Instead, I had the nerve to ask her whether her controversial subject matter – child abuse, suicide, transsexuals, etc. – would be well-received in Middle America.
Yeah, right. I didn’t think crack cocaine would catch on either. (I invested all my money in Frankie Goes to Hollywood paraphernalia.)
Anyway, I knew by 1986 that Oprah was a talented broadcaster. Only vaguely do I remember her as the co-host of a Baltimore morning show called “People Are Talking.” But I lived in Chicago in late ’84 and early ’85, when her popularity consumed that town like a wildfire.
From our present-day vantage, we may need reminding that Oprah Winfrey was Oscar-nominated for her acting in “The Color Purple” – and had already filmed her supporting role in “Native Son” – before most Americans ever saw her as a talk-show host. Johnny Carson even had her on as a guest. That’s how hot she was burning.
Looking over this ’86 interview, conducted for the Washington Times, it’s interesting to note how much of Ms. Winfrey’s success theology was already in place. She was full-blown Oprah from jump street.
So step into my time machine and return to a day when Oprah Winfrey was a mere millionaire. A newly minted one at that. I sat in her office in Chicago, having just watched her do a show about women who abuse their own kids. Before our interview began, Oprah happened to read a piece of viewer mail…
DAVID MILLS: That letter you just got seemed to touch you.
OPRAH WINFREY: Oh yeah. It’s about a girl who was abused. A child was brought into their home; they find out the child was abused. Nobody would help them. So it’s interesting. This show touches so many people’s lives.
MILLS: It’s almost scary. I mean, this is more than a show. It’s more than TV. Especially when you’re dealing with such emotional things as what was happening today. You’re asking to get into people’s lives –
WINFREY: It is more than a show. I’m glad you realize. One of the reasons why I enjoy doing shows like the one we did today is it lets people know that they’re not alone. And for every mother who has felt this sense of rage inside, recognizes herself by seeing these other women and will hopefully get help. And that’s what we do.
I think that’s what television should do. It should uplift, encourage, enlighten, inform, entertain. And too often television doesn’t do that. It falls short of doing that. I’m excited that I’m in a position to affect change in people’s lives.
MILLS: Isn’t that scary for you, though? It’s hard enough to do TV well. And to have the burden of people writing such personal letters and confiding in you because you come across so –
WINFREY: Oh, but I get them every day. Every day. And every one’s more personal than the next. I mean, all of them are just incredibly you’re-the-last-person-I-have-to-turn-to kind of letters.
Yeah, I suppose it’s a responsibility if you look at it that way. But we just look at it as another adjunct to the show. The show doesn’t end when the show ends. We don’t do a show without providing some alternatives to people.
You can’t do a show like this and say, “Oh yeah, so we’ve exposed it,” without having information and follow-up where people can go to get help. So it’s a major social-service agency is what we do. …
MILLS: Professionally for you, are you just riding the wave now? When do you start to worry about longevity and making it last? Or is it now just the experience of the ascent?
WINFREY: See, I’m one of those people who lives the moment. So that for this time, I enjoy the ascent. And if you only concern yourself with whatever is going on in that moment, you can have a more fulfilling moment. You can give that moment all that it’s due, all that it’s worth.
If you concern yourself with what’s going to happen a year from now or two years from now or five years from now, then you defuse the moment. I live this, and this is glorious. I mean, Bruce Springsteen and I could duet, ’cause these are the glory days. Whatever comes comes.
MILLS: Because it seems to me that the whole celebrity machine nowadays is about finding somebody new, burning them out quickly, then moving on to somebody else. Do you have managers? Is your career carefully plotted, or are you –
WINFREY: It’s not plotted at all. I base my career – as I base my life – on feeling. I do what feels good and what feels right to me at any given moment. So it hasn’t been strategized or plotted or marketed at all.
Every article that you see written about me has been because someone asked me to do it. It wasn’t because we hired a publicist. We hired a publicist just to arrange them in order.
When I heard that someone from another agency hired by King World was approaching people to do stories on me – I mean, I absolutely refuse to do stories that have been set up.
WINFREY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
But I live a publicist’s dream. When you already have “60 Minutes” calling you and Time magazine calling you about doing a story, what do you need a publicist to set up stories for you for? What do you need to call around and [tell] people, you know, “This is a great idea, do this story on Oprah Winfrey”? I think it’s phony. It’s all a part of the celebrity façade. Planting pieces of information about a given celebrity. Either people are interested or they’re not.
