After 30 years of four-times-a-day phone calls, Oprah and Gayle sit down for a nice, long, startlingly honest chat—about their friendship, those tabloid rumors (who could forget that night in the Bahamas? Not the bellboy), what Oprah really thought at Gayle's wedding, and why they are still "more or less the same people." O columnist Lisa Kogan listens in.When the photographer begins clicking away, Oprah Winfrey and her best friend, Gayle King, will be impeccably cooperative. They'll pose, they'll percolate, they'll shine. They've been shot before.
But for just a moment on a gorgeous day in New York City, these two women who've spent 30 years in constant conversation, who've stuck together through fame and fortune, kids and dogs, marriage and divorce, miniskirts and shoulder pads, are happy to be quiet together.
"What?" Oprah asks as Gayle plucks at a wisp of her pal's hair. "I miss the curls," Gayle answers. This is not news. "Gayle doesn't like my hair, but that's okay 'cause I do," Oprah tells me.
"So, that's allowed?" I venture. "It's fine to criticize each other's looks?"
"Sure," Gayle says. "I tried growing out my bangs a few months ago, and Oprah hated it."
"Yeah, that was bad," Oprah says, "but then I thought, "Hey, I don't have to sleep with her." Now, if we were sleeping together, it'd be like [ in her best Barry White voice ], "Baby, I want the bangs...." And on that note, the interview begins.
Start reading Lisa Kogan's interview with Oprah and Gayle
Note: This interview appeared in the August 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Lisa: Well, let's get right to it! Every time I tell somebody, "I'm interviewing Oprah and Gayle," the response is always the same: "Oh. [Long pause] Are they...you know...together?"
Oprah: You're kidding. People are still saying that?
Lisa: Every single person. And I say, "No, I don't think so." And invariably, they respond with something like "You know, you're very naive."
Oprah: I understand why people think we're gay. There isn't a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label it—how can you be this close without it being sexual? How else can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, admires you?
Gayle: Wants the best for you.
Oprah: Wants the best for you in every single situation of your life. Lifts you up. Supports you. Always! That's an incredibly rare thing between even the closest of friends.
Gayle: The truth is, if we were gay, we would so tell you, because there's nothing wrong with being gay.
Oprah: Yeah. But for people to still be asking the question, when I've said it and said it and said it, that means they think I'm a liar. And that bothers me.
Gayle: Well, particularly given how open you've been about everything else in your life.
Oprah: I've told nearly everything there is to tell. All my stuff is out there. People think I'd be so ashamed of being gay that I wouldn't admit it? Oh, please.
Lisa: Do the rumors bother you, Gayle?
Gayle: Not anymore, but I used to say, "Oprah, you have to do something. It's hard enough for me to get a date on a Saturday night. You've got to go on the air and stop it!" And then you realize you really can't stop it. And, you know, somebody made a good point: "Well, every time we see you, you're together," which is true.
Oprah: We were just down in the Bahamas—I was giving a wedding for my niece there. And we're having this big party in my suite. And who comes walking in—
Gayle: With my suitcase.
Oprah: With her suitcase! And I knew what all the waiters, what everybody was thinking: "They're gay. This proves it. Has to be, because Stedman isn't around."
Gayle: And sure enough, the tabloid headline was OPRAH'S HIDEAWAY WITH GAL PAL. Ridiculous. But that said, I have to admit, if Oprah were a man, I would marry her.
Lisa: Sorry, Gayle, I just don't buy it. Everyone knows Oprah's not tall enough for you.
Oprah: She has a point.
Gayle: I do like 'em big.
Oprah: The truth is, no matter where I am, whether Stedman is there or not, Gayle's in the other room. I mean, she's always coming in and asking, "Whatcha doin'?"
Gayle: I really do marvel at this because if Stedman didn't accept me, it would be very difficult for us to be friends.
Oprah: See, that would never be a question for me. If you don't like my best friend, then you don't like me. That's not negotiable. Smoking is nonnegotiable. It's just a deal breaker. Not liking my best friend—forget it! Or my dogs—you gots to go! [Laughter]
Lisa: Oprah, how did you feel when Gayle got married?
Oprah: Actually, I was a little sad. Did I ever tell you that? Mostly because I just didn't think it was going to work out.
Gayle: You didn't? You never told me that.
Oprah: No—it didn't feel joyful. You know how you go to weddings and they're full of joy?
