After more than three decades as an interviewer, I've asked questions of everyone from rock 'n' roll singers to politicians, movie stars to convicted felons. But as O's tenth anniversary approached, the editors had a brainstorm: Wouldn't it be interesting to turn the tables and have someone interview me for a change? "Sure," I said. "Who do you have in mind?" And that's when I had my brainstorm: It should be a group of readers.
Which is how, during a snowy week in February, ten women from across the country found themselves flying to Chicago to join me for a taping of the show and some lively conversation in my Harpo office. Ranging in age from 25 to 54, the women included a professor, a writer, a psychiatry resident and a research analyst. They came from as far as Kirkland, Washington, and as close as Urbana, Illinois, and along with their suitcases, they brought a long list of questions—everything from whether I'm planning to write an autobiography to who's on my iPod to how I know whether I've had a good day.
The morning of the interview had been filled to overflowing. I'd already taped the show and done an hour-long radio program with Gayle King. So by the time Gayle and I—and my cocker spaniel, Sadie!—joined the women in my office, I couldn't have been more ready to kick off my shoes, let down my hair and dish.
Oprah: This is so exciting—I'm glad you're all here, especially since it usually feels like there are only about five people left in the world who I haven't already chatted with. You can ask anything—it's impossible to embarrass me, and there's no wrong question. So who wants to start us off?
Ellyn Shull: I'll start, if I can go back to what you just said. After interviewing so many people, are there any who got away, and who are the ones you still want to talk to?
Oprah: Who got away was Elvis Presley. When I was a kid, I always wanted to talk to Elvis. Another was Jackie Onassis. I had the pleasure and honor of meeting her—I actually ate her clam chowder at my friend Maria Shriver's wedding shower. There's a picture from the shower where I'm wearing one of those appliquéd sweaters and Jackie's wearing a cashmere sweater and an Hermès scarf—classic, classic, classic. I look like 1985, and she looks like Jackie O. Later, because she was a book editor, she called and asked if I would write a book. As much as I loved Jackie O, I said no, I was not ready to do a book. But I said, "If you ever want to do an interview..." and she said, "I probably will never do an interview." So that was another one who got away. As far as who I'd still like to talk to, I really want to interview O.J. Simpson's daughter, Sydney Simpson. And Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her children by buckling them into her car and letting it roll into a lake. Not because of the horrific-ness of what she did, but because she changed the way we look at parents in this country. When somebody comes forward and says, "My child is missing," we now suspect the parents first. She changed the paradigm.
Barbara Raymond: When you're interviewing someone like Susan Smith, how are you able to remain objective?
Oprah: I approach every interview by asking, "What is my intention? What do I really want to accomplish?" You can't accomplish anything if you're judging. I believe that all pain is the same, that all of us have had difficulties and challenges, and that our pain is in inverse proportion to how much we were loved as a child. If you didn't receive love, then you have a lot of dysfunction that you're forever trying to work out. For me, it shows up as eating and food. For somebody else it might show up as drugs. But for some women it might be more like, "Well, I don't know how to handle my life, so I'm going to put my child in the freezer." That seems extreme, but I really do believe we're all on a spectrum. And knowing that, I can talk to anybody.
Kelli Coleman: Most people don't have that gift of being nonjudgmental.
Oprah: Well, I'm nonjudgmental in an interview. Out of an interview, there's a whole other side of me!
Oprah reflects on how all of the public scrutiny has impacted her life
Kelli: But the world is always watching and judging you. How has the public scrutiny you've had to endure affected your life?
Oprah: Years ago, it made me cry a lot because I'm such a pleaser. I would say that's my single greatest character flaw: the importance I put on wanting to be liked. That comes from having been abused as a child—being beaten and not even being able to be angry or to have any emotions about it. I was trained to believe that other people's feelings were more important than my own, and that only through pleasing somebody could I be loved. It has taken me 56 years to overcome that. And by the way, in all those 56 years I have never once called my parents to share anything with them. Not "I got a job," "I met a guy," "I made a million dollars"—not once, ever. I'm in awe of people who felt their parents' love every day of their lives. They start out in the world with a full cup. The rest of us go through life trying to fill ours.
Keisha Sutton-James: Have you reconsidered writing an autobiography?