MILLS: I’m glad to clear that up, because I lived here in Chicago for about a year, working for the Wall Street Journal. And there was talk in 1984 of, “When is the Journal going to do its Oprah Winfrey piece?” Things had just started happening, you had done “The Tonight Show.” And already the jaded journalists were thinking, “Oh, she’s just a hype.” So it’s good to see that it’s not being plotted on a graph.
WINFREY: Are you kidding? We don’t plan anything. We don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow.
It’s interesting, because my career has done very well in spite of the way I have handled it.
MILLS: In spite of?
WINFREY: Yeah. Because, according to what I was told – I have a lawyer who was my lawyer when I came here; I found him when I first came to Chicago. He’s the only person I’ve hired. And when I was nominated for an Academy Award, everyone said: “You have to get a Hollywood agent or you’ll never get another picture.” And I had 10, 20 agents calling me…
Well, I’ve already done this movie, so people know that I can act. If there’s something interesting that I want to do, I don’t need an agent to go and tell someone I’m interested in doing it. I can do that myself. I don’t need to pay an agent 10 percent to say, “She wants to do this.” So I didn’t hire an agent, against everybody’s advice. And to this day still haven’t hired one. And may or may not at some point, because what I’m interested in doing is good work…
And because I have this television job, which is very lucrative for me, I don’t have to act to pay my bills. I don’t have to act to be known, I don’t have to act to be famous.
MILLS: The flip side of that is, has anybody suggested to you, “You don’t need TV anymore. You’re a film star. We can make you a movie star.”
WINFREY: Sure, everyone says that. But how many black film stars are there?
See, I am very concerned about not deluding myself [about] what is real and what is not. So I don’t believe my press clippings at all. I know that I am still the same person. [Journalists] write and they say, “She’s sassy, she’s brassy, she’s funny, she’s wild.” But I know that I am the same thing. People’s perception of me may change, but I’m the same.
And people say, “Oh, now you should go and do the movies.” And I think: Everything in its own time. I will continue to do this show for as long as this show is meaningful to me. And will do some acting in my spare time. I mean, to quit this job and go and just try to be an actress would be ridiculous…
MILLS: Let’s talk about the new show and launching it. Alice [McGee, a producer] says you’re going to be careful in the first few months to not get too controversial, or to avoid a sensationalistic label. This show today, how would this have played in Podunk?
WINFREY: It would’ve played very well. See, this is what I know about this show: It speaks to the universality of the human spirit. People are no different in Podunk than they are in Chicago. They may dress differently and they may live in high-rises here and not in Podunk. But when it comes to human nature and human needs, human desires and human hopes, we are all the same.
It’s one of the reasons why I know this show will work, why I have no fears about it working. I have fears about the first day, I have fears about “What am I gonna wear?” But that’s as deep as it gets. Simply because I know that people are no different. We all want, need, desire the same things. All of us do.
I know parents abuse their children in Chicago, in New York, in Birmingham, Spokane, Seattle, all over.
MILLS: But maybe TV programmers – the guy who has a little station out in the Southwest or in the South – isn’t used to these kinds of topics being discussed frankly on TV.
WINFREY: I know that. But this is what’s incredible about what I do. And because we do it so honestly, and because it is so real, even TV programmers who heretofore have said, “I don’t know if that’s our market,” will change. They will change.
Because I know whatever you do, if you do it with the right spirit – Whatever you put out into the world is what is received and what comes back to you. So if you do something with a kind spirit, with a loving spirit, with a spirit of honesty, that’s how people will receive it.
If you just step on TV being sensational, talking about sex just because you want to see how risqué you can become, then that is how it will be received. But if you do a show – the same show – with the intention to inform and enlighten and expose what is wrong, then that is how it will be received.
One of the reasons this show does so well is because I do it with a loving spirit. My only intention is for people to see that, to see that light in me, to see that in the show. I don’t do anything with malice or antagonism. Even if it’s the Ku Klux Klan, I can do that with a loving spirit. I can. And so that’s what people see.
MILLS: But do you want to start out softer when it goes national?
WINFREY: I think we probably won’t have transsexuals and their parents on the first week. That may be a little hard to take in Salt Lake City. … Until people are accustomed to my style and my approach, it would be wise for us to not be too risqué. Just because people aren’t familiar with me.
We program this show, book our guests, based upon our feelings. It is a show done exclusively on feelings, which is really what’s wonderful about it, why it works. We don’t consult with major TV firms and ask them what do people want to hear, what do they want to see? We don’t do focus groups to find out what people are thinking, because we are people, and we know what we’re thinking, and we know that we are no different than anybody else who’s watching.
