Interview: Oprah Winfrey

Karen Anne Overton

2018 is becoming a milestone year for Oprah Winfrey. While the 64-year-old is clearly not short of them in a life of unimaginable purpose, it may just be that the actress, producer, television star, entrepreneur and philanthropist finally finds herself coming full circle

This latest chapter began when Oprah took on the part of celestial being, Mrs. Which, in the new Disney epic, A Wrinkle in Time. Her performance prompted the Cecil 
B DeMille Award at the 2018 Golden Globes ceremony, where she delivered a speech so rousing it led to calls for her to run as President of the United States. 

“It’s another situation I’ve got myself in,” she laughs, “but I care about injustice and if I get the opportunity to flag it, I will, every time. I’ll stand up there.” Ironically, the charismatic icon is more grounded than ever. Oprah recognises she cannot do everything alone, as she once thought she could, and accepts that when it comes to real change, we all have a long way to go, and a lot to contribute.

As Mrs. Which in director Ava DuVernay’s new Disney epic, A Wrinkle in Time

“It’s funny because I wasn’t even supposed to be in this movie!” she laughs, referring to Disney’s recent CGI spectacular. “I’ve been friends with Ava DuVernay, the film’s director, since I worked with her on Selma. She’s a wonderful, close friend of mine, and we were talking. She told me she was planning on shooting this movie and I said, ‘I’d love to come there with you to watch.’ And she said, ‘If you’re going to do that, would you like to read this part and see what you think?’” Oprah laughs heartily: “And it all happened from there—a job and a free vacation!”

Such accidental opportunities are commonplace in the world of Winfrey, whose ascent from depths of poverty and abuse to one of the most powerful and wealthy women in America is a screenplay in itself. Charismatic and brimming with compassion, when the luminous Mississippian heralds a call to arms, billions around the world listen.

"It's a significant moment in time for all of us. Society will never revert to how it was. It can't and it won't"

Such was the case when she took to the podium at the Golden Globes in January, proclaiming that “A new day has come”, in reference to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Within minutes, her speech had sent tremors through social media, with many predicting she was sure to be a contender for the 2020 election. 
A recent National Public Radio poll in the States suggested at least half of the electorate would vote for Oprah over Donald Trump (who garnered just 39 per cent of the vote).

But while Oprah has repeatedly rubbished the notion of entering politics—“I’m not built for a career in Washington”—the chat show titan retains the right to celebrate the sea change currently swamping Hollywood and beyond.

“It’s a significant moment in history for all of us,” she utters in her famously rich tones. “Society as an entity will never be the same again, and will never revert to how it was. It can’t, and it won’t.”

The truth is, Oprah is already a leader who empowers and emboldens her supporters, so it’s understandable that she isn’t willing to risk it all for a spin of the Washington wheel. If the media is the natural successor to the power of politics, then Oprah, who owns her own cable channel, OWN, and is a special correspondent for current affairs show 60 Minutes, is already an unrivalled leader. Perhaps part of that is because—unlike the current US President and so many others at the top table—Oprah was not born into wealth; she has worked tirelessly over the past four decades to build her formidable empire.

Born in 1950s Mississippi to a teenage mother, Oprah’s early years were fraught and unstable. Until the age of six she was raised by her grandmother on a farm, a woman whose highest ambition for her granddaughter was that she would be hired as a domestic worker by someone who would treat her kindly.

Eventually the young girl was sent to live with her mother, who worked long hours, leaving her vulnerable to the predatory men around her. Aged nine, she was sexually abused by a cousin, and further abuse followed. At 14, a pregnant Oprah went to live with her father in Nashville, where she gave birth to a premature son who tragically died shortly afterwards.

Rather than be broken by this, Oprah kicked back, channelling her pain into positivity, to the point that she even credits those who exploited her for making her the woman she is. “Being 14 was a very difficult time for me, it was rough. And had I had guidance at that age, my life might have been very different,” she reflects. “But I do believe, from the lowest moments in your life, the deepest pits where you don’t understand it, every single moment of emotional destitution, where you couldn’t see a way out… I believe every moment is a building block and another step in your journey to being who you are meant to be, and who you are meant to become.”

"I used to go to work every day shaking with fear, saying 'I know I'm going to be fired'"

It was while living with her father and stepmother that the teenager finally found her feet. At 17, she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant, an event sponsored by the local radio station. Noticing her raw talent, Oprah was offered a part-time job reading the news, which led to a move to WJZ-TV in Baltimore as co-anchor for the six o’clock headlines. Things didn’t initially work out, however. Oprah was dropped and slipped back into the relative safety of the newsroom, or so she thought. There, she met an unexpected mentor who would lead her on the path to success.

“There was an editor in the newsroom in Baltimore, and every night, he used to yell, ‘WINFREY, where’s my copy!’ And I was petrified of him,” she recalls.

“I used to go to work every day shaking with fear, saying ‘I know I’m going to be fired’. I wasn’t a great writer, I wasn’t fast enough. In the end I didn’t get fired, but I did get demoted to the talk show… which was seen as a big demotion in those days. And that’s where it all began. So, I thank him. He was inadvertently a guiding light!”

It’s easy to see what Oprah’s legion of supporters see in the television icon, and arguably her traumatic past has played a big part in developing that special blend of empathy and courage which has become her trademark. When her Chicago-based morning talk show AM Chicago was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986, it sparked a daytime television revolution, when Oprah, a young black woman in a white male-dominated industry, pioneered the concept of achieving personal healing through the means of a public confessional.

"I don't think I've ever gotten starstruck. I tend to live like we are all the same, because we are"

“In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do—whether on television or through film—is say something about how men and women really behave,” said the star in her Golden Globes acceptance speech. “It’s to say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome. I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at them, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.”

Some people are born with great expectation already bestowed upon them. Others, like Oprah, are considered lucky if they manage to carve a life that’s tolerable at best. This is what sets her apart. And having witnessed both the struggle of poverty and the exuberant and often unnecessary opulence of the rich, she is one of only a limited few in Hollywood with a greater understanding of human nature. With that, unsurprisingly, comes a well-balanced view on the fickle beast that is celebrity.

Oprah describes meeting Mandela as a “defining moment"

“Fame is an interesting state of mind, because you yourself, you don’t change; it’s everyone around you who changes… you stay the same,” says Oprah, adding sagely, “It’s who you are within before the fame that becomes magnified.”

Despite an interview roster showcasing such variety of personality and talents, from Lance Armstrong to John F Kennedy Jr., Tom Cruise to Michael Jackson, the revered presenter has always remained calm, not out of arrogance, but out of a sense of equality.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten starstruck or will get starstruck because I tend to live like we are all the same, because we are. But I also can’t get away from the fact that we all have heroes we look up to, and for me, I’ve had a few moments…” she says thoughtfully.

“[Meeting] Nelson Mandela was a very defining moment in the sense of what he represents for freedom and equality. Sidney Poitier too, because I had watched him my whole childhood and his winning the Oscar in 1964 was earth-shattering for me. “And I always remember Diana Ross,” adds Winfrey. “That was an overwhelming moment, with a lot of tears, a lot of hyperventilating, because I had always dreamed of being a Supreme!” 

 

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