Kitty Kelley discusses Oprah bio

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Kitty Kelley
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; 1:00 PM

Bestselling author Kitty Kelley ("Jackie Oh!"; "Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star"; "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra") was online Wednesday, April 28, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her latest celebrity portrait, "Oprah: A Biography," which penetrates the first black female billionaire's personal and professional lives.

Book World review (Post, April 15)


Kitty Kelley: Hi---Kitty Kelley here. Glad to be with The Washington Post

(my former employer a million years ago) and answer your questions about "Oprah: A Biography." So fire away.


NYC: Barbara Walters said books like yours were all about finding dirt, not the truth. What's your response?

Kitty Kelley: I was dismayed to hear Barbara Walters negatively characterize my biography of Oprah and wrote her a letter a week ago, saying:

"Perhaps you've had the that experience with people writing about you, but that was certainly not my intention in writing about Oprah Winfrey. As a biographer I write by the light of President Kennedy's words: "The great enemy of the truth is not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest--but the myth--persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.

In my books I've tried to penetrate the constructed myths of powerful public figures who have immense influence on our society. As such a public figure yourself, your words on "the View" left the impression that my book on Oprah was simply an e enterprise in "looking for dirt," which is untrue.

Over 850 people were interviewed for this book, including Oprah's family, friends, classmates and colleagues who respect and admire her, including Phil Donahue, Gloria Steinem, Liz Smith, Erica Jong, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Alice Walker, author of "the Color Purple."

I am enclosing a copy of "Oprah: A Biography," published by President Obama's publisher and editor by Peter Gethers, your editor. I hope after reading it you will re-consider your characterization to your viewers.


Kitty Kelley

Viewers: no response from Ms. Walters to date


Cincinnati, Ohio: Why should anyone believe your book, first of all Oprah was not the 1st black billionaire female. That title belongs to BET's Robert Johnson's wife. I cannot remember her name but when they became billionaires while married and both stayed billionaires after their divorce. I read a lot and remember when they became billionaires before Oprah. Also about 2 yrs or so ago this question was on Jeopardy, 1st female black female billionaire, the guest said Oprah and was beeped with incorrect, when no one could guess, the host told it was Mrs. Johnson, Bob Johnson, ex-wife. Period not Oprah.

Kitty Kelley: Actually, according to Forbes, Sheila Johnson, Robert Johnson's ex-wife, is worth $400 million, NOT a billionaire. In fact, Mr. Johnson fell off the Forbes billionaire list when he and his wife divorced and he had to give her half his net worth. Oprah remained on the list. Today she is worth $2.7 billion. More than either of the Johnsons.


Washington, D.C.: Does Winfrey still claim to be "engaged"? If so, and if someone were to ask her what kind of engagement lasts eighteen years, what do you think might be her reply?

Kitty Kelley: Oprah announced her formal engagement to Steadman Graham in 1992 and posed for the Cover of People magazine. They have been engaged for 18 years but, according to the interview I had with her father, Vernon Winfrey, in Nashville, "They will never marry." Oprah's response to her lonnnnnggg engagement is that "it works for us."


Oprah's Book Club: Guessing her producers won't be making your bio a book-club pick?

Kitty Kelley: I'm with you that Oprah's producers won't be featuring this biography on her book club but it would be a great opportunity to explain to her viewers and fans how this book was written. Amazingly for a superstar of Oprah's status that there has never been a full and comprehensive biography of her published before now.


Oprah's siblings: How many brothers and sisters does Oprah have? Does she take care of her entire family? Does she visit them or do they visit her? How connected is she to her family? Is she more connected to Gail's family?

Kitty Kelley: Oprah had a sister named Patricia, who died a few years ago of a drug overdose. She also had a brother named Joseph, who died of AIDS. Her mother, Vernita, had three children but never married the fathers.

Oprah has put great distance between herself and her biological family but she is immensely generous to them. She has retired her mother, bought her a condo, hired caretakers and drivers and nurses (Vernita Lee is a diabetic) but Oprah won't give her mother her telephone number. They've never been close. Oprah has created her own celebrity family--one that she feels she deserves and gives her unconditional love. She's made Dr. Maya Angelou her mentor/mother; Gayle King her sister, Quincy Jones her uncle, Sidney Poitier her father.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: So, Ms. Kelley, if I were to write an unauthorized biography on YOU would I have enough juicy material to have a bestseller like the ones you have?

