Oprah Winfrey talks about fame, ego and the Kennedy Center Honors

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 11:36 AM

CHICAGO - To sit in the studio audience of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is akin to having parachuted into an amiable and welcoming cult. It means being embraced in a group hug, swaying side to side, and singing the Oprah song - which involves chirping "O!" an awful lot.

Her acolytes have flown in from across the nation to have an Oprah moment, which generally includes tears, which is why there's a box of Kleenex tucked under every third seat or so. When Winfrey walks into the studio, some folks slip a bit outside the boundaries of reason. A woman standing along the aisle begins to weep, clutches her chest and goes wobbly. "I hope she touches me," whispers another as she stretches her hand out, out, out for contact -please.

"I was walking in and there was a woman reaching for my hands. And I've learned not to try to shake hands because they can pull you off balance; They don't even know their strength," Winfrey says later during an interview in her office. "But I went back. I could feel the energy saying: 'Look at me. Look at me.' I do feel that. I do sense that. I do try to give people what I think they want, if I can."

Winfrey has become our national confessor, our friendly, neighborhood billionaire philanthropist, the wizard who sprinkles magical dust over every author, entrepreneur, do-gooder and politician within her orbit. What Winfrey doesn't do is as powerful a statement as what she does. How dare she not interview Sarah Palin! The culture, it seems, has declared ownership of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Winfrey begs to differ - but only to a point. "I feel it's very much my show in that every decision you see on the show has come from that desk," she says, gesturing toward the pale green, bean-shaped table in her office. "The part that belongs to the culture is every single person who has watched . . . who has found or discovered a piece of light from it. Flecks of light, that's what I call it."

Winfrey, 56, will receive the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday because of the way in which all those sparks of light have dazzled, mesmerized and illuminated audiences over the course of nearly 25 years, more than 4,400 shows and some half-dozen films. She has "impacted nearly every aspect of the entertainment world while engaging, inspiring and enriching the lives of millions," reads her Honors citation.

"What it means to me to be able to receive this award alongside Paul McCartney - my heart cannot express what that means to me," Winfrey says. "When I was living on North Ninth Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a two-room flat, on welfare, the only decoration in a room I shared with a half brother and sister were Beatles posters. I was the only black girl in my inner-city neighborhood who loved the Beatles. And I loved Paul."

While other honorees are notable for the impact their body of work has had in specific fields, Winfrey's citation speaks of an amorphous but profound influence. The Honors are a testament to the power of her charismatic personality, one that generates a near-religious fervor.

"You see daughters my age looking at their mothers with tears in their eyes and you realize the center of their relationship is this woman. They say, 'Did you see Oprah today?' What a powerful effect she has on people's relationship with each other!" says her friend, actress Julia Roberts, in a telephone interview. "She's a remarkable human being."

Not buying the hype

Yet what must it be like on the receiving end of so many strangers' lingering glances - glances filled with hope and need? What does such secular devotion do to your head? What is it like being the beatified, sanctified Oprah?

"Fame is other people's perception of who you are," Winfrey says as she sits on a deep-cushioned sofa in her taupe and brown office at Harpo Studios. "In order to remain true to who you are, you have to be aware of it, but you can't buy into it." She has, however, come to terms with it.

"I used to live above Marshall Field's, now Macy's. And you know how they give out those gifts with purchase at the Clinique counter? I thought, 'I'm going to go back tomorrow and get myself that free Clinique bag' " says Winfrey. "I was bombarded by so many people. I thought, 'Why are they bombarding me?' Well, it was Saturday. And I realized, if you don't want to deal with this, then stay home. For the most part, if I'm not up to dealing with people . . . then I stay in. I stay behind the gates." (And she has many gates, with homes in Hawaii, California and in Chicago, among other places.)

In the midst of all the rapturous attention, has she ever had to give herself a stern little talking to after some especially egregious behavior? Or needed her friend of 30 years Gayle King to tug on her shirt sleeve and tell her to stop acting like a diva?

No, Winfrey says. There is destructive narcissism and then there's business. So she sees no contradiction in the all-encompassing branding that has given her upcoming new television network its name (OWN) and made her the official cover girl of her magazine.

"I'm absolutely a person who has not let ego run amok," Winfrey says. "I see the demands other people make. I see all the other stuff. I've had to say that - take it down a notch - to other people."

Her many Emmys line several shelves in her office like so many glittery bonbons in a candy shop window. A painting by Edward Hopper hangs on one wall, but her favorite work, "To the Highest Bidder" by Harry Roseland, which depicts an African American mother and child on the slave auction block, hangs in her California home. "It reminds me of where I've come from," Winfrey says.

Humble beginnings

She was born into poverty in 1954 in Kosciusko, Miss., to an unwed mother. She bounced from her grandmother's home to her mother in Milwaukee, where she lived a wild and fractious life, and finally to her father in Nashville.

After graduating from Tennessee State University, where she majored in speech communications and performing arts, Winfrey began her professional television career in earnest in Baltimore at WJZ-TV. "We connected because we were very similar: young black women, single," recalls King, who was a production assistant at the station. "But she was always scary smart and a really great speaker."

Spend five minutes with Winfrey and it's difficult to imagine that she's in any danger of forgetting her humble roots. ("She, to me, is incapable of not being completely honest and straightforward," Roberts says.) This billionaire-next-door acknowledges her wealth in a way that few members of the monied class will. Winfrey can see and describe her rarified life from the miles-long distance of those who lead pedestrian ones. She defuses easy accusations that she's bragging with self-inflicted nicks to her thick wall of success.