Oprah: It just so happens that there's a new biography, which I did not approve, and I hear that 850 people were interviewed for it. I don't know 850 people! My circle is tight, tight, tight. If there are 850 people talking about you, it can't all be good. But to answer your question, yes, I did consider writing my own story, back in 1993. At the time, I had a lawyer-agent-manager who said, "You know, you're turning 40 next year—I think you should do an autobiography." I said, "Really. Forty—okay." Because, you know, 40 used to be a big deal. Now it's 50 is the new 40 and 40 is the new 30, but back then... Anyway, I got led into doing this book. And I worked on it for a year, and then when it came time to release it, I didn't want to. I brought my little cabinet together—Stedman, Gayle, a couple of other friends—and Stedman was really opposed to it, though not because of anything I was saying about him. He thought I shouldn't speak of my family as candidly as I did. He also kept saying, "It's not going to help anybody just to tell the story." He thought the story of my life should be an example to other people, rather than just "I did this, I did this, I did this." I listened to that. I was in the middle of a huge learning curve at that time. I was learning that your life really just begins at 40. You shouldn't be trying to write your life story then! But calling the publisher to say I wasn't going to do the book was the hardest thing I'd ever done. They'd had a big Oprah-is-going-to-write-a-book party, and all I could remember was the shrimp they'd served—how big those shrimp were. I was thinking, "Oh my God, they must have spent so much money on those shrimp!"
Several years ago, Nelson Mandela told me I should do my autobiography, just for the record. I don't feel compelled to do that. And I don't know how I could write it all down. Or what I would write. I remember when I opened my school, I said to Maya Angelou, who is like a mother to me, "This will be my legacy—this school." And Maya, in her Maya-like way, said, "You have no idea what your legacy will be."
Michelle Hankey: I've heard you say that you thought you'd grow up to be a teacher. Is that why you set up the school in South Africa—because school was so important to you?
Oprah: I started the school because I'd been searching for how I could best be used. My hope for the show and the magazine has always been that they will have meaning, that they will be worthy of people's time. In the elevator before I go out to do a show, my prayer is that I am used for something greater than myself. That it's not just chatter. I don't get up every morning to come here and just have a little chatty talk. I have always been searching for how I can best be used. And education was my solace growing up. It was my bright and shining moment, my savior. I wanted to give that to other girls. I wanted to do for the girls in South Africa what my teachers had done for me. I wanted them to be able to go to school for free and thrive there.
Oprah talks about how she avoids becoming cynical
Vanessa Greenberg: But sometimes when we try to help others, we fail. I'm a psychiatry resident in the Bronx, and I have patients who can't make it to their appointment because they're in the process of getting evicted—or they make it to the appointment, but then their kids don't make it to school. It's frustrating. How do you not become cynical?
Oprah: There's no room for cynicism in the world. I'm not cynical because I know that if one person isn't ready to be reached, somebody else is. But I have learned that I'm not good with children who are delinquents. I tried working with kids like that, and then I said, "I'm going to get arrested for popping somebody upside the head." What I'm really good at is, "If you want the opportunity, I'll provide it."
Kate O'Halloran: My favorite Oprah-ism is that the universe talks to you first in a whisper, and then gets louder and louder until you get the message. Can you share a time when you experienced that?
Oprah: It happens every day. Not like Moses and the burning bush, but the universe is speaking to us all the time. Just recently somebody called me, wanting me to help them out. I don't loan money, but if you need something and I decide that you're not going to keep coming back to ask for more, I'll just give it to you. This person was about to lose their house. And I said, "Okay, maybe."
Kate: A stranger?
Oprah: No, somebody who'd worked here a long time ago and who'd fallen on hard times. And then, in the middle of a conversation yesterday, that person's name came up in some other context—and that person's name hadn't come up in 15 years. That was the universe saying, "Go back to that thought and see what you can do."
Lisa Torain: Is there anything you can't do? Anything that's not attainable for you?