Kitty Kelley: You would be soooo wasting your time on an unauthorized bio of me. It would be a funky mess but boring, boring, boring. Better to read the one I wrote about Oprah---much more engaging and way more inspiring!!!


Washington, D.C.: How do you choose the subjects of your biographies?

Kitty Kelley: I only choose to write about people who are alive, are extremely powerful and as such have influenced our lives. I try to go behind their constructed myths to find the humanity of the person. It takes me about four years on every book and requires hundreds of interviews so I choose people whose lives I respect and achievements are worth recording.


Rosslyn, Va.: Was there anything that was revealed through your interviews and research that you felt was un-publishable other than the controversy regarding Oprah's father? What system do you use to evaluate if something is worthy of inclusion?

Kitty Kelley: After spending so much time studying Oprah's life I saw that she lived in a culture of secreccy, which was surprising for someone who appears to open and spontaneous on television and I, as you note, got pulled I into that secrecy when Oprah's Aunt Katharine revealed the identity of Oprah's real father. It was uncomfortable but I gave her my word of honor I would not reveal what she had told me until Oprah's mother revealed all to her.

In evaluating a source's credibility, I try to establish that he or she is actually a part of the Oprah life t hey are revealing. For example, I don't take out-of-the-blue phone calls without investigating the person calling and the information they are imparting. Even with the most exacting evaluation, you can still end up with a difference of recollection of the same event. If I get a difference, I give both sides--Oprah's side and then the source's side.

For example, in the book I have several on-the-record sources who tell me about the famous Frank Perdue incident in Baltimore when Oprah was co-hosting "People Are Talking." Yet yesterday in Baltimore her former co-host, Richard Sher, did a show with me and said the incident never happened. Yet he would not tell me that when I was writing the book. So in that case I told Sher on television that I had to go with the four people who claimed to have been there and seen the incident on television. (If you've got the book, look in the index under Perdue.)


Minnepolis, Minn.: Are Oprah and Steadman in a relationship that resembles a marriage or is it something else? Do they live together, vacation together, rely on each other?

Kitty Kelley: Another question on Steadman and Oprah. They are engaged and have been since 1992; they rarely give interviews together anymore. They have a strong bond and live together when they're in the same town.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Ms. Kelley....does Ms. Winfrey's negative reaction to your book diminish at all the final product? Is there any content in the book that you feel now should have perhaps been left out?

Kitty Kelley: When I started this book I wrote to Oprah as a matter of courtesy to tell her what I was doing, that I would be interviewing as many people as possible, and would very much like to interview her. I sent about 6 letters and only towards the end did I receive a call from her publicist saying "Ms. Winfrey declines to be interviewed." I fully understood because Oprah has not given an in-depth interview in years. However, I wanted to be totally accurate in what I wrote and asked if I might check facts. The publicist said to "reach out to me." But everytime I called the publicist she was in conference, traveling, or out of the office. I left my number each time I called but never received a return call.

Oprah's characterization of this book is not at all surprising, especially for a woman who needs to be in total control of what is written about her. As you know, I don't write biographies to curry favor with the subject but rather to tell the truth about a life as I see it through the prism of others whose lives have intersected with hers.


Princeton, N.J.: Ms. Kelley,

Thank you for hosting this chat. Do you still believe that you are being blackballed by many media outlets? Also, do you think this stands as an example of media bias, that when you wrote about the Bush family in 2004 you got a ton of media exposure, but when you wrote about Oprah (who is a close friend of Obama), you were essentially shunned?

Kitty Kelley: There was a bit of a media boycott on this book upon publication (Barbara Walters, Larry King, etc.) but many others (the Today Show, Fox News, CBS Sunday Morning, etc) stood up so I have no complaints. And thank God for the internet!!!

To your question about the mainstream media... in some quadrants there seems to be a bit of an "How Dare You" attitude that I find disconcerting.

