Lady with a Calling

  • It is half an hour before showtime, and Oprah Winfrey is a lake of calm amid the gusts of activity around her. While a hairdresser and a makeup man are fussing over her, an Oprah Winfrey Show producer, Dianne Hudson, is giving her a ten-minute prep session for this morning's show. The subject is B.S. -- people who use it, people who hate it -- and the topic is giving the host some trouble.

    "I'm trying to relate to it," says Oprah, a lavender dressing smock draped over her shoulders and a stack of clippings and notes in her lap. "Do most people deal with this in their day-to-day lives?"

    "The phones rang off the hook when we promoted this show," says Hudson, a bit defensively.

    "What did they say?"

    " 'I'm not getting ahead because that other guy is brownnosing the boss.' "

    "So brownnosing is B.S.?"

    An uncertain pause. "Yes."

    "What I'm afraid," says Oprah, "is that by 9:22 we're gonna be running out of stuff. I don't want it to be a B.S. session about B.S."

    By 9:10 a.m. Oprah still has plenty of stuff, but she is already resorting to her favorite weapon. "Now's the time!" she cries to the studio audience during the first commercial break. "It's ten after nine, your VCRs are rollin', you're gonna get home later and say, 'Why didn't I say anything?' If you're thinking it and you're feeling it, you should say it!"

    The crowd begins to chime in, and Oprah responds enthusiastically. To a woman whose example of B.S. is buttering up a college instructor by walking him to his car after class, Oprah asks cheekily, "How far did that walk go?" One guest, a rock-concert promoter, asserts that B.S. is a necessary part of his job. Victor Salupo, author of a book called The B.S. Syndrome, insists that it is the bane of society, damaging everything from personal relationships to politics. "Victor," Oprah blurts out near the end of the hour, "I only want to say one thing to you. Lighten up!"

    The show is no disaster, but it is not one of Oprah's classics -- like the segment with women who have borne children by their own fathers, in which Oprah interviewed an abusing father from his prison cell and called him "slime." Nor is it a newsmaking event, like Oprah's trip to racially troubled Forsyth County, Ga., where a redneck in the audience calmly explained to the black talk-show host the difference between "blacks" and "niggers" (niggers, it appeared, are blacks who make trouble). Nor is it even one of the titillating women's-magazine subjects that constitute the show's bread and butter: Casanovas and the women who love them; parents whose children have been hurt by baby-sitters; women who give up heterosexual relationships to become lesbians. Still, Oprah brought it off with her typical earthy ebullience.

    Few would have bet on Oprah Winfrey's swift rise to host of the most popular talk show on TV. In a field dominated by white males, she is a black woman of ample bulk (usually over 190 lbs., though she has lost 24 of them since starting a medically supervised all-liquid diet three weeks ago). As interviewers go, she is no match for, say, Phil Donahue, whose program was the obvious model for hers. What she lacks in journalistic toughness, however, she makes up in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all, empathy. Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah's eye or get a comforting arm around the shoulder. They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as group-therapy session.

    And the talk-show host as budding entertainment mogul. Following her Oscar- nominated role in The Color Purple, Oprah formed a production company, Harpo Inc. (Oprah spelled backward), to develop TV and movie projects. Its first co- production, The Women of Brewster Place, a drama based on Gloria Naylor's novel in which Oprah plays one of seven ghetto women, is scheduled to air on ABC this season. The company has also bought the rights to Beloved, Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-prizewinning novel about slavery (Oprah wants to play the lead role), and has even approached some of Oprah's talk-show guests about turning their stories into TV movies.

    At 34, Oprah Winfrey is making a lot of money (close to $12 million annually from her syndicated show alone) and living it up. She resides in a sleekly decorated three-bedroom Chicago apartment with a panoramic view of Lake Michigan, spends lavishly and unapologetically on clothes, and jet-sets around the country to such events as the Tyson-Spinks fight.

    Her growing celebrity, not to mention the high-style hairdos and drop-dead outfits, often seems gratingly at odds with her down-to-earth TV image. And , there are Chicagoans who say that Oprah has forgotten her roots, that success has gone to her head. But she seems pleasantly unaffected by fame. Her conversation is a mix of calm self-assurance (one rarely hears an "uh" in Oprah's speech), erupting high spirits and down-home sass. She talks amiably to the fans who constantly recognize her on the street, and personally says goodbye to each member of the studio audience filing out of her daily tapings. Despite her lavish life-style, Oprah notes, her plates still don't match, and she says she gave up a chauffeur because "it drove me crazy having someone at my beck and call." She now drives herself to work in a Jaguar convertible, often with her hair dripping wet from her morning shampoo.

    She is rarely seen on the Chicago social circuit, and spends most of her nights at home reading. "I read in themes," she says. "One year it was black authors. Another year all the books I was supposed to read in college but didn't. This is my spiritual summer." Her current fave: A Course in Miracles, a spiritual text that offers positive-thinking lessons for life. Her boyfriend, Stedman Graham, a former basketball player, is now based in North Carolina as vice president of a public relations firm; they usually see each other every couple of weeks.

