She's all chat

Oprah Winfrey spent 20 years becoming the most powerful woman in broadcasting. Then she told her viewers to turn off their televisions and pick up a book.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 4, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
main article image

There's an old joke that goes: "I dreamed last night that I met God. And
she was black." In terms of power and sphere of influence, Oprah Winfrey still may not be the supreme being, but she's running pretty close. She's a one-woman industry: talk show host, producer, actress, lobbyist and
philanthropist. In a field traditionally dominated by middle-aged white men
and slim young blond females, she's added diversity with heft and color.
And she brought a serious dose of warm -- and often overheated -- emotion
to a medium once famously described as cool. If she's not God, her success
story is at least undeniably miraculous.

Oprah Gail Winfrey, the biblically misnamed misfit (her mother meant to
call her Orpah, after a figure from the book of Ruth) who became the first
woman to top the Forbes list of America's highest-paid entertainers,
lived a childhood of extremes. Her parents never married; her mom worked as
a maid and collected welfare. As her family splintered, she spent years
shuttling between her grandmother in Kosciusko, Miss., her mother and half-siblings in Milwaukee and her father and stepmother back in the South. Her youth was marked by the kind of wildly divergent experiences that
would later enable her to relate to individuals from an impossibly broad spectrum -- she was a churchgoing girl in a small town, a
poor urban kid crammed into a tiny apartment, a sexually abused child, an
achiever who earned a scholarship to a posh all-white suburban high school,
a promiscuous rebel who ran away, got pregnant and lost the baby.


Eventually she found her way to Tennessee State University, but dropped out when she
snagged an anchor spot on a Nashville news station. She was its first African-American anchor and its first female. She was 19 years old.
Later she moved to a station in Baltimore -- but Oprah didn't just want to report the
news, she wanted to discuss it. She got worked up over the stories she covered. She ad-libbed. It was only when she moved over to
co-hosting a morning show that she found her voice -- concerned, soothing and highly subjective.

After several years in the trenches, Oprah came to Chicago in the early '80s with what was to be a breezy mid-morning chat show. Up against daytime titan
and |bermensch Phil Donahue, plunked down in the middle of a racially
volatile metropolis, Oprah conquered both the color line and the ratings as
if neither existed; within the first week she was already trouncing her silver-haired competition. While Donahue had pioneered the
daytime talk format -- controversial subject matter, wandering host with a
microphone -- it was Oprah who perfected it. Oprah, unlike Phil, was the
first broadcaster who looked like she could be a member of her own audience. She was, for her predominantly female audience, an instantly recognizable best
girlfriend -- the woman whose shoulder you could cry on Monday and the one
who'd be spilling her guts to you about her own problems on Tuesday.

in the first flush of her national success, she declared that all she
really wanted in life was to fit into a size 10 pair of Calvin Kleins. She
was a woman at the top of the world who maintained a very down-to-earth
relationship with her butt. It gave viewers something that Barbara or
Jane or Diane never had or could -- the shock of recognition.


The traumas and triumphs of her early years are remarkable and eventful
enough, but what makes Winfrey unique is her unblinking frankness
about them. Near the beginning of her television career, she first publicly
revealed the molestation she suffered as an adolescent at the hands of
a cousin and uncle. Today, in a climate of rampant celebrity oversharing,
Oprah's initial revelations may not seem particularly unusual or gutsy. At
the time, they were electrifying. Here was a broadcaster who didn't
reassure with bland calm, as rock-solid Walter Cronkite and his ilk had.
Instead, she comforted viewers through the force of the two-way empathy she generated. Audiences, whatever their colors or sizes, looked at Oprah and
saw, for the first time in nonfiction television, themselves. And incredibly, Oprah has held onto her talent for looking at her audience and seeing herself right back.

Just recently, the day after the mass shooting in Littleton, Colo., Oprah
interviewed a teacher at Columbine High School who had lost two of her
students. When the teacher mentioned that she'd coached the kids on the
forensics team, Oprah quietly remarked, "I was on the forensics team,"
before breaking down in sobs. It was, depending on your point of view, a
moment of deep self-absorption or supreme compassion -- a middle-aged black
woman in Chicago had, without even seeming to try, found something in
common with two white suburban teenagers.

