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One has to admire Kitty Kelley’s chutzpah. For decades, she has managed, unauthorized naturally, to take on really big people as her subjects — Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra among them — and this time around is no exception.
Nowadays, what with the blogosphere, TMZ and kids baring their souls on Facebook, it’s hard to imagine there’s any audience for a so-called “authorized” biography of a celebrity — privacy is just oh so 20th century. To have readers, a biographer simply has to gun it. I’m not justifying Kelley’s approach, I’m just saying that if you want to make money …
Part of the irony of Kelley’s “Oprah: A Biography,” however, is that Winfrey built her success around getting folks, mostly women, to spill their hearts out in front of millions. She also did a lot of it herself, so there’s not exactly that much we don’t already know. OK, there is one page about a brief fling with John Tesh, of all people, but other than that.
Still, work went into this effort. Oprah is a protected institution, and to try to pick it apart and reconstitute it is no mean task, especially when you don’t have the help of the institution itself. And why would you? I’m guessing that anyone who thinks Kelley is about to turn her gaze on them would run the other way. A lot of other people did talk, however, and what emerges is a complex portrait of a personality full of contradictions, weaknesses and calculation as well as those positive traits we all know about. I would doubt, however, if anyone who regularly watches “The Oprah Winfrey Show” actually would tune out because of the book.
Kelley seemingly has amassed 25 years worth of allegations and criticisms in 524 pages and managed to tell, tacky and titillating parts aside, an instructive tale about what it took for a dirt-poor black kid (well, maybe not so dirt poor) from Kosciusko, Miss., to become America’s richest and arguably most influential woman.
No doubt Winfrey’s lawyers are all over this “so-called biography,” as she off-handedly dismissed it, for possible libel claims, but in many cases in the book official versions of the facts as put out by the Winfrey machine simply boil down to: She exaggerated, either a little or quite a lot, depending on whom Kelley spoke to and what ax they have to grind.
There are a lot of people giving their version of the Oprah they know or remember mostly in response to Oprah’s own words to interviewers or statements on the show. (Several media outlets have refused to discuss the book out of “respect” for Winfrey. Oprah chum Gayle King had the best line, quipping that the tome is not likely to be “an Oprah Book Club selection.” It is, though, an instant best-seller.)
The author apparently spoke to 850 sources, many on the record, including the delightfully homespun “Aunt” Katherine Estes. Deterred from speaking to Oprah herself, Kelley also combed through 2,500-odd clips from Oprah’s public pronouncements.
The juxtapositions are arranged to dramatize the gap between Oprah the public persona and the private person who is, or has had to become, like many of the rich and famous, increasingly calculating and controlling. Like just about everyone who achieves celebrity status, the Queen of Talk has morphed into a brand, and everything, if Kelley can be believed, is orchestrated to protect and burnish her image.
Consider how Estes describes Oprah’s philanthropy: “She does a lot of good things for people with her money, but it’s really easy when you have that much. And Oprah doesn’t bang a nail for Habitat unless her cameras are running. … Nothing is wasted with that girl.”
What the book argues is that Winfrey not only has marketed her show and magazine meticulously but also dispensed carefully tweaked personal info as part of that overall package.
“That’s why the world needs unauthorized bios,” Kelley has said on various interviews.
Despite tons of minutiae to wade through, I did find well-argued the stages of Winfrey’s own rise; she did not spring fully armed as Athena did from the head of Zeus with all the answers about dysfunctional relationships and recipes for self-realization fully spelled out. In the beginning, she was very much a chubby black woman who had, with luck and pluck, landed a talk show of her own, which was quite an achievement and a challenge at the time. But eventually she evolved into an influencer of the first order and one who essentially transcends race.
There’s also a similarly interesting through-line in the book about the evolution of the talk-show form that Winfrey was instrumental in shaping.
Take how during the mid-1980s she routed the early fringe leader Phil Donahue from his perch, sending him scurrying from Chicago to New York to escape her aura. For decades, Donahue had been jumping into audiences with a microphone and talking about — yes, it’s true — important issues of the day as well as more pop-culture topics. But in 1986, Winfrey began trouncing him in the ratings.
“She changed the ballgame,” a Penn State professor tells Kelley. “She started the down-and-dirty exploitative show, the trailer trash, the unwashed parading of dysfunction. Donahue tried to compete but he couldn’t do it as well or as badly. He was too smart.”
Then came an iconic moment that in retrospect changed the culture, not just the ratings dynamic with her rivals.
In the first chapter, Kelley recounts the now-historic episode of Dec. 5, 1985, when Oprah aired a segment on rape, incest and sexual molestation — an episode that essentially changed the direction and tone of daytime talk forever.
“No one had any idea she was about to blur the long-standing line in television between discussion and confession, between interviewing and self-revelation. Between objectivity and a fuzzy area of fantasy and factual manipulation,” Kelley writes.
That was the show in which Oprah first blurted out that she too had been a victim of abuse. “The same thing happened to me,” she said, sobbing into the arms of a guest in the audience who had confessed she had been impregnated by her own father. Kelley is good at conjuring the motives at work in Oprah’s performance: “Oprah flung her arms around (the guest) and then burst into tears herself, covering her eyes with her left hand. With the mic in her right hand she signaled to the control room. She said later it was to stop the cameras, but they kept rolling.”
Even then the media manipulator, Kelley suggests.
Given the national reaction to Oprah’s own confession and the show’s ratings, sexual abuse in all its forms and permutations became the topic par excellence for Winfrey.
This being a tell-all, Kelley spends much time digging into Winfrey’s own sexual proclivities and indirectly making the case that they influenced the topics tackled on her show. A five-year affair she had with a cad named Tim Watts is particularly instructive in that it shows Winfrey wasn’t always the person in charge, and that quite likely inspired her to encourage other women to get out of debilitating relationships.
As for confessions about her own sexual abuse, several family members dismiss them as fantasy. “I don’t believe a bit of it,” Estes tells Kelley, even suggesting that the timing of her revelation had to do with publicity when taking her show national. “That story helped launch Oprah and make her what she is today,” Estes adds. “I don’t hold with telling lies, but in this case I forgive Oprah because she has done so much for other people.”
Back to Tesh, who has in the wake of the book confirmed the two dated when they worked in Nashville during the early ’80s. What’s arresting is how much things have changed in 30 years — in this case for the good.
“He looked down one night and saw his white body next to (Oprah’s) black body and couldn’t take it anymore,” he purportedly told a woman he dated years later. The social pressures around interracial dating were simply too great.
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