A Story of O, Starved for Scandal
Oprah: A Biography
By Kitty Kelley
Crown Publishers; 524 pp.; $30
If ever there were a tell-all-proof celebrity, it's Oprah Winfrey. Every day she treats her TV show like a confessional; every week she shares personal information on her satellite radio channel; and every month she sprinkles I's around the pages of O, her glossy magazine. There's no need to dig for dirt on Oprah: Since she landed her first talk show in 1978, she has built an empire excavating her own history and serving it up in neat little piles.
Oprah has already told the stories of her childhood molestation and teenage pregnancy, her dalliances with drugs and married men. Consequently, there are precious few secrets for Kitty Kelley, in Oprah, her latest unauthorized biography, to expose. Well, she claims to have learned the identity of Oprah's biological father, but she refuses to reveal his name until Oprah's mother shares the information with her daughter. This leaves Kelley with the decidedly less shocking revelations that Oprah once dated TV personality and lite music composer John Tesh and that, as an 18-year-old, she refused to relinquish a pageant title after the judges mistabulated their votes and incorrectly crowned her queen.
Here's an indication of the paucity of material: Kelley devotes two pages to chronicling Oprah's odd habit of inserting bathroom references into high-profile speeches: At commencement addresses from Wesleyan to Stanford and on the stage of the Kennedy Center, Oprah has complained that her popularity means she has no privacy on the potty. (Of course, it doesn't take years of research to notice this compulsion. In the May 2010 issue of O, when asked, "What's the one thing you can't do because you're famous," Oprah answers, "Have a pootie in a public restroom.")
Kelley estimates that Oprah was worth $2.7 billion as of 2009. She came into her wealth through a series of smart decisions rather than by marriage or inheritance—you can make the case that she's America's most successful businesswoman—yet there are far more entries in the index under "Winfrey, Oprah: and weight" than under "Winfrey, Oprah: success of." Oprah's privately owned company, Harpo, is a multimedia powerhouse that includes production companies, studios, and magazine and merchandising subsidiaries, yet Kelley seems taken aback that Harpo would require its employees to sign a strict confidentiality agreement, that Oprah would take pains to manage her image, or that "Ratings are everything to Oprah."
Kelley is more like one of Oprah's pet spaniels than a bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out the story of Jeffrey D. Jacobs, the "lawyer, agent, manager, financial advisor, promoter, protector, and confidant" who helped Oprah take control of her own show and operate her own studio. He negotiated the contracts that allow Oprah, Kelley writes, to earn $100 million per year from her talk show while Ellen DeGeneres settles for a mere $25 million. Jacobs is described as the Moses who led Oprah to the Promised Land. "Jeff released me from the slave mentality," Oprah has testified. "He helped me see that I really could have control." After setting him up as the most gifted of Oprah's gurus, Kelley merely mentions that "Winfrey jettisoned Jacobs" in 2002, after "their friendship fractured over professional jealousies." That is all readers learn about the split. Elsewhere, Kelley notes that Oprah's birthplace, Kosciusko, Miss., also produced BET founder Robert L. Johnson, the first African-American billionaire, but she offers no theories for how a poor, segregated Southern city came to produce two media moguls. There is "no logical explanation for the extraordinary coincidence," she says. A probing interrogator like Oprah would never leave it at that. (Even worse, most sources list Hickory, Miss., as Johnson's home town.)
Oprah may frame her accomplishments in the New Age language of positive thinking and self-empowerment—she lives by a credo she heard from Jesse Jackson in 1969, "If you can conceive it and believe it, you can achieve it"—but surely there are more prosaic reasons for her success. It's clear she has the common touch, and in her mid-50s, she works with the tirelessness of a striving rookie. She sleeps just four or five hours a night, and she is famously generous: A former co-worker from one of her earliest career stops, in Baltimore, recalls that the film editors "always busted their backs to help Oprah because she was so nice to them."
In 1994, Oprah was burned by the failure of Families for a Better Life, her highly publicized but ultimately ineffective effort to help poor Chicagoans get off welfare. The project cost $843,000 and produced few concrete results. Three years later, she established the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and Oprah's Angel Network, which collects donations from viewers. Since 2002 she has directed most of her giving to South Africa, including more than $40 million to set up the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Nine months after the school opened, a sex scandal brought unwanted attention, and Oprah conceded that she had spent too much time personally selecting light fixtures and pillow cases and too little vetting the staff. "Her philanthropy was not quiet or anonymous," Kelley complains, though it seems churlish to criticize a woman who has given away well over $100 million for her choice of recipients and pride in her generosity.
In the foreword, Kelley explains how she researched her book: First she compiled 25 years of press clippings about her subject, then she conducted interviews with the few remaining Americans who know anything about Oprah and haven't yet signed a nondisclosure agreement with Harpo. The result—a tome-length Wikipedia entry in the form of a hatchet—proves one essential point: Oprah owns her own story, and she'll be damned if she's going to let Kitty Kelley, or anyone, co-opt it.