Winfrey has dubbed her other art collection, which includes a Monet, the "hoity-toity" one. What's left for the masses to call it? She points to a framed photograph of her home in Maui - a mansion that makes Tara seem like a squat - with an extraordinary rainbow arching over it, and describes it as one of her favorite things in her office. But she also mentions that she had to borrow someone else's camera to take the picture because hers didn't work.

She begins a story - and she tells lots of stories - by describing how she was driving to work and then immediately corrects herself, "when I was being driven," because she does not want to give the impression that she was stuck on the Dan Ryan Expressway behind the wheel of a Prius.

And as if to punctuate Winfrey's insistence that she is firmly grounded, Sadie, her tawny-colored cocker spaniel, who has been reclining on a nearby chair, quietly passes gas. The pungent odor wafts across the office. "Sorry," Winfrey says with a chagrined smile.

She is the mogul who keeps it real. And her audience can't get enough of her. Her ratings might have wobbled this summer, but she remains at the top of the talk show heap with 7.2 million viewers.

"I realize that she's a 'bad mama jama' and she holds the clout and influence she does," says King, who is editor-at-large of O, The Oprah Magazine and also has her own radio show. "But when you see someone in pajamas, you see the core of who she is."

Boldface names who have committed public malfeasance sit on her stage and confess. Regular folks come to Winfrey to tell their stories and reveal their secrets. When these average Joes and Janes are asked to explain their candor, the practiced response is this: I want to help others. Does Winfrey believe them?

"Inherently, no," she says. "You first do it for yourself, and if you raise awareness, that's a bonus."

Winfrey leans back into her sofa. She's dressed in deep purple trousers with a matching sweater. She has kicked off her eggplant-colored, patent leather Christian Louboutin stilettos - the ones without a hint of a scuff mark on the signature red soles.

"We did a story on a woman and sexual addiction," she begins. "The team spent weeks with her. She had a confession cam. She was a Sunday school teacher, a soccer mom and a sex addict." Winfrey asked whether her behavior made her feel like a slut. The woman said yes. In the midst of the unveiling of dark details, the woman mentioned her two sons, 10 and 14. Winfrey decided not to air the show.

"She doesn't even know what will happen when the broadcast airs all over the world. She doesn't know what will happen when her children see that," Winfrey says. "The woman said, 'I hope that was okay.' She said, 'I'm ready. I want to help other people.'

"I said, if you really want to help people, try it out in your church basement."

As O magazine might say: This is what Winfrey knows for sure. People want to be noticed. They want to be validated. "The reason why people come, to me, is not social redemption. But they know they will be heard," she says. "I will not have a 'gotcha' mentality with anyone. I'm not trying to get a headline with anything they said. I've been doing it long enough that people know that."

Learning from James Frey

The exception to all of this - to the ego being in check, to letting people be heard, to Oprah the benevolent - is the author James Frey.

Winfrey had championed his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," in her book club. And when reports surfaced that much of it was fabricated, she defended him on "Larry King." When it became clear that Frey had lied, she invited him back on her show and in what was riveting, headline-making television, she came after him with a fiery vengeance that she later regretted - so much so that, years later, in 2008, she called Frey to apologize.

Of course, there is a story here, about self-help and redemption.

During the presidential campaign, pressure was mounting for Winfrey to have Palin on the show. The calls were coming fast and furious, and they were often venomous. Her attorney warned there was talk of a boycott, and advertisers were getting shaky.

"I remember sitting in my living room, in my little prayer space where I meditate. James Frey came into my mind. 'Do not make the same mistake you made with James Frey.' "

"I did not know what the mistake was," she says. And she's not implying that it was the voice of God speaking to her. "I went to take a shower. What does that mean? The word came to me: ego."

"People saw my full-blown ego at work," she says. "I wasn't allowing him to be heard. I'd already judged him."

She made amends with the deceitful author and went ahead and booked Palin.

Ready to wrap up

Today's taping - the third of the afternoon - features Barbra Streisand singing "The Way We Were" and a surprise appearance by Robert Redford still looking very much like Hubbell. The audience is feeling extra, extra special because there are not many more of these days to come. The show will end in May, and its namesake will decamp to Los Angeles to focus on the new Oprah Winfrey Network, which launches on New Year's Day. Harpo Studios will remain here as a Chicago landmark. It will also produce Winfrey's new show for OWN. But much of her staff of 464 will have to find new jobs.

OWN promises to be infused with Oprah-ness. She hopes to capture that sense of intimacy she exudes as a television host who, during commercial breaks, looks at the image of herself on the video monitor and announces to no one in particular, "I'm showing an awful lot of cleavage," and proceeds to hoist up the neckline of her dress.

The audience giggles. They love her for that remark, for the fashion flub. She chats up the fans who have come so far and worked so hard to see her. She inquires about them. Winfrey is curious about you and what your life is like.

After all, what is left for her to reveal about herself? She has put so much of it out there for public consumption: the weight struggles, the drug and sexual abuse, life with her boyfriend Stedman Graham. She's shed a light on every dark corner, it seems.

"For the most part, they've heard Oprah's life story," King says. "But she has a couple more secrets. Stay tuned."

Rest assured, her fans will do just that. Their hunger for the self-help confessional, uplifting anecdote and the Oprah song shows no sign of waning.

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