Years ago when I worked at the Washington Post as the researcher for the editorial page, I knew journalists who were as brave as marine and did not curtsy to celebrity. Doesn't seem to be a whole lot of those kinds of journalists left these days. Unfortunately.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Do you feel comfortable researching someone's sexual history? Why do you believe it is important for readers to know this?

Kitty Kelley: Sexuality is very much a part of our lives and when you're writing a full and comprehensive biography you explore the intimate. In the case of Oprah, she's talked quite a bit on the air and in print about her past and present sex life so it would be irresponsible to ignore it in writing her biography.


Washington, D.C.: Do people actually like working for Oprah? I heard and read that she is not a nice person and that a lot of people that work for her are scared of her.

Kitty Kelley: As much as Oprah is adored, she is also feared. Some people who've worked for her admire her a great deal; others describe Harpo as a bult of narcissism. (sp?) Oprah pays well and demands hard work. She makes everyone within her employ at Harpo and O the magazine sign hammering confidentiality agreements NEVER to speak about her, discuss her personal relationships, the working conditions, her business relationships, etc. Some people broke those agreements to talk to me. Not all were negative by any means as you will see in the book.


Washington, D.C.: Laura Bush's memoirs are coming out next month. In light of your expertise on the Bush's, has anyone asked you to review the book?

Kitty Kelley: I have not been asked to review the book and doubt that I'll be given the opportunity , considering I wrote "The Family" about the Bush dynasty. From what I've read about Mrs. Bush's book, it seems to be quite sparse about her 8 years in the White House, beyond a superficial defense of her husband's administration.


Margate, N.J.: Thank you for writing this book. I was always a fan of Oprah, before and after I read your book. Do you think some of the response to your book is negative, because some fans refuse to believe anything negative about Oprah?

Kitty Kelley: I find the fans (outside of the main stream media) are enjoying the book because they want to know more about their heroine's life. I found the same thing when I wrote about Frank Sinatra: the fans wanted to know. This book does not detract from Oprah's stature; it's simply a revealing, behind-the-scenes look. Think of it as high definition television.


Washington, D.C.: Oprah's father said she no longer believed in Jesus Christ as her personal Savior. Didn't she used to go to Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church in Chicago? Why did she leave her Christen faith? Does she attend any church now?

Kitty Kelley: During my interview with Vernon Winfrey, Oprah's father, he said he was disgusted with her New Age philosophy. He especially took issue with Oprah no longer believing that Jesus Christ was her savior. "that's not the way I raised Oprah Gail," he said. He's a very traditional man of 79-80 years, and a devout church-going Baptist.

Oprah and Stedman both went to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Church in Chicago for many, many years. But no longer.

Both Oprah and Stedman believe in the gospel of self-help.

That's a core belief for both.

Politically, they're not as similar. Stedman is a conservative Republican who would not accompany Oprah to a Clinton White House state dinner. She took Quincy Jones as her guest.


Waldorf, Md.: Ms. Kelly,

I keep hearing a lot about Oprah's father. What else might be so revealing that we don't already know.

Kitty Kelley: When I interviewed Oprah's father in Nashville, it was shortly after Oprah had come down on him for wanting to write his life story. He was uncomfortable with Oprah telling him what to do. "I'm not her boy," he told me. "It's my life." He does indeed have a genuinely compelling story as one of ten children born in the Jim Crow South and how he managed to become an independent business man with no education or money. However, the story will never get written now because he said that publishers were demanding he "get Oprah's approval" before they would consider his book.


Crofton, Md.: What are you thoughts about Oprah's sexuality. There's been many rumors of her being gay, and with the relationship she's had with Stedman and her girlfriend (sorry, can't remember her name), it's not hard to speculate she may be gay.

Kitty Kelley: The speculation about Oprah's sexuality will probably continue forever. I interviewed 850 people for this book and I swear at least 800 brought the subject up. Oprah herself made her sexuality an matter of public speculation back in the late 90's by issuing a press release stating "I am not gay. I'm not coming out of the closet. I'm not lesbian." She had appeared on Ellen DeGeneres' show and her fans were upset that she played the therapist who cheered Ellen for coming out.