Gayle: Wait a minute! You didn't think it was going to work out at the wedding?
Oprah: There are some weddings you go to and you're just filled with all this hope for the couple. And you feel that there's something special going on. I didn't feel that at yours.
Gayle: But you were my maid of honor!
Oprah: Yes, but it just felt kind of pitiful. I never told you because it wasn't my place to say that.
Gayle: I wouldn't have believed you anyway.
Oprah: No. And also because I felt like, well, maybe it's just me being jealous. Maybe I couldn't feel the joy because I was feeling like our friendship was going to change. But it didn't.
Lisa: What about when you had a baby, Gayle?
Gayle: Nothing really changed between us. Oprah was there. She came shortly after Kirby was born. She came shortly after Will was born. She was there.
Oprah: I thought it would change just in terms of time. But my gift to her was a full-time nanny.
Gayle: Right. The kids are 11 months apart, and Oprah goes, "I got you the perfect gift." And I'm thinking, "Oh, good. She's giving me a double stroller." Back then double strollers were very expensive. But the gift turned out to be a nanny! She said, "I want to pay the nanny's salary for as long as you feel you need her."
Oprah: She kept that nanny for like seven or eight years. But what I love is that even as a working-outside-the-home mom, she was always there to put her kids to bed. She said, "I want my face to be the first face my kids see when they wake up and the last thing they see at night." So it wasn't like the nanny came and—
Gayle: Replaced me.
Oprah: I admire a lot of things about Gayle. But when I think about the way she raised her kids, that makes me weepy.
Gayle: Why weepy? That's so surprising to me.
Oprah: Maybe I haven't said it to you very often, but I say it to other people all the time. Gayle is the best mother I have ever seen, heard, or read about. She was always 100 percent there for those kids—to this day. We'd be on the phone, in the middle of a conversation, and the kids would enter the room. This just happened last week, and her son's 19. She goes, "Hi, Willser. You got your Willser face on. Mommy loves you. Good morning, Bear. Hi, Kirby-Cakes." She stopped the conversation to greet them and let them know that they were seen and heard. And then she came back to the phone and carried on the conversation.
These kids have grown up with such love and support from Gayle, and also from Gayle's ex-husband. I love the way she understood that though the marriage was not going to work, her husband still needed to have a space to maintain a strong relationship with these kids. That takes a real woman. It's always, always, always been about what's best for her children.
Gayle: Years ago when Oprah was thinking of leaving the show, she said, "You should move to Chicago, and we'll incorporate you into the show. And then at the end of the year, I'll pass the baton on to you—but you'd have to move to Chicago." And I said, "I can't do that because Billy wouldn't be able to see the kids on a regular basis."
Oprah: I said, "Do you realize what I'm offering?"
Gayle: And I go, "Yeah, I do." But the kids were young, and I just said, "No, I can't do that."
Oprah: That's why she's the best, and her kids are the best. Her kids are my godchildren. There are shots of me riding around on all fours with Kirby—you know, playing horsey and stuff. I remember when William first came to the farm: He was running around saying, "Auntie O, you have a pool and a wacuzzi? Can you afford all this?"
When he was little, little, little, I had all these antique Shaker boxes. He was stacking 'em like—
Oprah: And knocking 'em over. I went, "William! Put those boxes down!" These kids weren't used to anybody raising their voice—they were never spanked or yelled at. So he was like, wacuzzi or no wacuzzi, I'm outta here. And he told his mommy, "I want to go home."
These kids made a lot of noise, and there were all kinds of bright yellow plastic things that made noise. And the TV was on and the same video was playing over and over and over. But Gayle helped me adjust.
Gayle: I'm always kind of taken aback, Lisa, when Oprah talks about me and the kids, because I see a lot of mothers who feel about their children the way I feel about mine.
Oprah: But they don't always have kids who turn out the way yours have. Everybody wants to raise good people, not just smart people at Ivy League schools and all that but good people. You have to be a good person to raise good people.
Lisa: Do you two talk every single day?
Gayle: We usually talk three or four times a day.
Oprah: Then there's my night call. When she was on vacation with her sisters, and we hadn't had a conversation, I realized I felt far more stressed. I've never had a day's therapy, but I always had my night conversations with Gayle.
Gayle: We talk about everything and anything.
Oprah: What was on the show, what the person was wearing. What I really thought, what she really thought.
