As a young child, did you
have any idea, any vision, of what you wanted to accomplish?
As a young child, I had a vision, not of what I wanted to accomplish,
but I knew that my current circumstances --I was raised on a farm with
my grandmother for the first six years of my life -- I knew somehow that
my life would be different and it would be better. I never had a clear
cut vision of what it was that I would be doing. I remember absolutely
physically feeling it at around four years old.
I remember standing on the back porch -- it was a screened-in porch --
and my grandmother was boiling clothes because, you know, at that time,
we didn't have washing machines, and so people would, you know,
physically boil clothes in a great big iron pot. She was boiling clothes
and poking them down. And I was watching her from the back porch, and I
was four years old and I remember thinking, "My life won't be like this.
My life won't be like this, it will be better." And it wasn't from a
place of arrogance, it was just a place of knowing that things could be
different for me somehow. I don't know what made me think that.
Did you ever consider any other career besides talking, broadcasting,
I always wanted to be an actress for most of my adolescent and adult
life. My father didn't want me to be, because his idea of "an actress "
was one of these "lewd women," and "how are you going to take care of
So I always wanted to be an actress and have taken, I think, a
roundabout way to get there because I still don't feel fulfilled as an
actress. I still feel like, okay, once I own my studio, but I'm
thinking, I did all of this just to be an actress. I just want to be
able to act.
For a while, I wanted to be a school teacher. In the fourth grade, Mrs.
Duncan was my greatest inspiration. In the fourth grade was when I
first, I think, began to believe in myself. For the first time believed
I could do almost anything. I felt I was the queen bee. I felt I could
control the world. I was going to be a missionary. I was going to Costa
Rica. I used to collect money on the playground to take to church on
Sundays from all the other kids. In school we had devotions, and I would
sit and I would listen to everything the preacher said on Sunday and go
back to school on Monday morning and beg Mrs. Duncan to please let me do
devotions, just sort of repeat the sermon. So, in the fourth grade, I
was called "preacher."
The kids used to poke fun at me all the time. It didn't bother me
because I was so inspired. And a lot of it was because of Mrs. Duncan,
Mrs. Duncan, Mrs. Duncan. We did a show not too long ago, and I had
favorite teachers on, I just broke down. First of all, it was the first
time that I realized that Mrs. Duncan had a name other than Mrs. Duncan.
You know, your teachers never have names. I said, sobbing, "Her name's
Mary!" I couldn't believe it.
I understand that it's kind of a fluke that your series is not called
"The Orpah Winfrey Show." Maybe you could just tell us the story of your
Well, I was born, as I said, in rural Mississippi in 1954. I was born at
home. There were not a lot of educated people around, and my name had
been chosen from the Bible. My Aunt Ida had chosen the name, but nobody
really knew how to spell it, so it went down as "Orpah" on my birth
certificate, but people didn't know how to pronounce it, so they put the
"P" before the "R" in every place else other than the birth certificate.
On the birth certificate it is Orpah, but then it got translated to
Oprah, so here we are. But that's great because Oprah spells Harpo
backwards. I don't know what Orpah spells.
How did you come to live with your grandmother?
I came to live with my grandmother because I was a child born out of
wedlock, and my mother moved to the North. She's a part of that great
migration to the North in the late 1950s, and I was left with my
grandmother, like so many other black youngsters who were left to be
taken care of by their grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles.
It actually probably saved my life. It is the reason why I am where I am
today. My grandmother gave me the foundation for success that I was
allowed to continue to build upon. My grandmother taught me to read, and
that opened the door to all kinds of possibilities for me. And had I not
been with my grandmother and been with my mother struggling in the
North, you know, moving from apartment to apartment, I probably would
not have had the foundation that I had.
So I was allowed to grow up in Mississippi for the first six years of my
life and allowed to feel somewhat special because I was a precocious
child; I guess by any standards now.
I was taught to read at an early age. By the time I was three, I was
reciting speeches in the church. And they'd put me up on the program,
and they would say, "and Little Mistress Winfrey will render a
recitation," and I would do "Jesus rose on Easter Day, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, all the angels did proclaim." And all the sisters sitting in
the front row would fan themselves and turn to my grandmother and say,
"Ida Mae, this child is gifted." And I heard that enough that I started
to believe it. Maybe I am. I didn't even know what "gifted" meant, but I
just thought it meant I was special.
So anytime people came over, I'd recite. I'd recite Bible verses and
poetry. By the time I was seven, I was doing "Invictus" by William
Ernest Henley: "Out of the night that covers me, black as a pit from
pole to pole. I thank whatever gods there be for my unconquerable soul."
And at the time, I was saying it, I didn't know what I was talking
about, but I'd do all the motions, "O-u-t of the night that covers me,"
and people would say, "Whew, that child can speak." And so that's, you
know, whatever you do a lot of , you get good at doing it. And that's
just about how this whole broadcasting career started for me.
You hear about child prodigies on the violin, but you definitely were a
prodigy as a speaker. That's very unusual.
I was an orator for a long time. I've been an orator really, basically,
all of my life. Since I was 3 and a half, I've been coming up in the
church speaking. I did all of James Weldon Johnson's sermons. He has a
series of seven sermons, beginning with "The Creation" and ending with
"Judgment." I used to do them for churches all over the city of
Nashville. I've spoken at every church in Nashville at some point in my
life. You sort of get known for that. Other people were known for
singing; I was known for talking. By the time I entered college, what I
really wanted to do was be an actress, but I got hired in television,
and so I was never able to make any of the play rehearsals. Story of my
There was a pretty bad patch after you left your grandmother. Maybe
you can talk a little bit about what that was like when you were living
with your mother.
I was living with my mother and living under circumstances that a lot of
young children have to deal with even today. We weren't living in the
projects, and if you had asked me at the time if we were poor, I
probably would have said, "no" because when you are living it and you
don't know anything else, you think that's the way life is. And I was
raped when I was nine by a cousin, and never told anybody until I was in
my late twenties. Not only was I raped by a cousin, I was raped by a
cousin, and then later sexually molested by a friend of the family, and
then by an uncle. It was just an ongoing, continuous thing. So much so,
that I started to think, you know, "This is the way life is."
