They've stood by each other through thick and thin, kids and cocker spaniels, haircuts and headlines. They've seen the world change and they've seen themselves change. And today Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King are sitting down to talk about what, for Oprah, is the biggest change in 25 years: the end—after more than 4,500 episodes—of The Oprah Winfrey Show. To understand how that will feel, you have to understand how it all began...
Gayle: I have a very clear memory of the moment, I guess it was about 16 or 17 years ago, when it hit me that you weren't just hosting a talk show—that this thing you were creating was so much more. We were caught in a traffic jam in Racine, Wisconsin, because everyone was headed to the concert hall where you were speaking.
Oprah: Oh, I remember that. We pull up to the place, the cops are lined up in double rows, and you go, "What's happening here? Who's here? Who's here?" And I go, "I am, you nitwit!" [Laughter]
Gayle: I just could not wrap my head around it. So, I'm wondering, was there a moment like that for you, where you just went, "Whoa, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore"?
Oprah: You know, the philosophy in television is that you visit the cities where you're not doing so well in the ratings, to try to prop yourself up there. But I've always believed you should applaud the people who are already applauding you. So pretty early on we went to this little town in Texas, where you'd go down the street and every household that had a TV was watching the Oprah show. And we actually filled a stadium. There were people of all ages, races, every single possible demographic. People with their children on their shoulders. I think that's when I first got it. And one of the most revelatory moments recently, where I really "got" got it, was in Australia. Doing the show there and getting the welcome we got was eye-opening, because I'm normally just here in my little Harpo village. I go from home to work to home to work to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. And that's my world.
Gayle: Yeah. You're not really a hang-out kind of girl, going here and going there. Your life is very contained.
Oprah: The first few years when the staff was still less than 12 people, I used to hang out with them because we were doing live shows, and we'd be done by 10 A.M. We had four people in four chairs, and that was it. Those were the days where I'd be the one taking the lunch order. I would walk around asking, "Okay, is it gonna be Taco Bell today, or are we doing Wendy's?" [Laughter] And then we'd go out and party at night.
Gayle: Do you ever miss those times?
Oprah: I certainly had a lot more fun back then, because that group was my family—we did everything together. But as we grew, things had to change. You've got to have separation of church and state.
Gayle: Who finally taught you that? How did you figure it out?
Oprah: My growth as a professional and as a human being has been propelled by the help of other people. Maya Angelou. And Quincy Jones, from the time I did The Color Purple. And Sidney Poitier. And Bill Cosby. That was my elder council.
Remember when I first announced that I'd been sexually abused? And then I announced that I'd done drugs? Well, I picked up the phone one day, and there was Bill Cosby on the line, and he goes, "Sis, do you have any children in an orphanage?" I said, "What?" He goes, "Do you have any children in an orphanage somewhere?" I said, "No." He goes, "Cuz if you do, tell me now, so you don't have to go and tell everybody about it." [Laughter]
Gayle: But do you regret having told those things?
Oprah: No, I don't regret having told anything. Can you imagine trying to hold a secret in today's world? I mean, you'd live in the shadow of that all the time—who's gonna discover it, and who's gonna sell you out. So I don't regret having talked about my life. The show has been my therapy, to answer the question you were getting ready to ask. I've never had a day's therapy, but I've had many days of listening to really excellent therapists, starting with Dr. Phil, who is beyond excellent at what he does.
Gayle: You did a lot of great shows with Phil. A lot of great shows, period. Could you pick one favorite from all of them?
Oprah: Well, certainly going to Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel is at the very top of the list. And Monica Jorge, the mother who went into the hospital to have a baby and contracts some sort of flesh-eating bacteria while she's there. They have to amputate her arms and legs, and she says, "I gotta get up, because I gotta get home and take care of my daughter and this little baby." We just recently helped her with a house. And Jacqui Saburido, the woman whose face was burned when the drunk driver hit her—that's another one I'll never forget.
But I do have an all-time favorite. I can't tell you who it is, because it's going to be one of the last shows, and it won't have aired by the time this issue comes out. But it's an all-time, all-time, all-time favorite. It's the one woman who ultimately defines everything I've tried to say in all my years of doing the show. When I saw her again, I just broke down and boohooed.