Lisa: Let me shift gears. It feels as if people are always trying to enlist my help in getting some kind of a letter to you, Oprah—and it's usually for a worthy cause. But I was thinking, Gayle, you must get that every hour of every day.
Gayle: Well, I know what Oprah would be interested in hearing and what she wouldn't, and, you know, I've figured out a way to politely decline. But I love that people love her so much and are so interested in communicating with her, so I never look at it as a hassle or burden.
Oprah: She handles it. It's one of the things that's so amazing about this friendship. Gayle is more excited about my success than I am. It makes her genuinely happy. We've been friends since I was making $22,000 and she was making $12,000. We've made this journey together.
Gayle: Not much has changed, except now she's making a stratospheric salary. [Laughter]
Oprah: The first time Gayle spent the night at my house was because there was a snowstorm and she couldn't get home. She was a production assistant and I was the 6 o'clock anchor in Baltimore.
Gayle: Anchors and PA's do not socialize—the newsroom hierarchy.
Oprah: But I said, "You can stay at my house." The next day, we went to the mall.
Gayle: Remember Casual Corner? They had those two for $19.99 sales.
Oprah: I ended up buying two sweaters.
Gayle: I had to call my mother and say, "You know my friend Oprah? Guess what? She bought two sweaters!" I was into layaway back then, for one sweater. [Laughter]
Oprah: Years later, for my 42nd birthday, we were in Miami, and I decided I was going to buy myself a birthday present. So we were on our way to the mall, and we pass a car dealership where I spot a black Bentley in the lot. I'm like, "Oh my God, that is the most beautiful car." So we pull over and I go in and buy that Bentley right on the spot. And I say to Gayle, "This is a Casual Corner moment."
They get it all cleaned up, and it's a convertible. The top is down, and guess what? It starts to rain. It's pouring.
Gayle: And I say, "Shouldn't we put the top up?"
Oprah: "No. Because I want to ride in a convertible on my birthday!" Anyway, Gayle was like, "You're going to buy that right now? Shouldn't you think about this or try to negotiate a better deal?" I said, "Gayle, that's the same thing you said when I bought the two sweaters."
Lisa: What's that Paul Simon lyric? "After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same."
Oprah: The scale got larger. I mean, you need a moment of silence every time I write a check for my income taxes.
Gayle: I can't even wrap my head around all this. I knew she was talented, certainly, but who would've thought that it would get this big?
Oprah: One of my favorite moments was about ten, 12 years ago when we were in Racine, Wisconsin. We're caught in a traffic jam because everyone was headed to the concert hall where I was speaking, and Gayle says, "Where are all these people going?" We pull up to the venue, and Gayle goes, "What's going on here?"
Gayle: The cops were lined up, double rows.
Oprah: Gayle's going, "Who's here? Who's here?" I go, "I am, you nitwit!"
Gayle: "You mean all these people are coming to see you?" I could not believe it. That was the first time it hit me.
Lisa: Gayle, when you started at the magazine, did either of you worry that working for Oprah might change the dynamic between you?
Gayle: I wasn't worried. I don't think Oprah was, either. But people did say, "Oh God, you should never work with your friend."
Oprah: But that's how I know people don't understand this relationship, because other people's definition of "friend" isn't what ours is. Just the other day, I was doing a show about when your best friend is sleeping with your husband. The ultimate betrayal. Well, that is not possible in this relationship.
Gayle: What I know for sure: I will never sleep with Stedman.
Oprah: What did you used to say, "If you ever find me in the bed with Stedman—"
Gayle: "Don't even be mad. Just scoop me up and get me to a hospital, because you will know I'm very ill."
Oprah: "Carry me tenderly out the door." [Laughter]
Gayle: So people ask, "But how can you work for a friend?" I say it's because I know that the magazine is called O. The bottom line is somebody has to have the final word. Oprah's not right all the time, but her record is pretty damn good. That's not to say you can't disagree.
Oprah: That's why Gayle's so great for me at the magazine—she's going to have almost exactly the same opinion that I do. But when she doesn't agree, she'll fight for her opinion as though there were a G on that magazine. We have "disagree," and we have "strongly disagree." If Gayle strongly, strongly feels something about somebody—
Gayle: It gives her pause.
Oprah: It gives me pause, because she's been my—she's apple pie and Chevrolet. She loves everybody. So if there's somebody she doesn't like, that will get my attention because she's truly everybody's friend—far friendlier than I am. I would not call myself a friendly person.
