office to talk to me. Yesterday I talked to four. And I'm going back (to South Africa) again this weekend, so it's impacted me quite a bit. You know, I'm trying to mother these children. And also make sure that I have leadership there that provides them with the best education and the best surroundings possible.
THR: What are the tenets of leadership that you are teaching them?
Winfrey: My role is to create an environment where people can be inspired. I taught there this summer. It was so exciting, because I see myself as a teacher more than anything else. In my class, I taught from (1939's) "The Wizard of Oz," and the tenet was this: You've always had the power, and the power lies within each one of us. And I told them the story of when I was 4 years old, standing on the back porch, watching my grandmother hang clothes on a line, and her saying to me, "You better watch me now, Oprah Gail, because one day you're gonna have to learn how to do this for yourself." And something inside me said, "No, grandmamma, I won't." And I told them, "I've been following that feeling my whole life." And that feeling is the power.
THR: Morally, have you made a decision that you regret?
Winfrey: No. No. Because when you are led by something higher than your personality, your ego self, when you actually can quiet yourself long enough to say "What is the right thing to do?" -- you don't make bad decisions.
THR: There's a fine line between morality and politics. Why did you decide to support Barack Obama for president?
Winfrey: Because I felt it was the right thing to do. And you know, I weighed that: What is the cost to me for doing it? Am I going to lose viewers? I made the decision that I have the right to do it as an American citizen. But I will not use my platform. I can use my own personal voice, but I will not use my platform. I know him well enough to believe in his moral authority. And that is the number one reason why I am supporting him.
THR: Who, as a moral authority, guides you?
Winfrey: Elie Wiesel would be a person that I actually consider a friend and a moral authority. Nelson Mandela. Years ago, I was asked to come stay at his house. I spent 10 days and had 29 meals! And I was a nervous wreck.
THR: It's very interesting that you counted the meals.
Winfrey: Twenty-nine meals! And I was so nervous about it. "Oh my God, what am I going to say?" And Stedman (boyfriend Stedman Graham) brilliantly said, "Stop worrying about what to say. Why don't you just listen?" And that's what I did. And my favorite moment with Nelson Mandela was sitting alone with him, for an hour or so, in his study, reading the Sunday paper, both of us having tea and not saying a word.
THR: Did he teach you anything about leadership?
Winfrey: His humility is transforming. I don't know if it taught me or if it solidified what I already knew. The greater the power, the more humble you can afford to be.
THR: Do you have doubts?
Winfrey: About what?
THR: Yourself? Life?
Winfrey: No, I don't have any doubts. I really don't. Because I live in a very spiritual space -- not a religious space, but I live in a spiritual space where I understand the connection that we all have with each other. It's not just rhetoric for me. I really do understand the common denominator in the human experience.