Gayle: Without giving the story away, why does that particular episode symbolize what the show means to you?
Oprah: It speaks to the essence of what the show has tried to say all these years: that you are not the product of your circumstances. You are a composite of all the things you believe, and all the places you believe you can go. Your past does not define you. You can step out of your history and create a new day for yourself. Even if the entire culture is saying, "You can't." Even if every single possible bad thing that can happen to you does. You can keep going forward.
Gayle: What kind of shows have made you the happiest?
Oprah: The best shows are when there's an aha moment for the audience and for me. One of the most searing moments was the show with Dr. Phil and Jo Ann Compton, a mother whose daughter had been murdered. Jo Ann couldn't get over losing her. She still had all of her dresses and everything. Nothing in her daughter's room had been touched. And later, she admitted that she was planning to go home and commit suicide after she finished our show. But then there was this incredible moment where Phil said, "Why have you spent the past decade mourning the day of your daughter's death, instead of celebrating the 18 years of her life?" And Jo Ann just froze. Her eyes got really wide and she turned and looked at Phil and said, "I never thought of it that way before." I live for that kind of moment. That is the moment that I'm going for every single day—when suddenly you're able to see things in a new way.
Gayle: You know, I talk to people on your staff all the time and everybody's already starting to get nostalgic. We go, "God, that was the last 'Favorite Things' show." Or "That was the last 'Harpo Hookups' show." The other day somebody told me that she recently went to fill out an employment application and broke down in tears, because she doesn't have much longer to say, "I'm at Harpo." I look at everyone around you who's feeling very bittersweet, and very reluctant, and a lot of trepidation. And here you are, practically doing the hula.
Oprah: Well, I say no bitter, all sweet. No bitterness, because we've done it as well as anybody could. And you have to know when it's time to let it go.
Gayle: What about being seen and heard on a daily basis? You won't miss that?
Oprah: You mean the fame thing? I always think I manage the fame thing very well. But Rosie O'Donnell was on the show, and she said to me, "Well, that's because you're still in it. Wait till you're out of the spotlight." And I was like, "Oh, no, no, no. This fame thing doesn't affect me one bit. I could lose it all tomorrow and be just fine." And of course—because this is how God always works in my life—that very same day I had to go to the gynecologist. The one thing in the world you can't get somebody else to do for you.
Gayle: You have to bring your own vagina to the gynecologist, yes.
Oprah: Yep, it's strictly BYOV. [Laughter] Although in this case I was there to get my annual mammogram. Now, normally I'm taken up the back stairs and ushered right into the office. Tom, my security guard, always takes me. But this year, it's Mark. And I say, "Mark, I think we're in the wrong place." And he says, "No, no, ma'am, they said we're supposed to be here."
Anyway, we go in the front entrance. And I end up at the sign-in desk. I'm like—"Uh, I don't think I'm supposed to sign in." And the woman doesn't even look up. She goes, "The policy is, you sign in." So I fill out my little form and sign in. Then she takes the clipboard and says, "Have a seat over there." I say, "Well, isn't there someone here by the name of"—"Have a seat over there." So I'm sitting in the waiting room. And it's 1:10. It's 1:20. And then that Rosie thing comes into my head. And I start thinking, "Okay, this is a test to see how long you can be patient." So I go, "Okay, I'm gonna give it ten more minutes."
Gayle: And then I'm gonna be famous again! And then my breasts are gonna be pulling a major star trip. [Laughter]
Oprah: The funny part is, I call my assistant, and I'm whispering to her, "Libby, I'm at the doctor's office and I don't know what's going on." And she says, dead serious, "Well, you're going to get a mammogram. You're going to take your top off. And then they're gonna put your breast in the machine." And then she goes, "But don't worry. I just did this a couple of months ago. It's gonna press your breast down. Then you've got to lean in, and you have to hold your arm up." And I go, "Libby! I know what a mammogram is!"
So, that was my great humbling lesson. But my favorite part is Libby. "You're going to take your top off. And then they're gonna put your breast in the machine." [Laughter]
Gayle: So let the record show that you'll miss the perks of a daily TV show when it comes to your annual mammogram. Is there anything you'll miss from the office? Remember Mary Tyler Moore, when she left her studio apartment for the one bedroom? She grabbed that big gold M that was hanging on her wall and walked out the door. Is there an object you'll want to hang on to?