And not until, I'd say, a year ago, did I release the shame for myself.
I was in the middle of an interview with a woman named Trudy Chase, who
has multiple personalities and was severely abused as a child. I think
it was on that day that, for the first time, I recognized that I was not
I became a sexually promiscuous teenager, and got myself into a lot of
trouble, and believed that I was responsible for it. It wasn't until I
was thirty-six years old, thirty-six, that I connected the fact, "Oh
that's why I was that way." I always blamed myself. Even though,
intellectually, I would say to other kids, I would speak to people and
say, "Oh, the child's never to blame. You're never responsible for
molestation in your life." I still believed I was responsible somehow.
That I was a bad girl.
So it happened on the air, as so many things happen for me. It happened
on the air in the middle of someone else's experience, and I thought I
was going to have a breakdown on television. And I said, "Stop! Stop!
You've got to stop rolling cameras!" And they didn't, so I got myself
through it, but it was really quite traumatic for me.
You must really be very loose and open emotionally for that to happen
on the air. I'm sure there are very few people who would have a similar
Yes, I think so.
But, you know, my openness is the reason why I did not do so well as a
news reporter. Because I used to go on assignment and be so open that I
would say to people at fires -- and they've lost their children --
"That's okay. You don't have to talk to me." Well, then you go back to
the newsroom, and the news director says, "What do you mean they didn't
have to talk to you?" I'd say, "But she just lost her child, and you
know I just felt so bad."
So, I didn't do very well. I was too involved. I'd go to funerals of
people and not go in. I wouldn't want to talk to them, disturb them, cry
on the air.
In reading about that period in your life, it's obvious that there
was a lot of anger in you, and you just didn't have the proper place to
put it, and so you started to rebel.
Now I know. I do know it now.
Obviously, that experience has made you much more empathetic to a lot
of your guests than you might be otherwise.
Well, do you know what I think? I think the lesson that you learn from
allowing yourself to be abused as a child is an ongoing lesson. What I
recognize is that the same thing, in some cases, that causes a child to
be abused, is the same thing that causes you to be abused as an adult.
It is the same thing in your adulthood that allows you to never to be
able to say "No" to people. And I realize that I was the kind of child
who was always searching for love and affection and attention, and
somebody to say, to look at me and say, "Yes, you are worthy."
Unfortunately, there are adults who will take advantage of that and
misread your intentions.
And, you know, part of the process for me as an adult has been
recognizing that my inability as an adult female to say "No," my disease
to please as a female, is the same thing that caused me to be victimized
as a child. Because many times, I would get myself into situations as an
adult where I didn't want to say "No" because I didn't want to hurt
anybody's feelings. I didn't want to say "No" because I didn't want
anybody angry with me.
I didn't want to say "No" because I didn't want people to think I'm not
nice. And that, to me, has been the greatest lesson of my life: to
recognize that I am solely responsible for it, and not trying to please
other people, and not living my life to please other people, but doing
what my heart says all the time. That's the biggest lesson for me.
The other big lesson for me has been to learn: not only do you have the
right to do whatever you want, you have the right to change your mind.
Which has gotten me into so much trouble in my life. Like I'd say, "Oh,
but, I have to go. I said I was going to do it." And then later you
think about it, and you realize "I shouldn't be doing this, but I said I
was going to do it, and I don't want to make anybody upset." It has
taken me 37 years to figure that out, to get that straight. I think,
"Oh, my goodness, if I had learned this twenty years ago, look at all
the time I could have saved. Look where I could have been."
I don't know if men have this problem. I think men who are, for
instance, abused sexually or physically, manifest outwardly in some way,
that their anger and their rage takes on a different kind of direction.
I think women, to a greater extent, and I know m-a-n-y, m-a-n-y women
who were sexually abused, internalize it, and then allow themselves to
abuse themselves later on in life. You know, you just don't allow
yourself to be all that you can be. Whereas, a man will make it more
external and will be angrier. I don't believe that anything happens
without a reason. I don't believe it. And in order to believe "That is
the truth, " you have to believe it in all circumstances.
So I say, if you are going to take responsibility for your life, then
you have to take it all forms. I certainly wish that I had been the kind
of child who told the first time, but because I wasn't, a part of my
mission in life now is to encourage every other child who has been
abused to tell. You tell, and if they don't believe you, you keep
telling. You tell everybody until somebody listens to you. If nothing
else, that's part of something good that came out of that experience,
because I don't want it to happen to another child. I don't want another
child to be afraid of saying, "This is what happened to me."
You're in a tremendous position to change people's lives in that way.
Yes, the greatest thing about what I do, for me, is that I'm in a
position to change people's lives. It is the most incredible platform
for influence that you could imagine, and it's something that I hold in
great esteem and take full responsibility for.
I mean, I do every show in prayer, not down on my knees praying, but I
do it before every show. A mental meditation in order to get the correct
Because you're dealing with millions of people everyday, and it's very
easy for something to be misinterpreted, so my intention is always,
regardless of what the show is --whether it's about sibling rivalry or
wife battering or children of divorce -- for people to see within each
show that you are responsible for your life, that although there may be
tragedy in your life, there's always a possibility to triumph. It
doesn't matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph
begins with you. Always.
I feel very blessed. You know, as a kid, when I was growing up,
especially in the third and fourth grade, I always wanted to be a
minister and preach and be a missionary. And then for a while, after
Mrs. Duncan's fourth grade class, I wanted to be a fourth grade teacher.
And I think, in many ways, that I have been able to fulfill all of that.
I feel that my show is a ministry; we just don't take up a collection.
And I feel that it is a teaching tool, without preaching to people about
it. I really do. That is my intent.
I couldn't do the kinds of shows that I see some other people do, I just
couldn't. I've reached a level of maturity in this work myself. There
was a time, when I first started out, that it was far more exploited.
