The secret of Oprah's success.

Reading and lounging and watching.
May 20 2010 11:22 AM

The Secret of Oprah's Success

Her biography. But not the one in Kitty Kelley's book.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Oprah Winfrey is the world's most famous talk show host. She's also the world's most powerful media mogul. The stock and trade of the talk show host is confession; the mogul would prefer to disclose nothing. Ah—but the mogul's profits flow directly from a cargo cult of total public divulgence, as pioneered by the talk show host. What possible right to privacy can this woman still claim?

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

Such is the apparent logic behind the new and very blockbuster Oprah: A Biography, in which Kitty Kelley, through 800 or so torturous pages, shames the Everywoman persona of the host with the increasingly Keyser Söze-like person of the mogul. Kelley herself is playing a double game here, of insinuation with the reader and keepaway with the libel lawyers. Lady authoress stands aloof as others run at the mouth about the Oprah Gail Lee who long since left them behind. Much of the book is stenographic transcription, block quotes from soured ex-acquaintances; peering over Kelley's shoulder, we're at liberty to question whether Oprah is gay, skin-bleached, and so chronically dissembling that her most famously revealing public utterance ("I was continually molested from the age of nine until I was fourteen") is a lie.

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But along the way to cataloging her every queenly hypocrisy, Kelley gets the essential ecology of Oprahdom wrong. After all, is anyone really shocked that the life story of America's favorite mother-confessor reads like a biography of John D. Rockefeller? Of a driven, insecure, money-obsessed collector of slights, a harborer of contempt for ordinary people, ordinary things? It's all-too-plausible that Winfrey is more To Die For than The Color Purple—a woman whose personality toes that uniquely American line where pluck crosses over into a full-blown psychosis. "She's shut down," reports a guest who appeared on the show. "There's a sheet of ice between the person and the persona." OK, but why the surprise? Keyser Söze has always provided the yin to Everywoman's yang. For 25 years, Oprah hasn't just been selling the warm smile; she's also been selling the sheet of ice. 

Reading Oprah, one notices how neatly the woman's life maps onto the history of de-segregation. Winfrey was born in 1954, the same year as Brown v. Board of Education. She was, thanks to the federal Higher Education Act of 1965, one of six black children chosen to integrate the high school in the wealthy Milwaukee suburb of Fox Point. The following fall, having rejoined her father in Tennessee (not, it turns out, her biological father, but therein lies another tale), she moved to East Nashville High School, as part of its first integrated class. Of her early and precocious rise in television, she has admitted, "I was a classic token." By 22, she was co-anchor of a local 6 p.m. news broadcast in Baltimore.

At WJZ-TV, Winfrey was paired with anchor Jerry Turner, a snow-capped local legend who still fancied himself a journalist in the Cronkite mold and who squirmed through her every malapropism and mispronunciation. (These Kelley serves up with a bit too much relish.) Demoted to the morning beat, Winfrey covered a cockatoo's birthday party and famously burst into tears reporting from the scene of a Baltimore fire. The station moved her to daytime, the graveyard shift, to let her contract quietly play out. By the time she left Baltimore five years later, in 1983, she owned the city, but only the city; her show, People Are Talking, had triumphed locally but failed in national syndication. When Winfrey, as Kelley tells it, "packed up her five coats of Mano Swartz Fur and headed for Chicago," it was not at all clear that professional advancement, much less a historic apotheosis, awaited her.

Why did Winfrey, to understate it wildly, triumph in Chicago, when everyone predicted disaster? "There's no way you can make it in Chicago up against Donahue," the Baltimore station manager told her. "It's his home base. You're walking into a landmine and can't even see it." Winfrey studied her predecessor ("I used to watch Donahue to figure out how to do it," she has said), the better to discard him. She took Donahue's baby, the issue-oriented talk show, and made it more confessional and more lurid, centered around taboo subject matter and carefully staged, highly personalized confrontations. Out went the Edward R. Murrow pretensions, in came micro-penises, 30-minute orgasms, transsexual moms. She crushed him in the ratings. Forced to play catch-up, Donahue cross-dressed and wrung the obligatory confessionals from his guests. It hardly mattered. As the woman herself noted, "The difference between Donahue and me is me."

All stars craft and market their brand; Oprah commodified her biography. But this only raises the question. Why did a black woman with a hard-bitten back story triumph in the '80s when an earnest New Feminine Man with grad-seminar airs did not? What social need was served? Here we should notice a second fact about Oprah's biography: how perfectly it maps onto the classic trajectory of her generation's angst and eventual triumph.

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