What Oprah can't forget

Critics of her sanctuary for South African girls be damned -- the media mogul's generosity is beyond reproach. But her PR gaffes around the school's opening revealed the scars of her own impoverished past.

Published January 13, 2007 2:06PM (EST)

The Oprah pasting that took place over the New Year's holiday, in reaction to the pressapalooza surrounding her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, reveals a lot about the venality, racism and hypocrisy of the talk-show host's critics, yes. But less remarked upon and equally interesting is what the explosive news cycle -- one that notably seemed to veer free of Winfrey's usual iron-fisted control -- reveals about the talk show host's own frailties, not as a philanthropist or educator, but as one of the United States' most powerful, unlikely, anomalous and isolated success stories.

Winfrey's unguarded comments about the opening of her school revealed the degree to which arguably the most influential woman in the United States is still driven by the specter of her own beginnings as a poor, sexually abused child in Mississippi, and her seemingly endless spiral of desire to set the world right not simply for other young women, but for her own prepubescent self. For a moment, her self-spin veered out of control, and we got a brief snapshot not just of Winfrey's good intentions, but of the loneliness and solitude experienced by a woman who is historically and culturally unique in her power, wealth, life story and position in the world.

Winfrey spent the New Year in Henley-on-Klip, a town an hour south of Johannesburg, cutting the ribbon at the school she has founded, partially at the behest of Nelson Mandela, to educate some of South Africa's smartest, and most disadvantaged, young women. Winfrey has spent more than $40 million of her own money to build, plan, staff and decorate the 22-acre school, which includes 28 buildings, and state-of-the-art science, computer, theater, classroom and physical fitness facilities. She hand-selected the students, interviewing the final 275 applicants herself to choose the 152 girls who will make up the inaugural seventh- and eighth-grade classes; they all come from homes that earn less than $800 a month. She will teach leadership classes at the school via satellite and in person.

But despite the Leadership Academy's lofty educational mission, what received the most attention in an attention-filled week (an enormous photo of Winfrey graced the cover of London's Guardian on Wednesday morning) were the splashy celebrity-larded party (Tina Turner, Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Mary J. Blige, Sidney Poitier) thrown by Winfrey to celebrate the school's opening, and the supposedly-luxury accommodations to be enjoyed by its students.

People magazine described the fluffy duvets that will cover the beds of the girls -- who will pair up in dorm rooms, each of which features a kitchen and a small balcony. CNN reported on the cafeteria's marble tabletops, and Winfrey crowed to every reporter in earshot about how she had chosen "every brick, tile, sheet and spoon" for the school. There are murals and a yoga studio, and trees under which the girls can read, and they will sleep on 200-thread-count sheets. Winfrey told Newsweek, "These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire."

Winfrey may well have made an unusual error in P.R. judgment by choosing to reveal all this Nate Berkus-style decorating information to the press. An article about the academy in her own magazine rhapsodized over the "tawny bricks" of the buildings, which "echo the soft gold of the sand on which the school is built," and emphasized that "every tile, door handle, and finish has been Oprah's particular choice," including sheets, towels, cups, flatware, sneakers, "pillowcases bearing an embroidered O, and the colors for the bathroom tiles -- orange, green, and happy yellow."

Having made her career by vivisecting, cooking and serving the tastes and prejudices of the American public to the American public, Winfrey might have known that news of her students' swank surroundings might not wash with American critics, who don't bat an eye at white hotel heiresses dancing on banquettes, or reality shows about sweet-16 parties at budgets that could build a home for a Katrina victim. But impoverished black girls sleeping on nice-ish sheets? That didn't go over so well. The affronted sense that these girls deserved only bare-minimum accommodations and that a private citizen's money should have been used to educating them in bulk rather than in gracious individual style reflects our own beliefs that the bare minimum is all poor (black) girls need. And in part, it's surely that kind of attitude that has fueled Winfrey's obsession with aesthetics. She told several publications that South African builders initially sent plans that made the school look like a chicken coop. "It was clear that the attitude was 'These are poor African girls. Why spend all this on them?'" she told Newsweek. "It was unbelievably upsetting."

Indeed, criticism of the Leadership Academy's luxury is practically immoral. It's Winfrey's money and should she want to use it to provide six randomly selected babies with a lifetime supply of Rolos, then no one outside of the babies' families and dentists would really be in a morally sound position to object. But that Winfrey did not see this reaction coming, and thus did not temper the admittedly wacky emphasis on the aesthetic and the decorative aspects of her project, is unusually unperceptive. She walked right into this -- with the tawny bricks and embroidered O's -- and in doing so, revealed the extent to which she is still shaped by her own emotional hunger, despite all the money and influence in the world.

More than any project she has tackled to date, this school is clearly an undertaking about which she can not be dispassionate. "This is my heart," she told her own magazine, O. "The building of this school is who I am. When these girls explode into their own possibilities, that's who I am. I'm a person who exploded into my own possibilities. To be able to do that for generation after generation -- it's the most fulfilling thing that can happen to a person on earth."

But this confusion of herself with the school, the way in which Winfrey's heart seems to have been grafted into the buildings and the girls she has chosen to inhabit them, seems to have given her a mild form of aphasia, in which she could not control her own image, and could not help revealing more about herself -- not just her personal experiences, but her acquisitiveness, materialism and narcissism -- than she could possibly have intended.