I was in the middle of a show with some white supremacist, skinheads, Ku
Klux Klan members, and in the middle of that show, I just had a flash, I
thought, "This is doing nobody any good, nobody." And I had rationalized
the show by saying, "Oh, people need to know that these kinds of people
are out here." I won't do it anymore.
There are certain things I won't do. Any kind of Satan worship I won't
do. I no longer want to give a platform to racists; I just don't.
I think no good can come of it. So if you don't know that it exists, I'm
sorry, you won't hear it here. But that's growth for me.
I taped a show last year for a guy who was a mass murderer. He killed
eight people. I did the whole interview, and I had the families of some
of the people he killed. In the middle of it, flash, I thought, "I
shouldn't be doing this; this is not going to help anybody. It's a
voyeuristic look at a serial killer, but what good is it going to do
anybody?" And we didn't air it.
Were there any books that you could remember reading when you were a
kid that you loved or that influenced you?
Well, I loved books so much as a child. They were my outlet to the
world. And I still do. People ask me, "What do you do in your spare
time?" That's what I do -- I read. There are so many books. I went
through a period of Lois Lensky books. She wrote Strawberry Girl, and
lots of stories about these little peasant children. Or I went through a
period where I wanted to be them. I would read the character, and
whichever book I was reading, that's who I wanted to be that week. I
read a book in the third grade about Katie John, who hated boys, and she
had freckles. Well Lord knows, I'm not going to have freckles, no way,
no how. But I tried to put some on. And I went through "my Katie John
I think the book that moved me most when I was growing up was A Tree
Grows in Brooklyn. I had a tree in my backyard, too, so I identified
with her. I just thought, "Oh, this is my life." And then I discovered
Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Well, first of all, it
was the first time I had ever encountered another woman who had been
sexually abused. I could not imagine. I felt that way, too, when I read
The Color Purple. I read the first page of The Color Purple, put the
book down, and wept. I could not believe it, that someone had put this
in writing. It was unbelievable.
That's a very healing process.
Well, yes, to know that you are not the only one. Because all this time,
you have carried this burden. You think nobody else in the world has
been through this. Nobody else is as bad as you. And then you discover
that you are not so bad after all. It's an amazing thing.
Your father apparently had a strong influence on you when you were
growing up. He was pretty strict, wasn't he?
Very strict father, but I love him for it today. At the time, I thought
I couldn't imagine a human being so strict. And what was he being so
strict for? He was a big influence in my life. As strict as he was, he
had some concerns about me making the best of my life, and would not
accept anything less than what he thought was my best.
I remember my father saying to me "You can't bring C's in this house
because you are not a C student. If you were a C student you could
because I'm not trying to make you do or be anything that you can't be.
But you are not a C student; you are an A student. So that's what we
expect in this house." It was so matter of fact. And I knew he was not
faking it one bit. I never even tried to bring in a C because I realized
that it was just not acceptable.
When I was living with my mother, I was very rebellious. I did
everything I could get away with. I used to pull all kinds of pranks. I
ran away from home. I used to lie to my mother all the time. I'd stay
out and make up stories. I moved to my father's house. I never told
another lie because I knew it wasn't going to be accepted. I knew,
"Okay, stops right here."
It sounds like you realized, even though you were a kid, that you
really needed some structure.
I needed structure and attention. I require a lot of attention. And now
I get the attention of 20 million people. That's a little too much
attention. I wanted it, I got it.
Was there someone early on who gave you a big break in the business
There are several people. It started out when I was one of two students
picked from each state in 1971 to go to the White House Conference on
Youth. I don't know who sponsored it, but there was this big White House
Conference on Youth, and they picked two people from each state, and
from all around the world. So you were part of a whole convention with
people from all over the world.
I was being interviewed by a local radio station -- I was seventeen at
the time. There was a contest being sponsored in town called "The Miss
Fire Prevention Contest." And this guy who had interviewed me at the
radio station, John Heidelberg, remembered me. But he just remembered
that I had given a nice interview and I was a kid, and they needed a
teenager. So he said, "What about that girl that was here last year?"
Suddenly I was representing this radio station in the "Miss Fire
Prevention" contest. Well, all you had to do was walk, parade around in
an evening gown, answer some questions about your life. You know, it was
one of those little teeny, tiny beauty pageants. Well, nobody expected
me to win the pageant because we were still Negroes at the time -- I've
been colored, Negro, black, now I'm African-American -- and I was the
only Negro in a pageant of all red-haired girls, a "Miss Fire
Prevention" contest. So the Lord knows, I'm not going to win. So I was
very relaxed about it. I thought, "Well, I got a new gown, and this is
So when it came time for the question and answer period, they asked,
"What would you do if you had a million dollars?" And one girl said, "If
I had a million dollars, I'd buy my mama a Frigidaire and my dad a
truck." Someone else said if they had a million dollars they'd buy their
brother Bubba a motorcycle because "He's always wanted one." Or they'd
give it to the poor. And I said, all totally relaxed because I'm not
going to win anyway, "If I had a million dollars, I would be a spendin'
fool. I'm not quite sure what I would spend it on, but I would spend,
spend, spend. Spendin' fool." Well, I ended up winning.
And there was another question about what I would like to do with my
life, my career.
Everybody wanted to be a nurse, or a teacher, and I made this big speech
about broadcast journalism -- mainly because I had seen Barbara Walters
that morning on the "Today Show." So I thought, "Well, what can I be? I
can't be a nurse, can't be a teacher because that's what they were." So
I said I wanted to be a broadcast journalist because I believed in the
truth. I was interested in proclaiming the truth to the world. And I won
the contest. Well what a shocked Negro, me.
And that was the beginning of my broadcasting career because when I went
back to the radio station to pick up my Longines watch and my digital
clock, they asked me if I would I like to hear my voice on tape. Just
sort of as a little treat for me. "Come here, let's listen to your voice
on tape." And so I started to read.
Now, I'd been reading since I was three. They couldn't believe how well
I read. So somebody said, "Sit down and read," and they said, "Come hear
this girl read. " Then someone else listened, and before I knew it,
there were four guys standing there listening to me read. And I was
hired. Seventeen years old. In radio. At the time I was still a senior
in high school, so I had to work after school. I'd finish, get there by
3:30, and I'd do on-the-air newscasts. Well, all my friends just hated
me because they were cutting grass.
