For over 20 years, Oprah Winfrey has been referred to as the queen of daytime television. For the month of April, Kitty Kelley is the queen of the book-publishing world. Kitty tells us her latest work,
Oprah: A Biography, is slated number one in the upcoming New York Times Best Seller list.
Following Oprah’s journey from the Southeastern U.S. to being in many American’s homes, Kelley attempts to show us a more personal side of Ms. Winfrey. Kelley believes nothing in her book – or what anyone else might say – can ever put a damper on Oprah’s achievements. The author believes this biography is simply a chance for the public to see a different side of Oprah.
According to Kitty, Oprah declined her interview requests. In researching the book, however, Kitty conducted over 850 interviews, as well as gathering interviews Ms. Winfrey had already given over the last two decades.
Recently, Katherine Esters, one of Oprah’s family members – Kelley states she spent three days interviewing her – said she was misquoted in the book. Ms. Kelley tells us that she records all her interview subjects to the best of her ability – this includes Ms. Esters – and does everything she can to document every piece of information published. She believes Ms. Esters may have come under pressure and finds that disappointing.
Kelley is also disappointed that Barbara Walters was dismissive of her book. Kitty even wrote Ms. Walters a letter asking her to give the book a chance. Interestingly, Walter’s recent memoir,
Audition, was put out by the same publisher, Random House, and edited by the same editor, Peter Gethers, as Kelly’s Oprah biography. The author wrote to Walters to make it clear that her intention was not to do a negative book on Ms. Winfrey.
As far as what’s in store for Kitty Kelley in the future, she is planning to write an article about unauthorized biographies. She confides that her next big work might – emphasis on might – be on the Obama family, but nothing has been confirmed yet.
As for Ms. Winfrey, after positively affecting millions of people in one way or another, she is set to leave daytime television in 2011 and move over to her cable network.
Oprah’s success and positive effect on many cannot be denied. Undoubtedly, she is one of the most influential people of the last hundred years. Kelley’s book is an attempt to go behind the scenes and shed light on the actual person, not simply the iconic image. How successful the author is in doing this is a judgment the individual reader will have to make.
(Backup Player: Including IE)
Jay Bildstein (columnist joining interview): If Oprah Winfrey or Oprah Winfrey’s people reach out to you and said, “We would like to have you on the program.” One, would you be shocked? Two, would you go on the show? Three, would you think it was a really good idea?
Kitty Kelley: “Yes. I’d be very shocked. Yes, I’d go in a minute. And yes I think it would be a very good idea because it would be a chance to explain fully what this biography is all about. When I first undertook to do the biography, I wrote to Oprah Winfrey as a matter courtesy. I wanted to tell her what kind of book I was going to do and that I was going to be interviewing as many people as possible and that I’d very much like to interview her. I did explain that with this kind of book I don’t give up editorial control and I knew that would be a problem because she demands editorial control.
I wrote her again about five more times and never got an answer until the very end her publicist called me and said that, ‘Ms. Winfrey declines to be interviewed.’ So what I did was collect every interview that Oprah has ever given in the last 25 years to newspapers, magazines, radio or television so that I could lay it out, divide it up into names and subjects and dates and in that way almost get a psychological grid of who Oprah was, how she’s evolved over the years and be able to use her own words to document certain events.”
JB: Do you think it would be a coup de gras on her part if she brought you on much in the same way as a person who does struggle with an issue like weight, getting up in front of millions of people and kind of dragging a cart, kind of giving the metaphor for how much weight was lost? Do you think bringing you on would be this fabulous coup de gras like listen, I’ve got nothing to be scared of, ashamed of, I’m not afraid of bringing on Kitty Kelley who has portrayed me in all my glory and perhaps with some of my flaws as well and I’m here to examine that. Do you think that could actually be one of the greatest PR coups of all time if she were willing to do that?
KK: “I certainly think she might get the ratings.”
JB: Yeah. I have no doubt about that.
Chris Yandek: Why do you think certain people in the media have decided not to cover your book? You’ve been on some major shows, but others have decided not to.
KK: “I was, I was dismayed when I heard Barbara Walters negatively characterize my biography of Oprah and I wrote her a letter about a week ago. I said in the letter that perhaps she’s had that experience with people writing about her, but my intention was not negative in writing about Oprah Winfrey. And I told her in the letter that as a biographer, I write by the light of President Kennedy’s words. They are, ‘The great enemy of the truth is not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest but the myth persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.’ I’ve said that in my books I’ve tried to penetrate the constructed myths of powerful public figures who have an immense influence on our society. And as such a public figure yourself, your words on
The View left the impression that my book on Oprah was simply an enterprise in looking for dirt, which is untrue.
Over 850 people were interviewed for this book, I told her in my letter, including Oprah’s family, friends, classmates and colleagues who respect and admire her and they include Phi Donahue, Gloria Steinem, Liz Smith, Erica Jong, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Alice Walker, author of
The Color Purple. I ended by saying I’m enclosing a copy of Oprah: A Biography published by President Obama’s publisher and edited by your editor Peter Gethers. I hope after reading it you will reconsider your characterization to your viewers. Sincerely, Kitty Kelley.”