Oprah: I would like to have a little more balance. In the makeup room before coming out here, I was saying to Gayle that I think I've lost sight of my best life. The other day when I was cleaning out a drawer, I found an old gratitude journal and started looking through it, and at some point I just stopped and said, "God, I was so happy then." I was happy over little things: mango sorbet, and running, and the way my feet felt touching the ground when I ran. Back then, I didn't appreciate the time I got to spend with myself. Now I do—it's why I'm bringing the show to a close. My obligations have become my life.
Lisa: Would you ever consider paring way down? If you had to pare down to nothing, would it be okay?
Oprah: You mean give up my worldly possessions? I'm not crazy! No, no, no. But there are obligations I would pare back. I love everything that I do. I love it. But I keep saying yes to everything, and managing it all gets to be overwhelming. A typical day for me starts here with a 6:30 workout; by 7:30 I'm in the makeup chair. And then I don't usually get in the car to leave until 9, 10 o'clock at night. Get home just in time to breathe, get the damn puppy thing done—I don't know what I was thinking, getting a puppy—then go to bed, get up, and start the whole process all over again. It's too much. Today is lovely I get to sit and talk with you guys. This is a restful day. I had only one show to do today. Yesterday I did three. The day before, I did three. In between doing three, I'm trying to talk to South Africa, because the girls are taking their PSATs. So I'm doing school. I'm on the phone about the magazine. I'm doing a full-hour radio show. I'm doing everything that goes with starting a new television network. So it really was time to end the show.
Violet Harris: Are you going to act again?
Oprah: You know, I'm thinking about it. There's a part of me that says, "Don't take on another thing. But I love acting, because it's a vacation from myself. I get to suspend being myself and become somebody else.
Does Oprah regret never having experienced marriage or motherhood?
Barbara: Speaking of different roles, with all the focus that the show and the magazine have had on marriage and motherhood, how do you feel about never having experienced either?
Oprah: I used to get that question all the time: Why haven't you married Stedman? Actually, Stedman asked me to marry him, and at first I said "Yes!" but it turned out that I wanted to be asked to be married more than I wanted to be married. Had it not been for big-mouth Gayle King over there, it wouldn't have become the big public thing that it became. Gayle was there when he asked me, and then she went on TV—she was anchoring the news back then—and told everybody. And it became this big hoo-da-ha-da thing.
Gayle: I was so excited!
Barbara: How long ago was that?
Oprah: 1993. My friends were going togive me a party. Remember that, Gayle? Everybody was going to give me a—what do you call those?
Gayle: An engagement party. A shower.
Oprah: It was a shower. And I was saying, "I don't want this, I don't want this." And Gayle says, "Oh, everybody gets cold feet." And I say, "I don't have cold feet—my feet are stuck in a cement block surrounded by ice!" It just felt like the wrong thing for me. This was at the same time that I was supposed to have the book coming out. We were in Miami, in the back of a limousine, coming back from the party with the big shrimp, and Stedman asks, "So when is the book coming out?" The book was coming out September 14 or something, and our wedding had been scheduled for September 8. We had a date and everything. So Stedman says, "Well, I don't want to have my wedding in competition with your book." And I remember thinking, "Yes! Really? Okay, great! I ended up canceling both, and we have not discussed it since that day.
Barbara: But you're still together.
Oprah: Still together. And what we have discussed is the fact that had we gotten married, we would definitely not still be together. Because instinctively, I understood that to do what I do every day is so nontraditional that it would have been difficult to try to conform to a traditional way of being. And Stedman's a pretty traditional man. You know, the show became my life. It became my children. And I knew I was not the kind of woman who could get home and make sure dinner was on the table. I do that when I feel like it, and if I don't feel like it, there's some Raisin Bran in there, get yourself a banana, and that's it.
Barbara: How do you feel about not having children?
Oprah: Really good. No regrets whatsoever. Gayle grew up writing the names of her would-be children, making little hearts and putting children's names in them. Never occurred to me to do that. I never had a desire. And I don't think I could have this life and have children. One of the lessons I've learned from doing the show is just how much sacrifice and attention is required to do the job of mothering well. Nothing in my background prepared or trained me to do that. So I don't have any regrets about it at all. And I do feel like I am a mother in a broader sense—to a generation of viewers who've grown up with me.
Kristy Nicholas: You are.