My sophomore year in college, someone heard me on the radio, and said,
"We heard you on the radio, would you be interested in working in
television?" I turned them down three times. The third time, I went to a
college professor. I said, "They keep calling me to be on television.
And I know if I do television, I'll never finish school." And he said,
"Don't you know that's why people go to school? So that somebody can
keep calling them, you nit-wit!"
So I went and I interviewed and Chris Clark gave me the job. I'd never
even been behind the scenes in television. I was nineteen at the time.
So I decided to pretend to be Barbara Walters because that's how I'd
gotten into this in the first place. So I sat there, pretending, with
Barbara in my head. Did everything I thought she would do. And I was
hired. It's amazing.
When you talk about seeing Barbara Walters on TV, it occurs to me
that at that time, women in television were just beginning to really
have a force. And you were dealing with both sexism and racism when you
came up. How has that affected your career?
I would have to say that I, for the most part, have not been, as far as
I know, affected. As a matter of fact, it was because of the riots of
the seventies, I think, that they were looking for minorities, trying to
fulfill all of their quotas and programs.
So I was hired as a token, and had to take the heat from my college
classmates -- I went to an all-black college -- with them calling me a
token. And I used to say, "Yeah, but I'm a paid token."
I was very defensive about it because I've always had to live with the
notion of other black people saying -- for any amount of success that
you achieve -- they say, "Oh, you trying to be white." You are trying to
talk white. You are trying to be white, and so forth. Which is such a
ridiculous notion to me, since you look in the mirror every morning, and
you are black, there is a black face in your reflection.
So I had to live with that whole thing. And it was very uncomfortable
for me at first because when I first started as a broadcaster, I was
nineteen. Very insecure. Thrown into television, pretending to be
Barbara Walters, looking nothing like her. And still going to college.
So I'd do all of my classes in the morning, from eight o'clock to one
o'clock, and in the afternoon, I'd work from two o'clock to ten o'clock
and did the six o'clock news. And I would stay up and study and all that
until one, two, three o'clock in the morning, and then just start the
routine all over again.
And my classmates were so jealous of me, that I remember like, taking my
little $115 paycheck, and at the time I was trying to appease them.
Anytime anybody needed any money, I was always offering, "Oh, you need
ten dollars?" Or taking them out for pizza, ordering pizza for the
class, things like that. That whole "disease to please." That's where it
was the worst for me, I think, because I had wanted to be accepted by
them, and could not be.
First of all, I didn't have the time. They wanted me to pledge, and I
didn't have the time to pledge, or to be a part of all the other college
activities, or a part of that whole lifestyle. And it was very difficult
for me socially. Really one of the worst times of my life, because I was
trying to fit in at school, and be a part of that culture, but also
trying to build a career in television.
One of the messages that I'm getting from you is that it may be a
little painful to be out there, but you have to be courageous. You have
to, sometimes, go against the crowd.
Well, now I think it's courageous. The interesting thing is, if you were
telling me my life story, and it was about somebody else, I'd say, "Oh,
how courageous." It's very difficult for me to give myself that credit.
It's very difficult for me to even see myself as successful because I
still see myself as in the process of becoming successful. To me,
"successful" is getting to the point where you are absolutely
comfortable with yourself. And it does not matter how many things you
The ability to learn to say "no" and not feel guilty about it is the
greatest success I have achieved. The fact that I have, in the public's
eye, done whatever, is fine. Its all a part of a process for growing for
me. But for me to have the kind of internal strength and internal
courage it takes to say, "No, I will not let you treat me this way." is
what success is all about.
The same thing that prevents you from being abused as a child, and
prevents you from being abused as an adult, allows you to build success
for yourself. "I will not be treated this way, I demand only the best
It's okay if you say "no," and then people don't like you. That's really
okay. The important thing is how you feel about what you are doing, how
you feel about yourself. It's a long struggle, though. And I'm just
hoping that in the work that I do on the show, and in the speaking that
I do around the country, that young people can get the lesson sooner
than I did.
It's painful because you keep repeating it over and over and over, until
you get it right. And what I found is that every time you have to repeat
the lesson, it gets worse. I call it God trying to get your attention.
The universe trying to get your attention. "Sooo we didn't get your
attention the first time. We are going to have to hit you a little
harder this time." So I'm still doing it. I'm still learning.
And it seems worse because it gets worse. I say, the universe is always
trying to get your attention. Sometimes it starts out -- any major
problem you encounter -- as a whisper. By the time it gets to be a
storm, you've had a pebble knock you upside the head; you've had a
brick; you've had a brick wall; you've had a house fall down. And before
you know it, you are in the eye of the storm.
But long before you are in the eye of the storm, you've had many
warnings, like little clues. So now my goal in life is not to have to
hit the eye of the storm, but to catch it in the whisper. To get it the
first time. I think the thing, the one thing that has allowed me to
certainly achieve both material success and spiritual success, is the
ability to listen to my instinct. I call it my inner voice. It doesn't
matter what you call it -- nature, instinct, higher power. It's the
ability to understand the difference between what your heart is saying
and what your head is saying. I now always go with the heart. Even when
my head is saying, 'Oh, but this is the rational thing; this is really
what you should do.' I always go with that little... feeling. The
feeling. I am where I am today because I have allowed myself to listen
to my feelings.
Your career was kind of a sky-rocketing success. But there was that
period of anchoring that made you uncomfortable. In a way, did you have
to make that mistake in order to find what you do best?
Well, you know, I don't know if anybody really skyrockets to success. I
think that success is a process. And I believe that my first Easter
speech, at Kosciusko Baptist Church, at the age of three and a half, was
the beginning. And that every other speech, every other book I read,
every other time I spoke in public, was a building block.
So by the time I first sat down to audition in front of a television
camera, and somebody said, "Read this," what allowed me to read it so
comfortably, and be so at ease with myself at that time, was the fact
that I had been doing it a while.