Not that narcissism, acquisitiveness and materialism are the world's worst faults, especially when the expression of them results in the betterment of the lives of thousands of other people. Many of Winfrey's personal shortcomings and challenges -- her struggles with her weight and with drugs, her troubled sexual relationships, her affection for Dr. Phil -- have been public for years. But this version of vulnerable Oprah was different than her predilection for mashed potatoes and distaste for morning workouts.

Focusing on her decorating decisions when promoting the school was the first chink in her usually tough armor coating. It was clear from her kvelling over the bricks and silverware she had picked for the students she was blithely referring to as her "daughters" that those items were all ones that resonated with Winfrey herself, and that she wanted to provide not just for the women she is educating, but for some old version of herself who desperately wanted pretty and comfortable things and never had them.

Both O and Newsweek reported that while discussing the girls' uniforms, Oprah and her best friend and emotional partner Gayle King decided that pleated skirts might not be flattering to bigger girls -- like Oprah had been as a teen. She ordered that the closets in their dorms be built big, because while the students will have few clothes when they enter the school, she plans to give them opportunities to make money and buy new things, just as she was able to do. When selecting the students for her school, Winfrey described her search for young women with "that indefinable quality -- that light that cannot be dimmed no matter how much hardship or poverty you have known" -- the same kind of light that allowed Winfrey to command a worldwide audience for more than 20 years.

"I understand what it means to grow up poor, to grow up feeling you are not loved," she said in her opening-day speech. "I wanted to be able to give back to people who were like I was when I was growing up." Winfrey told Newsweek, "I wanted this to be a place of honor for [the students] because these girls have never been treated with kindness. They've never been told they are pretty or have wonderful dimples. I wanted to hear those things as a child."

Indeed, that conversational tick, amid all the press for the school opening, of steadily, constantly reaffirming how much these poor South African girls had in common with a poor young Oprah, felt most disconcerting. Winfrey seemed to be slipping down a rabbit hole of unconscious self-obsession, and that's not exactly a criticism. When we do good things for other people, it's almost always in part a narcissistic act -- it makes us feel good to make other people feel good. Why should Winfrey's ventures into philanthropy be any morally tidier than anyone else's? But her over-identification was so powerful and unrelenting that it was hard not to wince when hearing it.

Winfrey is giving these girls an education because it's the tool she feels set her free -- and she's surely right about that, and bravo for recognizing it. Her sense of the role that education has played in her own life has already undergirded her powerful book club, her scholarship program at Morehouse College, her contributions to American students. But Winfrey admitted herself that she was providing these students with nice stuff because it was the nice stuff that she herself yearned for as a girl, and enjoys as a wealthy woman. Oprah loves trees, pretty tiles and high-thread-count sheets? The girls at her school will have more of all these items than they could ever dream of.

Perhaps most poignant was a picture in Newsweek of a hard-hatted Winfrey sitting on a bed in one of the dorm rooms, which had been set-designed to look like an already-inhabited domicile of a future student, down to the pieces of paper tacked up on the bulletin board next to the bed. One of the images posted appeared to be a clipping from a magazine, demonstrating a fat-burning workout. It was a heartbreaking detail, in part because the impulse upon seeing it was to scold a nascent educator of preteen girls for passing along body issues. But then came the realization that in her mind, this was the imaginary girlhood bedroom that little Oprah never had, done up with linens nicer than any she ever slept on, in a school she herself never got to attend ... and that in her mind, if someone could have taught her how to burn fat at 11, rather than in her 40s, her life would have been better.

Winfrey's decision to open this school is nothing but laudable. But as she ages and her power extends beyond television into publishing, international relations, perhaps even into the race for the American presidency, it's clear that her personal demons, including what is undoubtedly the solitude and loneliness of her extraordinary place in American life, are going nowhere. There was something very sad about her descriptions of all these girls as her daughters, and her assertions that when she retires she will go and live with them. What was mournful was not that Winfrey hasn't had children of her own; she's long been clear that, along with her choice not to marry, her choice not to have children was the right decision. But her conflation of her younger self and the young women whose lives she is changing, her desire to literally see them as reproductions of herself, tells us a lot about what has not changed for Winfrey since she was 11.

Her stratospheric success remains one of the great anomalies of American history. Consider that we remain bedeviled by racism and sexism on the political and economic landscape, that in almost every field women earn less than men, that our president left a city full of poor black people to drown less than two years ago, and that discrimination against Americans with weight problems remains so acceptable that barely anyone bothered to spank Donald Trump for calling Rosie O'Donnell a "fat" "disgusting" "slob" last week. Then consider that Winfrey started poor, black, big and female, and has broken every rule of national prejudice and discrimination. But despite all that, the degradations of her early beginnings seem to have left her with such a diminished sense of self that she actually told O that building the school "is the first time in my life I've said I feel proud of myself."

Half of the vulnerability we saw in Winfrey last week was about a woman who was so badly wounded by her circumstances as a child that she can never move beyond them. But another part was a reflection of a country in which freedoms may allow a lucky few to slip the confines of class and racial injustice, but never to forget who they really are.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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Africa Education Oprah Winfrey Paul Shirley