    Oprah's closest friends are the people she works with: a tight-knit group of half a dozen or so producers and assistants, most of them young women in their late 20s (the majority white) who revere her as a combination sorority sister and guru. "I feel very destined to have met her," says Debra DeMaio, executive producer of the Oprah Winfrey Show. "I have pretty much unconditional love for her." Says Producer Mary Kay Clinton, who credits Oprah with helping her conquer her shyness: "I get a lot from her spiritually." Oprah will be maid of honor at Clinton's wedding in August, and is financing the entire affair. That is not unusual. Oprah has regaled all her producers with expensive gifts, from Christmas bonuses to fur coats and trips.

    She also gives generously to a number of charities. Last year, for example, she laid out $750,000 to fund ten scholarships at Tennessee State University in Nashville, her alma mater, then followed up with letters to each recipient, challenging a couple of them to get better grades. "My mission is to use this position, power and money to create opportunities for other people," she says.

    Oprah's spiritual side appears to be genuine and deeply felt. She reads a Bible verse every morning and contends that her life is directed by a kind of supernaturally inspired instinct. "I am guided by a higher calling," she says. "It's not so much a voice as it is a feeling. If it doesn't feel right to me, I don't do it." If this sounds like a new-age version of Norman Vincent Peale, it is also the sign of someone profoundly comfortable with herself. "It is easier to go with the river than to try to swim upstream. Anything negative that happens to me is because I've been fighting against the stream."

    The stream has not always been smooth. Born in Mississippi, Oprah (her name is an accidental misspelling of the Biblical character Orpah) shuttled for much of her childhood between her grandmother in Mississippi, her mother in Milwaukee and her father in Nashville. The time with her mother was the most traumatic: she suffered several instances of sexual abuse, the first at age nine by a 19-year-old cousin. Oprah revealed the incident in a now legendary segment of her talk show; today she says the abuse was "not a horrible thing in my life. There was a lesson in it. It teaches you not to let people abuse you."

    It did, however, help turn her into a rebellious and promiscuous teen. She was straightened out by her father, a strict disciplinarian who forced her to read books and memorize 20 new vocabulary words a week. The two are still "close in spirit," Oprah says, though they talk only once every couple of months. "We weren't a family with lots of hugs and touching," Oprah recalls. "Nobody ever said, 'I love you.' " Her father, still a barber and city councilman in Nashville, has turned down Oprah's offers to "retire him" (though she does support her mother financially). "The only thing he's ever asked me for was a ticket to the Tyson-Spinks fight." Oprah came through with one.

    A bright and attractive teenager (she was Miss Black Tennessee of 1971), Oprah began her TV career as a reporter and anchor for the CBS affiliate in Nashville while she was still a student at Tennessee State. Later, at Baltimore's WJZ-TV, the TV imagemakers went to work. A botched attempt at a permanent caused all her hair to fall out temporarily. More important, her inexperience led to her being dumped as anchorwoman. "I was 22 years old," she says. "I had no business anchoring the news in a major market." She was given another chance, as co-host of a morning talk show, and instantly found her niche. "I said to myself, 'This is what I should be doing. It's like breathing.' "

    Oprah breathed new life into the ratings and repeated the trick seven years later, when she became host of WLS's struggling AM Chicago show. The program, which went national in September 1986, has won a huge following by focusing -- unduly, say some critics -- on the often bizarre nooks and crannies of human misfortune. "There is a commonality in human experience," Oprah contends. "If it's happened to one person, it has happened to thousands of others. Our shows are hour-long life lessons."

    Playing the role of Sofia in Steven Spielberg's 1985 film The Color Purple was a life lesson of its own. Oprah landed the part by a stroke of harmonic convergence. She read Alice Walker's novel, gave copies to friends and said she felt destined to appear in a movie version. When the film's co-producer, Quincy Jones, turned up in Chicago to testify in a lawsuit, he saw Oprah's show and arranged an audition. Oprah regarded the entire experience with near mystical awe. "It was a spiritual evolvement for me," she says. "I learned to love people doing that film."

    Oprah's charmed career has not been without a few snags. Her second film, Native Son, based on Richard Wright's novel, was a flop at the box office, and a prospective sitcom for ABC, starring Oprah as a talk-show host, was scuttled after a mediocre pilot. Most of her attention is now focused on bringing to the screen projects that are close to her -- like Beloved and Kaffir Boy, an autobiography set in South Africa. "I want to do movies that are about something, that move people and leave them feeling uplifted." Though most of them involve black authors and subject matter, Oprah resists being cast as a spokeswoman for her race. "If other people perceive me to be representative of black people in this country, it is a false perception. The fact that I sit where I sit today, you can't deny there have been some major advances. But I'm still just one black woman."

    One driven black woman. "She is one of the most directed people I know," says Dori Wilson, a Chicago publicist. "She wants to go straight to the top." Yet she is trying to relax a bit, cutting back on her travel and free- lance good deeds. "I used to take every phone call from a guy who said he would jump off a building if I didn't talk to him. But I no longer feel compelled to aid every crazy. For two years I have done everything everyone asked me to do. I am now officially exhausted." And unofficially still barreling ahead.