Kitty Kelley and the Oprah paradox

by Tirdad Derakhshani

Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

21 April 2010


Oprah is the alpha and omega of pop culture.

She’s a kingmaker. The gold standard of celebrity.

She’s also our mother confessor. Our soul mate.

She helps us with the hard choices we must make over our jobs, lovers, and kids; our brand of religion and our faith in consumer goods.

She’s also a total stranger who guards her self behind a carefully crafted persona.

The 56-year-old talk-show host is a blank slate, a mirror onto which we project our own expectations.

This paradox irks celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley. It also fascinates her no end.

“For the last 25 years, Oprah has been a part of our family and a part of our cultural heritage,” says the Godmother of Gossip, whose latest tome is “Oprah: A Biography.”

“She’s in our homes every day, five days a week, 365 days a year,” Kelley adds. “For many of us ... we might see Oprah more than we may see some of our relatives.”

Kelley’s on a whirlwind, multimedia publicity blitzkrieg that has the 68-year-old diva of dish serving up a deliciously shocking list of new and previously reported revelations about Oprah’s life.

Kelley’s oeuvre includes equally controversial unauthorized bios of Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra.

Her new book contains allegations about a plethora of “dark secrets.” Kelley writes that Oprah has used crack; gave birth prematurely to a son when she was 15 (the baby died within weeks); worked as a prostitute; and hooked up with such celebs as John Tesh. (Eeewww!)

An Oprah rep Wednesday said via e-mail, “We are declining to comment on the book.”

Oprah-ites (Oprahians? Oprihans?) are concerned by Kelley’s bio.

“Please, Oprah, don’t read that ridiculous book,” a fan posted Wednesday on Oprah’s Web site.

“I already know who Oprah Winfrey is, she shows us every day in the many, many things she does for sooooo many people,” says another.

“True fans would not purchase that book,” admonishes a third. But plenty of people are. “Oprah” was at No. 1 on Amazon.com’s best-seller list Wednesday.

Kelley, who took four years to write the bio, says she prides herself on her reportage. “I ended up interviewing 850 people,” she says. She bristles at the suggestion that she got the juicy bits from anonymous sources, insisting that most of them spoke on the record.

Except for The Big O.

“When it became clear that Oprah was not going to give me an interview, I decided to get every interview she ever gave to anyone in the English language,” Kelley says. She and her researcher spent a year pulling and cataloging 2,763 clips.

As Kelley sees it, fans feel they have an intimate connection with Oprah because the media mogul is an accomplished image-maker who selectively filters bits of her private life through media outlets she owns.

Oprah’s most powerful weapon is control over the flow of information.

“Oprah sees herself as a brand and everything she does ... goes into producing her image and brand,” Kelley says.

As media wags have noted, Oprah is one of the pioneers of celebrity self-branding, which has less to do with marketing a product than with selling carefully tweaked personal information.

That’s why the world needs unauthorized bios, says Kelley.

“I would love to go on (Oprah’s) show to explain why unauthorized biographies are really a public service,” she asserts. “Otherwise you’re left with the myth that public figures create.”

Who is Oprah?

Kelley says Oprah is a persistent, intelligent, thoughtful and admirable woman who had to triumph over poverty, racism, sexual abuse (at the hands of a cousin and an uncle), and self-hatred to make it.

“For the first 10 years of her life, she prayed she could be white,” Kelley says.

Kelley suggests that Oprah’s desire to be wealthy like her white schoolmates explains her stint as a teen prostitute.

That raging drive for success continues to drive Oprah and it has affected her closest relationships, Kelley holds.

“Oprah’s first priority in life is her career, not her family,” Kelley says. “She doesn’t have much affection for her biological family, but more for the celebrity family she has created.”

Oprah’s love life seems equally byzantine and fraught with contradictions.

There’s the perpetual fiance of 18 years, Stedman Graham. “Oprah’s father,” Vernon Winfrey, “doesn’t think they’ll ever marry,” Kelley says.

The biographer concedes that the couple “have a very strong bond,” but describes it as a “spiritual connection.”

So, is Oprah gay? What’s up with her pal, Gayle King?

“Rumors about Oprah and Gayle are going to continue and continue and continue,” Kelley says with a little laugh. “Oprah makes it so much a part of the speculation that surrounds her.”

Kelley says sex is a small part of Oprah’s life, calling her “asexual.”

The paradoxes endure.

The Oprah we know today, Kelley continues, was born in 1996, when she reinvented her show from a Jerry Springer-esque spectacle of bad hehavior “and started on a more ascendant course.”

She reinvented herself as a mentor who wants to “inspire us to realize the best in us. ... But on the other hand, she tells us that we can heal ourselves by going shopping.”

“What I hope to show is the contradictory psyche” that is Oprah’s personality, Kelley says. “On the one hand she’s a scary powerful media giant, but she presents herself as a friend” who only wants to help us have better lives.

What would Oprah find in the book?

“I think she’ll know the author admires her,” says Kelley, “and certainly gives her credit for all her accomplishments.”

//Mixed media