It's that trademark brand of "I know, because I've been there" empathy that's her
stock in trade. Each episode of her dozen-year-old, eponymously titled
talk show is equal parts You You You and Me Me Me. Oprah has publicly
battled her weight, discussed her troubled youth and its needy, unhappy
relationships, admitted to smoking cocaine in her 20s and
pondered aloud whether she needs to marry and have children with longtime beau Steadman Graham. The woman whose Harpo production company fanatically guards its privacy and insists on tight-lipped silence from its employees is the same woman whose intimate struggles are as familiar to her audience as their own.


By the time Oprah went national, in September 1986, she was already an
Oscar-nominated actress for "The Color Purple" and relentlessly hyped as
broadcasting's next big thing. As it turned out, she was. For the next
several years she sailed comfortably along on a sun-kissed crest of
success. She collected Emmys and broadcasting awards like they were
seashells on the beach, dominated the ratings, branched out into television
production with projects like "The Women of Brewster Place" and spawned a
seemingly endless supply of talk-show clones. Then, while at the top of her
game, she looked around and made an intriguing observation -- most
daytime talk shows are crap. And she, Oprah, the talented self-made millionaire
businesswoman who'd spent a lifetime idolizing black female leaders like
Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, was becoming a purveyor of
sensationalism and exploitation. So she made a decision.

"I am not going to be able to spend from now until the year 2000 talking
about dysfunction," she declared in 1994. Trash TV was out, empowerment was
in. She began changing the tenor of her show from scandal to self-improvement, and started something she called Oprah's Book Club, a regular reading group to discuss works of merit she'd
chosen and encouraged her audience to read. The reaction was enthusiastic, to say the least.


Oprah's detractors sniff at her viewers' lemming-like obedience -- a blessing from Winfrey can guarantee a bestseller -- but the merit of her choices and the impact on her
audience is not so easily dismissed. The comfortably literary humanities
majors of the world can yawn and declare that they don't need Oprah to tell them what to read, but the person who hasn't picked up a book since high
school, who has never read for pure pleasure, knows, because of Oprah, the transforming power of books. And authors -- from Wally Lamb to Jane Hamilton to Edwidge Danticat, and even big names like Toni Morrison -- have reached a whole new readership.

If it's easy and valid to criticize Oprah's pop psychology format and her sanctimonious derision of the TV genre that unquestionably owes its success
to her (let she who has never done a show on women who've had babies by their fathers throw the first stone), her tireless attention to issues like
child and domestic abuse remain unimpeachable. In 1991, for example, she helped draft and lobby for the National Child Protection Act, to create a
centralized national database of convicted child abusers. Call her self-involved, weight-obsessed, controlling, workaholic or simplistic --
not only won't she disagree, she'll probably do a show on it. (Recent episodes have covered, in true Oprah fashion, unequal relationships and the trials of perfectionism.) But no other celebrity so
intuitively comprehends the power she holds over her audience, or takes
that responsibility so seriously.

Of course, that influence hasn't
escaped the attention of others either, notably Texas cattlemen. They were
so spooked when Oprah announced in 1996 that fear of mad cow disease had permanently turned her off burgers that they blamed her for causing beef
prices to plummet and sued her. Ever resilient, she moved her show to Amarillo for the
trial, won the suit and came out smelling like a rose.


Other entertainers contentedly grab the ratings and wait for the trucks of money to roll up to their mansions. Oprah, while still visibly enjoying the
fruits of her success, has gone one step further. With the spotlight glaring on her, the microphone in her face, the girl from Kosciusko smiles and says, "Now that I have your attention ..." As she publicly struggles with her own demons, with her scars and her weaknesses, she throws down the gauntlet for her audience to do the same. To get out of abusive relationships. To
educate themselves. To even, amazingly, turn off the damn TV and read a book. And if she cries or throws her arms around a guest with a candor that
can be at times unsettling, it also provides a leveling counterpoint to
every cool, straight-faced news reader and every riot-inciting, histrionic
ringmaster. Critics may deride her show as facile, middlebrow or ickily touchy-feely, but damn if she can't bring a lump to your throat with a
single quiver of her lip.

After more than two decades on the air, she remains the one talking head most
boldly unafraid to demonstrate she also has a heart -- and even a stomach.
If God were one of us, the Almighty would probably keep that same human
touch as well, while grabbing a prime slot on TV and a big-deal production
company. In short, she'd probably look a lot like Oprah.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth WilliamsFOLLOW embeedub

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Oprah Winfrey