If I'd never read a book, or never spoken in public before, I'd have
been traumatized by it. So the fact that we went on the air with "The
Oprah Winfrey Show" in 1986, nationally, and people said, "Oh, but you
are so comfortable in front of the camera; you can be yourself." Well,
it's because I've been being myself since I was nineteen, and I would
not have been able to be as comfortable with myself had I not made
mistakes on the air and been allowed to make mistakes on the air and
understand that it doesn't matter.
There is no such thing to me as an embarrassing moment. If I tripped and
fell, if my bra strap showed, if my slip fell off, if I fell flat on my
face... I know that there is nothing I could possibly experience on the
air that someone hasn't already experienced.
I was on TV the other day, and somebody says, "Oh, Oprah, you have a
run." Have you not seen a run before in your life? Well, I get them too.
Let me tell you. So I can't be embarrassed.
When I first started out, that was not true because I was pretending to
be somebody I was not. I was pretending to be Barbara Walters. So I'd go
to a news conference, and I was more interested in how I phrased the
question, how eloquent the question sounded, as opposed to listening to
the answer. Which always happens when you are interested in impressing
people instead of doing what you are supposed to be doing. And it took
me a while.
It took me messing up on the air, during a live newscast. I was doing a
list of foreign countries, and I went through all these foreign names,
then Canada got thrown in. And I called Canada "ca-NAD-a". I got so
tickled. "That wasn't caNADa, that was CANada. Excuse me, ha ha. That
wasn't caNADa, that was CANada." And then I started laughing. Well, it
became the first real moment I ever had. And the news director later
said to me, "If you do that, then you should just keep going, you
shouldn't correct yourself and let people know."
So that was, for me, the beginning of realizing "Oh, you can laugh at
yourself, and you can make a mistake, and it's not the end of the
world." You don't have to be perfect -- the biggest lesson for me for
Tell us how you happened to first co-host a talk show, and how that
I only came to co-host a talk show because I had failed at news, and I
was going to be fired. And the news director was paying me twenty-two
thousand dollars a year. God only knows what my co-anchor was making.
Paying me twenty-two thousand dollars a year, and they thought they were
paying me too much money to only do news stories. So I got taken off the
six o'clock news, and was put on the early morning, like 5:30, cut-ins.
And they tried to convince me at the time that, "You are so good that
you need your own time period, so we are going to give you five minutes
at 5:30 in the morning."
I was devastated because up until that point, I had sort of cruised. I
really hadn't thought a lot about my life, or the direction it was
taking. I just happened into television, happened into radio. I don't
believe in luck. I think luck is preparation meeting opportunity.
I felt like I had somewhat prepared myself, but that I had "happenstanced"
into it. I was working in Nashville, and I moved to Baltimore, and I
thought "Well, I'll do this for a while, and then I don't know what I'll
do." So when I was called in and put on the edge of being fired,
certainly demoted, I was devastated. I was twenty-two and embarrassed by
the whole thing because I had never failed before.
And it was that failure that led to the talk show. Because they had no
place else to put me, they put me on a talk show in the morning. And I'm
telling you, the hour I interviewed -- my very first interview was the
Carvel Ice Cream Man, and Benny from "All My Children" -- I'll never
forget it. I came off the air, thinking, "This is what I should have
been doing." Because it was... It was like breathing to me. Like
breathing. You just talk. "Be yourself" is really what I had learned to
Your ability to get people in your audience to open up to you is
astounding. To what do you attribute that?
My ability to get people to open up is only attributed, I think, to the
fact that there is a common bond in the human spirit. We all want the
same things. And I know that. I really do know that I am no different
than anybody else.
One of my greatest struggles in life has been to recognize that I'm as
worthy as the next guy. And I think the moment you start thinking that
you are better than somebody else, you've lost sight of who you are.
Because the truth of the matter is, we are all the same. And I know
that. I really know that. And I think people sense that.
I'm telling you, I don't see myself certainly as a celebrity, as a star,
because people are so familiar with me. It's not like with other
celebrities. I've seen how people react to other people, and it's not
like it is to me. Basically, people say "Hey, Oprah, come on over here
and sit down." Everyday, at the end of the show, they say, "Want to go
to lunch, want to come to my house? I'm fixing so and so and so for
If I am sitting at a restaurant, people come up to me, sit down, bring
their children -- it's just very familiar. And I think the reason people
open up so much on the show is because I open up. I feel comfortable
doing it. And they know that I am not going to ridicule them. I want
everybody on the show, even if I disagree with them, to leave with a
sense of dignity, to maintain their own dignity.
A lot of people, like critics for instance, don't get it. There are some
people who criticize the show. Now, I take criticism very seriously. I
can't say that I'm one of those people who does not read criticism
because I do. And if someone criticizes something, and it strikes a
nerve with me, I will then move to correct it. I have written to critics
who said things that I thought were very valid.
Recently, someone criticized us for airing a show on mothers who had
gone through postpartum depression and had killed their children. The
critic said that the show should not have aired in the afternoon because
other children were watching. And I absolutely agree with that. That's a
very valid point. We should have considered that. That's one of the
things I did not think about. I was thinking: "I'm going to help all
these mothers who are going through this" but that person was absolutely
right. So if the criticism is valid and comes from a point of view of
being well thought out, and not just to attack, I accept it. And I
usually get better as a result of it. Critics have actually helped me to
So you are able to deal with criticism fairly well?
If it's the truth. Of all things I would say I'm a truth-seeker. I
believe that, "The truth shall make you free." I absolutely believe
that. So if you are telling me the truth, I accept it and will move on
it. The thing that has caused me the greatest dismay or disappointment
in this life has been the fact that people can write things about you
that are not true. It's astounding to me. It's astounding. And I don't
want to sound like one of those people who is in the public complaining
about it. But it is just astounding to me that it can happen. And had it
not happened to me, I would not believe somebody else complaining about
it. I'd say, "Well some of it has to be true." And that is really my
only gripe about being who I am right now. That people can say things
and print them, and they are not true. That you can just sit up and make
up stories. It goes against everything I believe in because I really
don't care what you print about me if it's true.
