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.

1968 is the signal year; it was the landmark year of self-discovery for both Oprah Winfrey and her birth cohort. It was the year of Nixon's election and the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy; and it was the height of Haight Ashbury and the student protests. In 1968, Oprah Winfrey ran away from home, conceived an out-of-wedlock baby, and experimented with recreational drugs. In her telling, this is of a piece with a deprived childhood in which, as she recalls it, she never wore a store-bought dress, and to ward off loneliness, read the Bible to her father's barnyard pigs. Whether this is true, merely fanciful, or some high-polish bullshit—relatives remember her as a "petted and indulged" child—who can say? But the generation gap was playing out in her home along a fairly mainstream pattern. Oprah was a hippie; her father disapproved. "No child of mine was going to wildflowers in her hair and light that Hindu incense," Kelley quotes Vernon Winfrey. "Maybe the tie-dyed dashikis and bell-bottom pants enchanted her, the sandals and the beaded necklaces. Maybe the hippie life looked fun, fashionable."

Oprah, of course, was both a poor black child (if not the Topsy caricature she would have us believe) and the popular kid, in peace-sign earrings and a baggy sweater, at a mostly white high school where it was, as Winfrey has said, "hip to know a black person." It's unclear to what extent the teenage Winfrey was a '60s wild child, to what extent she was exhibiting the "tangle of pathologies" of the black underclass, and to what extent she was acting out, sexually and with drugs, because she had been abused. And that is the point. In the maelstrom of 1968, being a pregnant runaway did not exactly put one at odds with the American mainstream. A teenage pregnant runaway African-American hippie from a broken home led by a no-nonsense patriarch—Winfrey's wasn't a textbook case; she was a sociological Rubik's cube. And yet her Summer of Love ended typically. Her father disciplined her.

The hybrid life allowed Winfrey to speak one moment as if she were the caged bird, the next as if she'd grown up on the Upper West Side. (In 1981, she addressed the graduating class of Goucher College, a predominantly white liberal arts college, by saying: "Because unlike our mothers, we know that by the time we are middle-aged we have more than a 50 percent chance of never being married, divorced, widowed, or separated. So there's no denying the obvious. We have to take care of ourselves." Our mothers? Oprah Winfrey's mother was an unmarried teen; her half-brother died of AIDS; her half-sister died of a drug overdose.) Like many young black teens, Winfrey succumbed to a tragic stereotype, of drugs and an unwanted pregnancy. Like many '68ers, Winfrey peered into the abyss then recoiled back into normalcy.

After her infant died, only a few months after childbirth, she dropped the dangle earrings, put her hair in pigtails, and announced herself to the high school drama coach by telling her she, Oprah Gail Winfrey, was going to be a "movie star." The teacher introduced her in turn to James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, which Winfrey performed in churches throughout Nashville; and thus began her career of dramatically enacting works of black literature. Throughout high school, she competed in state and national "forensic" competitions, performing selections from Johnson and from Margaret Walker's Jubilee. In college, she played the part of Coretta Scott King in The Tragedy of Martin Luther King, Jr. "All my life I have done dramatic interpretations of black women. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer are all part of me," she has said. And yet she has also said, "Blackness is just something I am. I'm black. I'm a woman. I wear size 10 shoe. It's all the same to me."

From an early age, along the way to pleasing white audiences who wanted the uplift without the guilt, Winfrey learned to make her blackness both integral and incidental to who she was—quite a deft maneuver. "I grew up a little Negro child who felt so unloved and so isolated," said Winfrey. "The emotion I felt most as a child was loneliness." This is classic Winfrey. Racism is invoked, if as a picturesque antique ("little Negro child"), only to be abstracted into an emotion, an affect. (Or worse, a self-help bromide: "We got it all wrong," she has assured us. "For years we've talked about the physicality of slavery—who did what and who invented that. But the real legacy lies in the strength and courage to survive.") The Oprah Winfrey Show repurposes everything—up to and including the Holocaust—as an individual struggle, the most proper response to which is the engagement of an internal coping mechanism, and finally, self-discipline that, if executed properly, culminates in personal triumph.

