Oprah Winfrey on Forgoing Motherhood, Being 'Counted Out' and the Meeting That Turned OWN Around
Interviewed at her home, THR's Sherry Lansing Leadership Award winner opens up about how "fame and success made me soft," her candid advice to talk show hosts Queen Latifah and Steve Harvey, and the truth about the reports that stress and a crushing workload drove her over the edge: "I never had a nervous breakdown."
The story of Winfrey's rise from poverty and abuse in rural Mississippi by now is well known.
By the time she entered elementary school, she had decided she wanted to be a missionary. She'd save her lunch money and urge other kids to do the same. "I'd collect it in a little cup and take it back to church on Sunday to give to the starving children of Costa Rica," Winfrey recalls. "I always felt that whatever you have, you have to share it."
It was that philosophy that inspired OWN many years later. When she and Zaslav first sat down in April 2007, she was struck by the idea of launching a network of higher consciousness. But Winfrey, who watches little TV (exceptions include ABC's Scandal), misjudged the audience. The series of disappointments came fast.
The early days were marred by delays, management upheaval and reports that OWN might not survive. A year in, Discovery had nearly doubled its initial budget, and the ratings -- like the press surrounding it -- were dismal. After decades of unremitting success, failure hit Winfrey hard: "I had become so accustomed to succeeding that I no longer even remembered what it was like to fail."
The turnaround began when Winfrey redefined what the network needed to be. "We were too earnest," says Zaslav. OWN has since broadened, pushing into other genre's with Perry's shows (The Haves and the Have Nots, Love Thy Neighbor, For Better or Worse), embracing the African-American audience and welcoming eye-catching programming such as a Lindsay Lohan docuseries and a two-part Lance Armstrong interview.
At this stage of Winfrey's life, she has several decades' worth of wisdom to share -- and legacy, it seems, is top of mind.
One of the more valuable lessons she has tried to pass along to the girls, many from impoverished beginnings like hers, is one of managing success -- and the wealth that can accompany it. "When you're the most successful person in your family, in your neighborhood and in your town, everybody thinks you're the First National Bank," she says, "and you have to figure out for yourself where those boundaries are."
What Winfrey learned is that people's needs were in direct proportion to what they thought she had. "I got to the point where nobody ever asked me for anything less than $5,000. I felt pressured for a long time to say yes, because I thought, 'I can't lie and say I don't have it. My salary is printed in the paper,' " she laughs, looking back at all her charity: "I've bought more houses and cars than I can even tell you."
Despite everything she has achieved, Winfrey is aware nobody can have everything. Her work in The Butler, for instance, hasn't led to a deluge of other offers, and she surmises: "That's the reality of being 59 and female, not to mention a woman of color."
Still, she is thinking about Broadway next, trying to determine when she'd have the time. "It's something I would like to do, but I'd like to get settled in my house, have a life and then make the next move," she says. "I'd just like to be in the space where I really feel like I have nothing to prove." Is she close? "I think I'm just about there."
She readily admits to disappointments -- not least how quickly people wrote her off when she left her daily show. She describes Graham as her foundation of support and, at times, her reality check. "He would say, 'You think you're going to rest on your laurels? You think anybody cares about 25 years?' And I'd go, 'Yeah, I kinda felt people did. Twenty-five years means nothing?' "
In fact, it was Graham, not Winfrey, who kept track of all that was said in the press. "The other day I said to Stedman, 'I hear it was bad,' and he goes, 'Oh no, no, no, it was worse than bad,' " she says. "Same thing happened with Gayle. I said, 'I heard people were counting me out.' And she goes, 'No. You were counted out.' "
But she refuses to dwell on such things. She is, after all, America's embodiment of optimism. As Obama said in awarding her the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor a U.S. president can bestow: "Oprah's greatest strength has always been her ability to help us discover the best in ourselves."
As for Winfrey herself, she's still on the path to getting there. "This has been the great climb of my life," she says of the past three years. "But I still have a long way to go.