I see myself as a surrogate viewer. There’s nothing that I have done or will do that’s too embarrassing, or that someone else hasn’t already done. I mean, if I come out and my bra strap’s showing, I say “So what?” There’s a million people out there who’ve been places and their slip was hanging and their bra strap was showing. So you say, “Whoops, bra strap was showing. ’Scuse me, girls!” And that’s the end of it.
And I also know that the more I am able to be myself, it helps other people feel more comfortable with being themselves. So the way you get people to break down and tell you everything you want to know is that you let them know how open you are. You start out being open, and that’s exactly what comes back to you, is the sense of openness.
MILLS: Demonstrated today in exemplary fashion. I mean, an hour talking to child abusers could be very hard to stomach. But there, you just cut through the tension with that “Leave It to Beaver” –
WINFREY: Comment about the Beav? Oh yes. I did want June and Ward for my mom and dad.
MILLS: (laughs) But if it’s the wrong person doing that, the wrong host, that just wouldn’t work. Do you analyze your style?
WINFREY: Not only do I not analyze myself, I don’t even watch the show. I do it and it’s gone, it’s out there. I haven’t seen this show in a year.
I used to watch. But then when you watch, that’s what you do, you sit and you try to analyze it – what I did right, what I didn’t do. I just do it.
My way of describing what I do is that it is real television. It is as natural to me to go out there and be on the air as it is to sit here and breathe. I have no difference in my elevation of blood pressure or excitement or adrenaline from the time the camera goes on to the time the camera goes off, in terms of being nervous or wondering what to say.
Because there are times when you don’t know what to say. So the thing to do is either say nothing or say “I don’t know what to say.” And that’s okay. The problem with so many television personalities, I think, is that they feel that you have to fill every moment. Because if there’s like four seconds of silence, oh my God – it does seem like an eternity. But in life there are pauses, and climaxes, and exclamation points.
And so whatever is happening is what happens.
I don’t set myself up as an authority on it at all. I just know that this is what works for me. This may not work for other people. For some people, they live by shtick. And would be totally, totally uncomfortable being comfortable on the air. I’ve seen hosts like that, where it’s a joke a minute.
MILLS: How do you feel about yourself as a host as compared to when you were doing “People Are Talking”? Do you think, “God, I’m good now”? Or do you –
WINFREY: I’ll tell you when I realized I was good. I was in Baltimore doing “People Are Talking,” I was hosting the show by myself one day. It was the day I decided I’m gonna leave. I was interviewing a woman with multiple personalities. And all of these personalities started to come out while we were on the air.
See, I didn’t believe it before. I thought, “Okay, multiple personalities, sure, mm-hmm. What else is new?” And I started to ask her about the first time it happened, and she started to tell me that when she was 2 she (baby voice) got thrown into a well, and she started to talk like this. She went into this little teeny baby voice.
And I thought, “Whoa!” Then another voice comes, another personality, and says, “Why are you asking her this?” I say, “Whooa!”
What happened was, I sat there and I interviewed this woman who has, the doctors think, about 50 different people living insider her. I talked to 12 that day. And I kept them all in order, kept them separate, one from the other. And interviewed all of them. Most amazing thing. Most amazing thing.
And I said to myself then, “You’re okay. You’re okay, girl. You can leave now.” Really. One of the toughest interviews I’ve ever done.
It’s rare when that happens, too, on the air. Everyone had said, “It will never happen on the air, it will never happen on the air.” It’s interesting, because I had two of them. It was her and another girl, who I believe was faking it.
MILLS: To this day?
WINFREY: Oh, to this day I believe the other girl was faking it. I think that when she saw these other personalities coming out in this other girl, it was like, “Well, I’m gonna show her,” kind of thing. It was like competition between the multiple personalities.
So I’m not very gullible at all. Because having done every disease of the week, every problem, every notion of a problem, you become very suspicious of people and their motives for being on television. So when I don’t believe someone, I say, “I don’t believe you.” And I’ll turn to the audience and say, “Do you believe her?”
MILLS: Now that you’re going national, are you going to change the context mix of the show? More celebs, more of this, less of that?
WINFREY: Celebs? We only try to do them when they’re interesting, because for the most part they’re not.
MILLS: An hour is a lot of time to fill.
WINFREY: Hard to talk to a celebrity for an hour, unless they’re doing something that’s really interesting. Unless they’ve had an incredibly interesting life. But, you know, this week’s new television star – how interesting is that?
[TO BE CONTINUED]