IT IS 8:50 A.M. ON A COLD, RAINY NASHVILLE morning and there are three heads waiting in front of Vernon Winfrey's barbershop. Most of the time Vernon Winfrey is a barber, an elected city councilman, a deacon in his church and the owner of a small grocery store, but from 9 to 10 every morning since September 8, Vernon Winfrey is simply the proud father of the star of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Swinging back the iron grate and unlocking the door of the barbershop, Vernon Winfrey first turns on the heater, then the shaving-cream machine, then the 19-inch color television he bought several weeks ago so that he could watch his daughter's show in full color. His customers, three men of varying ages, each dressed in work clothes, take their seats, two in the row of wooden chairs against the wall, one in the old-fashioned, lime-green barber's chair. On the television, the music from the show comes up and Oprah appears. "Who's that girl in the red dress?" one of the men drawls.
"I'm not sure. She does look kind of familiar to me," Vernon Winfrey says softly as he wraps a bib around the neck of the man in the barber's chair.
"You know," Vernon Winfrey says to the room, "Oprah's show has caused me to lose some money between 9 and 10 in the morning. That's because I need my eyes to cut hair and to watch her. The haircuts keep me from getting the full significance of it sometimes."
Zelma Winfrey, Oprah's stepmother, and the men in the barbershop chuckle softly as Vernon Winfrey lathers a pair of graying sideburns. On the television, Oprah whips through the audience, prodding and challenging her guests and the people in the studio. Inside Winfrey's barbershop, the sounds of the television mingle with the hum of a space heater and the whirr of the electric trimmer as Vernon Winfrey cuts heads, one eye cocked on the television set. When he is finished, the man is cleanly shaven; there are no nicks.
In 1955, Vernon Winfrey, straight out of the Army, arrived in Nashville with nothing. He found himself two jobs, one he calls "the worst job in Nashville," as a pot washer at City Hospital for 75 cents an hour, the other as a janitor at Vanderbilt University. He has been a barber since 1964 and now owns his own shop employing two operators. Attached to the barbershop is a small store he owns, from which he sells pop, pomade, diapers and cigarettes to the neighborhood. Since 1975 he has been an elected member of Nashville's Metro Council, representing the mostly black 5th District, serving 15,000 constituents who have reelected him twice.
He is a successful man, a man of means who can drop in on Nashville's mayor without an appointment and be warmly greeted. He speaks slowly, with careful deliberation. He will tell you that this is because he has a slight stutter, but it seems as much the manner of a cautious man, a man protective of his family and his values, as anything else.
The mainstay of Vernon Winfrey's life has been the church. It is where he receives spiritual sustenance, and it also provides a community: of friends, of voters, of patrons of the barbershop and the store. And while Vernon Winfrey delights in his daughter's success, he is not surprised by it. He and his wife Zelma raised her to it.
ON MEN'S DAY AT FAITH-UNITED Missionary Baptist Church, where Vernon Winfrey is a deacon and the names of five other Winfreys sprinkle the program booklet, the church fills slowly. The men are few and mostly old, the women are many and of all ages. The men wear somber suits; the women, flowing, flowery dresses. Little girls dance down the aisle, their hair tightly braided in elaborate patterns of pigtails and bows. Older church sisters cruise toward their pews, their pink, purple and yellow wide-brimmed hats creating a moving tapestry as they proceed. The atmosphere is graciously formal. Congregants greet friends and strangers softly, warmly, touching a hand or an arm as they speak. Visitors are asked to stand and identify themselves by name and church. The minister reads the names of sick members of the congregation, along with hospital visiting hours. Crying children are gently hushed by the nearest adult in an atmosphere of communal values and responsibility.
It was in this church, in an atmosphere very much like the one today, that Oprah Winfrey grew up. As a child, Oprah was expected to read scripture, recite on special occasions and perform in church pageants. It was in this black church that she not only formed spiritual values but learned discipline and drama. The church is not a place Winfrey regularly visits today, but the influence it had on her life is indelible.
Oprah was born to Vernon Winfrey and Vernita Lee in Kosciusko, Miss., in 1954. Oprah's father was in the service when she was born and her mother was looking to escape Mississippi. Her father says he heard of her birth when he received a printed baby announcement in the mail with a scribbled note: "Send clothes!" Soon after Oprah's birth, her mother moved to Milwaukee, leaving Oprah Gail with her grandmother on a small farm. At 6, Oprah went to live with her mother, then returned two years later to her father in Nashville, where she was welcomed by Vernon and his wife, Zelma. Zelma had had one difficult pregnancy, which ended in a miscarriage, and while she wanted children, she didn't want to risk pregnancy again. Oprah's arrival was for them a godsend, and they immersed her in their life of hard work, family and church.