Oprah: The one thing I'll take is the statue of Sojourner Truth that Jamie Foxx gave me for my birthday last year. It was a study used for the statue that Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama unveiled in the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol. I have it sitting on the table behind the sofa, in front of my desk, so I look directly at Sojourner Truth. Even in my youth, she was the historical figure I most identified with. Because even though she was born a slave, she was able to speak. She could communicate with people from all different backgrounds. She could speak to the most disenfranchised groups, and she could also speak to Congress. She was invited to the White House by Lincoln. Jamie didn't know that I'd been reciting her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech my whole life, or that when I die, I want to go out like a comet in the sky, which is something she said about her own life. But he gave me that statue, and it will come with me when I go.
Gayle: The thing is, Oprah, I understand that it's time for the show to end. I know it's the right decision, but it really is the end of an era.
Oprah: Well, it's a great compliment to have people feel this way. But I've always known I didn't want anybody to have to drag me off the stage. You have to run your own race. Run it like a marathon. And just steadily build energy for yourself so that when you're on the last lap, you're stronger than ever. And that is really what we've done. I think this season has been the best of our entire journey.
Gayle: That's true. There have been a lot of people coming back on the show for one final appearance. I keep thinking about Diana Ross singing "It's Hard for Me to Say." I felt so emotional watching that. Because I remember watching Diana Ross as a girl, and I know you watched her, too.
Oprah: Not just watched her. Idolized her. That was one of the most moving moments of my life, Diana Ross singing to me on the show—I didn't know it was coming. All of a sudden, she just goes, "May I say something?" She was like, "Where's my microphone?" And I thought, "Oh, Lord," because I don't like surprises. But when she started singing, it was a surreal moment for me. It took me right back to the first time I saw her on The Ed Sullivan Show. I could feel the chenille green spread that covered the sofa upstairs in the flat that my mother rented. It was like I was right back there watching on the black-and-white Zenith, astonished that there could be this beautiful black woman on TV. Imagine being 10 years old, and it's the first time you've ever seen a projected image of somebody who looks like you, and it isn't something somebody else is making fun of. It isn't Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. It isn't demeaning in any way.
Gayle: I know! She was so sophisticated.
Oprah: The Supremes were just—good Lord. So, the fact that this could happen in my lifetime—Diana Ross singing on my show! That that could happen is just a miracle. I kept thinking, "Okay, maybe I am gonna marry Paul McCartney." [Laughter] That's the only other dream I had.
Gayle: Well, that brings us to your first show, in 1986: "How to Marry the Man/Woman of Your Choice." Clearly you didn't listen very well, because you're not Mrs. Paul McCartney. But what do you remember about that first show?
Oprah: I was nervous. I got hives in my armpits.
Gayle: I don't recall you being nervous. That's so interesting. Was it because you were live?
Oprah: I was live. But it was like butterfly nervous. I would have to say—and I know it will sound arrogant, but it's the truth—that I felt pretty confident the show was going to be successful nationally. I'd already spent two years in Chicago, honing it. And I understood the commonality of the human experience. I mean, I just knew that people in Chicago were no different from people in Iowa or Detroit or Phoenix, Rhode Island, Maine, Connecticut, Tennessee. I didn't have any fear at all about that.
Gayle: But you didn't think it would be this successful, did you?
Oprah: No, I didn't. I wasn't even thinking in terms of money or anything. I was very naive about the reach and the influence and the impact. What I knew is that I would be able to connect to people. The reason we were so successful in those early years was that everybody on staff was just programming from our own lives. We'd go to the beauty shop, we'd hear an idea. There was a phase where everybody was dating and looking for a guy, and so all the shows were about that. And then we moved on to the stuff that happens once you settle down, and then the shows were about raising kids. There wasn't a focus group. There wasn't a PR person.
Gayle: Right. No strategy.
Oprah: The PR person was my assistant, Alice McGee. And Alice went on to become one of the senior producers—she's the one who started the Book Club. But she was hired as an intern. And when I began getting all that mail, I said, "Listen, Alice, I need somebody to help me with this."
Gayle: Because, Oprah, you were opening the mail.
Oprah: And answering it.