Gayle: I'm very social.
Oprah: I'm not social. Nor am I all that friendly.
Gayle: All Oprah needs is a good book. My only request when she's building any house is, "Could I please have a TV in my bedroom?" She goes, "You're the only one who complains about not having a TV in the bedroom." I go, "Well, everybody thinks it, they just don't want to say it to you."
Oprah: I don't have TVs in any bedroom except Gayle's. In my house, there's a Gayle wing.
Gayle: I don't want to offend her, but I'm never afraid to be truthful with her.
Lisa: So I'm hearing about differences. What are the similarities?
Gayle: We became friends that first night because for the first time, I met somebody who I felt was like me. I'd never met anybody like that. Certainly not another black girl. I grew up in an all-white community. I remember getting embarrassed in fourth grade when a boy in my class named Wayne said, "If it weren't for Abraham Lincoln, you'd be my slave." I can remember that very clearly. Oprah and I had the same sensibilities. We liked the same kind of music. We thought smart—
Oprah: Smart and articulate—
Gayle: Was not a bad thing.
Oprah: We were the only black girls in our schools, and I was the only black girl in my class who loved Neil Diamond. So when you're around black folks, and they say, "Who's your favorite singer—"
Gayle: I liked Barry Manilow.
Lisa: Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow? You guys were made for each other.
Oprah: [Laughter] It's that whole being-the-odd-girl-out thing—we didn't fit in to everybody else's perception of what it's like to be a black girl.
Gayle: But we still had a very strong sense of being black and were very proud of being black. So to meet another black girl like that was, wow! And we were the same age, we were both single, and we just immediately bonded.
Oprah: But she was clearly upper middle class, and I was clearly from a very poor background. Gayle had a pool growing up!
Gayle: I had a swimming pool, a maid. We grew up very, very well.
Oprah: She had a maid. My mother was a maid. You know what I'm saying? I'd never met a black person with a maid. It was like, "Lord, really? At your house?"
Gayle: So that's how we became friends that first night, and we've been friends ever since.
Oprah: See, we were always together in the newsroom. I remember when they decided to fire me—
Gayle: Not fire, demote.
Oprah: They wanted to fire me, but they couldn't because of the contract. My $22,000 contract. [Laughter]
Gayle: They had run a big campaign: "What is an Oprah?"
Oprah: I'd been on the air, starting in September. By April they decided it wasn't working, because the anchorman—
Gayle: Didn't like you.
Oprah: But I didn't know it. I was so naive. The day they decided that they were going to take me off the 6 o'clock news, I said to Gayle—
Gayle: I'm just typing away at my desk. She goes, "Get in the bathroom now!"
Oprah: We'd always meet in the bathroom. We were, like, "Oh my God. Do you think Jerry Turner knows?" Of course, Jerry Turner was the main anchor who was kicking my ass out, but we didn't know that. Jerry was like, "Babe, I don't even know what happened, babe." You know, "Sorry, babe."
Gayle: I was stunned.
Oprah: It's like your life is over.
Gayle: You were going to see your dad that next day.
Oprah: And that was the hardest thing, because I'd never failed in front of my father.
Gayle: He was so proud of you.
Oprah: It was devastating. But God closes a door and then opens a window. If I hadn't been removed from the news, the whole talk show thing would have never happened.
But I didn't know that then. It was like the end of the world. You are the 6 o'clock main anchor, and there's been this huge promotional campaign. But I learned from that. When I came in to Chicago, I said, "I will not have a big ad campaign. I will earn the respect and credibility of each viewer. I will not set myself up to fail."
Lisa: Gayle, has Oprah ever said anything about you on the air that inadvertently crossed the privacy line? For example, when I was pregnant, I had the show on, and—
Gayle: Oh, I know, I know, I know. When she said I pooped all over the table during the birth. People literally stopped me on the street after that one.
Oprah: You know, in retrospect I might have thought a little more before saying that. But I was talking about pregnancy, what actually happens—and that's one of the things people never tell you. She goes, "Well, listen—"
Gayle: "Next time you're talking about shitting on a table, keep my name out of it!" I was a news anchor by then: "I'm Gayle King, Eyewitness News." And I'd get people saying, "Yes, I saw you on the news—I didn't know you pooped all over." [Laughter]
Lisa: Let's stay on bodily functions for a second. My best friend, Brenda, and I have established the Sunny von Bülow pact: If something ever happens to one of us, whoever's still mobile has to come by every three weeks and pluck any unseemly facial hair.