Oprah: I have deep, deep love and affection for the people who've grown up watching. And when the show ends, it will not just be about my ending. I feel like it will almost be the end of an era for people who were 10 years old when the show started and are now 35—the kids who used to come home from school and watch with their mothers. We've been on longer than Bonanza was! It's a relationship.
Kristy: What will you do the morning after your last show?
Oprah: Sleep in. Because that's going to be a really big party.
The one show Oprah wishes she hadn't done
Lisa: Looking back over the years, was there ever a show where you felt, "I shouldn't have done that?"
Oprah: There was certainly some bad hair and bad choices. The '80s were tough on everybody! But yes, there were some things I did that, today, I'm embarrassed to say I did. Years ago I did a show about women whose husbands had cheated on them. At the time we thought, "What a great booking—you've got the mistress, you've got the wife, you've got the husband—they all agreed to come on. But at one point, one of the husbands said to his wife—and this was live television—that his girlfriend was pregnant. And I saw the pain in his wife's face, and thought, "I'm responsible for that. I didn't know her husband was going to say it, but I was responsible. I thought, "That is not what this platform is supposed to be for. You're not supposed to do that to anybody, ever." The whole audience did what you all just did—everybody went "Oooh!" And the wife did what she could to hold on to herself. But in her eyes I saw the humiliation. There's nothing worse than being humiliated. There's nothing worse that you can do to a person than to make them feel worthless.
The flip side is, the greatest thing you can do is to make somebody feel that they matter. So that is my secret to interviewing: How do I find the common denominator that allows a person to know that I hear them, and that what they say means something to me? If you can do that in all your relationships, whether it's with your children, your boss, your girlfriends, or your spouse—if you can be present enough to really emit that energy, that's all anybody is looking for.
Violet: That's the book you should write.
Oprah: It would take too much time to write, though. That's a lot of time.
Keisha: After you pare down?
Oprah: After my party.
Keisha: Yes! Okay, next question: I think most would agree that you've transcended race. How do you balance your identity as a black woman with your need to reach a broader audience? Do you ever feel a conflict of conscience?
Oprah: Being a black woman has never been an issue for me. It's just always been what is. This is who I am. I have never given it a moment's thought, because it's so integrated into who I am. I am, first, a child born of God. I really do believe that of myself. I am spirit in a body, and I have incarnated as a female who is black in the United States of America. No better place to be born in the world. Earlier this year when the movie Precious got all its Oscar nominations, Gabby Sidibe, who was nominated—she'd never acted before in her life, was raised in Harlem—her name was called in the same breath as Meryl Streep's. Only in America can that happen. On the other hand, I understand that I carry the energy of every single person who came before me and didn't have the opportunity to do what I do. I think about that. I carry that with me. It's not like I'm sitting there with Tom Cruise thinking, "The ancestors are here—"
Gayle: Come on, Harriet!
Oprah: Exactly. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth—come on, everybody, come meet Tom Cruise! No, I'm not thinking that. But I am aware of the people who came before.
Ellyn: Is there anything else you want to say about your relationship with God?
Oprah: Is there anything more you want to ask me? We can talk all day about my relationship with God. That's the big one. My favorite Bible verse is Psalms 37:4. "Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart." To me, the Lord is all that is good, all that is great, all that is love, all that is timeless, all that is peace. Delight thyself in all those things, and you will have the desires of your heart. And what I've realized is that all my issues—my health problems, weight problems, all that—are deeply related to my getting so consumed with my schedule. For years I told people to keep a gratitude journal, but the last few years I've been too busy to keep one myself. I'd be so tired when I got home that it was like, "Okay, I'm grateful for..."
Ellyn: This bed!
Oprah: Right. When I was a kid, my grandmother said, "Pray on your knees." And that's how I always prayed. But the last few years it's been like, "I'm too tired. Can I just pray lying down? Okay, God, thank you." So I've been crowding out the space that allows me to connect with God, with the source. Some people get that connection from going to church. I don't go to church unless I happen to be in a town where there's a really great service. Years ago I went faithfully, 8 o'clock service, 12 o'clock service. I was a tither. I was making 227 dollars a week, and I tithed 22 dollars and 70 cents every week. But after Jim Jones led the mass suicide in Guyana, I started to feel differently. The church I went to had a really charismatic pastor—you had to show up early to get a seat—and I remember sitting there one Sunday while he was preaching about how "the Lord thy God is a jealous God, the Lord thy God will punish you for your sins." I looked around and thought, "Why would God be jealous? What does that even mean?" And I'm looking at the people in the church, and everybody's up, shouting. And I started wondering how many of these people—including myself—would be led to do whatever this preacher said. That's when I started exploring taking God out of the box, out of the pew. And eventually I got to where I was able to see God in other people and in all things—in graciousness and kindness and generosity and the spirit of things. Okay? Okay, let's do a few more questions.