That coupled with her long engagement to Stedman and her friendship with Gayle King heightens public curiosity.

I don't subscribe to the Oprah/Gayle as lovers. I'm convinced they are very good friends. Oprah has described herself as "a not very sexual person" and I tend to agree with her. She's poured her best energies into her career, expanding her empire and her brand.


Chicago, Ill.: I watched the episode of the Oprah Show when she tore apart James Frey. It seemed to me that she felt embarrassed and betrayed. She didn't seem like someone you would want to cross. Is it common for her to retaliate against people she feels betrayed her?

Kitty Kelley: The Frey fracas is detailed in the book as I was able to speak with people who were on the scene at the time and witnessed what happened. According to them, Oprah turned on Frey when The New York Times and The Washington Post turned on her for supporting his memoir, which turned out to be less than truthful.

Re: crossing Oprah

I wouldn't recommend it as she's verrrrry powerful. However, you'd never have to worry about a screaming, shouting take down because Oprah doesn't react that way. When she's displeased, a curtain of ice falls and you never hear from her again.


Irresponsible to ignore?: I understand your point about her sexuality being fair game, but characterizing as irresponsible to ignore seems like quite an odd way to put it. It's not as though you were doing investigative journalism with your book, right?

Kitty Kelley: This book is definitely investigative journalism and the documentation for all quotes is cited in the 60 pages of chapter notes at the end.


Oprah in Baltimore: I remember seeing her on the local stations and then eventually becoming this famous person which honestly kind of floored me.

Oh, and by the way, Frank Perdue did look like a chicken.

Kitty Kelley: Re: Frank Perdue's chicken resemblance

I agree.


Greensboro, N.C.: Have you ever started research or began writing a book about someone and given up or deferred it for later? If so, why?

Kitty Kelley: Never have started a book and then stopped. Have despaired on occasion and wondered if I'd ever get it done but with the help of supportive friends have managed to drag myself over the finish line each time.


Arlington, Va.: Have you considered going on the Howard Stern show to discuss your book? He is probably the only person I have heard discuss some of the topics you discussed in your book (sexuality, secrecy, engagement). Seems you two would have a lot to talk about.

Kitty Kelley: I did the Howard Stern show for my Bush book and I should send him a copy of this one because he's mentioned with regard to his fight with the FCC over the sexual content of his shows compared to the sexual content of Oprah's shows.


Washington, D.C.: You noted Oprah's "adopted" family members, who all seem to play some sort of older, mentor role. Does Oprah have any "adopted" children in her life, so to speak?

Kitty Kelley: Yes, Oprah does have "adopted" children. See chapter 18 of the book. These youngsters were adopted by Oprah on one of her first trips to South Africa. Then there are the children at her Oprah Winfrey Leadership School in South Africa, all of whom she calls her "daughters" and they call her "mum."


Gainesville, Fla.: Gonna do Tiger Woods next?

Kitty Kelley: Not a chance!!!!!


Lawsuits?: It strikes me that anyone writing as you do must pass one final and rather serious hurdle, lawsuits. By writing such a book, if anything proves to be untrue then you are liable to be sued for, libel. Isn't that true? Has anyone successfully sued you? Please understand I'm asking out of curiosity and without any negative implication.

Kitty Kelley: I take your question in the spirit in which it was asked and it's legitimate and intelligent.

I have never been successfully sued and, as you know, I write about powerful people in control of legions of lawyers but after I finish writing my manuscript, I submit it to several sets of lawyers for legal vetting. Yes, I must abide by the laws of libel and document what I report.


Not an Oprah Fan: I'm not an Oprah fan but a lot of your answers are "they"; "people"; etc. When I was a child my mother would always say to us when we said "they", etc. She always told me if you can't name "they" then I don't want to hear anything "they" have to say. I happen to agree with that statement and live by it today. Who's "they" and "people" names please.

Kitty Kelley: Almost everyone cited in this book is on the record and named. The only anonymous sources ("they") are those who broke their confidentiality agreements to speak to me and publishing sources.


Kitty Kelley: I wish I could stay with you the rest of the afternoon because your questions are great. But I'm supposed to sign off at 2pm and I do so with many thanks for your time and consideration.


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