When Oprah was 9 years old, her mother asked Vernon if Oprah could come for a visit for the summer. Vernon agreed, he says, but when he came to pick up his daughter the next fall, Oprah's mother told Vernon that Oprah was going to stay in Milwaukee. Vernon Winfrey remembers crying over his daughter only once, when he had to leave her there with her mother. "We had brought her out of that atmosphere, out of a house into a home, so I knew it was not good for her, being in that environment again. Oprah didn't really have much to say that night, besides hello."
Now 32, Oprah Winfrey has a lot to say. She is the undisputed Queen of Talk, the first black woman to host a nationally syndicated weekday talk show and the first person ever to give Phil Donahue a run for his ratings. She's a black woman in a white man's world, and an overweight woman in a thin woman's world, and still she's successful. And much of her popularity as talk-show host has come from her openess, her willingness to talk about her personal life to other people.
"I realized I was poor then," says Winfrey of her life in Milwaukee. "I was bused to school. I'd get on the bus in the evening and go home and the white kids would go to the pizza parlor and drive their cars and stuff.
"I ran away from home. I started acting out my need for attention, my need to be loved. My mother didn't have the time. She worked every day as a maid. She was one of the maids on those buses. I was smart and my mother, because she didn't have the time for me, I think, tried to stifle it. If I hadn't been sent to my father [when I was 14], I would have gone in another direction. I could have made a good criminal. I would have used these same instincts differently."
It was during this time in Milwaukee that Oprah was sexually abused by male relatives and family friends. "I blamed myself," Winfrey says. "I was always very needy, always in need of attention and they just took advantage of that. There were people, certainly, around me who were aware of it, but they did nothing."
The only way Winfrey could figure to fight for herself was through manipulation and acting out. Oprah wore bifocals that were butterfly-rimmed, felt ugly in them and wanted to get a different style. Her mother said she couldn't afford them, and Winfrey, already the accomplished actress with a keen dramatic sense, devised a plan. "I stayed home from school, broke my glasses in many pieces and called the police, after I pulled down the curtains and knocked over the lamps. I lay down on the floor and faked being unconscious and having amnesia. Of course, I had seen this on 'Marcus Welby, M.D.' about someone having amnesia. This was the story: Someone broke in, hit me on the head and knocked off my glasses," Winfrey says, laughing.
Oprah's mother didn't think this stunt was funny at all. She'd had it, recalls Oprah. She felt that Oprah was uncontrollable, ungrateful and -- after the robbery stunt -- maybe a little crazy. She called Vernon Winfrey and told him Oprah was all his.
Oprah returned to Nashville, 14 years old, headstrong and given to wearing short, tight skirts and lots of thick, black makeup. That style of dress may have been the popular one then, but Vernon Winfrey would have none of it. Gone was the little girl who had recited beautifully and was in demand for church functions all over town. Vernon Winfrey was determined to bring her back. When Oprah wore a dress with a bare midriff, he told her to take it off. When she wore too much makeup, he helped her remove some. He was a strict and constant presence in his daughter's life, as was the church.
"I was not the father that had to have the mother tell her, well, you know, she's a girl, it's time for you to tell her things," he says. "I talked to her about the approach of boys or men. I told her, 'If you don't hold up for yourself, the guys are not going to hold up for you.' "Me and Oprah have talked about many things in life. I asked Oprah at one time, 'What kind of person do you want to be?' I analyze three kinds of persons: One that makes things happen, there's another that watches things happen and the other that doesn't know what's happening. Oprah didn't like those last two kinds of people," he says, shaking his head.
Oprah Winfrey didn't see it then, of course, but today she looks back on that moment when she returned to her father as a turning point in her life. "When my father took me, it changed the course of my life," Winfrey says emphatically. "He saved me. He simply knew what he wanted and expected. He would take nothing less."
Says her father, "Oprah always called me Daddy before she left, but when she came back to Nashville I was 'Pops.' I said, 'Oprah, honey, you were Gail or Oprah when you left, right? And I was Daddy when you left and I'm gonna be Daddy since you're back. I will not accept the word 'Pops.' "
As strict as he was about appearance and tradition, Vernon was stricter about education, which he viewed as the key to success.