Oprah: We don't have that pact because it would happen automatically.
Gayle: My only instructions have been to go get her journals.
Lisa: And if something happens to you?
Gayle: I would just want her to be involved in my children's lives—always.
Oprah: Which we would do. Her children are my children. There's nothing I wouldn't do for her, there's nothing she wouldn't do for me. There is a line of respect that is unspoken, on both our parts.
I remember once when Gayle came to my house: I was already making a lot of money, and she was making not a lot of money. And we discovered I had $422 in my pocket.
Oprah: Okay, $482.
Gayle: But who's counting?
Oprah: I had $482 just sort of stuck into a coat pocket.
Gayle: In your pants pocket. You know how sometimes you just find a five? Or a 20 is like, whoo! She pulls out $482.
Oprah: Okay, you tell the story.
Gayle: In 20s. And I'd gotten to Chicago on a Super Saver ticket; you know, back when you had to buy 30 days in advance for a decent price. She was living in Chicago, and I was married, and we had scrimped—I remember that once Billy and I didn't have $10 to go to the movies. He was in law school and I was the only one working. So for her to pull out $482 was like, wow! She goes, "God, where'd this come from? You want it?" And I went, "Oh, no. No. I'm good. I'm fine." But I'm thinking, "God, that would pay the light bill, the phone bill, the gas bill." And she just puts it back. It's probably still in that damn pocket. She was just extending a gesture, just being nice: "Oh, you want it?"
Oprah: But years later, she said, "You remember that time you pulled out the $482?"
Gayle: I said, "I wanted that money so bad!"
Oprah: "I needed that money so bad, but I wouldn't take it." You know what that's like? That is incredible for somebody like me who lives in a world where everybody wants a piece of you. I mean, people feel they deserve a piece of you. Strangers think that.
Gayle: Now I happily accept all gifts. [Laughter] No, but I just wouldn't have felt right.
Oprah: She's never asked me for a dime. There is a level of mutual respect that comes from being with somebody you know doesn't want anything from you but you. There will never be an ulterior motive. I have to say, this would have been a much different relationship had that ever happened. Not that I wouldn't have done it, but in order to have a real friendship, you have to be equals.
Gayle: That's not necessarily financial equals.
Oprah: No, equal in respect. I can't put myself in a position where I need you to do things for me, or expect you to do things for me with any kind of strings attached.
Gayle: Yeah, I never feel lesser than, or one down. Never.
Oprah: But let me just say this, too. The person who has the money has to have a generous spirit. Early on, when I started to make a lot of money and we'd go shopping, I'd say, "Look, the deal is this: If you see something you really want, I'll get it. I don't want to play this, 'No, no, no, you don't have to buy that for me,' because I'm really willing to get it for you." I do that now with all my friends.
Lisa: That makes sense. Otherwise you would have all this money and nobody to enjoy it with.
Oprah: What you don't want is a situation where the person always expects that you're going to be the one to pay. Otherwise you're just the bank, and nobody wants to be seen as an ATM machine.
Lisa: People ache for connection.
Gayle: They do, they really do.
Lisa: They want someone who doesn't have an agenda, doesn't see you filtered through the prism of their own needs.
Oprah: Absolutely not. And so in a way, our friendship is better than a marriage or a sexual relationship. You know, there's no such thing as unconditional love in a marriage as far as I'm concerned, 'cause let me tell you, there are some conditions. [Laughter] So don't ask me to give you unconditional love, because there are certain things I won't tolerate. But in this friendship, there isn't an expectation because there isn't a model for something like this. There isn't a label, there isn't a definition of what this is supposed to be. It can be all that it can be, and it's extraordinary, in terms of the level I've been able to achieve, and to have Gayle by my side as happy as I am for those accomplishments.
Gayle: My God. Sometimes you don't even realize how big it is. You don't. Maybe I'll get some perspective years from now, when we're sitting on a porch somewhere looking back on it all.
Lisa: Do you ever think about who's going first?
Gayle: I think about when we get old, but I can't imagine life without Oprah. I really can't. I'll go first if I can be 90 and you can be 91.
Oprah: Something about this relationship feels otherworldly to me, like it was designed by a power and a hand greater than my own. Whatever this friendship is, it's been a very fun ride—and we've taken it together.