As a defense against poverty, racism, and rape, and against the total and often violent dis-esteem of the wider culture, it is no wonder black women develop a defense mechanism—a kind of self-reliance on steroids—that looks nowhere but inward for the beginnings of solace and renewal. (I'm thinking of Marguerite in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in the depth of her inner exile; or Celie's letters to God in The Color Purple.) The genius of Winfrey was to take this, strip it of its historical specificity, recast it and standardize it, and offer it up as a template for mass self-understanding. Donahue had respected the intelligence of women watching daytime television, addressing them as capable people who wanted to engage big-think issues, issues that preoccupied Donahue himself, such as the nuclear standoff or consumer rights. (Ralph Nader was his most frequent guest.) The women in Oprah's audience are not addressed as mothers, wives, citizens, employees, or (god forbid) activists. They are addressed as selves. In the early aughts, the sociologist Eva Illouz sorted the show's episodes by theme. "The Failed Self" is its most common subject, followed  by "The Assaulted Self," with "Broken Relations" coming in third.

The breakdown of the black conjugal family had preceded the breakdown of the white conjugal family by at least 100 years; it is one of the most toxic legacies of slavery. In the '70s, divorce rates surged. To the losers in this new culture, of a far more porous family structure for whom life often appears as a series of nonbinding commitments, and for whom the home is no longer necessarily a bulwark against the warlike relations of the outside world, Winfrey had a readymade language, a survivor's language of ennoblement through adversity in which the self is a final asylum in a world where nothing else can be trusted.

Into that final asylum Winfrey chaperoned a generation of American women, organizing the self's power—to confess, first; then to industriously introspect; then possibly, to improve; but most of all, to never to exit itself. And here we approach the final genius of Winfrey's enterprise. The so-called "Quiet Revolution" of the 1970s drew women into the economy along new patterns of aspiration. As sociologists have described it, work, for women, went from being a shameful necessity to a search for personal identity and societal worth. That some women in the '70s were attending traditionally male universities and entering via graduate schools the traditionally male professions, levied a new tax on the self-esteem of women staying at home. As the 1980s began to take off—the words yuppie and Oprah enter the lexicon at exactly the same time—so too did the idea that a lucrative career defined self-worth. More power careers were open to women as the economy gravitated toward high end services. Women had entered not only the economy but the economy of self making.

It's no accident Winfrey's show comes on at 4 p.m., at just the moment an afternoon sags and the desolating powers of a wasted day are most acute. "I am the instrument of God," she has said. "I am his messenger. My show is my ministry." The woman who comes on at 4 to minister, to shepherd and rescue the dying day, brings with her an extraordinary life story, a biography that, by power of historical association, with slavery and Jim Crow, hallows the self's contest against unreliable husbands, fathers, siblings. But her gift extends further: The drama of self-ownership so central to the literature of black women is Winfrey's Trojan horse. Even as she introduced the adversities of her friend Maya Angelou to an overwhelmingly white and middle-class audience, the press was reporting on her astonishing moneymaking prowess, as inseparable from the brand image as her origins in poverty. (She made $31 million in 1987; the figure is now easily 10 times that.)

It's great work, if you can get it. Win your viewers' trust, offer them asylum from an increasingly pitiless and negligent world, ennoble their suffering with the halo of Civil Rights, then tell them, over and over, that, as Winfrey herself identifies the show's abiding message, "It doesn't matter how victimized any of us have been, we're all responsible for our lives." Wounding them with the spectacle of your own success, against every deprivation, you then engage them in a decades-long circus of self-help as therapeutic catharsis and healing. "My intent always is to own myself and every part of myself I can," she has said of Harpo, her own production company. "Owning myself is a way to be myself." The up-from-slavery theater jock and the baby boomer extraordinaire now speak as one.

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