CY: The fact that you have pictures with Oprah’s father Vernon Winfrey and Aunt Katherine in the book and given the recent statement that Ms. Katherine said in the NY Post you misquoted her, 850 interviews, do you record everything, do you have everything on the record to go back to when we’re writing a biography?
KK: “Yes. I do. I try and record everything Chris. Sometimes I can’t. I don’t record in restaurants or in bus terminals, any place where it’s super noisy, but I try and do that.”
CY: Did you record Aunt Katherine?
KK: “Yeah, of course. I spent three days with her in Mississippi. And the reason, this has happened before when I’ve written books. On the Frank Sinatra book, Frank Sinatra Jr. denied giving me an interview and the publisher published a photograph of me interviewing him. It happened with
The Royals. A royal correspondent denied giving me an interview and I had to produce the tape.
It happened on the Bush book and it’s now happening on this book. It’s very, very hard for these people one, to see their words in print, but also to deal with the pressure of a powerful public figure coming down on them and I think that’s what happened with Katherine Esters. She was very candid and forthcoming with me when I was in Mississippi. I spent a couple of days at her house, we talked on the phone every night, she took me to lunch, we went to the Oprah Winfrey Boys and Girls Club. And the day I was leaving, she asked me to accompany her to her dialysis treatment where she gave me yet another interview. She was…”
CY: And you recorded all of these?
KK: “Not all of them. You can’t, I couldn’t record at the Oprah Winfrey Boys and Girls Club, but I do have pictures, photographs. I have letters. I have emails. We stayed in contact after that. I even took her book which she self-published, I took it to Random House to see if they would publish it because she so wanted a reputable publisher. So yes, I have all that documentation. I’m not surprised about the pressure being put on Mrs. Esters now, but it is disappointing.”
JB: Speaking about pressure, you don’t write as a fan. You don’t write as a sanitizer. You gave the quote from the late President John F. Kennedy. You write in pursuit of the truth. You write in pursuit of shedding light on somebody and all their glory and some of their peccadilloes, the warts and all as they say. Have you ever had the pressure come onto you in the sense of actually palpably living in fear, at all, because you said, upon reflection, gee, I really set out to do a good thing here. I set out to show the person again in this full panoply of who they are. But my God, I had never calculated that the blowback on me was going to be so strong. Have you ever really gotten bone chillingly afraid of these types of things?
KK: “Not bone chillingly afraid, but as a friend tells me, tall trees gather strong winds. In other words, if you stand up and you go behind a constructed myth of a powerful public figure, you’re going to get blowback. So you have stand up and take it and defend your work. I have never been successfully sued not even by Frank Sinatra and that’s a tribute to the documentation. You have to understand these books are lawyered to a fare-well-thee well once they’re written.”
CY: Oprah had her success in
The Color Purple, after that she didn’t have the success she wanted in Beloved. Do you think, as you say in the book, not doing well with the Beloved movie it really sent her into some kind of deep depression, but was acting the one thing she could never really conquer and thus that bothers her that she would never be viewed in the way like, for example, how Halle Berry is?
KK: “Yes. It does bother Oprah a lot. She started out in life wanting to be a great movie star and it’s the only area that she didn’t truly succeed in. Oprah herself said she fell into a monumental depression after
Beloved. She spent 80 million dollars on that movie and she truly thought that this would be the movie that would elevate her to an Oscar. It did not do well at the box office. It was a major disappointment to her. So, it’s hard though to really use the word failure when you’re talking about Oprah Winfrey because she’s overcome so much to achieve so much.”
CY: Then looking at the matter at hand on the issue of her biography that never happened, Maya Angelou says to her it better all be true or you’re going to get embarrassed. And then Stedman of course said to her naming the men in her family who sexually abused her, he was disturbed by that and the harsh way she had written about her mother. Do you think that Maya Angelou and Stedman were majorly the reasons the biography didn’t come out and what does that say about the influence that these two people have on her?
KK: “Dr. Maya Angelou and Stedman have major influence on Oprah and yes they are primarily responsible for having Oprah decide not to publish her autobiography at the last minute because in that book, she was prepared to finally tell some secrets about her life. Stedman was offended that she would name the men in her family that had sexually abused her.
She was quite harsh on her mother and I think very harsh on herself because she described herself as a prostitute selling sex for money on the streets of Milwaukee and this was a very tough characterization of her because she really was a little girl, she was victimized and I truly believe that the sexual molestation that Oprah suffered as a youngster, and that she talked about so openly on her various shows, really is her greatest legacy because by going public with that taboo, shameful subject, I think she helped a lot of people reach recovery.
I think it’s a far greater legacy than the $40 million school she’s built in South Africa. I think Oprah looks at that as her greatest legacy, but I think that she’s helped far more people come to terms with sexual abuse.”