You obviously are in the public eye in a way that most people cannot
relate to. How have you adjusted to that? To the fact that when Oprah
sneezes, it's usually printed in People magazine, or whatever.
I don't know about sneezing, but if she eats a piece of bacon! I think
I've adjusted pretty well. I think I'm probably one of the most balanced
people I know, to live under such a microscope like this. And I think
that you have to put it all in perspective and understand who you really
are. And who I really am is not some person who is just on television
everyday. That is something that I do. I think it's important for people
not to look at my life, or anybody else's life, particularly celebrities
because I think adoration is unhealthy.
When you look at the list of people that students choose to admire in
this country, I think that there are so many people who do such
incredible things. Incredible things. Last year I met the guy who split
the neutrons in two. And they do things, and you think "My God!" They do
things to atoms that you can't even pronounce. And I think, "Well, you
know, wouldn't it be wonderful if those kinds of people got publicity.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we paid attention to some of the more
humanitarian things that are going on. Things that are really of value."
I think just because you can do a video, or you can dance really well,
or you can sit on a talk show and you can talk to people, that is not
necessarily to be held in the highest of esteem because that isn't what
makes life meaningful. It really is not.
What characteristics do you think are most important for having a
I think the most important thing to get ahead falls back to what I truly
believe in, and that is the ability to seek truth in your life. That's
on all forms. You have to be honest with yourself.
You can be pursuing a profession because your parents say it's the best
thing. You can be pursuing a profession because you think you will make
a lot of money. You can be pursuing a profession because you think you
are going to get a lot of attention. None of that will do you any good
if you are not being honest with yourself.
Honesty comes from your natural instinct telling you when you are doing
something, whether or not this feels right. You feel a sense of
accomplishment and fulfillment and worthiness to the world, in such a
way that you know that you are doing the right thing. You don't have to
ask anybody. When you are doing the right thing, you don't have to say,
"Do you think this is okay?" It works on every level. Whether or not you
are going to a party, or choosing a dress, or choosing a friend, if you
ever have to say, "Do you think this is ok?" Chances are it is not
because that's your instinct trying to get you to ask yourself that
question: "Maybe this isn't okay?"
From the very first day I did my very first talk show, I knew it. I knew
it was the right thing to do. I felt the same thing about acting too.
Only I was so terrified that it was a little bit more difficult for me.
What's the turn-on for you in acting?
For me the turn-on is the ability to express another person's life. If
you can internalize, and then manifest externally the essence of another
being, that is the ultimate in understanding -- what it takes to take
somebody else's life, make it your own, and put it out there. The
ultimate. You understand things about people that you just could never
imagine. It's almost like getting to live somebody else's life for a
while, without having to experience all of the "experience" that comes
with creating another life.
Didn't Quincy Jones have an important role in your acting career?
I would not even say an important role; I would say the role in my
acting career. Quincy Jones discovered me. And it's so interesting to me
because when I was working as a television newswoman in Baltimore, all I
wanted to do was be an actress, but I was doing television, and I felt
that I couldn't quit this job because this is what everybody else wants
to do. And if I quit this job, what am I doing to do? And I was going to
a speech coach at the time that the station sent me to. A broadcasting
school. They sent everybody to the same one. And I was telling her, "I
really don't want to do this. What I want to do is act." And she says,
"My dear, you don't want to act because if you wanted to act, you would
be doing it. What you want to be, my dear, is a star. Because if you
wanted to act, you'd be waiting tables in New York." And I thought, "Now
why am I going to wait tables if I'm already working in TV?" So I said,
"Well, what I think is going to happen is that I will be discovered
because I want it so badly. Somebody is going to have to discover me."
And she said, "You just dream. You are a dreamer."
So when it happened I called her up. I said, "You will not believe this!
I got discovered!" And it really was a discovery. It's like one of those
Lana Turner stories, only it wasn't a drug store. He was in his hotel
room and saw me on TV. It was unbelievable.
I truly believe that thoughts are the greatest vehicle to change power
and success in the world. Everything begins with thoughts. The chair
that we are sitting in, the room that we are in, all started because
somebody thought it.
So I thought of The Color Purple for myself. I know this is going to
sound strange to you. I read the book. I got so many copies of that
book. I passed the book around the everybody I knew. If I was on a bus,
I'd pass it out to people. And when I heard that there was going to be a
movie, I started talking it up for myself. I didn't know Quincy Jones or
Steven Spielberg, or how on earth I would get in this movie. I'd never
acted in my life. But I felt it so intensely that I had to be a part of
that movie. I really do believe that I created it for myself. I wanted
it more than anything in the world, and would have done anything to do
it. Anything to do it.
It was an incredibly moving performance, especially for your first
Scared to death, too. Scared to death. But, yeah, I think I did create
it for myself. I talked it up. I made people sick talking about it.
How has luck affected your career?
I feel that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. There's a reason I
feel so strongly about that, and it's not just a saying for me. I was
hired in television in 1973, right after the riots of '71, '72, and
other blacks and female people were hired at the same time. People
accused me of being a token at the time. It didn't really bother me
because I realized that I was going to stay there. Once I got there, I
realized, nobody is getting me out of here. This is not just a phase for
I sort of began to create my own luck. I said I knew how to edit when I
didn't. I said I knew how to report on stories. When I went to my first
city council meeting, I wasn't quite sure of what to do, but I told the
news director that I did. You have to be willing to admit that you know
nothing. So I walked into the city council meeting and announced to
everybody there, "This is my first day on the job, and I don't know
anything. Please help me because I have told the news director at
Channel 5 that I know what I'm doing. Pleeeeze help me." And they did.
And from that point on all those councilmen became my friends, and I'd
come in the council meeting, and they helped me out. And I realize now
it was because of my willingness to say, "I don't know, but if you will
just, you know, help me." So that's how I learned.
