Oprah’s unauthorized biography matters

If the first rule of public relations crisis management is to tell the story first in order to maintain control, then Oprah Winfrey lost the battle to Kitty Kelley, author of “Oprah, a biography” (Crown Publishers, 2010).

All the revelations in Kelley’s book were Winfrey’s to dish out in 1993 when she suddenly withdrew plans to publish her autobiography with Knopf. She got cold feet, worrying that telling her unflattering secrets would hurt her.

This year, Kelley aired her dirty laundry, anyway. Defending her book, Kelley said, “I don’t want to live in a world where all we get is authorized information.”

I find it ironic that a person who has broadcast hundreds of sensational topics from sexuality to skinheads should be the subject of such a sensational book. Let’s face it, Winfrey’s life is sensational.

At 445 pages, plus an extensive bibliography, you have to be dedicated to the subject matter to finish this book. No one could fault Kelley for leaving anything out. She poured over tax returns from Winfrey’s various charitable foundations and conducted some 850 personal interviews, most on the record, with family members, former media colleagues, employees (some disgruntled) and show guests who were not afraid to talk or were bound by Winfrey’s infamous non-disclosure agreement.

Because Winfrey declined to be interviewed, Kelley also researched and categorized more than 2700 interviews given by Winfrey to media outlets in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada over the course of her storied career. She no longer gives interviews, and I don’t blame Winfrey for declining an interview with Kelley. Nobody in their right mind would want such personal inconsistencies, frailties and downright neurosis to ruin a carefully-constructed image. Everybody has secrets, but nobody cares about mine or yours, because we’re not worth $2.7 billion.

Kelley paints Winfrey as a woman whose primary drive in life has never been altruism, but billionaire status. She believes altruism is merely a by-product of her God-ordained success. She is a mix of contradictions: lavish beyond measure to her loyal friends and employees, but vicious to those she perceives as a threat to her brand; warm, sensitive and approachable on television, but demanding, selfish and unfriendly when the cameras are turned off; She carefully constructs a “truthful” message about “Living Your Best Life,” but is somehow unable to control her binge eating and other compulsive behavior.

Kelley gives an in-depth look at the history and business of television talk shows while she reveals Oprah’s not so flattering characteristics: she was probably not quite so poverty stricken as she maintains; she exaggerates or downright lies about several aspects of her past to sweeten her life story for her followers. She says Winfrey displays a personal inconsistency with her public brand: she’s been plagued by the legacy of sexual abuse, including teenage prostitution and promiscuity, an unwanted pregnancy, drug abuse and uncontrollable food addiction, and questions about her sexuality. She is remarkably generous with her deadbeat family even as she rejects them emotionally. They deny her abuse claims and make her feel like an “ATM machine.”

Winfrey is arguably the most powerful and influential woman in the world. Her television show is seen in 145 countries worldwide, she has single-handedly revived book publishing in the United States, and made publishers and authors alike very rich. She’s given well over $250 million to charity and has tremendous political clout. It’s no wonder publishers were afraid to publish Kelley’s biography.

So reading it seemed like a guilty pleasure. Somehow, after watching Winfrey on TV all these years, I felt I was betraying her trust by reading gossip. Such is the power of her public persona.

I shook it off and read it anyway, because books like these serve to remind us that celebrities are not god-like, after all, and should not be worshipped. The rich and powerful are occasionally just as insecure, petty, controlling (and sometimes, out-of-control) as the rest of us. Knowing this does not diminish Winfrey’s accomplishments, it only highlights the intense drive required to succeed in spite of tremendous obstacles.


  • Yolande on May 27, 2010

    It’s interesting that two equally powerful and controversial women should be in America at the same time, both commandeering television airtime and promoting their vision of what should be important to those watching, and both universally known by their first names. They come with so much baggage even as they promise to simplify and beautify your life… Has Martha put out a biography yet?

    • Rhonda Herrington Bulmer on May 27, 2010

      I haven’t seen Martha on television this season. You’re right, she was very powerful for a time, up until she was convicted. After that, it seems her influence diminished.

      • Suzanne on June 7, 2010

        Martha has a huge presence still, although she is not in front of the camera so much. I love her Everyday Food show. I also spend a lot of time on her websites.

      • Suzanne on June 7, 2010

        American royalty is often raised to the status of gods. I wonder if every society is prone to this, or if it is found only in Western societies. No wait, the Japanese elevated their Emporer to divine status. Hmmmmm.

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