Oprah reveals the origin of her name and the advice she would give to her younger self
Kristy: You know you've had a good day when...
Oprah: I know I've had a good day when, after all the work I put into creating a show that goes out to ten million people around the world, somebody e-mails back and says, "What you said really mattered to me." That's a good day.
Kate: Your name's so unique. What's the origin?
Oprah: From the Bible. Ruth, first chapter. It's misspelled. It's supposed to be Orpah.
Kate: Was that on purpose?
Oprah: No. The p got put before the r on my birth certificate.
Gayle: Who's your favorite musician on your iPod right now?
Vanessa: If you could sing any karaoke song, would it be Lady Gaga?
Oprah: It would definitely be a Tina Turner song. Because if I see myself as anybody, I can't be Gaga but I can be Tina. I have the wig to prove it! I actually got to sing "Simply the Best" onstage with her. Now I would wear a short dress and do "Steamy Windows." To me, nobody stands up to Tina Turner, because she just turned 70 and she's still rocking it out.
Gayle: What advice would you give a young Oprah?
Oprah: I would say, "Hold on to yourself, 'cause it's all going to be all right." When I was 28 years old in Baltimore, I was doing an event, and the gospel singer Wintley Phipps was performing there. Wintley Phipps, who I did not then know at all, came up to me backstage and said, "God has impressed me to tell you that He holds you in His hand. And that He has shown great favor to you. And that you will speak to millions of people in the world in and through His name."
Gayle: And you were just a local news anchor then.
Oprah: I said, "Who are you? What? In Baltimore?" He said, "I don't know. God has just impressed me to tell you that." And it was one of those eerie, crazy moments, because I had always believed those things myself, even before that conversation. In the time just before I left Nashville for Baltimore, I was speaking in churches a lot. I remember speaking at a women's day service—I had my red Cutlass outside, packed and ready to drive to Baltimore. And my sermon was, "I don't know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future." I have no fear about the future. I have no fear about anything, because I really do understand that I am God's child and that He has guided me through everything and will continue to until the end.
Vanessa: In your best-case scenario, how would you balance your time?
Oprah: Still trying to figure that one out. If I knew the answer, I'd have managed to open my Christmas presents by now. I'm not kidding. I left California and came in a day early this week because I wanted to get through my Christmas presents here in the office—it's February and I haven't opened them yet. But I ended up getting stuck with all the requests that were on the desk: Will you do this, will you do that, will you speak here, will you go there? The thing is, when you're on TV, you're in people's homes every day. You are familiar. So it's like, "Oprah, come on over here! Stay right here while I get my camera—and hold on, my sister wants to get a picture with you, too!" You wouldn't say that to Angelina Jolie.
Keisha: You've sacrificed a lot to live the life you have.
Oprah: Actually, I've had a great time. But I would have to say that at this particular time in my life, I look forward to being able to take a rest. I was just saying to someone the other day, "What do women do when they wake up in the morning?" One of my favorite lines from Beloved—the movie nobody went to see, and thank you if you did, since as you can tell [laughs], I still carry a little pain about it—is spoken by the character Sethe. She says, "Twenty-eight days, 28 good days of a free life... I'd wake up in the morning and decide for myself what to do with the day.... Twenty-eight days of freedom. And on the 29th day, it was over." I can't imagine what it's going to be like to wake up in the morning and decide for myself what to do with the day. I don't know what it is to have free time. I really don't know. If I get to leave here and be home early, I won't know what to do. What do people do?
Lisa: Watch Oprah.
See how Oprah answered a lightning round of readers' most frequently asked questions
Read more O interviews
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, December 4, 2013
© 2012 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.