Gayle: Between Taco Bell runs.
Oprah: Between Taco Bell runs! So when I started getting hundreds of letters a week, I was like, "I need somebody to help me." I remember when offers came in to do interviews with Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Ladies' Home Journal all in one day. And Alice says, "Well, I don't know. Which one should we do?" I said, "I don't know." So she goes, "I'm gonna call my mom. Because she gets all those magazines."
Gayle: And Alice's mom said go with Good Housekeeping because you get...
Oprah: ...the Good Housekeeping seal of approval! I mean, there was no research, no sense of the distribution, or popularity, or what. That's how we decided everything.
Gayle: Oprah, how did you decide to shift the whole focus of the show, when it became Change-Your-Life TV...
Oprah: Talk about big mistakes! Calling it Change-Your-Life TV was a huge one. The reason I called it that is that every time I met somebody, they'd say, "Oh, I watched such-and-such show, and it changed my life." Or "I really loved this, it changed my life." I remember being at the grocery store one time, and this woman was following me. You know that thing where people are looking at you, and you go, "Hi, how you doing?" And then you go around the corner, and they're still there.
Gayle: "Hi, how you doing again?"
Oprah: "Good to see you, how you doing again?" And then you realize, "Okay, they're gonna track me all the way to the counter." But this one woman just stopped and said, "Can I tell you something?" And I said, "Sure." And she goes, "I used to beat my kids. And I watched you say you're not supposed to beat your kids. That didn't make no sense to me, because I was beat. My mom was beat. But I kept watching you. And it wasn't the first time you said it." She goes, "It's because you were consistent. You were consistent. So I said, 'I'm gonna try it. I'm gonna just try it for a week, not to beat my kids.'" And she said, "I tried it for a week. Then, 'I'm gonna try it another week.'" She said, "And now, I can't remember how long it's been." She goes, "I don't beat my kids anymore—and I got different kids."
Gayle: Isn't that remarkable?
Oprah: She said, "You changed my life. And you really changed my kids' lives." This was in a grocery store. And this kind of thing was happening all the time. I'd meet somebody, and they'd say, "I went back to school because of you." "I got out of an abusive marriage because of you."
Gayle: Or "I listened to what those child molesters had to say on your show, and I realized I didn't do anything wrong. It wasn't my fault."
Oprah: Yeah. Someone just sent me an e-mail the other day saying it's been a year now since she saw that show, and it completely turned her life around. Even at her stage, and with her intelligence, it wasn't until she saw that show that she finally got that it wasn't her fault. Which was the point. So, that is why I started calling it Change-Your-Life TV. But I got hammered by the press about it. And I couldn't understand why. Then one day Marianne Williamson helped me to see it. She said, "It's because people perceive you as being a zealot. You've got to let people come to it in their own way, on their own terms. You want everyone to want it too much." So I pulled back. And that was a great lesson to me. Do not tell people you're gonna change their life. It can't be your mission, because it puts you in a position of authority over people. You want to be able to offer that, but it's up to them if they choose to receive it.
Gayle: You made a very conscious decision to try to take the high road when a lot of television wasn't going that way.
Oprah: The general managers at the television stations wanted me to do more controversial things. But I finally said, "No, I'll get out of the business before I let that happen." If you look back, there was a period when we had a whole bunch of trashy things on. And when I look at it now, I can't believe I did that, all in the name of communication.
Gayle: I know. It is cringe-y when I see it now, because it's so foreign to what you do. And who you are.
Oprah: Well, my intention is always to do good. That's how I've evolved personally, and also how I think the show has evolved. And those intentions have come back to me multimillionfold. I genuinely feel appreciated and loved by this audience that has grown up with me. Which, for me, is a huge, huge, huge accomplishment. Because I grew up feeling the opposite of that. Feeling a void, as a little girl, feeling that really nobody loved me. So to be surrounded by this, that is what I'm going to feel. And when you see the tears on the last show, that's what those tears will be about. Those tears will not be about sadness. They will be about feeling the love of all—I'm gonna cry right now—of all those people.
Gayle: I feel that, too.
Oprah: That's what the tears will be for. They'll be for all the people we have reached, and the lives that we've touched, and the people who responded in kind and in kindness.
Oprah Up Close and Personal
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 16, 2014
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