CY: I’d like to know what you think about the Elizbaeth Coady case citing her thoughts as a former executive producer at Harpo. As you mention in the book for four years calling the work environment not a very spiritual place, very narcissistic, cynical; and among other things Oprah doesn’t believe what she says and that everything she does is to promote herself and not her fans and, of course, being a master media manipulator. This is all from Elizabeth Coady, of course quoting that article. Do you think Elizabeth Coady if she had a chance to write that book could’ve ruined Oprah’s image in the late 90s and have you heard similar stories like hers?
KK: “I don’t think anything could ruin Oprah Winfrey. I think she is such a stellar success. Nothing, nothing could ruin her. A book like mine only enlightens people. It only tells them more about her life, more about the woman that they idolize. Elizabeth Coady was one employee. There are many. There are many employees who feel like Elizabeth Coady. There are many employees who describe Harpo as a wonderful place to work. Others do describe it as a cult. You gotta include both points of view when you’re doing somebody’s life story.”
JB: It would be fair to say though that in any successful organization with any mega-successful person running it, you’d probably get the same response. You’d probably get the same response on anyone who’s made, who’s shaped the way in which we live. People are gonna come out and be fabulously in love with that person and people that have worked for them are probably gonna say they’ve been almost a Captain Bligh. Wouldn’t that be fair to say that, that’s just the golden rule of success? You want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. Somebody who’s going to be a leader, mover and shaker can’t be sweetness and light all the time can they?
CY: Tell me about the Obama book proposal again, I know you haven’t considered whether you’re going to do it or not, but can you tell me a little about that if you choose to do it?
KK: “I don’t know. It’s certainly an interesting subject and it’s one I’ll consider, but right now I just don’t know what the future holds.”
JB: Are you dismayed particularly in the media cycle of the last year and a half how we seem to have devolved to a society of lookie-loos focusing on the personal peccadilloes of the famous and powerful, specifically in the area of the bedroom and how that seems to dominate so much attention in terms of news, entertainment news? We seem to always, every week now we’re focusing on who cheated on who, who had an affair, is this enriching to society or is this a form of horrific entropy?
KK: “I don’t know how to answer that question Jay. Sexuality is certainly part of someone’s life. It defines who they are. I can’t address all celebrities. I can only address the woman that I investigated and studied for the last four years. And her sexuality, she’s made a point of public speculation. So of course, it’s very legitimate in the case of Oprah. She issued a press release back in the 1990s making herself very public on the subject saying, I’m not a lesbian. I’m not coming out of the closet. I am not gay. This came as a result of appearing on Ellen Degeneres’s sitcom in which Ellen made television history by coming out of the closet.
Oprah was the therapist on that program and apparently she got a great deal of blowback from her fans and she issued that press release. The fact that she’s been engaged to Stedman Graham since 1992 probably gives people a little pause and the fact that she’s seen far more often with Gayle King makes them wonder and the speculation is legitimate because Oprah has made it an area of speculation herself.”
JB: Is that truly a formal engagement?
KK: “Absolutely. 1992 Oprah announced her engagement and appeared on People Magazine.”
CY: And it never happened.
KK: “It happened.”
CY: But she never got married is what I’m saying.
JB: It’s an 18 year engagement.
KK: “That’s right.”
CY: And then later Ms. Winfrey said that it just didn’t matter to have it stated like that. Given the fact, do you think people really don’t understand how much time and effort you put into these things?
KK: “No. They probably don’t. It’s just the end result that they care about and that’s fine, that’s fine. They don’t need to know about the four years day in and day out, but what they do get in this book is the documentation at the end so that they can be sure of the facts.”
JB: It’s probably like asking who a favorite child would be, but with everybody you have covered, does any one of your books kind of looking back, besides the Oprah tome you’re out there promoting right now, has any one book from the past, you look back to that and say, Wow! When I did Frank Sinatra, that was up, until now the peak of my career?
KK: “I would say the Oprah book and each one at that time. You know I spend four years on these books. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I don’t have that many books behind me because each one takes so long. So I really go into them like I entered college and I need to know everything there is to know and then write about it. So each one you write is a favorite child, but Oprah is particularly a favorite.”
CY: Finally, as someone who has to be inspired and curious among people before covering a project, from the world’s histories, would there ever be one person dead or alive that you could meet and spend some time with? Do you have a favorite?
KK: “I really don’t. I’m sorry to disappoint you on that. Do you mean if I had the choice of someone I’d love to meet?”
CY: Someone you’d love to meet.
JB: If you had the choice of Julius Caesar or Robert Deniro or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, anyone across the entire history of the world. Is there one person I could sit down with gee whiz, I wish could sit down with fill in the blank?
KK: “Saint Catherine. She was the patron saint of spinsters, old maids and virgins. And Eleanor Roosevelt.”
CY: Kitty Kelley, thank you so much for your time today and I definitely wish you the best in the future and I look forward to speaking with you some time again in the future.
KK: “Chris, I’d love it.”