To be honest I didn’t know this much.
(Quoted from the Sunday Telegraph today).
Yet part of Winfrey’s mass appeal is that she walks the walk, her dramatic rags-to-self-made-billions the stuff of distinctly American fairy tales. Born into rural poverty in Mississippi to a teenage single mother, she lived with her grandmother until the age of six, was raped by multiple family members and got pregnant at 14 as a result of sexual abuse, only for her baby to die soon after birth.
At school, however, she flourished, and won a scholarship to Tennessee State University. At 19, she dropped out of her degree when she was offered a job as the youngest, and first black female, news anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV. Her emotional style, however, did not go down well on a straight news programme and she was transferred to an ailing daytime chat show, People Are Talking, in 1978. When in 1984 she relocated to Chicago, to take over a morning chat show, its name was quickly changed from AM Chicago to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah had found her “alignment”.
As any good interviewer knows, the best way to elicit a confession is to offer one of your own. The British photographer and writer Carinthia West, who first met Winfrey on the set of the 1985 film The Color Purple the year after her move to Chicago, believes the Oprah effect stems from exactly this: her own willingness to show the uncomfortable, ugly side, on everything from her sexual abuse to her struggles with her weight.
‘Though she has huge wealth and power, she’s still very much that down-home girl’
“I think of her wheeling that 67lb of fat onstage [in 1988, to visually represent the weight she had recently lost] and I can’t think of anyone else who would be prepared to be that open,” says West.
When she returned to the US to interview Winfrey in the early 1990s, by which time the chat show host was world famous, West was “welcomed with open arms”.
“Though she has huge wealth and power now, she’s still very much that down-home girl,” says West. “She was seriously hurt in her own life, so she’s attracted to other people who, rightly or wrongly, feel they have been hurt in their own.”
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