Today is Oprah Winfrey's 61st birthday. Happy birthday, Oprah! At this point in her life, Oprah is a living legend. She can pretty much coast until death and her inevitable sainthood from Pope Whoeveritisnext. Even I would be fairly excited to meet Oprah. I bet she smells great, and wears really soft fabrics, and probably has some wise platitudes to sound off. She is a woman who has lived, and also knows how to live, and might give one a Pontiac at any time. This is how the world understands Oprah, and this will likely be her legacy.
But this was not always so. Like most women who come of age in the media spotlight, Oprah's rise was heavily scrutinized, not only because of her gender, but because of her race, her weight, her beliefs, and her general existence. She had a lot to overcome—much more than the average daytime talk show host. One could say that the journalism establishment did not want Oprah, an unapologetically outsize personality who seemingly rocketed to fame from nowhere, to succeed.
What grated people—read, journalists—about Oprah was her perceived entitlement to success, her up-from-nothing narrative, the fact that she felt entitled to success while coming from nothing. It's a familiar tale, but one worth repeating, and also one that is easily forgotten in favor of a more digestible narrative.
In December 1986, the satirical magazine Spy published a profile of Oprah titled "It Came from Chicago." The year was significant for Oprah: besides earning fame for her daytime talk show persona, she had just starred in The Color Purple to much admiration and acclaim, including an Oscar nomination. The profile, by Bill Zehme, was originally slated to run in Vanity Fair, but Tina Brown, the magazine's editor at the time, killed it. It's fairly clear why upon reading it. Though it ran in a satirical magazine that traded in publishing profiles of famous people with counterintuitive points of view, the article is fairly racist and nearly every other word harps on Oprah's size. "Capaciously built, black, and extremely noisy, Oprah Winfrey is an aberration among talk show doyennes, and her press materials bleat as much," it reads.
Zehme focuses in on Oprah's obsession with money, and attempts to tease out contradictions between her thirst for riches and her desire to be a guru to the masses, both apparently distasteful aspirations for a woman in her thirties.
He writes, in one passage:
Call her a binge dreamer: 'I knew I'd be a millionaire by the time I turned 32,' she says, again and again. That dream was realized just over a year ago, when she was 31, the result of a chunky TV syndication deal. She told me this in the first hour I spent with her. By the second hour she had added, puffing up with purpose, 'I certainly intend to be the richest black woman in America. I intend to be a mogul.'
Not a friendly caricature, but fairly typical for Spy pieces at the time; the magazine was no nicer to Hillary Clinton or Henry Kissinger. But what's more interesting is Zehme's treatment of Oprah's "realness," which is what set her apart from other talk show hosts:
I ask her to assess her talent.
'My greatest gift is my ability to be myself at all times, no matter what,' she replies earnestly, batting her lashes like a cartoon fawn. 'I am as comfortable in front of the camera with a million people watching me as I am sitting here talking to you. I have the ability to be perfectly vulnerable at all times.' ... 'I can assure you,' she continues, answering my unarticulated concern, 'that people who think accomplishment has gone to my head are the very people who, if it were happening to them, would have been blown out of the water. I don't want to be portrayed as someone who's gotten a little money and has gone bonkers over it. All I can say is, this is great living up here,' she says, waving at the barren expanse of her bedroom. 'The sun rises off the lake in the morning, right through this window, and it's a joy to my soul, really, But none of it defines who I am. I still haven't jumped up and down about becoming a millionaire. Money doesn't define me.'
But, I remind her, you're the one who yearns to be the richest black woman in the nation.
'It's something to do,' she says.
The article drips with Zehme's skepticism—Who is this uppity black woman, who gets off on being 'real'? This was a time when famous moguls were born, not made, and everywomen were conscripted to watching daytime television and plotting revenge fantasies in their bathrobes to pass the time (see: She-Devil). That Oprah actually wanted to make something of herself, as herself—and was so transparent about it—was a bit of an affront to those in charge, not to mention a postmodernist dilemma. Who was Oprah, anyway, getting rich off of sad housewives' viewerships with her real talk? What was real talk?