One of the biggest lessons I've learned recently is that when you don't
know what to do, you should do nothing until you figure out what to do
because a lot of times you feel like you are pressed against the wall,
and you've got to make a decision. You never have to do anything. Don't
know what to do? Do nothing. I wait. And that has been a big lesson: to
be willing, to be still with myself, and trust myself and my higher
power to help me make the right decision. And to not feel pressured.
We create stress for ourselves because you feel like you have to do it.
You have to. I don't feel that anymore.
You literally bend yourself out of shape, just to try.
Most all the mistakes I've made in my life, I've made because I was
trying to please other people. Every one of them. There is not one that
I've made because I did something because I really wanted to do this for
myself. Every mistake I've ever made was because I went outside of
myself to do something for somebody else that I should not have. Not
good. It's a woman's disease.
What prompted you to develop your own studio and take control of your
It was what we call a win, win, win situation, but it was a lot of
trouble. Just to get to be an actress, I ended up building my own studio
because when I was shooting The Color Purple, I was not allowed the kind
of freedom that was necessary to do that work. And what I really want to
do is create films, for myself and other people that uplift, enlighten,
encourage, and entertain people. In order to do that, I need time. So I
was working under a situation where I only had so much time to do it. As
I say, to me, success is a process. There was this empty studio and old
vacant lot available. And I have a partner who said to me, "You know,
there is that studio available. And if you take over your own show..."
Well, it just never occurred to me that could happen.
So the studio came to be as a round about way for me to get to be an
actress. I've been trying to be one since I was three. And it happened
as a part of an on-going process for me. It's much easier for me to make
major life, multi-million dollar decisions, than it is to decide on a
carpet for my front porch. That's the truth. I was in the K-mart store,
and I couldn't decide between the one with the kittens and the ducks. I
had them all laid out. They are $5.99 a piece. It took me longer to make
the decision as to which mat I would have: "Welcome Friends" or "Welcome"or
"Welcome to my House" than to make the decision to get my own studio.
I have a lawyer/manager/partner who came to me and said, "You know, you
could own your own show." And before he said that to me, I thought "Own
my own show?" I just totally dismissed it. How am I going to own my own
show? I have a contract. What am I going to do? He says, "You can own
your own show, and there is a studio that is the old Fred Niles studio
that is going to become available. It needs a lot of work..." But I
thought nothing of it at the time. I totally dismissed it because he was
always making projections and coming up with ideas, and I just thought,
"Okay, I'll let him dream on." Just as my speech coach has said to me
many years ago. "Dream on." Because I had a really solid contract. When
I was shooting The Color Purple, I didn't have enough time to shoot it.
I was begging for time because I realized that what we were doing was
something very special. But it's very difficult to convince news people.
So the studio came about as a result of me wanting more time, and
creativity, and control in myself. I bought the studio, so I would be
able to act and do the show at the same time. Two things that were very
important to me. The show is very important to me because it is a
platform for being able to make a difference in people's lives, to
influence them to change for the better. I don't want to give that up --
until it's time. And I will know when it's time. I don't want to be the
kind of person that stays in the ring too long and gets punch-drunk from
the experience. I just want to be able to do it for as long as it works.
And I know it's not going to work forever.
As long as I can be an influence and make a difference, that's what I
want to do. But I also want to act because I think that it's very
important to create work that for one, puts the black cultural
experience on screen. I've been black, I've been female all my life.
That's the only thing I know. So I know that experience. I love being a
woman, and I love being a black woman. I read mostly female literature
because I just find that I'm drawn to it. If I'm in a book store, I'm
drawn to the women writers because that's what I know. And so I want to
be able to put that on screen. I want to be able to do work that
encourages, enlightens, uplifts and entertains people.
There is some work I would not do. I get offered a number of scripts,
and have chosen not to do them because, fortunately, I am in the
position that I don't have to work for the sake of working. The process
of the work is far more important to me, in many cases, than the end
result. Once the picture is finished, that's fine. The process of
working on a show and being in the midst of a show -- being right in the
heart of it -- is far more stimulating, fulfilling, and exciting to me
than finishing the show. Then I'm on to the next thing.
You've become the most successful woman in entertainment today. I want
to talk a little bit about your role as business woman.
That's so interesting to me. I read that, too. I read that! And I think,
"Well what does this mean?" Like one day, I was on the Forbes list, and
someone says, "Oh, I saw you on the Forbes List." And it was like, just
another thing that had happened. It wasn't like, "Oh, my God! I'm on the
Forbes List!" What I find though, is once you make it, there is a
competitive streak in you. Because now I go, "Where was I on the list?"
At first I didn't care about making it.
I remember calling up Bill Cosby saying, "Could you lend me some money,
so I could be number five because I got beat out by New Kids on the
Block. " But other than that, it doesn't register. It is very difficult
for me to see myself as other people see me. Very difficult. I don't
know what that means. I don't know what being Oprah Winfrey means to
other people, from the outside. Because I still feel the same. I really
do. I feel the same as I did when I was twenty-two and struggling.
Because the struggle has taken on a different form for me. The struggle
is more of an inner self struggle, trying to find the truth for myself,
than it is trying to get enough money to pay my light bill.
Actually, it was easier trying to find enough money to pay my light bill
than discovering what the truth of your life is all about. What other
people view as successful is not what my idea of success is. And I don't
mean to belittle it at all. It's really nice to be able to have nice
things. What material success does is provide you with the ability to
concentrate on other things that really matter. And that is being able
to make a difference, not only in your own life, but in other people's
lives. That's really all it's good for because you no longer have to
focus your attention on how you going to pay your car note, and whether
or not you are going to sign your last name so that when the check gets
there, they can send it back to you, and you can say, "Oh! Forgot to
sign it!" You don't have to play those games anymore, so you really have
the time and the attention to focus on other things. And the big
question for me in my life is now that I have achieved some material
success, is, what do I do with it? How do I use this to make a
difference? For me, education is about the most important thing because
that is what liberated me. Education is what liberated me. The ability
to read saved my life.