"I remember coming home one time with C's," Oprah says, "and my father saying, 'This is not acceptable.' And I said, 'Unacceptable? C is average. This is not a bad grade.' And he said to me, 'If you were a child who could only get C's, then that is really all I would expect of you. I wouldn't demand any more from you than C's. But you are not. And so in this house, for you, C's are not acceptable.' "
Zelma took her to the library every two weeks. Oprah was required to choose five books, read them and write book reports. "Not only did I have homework from school, but homework at home!" Oprah remembers. "Plus, I had an hour a day to watch television, and the hour was always before 'Leave It to Beaver' came on! I hated that, but it is the absolute reason I got my first job in radio. I was hired on nothing else other than that I sounded good."
Winfrey's broadcast career began in 1973 when she became a newscaster for Nashville's WVOL radio. Two years later she moved to the news department of WTVF-TV. In 1976, she went to Baltimore, where she was news coanchor at WJZ-TV, an experience she describes as dismal. She began overeating because it made her feel better. Winfrey became cohost of WJZ's "People Are Talking" in 1977, her first talk-show job, where she began developing her style as a host. As her ratings increased, so did her size. By the time she left Baltimore for WLS-TV's "AM Chicago" in 1984, she weighed 160 pounds. Now a perennial dieter, Winfrey has made her personal battle of the bulge a topic for her morning talk show, cracking jokes about her size and thighs and sponsoring a "Diet With Oprah" segment complete with T-shirts.
"Eating has been my way of saying, well, if I fail, it's because of the weight, it's because I'm fat. I gained 10 pounds the first week I was in Chicago, because everyone told me I was going to fail. I think weight has been a way of sheltering my own sense of power. It makes people more comfortable with me and in many ways me more comfortable with other people."
When Winfrey appeared on the "Tonight" show, guest host Joan Rivers dared her to lose weight. Oprah was bold enough to accept the challenge and was rewarded with a second appearance. That challenge went out the window when she won the role of Sophia in "The Color Purple." Winfrey was at a health farm when casting director Reuben Cannon called to give her the good news. When she told him she'd gone there to lose weight, he told her to "find it" if she wanted the part.
Winfrey's acting career took off after she appeared in "The Color Purple," her first film. She was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Sophia, a woman who refuses to let her spirit be broken, first by her abusive husband and then by the white authorities. The pivotal scene takes place after Sophia's release from prison. She returns home and sits with her family at the dinner table, silent, not eating, physically and apparently emotionally destroyed. Suddenly she begins to eat and talk and eat.
Her next role is in the movie "Native Son," based on the novel by Richard Wright and due to be released in January. She plays the mother of Bigger Thomas, a black youth in the Chicago of the 1940s who kills a white woman in a panic and is executed.
Composer Quincy Jones, producer of "The Color Purple" and the person who suggested Winfrey for the role of Sophia after seeing her talk show once, believes the possibilities for Winfrey are limitless. "There is a quality Oprah has," says Jones. "She is centered, she knows who she is. She is honest, open and what's underneath is so beautiful and she just lets it out. She deals on a universal level and can go anywhere she wants to go."
To many, she has succeeded without becoming a white black person, without emulating white America's idea of dress and decorum. She has challenged not only white America's stereotypes about black Americans, but black America's unconscious acceptance of these stereotypes. It is a daring marketing strategy and for Oprah Winfrey it has worked -- so far. Winfrey's syndication deal with King World Syndicators and her contract with WLS-TV will earn her more than $ 10 million in 1986. She owns a substantial percentage of her show and will make millions if it is successful. King World's chief executive officer, Stuart Hersch, confidently says that "The Oprah Winfrey Show" will probably make more than $ 25 million in the first year and that "a year from now we will outbill Donahue."
But the national syndication of her show has brought its share of controversy to the Washington area, where "The Carol Randolph Show" was canceled to make room for Oprah in the 10 a.m. time slot on WUSA-TV. Randolph, another black woman and talk-show host, had been on television in Washington for 17 years and had a strong local following. The decision to cut Randolph's show to a half hour in September 1985 and then to discontinue it altogether met with local protest.
Oprah Winfrey's attitude toward this controversy is strictly business. She wanted a 10 a.m. slot on the East Coast and got it. That Randolph is a black woman may evoke Winfrey's sympathy, but it doesn't alter her strategy.
"I think it is unfortunate that Carol has to lose her show," Winfrey says carefully. "But it is the way of this business. In every market we're going to, someone is being cut back or removed. I think it is unfair to expect those of us who are in this business not to be competitive. I understand that television is about what people want to see, what programmers think people want to see, and money."