Whoever she was, we weren't going to find out from the élites. From the wink-wink-nudge-nudge fringes of Spy, skepticism of Oprah began to leak out of the capital-E Establishment. Two-and-a-half years after Zehme's article, in June 1989, the much-respected journalist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote a cover story about Winfrey for the New York Times Magazine titled "The Importance of Being Oprah." In it, she slammed Oprah's "superficial quality" and warned of her ability to prey on vulnerable women.
In a racist society, the majority needs and seeks, from time to time, proof that they are loved by the minority whom they have so long been accustomed to oppress, to fear exaggeratedly, or to disdain. They need that love, and they need love in return, in order to believe that they are good. Oprah Winfrey—a one person demilitarized zone—has served that purpose.
The article did not sit well with Times readers, many of whom revealed themselves to be among Oprah's legions of fans. Carol Skolnick of Kew Gardens, Queens, wrote:
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's article ''The Importance of Being Oprah'' (June 11) was a bit harsh in its portrayal of Ms. Winfrey as a self-ordained New Age guru for the talk-show masses. If Ms. Winfrey toots her own horn—if she feels compelled to evangelize about her ''path''—it is understandable, given her triumph over a hellish childhood. Surely, she is as entitled as anyone else in the communications media to peddle her sometimes contradictory philosophies to those who wish to accept them. Ms. Harrison herself frequently writes for the sort of women's magazines that provide ''strategies'' for bagging everything from a hunky husband to a dream job while simultaneously paying lip service to feminism.
Others, however, remained steadfast in their hatred for Oprah, like Kathleen Marley of Bethlehem, Pa., who wrote: "I am thoroughly disgusted by Oprah Winfrey's arrogant and self-serving theory of 'the Universe.' Her claim that she was 'born for greatness' ideologically contradicts her convenient reliance on free will."
But perhaps no one was more deeply bothered by Harrison's article, and the racially tinged aspects of how it portrayed her, than Oprah herself. In her book Oprah: A Biography, Kitty Kelley reports:
"As a media darling accustomed to ribbons of praise, Oprah was irate... 'Oprah was furious about that article,' said Erica Jong, 'and she told me that she did not want anyone writing about her, especially a white woman for a white publication. 'I don't need a honky magazine to canonize me,' she said."
(At the time, Tina Brown was pushing Erica Jong to sweet-talk Oprah into a profile for the New Yorker. Oprah, wanting to be in control of her image, refused. This resulted in a decades-long, mainly one-sided feud between Tina Brown and Oprah, in which Brown attempted to get booked on Oprah's show, failed, and then made fun of Oprah in her various publications while Oprah completely ignored her presence on earth.)
Other references to Oprah in the Times were less atomic, and tended to focus, if in a slightly side-eyed manner, on Oprah's obsession with dieting ("Oprah Winfrey, the television star whose loss of 67 pounds on a liquid diet inspired thousands to try the same technique, is now a symbol of diet failure. No one talks about dieting without talking about her. As she has regained some of the weight, it has underscored the feeling that short-term strategies do not work," an article from Jan. 3, 1990 reads). An article from Feb. 1, 1988 pitted her against Phil Donohue: "Is the sexy, sassy, 34-year-old black woman really beating the socks off the salty, energetic, 52-year-old Irishman who has taken on every topic from Chubby Checker to Chernobyl?"
Oprah handled the press simply: she more or less stopped dealing with it, and created her own media empire. She decides to tell us what is real and what is good, from cookie mixes to sweater capes, and we love her for it. Of course, she has been ridiculed aplenty in the past three decades—for her various book club foibles, the controversy with her school in South Africa, her affinity for the book The Secret. And all of this is not to say that Oprah isn't deserving of media scrutiny: She is completely full of shit in many ways, as most famous gurus are. But as a black woman rising to power in hostile environment, she removed herself from the game. And she did not suffer for it.
[Photo via AP]