I would have been an entirely different person had I not been taught to
read when I was an early age. My entire life experience, my ability to
believe in myself, and even in my darkest moments of sexual abuse and
being physically abused and so forth, I knew there was another way. I
knew there was a way out. I knew there was another kind of life because
I had read about it. I knew there were other places, and there was
another way of being. It saved my life, so that's why I now focus my
attention on trying to do the same thing for other people.
You've given a lot back.
But not enough, not enough. I don't think you ever stop giving. I really
don't. I think it's an on-going process. And it's not just about being
able to write a check. It's being able to touch somebody's life in such
a way that Mrs. Duncan touched mine. It's being able to make a child see
the light in him or herself. Making someone else see that for
It's kind of moving to hear somebody as financially successful as
you, discounting the importance of the money. What do you do with your
I know that if I didn't have the money, listening to somebody who had
it, I'd probably not believe them. Because you can't believe it. Because
if you don't have money, and you are just trying to make ends meet, you
think that if you could just make ends meet that would make everything
all right for you.
What I know is, is that if you do work that you love, and work the
fulfills you, the rest will come. And that, I truly believe that the
reason I've been able to be so financially successful is because my
focus has never, ever for one minute been money. And the fact that the
money has come has really surprised me. I've been just really surprised
and delighted and very pleased, and many times overwhelmed by it. But
the money has never been the focus.
You know you are on the road to success if you would do your job, and
not be paid for it. And I would do this job, and take on a second job to
make ends meet if nobody paid me. Just for the opportunity to do it.
That's how you know you are doing the right thing.
You have people very close to you in this business that you trust, and
they have also made a difference in your career.
I have people that I trust. I also try to surround myself with people
who are smarter than I am. I think that the ability to be as good as you
can be comes from understanding who you are, and what you can and cannot
do. And what you can't do is far more important than what you can do, if
what you can't do is going to keep you from flying as high as you can.
When my lawyer first came to me and said, "You can own your own show,"
it literally took the ceiling off my brain because I had never even
thought that high before. I never even thought that was possible. And
everybody needs somebody in their life to say, "Yes, you can do it!"
I have a niece who is fifteen. Several years ago, I told her the same
thing that my father said to me. I said, "You are too smart to get C's."
I heard my father speaking. We were crossing the street one day, and she
was talking about her grades. I said, "You are too smart to do that. You
could be an A student." And she said, "Do you really think I can?" "Oh,
of course. You are such a bright person." And she started getting A's. A
year later, she said, "Nobody ever told me I could." I think that one of
the most important lessons to learn is that we are all responsible for
our lives. But nobody gets through this life alone. Everybody needs
somebody to show them a way out, or a way up. Everybody does.
I feel best in surroundings where other people are smarter than I am
because I feel like I can always learn something from it. One of the
other big lessons that I've learned, particularly in business, is that
you have a responsibility to yourself to learn as much about your
business as you can. I sign every check. Although it is now tedious
because the bills that come in from running and maintaining a studio --
everything from Federal Express to Xerox, to every tape that needs to be
repaired, and so forth -- it gets to be a lot.
I have stacks and piles of checks to do, and I know that there are a lot
of successful people who don't do that. I still have a tenement
mentality. I've been very poor in my life, and so the idea of having
money and not being responsible and knowing how much money you have and
keeping control of it, is not something that I personally can accept. I
know that there are other people who can, but it's just not a
possibility for me. I need to know where it is. There are times when I
think I want to go to the bank and say, "Show it to me." Because just
seeing it on a piece of paper -- anybody can print out a piece of paper.
So I watch it very carefully and try to maintain responsibility for it.
When I first started being a "business woman," I worried about "How do
you do this?" And I realized that you do this the same way as you do
anything else. You be fair. You try to be honest with other people, and
I want to go back to The Color Purple. There was a particular,
incredibly powerful scene. And I want you to tell us how that came
about, and what you went through.
Well, the most powerful scene in The Color Purple for me was the scene
where Sofia walks through the cornfield, and proclaims herself to Celia.
Defines and proclaims herself. Where she says, "All my life I had to
fight. I had to fight my cousins. I had to fight my brothers. I had to
fight my uncles. But I ain't never thought I had to fight my own house."
I did that scene in one take because it was the essence, I thought, of
my life. And very liberating to live it through Sofia. Because, at the
time that I spoke it, I wasn't there yet. Because, what she is saying is
"I fought people all my life, and I'm not going to fight in my own house
anymore, in my own space anymore. I am going to have what I deserve."
And it's taken me a while to get to where Sofia was. But it was so
liberating. It was all, I think, a part of the process of growth for me,
to recognize it can be done. It can be done.
You told us you sign all your own checks. You also work long hours.
What kind of hours do you put in?
Thirteen hour days. Fifteen. Twelve. A twelve hour day is a short day
for me. I feel like, after a twelve hour day, "What am I going to do
with the rest of my day?" I get home, and I don't know what to do with
myself because I have all of this time left over. I don't know what to
do. So I really feel most comfortable working fourteen to sixteen hours
because then, at least, I can go home. Usually, I take a bubble bath. I
love bubbles. Now that's the one big luxury I have given myself. Now
that I have attained some material success, I will use an entire half a
bottle of bubble bath at one time. Really extravagant. And I am really
particular about the kind of bubbles, too. I don't want the kind that
drip down off of your arm. Poor quality bubbles. I want the kind that
cover your arm, and the bubbles stay. So I'll go home and take a bubble
bath, and usually get in bed with a pile of books. A pile of books,
papers, magazines. I have to read a lot for the show.
Most of the questions come from my own natural curiosity about a
particular subject. And I find I'm best in situations where I just go
right off the top of my head. Right off. I ask what I want to know. And
that's what being in television for a long time -- and also getting
comfortable with yourself -- allows you to do. If you make a mistake,
you make a mistake. It's okay to make a mistake.
It sounds like you love your work, and so in some ways it's not
It's not work. Steve Martin has a joke about how some people go to the
drugstore, and they sell Flair pens. And he says, in a silly voice, "And
I get paid for doing this!" I feel the same way. I feel like I would do
this if I didn't get a dime for it, and that's why you know you are
doing the right thing -- because it doesn't even feel like work.