Oprah Winfrey on Forgoing Motherhood, Being 'Counted Out' and the Meeting That Turned OWN Around
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue.
It's an unseasonably warm November day as I wind my way through the roads of Montecito, Calif., to an estate tucked behind an imposing gate. A security guard checks my credentials as I arrive. I'm a bit tense, but who wouldn't be? In a matter of minutes, I'll be interviewing the most famous woman in the world.
The iron rails open to reveal grounds so exquisite, they could be confused for a five-star resort. The guard has hopped on a golf cart and now is leading me through manicured greens that stretch 42 acres. For a second, I catch a glimpse of the property's main house, a neoclassical edifice in the distance. Scurrying about is a sea of workers, who are a year or so into a remodeling project still months from completion. We take a sharp left, meandering down a long cobblestone road toward another property, this one shielded by a wall of bricks. I park my car and am ushered through a door that leads to a modest, multibedroom cottage -- and suddenly I see her, Oprah Winfrey.
She's dressed casually in calf-length khakis, a white button-down shirt and a pair of Jimmy Choo flats she'll soon lose. Her soft curls are pulled off of her face, and she radiates the warmth for which she is well known. I have spoken to her by phone only a handful of times and still she pulls me toward her for an embrace that puts me at ease. Then she steps back and assesses my sartorial decisions for the day. Her eyes fall to my feet, wedged into 5-inch heels, which now I see were overkill.
"Girlllll!" she teases, with bellowing laughter, before leading me to a patio table where a lunch of root vegetable soup and lobster Cobb salad will be served.
Welcome to the world of Oprah, a mix of grandeur and simplicity, the huge and the humble. She's one of the richest women on the planet (worth a reported $2.9 billion, she is the first African-American female billionaire and one of few self-made women at that level). She also is one of the busiest, with her own from-the-ashes TV network (OWN), production company (Harpo), magazine (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a hit film (Lee Daniels' The Butler) that is generating serious awards-season buzz. (Winfrey was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award Dec. 11.) But you'd never know it on this afternoon.
There are no phones in sight, no evidence of handlers or assistants. She laughs readily and easily and makes clear her afternoon is mine. If she launches straight into interviewer mode, eager to know who ranks among my favorite subjects, it is to be expected. She is Oprah, after all, whose daily talk show ruled the airwaves for 25 seasons. The only time edge creeps into her otherwise relaxed demeanor is when I ask about the near "nervous breakdown" she reportedly suffered in 2012. "I never had a nervous breakdown," she insists, noting how Access Hollywood had taken an interview she gave about her overwhelming workload out of context. "I thought that was such sensational exploitation."
It is clear that her memories of that incident -- and the emotions surrounding OWN -- are still raw. And she's the first to admit it.
At one particularly low point in April 2012, Winfrey succumbed to the media's decidedly negative narrative about her then-struggling network. While seated beside longtime friend Gayle King and co-host Charlie Rose for a segment on CBS This Morning, she said, "Had I known it was this difficult, I might have done something else. … If I were writing a book about it, I could call the book 101 Mistakes."
The bout of self-pity infuriated David Zaslav, Discovery CEO, whose company had poured $312 million into the network. Three days later, the executive pulled her and her two top staffers, OWN presidents Sheri Salata and Erik Logan, into a room at the Mandarin Oriental in New York following the channel's upfront, and said: "We are going to change the f---ing narrative. Enough of the 'how hard this is' and 'boy, is this difficult.' It ends now."
Zaslav was right, and Winfrey knew it. She describes a "come to Jesus" talk she had with herself: "What did you expect would happen? You were going to end the Oprah show, go on a little cruise and then step in and everything was going to be fine?"
If anyone is a living, breathing embodiment of "Live Your Best Life," the Winfrey it's-never-too-late-to-improve mission on which OWN was founded, it is Winfrey herself. Rather quickly, and at her direction, the network -- previously a punching bag in media circles -- began to take shape.
In July, Zaslav announced in an earnings call that OWN, a 50-50 partnership between Winfrey and Discovery, was in the black. Headlines such as "Oprah Winfrey isn't quite holding her OWN" gave way to "Oprah Winfrey's OWN becomes profitable faster than execs predicted." The channel, buoyed by a handful of Tyler Perry shows and a collection of Winfrey-fronted series, registered a ratings uptick of 20 percent in its key female demo thus far this year, and cable and satellite operators agreed to pay millions in fees to carry the network going forward. "It makes it sweet," says Logan. "Going through what we went through, we really appreciate where we are today."
Concurrently, Winfrey was at work on The Butler, only her third feature film as an actress in nearly as many decades. The $30 million drama in which she plays the alcoholic wife of a longtime White House manservant has earned $116 million at the box office and made Winfrey the subject of Oscar talk (she was nominated for her debut role in 1985's The Color Purple) -- not bad for a film she had serious doubts about making. She had turned down previous roles director Lee Daniels had offered her in The Paperboy (the part went to Macy Gray) and Prisoners (it moved forward without him), arguing that both were too dark for her liking. "Acting is about going into the space," she says, "and there are just some places that I'm not willing to go."
Though she claims she's "never loved" any experience more than she did Color Purple, she felt the timing was all wrong when Daniels came knocking, just as she was wrestling with all the challenges plaguing OWN. But the idea of being part of a film that could educate audiences about the role women played in the civil rights movement, coupled with Daniels' relentlessness, convinced her to accept, "I went from screaming to crying to pleading and then I caught her at a very calm moment [at her home in] Hawaii," the director says, "and I went straight for the kill."
The result was well worth it. "Winfrey is a full-throttle wonder," wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, "filling her role with heart, soul and a healing resilience."