Perhaps Winfrey's most negative critics are in the black community, something that greatly disturbs her, particularly the comment that she caters to whites, playing the Mammy role to the hilt. "I hear this, I hear this a lot," Winfrey says with disgust. "I hear that I don't hug the black people the way I hug the white people, that I go to the white people in the audience first. First of all, there are more white people. There just are more! I could not survive with this show if I only catered to black people, I just could not! I wouldn't be where I am if I did. That's not what it's about.
"I have always believed -- I heard Jesse Jackson say this -- that excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism," Winfrey says. "You may not be responsible for being down, but you have to be responsible for getting up. That somehow became part of my spirit, and I realize that is why I am where I am. Because bad things have happened in my life and I'd just get up and say, do the best you can." Winfrey's success owes as much to her father's values and his pragmatism as it does to her own sheer talent and effusive personality. She genuinely likes people, but she is also smart and knows who butters her bread -- the public. She can be counted on to sign one last autograph, talk to fans on the street, to go that extra distance.
The guest of honor at the opening of Diva, a restaurant in Chicago, she immediately becomes the center of attention. A one-armed man rushes up to confess that his "day doesn't start until I see your show." A woman grabs her, plants a kiss on her cheek and gushes, "Oprah baby, I love you. You know I love you!" Chefs scurry from the kitchen to shake her hand.
After 45 minutes, Oprah looks fatigued and Diva's owner rushes up. "Oprah, here's your table," he says, twirling her around and pointing to a table occupied by two women peacefully eating their dinner. "Oh, no!" he wails, "I'll clear that in a minute, in a minute." Winfrey tells him not to worry about it, that she doesn't mind waiting, but two minutes later he is back, ushering her to the table. The two women have vanished. "Where are they?" she asks, glancing around. "I've got to find them. They can sit here, there's plenty of room. "Besides," she laughs, "that's all I need. Can you imagine two black women on the streets of Chicago telling everyone that Oprah Winfrey had them evicted from her table?"
The two women are found, resettled at Winfrey's table and spend the evening talking and drinking Dom Perignon sent over by the restaurateur.
VERNON WINFREY IS SEATED IN HIS barbershop. Above each seat the wood is darkened by decades of leaning heads waiting for their turn in the chair. The shop is small, cluttered, well used. Bottles of Pine Tar Shampoo, Clubman Talc and Royal Crown Hairdressing crowd the shelves and counters. Faded issues of Jet, Reader's Digest and Black Enterprise hang limply from a rack on the wall. Next to an elevated shoeshine chair in the corner hangs a sign listing prices: different ones for shoes on (cheaper) and off (more expensive). A poster announcing a local appearance by Oprah Winfrey hangs in a corner, one edge untacked and curling downward, partially obscuring her face. A picture of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave in Atlanta hangs above the long mirror. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is on and Vernon Winfrey is touched by the day's topic -- child abuse. "I never knew, at the time Oprah came to live with me, that [sexual abuse] had ever happened to her. If we had known, we might have handled her a little bit differently, not knowing what kind of stress she was going through. But you can't see beyond the mountain.
"But I am glad she did the show. It might keep the same thing from occurring to some other mother's child. I think all the shows she has had, even the ones that are kind of heartfelt for me, have sent a message to somebody."
If he is pressed, Vernon Winfrey will allow that his life has been a successful one, and that he has come a long way from Kosciusko, Miss. In September he finished payment on the building that houses the store and barbershop. He expects to be reelected to Nashville's metro council in 1987. He owns what he calls "a bit of rental property here and there."
His aspirations for his daughter, though, far exceed those for himself and he tried to teach her, as the Bible says, to "press to the mark of the high calling of God and Christ Jesus.
"I think my thing in life has been working hard, making money or trying to make a living. I was never very studious at school and I had always stated that I would never let my children come up with no better chance than I had," he says. "Oprah has gone farther than I ever thought of her going," her father says, smiling. "She's come a long way. See, I can look back and see from where she came and I am proud that she made it. That was the beauty of 'The Color Purple' movie for me: When the people were in the juke joint and the people over in the church were singing and the Lord ruled over the Devil, as I analyze it, and all the folks came out of the juke joint into the church. That was the part of it practically made tears come into my eyes. To me, I saw the turning point in Oprah's life, when Oprah came back at 14."
The barbershop is filling up and conversation is familiar, joshing, desultory. Looking up at the television from his second head at 9:30, Vernon Winfrey smiles at the image of his daughter on the television and nods slightly to himself. "That's Oprah," he murmurs to no one in particular, "that's the Oprah we always knew. I had a fella say to me, 'Winfrey, I didn't like that one show.' I said, 'It's just like going to church; some sermons you're going to like, some not. You just have to stick with it.'